Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Sense of Style

I've been rereading THE SENSE OF STYLE, by Steven Pinker, published in 2014. The lucid and witty cognitive scientist Pinker, one of my favorite nonfiction authors, explores the question of what constitutes good writing by connecting grammar and style with the way the brain handles language. He begins by reminding us, “Complaints about the decline of language go at least as far back as the invention of the printing press.” Contemporary writing isn’t uniquely dreadful, regardless of complaints about what the Internet and texting have done to the thought processes of today’s youth. He analyzes several passages of nonfiction to unpack why they’re effective (and, in one case, to uncover weaknesses in the style and strategy of the writer). Although he concentrates on nonfiction, his detailed explanations of why and how these prose samples work would be illuminating for fiction authors, too.

With the help of sentence “tree” diagrams, he demonstrates why the brain finds some sentences easier to comprehend and others difficult. I must confess I had trouble following the trees (the old-fashioned sentence-diagramming method I grew up with makes more intuitive sense to me, probably just because I'm used to it), but visually oriented readers may find them helpful. Pinker shows us what kinds of structures create coherence in sentences and paragraphs. He explains the problems that make for incoherent writing, especially the “curse of knowledge,” his term for what happens when a writer assumes the audience shares his or her background and degree of expertise in the subject matter. Speaking of “his or her,” Pinker tackles the issue of gender-neutral pronouns and defends the use of “they” for that purpose. He illuminates the proper uses of punctuation, especially commas. In the final chapter, “Telling Right from Wrong,” he works through a long list of “errors” condemned by purists and offers his rationale for why each “rule” is or isn’t justified. Though I don’t agree with all his conclusions (e.g., “lay” and “lie” are not and will never be the same verb, and the former should not be substituted for the latter except in passages of dialogue; "between you and I" is an abomination against nature; he tolerates dangling participles to a degree that I can't accept), I found the entire book entertaining and informative. His distinctions between grammatical vs. ungrammatical and formal vs. informal strike me as refreshingly sensible, even if I don't agree with him on where to draw the line in every case.

He makes short work of the grammatical superstitions that forbid splitting infinitives, starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions (e.g., "and" or "but"), and ending sentences with prepositions. I enjoyed and learned from his analyses of many other groundless prohibitions whose invalidity is less obvious. I wish he had also addressed a baffling fetish one of my former editors held—she insisted inanimate nouns couldn't have possessive forms. Say what? "A midsummer night's dream"; "the Church's one foundation"; "the dawn's early light"; "the twilight's last gleaming"; "New Year's Eve"? If there was ever a pointless "rule" that could generate awkward, wordy sentences through attempts to "correct" the "errors," that's one.

He brings up one problem, related to the "curse of knowledge," that frequently trips me up: Writers often string together phrases and clauses in the order they spontaneously come to mind instead of the order that facilitates smooth reader comprehension. In self-editing, one of the first things I usually have to fix is the bad effect of this stream-of-consciousness writing on my sentences. While I was dimly aware of this weakness, his explanation highlighted and clarified it for me.

I won't claim this will be the last style manual you'll ever need; he doesn't aim to cover every possible stylistic and grammatical pitfall. However, I think any writer would benefit from this book and find it a pleasure to read. Besides its useful content, A SENSE OF STYLE functions as an example of elegant writing in its own right.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Theme-Plot Integration Part 17 - Crafting an Ending

Theme-Plot Integration
Part 17
Crafting an Ending
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Previous parts of Theme-Plot Integration listed here:

We've explored finding the correct "opening" or beginning moment.

And we've defined the "ending" as the resolution of the conflict that begins on Page One.

Middles are tricky, and we have not discussed them much yet, but you can't nail a MIDDLE without knowing (at least subconsciously) where and when the ENDING comes.

The middle is the turning point, where whatever is at stake, what the Main Characters stand to lose if they act boldly and aggressively, becomes more important.  The stakes are raised, everyone ante's up into the pot, and the final stare-down begins.  Is it a bluff?  Or can your main character deliver?

Stakes exist in both plot and story.

I use the word "plot" to mean the sequence of physical events, deeds, and decisions that change the situation.

I use the word "story" to mean how the main character reacts to the events, what is learned, and how the main character changes (arcs) because of the Events of the Plot.

Story is internal to the characters, while Plot is external.

Different writing textbooks use these words differently, and identify the moving components of a work of fiction with different terms.  But every one I've seen so far, and all the working professional writers I've learned from and taught with, all identify the same moving parts -- by whatever vocabulary.

So Theme is what you have to say with this piece of fiction -- it is what you are revealing to your reader about reality, something that you can see but maybe your reader can recognize without actually understanding it.

A good Theme comes clear near or at the very end of the novel, where the reader stares at the page overwhelmed with a new understanding, a vision of reality that has never come into focus for that reader before.

Plot is what the Characters do, Story is why they do it, and both are derived from Theme -- both plot and story say the same thing but in different ways.

The ENDING is where both plot and story finally "speak" or "chime" in harmony, saying the same thing on different octaves.

For a Romance, you have to keep writing until you get to the Happily Ever After springboard into the future you will not delineate.

When the reader and the Characters understand the Conflict (begun on page one) is now resolved, over, gone, never to return, and the goal is achieved and recorded in the Akashic Record forever, you stop writing.

The trick in crafting an ENDING is to get all these elements to converge into one moment in time.

This is usually done with symbolism

The final explosion of pure, raw emotion that makes your reader laugh, cry, and shout for joy all at once - then memorize your byline and look for everything else you've written - is achieved through the confluence of symbolism.

It is a silent language that triggers deep, unconscious responses.

But the same object or image does not trigger the same responses in everyong.

Thus your human and your alien characters might react very differently to the same visual symbol.

The meaning of a symbol lies deep in the culture, and each culture on Earth has its own language of symbols.  We all have a lot in common because we're all human -- but don't expect your aliens to have the same common symbols with humans.

A lot of the meaning of symbols is rooted in sexuality, as is most of the human cultural values and ideas of how humans can live together, depend on each other for survival, and still be independent individuals.

The main conflict in being human is just that -- the personal sense of individuality vs. the absolute necessity to blend into the Group.

The trick to getting both plot and story to END in the same visual event or symbol is The Character Arc -- the story ends when the Character learns his lesson, absorbs the core of the Theme and changes his/her behavior.

The challenge that roared into his life on Page One comes around again, and the opportunity to make the same mistake over again appears in a different (but recognizable) guise.  The END is where that Character has changed because of the Events to a point where he/she will pass up that opportunity, and behave in a different way.

The new behavior SHOWS without TELLING that the Character has changed, has arced, and now understands the Theme.

Recently we looked at current trends in fiction in terms of choosing a Character Arc Direction.

One way to create an Alien Romance situation is to bring two characters together on Page One -- one arcing in one direction and the other arcing in another direction.  In other words, each of the two characters who will Conflict to generate the plot has a different definition of Good, and a different vision of his own Ideal Self toward which he/she is striving.

The ending then becomes the point where one or both of these Characters changes their mind.

How do you make it plausible to a reader that a character has changed their mind?  Really changed, on some fundamental thematic issue.  For example, how do you convince a skeptical Character that the Happily Ever After can be theirs -- all they have to do is change their mind?

What would you change your mind for?

What would convince you that you are wrong?

That is, of course, always the question you must ask yourself whenever you firmly believe something.  If there is no evidence that could be presented to you that would make you change your opinion on something, then your belief is a non-falsifiable hypothesis.

This mental/emotional dynamic is what the Paranormal Romance depends on -- if you sidestep into a Fantasy universe where Magic is Real but you firmly believe that Magic is Nonsense, what happens when you see Magic used?

The sensation of having to change your mind, to change some fundamental constant of your personal universe (such as God Exists or God Does Not Exist, or Humans Are Basically Good, or Humans Are Basically Evil and must be controlled) is intriguing to the Fantasy fan, and repugnant to the Reality fan.

Some people love roller-coasters, some don't.

In Depiction Part 30,
we noted:

During a lifetime, we change.

We looked at a research article about how people are different as they become older -- fundamental personality and attitudes differ.  Character traits such as reliability can change drastically with age.

So as you grow and mature as a writer, so too your audience (and editors) grow and change.  What matters to you changes.

But how do you change?  From what to what?  In what direction?  And why is it that there's always an exception to every rule?

Here's another bit of research that may give you a clue to what makes the difference between "the masses" or "the peasants" and "royalty" or "the rulers."

This article says only a small percentage of people alter their "first impressions" according to new hard-fact data, while most humans form opinions to "blend in" with their friends, associates or Group identity.

-------end quote----------

Unless all your characters die at The End, you leave the reader with the impression or expectation that the Characters will continue to change after absorbing the change necessary to survive this novel's Events.

If you are writing science fiction romance, you might need to craft a Series of novels about the same Characters.

In that case, you'd have to map out (consciously or subconsciously) the sequence of changes your characters will undergo.

If you are writing for TV or Video Production, you must expect many writers to be crafting stories featuring your characters.  To do screenwriting for a series, you have to map out these Character Arc changes consciously so they can be verbalized in creative story conferences and meetings.

But if you are writing a novel of your own, you don't have to know so much consciously -- so you are free to let the Characters run and just watch what they do.

Still, you need a Theme to drive the Plot to an Ending.

Look at the real world around you, study humans around the globe and through hisstory, and you will never lack for a Theme.  Just ask yourself, "What is the truth?  What would change my mind?"

Note the article

makes it clear how small a percentage of humans change their minds to accomodate new facts.

Writers are very likely to be among that small percentage -- especially science fiction writers!  And the truth as I see it is that Romance writers also bring a lot of flexibility to their craft.

Readers can pick up the knack of re-assessing fundamental assumptions from reading widely in these genres  -- and about 10% of the readers will bring that knack to bear on their real lives.

Take, for example, the notion of "What is Government?"  What is government for and why do we even bother?  Do humans need government?  Or does government need humans?

If humans do not need governing, then why do tribes keep re-inventing (around the globe and throughout pre-history to history) Chieftains, Bosses, Leaders?  Chimps and Bonobos exhibit tribal organization and pecking order -- and humans are primates, so we do it too.

Where "government" fails (e.g. the Inner Cities) then "Gangs" rule. Or some other organization structured under a "strong man" or leader or boss.

This social organization is vividly depicted in Marshall Ryan Maresca's world called Maradaine.

The sociology behind the worldbuilding Maresca shows without telling is absolutely fabulous -- it is thematic core material used properly.

The overwhelming force of Culture to define the scope of the Character's choices is pure Art at its best.  This is a world where Magic is real, but has a very realistic cost.  Morality is likewise real, and has a vast cost.  No one Character's story begins and ends with him or her.  Everyone has ancestors and is where they are because of what ancestors did (or did not do).

Interesting, these characters don't think a lot about how their Ancestor's deeds defined their reality -- or conversely what they can do to redefine the possibilities for their children's futures.

I love Maresca's work, and highly recommend it.  It will make you think.

Jean Johnson's First Salik War novels give the long-ago, far away, historical underpinnings of what will happen in the novels set later on the timeline.

The Blockade shows us how the vast Evil got penned up onto their own planets.  Prophecy (yes, a sort of time-travel, astral travel premise makes these novels work well), shows that this Evil will escape and eventually destroy itself.

The plot, conflict, and character arc dynamic behind all these novels pivots on the themes that question what humans need government for, and why we keep re-inventing government in various forms (from Aristocracy to Democracy and everything in between).

We yearn to be governed, or do the governing, but keep overthrowing government because (at least for humans) "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

So Jean Johnson is exploring what sort of humans could work in governing without making everyone want to overthrow them.  She introduces telepathy and various ESP functions to Earth's humans -- and even humans elsewhere in the galaxy.  And she peoples her galaxy with a wide variety of non-humans with a loose association.  The non-humans all seem to crave government, too, but so far I'm not clear why that is.

The thematic assumption in both Maresca's Fantasy and Johnson's Science Fiction seems to be that government is necessary.

We all know how Ayn Rand founded a career laying out an epistemology questioning those fundamental assumptions.

To create fiction about something as fundamental, pervasive yet invisible as "government" takes real genius.

One of the Theme-Plot Integration tricks is to take the nebulous, non-verbal concepts we call Theme and state them clearly in a this vs that format.

We love simplification, especially of the diffiult and complex.  The simplification of a complex matter makes us feel as if we understand something way above our intelligence level - it makes us feel powerful when someone smart explains what they understand in a way that gives us the illusion that we understand it just as well as they do.

So finding your Theme is one part of the writing process -- and may in fact be the easiest part.  Simplifying what you know on a non-verbal level so that it can be stated in a very simplified way in words and symbols is a different part of the novel crafting process.

THEME: What is government?

CHARACTER: Government Rules - humans must be ruled or they will misbehave.  Government is the power above.

CHARACTER: Government Serves - civilization requires clean water, sewers, sewage treatment, electric power, garbage removal, recycling, paved streets, street lighting.  Government is the foundation below the feet of free humans.

CONFLICT: I Rule vs. Don't You Dare

PLOT: Revolution

ENDING: A Throne Toppled - exultation and triumph

SEQUEL: so what kind of government will this revolution revolve to the top of the heap?  Who Rules Now?  Somebody's got to rule, right?

In modern Science Fiction Romance, we have only to hark back to Orwell's 1984.

In our prevailing reality, we already have concrete examples of Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things - the evaporation of privacy, and a rising necessity to identify each individual human and track their deeds microscopically.

So the vision of Skynet popularized in the Terminator movies is no longer "far future fantasy" but actually a possibility.  We will build it to defend ourselves from ourselves!

We might build it to "serve" -- but will that prevent it from "ruling?"

Would an Artificial Intelligence like Skynet be able to "change its mind?"

Would the people about to throw the switch and light up such a neural network be the sort (the 15% or so) to change their minds when presented with new facts?

And given the state of "fact" acquisition today, will we create a Skynet to determine and decree what the "facts" are?

Where there is government, some humans (probably 5-15%) will be criminals. Depending on the form of the government, it is probably a different 5-15% that will be deemed criminals.

A lot of (great) Romances have been written about falling in love with the bad boy from the other side of the tracks (i.e. the Alien!).  And in many of them, marrying a 'good girl' tames the 'bad boy.'   We saw the science indicating that, with age, with time and experience, human personality does change.

What makes a person change like that?  Does government and law hammer humans into the 'correct' shape?  Or is it Love that conquers All?  Maybe a good theme would be, "Patriotism Conquers All?"

Love of Country could substitute for love of another human?

 If humans must have government, then humans must have criminals.  What does a stable civilization do with criminals?

Obviously, jail does not "work" to change minds.  I would theorize that the few who do get out to become law abiding citizens probably got jailed wrongfully, or maybe just made a very poor decision or a stupid mistake rather than intentionally violating a law because it is a law or because it just does not pertain to them.

So if jail does not change criminals into good citizens - what would?

What system would your Aliens use?

The ancient Biblically prescribed method is to sprinkle the miscreants among a large population of very well behaved people.

As noted in the article

Most people don't make up their own minds -- and thus can't actually change their mind on any topic.  Most people just absorb the prevailing opinion of their Group in order to validate their membership (and thus safety) in the Group.

If that is an innate trait of all humans (except that pesky 15%), then thinly scattering miscreants among a well behaved population will eliminate most criminal behavior.  Miscreants will absorb and practice the prevailing culture.

But there is always the hard-core miscreant, the really annoying ones who think for themselves and have consciously and deliberately chosen to oppose civilization (or at least "that" civilization, if not the "other" one).

So the alternative to jail, to just drown the criminal in polite society, would still leave a percentage of ill-behaved people running loose.

Many great novels have been structured on the Adopted Child -- making the main character someone who grew up on foster homes, or was adopted and didn't know it.  Great themes can be crafted around the idea of the Adopted Criminal -- who changes their own mind with age.

Putting those two scientific experiments together, you can generate a wide variety of themes, characters and plots.

"Going Native" is always a great theme.  Acculturating the non-human into an Earth society, then taking that alien back to his home planet to see how much he's changed, gives you the background against which to tell a very steamy Romance story.

Imagine if non-human criminals were sent to Earth to be rehabilitated by this method of living in a well behaved society.  Or maybe, vice versa, and human criminals were sent to another planet to live in well behaved families.

There is more to be said on this topic.  As you watch the world develop around you, keep in mind one of the oldest sayings: "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with facts."

So always remember most people don't make up their own minds but absorb opinions from the ambient culture -- therefore they can't change their own minds for themselves.  Since they don't know why they think what they think, they can't imagine what fact could come along and falsify their opinion, forcing them to find a new opinion.

Could you write the story of a Character who has no opinion?

Live Long and Prosper,
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Much Ado

I found just "about nothing" of interest to science fiction and alien romance authors on the copyright blogs this week, so my post title is Orwellian.

The fuss over adaptations of one of Shakespeare's historical plays has been all over the news and television. Now, the Authors Guild has chimed in with an interesting perspective on interpreting on stage assassinations.

Talking of well planned death, an Australian legal blog by Theresa Catanzariti of 13 Wentworth Selborne Chambers discusses what happens to an Australian author's copyrights and other rights when she passes away.

All authors should include written consideration of their copyrights and other rights in their estate planning.
All the best,
Rowena Cherry

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Updating Older Books

When a book published years or decades ago and set in the "present" gets reprinted in a new edition, should the technology and cultural references in the text be updated so that the story will still feel as if it's set in the present?

My vampire romance CRIMSON DREAMS has just been re-released by my new publisher:

Crimson Dreams

At the editor's request, I revised scenes that included computers (and inserted mention of cell phones into places where they'd be expected) to avoid having readers distracted by outdated references. The story was contemporary when first published, and there was no reason it shouldn't feel contemporary now.

Diane Duane's Young Wizards series has been around for decades, beginning with SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD (1983). She has self-published new editions of the earlier novels in the series, collectively labeled Millennium Editions, explicitly set in the twenty-first century, with the technology updated. She believed that the obsolete references in the original editions were confusing to the contemporary YA audience because their time period isn't far enough in the past to feel like historical fiction, just enough to feel outdated. Also, the revisions eliminate the anomaly of having the characters age only a few years over a much longer real-time span:

Diane Duane's Ebooks Direct

Some authors tacitly modernize their worlds while the characters age slowly or not at all. The BLONDIE and BEETLE BAILEY comic strips, for instance. The creator of FOR BETTER OR WORSE took an interestingly different approach when she concluded the comic series a few years ago. She started over again from the beginning, reprinting the original strips with additions and revisions.

There are some works in my Vanishing Universe vampire series that I wouldn't update if I were re-publishing them, because I had a good reason for the original dating—specifically DARK CHANGELING, its immediate sequel (CHILD OF TWILIGHT), and a couple of novellas dependent on them. DARK CHANGELING had to be set in 1979 because the then forty-year-old, half-vampire protagonist had to be born in 1939 to make his backstory plausible. My quasi-Lovecraftian novel FROM THE DARK PLACES, due to be re-released by Writers Exchange E-Publishing eventually, presents a special problem. It's set in the 1970s, and its next-generation sequel (currently a work-in-progress) focuses on a twenty-one-year-old heroine who was born at the end of the previous book. How can I set the sequel in the present (to avoid confusing readers with an unnecessary 1990s setting) and have a heroine who's twenty-one when she should be middle-aged? I plan to revise FROM THE DARK PLACES to remove blatantly specific 1970s references but have it set in a sort of "indefinite past."

Do you think it's necessary or desirable to update re-released older novels with settings that were contemporary-present when first published? Does the answer vary on a case-by-case basis for you? Authors of historical or far-future fiction have it easy in the respect. (Writers of near-future SF have a slightly different problem; their settings soon become overtaken by events and transformed into alternate history. Think of Orwell's 1984.)

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Depiction Part 30 - Depicting Royalty

Part 30
Depicting Royalty 
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Previous parts in the Depiction series can be found listed here:

Neuroscience and social science has been intensively studying human behavior for decades, but new tools are bringing to light many ways in which humans behave in the aggregate -- and as individuals.

Any rule you can verify by observation will have a percentage ( 5% to maybe 15%) of humans who just don't follow that rule -- or who maybe sometimes do follow the rule, but then other times not so much.

During a lifetime, we change.

We looked at a research article about how people are different as they become older -- fundamental personality and attitudes differ.  Character traits such as reliability can change drastically with age.

So as you grow and mature as a writer, so too your audience (and editors) grow and change.  What matters to you changes.

But how do you change?  From what to what?  In what direction?  And why is it that there's always an exception to every rule?

Here's another bit of research that may give you a clue to what makes the difference between "the masses" or "the peasants" and "royalty" or "the rulers."

This article says only a small percentage of people alter their "first impressions" according to new hard-fact data, while most humans form opinions to "blend in" with their friends, associates or Group identity.

We seek "validation" from others (social interactions) above truth.  Being socially acceptable is a better survival trait than being correct, or so many humans seem to assume.  That assumption seems to be a survival trait.

So, because people care more about what opinion others have than about what is real, it is easy to "control" what some call "the masses."

That small percentage of people who incorporate new facts and change their attitudes to match reality may be the natural rulers of humankind -- or perhaps the mavericks who will explore and settle the stars?

The natural "royalty" -- the Kings, Dukes and Princes of so many Romance novels, -- will be drawn from the few who revise their understanding of reality based on new facts, not based on their first impressions.

It is said you get only one chance to make a first impression.

Maybe that's not true with Royalty - with natural rulers.  The kind of human (rare though that kind is) that reassesses everything they think they know, and their whole inventory of assumptions based on new facts ought to be the ones to watch.

As a novel Character, such a person would be the Hero, or the Main Character -- the most admired by some, but dreaded by others.

These rare individuals are the disruptors, the explorers, the innovators, and the agents of change.  They don't go along to get along.

In many ways, such Royalty might well be regarded as asocial, or even sociopathic because they form opinions independently.  They don't accept an opinion formed by another person and make it their own.  They question and investigate upon what this other person bases that opinion -- then they try to reproduce the data the other used to form the opinion.

In other words, they not only accept new facts -- they seek them out.

The experiments cited in the article
are based on a trick played on the experimental subject.

As usual in these experiments, the big hole in the scientific procedures is that the subjects are all drawn from college students who are volunteers.  That does not represent any kind of random cross section of humanity.

And lying to those volunteer students is also common in psychological experiments.

In this experiment, as described in that article, the point was to get the subjects to believe the lie -- then tell them it was a lie and see if they changed their minds about what was really going on.  Only a very few changed their minds based on the fact that they had been lied to.

The article ends off pointing out how the current political news relates to this ignoring of facts in favor of one's first impression.  That leap may be faulty, but a good Romance writer can make you believe it.  A good science fiction writer can plot a story that will destroy the experimenter's credibility.  Put the two together -- and see if Love Conquers All.

Are the individuals who change their minds based on facts actually Royalty, actually better "rulers" or better decision makers in terms of the survival of the society?  Or are these stubborn radicals the sand in the gears of society that reduces the changes the society will survive?

What would it take to "change" (as with age) one of those who accept the opinions of others as their own into someone who thinks for himself?  That is a science fiction premise -- how can you depict such a massive shift in the basic nature of a Character in such a way that readers will believe it?

What if a Character who does not think for himself is kidnapped by a UFO, and returns as someone who thinks for himself?  What would that do to the marriage he was in before being kidnapped?  Would the wife think that the man who returned was not actually her husband but an impostor?

In science fiction, traditionally, the lead character, the Hero, thinks for himself and never just goes along with the crowd.  In Romance, it isn't always that way -- but very often to embrace the Happily Ever After a couple must depart from tradition.

How can you make your reader believe such a drastic personality change?  How can you get a reader to root for the marriage that was so fundamentally disrupted by a UFO kidnapping?  Was it really a UFO kidnapping?  Or was it something else?  Mystery genre will give you some clues as to how to handle depicting massive personality change.

These two genres, science fiction and romance, belong together, and when you add Mystery -- you get Classics.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, June 18, 2017


It may be cheaper to buy a new computer than to give your crook one to the Geek Squad!

EFF would like to hear from anyone who had their computer serviced by Best Buy in Brooks, Kentucky, and who was subsequently prosecuted because of private information discovered by the Geek Squad on the computer and provided to the FBI.

From a sci-fi writing perspective, it would make sense for a rogue government to deliberately put out some kind of malware that would cause computer-users to have to take their devices to a repair shop such as Geek Squad.

This would result in warrentless searches of unlocked computers. It would be a brilliant solution to device-makers' refusals to create "backdoors".

There would have to be collateral damage to innocent internet users, so that the true targets would not be suspicious.  On the same principle, grannies and toddlers have to be patted down by the TSA, so that there is no appearance of improper "profiling" of persons (more) likely (than grannies) to cause problems on planes.

The government might prosecute persons found with certain kinds of porn on their pcs, but persons with seditious stuff might simply disappear.  Or, if the government had really clever malware, perhaps the malware would plant porn on infected computers, just like bad and inaccurate Hollywood movies show crooked crime scene investigators planting marijuana in places that they did not have probable cause to investigate.

Read the EFF article. by Stephanie Lacambra and Aaron Mackey. You may be inspired.

For stock tips, if such a thing were going on, it would be very good for the hardware sellers, and perhaps for landlines and broadband cable.

All the best,
Rowena Cherry

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing and Storytelling

Kameron Hurley's column in the current LOCUS discusses the difference between stringing together a succession of events and actually telling a story:

Story Isn't Just "Stuff Happens"

The principles she highlights apply not only to books but to films, comics, games, all sorts of media. She asks, "Why do we teach people how to write instead of how to tell stories?" Do we think storytelling comes naturally? On the contrary, doing it well is a skill that must be learned. In mundane conversation, we've all suffered through rambling anecdotes riddled with backtracking, digressions, and gaps. Hurley reminds us "there are always two stories that make up a good piece of fiction. There is the external story, the thing we would call ‘plot.’ These are the explosions and sex scenes and betrayals. Then there is the internal emotional story, the ‘so what?’" Like Tolkien, she maintains that stories are far from merely devices for escape (although Tolkien also argued in favor of the right kind of escape). "We seek out stories because they help us make sense of the world and societies we live in today, which is the real reason we grasp for them most during dark times. We seek out stories to learn how to be better humans."

Hurley urges us to remember that "readers are far more interested in exploring what it means to be human than how gram­matically correct our sentences are. Pretty writing does not equal explosive story." Her argument reminds me of Marion Zimmer Bradley's famous caveat, "Editors do not buy stories because they are well written." They publish stories that offer the kind of Satisfying Reading Experience their particular audience wants. Here's the classic essay in which Bradley explains why editors DO buy stories (or reject them):

Why Did My Story Get Rejected?

Bradley, of course, is quick to add that nobody OBJECTS to good writing. Good storytelling, however, has priority. I do have reservations about taking this advice too much to heart, though. Aspiring authors shouldn't skim over the part about "good writing" and assume style, grammar, syntax, word choice, etc., don't matter.

To draw an analogy, I'm not at all musical. While I enjoy lots of music, I listen to songs mainly for the lyrics. Where the tune is concerned, I react to it on the basis of whether it seems to me to fit the words. On any more technical points, I'm at the "I don't understand it, but I know what I like" level. I might have a vague perception that a certain tune sounds "folky." A real musician could point out exactly what features of its mode, tempo, chords, or whatever make that tune sound like a folk song. Similarly, most non-writers probably couldn't explain in technical terms why a piece of writing doesn't "work." They might say vaguely, "it's boring" or "it's confusing." A professional writer or editor can analyze the story with remarks such as, "There's too much exposition" or "We aren't given a reason to care about the protagonist" or "The point of view jumps around too much" or "Many sentences contain dangling participles." Likewise, a reader not familiar with all the rules of grammar, usage, and spelling may not be able to pick out the specific errors in a work, but if there are too many of them, it will probably still feel "wrong" to that reader.

Fortunately, it's possible to learn at least the basics of "good writing," what Bradley summarizes as how to write "a literate English sentence." Techniques of pacing, plotting, point of view, etc., can also be taught. Storytelling, however, is to some extent a gift, which may or may not appear in tandem with a talent for "good writing." For instance, nobody would describe Edgar Rice Burroughs as a master of literary style. Yet Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Barsoom are immortal.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Marketing Fiction In A Changing World Part 26 -Must You Compromise Your Art To Sell Big?

Marketing Fiction In A Changing World

 Part  26

Must You Compromise Your Art To Sell Big? 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Previous parts of this series can be found here:

Here is one dismaying idea that arises among beginning writers when established professionals explain the field of fiction publishing.

"If I do what you say, I would be compromising my Art."

That idea, that your personal Art, something that defines who you are to yourself and what you were born to say to the world, must be tossed aside, ignored, tramped on, or lied about in order to sell fiction to a large, commercial (mass market) Market, arouses a "fight for life itself" response.

In fighting for your life, you may well regard the entire problem as "the end justifies the means" -- and be willing to do anything at all to survive.

We see that today in the resistance to Donald Trump -- half the country is morally convinced he is a threat to our very lives, and to all we've sacrificed so much to build for future generations.

The response to such a threat is utterly primal, and once triggered that response prevents any other nuanced message from dampening that response.

The response a writer feels to the mere whiff of the idea that they must compromise their Art in order to reach their intended audience, is that same "fight for your life" visceral response.

The heroic type person will fight to the death to protect their Art (or their politics).  The wimpish type won't make waves.  The majority fall between these two types.

But what if the response itself, a purely animal-flesh based response to a threat to life (or lives of our children), is inappropriate?  What if the problem of a Wild Politician or a Savage Publishing Industry is not a threat to life and limb, to children and posterity?

What if it is an entirely different sort of problem?

What if Compromise is not at all anything like a solution to the real problem?

We excoriate politicians for refusing to "compromise"  -- then turn around and refuse to "compromise our Art" -- maybe we have to reframe the problem of "How can I sell my novel (mine, my Art) to Mass Market Paperback publishers?"

Framing the issue changes the debate.  In fact, it changes the very issue itself.

To teach yourself to write good dialogue, read up on the psychology of "framing" and public argument and debate.  Some people grow up into a full, unconscious ability to use "framing" to direct the thinking of others while other people have to learn it in adulthood.

Here are some links where to start (it is a huge study).

Frameworks Institute is a Washington based Think Tank hired by governments and other enterprises to "re-frame" a message to get the public to do what the hiring firm wants the public to do (rather than what the public actually prefers to do.)  They are aggressive manipulators -- proving how plastic public opinion can be.  (the ethics of doing this make fabulous Theme material).  They make a lot of money tricking the public.

Here is wikipedia's entry - worth contemplating.

If "they" can do this frame thing TO YOU to put you at a disadvantage -- then surely you can do it to yourself to give yourself an advantage?

Problems are as plastic as public opinion -- you can reshape your problem, thus re-populate your list of possible solutions.  (and in the process of working on your own mind, you can take notes for the plot of your next novel).

When a think-tank "frames" a problem to sway public opinion, they are acting, and actions are Plot Events.

When a Character (or a person) explores their own mind looking for old, rotten, and inappropriate 'frames' left over from immature thinking, they are growing, arcing, changing -- and thus telling their own Story.

The exact same thing, FRAME, is both story and plot -- so therefore, it is a Theme.

It turns out, a scientific study supports the observation that humans do CHANGE with age and experience -- real personality change.

If your patterns of thought, emotions, and behavior so drastically alter over the decades, can you truly be considered the same person in old age as you were as a teenager? This question ties in with broader theories about the nature of the self. For example, there is growing neuroscience research that supports the ancient Buddhist belief that our notion of a stable “self” is nothing more than an illusion.
---------end quote----

Maturity is not just getting older, but refining and reshaping the very plastic material of which your Character is made.

That does not mean being a victim of Think-Tanks that hammer you into a new "frame of mind" to march lockstep with the rest of the mob -- you can do it to yourself, and maybe get better results.  You can be the artist who reshapes yourself, just by reframing the problems in your life.

The classic language shift that has been urged on those seeking success is to think of problems as opportunities.

That is a re-framing.  It might help you -- might not.

Some people never learn framing, and thus can be manipulated by the unscrupulous with little effort.  Characters who use "framing" in their dialogue to get other Characters to change their behavior will seem realistic, like real people, to the reader.

But with TIME - we change in very fundamental ways.  And as we, ourselves, change, our very Art changes.

Is that compromising your Art - to mature and change yourself?

Your "self" is just one variable in this business of selling to Mass Market.

The Market itself is another very complex variable.  As the generations rotate through a particular genre or style of story, forming a Market for that story -- and then moving on, leaving that Market to be picked up by a younger generation, the publishers, too, change.

Editors are usually fairly young people, early in their own story-arc of character maturation.  And then they move on to other genres or niches in publishing.

So with Time, you change, the Market's audience members change, and the publishers and editors change.

Today, the changing market calculations have to take into account the ebook and audiobook -- and who knows what next.

Your Art changes, too.

The trick to "not compromising" your Art is very simple.  Create the piece, study what you have created, then watch the ever-changing Market for it to rotate through being just the right vehicle for that piece of Art.

Meanwhile, create more Art pieces.

Art critics have all noted how a given Artist (in any medium) will have "periods" -- sets of years when all the pieces produced relate to a given theme, subject, setting.  You, too, will have "periods" during which you explore specific themes.

With novelists, it is not always possible to discern when a given novel was written -- because an item may not be sell-able now, but will sell 10 years hence as the Market shifts.

So the answer to that age-old question is, no!  You never have to compromise your Art.  You just have to watch the Changing World change your Market into a home for that particular piece.

I know of best sellers that waited 20 years and more for the Market to cycle around.

Today, of course, we have the option of placing any piece directly into the publishing stream via self-publishing.  Sometimes that is the best way to go with a given book.  Figuring out which pieces you produce should go Indie, which self-publishing, and which Mass Market, is the business of writing.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Red Flags For Regular People

This is not about bulls (bullies, perhaps), and it is not about persons who do not need laxatives. It's about Trojan Horses. (Not Trojans.)

Beware if you see this phrase, or anything resembling it, "We may collect, use, transfer, sell and disclose non-personal information for any purpose."

The "any purpose" will usually mean "for our profit" but it might also mean "because some businesses would like to know about the business you do with their competitors."

Have you seen the fascinating article in The Washington Post about how "Unroll me" (which purports to be a useful free service to remove unwanted marketing emails from subscribers inboxes) made its money by scraping information from emailed wanted sales receipts?

I followed a link from one of my favorite law bloggers to that article. Mark Sableman of the law firm
Thompson Coburn LLP gives a legal analysis of the problems of privacy policies which no one (except class action plaintiffs' lawyers) ever reads. 

If you want to use a free service, remember that nothing is every free.  Read the TOS and privacy policy. Know that if they don't want your money, they want your data.

What beats me, is why respectable companies that sell physical products apparently believe that it is good business to advertise on free sites to people (often) who are only interested in free stuff...

... which brings me to an excellent article by a lady musician --Tessa Lena-- who rants most entertainingly and in the strongest terms about these Silicon Valley middlemen and intermediaries who would have musicians, songwriters and authors believe that there is something glorious, ingenious and romantic about having to beg for a living.

We have a culture of digital theft. Where did that come from? The coolest "kids" bully and steal, and the government doesn't just turn a blind eye, the administration, the legislature, and the judiciary actively praises and protects the thieving bullies.

One of the methods used by billionaire bullies and thieves is "lawfare" (like warfare, but using the size of one's bank account to exhaust one's little victim into submission and despair.)

The Trichordist has some choice words for American Librarians, who ought to be grateful to American authors for allowing American libraries to lend out physical books without having to pay the authors for every "lend", but who aren't, and who are joining in with the bullies who want to eliminate more and more copyright protections for individuals.

Authors in Europe are paid for every "lend".  

However, to end on a positive note, not every copyright infringement case goes the same way, and not every powerful plaintiff (or powerful dependant), destroys their opponent with legal fees.

Mark Sableman tells the tale of two copyright infringement cases that worked out very differently in terms of cost for the losing party.

All the best,
Rowena Cherry

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Diversity Awareness in Writing

How should writers from a middle-class, white background (like me) handle creating characters of different ethnic and cultural origins? How can we free ourselves from the "white as default" mindset? One of the lists I subscribe to recently discussed the problems of writing about characters of different races, especially with regard to color descriptions. What methods can we use to indicate the race of a character without resorting to food and drink analogies (e.g., cafe-au-lait skin), which have become cliches and are objectionable to many people? Here's a very informative website that was mentioned on the list:

Writing with Color

I admit I've used the "cafe-au-lait" terminology myself. Right away, a page on this site saved me from the embarrassment of asking why that's bad when it's also common to attribute "peaches and cream complexion" or "cherry lips" to a Caucasian heroine.

"Writing with Color" covers, among many other issues, how to handle races in imaginary societies, as in fantasy realms or alien worlds. How can we make it clear that the characters don't all look like northern Europeans, without slipping into "white as default" territory?

A fascinating fantasy novel I recently read, THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin, does a wonderful job of portraying a multi-ethnic world by gracefully working the details of the society into the narrative. Here's part of the mini-review I included in my June newsletter:

"This novel takes place on a world racked by violent seismic events and climate catastrophes. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and their aftereffects such as epidemics and fungal blooms plague the inhabited continent, ironically named Stillness. Fifth Seasons, which happen at irregular intervals, are worldwide climatic disasters that can last months, years, or even decades. We get this information from an omniscient voice in the prologue. At the end of the book, a pair of glossaries in an appendix offers help for readers who have trouble keeping everything straight. The story proper is narrated from the viewpoints of three female characters in completely separate time periods and storylines....Orogenes, people with innate talent for control of earthshaking events, provide the only hope of a community’s coming through such an event relatively unscathed. All people have an extra sense that enables them to 'sess' the movements of the planet, but only orogenes can manipulate those energies. Thus, they are recognized as essential. Yet orogenes are also feared and loathed, because their powers, if not properly channeled, can wreak devastation. Those not trained by and under the direction of the Fulcrum, their headquarters in the capital city, are subject to shunning and even lynching. In this world, disciplines such as geology are highly valued, while astronomy (for instance) is disdained as a pseudoscience. Besides the human inhabitants, Stillness harbors a nearly legendary species called stone eaters, essentially made of animated rock. The three protagonists are: Essun, an orogene who keeps her true nature secret while living in a small village, until her husband discovers the truth, kills their son, and disappears with their daughter; in the midst of a disaster that may herald a coming Fifth Season, she journeys in search of her missing child. Damaya, a prepubescent girl whose family sells her to a Guardian—a member of the caste charged with keeping orogenes under control—to be taken to Fulcrum for training. Syenite, a fairly advanced orogene sent on a mission with an irascible fellow-orogene of superior rank whom she can hardly stand but with whom she’s expected to produce a child."

THE FIFTH SEASON is well worth reading even though it's a little difficult to follow because of the three different viewpoints and the fact that the chapters don't follow each other in a straightforward chronology. The author deals with gender and sexual orientation differences as matter-of-factly as with racial differences.

Another excellent example is AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (the animated series, not the travesty of a live-action film derived from it). The four dominant ethnic groups in this world are based on different Earth cultures, none of which is European. Fans objected to the shortage of Asian actors in the live-action movie, just as Ursula Le Guin and many of her readers expressed outrage at the whitewashing of characters in the TV adaptation of her Earthsea trilogy.

Years ago, a member of an online critique group I belonged to submitted a long, complex piece of work set in the deep South. The reaction I remember having was, "Where are all the black people?" Nary a sign of any in the story. Having grown up in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, I knew that even in the era of segregation, "colored people" (the polite term in that period) were highly visible. I'm trying to make a conscious effort not to make all the characters in my fiction look like me. Personally, I don't feel qualified to write individuals of other races as protagonists, but when including them as secondary characters, naturally I want to do it right.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Romance Futurology Part 1 - How Will Security Work in the Future

Romance Futurology
Part 1
How Will Security Work in the Future? 

There is a genre of Romance called simply Futuristic.  For the most part, formerly, setting a story in "the" future qualified that story as science fiction. Today, the futuristic romance is a growing genre.

We've been discussing genre at length and depth, and have noted how, over generations, "genre" of all types has very fluid definitions.

My take on "genre" definitions is that the genre identification is more about what is left out than about what is included.

Readers look for another novel to give them the same "feeling" that a previous one did -- and often look for the same setting or time period as a signal that this novel is like that one.

"The" future is another such setting clue often used by readers to choose which book to spend money on.  If you are "in the future" then you are not in Regency England or Imperial Rome.  Thing is, with futuristic worldbuilding, a writer can indeed include time travel visits to ancient times, and modern interstellar versions of government by aristocracy.  So "futuristic" may be as difficult to identify as all science fiction has been.

In science fiction, we worldbuild "a" future for a story by extrapolating trends, either straight line "if this goes on" or in a curve "if only" or "what if?"

But we can't expect to write about "the" future -- only "a" future.  The future we choose to create either generates a story, or is generated by a story you want to tell.

Last week, we looked at trends in publishing, and how they swing back and forth regularly.  Your story, the story you were born to tell, will fit into a trend somewhere -- your problem as a commercial writer is to identify the current trends and watch carefully, preparing a manuscript to present right when the trend that supports it begins to gather force.

Some trends are so big that we can't see them while sitting inside them.

The Internet and email were such a trend.  Everything changed when the concept "browser" was deployed by envisioning the World Wide Web.  Before that, Universities were pouring thousands of hours into creating electronic records, books, facts, images, accessible by special and very idiosyncratic decoding software.  They even gave such software a woman's name, as Librarians were mainly female.

Then came the idea of standardizing all that coding and accessing it with a piece of software that could read "the" markup language we know today as html (hypertext markup language).

To look behind a web page, right-click your mouse on a blank spot on a web page and choose "view page source" -- the "page source" now includes little program call-outs that tell the server on the machine where the page resides to run a little program to deliver "interactivity" -- so much of the "page source" you can access is just instructions to do things, and you can't see what those things are.

Where will this be in 20 years from now -- a hundred years?

We're already doing a lot of this by voice command.  Artificial Intelligence is now considered the next big disruptor and it is ready to rock-n-roll big time.

This year, UPS is testing using drones parked on top of their delivery vans to distribute packages in a neighborhood.  The FAA thinks this is a fine idea.  Those drones couldn't work without A.I. and other advanced tools that will soon bring you autonomous driving cars.

For maybe 80 years, we've had science fiction stories about A.I. Characters that humans fall in love with.  It is starting to seem less grotesque, less of something to resist.

But a lot of folks working on the bleeding edge of A.I. are sounding notes of alarm.  A.I. can now be projected to take over most of the jobs work-a-day people make a living at.  The only jobs left will require genius level intelligence, and creativity -- and even those are within reach of Artificial Intelligence that can learn and keep learning.

Recently, there was an article about Artificial Intelligence learning to become aggressive, initiating attacks not just responding.

So far, nobody has identified something artificial intelligence can't do that humans can.  Every time some human function is defined as uniquely human, some human genius teaches A.I. to do that (or even do it better.)

That is a trend!

We love A.I., we adore artificial intelligence, -- we create artificial intelligence and nurture and adore it as we do our children.

What is really going on here?

How will the human/A.I. interface develop?  Will artificial intelligence become a legal person (Heinlein explored that at length, and Star Trek's Character Data gives us many new facets to consider)?

What about Artificial Intelligence Refugees washing ashore, fleeing some sort of cyberwar?

A.I. is being discussed as the solution to cyber-security, being able to sift vast Big Data pools and sort out the one or two major trouble spots (terrorists).

Right now, the entire security industry may be taking itself too seriously (Romantic Comedy is a fabulous genre for tackling this).  The I.T. folks at work keep making you change passwords, and berate people for opening emails or plugging in a thumb drive.

Mobile Devices and services now require two-step authentication -- you have to have a smartphone to read your news feed on Yahoo. (well, there is a work-around right now, but that won't last).

The attitude behind the policies of cyber-security gurus is that if you get hacked, it is YOUR FAULT (not the fault of the attacker. Only the victim is to blame in cyber-warfare).  You did something wrong.  You breached protocol. You opened an email.  You visited a website.  You put in your personal data (but of course I.T. forces you to identify yourself!)

We are all tangled up in a ball of twine and quite ludicrous about it because we have (in a cultural panic) set aside several time-tested principles of life.

We have done this because the benefits of online communications are bigger than the threats and costs (so far).

Since we can't stop people in other countries attacking us for profit, our "security" folks attack US.  They blame the victim of the sucker-punch rather than the immorality of the sucker-puncher, and our own defense (our immune system!) attacks us, forcing us to change our way of doing things because of something someone we don't know did to us.

"Security" works differently if your Identity is known to the Security Officer.

Ask yourself:  When was the last time Donald Trump was strip searched for the egregious crime of attempting to enter the White House?

Does Presidential Security torture, torment and beat up on the President?

Then why do the cyber-security I.T. department folks beat up on YOU when you try to access your Cloud account with this or that company?  Stop what you're doing (you can't enter the white house)! Identify Yourself!  (like they don't know what they are responsible for knowing?)  Papers Please! ACCESS DENIED!  You have to wait three days to try again.

Where did this come from?  What is really going on here? What trends produced this deplorable state of business?

The principles we have abandoned are "don't blame the victim" and "innocent until proven guilty" and "I am who I say I am; if I lie, I will be removed from society, maybe forever."

You shouldn't blame a victim because next thing you know, you will be a victim.

Quality of life is severely infringed on, productivity sliced in half, and happiness beyond reach if you live an entirely DEFENSIVE life in a defensive (curled inward) posture.  The H.E.A. ending as we currently envision it can not happen inside a "secure" defense perimeter that punishes you for the deeds of those outside your defense perimeter who are guilty of life destroying behavior.

Logic and reality have long established you can not prove innocence, but you can prove guilt.  So we must presume people innocent until we can prove guilt.

Identity is sovereignty -- personal sovereignty is the bedrock of Western Civilization.  This dates back to the Magna Carta, probably farther.  There's a Biblical quote: "how goodly are your tents, O Jacob."  This refers to the camping habit while wandering in the desert where tents were set up so that the entry ways did not face into each other -- giving PRIVACY to the neighbors.

Privacy is the bedrock of personal sovereignty.

You can't DEFEND privacy or security or innocence or Identity, and thus the net result of all these elements, FREEDOM.

Once you surround these elements with "defense" walls, they no longer exist!  The very act of DEFENDING obliterates what is to be preserved.

So our entire cyber-security industry is set up backwards.

The ancient Chinese knew this. The best defense is a good offense.

You don't punish your employer (the voters are the employer) for having been attacked by an outsider (non-citizen).

The trend for Romance Futurologists to follow and extrapolate is, "How can we use A.I. to rectify our errors in cyber-security and every other sort of security, national and personal?"  How can we use A.I. to reverse the entire I.T. Industry's take on how to "secure" us, given A.I. has now learned to be aggressive.  (OK, we "shouldn't" -- but will we? And what if we did?)

What will we try first?  What will we try last that actually works?  (and who will fall in love with their A.I. protector?  What fruit would such a union produce?)

Do we love to do the protecting -- or to be protected?

What's sexy about protection?

"Security" seems to be a word that refers to an absence of risk.  Futurologists have to ask whether risk is, itself, sexy?

How much "security" do we need and when do we need it?  At what price in productivity?  If all human jobs will be un-invented by A.I. servants, do humans have to be "productive" any more?

Will life be one long orgy?  Or will we all pick up and move to the stars, letting A.I. have Earth?

What price Freedom?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Need To Know Info On Copyright

Perhaps you know everything you need to know about copyright. Perhaps you don't.

The law offices of Fenwick & West LLP has put together a video "refresher" or "primer" that promised to tell you "just enough."

Highly recommended.  It's twenty minutes very well spent. Imagine what it would cost if you had to pay an intellectual property lawyer to explain things to you!

In the same vein (and you might like the etymology of that phrase) the law offices of Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice LLP published a very nice guide to Best Practices for using and linking to other people's stuff. (It is company/business-related, but applicable for any author.)

Their advice is in bullet points. Some of it, you need to know, but it will be a hassle to follow. Who reads the TOS of websites? But, if you want to snag content from a website, you really should read that site's TOS.

Two of their bullet points are similar to prose advice that I've often repeated or generated. (And, I'd like to make it very clear that the comment below is my own and not a misrepresentation of their bullet points... because their TOS say that one may share or quote their stuff, as long as one does not misrepresent what they said!)

My version is: "Don't believe someone who claims that the ebooks he is selling on an auction site or giving away online is "his personal library" or is "free to use" or is "in the public domain".  He may not know better. Ask yourself if it is to his advantage to know."

All the best!
Rowena Cherry

Thursday, June 01, 2017


Suppose you could wave a magic wand and make changes in the design of the human body? What would you fix? Some items on my wish list:

Alter the muscle connections in the torso to accommodate our bipedal posture, thereby alleviating or preventing backaches, organ prolapses, and hernias. (This one isn't original with me.)

Put an upper limit on the intensity of pain. Make it just annoying enough to draw attention to sickness or damage, not enough to really hurt, about the level of a mild cramp. (Assuming people will have the sense not to ignore the signals.)

Synchronize the onset of puberty between the sexes, so the girls don't become young adults while the boys are still kids. If you're worried about increased premarital sex and teen pregnancy, adjust the females upward instead of the males downward.

Turn us into marsupials. Seriously, wouldn't it be easier to give birth to a half-formed fetus and carry it in a secure pouch, like an advanced version of a kangaroo?

Failing that, reduce labor to mild cramps (like pain in general, see above) and painless pushing. Also in the area of reproduction, it would be nice if human females in the first trimester of pregnancy could re-absorb the fetus at will, like rabbits.

And can't we arrange for women to reach orgasm as easily and automatically as the typical young man?

For men, move the prostate gland so it doesn't wrap around the urethra, an arrangement that causes much inconvenience in later years.

Hack the brains of newborn babies so they sleep through the hours of darkness instead of needing to be fed every couple of hours by night as well as by day. Also, how about making human toddlers as easy to toilet-train as kittens? Those two changes would go a long way toward relieving the exhaustion and stress of infant care.

Repair the immune-system glitches that cause allergies and autoimmune diseases in many people.

Currently, the average person's metabolism works the opposite of the way most of us would prefer. Let's have any excess calories not required for daily energy needs excreted instead of stored as fat. That would be a radical change. From an evolutionary viewpoint, the tendency to hang onto fat is a feature, not a bug; it increases our chance of surviving a famine—not a typical hazard in contemporary North America.

If we aspire to superpowers, we could request vision like that of eagles, hearing like that of bats, the speed of cheetahs, and the proportional strength of ants. I'm thinking more of fixes that would make life as we currently live it easier, though. Each of those alterations would involve related changes we might not like, unless we switch from the realm of evolution to outright magic.

Any other suggestions to improve the human blueprint?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt