the trouble with story description

I want to see characters grow. Change. Struggle. Thrive.

I’ll outline a story to a point, but then it’s up to the characters to carry out the actions or encounter the people or events I’ve set up. Sometimes those characters change what was in my expected outline. Since I frequently write scenes out of order, that means I have a lot of documents lying around with thousands of words I’ll never use. Often the outline gets cast aside at some point, a skeleton of its former self as I focus on what the characters are doing or the roadblocks I put in their way.

Unlike outlines, I constantly edit my query letters. Yes, sometimes I do it to ensure I’m following a particular agent’s guidelines, but other times it’s because I know I can improve them. (If I’m honest, improvement is a factor every time.) Sure, a lot of wordcrafting is involved. However, recently the focus has been shifting. I want my books to be about people. People in fantastical places and/or with fantastical abilities running into fantastical situations, but people nonetheless. Much of what I write is plot-driven, yet I want to learn about the characters trapped within that plot, and I hope I never sacrifice character development for the sake of plot. If I do, revision alarms better be going off in my head.

Writing pitches for #PitMad and #SFFpit revealed a few unexpected things for me in one of my novels. Those pitches drove me to create an outline of an already-written book not about the plot, but about the growth of one of the characters. It followed her evolution from someone who reacted to the things that happened around her to someone who made those things happen, who took control of her life and made hard but clear choices about the next step she would take.

Of course, that meant I had to go back to the novel and make sure she consistently followed this outline. Surprisingly, the course of events remained about the same. Instead, I had to fix her thoughts, her dialogue, even her body language as her motivations and her beliefs became clearer in my mind. In the process, she became a more crisp character on paper.

Now I can’t wait to give her another book. I may have to spend some time outlining other characters today.


Destiny’s physics troubles

I have issues with Destiny.

As interesting as it might be to fall into a metaphysical discussion of destiny or fate here, I’m talking about the game Bungie released rather than predetermined outcomes.

And I could ramble about the game’s various issues — for example, I’ll be giving up once I’m happy with my progress in House of Wolves because way too much of the game changes with each “expansion” — but I won’t.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the game’s physics. Its broken physics, specifically.

Earth has a surface acceleration due to gravity of about 9.8 m/s2. On Venus, it’s about 8.9 m/s2. On Mars, it’s about 3.7 m/s2. On Earth’s moon, it’s about 1.6 m/s2. The gist of sharing all these numbers is that Earth’s gravity is the strongest, with Venus a close second and Mars and the moon lagging far behind both of them. These are the four places you can currently visit in Destiny (ignoring the Reef).

The kicker? On each of these planetary bodies in Destiny, gravity behaves exactly the same.

Why didn’t the dev team add a modifier to the physics engine depending on what planet we were on so that we’d jump a little higher or fall a little slower when we weren’t on Earth? I’ve read some stories of the Trenches of being in video game development, so I understand that this may be far from a simple problem. But Bungie, you’re breaking my ability to immerse myself in the universe you’ve created.

Let’s now add the fact that things burn the same way on each planet, which ignores the Moon’s lack of atmosphere and the dominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere on Mars. As cool as a Sunsinger or Gunslinger’s special moves are, they can’t actually set things on fire the way the game implies on all worlds.

Hundreds of thousands of gamers are enjoying the game despite these (and other) flaws. It’s just a little hard for a scientist like me to suspend enough belief to do the same.

(Full disclosure: this post was partially spurred by my bitterness over the next Destiny expansion unveiling the third Warlock subclass of Stormcaller. The weather nerd in me wants that subclass, but it’s not worth $40.)

a passion for science

I am one of the passionate scientists who will not be bullied.

So, we have a working environment where women earn less than men, where women are awarded proportionally fewer grants than men, where women are promoted less frequently than men and have fewer papers accepted for publication in the top ranking journals than men. Add to this the apparent acceptance of sexism, and it’s a wonder any females stay in the field at all… and yet some of us do stay. Why? Because we are passionate scientists who will not be bullied. We follow the trailblazers who succeeded in more extreme environments than we experience today, and who we should thank for breaking down those initial barriers to women working in science.

Dr. Ruth Massey, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, University of Bath


1. to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means

2. to enable or permit

This is a running theme in my writing.

I’m a relatively young female geoscientist, officially becoming an assistant professor this fall. I’m not the tenured white male in an ivory tower. I encounter sexism frequently. I see even more online, in the media, in other professions where women are the minority. I watch women put in more hours to “prove” that they’re good enough to play with “the boys” even as they’re paid less than their male counterparts. (Women, if you get a chance to negotiate your salary when offered a job, DO IT. Make every effort you can to close that damn wage gap.)

Women can be smart, driven, innovative, strong. I want them to know that. I want them to know they can use their brains for anything they want. In fact, I want to infuse my future students — regardless of gender or skin color — with the idea that their minds matter. That they’re capable of using those minds to achieve great things.

I want to empower them.

The same is true of my writing. I don’t want the color of my characters’ skin to matter (even though I know it does). I don’t want their sexuality or gender to define them (even though it will in the minds of many readers).

These characters are people. People like you and me. Sure, some of them are in a setting that allows for “powers” or other abilities abnormal in the real world. But that doesn’t change their personhood, their humanity. The relationship struggles they face are real. The crushing insecurity, the self-doubt, the guilt. The victories, the rushes of adrenaline, the tears and the laughter. They’re people.

I write to empower. I learn about myself by writing (and reading far more than I write). I learn about the world around me. I delve into the lives of my characters, of characters others have created, and see their situations through their eyes. They surprise me. They do things I wouldn’t. (I do things they wouldn’t.)

By learning, by getting to know more people from increasingly diverse backgrounds, by writing such people, I intend to show real, flawed individuals getting opportunities, meeting others, and fostering relationships that allow them to step forward. To do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. I provide chances for them to make hard decisions regardless of whether or not they do make those decisions.

In short, I work hard at my job and my writing to empower my characters. My colleagues. My readers. My students. In empowering them, I empower myself.

insecurity as a writer

Today I discovered the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. (I know, I’m behind the times.) Since I missed the first Wednesday posting for June, I decided to visit a few of the linked blogs to read what these authors posted.

So many of my fears and issues are shared by other writers. It’s amazing how encouraging it is to know this. I’m not weird for panicking over edits or facing days (even weeks) of writer’s block or wondering if my work is any good. If you’re a writer in need of some encouragement, check out this small sample of entries from the most recent first Wednesday (June 3).