Writing: more from the Journal of Imaginary Research

Following my recent post on trying a new style, I thought I’d post the writing challenge from last year as well. Again, the brief was to write a mock-science abstract, complete with introduction, methods, results and discussion, plus a fake author biography. The piece was based on a random photo. Mine showed two rows of box binders, all with square holes cut in their front and containing cutouts with quotes from literary works – like display cases or tableaus. It was part of someone’s actual research, but I have not got the foggiest what they were investigating. So I made it up.

This one was a bit more straight-forward to write – I didn’t really try to do much with the prose, and instead opted for just having a bit of a laugh with the task at hand. The end result is below.

jir_2016_anon.jpg

I’m overall happier with this piece than with the more recent one, but then again this was much less ambitious. It may be a bit too scientific in style, but should work for the intended audience. My only regret is not putting more 9s in the p-value.

Hope you enjoy it.

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Synopses and science

Some time ago I missed a deadline for a competition because I could not get my synopsis finished in time. The reason I didn’t have one prepared in advance was simple: I don’t like writing them. I don’t like how the synopsis reduces the story from a big house, rich in detail, to scaffolding. In truth, my synopses always run the risk of descending into the ‘and then this happened’ story telling of my 7-year old self. It was charming then, but not so inspiring now. So I put it off, as one does. My mistake.

typewriter_synopsis

However, whilst I fail at writing synopses, I am reasonably experienced at writing abstracts. In science, the abstract of a paper has much the same purpose as the synopsis, and it is often what determines whether a paper proceeds from the editor’s desk to the review stage. Get it right or get rejected. Sounds familiar? Unlike synopses, I actually like writing abstracts. Like how it is more precise than the meandering manuscript. Years of training have made a good abstract a thing to be achieved rather than avoided.

So, naturally I wondered if I could translate my appreciation for science abstracts to creative writing.

When I write abstracts, I go through the manuscript looking for key points from each section. These are the points needed for the experiment to make sense. Everything that is covered in the conclusions must be introduced in the results. Everything that is in the results, must arise from the methods. Everything that is in the methods must be supported by the introduction. I gather these points that I want to say, whittle them down and distill them into what I need to say in a few sentences. The trick is to determine what goes in and what gets cut. That means that anything that is, for example, in the methods but not needed for the results, gets scrapped, no matter how interesting.

Then I adjust the balance: no more than two sentences for introduction, two to three for methods, three to four for results, and one for discussion. I tighten the language as much as I can. Word limits tend to be strict (250 words is typical for my branch of science), so brevity is crucial.

Images from arguably prettier sciences than mine: Messier 101 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI), Arches National Park, MSRA (NIAID, flickr.com/photos/niaid)

How does this translate to a synopsis?

I suppose it would look something like the following. First, read the story and take the plot points, chapter by chapter, to create a longish summary. From this, extract the major points needed for the story to make sense at every step and remove the points that are not necessary for the plot to work. This would be what is needed for the synopsis. Then, there is the balance to consider. If it follows the breakdown of scientific abstracts, we are looking at:

Introduction: A short background to set up the conflict (~20%)
Methods: How the characters try to fix or escape the conflict (~30%)
Results: The outcome of the attempted fixing/escaping, including escalation and further endeavours towards resolving the issue (~40%)
Discussion: The resolution with final point of character arch (~10%)

Of course, there is some flexibility in this division. It is not one size fits all. But for someone like me, having approximate targets is helpful. So 20-30-40-10 it is.

Then there’s the tightening of the prose, making sure to get the verbs strong, descriptions powerful and short, and the character(s) motivation clear. Cause and consequence, keep it simple but engaging, less ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and more ‘therefores’. Word choice needs to be good, to ensure both brevity and impact. Include (some) emotions and reactions, and exclude themes and analysis. There is a place for these latter aspects, but a short synopsis is not that. The last discussion point should indicate that there is a character arch, but detail is not needed.

This is followed by revising the living daylights out of the thing. I typically revise an abstract three or four times, then give it a few rounds of polish before sending it to collaborators. After feedback, there is another round of revisions, more feedback, then final polish. Last spell check. Done.

Following this strategy works for me in my day job, and I have started using it for synopses. It is not the only way to write a synopsis by any stretch of the imagination, and probably not the best approach either, but it slots in nicely with my training and helps me put in the work needed. If anyone has a better suggestion how to tackle this beast, I’d be keen to hear it.

How do you approach writing a synopsis?

Writing: Chekov and The Journal of Imaginary Research

I recently wrote a short piece in a very different style from my normal writing, mostly as a challenge to myself (see my previous post: The road ill-advisedly taken). Knowing it would be a learning experience, I tried not to be too critical of the final result. Completing it and then publishing it, even though it is in a small University journal, is victory enough.

The brief was to write a mock-science abstract, complete with introduction, methods, results and discussion, plus a fake author biography. I had just been to see Uncle Vanya at the Sheffield Crucible (excellent performance, by the way), and decided to give a nod to Chekov and a kick to the many egos of academia. Not sure if I succeeded in doing either, but it was a fun experience. The process showed me that I vastly preferred the text when reading it out loud, compared to simply reading it on screen, and I wonder if that is inevitable or whether it highlights the weakness of the text – i.e. what I could improve. There were also a few editorial changes that I did not agree with, but had little power over. The end result is below, if anyone is interested (the final version and my submitted version).

jir_anon

My submitted version is as follows:

The eclipse – a loss for our fields.

Total eclipse is when our indispensable sun is overshadowed by the sterile, simple moon. This rare event could cause acute and lasting harm, yet has hitherto been ignored by scientists most ignorant.

For precision, my decision was conducting triple tests of soil and silt and sand. Within each field, my plants were measured carefully, and my professor’s lamp, holding a bright and polished bulb, selected as their ‘sun’. As for the ‘moon’, I chose a base, volcanic rock, presented me by my department’s new replacement, as a token of retirement: a simple thing but suitable. My lamp was lit upon the fields. And then obscured.

For every plant within the fields, the loss of light (my shrouded lamp) caused drooping stems and dying leaves. A swift return of light provoked reversal of the wilting, yet there remained regression next to normal fields.

My data shows, conclusively, that barren rock (the moon) may block the sun (my lamp) and damage fields in manners irreparable. Total eclipse is therefore not a spectacle, but harbinger of harvests lost, as was believed historically. In future work, a test to prove the same repugnant loss occurs when zealous youth replaces expertise and eminence, is well-advised.

Biography

Professor Serebryakov spent his finest years in Moscow’s Biology Department. Following a short sabbatical, he recently returned to active research in Krakow, where he is a founder of the newly established Putative Pontification Society for the Benefit of the Uneducated (in honour of his brother-in-law from his first marriage) and a patron of the Opera Krakowska alongside his young wife. His eagerly-awaited memoirs, describing the recent scandalous lack of support within his former Moscow department, will be published next year. 

Do you ever write in a different style? If so, how did you find it? Have you written in the spoken word type of prose, or do you write poetry? How does that influence your ‘regular’ prose? Are some types of prose best enjoyed when read out loud? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

13 is for change

After the announcement of the 13th Doctor, I found myself thinking a bit about representation. I wanted to write a blog post on the topic, but shied away from it, as I was unsure of my footing. There are other voices than mine that can speak with greater experience and truth on this. And so I didn’t write that post. This is a different one.

BP3

Black Panther hit the cinemas with enough force to rattle the internet in February 2018. It had in it (by my count and if you exclude the last post-credit scene and Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo) two named white characters. One was Ulysses Klaue, and his final moment in the MCU was to be reduced to a plot point by Eric Killmonger. A suitable comeuppance, although I’m sad to see Andy Serkis leave the franchise. The other was Everett Ross, and perhaps there is something to be said for fixing broken white boys, because Ross transitioned nicely into the role of helper, not leader. It was refreshing to watch.

And it was more than just refreshing to see the host of excellent, three-dimensional characters that made up the rest of the cast, from the funny, super-smart and indomitable Shuri effortlessly developing and piloting her wonderful tech; the utterly capable and honourable Okoye struggling with the oaths to the throne whilst leading the awesome Dora Milaje; the strong and outward-looking Nakia; the righteous and merciful T’Challa; to the intimidating and undoubtedly nasty, but still highly relatable, Killmonger, who shared an absolutely harrowing and multi-layered scene with his father N’Jobu. It was more than just refreshing. It was about time.

I’ve heard it said that representation should come ‘naturally’, that it should not be ‘forced’, that we should be ‘blind’ to categories of privilege and so not actively ‘push’ for inclusion of those historically marginalised. I think that is a pile of bovine droppings.

Change doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come by ambling unobstructed into some utopian land. It comes by work – hard work – in the face of opposition. The same opposition that is annoyed at ‘forced’ inclusion but oblivious to forced exclusion. The same forced exclusion that has for centuries, through sheer weight of history, come to look normal. Change will remove privileges. One of these is the privilege to see almost exclusively people like oneself on screen and on paper, in active roles, driving the story. I enjoy that privilege in part, whether I want to or not, and I am glad to see it frayed, showing glimpses of a fictional universe that better mirrors our actual one. It matters to me.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
(Unknown)

The discomfort that some may feel from change may be simply losing a bit of their privilege, which should not be confused with oppression or losing rights. More rights for others do not mean fewer rights for me!

Forgetting for a moment that it is very dull indeed to blather on about the same segment of society and forget about the rest, it is important to remember that the systematic exclusion of people is untruthful. Perpetuating these old lies, either it be for reasons of agenda or of laziness, is the same as contributing to the deceit.

Wiser people than me have spoken about race, gender and representation. I can see that the past has held some perfectly good, diverse characters, but that these have been scattered sparsely across a sadly rather homogenous landscape, at least in mainstream media. But now I see more. And better. And more begets more, until it is starting to feel like something is going right.

I see how it resonates with people. I know how it feels for myself. It makes me so happy I could weep. And that is the sum of this post: I want more of this, please, and I will do my best, whether it be by my own production, by voting with my wallet or voice, or by sitting in the audience, listening and learning, to make it continue and grow.

There is a new Doctor in town, and she has been long awaited. As moments go, this is a huge one.

 

(This was always and only meant as a short post on a portion of a larger momentum, so apologies for the geeky bent, for omitting great films in other genres (e.g. Moonlight) and completely skipping out on other types of media.)

(Posted on March 8th for a reason. Happy International Women’s Day, all!)

The Name of the Place? Babylon 5.

A lovely appreciation post for Babylon 5 over at First Draft. B5 was always my first sci-fi love for a multitude of reasons: Ivanova, the politics, the battles, Ivanova, the heart at its core, the conflict, Ivanova… It’s a nice post. Go read it.

First Draft

Apologies to everybody who came hither through Galatica or Game of Thrones. This show was my first true love: 

Over the course of the first season, the show focused on crisis-of-the-week storylines, such as the station dockers going on strike after Earth refuses to pay for more advanced and safer equipment after a horrendous accident kills several workers, and also on a series of longer-running mysteries. Sinclair’s missing memories (which gradually start to return) is the most prominent of these, but there are also the military provocations by the resurgent and belligerent Narn Regime against their former conquerors, the Centauri, which infuriate the proud Centauri Ambassador, Londo, whose constant plans to stymie the Narn are frustrated by what he considers to be a cowardly government…until he is offered a deal with the devil that rapidly spirals out of control. Other storylines are more mundane, such as Security Chief Garibaldi’s constant…

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Love over Gold

Have you ever heard Telegraph Road? It is a 1982 song by Dire Straits about the building of America, spanning decades, following the rise and fall of a city built around the ‘Telegraph Road’. The song is more than 14 minutes long. Rolling Stone magazine called the entire album, Love over Gold, [an] “almost suicidal defiance of commercial good sense”. They weren’t wrong.

Commercial good sense it something any artist encounters, and accepts or rejects accordingly. This post is not in favour of either – they both have their merit – but I’d like to give a shout out to those going for the ballsy latter option: reject. Run the risk of not being heard or read, of being overlooked and ignored, of not being paid.

It is not an easy decision, and one has to be very certain of both oneself and one’s art to go down the route of Telegraph Road, knowing that there might easily be nothing but destitution and unemployment at the end. I’m impressed by those who do it, whether they succeed or not, because within that group there are movers and shakers and creators of novelty.

But there is another way of walking that road. It’s also walked by the hordes of people who have the fortune of being able to follow the sage old advice: keep the day job. And I like those too, for all that they might feel as if they are not ‘proper’ musicians, writers, artists and so on, just because they don’t live off of their artistic endeavours. Keep the day job and be free to try new things, knowing that they may never support you, that they don’t have to do so.

I like my day job. It gives me freedom. Freedom to throw caution to the wind, to aim for something that may be new and could be good. (Caveat: it may also be shit – you never know until you try.) Having not hinged my finances on my writing, I can write what I like and still have enough to eat. In short, there are no large penalties to lack of popularity. It’s a less perilous Telegraph Road.

Love over Gold succeeded, despite being weird to the point of failure. Why? Well, there is perhaps another lesson there, beyond any thoughts on the purpose of free art and whether or not financial security plays a role in supporting it. And that lesson is: write Love over Gold after Making Movies. There’s a lot to be said for having an album that sold to platinum in several markets in your backpack when you’re trying something new. But you’ll have to ask someone other than me for any inside information about that.

 

My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).

death

Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.