#IWSG: Rewriting My Writing Rules… Again!

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer and if you feel insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this amazingly supportive group!

So last month, I didn’t get much blogging done.  I was a little busy working on something else.  But I did have time last month to have a long, heartfelt conversation with my muse.  We ended up setting some new rules and renegotiating the terms of our writer/muse relationship.

There are plenty of writing rules out there, of course, but as my muse likes to say:

And that’s exactly what I did.  I took a look at some of the rules I’ve been following—both the rules I’ve adopted from other writers and also the rules I’ve invented for myself.  I cut some, edited others.  I condensed and combined a few things together.  Then, in the end, I presented my muse with the following letter:

Dear Muse,

I promise to write every single day, because writing requires daily practice, and my writing skills and writing stamina atrophy quickly if I skip too many days in a row.

I promise to do warm up exercises on a regular basis, because sometimes my brain needs a little help switching over from real life mode to writing mode.

I promise to work on a wide range of creative projects each week, because focusing on just one project leads to creative stagnation, while jumping between projects can help stir up the creative juices.

And if I break any of these promises, dear muse, I promise to write you a long and sincere apology letter, because that will help me learn from my mistakes and figure out how to do better next time.

Sincerely,

Your Writer.

I’ve written (and rewritten) plenty of writing rules for myself over the years, but I never thought to include those “because” clauses before.  Those because clauses make a real difference, I think.  It’s one thing to make up a bunch of rules and try to follow some sort of routine.  But rules and routines get boring.  Once that happens, it’s easy to forget why those rules were important, and excuses for breaking the rules are not hard to find.

So I’m going to make one last promise.  I promise to post my rules prominently in my writing sanctuary, because sometimes I need a quick reminder not only of what my rules are but why those rules are important to me.  And, as always, if it turns out these new rules don’t work out for me: writing rules are made to be rewritten.

So what do you think of my new writing rules, and what sort of writing rules do you follow?

So I’ve Been Kind of Busy…

Hello, friends!  Sorry for not posting in a while.  I’ve been busy.  Really busy.  Don’t worry, it’s the good kind of busy, the kind of busy where things keep getting better, rather than the kind where you’re just trying to stop things from getting worse.

Today, I’d like to show off some of the work I’ve been doing.  Is that okay with you?  It is?  Cool!  So among other things, I’ve been working on this massive redecorating project, focusing on the three spaces in my house where I do most of my creative work: the art studio, the writing sanctuary, and the library.

I wish I’d thought to take photos of what these spaces looked like before so I could do a before-and-after thing.  Oh well.  Just imagine rooms full of Walmart furniture and junk I found at Goodwill, with piles and piles of paper clutter on top of everything.  Are you picturing that?  Good.  Now, take a look at this:

This is my new art studio.  I wanted this room to be as maximally colorful as possible.  I think I achieved that goal.  All those bright, happy colors are just what I need to get me in the mood for art—much more so than the grey and beige thing that was going on in that room before.  But the biggest improvement is probably this:

I do 95% of my artwork using either Copic brand markers or PrismaColor brand colored pencils.  The Copic markers are now in the rainbow bins on the left, and the PrismaColor pencils are on the right.  Finally, all the art supplies I use on a regular basis are together in the same easy-to-access place!

As for the writing sanctuary, I’ve told you before how I like to do my writing: lying flat on my belly, feet kicked up in the air, like I’m an eight-year-old kid.  (To be clear, I do not advocate that other people should write this way; it’s just the way I like to do it.)  Well, here’s my writing sanctuary now:

Actually, not a whole lot has changed.  That’s the same blanket on the floor that I’ve been writing on for years, and those are the same pillows that I had before, too.  Same dictionary, same coffee mug full of pens, same picture of my muse. But the shelving on the left is new, and I’ve worked out a whole system of file trays and magazine holders to make organizing my various works in progress easier.

Also, I printed and hung these decorative alphabet flags (inspired by Tibetan prayer flags) in the back area of the sanctuary.

And lastly, we come to the library, the room where I keep most of my books and do almost all of my reading and research.  For this room, I went with an enchanted forest theme, because the absolute best place to read a book is in the middle of an enchanted forest.  That’s not an opinion.  That’s a fact.

I have to confess I felt a little guilty spending so much time and energy on this redecorating project when (in my mind, at least) I should have been writing and drawing.  I am, as some of you know, a big believer in setting a routine and sticking to it.  Breaking my routine in order to do all this redecorating was not an easy decision for me.

But now that the work is done, I have to say these new rooms are so much better.  Yes, this project ate up a whole lot of my time (and also my money), but I consider those expenses worthwhile.  Sometimes you have to take a small step backward before you can move forward.  Sometimes you have to be willing to take a risk on yourself, to make an investment in yourself, in order to keep pursuing your dreams.

But wait!  Redecorating was not the only thing I did this past month.  My muse and I also took some time to renegotiate the terms of our relationship.  I’ll tell you all about that in Wednesday’s posting on the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

#IWSG: When Your Muse Says Goodbye

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you’re feeling insecure about your writing, click here to learn more about this amazingly supportive group.

So the other day, I woke up and found this mysterious letter on my desk: a letter from my muse.  She had something important to tell me about muse magic, and perhaps it’s something other writers need to understand, too.

Dear Writer,

Ever since we first met, you have constantly worried that you might one day sit down to write and find that I’m no longer there to help.  You’re afraid that I’ll leave you waiting there in front of the blank page, pen in hand, not just for a day or two but for weeks, or months, or years.  Or forever.  I want you to know that, yes, that is possible.  That could happen.

If you ever start to think you have all the answers, I will leave you.  If you ever come to believe that there’s nothing left to learn, that you’ve figured out all of life’s secrets and know everything that’s worth knowing, then I will leave you.  If you ever convince yourself that you’re better than everybody else, or smarter than everybody else, or more talented than everybody else, then I will leave you.

Of course I would never want to leave.  That’s not what I’m saying.  But we muses are simply unable to help close-minded, self-important humans.  Muse magic does not work on people like that.  So keep growing and keep improving, always admit when you’re wrong and try to learn from your mistakes, and then you’ll never need to worry about me going away.

Sincerely,

Your Muse.

Sciency Words: Newtonmas

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science or science-related terms.  In today’s episode, we’re talking about:

NEWTONMAS

Newtonmas is often described as a secular alternative to Christmas.  Some people see Newtonmas as an affront to Christmas and all things Christian.  Me?  I don’t believe science and religion necessarily need to be adversaries, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t celebrate two things on the same day.

Newtonmas commemorates the fact that Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642.  Or at least that’s Newton’s birthday according to the Julian calendar.  According to the Gregorian calendar, Newton was born on January 4, 1643.

If I may wander into the calendar technicality weeds for a moment, the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in 1582, but it was not adopted by all countries right away.  Great Britain didn’t switch over until 1752.  And so at the time of Newton’s birth (1642/1643), in the place where he was born (Lincolnshire, England), the Julian calendar was still in effect, and it remained in effect for Newton’s entire lifetime.  So as far as Newton and his countrymen were concerned, he was born on December 25, 1642.

The first documented celebration of Newtonmas occurred in Japan.  In the late 1800’s, a small group of students at the Imperial University in Tokyo formed an Isaac Newton fan club.  This fan club rapidly grew in popularity and soon included a mix of undergrads, grad students, and professors.

And so on Christmas Day, 1890 (Gregorian calendar), members of this Newton fan club got together for the first ever Netwonmas party.  According to this article from the time, the party included humorous science lectures, a science-themed gift lottery, and plenty of “laughter and good cheer.”  Basically, Newtonmas started out as nerdy fun.  And as far as I’m concerned, that’s what it still is (and I do not want to hear any “war of Christmas” nonsense in the comments, thank you very much).

So merry Newtonmas, friends!  And merry Christmas, too!  There’s no reason you can’t celebrate both, if you want to.

P.S.: This will be my final blog post of 2020.  I’m taking some time off for the holidays.  I’ll see you again, friends, on January 6, 2021 (Gregorian calendar) for the first IWSG post of the New Year.

Evolution Pre-Programmed Your Brain… Really?

Hello, friends!

As humans, we all have brains [citation needed].  One of the coolest things about our brains is, of course, that they let us learn stuff.  But our brains can do something even cooler than that: our brains allow us to unlearn stuff, too!  That way, if we learn something that’s wrong, we’re perfectly capable of unlearning that thing and then learning a new thing that’s right (or at least less wrong).

Personally, I think this ability of ours to learn, unlearn, and relearn has been the key to our evolutionary success as a species.  If we weren’t able to learn from our mistakes, if we couldn’t modify our behavior in an ever-changing world, then we’d probably still be living in caves.  Or, even more likely, we’d be extinct.

But there seems to be this idea out there, propagated mainly by pop-science articles, that evolution has pre-programmed our brains.  There seems to be this notion that our genes pre-determine our personality traits, that our brains are hard-wired to force us to behave the way that we do.  This talk about hard-wired, pre-programmed behavior seems to be extra common as it relates to gender.  Men act like this, women act like that, because our genes say we must.

I don’t believe that.  Whether we’re talking about gender, race, class, or anything else, I don’t believe human beings come pre-programmed, and I don’t think the scientific evidence supports that notion either.  To quote from this article, entitled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid”:

[…] growing data on neural plasticity suggests that, with the possible exception of inborn reflexes, remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression.  Moreover, virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences.

To be fair, I’m sure genetics, evolution, and so forth do have some influence over us.  I’m sure we’re all born with certain inclinations or predispositions.  But our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn plays a far bigger role in determining who we are as people and how we behave toward each other.  The idea that we’re born pre-programmed to be like this or like that is, I think, a pop-science myth.

But, of course, I could be totally wrong about everything I just said.  If so, then I guess I have some unlearning to do.

Sciency Words: Chromophore

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at those weird words scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

CHROMOPHORE

Recently, just for fun, I was watching an old interview with Carl Sagan (the same interview I cited in Wednesday’s post, by the way).  Around 25 minutes into that interview, Sagan talks a little about Jupiter, and he mentions that Jupiter’s distinctive coloration is caused by something called “chromophores.”

Sagan then goes on to say, flippantly, that we call it a chromophore because “we don’t know what it is.”  But the word chromophore is not quite a meaningless placeholder term for a thing we don’t understand (like dark matter).

Definition: A chromophore is a group of atoms within a larger molecule that are responsible for giving that molecule its color.  So, for example, chlorophyll molecules have chromophores in them that soak up red and blue light, thus giving chlorophyll its characteristically green appearance.

Etymology: Chromophore comes from two Greek words meaning “color” and “bearing.”  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage of the word is in this 1879 dictionary of chemistry.  The word appears in a section about the chemical reactions used to make dyes.

Fun fact: just like the planet Jupiter, the oil pastels I used to draw this picture of Jupiter contain “chromophores.”

To say that Jupiter’s coloration is caused by chromophores is absolutely correct, but somewhat unhelpful.  It’s like asking “what caused that sound?” and being told “vibrations of the air.”  But, at least for now, it seems we don’t have a better answer.  To the best of my knowledge, we still don’t know which chemicals, specifically, are responsible for giving Jupiter his distinctive coloring (though Jupiter researchers have a lot of plausible-sounding guesses).

But whatever those chemicals are, they must contain chromophores.  Almost by definition, that must be true.

Shameless Self Promotion Time: Looking for Jupiter T-shirts, Jupiter notebooks, or other Jupiter-themed stuff?  Click here to check out all the Jupiter-related products available in the Planet Pailly store on Redbubble!

Is There Life on Earth?

Hello, friends!

Let’s imagine some space aliens are cruising by our Solar System.  They turn their scanners on our planet and see… what?

Among other things, they’d notice that Earth’s landmasses are partially covered with a strange, green-colored substance.  Of course, you and I know what that green substance is.  It’s chlorophyll.  But would those extraterrestrial observers, who have no prior knowledge of our planet, be able to figure that out?  Even if they did, would they realize what chlorophyll is used for?  Maybe.  Probably not, though.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite scientific paper: “A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft,” by Carl Sagan et al.  I love this paper in part because it’s so clearly and concisely written, with jargon kept to a minimum.  Sagan was, after all, a talented science communicator.  But I also love this paper because its conclusions are so shocking, so eye-opening.

In 1990, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft turned all its high-tech instruments toward Earth and detected… not much, actually.  Galileo did pick up radio broadcasts emanating from the planet’s surface.  Aside from that, though, Galileo’s data offered highly suggestive (but also highly circumstantial) evidence on Earthly life.  The lesson: finding life on other planets is hard.  Even using our very best equipment, it was hard for NASA to detect signs of life right here on Earth!

At least that’s what I got out of reading Sagan’s Galileo experiment paper.  And based on various commentaries I’ve read or heard about this paper, that seems to be the lesson other people got out of it too.  So I was surprised to hear Sagan himself, approximately seven-and-a-half minutes into this interview, saying the exact opposite.

We’ve flown by some sixty worlds.  We claim that we haven’t found life anywhere, and that that is a significant result.  That is, that we would have found life had it been there.  But this has never been calibrated.  We’ve never flown by the Earth with a modern interplanetary spacecraft, all instruments on, and detected life here.  And so Galileo, because of this peculiar gravity assist VEEGA trajectory, permits us to do that.  And as I’ll describe tomorrow, we find life five or six different ways, including intelligent life.  And this then means that the negative results that we find elsewhere are, in fact, significant.

I’ve been puzzled by this for a while now, but I think I’ve finally figured out why Sagan would say this.  It’s politics.

On the one hand, scientists need to understand the challenges they’ll face (including the limitations of their own equipment) in searching for life on other worlds.  That really is, I think, the purpose of the Galileo experiment paper.  On the other hand, it would not do to say on public television, to cantankerous taxpayers and the listening ears of Congress, that NASA spends millions of dollars on space probes that are not even capable of detecting life right here on Earth.

Space exploration is expensive.  And like all expensive types of research, sooner or later the researchers involved have to learn how to play politics.

State of the Blog

Hello, friends!

Many years ago, I was a naive young writer with aspirations of creating an epic science fiction universe.  I thought writing Sci-Fi would be easy, because I thought Sci-Fi writers could just make all the sciency stuff up.  My muse quickly disillusioned me of that idea.

That is, essentially, the origin story of this blog.  I started this blog as a way to force myself to do the kind of research that I, as an aspiring Sci-Fi author, knew I ought to be doing.  And it worked.  I’m still no Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clark.  I’m no Andy Weir or Cixin Liu.  But I’ve learned a lot by writing and illustrating this blog, and I think my Sci-Fi storytelling has improved as a result.

However, for the last few months, I haven’t felt too happy with my blogging experience.  This has nothing to do with you, dear readers.  You’re the best, and I appreciate all the feedback and encouragement you’ve given me over the years.  Just wanted to make that 100% clear!

At first, I assumed I was just bored.  I’ve been blogging for a really long time, after all. Then I thought maybe I’d taken on too many writing projects.  Between this blog and Tomorrow News Network, plus two other projects that I’m not at liberty to discuss right now, I wondered if I was pulling myself in too many directions at once.

But then I got sick.  The nice thing about being sick is that it gives you plenty of time to stop and reflect on life—both the good stuff and the bad.  And during my time being sick in quarantine, I had a realization: the problem isn’t my blogging or all my writing projects.  It’s my research agenda.  The research agenda I put together when I started this blog doesn’t really suit the needs of the various writing projects I’m working on now.  As a result, this blog feels disconnected from my other writing, and putting together a blog post feels (to me) like a waste of time—time that could be better spent writing other things.

The solution is not to stop blogging, or scale back blogging, of change my blogging schedule in any way.  No, the solution is to update my research agenda so that the topics I blog about relevant again to my other writing projects.  And so today, I’d like to introduce my newly updated research agenda:

  • Outer Space: Obviously I’ll continue researching space exploration, especially planetary science and astrobiology.
  • Psychology: In my stories, I like digging into the psychology of my characters.  Seems to me like learning more about psychology could help!
  • Journalism: In my day job, I work in the T.V. news business.  Tomorrow News Network draws heavily on my own work experiences, but it couldn’t hurt to do more research on the field so that I can draw inspiration from other people’s perspectives and experiences, too.
  • Greek Mythology: This is mainly for one of those writing projects I can’t talk about, but Greek mythology (and other ancient mythologies) can be a great source of inspiration for science fiction.
  • The History of Science Fiction: And speaking of great sources of inspiration, learning more about the history of my chosen genre can help me become a better Sci-Fi writer, too.

I’m already moving forward with this new research agenda, but that doesn’t mean I’m planning to blog about everything I do research on.  And so now, dear readers, I have a question: which parts of my new research agenda do you actually want to hear more about?  Is there anything on the list above that you’re particularly excited about?  Or is there anything you’re particularly unexcited about?  Let me know in the comments!

I am COVID-Negative!

Hello, friends!

I wanted to give you a quick update: I got the results of my COVID test yesterday.  According to my healthcare providers, I am COVID-negative!!!  So it seems that, shortly after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, I coincidentally caught the flu, or a bad cold, or something like that.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do out in the real world, now that I’m allowed to leave quarantine.  This is going to be a busy week, and I don’t expect to have much time for blogging.  Therefore, my plan is to resume my regular blogging schedule on Monday.  And I really, really hope you will tune in for Monday’s post.

You see, being in quarantine for two weeks, and being sick for most of that time, gave me a lot of time to think about life and about writing—and about blogging, too.  Some new ideas are percolating, and some changes may be coming to this blog.  I’ll explain what I mean on Monday, and I may have some questions for you, dear readers, about what you want to see on this blog going forward.

Sciency Words: Radical Acceptance

Hello, friends!

I’m still recovering from what may or may not be COVID-19, so I don’t have a regular Sciency Words post for you today.  But during the time I’ve been sick, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube, and I discovered a YouTube channel that I wanted to share.  It’s called Cinema Therapy.

It’s hosted by a professional filmmaker and a behavioral psychologist.  The two of them watch movies together and talk about the psychological truths (and falsehoods) expressed by those movies.  I’ve especially enjoyed their analyses of The Lord of the Rings films, and this episode on Frodo Baggins and radical acceptance was really helpful for me in my current situation.

And hey, psychology is a scientific field.  Radical acceptance is a term used in that scientific field.  So there’s your Sciency Word for the week!