Lines and Squares 3: Natural

Pattern of pale gray square tiles. Text: Something for Sunday; October 20, 2019; Lines and Squares, Part 3: NaturalBecky B runs a photo challenge four times a year for a whole month. In the Squares Challenge, people post an image for each day that meet two criteria; they are based on the month’s prompt, and their format is square. This October, the prompt is Lines. I’ve chosen to bundle my images into four batches and post one batch each Sunday in October.

This batch of images features natural lines. Click an image to navigate through the gallery. Enjoy!

Lines and Squares 2: Curved

Pattern of pale gray square tiles. Text: Something for Sunday; October 13, 2019; Lines and Squares , Part 2: CurvedBecky B runs a photo challenge four times a year for a whole month. In the Squares Challenge, people post an image for each day that meet two criteria; they are based on the month’s prompt, and their format is square. This October, the prompt is Lines. I’ve chosen to bundle my images into four batches and post one batch each Sunday in October.

This batch of images features curved lines. Click an image to navigate through the gallery. Enjoy!

 

Lines and Squares 1: Straight

Pale ceramic tile squares. Text: Somethign for Sunday; October 6, 2019; Lines and Squares Part 1: StraightBecky B runs a photo challenge four times a year for a whole month. In the Squares Challenge, people post an image for each day that meet two criteria; they are based on the month’s prompt, and their format is square. This October, the prompt is Lines. I’ve chosen to bundle my images into four batches and post one batch each Sunday in October.

Here’s my first batch, all featuring straight lines. Click an image to navigate through the gallery. Enjoy!

 

Finding the Bones, Part 2: Story Structure in Four Films

Front part of a the skeleton of a lion. Text: Somethign for Sunday, September 29, 2019; Finding the Bones, Part 2Last week I described my project, breaking down the story structure of four popular films (Finding Nemo, Taken, The Martian, and Wonder Woman). I pointed out the placement of the first two major plot milestones (the Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1). Today I’ll conclude the project with the remaining three milestones, and talk a bit about what this exercise taught me.

Midpoint. As its name suggests, the midpoint comes at the middle of the story and is in the middle of Act II. The story undergoes a dramatic change, typically with some kind of reversal or change in the fundamental understanding of the true nature of the story. In these films, the midpoint fell at an average of 54% of the way through the story.

  • As I said before, Finding Nemo is two stories in one, and they both hit their midpoint together. Marlin has learned how to get to Sydney and is well on his way, when at 47% of the way into the story he is knocked out by jellyfish and nearly dies. Meanwhile, back in the fish tank, Nemo attempts an escape that fails, leaving him in despair of ever getting back home. These both represent a serious setback, a reversal of their progress toward their individual goals.
  • In Taken, the father has gone to Paris and worked his way into a stable of girls being trafficked as sex slaves. He finds his daughter’s jacket there, proving that he’s on the right track, but she isn’t there. This is a blow, because he doesn’t have another thread to follow.
  • The midpoint of The Martian takes place at the 55% point, when the supply rocket with food to keep Watney alive until a rescue can reach him explodes at launch. There is no backup plan, and at that point it seems that Mark is doomed. Again, note that this point is focused on the events off Mars, on those engaged in the rescue.
  • Wonder Woman shows a different version of this same pattern, in that the reversal is from negative to positive, instead of the reverse. Everything since the first plot point has been discouraging, with Diana trying to strike out for Ares and being held back at every turn. At 56% of the way into the movie, though, she finally drops her mundane shell. In full regalia as Wonder Woman, leaves her companions behind and storms the enemy, displaying her full power.

Plot Point 2. This usually follows on the heels of a black moment, when all seems lost. The main character, having briefly considered giving up, buckles down and begins the final push to victory. From this point forward the path to the goal is relatively clear, though obviously not guaranteed. This point should theoretically happen at 75%, but in these films it fell at an average of 83%. I don’t know whether the delay in this plot point is due to a different in the medium of film or

  • In Finding Nemo the dual stories again have simultaneous plot points. In the fish tank, the latest plan to get out has failed, and the evil Darla has arrived to take Nemo. However, Nemo decides he’ll have none of it, and pretends to be dead so that she will flush him away to the sea. Meanwhile, Marlin has made it to Sydney and connected with a pelican who can take him directly to his son. Both of these things happen roughly 78% into the film.
  • The second plot point falls very late in Taken, at 84%. It’s the moment when he’s penetrated the trafficking ring and sees his daughter for the first time. She’s behind glass, being auctioned to the highest bidder. He controls who buys her, which starts the final push to get her back.
  • In The Martian, the second plot point occurs at 86%, when Watney takes off from Mars to rendezvous with the Hermes. Even though it’s Watney taking off, story control is still in the hands of those working toward his rescue; quite literally, since one of the other crew members will be piloting the launch vehicle. From this point forward, the focus will be on making this rendezvous happen successfully.
  • Wonder Woman is interesting, because it has a false climax at the 80% point, when Diana kills the man she believes is Ares. However, it turns out that this wasn’t him. The true identity of Ares is revealed at 84%, leading to the final boss battle.

Climax. This is the point near the end when the main character either reaches the story goal or fails utterly. It is followed by the denouement, which shows how the character’s world has been changed as a result of the events in the story. In these films the climax happens at an average of 94%.

  • The two stories in Finding Nemo come back together when father and son reconnect at 92% of the film. They have both reached their goals. The film ends when we see that the father is now less protective, encouraging his son to have adventures.
  • The climax in Taken occurs when the father finally kills the ultimate bad guy and he and his daughter embrace. After that, we see them return to the US, and see the father cement his daughter’s love by introducing her to a pop star who will further her dream to become a singer.
  • Mark Watney finally gets into the Hermes at the 95% point in The Martian. Although they’ve mentioned several times how long the journey back to Earth will be and how dangerous space flight is, once Mark is aboard they cut to showing him teaching at NASA, allowing others to learn from his experience.
  • Diana finally defeats Ares at the 97% point in Wonder Woman. After that, we see that war is starting to lose its power. We return to the present day, where Diana is still engaged in the world, fighting for peace.

What I learned

  • Structure is important to story. The people making these films didn’t follow a consistent pattern out of some devotion to a theoretical ideal. They did it to make their story compelling.
  • Structure is flexible. A simple template could easily accommodate the different kinds of stories these films set out to tell.
  • Structure can help me develop my story. I started out plotting my book following this template, but lost that thread in revisions. I’m now going back to make sure milestones still fall where they should.
  • Structure is interesting. I really enjoyed taking these movies apart to see how they tick.

I recommend similar exercises to everyone who writes. When you watch a movie, set a timer for 25% of the length of the movie. When it goes off, reset it. Each time, note the events happening at that point in the movie to see if you find this pattern. I’ve also been known, when reading a new book, to count pages and put sticky notes at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks and watch for the same thing. I used to worry that it would reduce my enjoyment of the movie or the book, but that hasn’t happened. It’s like an actor watching a play or a musician listening to a concert, noticing the skillful techniques the performers are using. This doesn’t make it boring. It deepens the experience.

How has structure informed your own writing? Have you found a structural system that works well for you?

 

Finding the Bones, Part 1: Story Structure in Four Films

The front part of a lion skeleton. Text: Something for Sunday; September 22, 2019; Finding the Bones Part 1A lion is beautiful to behold. But without its complex internal bone structure, it wouldn’t be an elegant killing machine. It would be a short-lived pile of meat. The internal structure may be hidden, but it’s essential. Stories are like lions. If they don’t have a strong and well-articulated internal structure, they collapse.

That analogy sounds a little strained, doesn’t it? Stories are made of words and ideas, not muscle and blood. Why would they need bones? One explanation is from Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. I love this book because a lot of her message is based on cognitive psychology. She tells us that humans learn primarily through story, and that stories “click” when they have a structure that engages that story-learning system. Authors Kristen Lamb and Jami Gold have blog posts about why structure is so important in writing stories that stay with people.

There are lots of different ways to describe story structure. The most basic is a three act structure (beginning, middle, and end). Some people expand this into four parts or six stages, possibly following beat sheets laying out just when each piece of the structure should fall. K. M. Weiland has a long series of blog posts drilling down into each step of story structure, beginning here.

Structure applies to all kinds of stories, regardless of length or medium. I decided to pull four movies off my shelf more or less at random and go through them to see how story structure plays out there. I chose five key story points that can be found in most systems of story structure, and identified where in the run time of each movie that point occurred. The ones I chose don’t come close to covering the complete range of film, of course, but they are different enough to offer some revealing information.

  • Finding Nemo (2003) is an animated children’s movie about a father fish that goes searching for his missing son.
  • Taken (2008) is a tense action-adventure movie about a father who goes to rescue his kidnapped daughter.
  • The Martian (2015) is a science-fiction drama about an astronaut trying to survive after being mistakenly abandoned on Mars.
  • Wonder Woman (2017) is a comic-book superhero movie about an Amazon princess who fights the God of War against the backdrop of WWI.

Some technical bits. I measured the actual time for the movie itself, starting from the opening shot (after any introductory bits about film companies), and ending when the closing credits start to roll. Each of the plot points is given as a percentage of that total duration. For each point, I picked the moment in the scene that most clearly carries the meaning of the point, and used that as my time index. (Do I need to say that this analysis will include major spoilers for the films?)

There’s a lot to talk about here, so I’m breaking this analysis up into two parts. This week we’ve looked at structure in general and introduced the films I’ll be digging into, and I’ll go into the first two structural elements. Come back next week for the other three elements and an overall look at what this exercise accomplished. Here we go!

Initiating Incident. This is the point early in the story where the main character (MC) is kicked out of their previous world. Something happens that triggers the rest of the story. In these four movies, this happened at an average of 13% into the movie, but with a range of 6%-19% it is the most variable of the points I’ll talk about. Some stories have a lengthier setup; others jump right into things. I would not have predicted which is which.

  • In Finding Nemo, the initiating incident happens at 16%, when Nemo is captured and his father goes after him. This is a bit on the late side, with the film spending some time explaining why Nemo and his father Marlin are alone (no mother and no siblings) and showing his father’s overprotective nature.
  • Taken, the high-octane, action-packed story, has the latest inciting incident of the four, at 19%. That’s when the father goes against his better judgment to give his daughter permission to travel to Paris. There is a lot of time spent before this showing the father’s strained relationship with his daughter and also his impressive abilities to respond aggressively and effectively to danger.
  • The Martian has the shortest setup before the initiating incident, which occurs at only 6% when the mission commander makes the decision to take off from Mars without Mark Watney, because to stay any longer would be to risk the rest of the crew. I find it interesting that a story set so far from our everyday experience has such a short setup. This is also interesting because it focuses on a decision made by Commander Lewis, not Mark Watney. More on this later.
  • The inciting incident in Wonder Woman occurs right in the middle of the pack, at 14%, when Diana rescues Steve from the sinking plane that broke through the wall surrounding her magical kingdom.

Plot Point 1. In some systems, this marks the end of Act I. It’s the point where the MC fully engages in addressing the problem raised by the inciting incident and moves forward decisively toward a resolution. Up to this point they’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to pretend things can continue unchanged, or floundering around without a direction. Now the story is fully in gear, and the MC has a specific goal to strive for. Most systems put this at the 25% point, and these films are close to that ideal. The average was 27%, with a tight range (25%-29%), indicating how important it is to get that point to happen at the right place.

  • In Finding Nemo, Marlin initially follows Dory, whose memory difficulties make her an unreliable guide, and then gets sidetracked by some sharks, and doesn’t really have any idea how to find his son. At exactly 25%, though, he and Dory find the scuba mask that has the address of the diver who took Nemo, so they now have a specific goal; get to Sydney. In the very next scene, we see Nemo arrive in the fish tank and shortly he states his specific goal: to get home. This takes place at 27%, and also counts for Plot Point 1. What this tells me is that Finding Nemo is two stories in one; Marlin’s story, and Nemo’s story. Both of these stories proceed in parallel, and both hit their first plot point simultaneously.
  • The father in Taken has been struggling with how to connect with his daughter, including granting the permission she wanted to travel to Paris. However, at the 29% mark, she is kidnapped, and he now has a very specific goal: find her and get her back.
  • In analyzing The Martian, I discovered that it’s not really a story about Mark Watney. Yes, Matt Damon is undeniably the star of the movie, and he has much more screen time and more action than anyone else. However, in terms of story structure, the movie is about the people who left him behind and those trying to rescue him. It’s no accident that the most visible words on the cover of the DVD are BRING HIM HOME. I noted before that the inciting incident was the decision by Commander Lewis to abandon Mark on the planet. Then we get to the first plot point, which falls at precisely 25% of the movie, which is the moment when folks at NASA figure out that Mark is still alive. This establishes their very specific goal; how to bring him back.
  • In Wonder Woman this plot point is the latest of all, falling at 29%. It’s when Diana defies her mother Queen Hippolyta, taking on the specific goal of finding and destroying Ares, the God of War.

Next week we will take a look at the remaining three plot points and a broader look at the value of this kind of structural analysis. I hope to see you then!

Pattern Power: Coincidence in Reality and Fiction

A blue leather purse that resembles a face, with grommet eyes and a zipper mouth. Text: Something for Sunday; September 15, 2019; Pwttern PowerThe blue purse in the image belongs to a friend of mine. Can you see why I wanted to take its picture? It’s got a face! That face represents two separate things about how people deal with coincidence, in reality and in fiction.

How do people handle coincidence in reality? All too well, I’m afraid. The human brain is an extremely powerful pattern detector. This enables us to perceive things under extreme conditions, which is very useful. However, when you crank that ability up too far, you reach the point where you see meaningful patterns even when they aren’t there, something called pareidolia. It’s pareidolia that leads you to see a face when you look at the blue purse. One of the patterns we are especially good at seeing is a face. It doesn’t take much to trigger face recognition; this is behind the original use of emoticons in text, where it just takes a colon and a parenthesis to get us to see a smile.  🙂  I find this fascinating, and have written about it before. Our amazing ability to see and recognize faces is a topic of a lot of interest among cognitive scientists, who study how face perception works and how it sometimes goes wrong. You can learn more about it in this video.

More generally, this means we have a tendency to believe in the patterns we perceive, even when they are not real. Just because two things happen together (co-incidence) doesn’t necessarily mean there is any real connection between them. Random coincidences happen all the time. We don’t like to believe that, though.

Animated character from The Incredibles saying, "Coincidence? I think NOT!"My message for dealing with patterns in real life is to be skeptical about them. Otherwise, you’re like the man who plugged in his shaver at the exact moment that all the power went out on the Eastern seaboard, and is now convinced he caused the blackout. Or the misguided parent who notices that a child was diagnosed with autism a couple of months after getting a vaccination. Children are (or should be) getting lots of vaccinations during their first few years, and that’s also the time when autism is generally diagnosed. The two events simply happen together (co-incidence), but one does not cause the other.

In fiction, though, things are different. One of the big differences between stories and real life is that stories are supposed to make sense. Everything needs to be linked together by chains of cause and effect. In his book on writing, Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig says refers to this as echoes. Important events should reverberate back and forth throughout the story, so that they feel fitting and inevitable when they finally happen. Otherwise, you are in danger of creating a Deus ex Machina, where something waves a wand and solves all the problems without a good reason. This can sometimes be pulled off successfully, but generally it is death to a satisfying conclusion. It’s okay to use coincidence to get a story started (the main character opens the wrong door at the wrong time, and sees something they were not supposed to see). It can also work for making the character’s problems worse (they left their diary where it’s found by the plumber, who turns out to be a bad guy). However, using it to solve the character’s problem at the end is almost always a bad idea (when running from a murderous assailant, they open a random door and stumble across a stash of guns and ammo that has no reason to be there).

Here’s an example. I remember staying up late as a teenager reading The Andromeda Strain by Michael Chrichton, caught up in the drama and terror of a deadly extraterrestrial microbe that killed people in minutes. Chapter after chapter, page after page, heroic people fought desperately to stop the lethal invasion. Then, in the last pages, we learn that the microbe has now mutated into a form that no longer threatens anyone. Problem solved! This felt like cheating to me. If nobody had done anything in response to the initial threat, it would have just disappeared on its own. Why would it just happen to evolve into something harmless? Why would every bit that was dangerous just … disappear? I couldn’t see a reason for the victory at the end, so it didn’t satisfy me. A gripping, fascinating tale fizzled out at the end.

To put this all together: We humans are always looking for patterns. In real life, this can lead us to believe in things that aren’t real. On the other hand, we know a story isn’t real, but if it doesn’t satisfy that pattern hunger we again get frustrated. As a writer, I need to keep this in mind. My readers can’t turn real life off, but they can certainly quit reading my book if I don’t give them a pattern that works.

Can you think of stories with endings that didn’t satisfy you? Did they rely too much on coincidence?

Back on the Horse: Returning to Writing

A purple-blue statue of a rearing horse against tree leaves. Text: Something for Sunday; September 8, 2019; Back on the HorseThere’s an old saying that when you fall off a horse, you need to get right back on. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to overcome that failure, and you may never get back on again. This post is about my experience with falling off a metaphorical horse, and getting back on. (ALSO: there’s a note at the end of this post about the particular horse in the photo.)

There’s a lot of advice around about improving productivity by changing how you define your tasks, by breaking tasks down, or by balancing work and writing. You can even use procrastination to be more productive. This is all great advice, and I recommend you check it out to see if it works for you. There are also those who insist that if you’re going to call yourself a writer, You Must Write Every Day. One thing I firmly believe, however, is that there are no one-size-fits-all rules that all writers must obey (I wrote a whole post about that a while ago). Over the years that I’ve been a writer, I’ve tried a bunch of ideas to see what works for me. Ironically, one that’s been pretty useful is to write every day. (Remember, this is about what works for me, not for anyone else. Your mileage may vary.)

About a year ago, I set myself a goal to at least touch the current work in progress every day. It might just be spending five minutes reading over a paragraph or two and tweak some words. It might be thinking about how to do something and making a few notes. Of course, it might also be really digging in and spending hours churning out words. Anything would count. With this system, if I wasn’t going to do today’s little bit, I had to justify it to myself. Otherwise, I would do something today, and tomorrow something more, and it all worked.

If I’ve missed a few days in a row, though, it got harder and harder to get back to it. The old saying about the horse proved true! I start to think I need a reason to write today, instead of a reason not to write. I haven’t written anything in days, or weeks, so why start now? It feels like starting up again is going to be a massive effort.

Strong man struggling to write with a bar that has many heavy weights on the other end. Text: How it feels to write after a long timeNot too long ago, that was me. My job was winding down to retirement, with a slew of things that had to be done and all my routines thrown off. Then I sunk my creative forces into other outlets: this weekly blog post, for one thing, and a role-playing game I was designing. I’ve got solid black marks in my calendar from June 16 to August 10. I got discouraged, wondering if I would ever finish the book. I wanted to write, so why was I not writing? I experienced looming dread over how hard it was going to be to climb back on that horse. The longer I stayed away the higher the saddle seemed, and the more impossible it felt. A recent blog post from the 10 Minute Novelists blog documents this problem, and describes one useful approach to overcoming it.

Finally, one day, I broke through. I dusted off the daily planner I had been using to keep my work life organized, picked the first day of an upcoming week, and put “Writing” down as an item on my to-do list. When that day came I took a deep breath, opened the document, and got back to it. Of course, it wasn’t as hard I had expected, and after that first day it’s gone swimmingly. I’ve only missed a handful of days in the last month, and expect to keep going with the little-bit-a-day plan for the foreseeable future. I’m still using the planner, and “Writing” is a to-do item on every day of every week.

So this is what works for me. I have no fixed word count or minute count to achieve each day. I just need to touch the work, to keep it warm, so that tomorrow it’s easy to do a little bit, and the next day, and the day after that. As long as I keep moving, I know I’ll eventually get there.

Here’s the bit I promised about the horse. Back in 2001, local artists around Rochester, NY joined in a community project called Horses On Parade, creating lovely and fanciful life-sized fiberglass horses to be placed all around the town. This one is called the Horse of a Different Color. It uses a color-shifting paint that looks different depending on how the light hits it. It stands today outside the Norman Howard School, a local institution dedicated to the education of students whose needs that are not met in traditional school settings. The horse reminds us that people may look different, but in the right light each of us can shine.

What are some techniques that help you stay on track to reach your goals?

Book Quest: A Bookshelf Scavenger Hunt

Some shelves with books. Text: Something for Sunday; September 1, 2019; Book QuestI follow a blog called the Secret Library Book Blog, and this week they posted a challenge: the Bookshelf Scavenger Hunt, which they traced back to another site called the Book Nut (which I now follow: thanks!). The challenge is to find books on your own book shelf that fit 20 categories. Some of my answers are a bit of a stretch, but here’s what I found on my own shelves. My collection slews heavily toward science fiction and fantasy, so that’s most of what you see here.

1. An author or title with a Z in it.
Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja. Funny science fiction.

Cover of "Mechanical Failure" by Joe Zieja2. A classic
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Atmospheric and creepy, and my all-time favorite opening line.

Cover of "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier3. A book with a key on it
Dave Barry in Cyberspace. This is a stretch, but I didn’t have any books with actual door keys. This collection of funny essays about computers has a keyboard on the cover.

Cover of "Dave Barry in Cyberspace" by Dave Barry4. Something on your bookshelf that’s not a book
One of the many fish in my collection, swimming among my books.

A carved wooden fish5. The oldest book on your shelf
I picked two answers here. Iceworld by Hal Clement is my oldest physical volume (held together with a rubber band). My parents owned this copy from when it was new, in 1953, and I inherited it. My copy of The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie is only a couple of decades old, but the book’s copyright is 1922, making it the oldest one by that metric.

Two book covers. "Iceworld" by Hal Clement and "The Secret Adversary" by Agatha Christie6. A book with a woman on it
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. I have lots of books with women on the cover, but this one is all about bringing women front-and-center.

Cover of "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly7. A book with an animal on it
Watership Down by Richard Adams. The richly imagined life of rabbits.

Cover of "Watership Down" by Richard Adams8. A book with a male protagonist
There are so, so many books I could have picked for this, but I chose Unbound by Jim C. Hines. There is an epic magical battle between good and evil, but there is more. Isaac, the protagonist, deals with issues of depression, and his friends try to understand and help him. I love that the author gave equal weight to both the inner and the outer struggles.

Cover of "Unbound" by Jim C. Hines9. A book with only words on the cover
Just My Type by Simon Garfield is a delightful look at fonts and type faces.

Cover of "Just My Type" by Simon Garfield10. A book with illustrations in it
Dungeon Crawlin’ Fools by Rich Burlew is the first in a series of print version of Burlew’s wonderful comic about self-aware characters in a Dungeons and Dragons world, the Order of the Stick.

Cover of "Dungeon Crawlin' Fools" by Rich Burlew11. A book with gold lettering
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, they book on which the TV miniseries is based. Just having fun with demons, angels, and the end of the world.

Cover of "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett12. A diary, true or fictional
I couldn’t find any books that could be described as diaries, so I took a picture of one of the journals I use to plot out new stories. It includes dated entries in which I ramble on about my thoughts, which is as close as I could get.

A green-and-black composition notebook13. A book written by an author with a common surname (like Smith)
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson. According to Google, Anderson is the 11th most common name in America, so I think this one counts. It’s an intriguing exploration of life in a relativistic universe.

Cover of "Tau Zero" by Poul Anderson14. A favorite childhood book
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I no longer own any books I myself read as a child, but this is one I read to my children and loved.

Cover of "The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkein15. A book that takes place in the earliest time period
I decided not to use anything where the time period is uncertain or where the location is fictional, such as a different world. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis because much of it takes place in our real world in the 14th century, during the Black Plague. My copy is signed by the author!

Cover of "Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis16. A hardcover book with no dust jacket
I couldn’t resist choosing Quantitative Research for the Behavioral Sciences by Celia Reaves. Yes, that’s me. I published this college textbook back in 1991, and though it never really took off it was modestly successful for a few years.

Cover of "Quantitative Research for the Behavioral Sciences" by Celia Reaves17. A teal or turquoise colored book
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke. Classic science fiction.

Cover of "The Fountains of Paradise" by Arthur C. Clarke18. A book with stars on the cover
Death by Black Hole presents a series of essays on all matters astronomical written by Neil deGrasse Tyson for Natural History magazine. Another copy signed by the author!

Cover of "Death by Black Hole" by Neil deGrasse Tyson19. A non-YA book
Most of my books are not for Young Adults, so I had lots of choices here. I picked M is for Malice, one of the alphabet murder mysteries by Sue Grafton, partly because the big M on the cover seems to mark it as Mature!

Cover of "M is for Malice" by Sue Grafton20. A book with a beautiful cover
Far Horizons is a collection of science fiction/fantasy stories from 1999, edited by Robert Silverberg. The cover has a surreal painting of flying dolphins and is unusual in that the only words on the cover are the title: no author or editor, no publisher, no blurbs.

Cover of "Far Horizons" edited by Robert SilverbergSo that’s my scavenger hunt. It was a lot of fun to do! By the way, the shelves in the image at the top of this blog were designed and built by my husband, and allow me to fit hundreds of paperback books into a closet. Brilliant!

Try the challenge yourself. I invite you to check out your own bookshelf and see what you can find!

Beat the Clock: Stories of Time Travel

Image of a clock with three separate minute hands. Text: Something for Sunday; August 25, 2019; Beat the ClockWe humans do love our time travel stories. People often point to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells as the start of the genre, but according to Wikipedia that’s not only far from the first time travel story, it’s not even the first time travel story written by H. G. Wells. James Gleick wrote a delightful book about time travel in science and fiction, and National Geographic has an article about our love affair with the concept. Time travel is a well-known trope, cropping up again and again in various universes and franchises: the Marvel cinematic universe, Harry Potter, Star Trek, maybe even Star Wars. And, of course, Doctor Who, a Time Lord known for his articulate explanation of the nature of time.

Animated image of the 10th Doctor Who describing "a big ball of timey wimey...stuff."Some of my favorite books are time travel stories. I could list dozens of them, but here are my top five (in the order of their publication):

  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, where time travel creates and resolves a number of paradoxes and saves humanity
  • Replay, by Ken Grimwood, in which a man dies and wakes up again as his younger self, to live his life over and over
  • The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, one of a series of marvelous books she set in a universe where historians explore the past directly
  • Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, where a very down-to-earth policeman meets his younger self in the delightful fantasy of Discworld
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, where time travel drives the emotional power of the story

There are also many time-travel movies I’ve loved, including these (in the order they were released):

  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day, my pick for the best of the Terminator movies, where the goal is to preserve humanity from a future robot uprising
  • Back to the Future, the first of a three-movie series in which Marty McFly tries to find the best timeline for himself, his family, and his town
  • Frequency, in which the hero uses an accidental link through time to try to save his father’s life, and then untangle the consequences
  • Looper, where the mob uses time travel to orchestrate untraceable hits, and the hit man finds himself as his next target
  • Interstellar, which has an interesting alien vision of time, and some really cool robots

Then there’s this fascinating indie film, The History of Time Travel, free on Amazon Prime video, which I’ve watched several times now to figure it all out:

So with all this love I have for time travel, I guess it’s inevitable that there’s an element of time travel in my own book. It’s not time travel of the type found in these stories, though. It’s about two realms of reality where the directions of time are perpendicular. People jump from our world to another and return to our own world at the same moment they left. Decades of experienced time are compressed into seconds. This has particular consequences for people who die in the alternate world, and therefore die here in that one moment. But if someone else later travels to the other world, will they find the person there still alive? And, if so, can they save that person’s life? Would they then be alive back here in our world? This is the kind of question I’ve had to struggle with as I create this book. It’s been a challenge and a lot of fun to work through it all, but there are times I agree with Chief O’Brien of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when I say:

Two versions of Chief O'Brien of Star Trek: DS9 talking to each other. Text: "I hate temporal mechanics."Do you enjoy time travel and time paradoxes in your fiction? What are your favorite time travel stories?

Drawing Profiles: Understanding Personality Tests

The silhouette of a woman's face on a background of greenery. Text: Something for Sunday; August 18, 2019; Drawing ProfilesI saw a suggestion recently about creating personality profiles for our characters, and this launched me into the world of personality tests. Here’s a quick sketch of the history and science behind those tests, and some suggestions for useful tests to take (and how to use them).

We humans are always trying to understand the world and our place in it. One of the most important parts of our world is other people, so it’s no surprise that we’re interested in understanding people. This is likely to be one important reason we developed self-awareness (a topic for another blog post someday), and it’s surely part of why we developed personality tests.

Hippocrates was a physician and philosopher in ancient Greece, probably best known today as the author of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, including the famous injunction, “First, do no harm.” Hippocrates identified four basic personality types, each linked with one of the four classical elements: melancholic (earth), sanguine (air), choleric (fire), and phlegmatic (water). We still use these terms today to describe someone’s reactions to events. A couple of thousand years later, Carl Jung divided humanity into eight personality types, leading eventually to the most popular personality system today, the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, with 16 different types.

The problem with type theories of personality is that they focus on putting people into a fairly small number of boxes. No matter how complex and well-developed your system is, you can’t describe human variation very well with just a handful of different types. That’s like trying to render an image with just a dozen or so different colors:

A version of the famous Mona Lisa image rendered with just a dozen or so different colorsIf you want to capture the full range of human personality, you need a different approach. To continue the color analogy, with a JPG image one can capture the entire range of colors displayed on a computer screen with just three color scales (red-green-blue), where each scale has 256 possible values, giving many million color possibilities:

The famous Mona Lisa portrait by Leonardo da VinciThis is the approach used by trait theories of personality. Such systems identify a small number of traits, and each person gets a score indicating where they fall along a continuum for each trait. This allows for a much broader range of personality possibilities. It also gave rise to the term “personality profile.” The idea is that you can plot where each person is on each trait and connect the dots to produce a profile that describes that person.

There are a number of personality trait systems. Researchers develop them using a mathematical technique called factor analysis, and the specific traits this technique turns up vary depending on the exact questions asked and the sample of people who respond. However, there are five personality traits that turn up again and again, no matter who does the measuring or how. This has led to the current personality trait analysis that has the best scientific support, often known as the Big Five personality system. The five traits are sometimes listed using the acronym OCEAN:

  • O is for Openness to Experience. This is related to intellectual curiosity and creativity. People high on this trait love to learn new things and have new ideas. People lower on this trait are more comfortable when things are predictable and routine.
  • C is for Conscientiousness. This has to do with being detail oriented and reliable. People high on this trait complete tasks on time, paying attention and getting them right. People lower on this trait may tend to procrastinate or do a slapdash job, or just forget about tasks all together.
  • E is for Extroversion. This has to do with how much energy one gets from or pays for interacting with others. People high on this trait often have lots of friends and draw energy from social interactions, becoming restless with too much time alone. People lower on this trait find that social interactions demand energy from them, and need time alone to recharge their mental batteries.
  • A is for Agreeableness. This is basically niceness and friendliness. People high on this trait tend to trust others, assuming that people are good unless proven otherwise. People lower on this trait are generally suspicious and sometimes hostile, and withhold trust until someone has earned it.
  • N is for Negative Emotionality (sometimes called Neuroticism). This is how unstable and volatile someone’s emotions are. People high on this trait tend to overreact to situations, take things personally, and jump rapidly from one emotion to another. People lower on this trait are likely to be emotionally stable, taking problems in stride and letting go of things that otherwise might trouble them.

There are lots of tests online you can take to see where you fall on these five personality dimensions. Here’s a longer version, and here’s a shorter, quicker one. There is a fairly substantial body of scientific research that supports the validity of this personality measure, but it is not without its problems. One concern is that it seems to apply best to people from Western cultures. Another is that, because of the way the results can be normalized, it can perpetuate stereotypes such as the tendency for women to be more agreeable than men. Overall, you need to remember one very important fact: No 10-minute test can possibly know you better than you know yourself. If when you see your results you nod your head and think, “You know, that makes sense,” then that’s great. If your reaction is a resounding “NO!” then you are probably right. Use these tests for fun and possibly a prompt to your own thinking, nothing more.

A diagram showing the personality traits ascribed to the character KaySo, back to the idea I started with: What happens when I apply the Big Five analysis to my main character, Kay? She’s a drifter, bouncing from job to job and avoiding any long-term commitments, mostly because she doesn’t see herself as someone worthy of anyone’s trust. Here’s the profile I got when I took the test as Kay:

  • Openness to experience: Moderately low (she is wary of unfamiliar situations and has little intellectual curiosity)
  • Conscientiousness: Moderately high (she tends to complete tasks and is productive, but doesn’t think of herself as reliable)
  • Extraversion: Very low (she has few friends and tends to avoid social situations)
  • Agreeableness: Moderately low (she is respectful for others but has a hard time trusting people)
  • Negative emotionality: High (she is subject to anxiety and her moods can be volatile)

Did this help me understand my character? In a way. I don’t think the results themselves give me much useful insight. However, thinking things through as I answered the questions probably did help me understand her at a deeper level than before. All told, I could see the exercise of completing one of these tests being useful if I’m having trouble getting a handle on a character. Besides, they’re fun to do, and it’s good to know that there’s at least one personality system that is backed by some science.

Have you ever used a personality test to understand yourself or a character? What other techniques have you used to get to know a character better?