Tag Archives: research

Suspension of Disbelief

Over on Whatever, John Scalzi pokes a little fun at the folks who (are? profess to be?) thrown out of the Lord of the Rings by the viscosity of the lava in Mount Doom. He makes an excellent point that the suspension of disbelief is a highly personal thing, subject to much head-scratching by observers (and especially by writers, who may veer into hair-pulling and sobbing). My comment there started to get overlong, so I’m posting it here.

First, I take his point that the fires of Mount Doom are set up as being magical and important, and are presented in a context where trees walk and orcs are born from mud. He is perfectly correct that it would have been reasonable to have magical or otherwise nonstandard lava in Mt. Doom. And if Jackson had made the lava blue or sparkly or put little morphing orc faces in it or otherwise made it obviously magical, I would have bought that without blinking. But a difference of viscosity is a useless, thoughtless difference, especially in comparison to the more overt differences he mentions, like the shrubbery being alive or the landscape giving birth to orcs, that border on the metaphorical. Subtle differences aren’t always a bad thing — not at all! But subtle differences are more likely to be mistaken for errors.

Those changes he mentions don’t come out of nowhere, either: there are plenty of hints given that we’re about to see something weird: spooky forests where orcs disappear, enough cobwebbing to put a Halloween house to shame, the presence of Christopher Lee, etc. When something comes as a surprise, the work is more vulnerable to booting the viewer/reader out of their suspension of disbelief than at other times, and it takes skill and preparation to avoid that, plus the knowledge of the degree to which disbelief needs to be suspended. If Peter Jackson knew how viscous lava really was but still wanted this particular visual effect, surely he is savvy enough to know how to clue in his geologist viewers that this is what he was doing? Because he can do it well, when he fails we suspect a deeper failure.

Anything that can be done well can be done badly, of course: surely you can envision a version of the Lord of the Rings in which the Ents are presented in such a way as to guarantee that the audience bursts out laughing at the sudden appearance of talking trees?

Perhaps a better comparison would be, not to Ents, but to horses. Writers are always getting horses wrong, treating them like hairy motorcycles. Add hay, drive all day, add more hay, drive all night! Most readers will never know the difference, but people who know horses get thrown out of stories by that sort of thing. If a fantasy writer *needs* to treat a horse like a motorcycle, then that writer needs to prep the reader — by, for example, praising this particular breed of horse, or having a set of magic horseshoes, or… well, that’s getting a little silly, isn’t it? In order to know when it’s actually necessary to treat a horse like a motorcycle, the writer needs to know an awful lot about horses, I should think.

Besides, we as readers and viewers can generally tell the difference between “someone thought this through and decided it should be this way” and “someone was lazy or thoughtless.” Let’s say that I set a fantasy story in rural Ohio and, in among the unicorns and magic wands, describe all the people there as having Southern accents. If all the wonderful folks who know the region then complained that this threw them out of the story, it would be ridiculous of me to counter with, “What, but the unicorns and orange Congressmen were OK?” I could argue until my face turned blue that this was actually a deep philosophical statement about the realignment of culture in a magical world, but would you ever really shake the feeling that I’d just never been to Ohio?

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Posted by on 11 December, 2011 in Writing


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Forever a Student

One of the things I like most about the Writer Lifestyle is just how accepted it is to spend a great deal of time doing research just for the sheer hell of it. (The rest of your time should be spent writing, naturally) Lately I’ve been reading up on WWI-era submarines and trying to brush up on my Japanese. (If you want to learn a language, by the way, Rosetta Stone is on sale with pretty deep cuts at Borders right now; I’ve been very happy with their system so far.)

So now I’m going to ask a horribly gauche questions (of writers and non-writers alike): where do you get your sources? When you want to just generally learn about stuff, where do you go? We all know about the easy places like Wikipedia, and we know about our local libraries (even when we scandalously neglect to use them) but what else is out there?

Here are a few of my current favorites:

TED talks are great little snippets ranging from a few minutes to half an hour or so. Weird stuff, like hey, you’re probably tying your shoes wrong.

The Economist magazine, specifically their Science and Technology section.

Khan Academy, which is making an effort to put a whole slew of high school- and college-level course lectures online for free, ranging from basic math to a lecture series on the bank bailout.

Podcasts such as Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, which is a weekly hour-long show on pretty random academic topics ranging from the Minoan civilization to the graviton to the Sturm und Drang movement. All of those are available on the site, by the way, and Bragg takes care to include a number of authorities on the subject in question.

iTunes U has been an excellent resource, though of spotty coverage and very difficult to search. I listened to a course on game theory out of Yale that was very good (though occasionally tedious during classroom management sorts of activities)


So how about you? Where do you go to further your education?


Posted by on 22 August, 2011 in Writing



I’m Still Here For an Argument

I haven’t given up on the argument posts, don’t worry. My blogging has had to slow down due to a confluence of events: kitchen renovations, a lengthy bout with a stomach bug, and general business. I also picked up a copy of Stephen Toulmin’s original book on the philosophy of arguments in which he introduced some of the concepts I’ll be talking about, and I think I’d like to finish it and then revise my posts.

Also, I have an exciting bit of news: One of my SF/mysteries was accepted for publication! I’ll pass along the details of how you can get to read it in two weeks.

Finally, a request. The story I’m working on is really lacking in the zombie action department. I just don’t write action scenes well. So… who does? Not necessarily zombie action (though that’d be a plus) but who in general do you think I should read and learn from on this front?


Posted by on 18 March, 2011 in Reading, Writing


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Typing vs. Handwriting, Writing Profiles

A perennial subject among the writers I know is whether it is better to write by hand or to type. This post in particular was prompted by my reading this post about some of the quantitative differences between writing longhand or by computer. There’s some interesting stuff in there, and in the paper it’s based on.

Personally, I do some mixture of both handwriting and typing: most of my notes are by hand, in my notebook. I’ll write individual scenes by hand as well, but I’m finding that (unless I’m seriously blocked) I prefer to type.

There are additional benefits to each. Marko Kloos advocates for handwriting better than I can in terms of just getting things done (Money quote: “The notebook is a one-trick pony, but it’s a fantastic trick: putting words down without distraction or endless on-screen corrective sentence noodling.”) but I find that it’s also useful for slowing me down and making me think. I’ve been writing out my most recent short story in a notebook I bought from Borders specifically for that purpose: prose on the right hand side in pen, notes on the left hand side in pencil. It has worked pretty well so far, and while I’m a little unhappy with some of what’s there, I can just make a note on the left and tango on.

There are benefits to typing, though, too. My writing process is often highly non-linear: I skip around a lot, adding a bit to one scene, then going on to another, then back-filling. I can think of only one story I’ve written that I wrote straight from beginning to end, and it was 700 words long. Even there, I knew what the ending was going to be, and it was only the short length that prevented me going and writing those sentences first. Part of this process has been the discovery of Scrivener — before then I either tried in vain to put the whole story in one long document, or I broke it up over multiple documents, then juggled those.

The other nice thing about typing something out is that it becomes easier to radically re-cast it so that I can instantly read my prose in a new light. I frequently write in Times New Roman, then proofread in Courier (though maybe I should switch to Comic Sans?)

The Van Waes and Schellens paper* from the blog post above covers the handwriting vs. typing subject with an interesting experiment, which is summarized admirably in that blog. But it also has a discussion of earlier notions of writing styles, including an earlier paper by Hayes and Flower** on the writing process from 1980. I’ve not yet read that one, but according to Van Waes and Schellens, they make a distinction between “Mozartian” and “Beethovian” writers; the former of whom plan out their work in detail, and the latter rush through their first draft and revise later — the more familiar terms these days are “planners” vs. “pantsers”, but I intend to adopt the prior terms as somehow more august. ;)

They also outline four writing profiles from Hayes and Flower in a way that I haven’t seen before, of people writing longhand. (I’m just going to quote Van Waes and Schellens here instead of rephrasing)

1. Depth first, in which the writer tries to produce a perfect first sentence, then a perfect second sentence, and so on. That is, the writer completes the work of planning, implementing and reviewing each sentence before starting to work on the next.

2. Postponed review, in which the writer writes down his/her thoughts as they occur and reviews them later.

3. Perfect first draft, in which the writer tries to generate a perfect first draft. Planning is very explicit and directed towards the text as a whole.

4. Breadth first, in which a draft is planned and then written out in full before any revision is contemplated.

Now, this is about student composition, I gather, so shorter works than most fiction. I find, on reflection, that my handwriting style tends to fit pretty squarely in #4: I plan the hell out of the story, maybe even sketching out a few sections, then sit down and write with little revision. This ignores my habit of eventually abandoning the handwritten word for the typed one (usually midway through) but even in typing I’m not far off from that.

The interesting thing about this (at least, to me) is that I know that I used to follow #2, at least to the extent of the chapter/scene level. I’d have a general sense of where I wanted things to go, and might make notes about neat ideas, but otherwise I’d tear on through and not even re-read until much later.

I can see fiction writers attempting #3, especially for flash fiction. But #1 is a puzzle to me — I don’t even know how that *could* work. It seems like a recipe for misery to even try writing that way. To my mind, the sentence is just not the unit of composition, and writing at the level of perfecting individual sentences as I go… I think that I would very quickly lose track of what I intended to write. Do any of you write this way? How do you make it work?

Van Waes and Schellens then discuss a more recent paper, by Schwartz***, who established nine basic profiles. These profiles, they note, overlap and need not be consistent across a work, but may vary from paragraph to paragraph. (Again, I’m quoting Van Waes and Schellens)

1. Language production and regeneration profiles, in which the writer either writes down more than is needed and then reduces it later (the ‘overwriter’); or economizes on the initial text and then adds more later (the ‘underwriter’).

2. Structural reformulation profiles, in which the writer rejects the text and starts again (the ‘restarter’); or rejects it, making only a few changes (the ‘recopier’); or pieces together old sections into a new structure (the ‘re-arranger’); or builds on the original structure (the ‘remodeler’).

3. Content reassessment profiles, in which the writer is concerned with the pro- priety of the text (the ‘censor’); or with its accuracy (the ‘refiner’); or with the correctness of its form (the ‘copy-editor’).

I can much more easily find myself in these profiles: by and large, I’m an overwriter when it comes to dialogue and an underwriter of description. I’m an avowed re-arranger; the other three profiles in that section just seem weird and wrong to me. As for the last, I’ve sat here thinking for a few minutes and I don’t really know which I am. I think that I tend to revise most with an eye to form: I mostly don’t give a damn about propriety (even for academic papers, it rarely even occurs to me) and accuracy, to my mind, is properly a function of the first draft.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on quite a bit. Let me turn it over to you folks who haven’t fallen asleep: are you handwriters or typists? Mozartists or Beethovians? Do you write perfect sentence-by-perfect sentence, then revise to censor? Or do you get it all down, then rewrite from scratch a few times?

* Luuk Van Waes, Peter Jan Schellens, 2003, Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers.

** Hayes, John R., Flower, Linda, 1980. Identifying the organization of writing processes.

*** Schwartz, Mimi, 1983. Revision profiles: patterns and implications.


Posted by on 6 February, 2011 in Writing


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Instant Expertise

The always-fascinating Jim Macdonald wrote a post some years back on the Absolute Write forums (you’re a member, right?) on the subject of becoming an instant expert in a subject.* There’s nothing hugely ground-breaking here, and yet… nobody ever really bothers to spell out this process, do they?

To summarize (though you should read his post): Go to your library. Start with recent kids’ books, to learn the basic concepts. Take those concepts to the thicker books, and drill down. Take notes. Specialize as you go, from broader concepts to more specific analysis, maybe even to original works (either primary documents or the original papers) Remember that for the writer, this is a directed process, for people who know from the outset what they want expertise in, and so you’re following a basic depth-first search strategy.

I suspect that people doing this sort of thing are going to want to start, not with a kid’s book, but with Wikipedia. That may be a mistake — there’s a LOT to be said for spending a day in the library doing this, with no distractions from Twitter or email or videos of cats. And there’s also a lot to be said for letting someone distill it down to an overview for you, letting them set aside the stuff that you’ll learn later but don’t need to know now. Wikipedia has a lot of information, which is both good and bad. It’s intended to be encyclopedic, which is not necessarily what you want at the outset. You need to pace yourself, or you will overstrain your brainmeats and start clicking on creepy pictures of Jimmy Wales. Once you do go to Wikipedia, though, I recommend spending time grabbing articles, then using Wikipedia’s book creator tool. The act of organizing something that you will then read offline will itself be useful. In that vein, Google Scholar becomes useful at a later stage in the process, when learning about more recent advances.

Finally, this is all also a lesson in satisficing: Part of the skill in researching for a writing project is knowing when you know enough to proceed. Nobody will see that first draft except you, it’s OK to be wrong in a few places, or to add sections of text like, “[Insert intelligent discussion of the properties of cyanide]” or “[Fix this later]”. Sure, to some extent it’s better to be right than wrong during that first draft, but if you’re like most people you’re 1) not going to have fully understood everything you just learned, and 2) are going to forget or misremember things. In other words, you’re likely to be wrong about a few things in that first draft anyway, and will be in a better position to fix it if you go into your editing process knowing that you got stuff wrong.

* I learned of this technique originally from Debra Doyle at VP, where I had the additional benefit of her insight into the process and the opportunity to talk about the differences between learning about science and about history. I still have the paper plate I took my notes on, too!


Posted by on 14 December, 2010 in Writing


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The Seductions of Research

Having tentatively decided to do this YA novel for NaNoWriMo (I’m registered as jpmurphy, by the way if you’re looking for writing buddies) I decided that I should firm up a bit of the setting. Actual writing is not allowed until November 1st, but outlining is, and research definitely is. So I am doing both.

Originally I had wanted to place this in the 17th Century during the plague year (1665, I think it was?). But the more I thought about it, WWI seemed like a better time period: zeppelins and submarines threatened the skies and seas (the story will, I think, feature both). And of course in the intervening years there had been born one Jules Verne. I’ve added in a number of other items, including suits of armor and magic traditions from a number of cultures. Long story short: there’s a lot of reading I can do!

And that’s where things get tricky. I can read endlessly on these subjects. I have twenty browser tabs open right now on WWI U-boats alone: Starting at the left are general pages, and on toward the right I’ve narrowed my search specifically to either the UB-I, a torpedo attack boat, or the UC-II, a mine-layer, that seem to be among the smallest boats fielded by the German Imperial Navy. (Why are those things important? Well, you’ll find out later. I’m still looking for deck plans for the UB-I and UC-II, by the way…) I’ve got articles open on WWI troop recruitment, on popular music and books of the era, all sorts of interesting stuff. I could read for days and days on any of these subjects. I got some excellent advice from Dr. Doyle on becoming an instant expert, and I am putting that to good use!

… Too good, in fact. There’s a reason I went into academic research in the first place: I really enjoy learning. And there needs to come a point at which I stop reading and start writing. Fortunately for me, if I don’t start writing on Nov 1st, I don’t have much chance of getting to 50,000 words by Nov 30th. And yet that makes me nervous: I know I’m going to be getting things very wrong when I write, and so my instinct is to learn as much as I can first. I can see how this can be deadly, because there’s always one more thing to read. I have “inner editor” problems too: I am very prone to stopping cold in the middle of a sentence to come up with the right word/concept or to check a fact. That can be lethal, it can stop me for days sometimes. I’ve recently come upon good advice for dealing with this problem that I look forward to trying, but so far my perfectionist streak has been problematic.

But I am coming around to finally accepting the other big piece of advice I’ve been receiving: write the first draft with some basic knowledge but not too much more. Plan on fact-checking before and during the production of a second draft. Most of what I consider crucial knowledge probably isn’t, after all, and I can bend and twist the plot after the fact to match the facts without breaking too much. This kills me: my main piece of writing before this was my PhD thesis, which is not the sort of document that can be (or maybe I should say, should be) written in this matter. It just feels wrong, you know? And yet, this is fiction. The basic plot does not depend on any one fact, and when push comes to shove, any detail can be changed to reflect reality.

But I’m also finding that reality will often meet me partway. For example, I mentioned above that the plot required a fairly small submarine to have been scuttled off the coast of England. Well, most U-boats were pretty big, but after some digging I found two classes that each had a crew of 14. The UC-II looked promising, but was a little too big. The UB-I, however, looks almost perfect at a mere ~75 feet long. It was mostly used in the Mediterranean, but there was a flotilla off the coast of Flanders. And hey… a couple of them were lost at sea and have not been found. As long as I’m vague enough (oh gosh, there are barnacles obscuring the designation. What a shame) it can be entirely reasonable for one of these subs to have wandered out where I need it to be :)

Now, this I found in advance, but I had already mapped out that part of the plot. If I had written the novel all the way through, I could have come back and revised just a little to make the story fit the facts on the ground. This, I need to remember in November.

How about the rest of you? How much research do you do before writing? If you’re not writing things that need to reflect history or technology, how much world-building do you do in general ahead of time? How comfortable are you just “winging it” and coming back to fix it later?

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Posted by on 29 October, 2010 in Fantasy, Novels, Writing


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Aaaaand he’s off!

Started on Chapter 1 over the weekend. Took a long damn time to put those first words on paper, but once I started writing, I could barely keep up. It’s funny: I’d been struggling for a while with one of the weaker aspects of the plot in the planning stages and never came up with a solution. Three pages into the text, I found myself writing a conversation with  a new character, and bang! a solution presented itself immediately. I suspect that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t already had the problem banging around in the back of my head, but it’s a useful reminder that there’s no substitute for just sitting and writing.

At the last minute I decided that I didn’t have a good enough feel for the CCS Halliday. I looked up some Russian submarine designs online. I think that I like that design philosophy for the starships in this universe. I had originally pictured more Star Trek-like corridors and lifts, but I really like the cramped feel I get from these schematics. I’ve been on submarine tours before, but didn’t really know what I was looking at. Maybe a field trip to Grotton, CT is in order…

The Livescribe pen is pretty nice for this. I’ve been writing the first chapter longhand to get away from the computer. Writing longhand has its benefits, it forces me to forge ahead instead of sit and revise what I’ve already written. On the other hand, writing with this huge pen is giving me wrist cramps. I’ll have to experiment to find some writing method that works best for me, with maximum opportunity to get words on paper/bits on iron oxide, and minimal opportunity to lose those words and bits.

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Posted by on 2 August, 2010 in Writing


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