I read in an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin that science fiction has both feet planted solidly in the science of today, that the fictional parts are pushing beyond those roots in a way that is both logical and plausible.
So when I read a blurb for CREATION: How Science is Reinventing Life Itselfby Adam Rutherford, I immediately thought science fiction. According to Rutherford, we are radically exceeding the boundaries of evolution and engineering entirely novel creatures—from goats that produce spider silk in their milk to bacteria that excrete diesel to genetic circuits that identify and destroy cancer cells. Imagine what stories might be told in a world where such creatures are commonplace, where such engineering is taken for granted. Imagine the products, and the governmental involvement.
Fantasy, on the other hand, is making it up out of whole cloth. Even so, it could draw on science for an idea.
For example, another book I came across recently has such possibilities: TEMPERATURE-DEPENDENT SEX DETERMINATION IN VERTEBRATES edited by N. Valenzueta & B. Lance. It contains articles by leading scholars in the field and reveals how the sex of reptiles and many fish is determined not by the chromosomes they inherit but by the temperature at which incubation takes place.
Fantasy could be a story in which human sex is determined by ambient temperature. And perhaps it can vary as the temperature varies. And so forth.
Now, if you wrote a story about a world over-run by snakes and fish because of global warming, you would be back to science fiction. Ditto for a world in which the biological engineering described in CREATION results in changing many species to be temperature-reactive and put that in the context of global warming.
Bottom Line: Check out the latest in science and then let your imagination run wild!
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” has been around—and around and around. Assuming you’ve either answered it to your own satisfaction or relegated it to the realm of The Great Unknowable, surely you need different questions to ponder late at night in the year ahead. After browsing both online and print sources, I compiled this collection. Here you go!
Part of this is because such lists are often curated or sponsored by publishers. Part of this is because search algorithms almost inevitably lead to echo chambers. (For a bizarre and frightening illustration of this, check out this article on how fake social media accounts “learn” to push misinformation and conspiracy theories.)
So how to bump yourself out of your reading rut? Take a reading challenge! There are all kinds of reading challenges you can join, not to mention the book clubs, library groups, and reading forums online or in person. I’ve included a few here, but these are just the very tiniest tips of the iceberg available. And, of course, nothing can compare to the miraculous powers of a curious librarian!
Backlist Reading Challenges – Ease yourself into the world of challenges by joining Austin Decker‘s challenge to clear out some of that pile of books you keep meaning to read but never quite get around to it.
One of the great things about challenging yourself is that you can read what you like. No teachers grading you or tests you don’t want to take. The Story Graph has a pretty amazing database of reading challenges, which you can search by genre, author, awards, or even geographic location.
As I mentioned earlier, once of the most fun things to do with a reading challenge is to challenge yourself. Read something you don’t normally read. Pick up a book from the opposite end of the Dewey Decimal System. Find an author with a different point of view. Hear someone else’s story in their OwnVoice.
Books in Translation – I’m a language nerd, so this one speaks to my nerdy soul. The idea is to read a book that’s been translated from any language into a language you can read. (This is extra helpful for those trying to learn another language.)
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge – The Book Riot community has 24 prompts to nudge readers out of comfortable ruts they may have fallen into. Some of these prompts are purely for fun, and some might be more of a challenge.
Diversify Your Reading Challenge – There are prompts in twelve genres, one for each month, encouraging readers to look beyond those “more of what you love” ads.
Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors – Though not a specific reading challenge, this essay from Rudine Sims Bishop gives very helpful suggestions for expanding your worldview and reading empathetically.
And if that’s still not enough to break you out of a rut (or at least widen the rut a bit), try this 52 Weekly Challenge list from BookRiot. It includes suggestions like dusting and cleaning your real-life bookshelves, making a recipe from a cookbook, going to a community theater production, and asking a librarian a question – fun ways to remind yourself of how vast the world of books is.
My good friend Vivian Lawry has challenged herself to add a Nobel Prize winner’s work to her genre reading every month this year. So what are you going to read in 2022?
Cathedral Christmas concerts, caroling in Jackson Square, parades with Papa Noel, cooking demonstrations, Celebration in the Oaks, tours of 19th century houses decorated for the season, Réveillon dinners, and traditional Creole holiday dishes
Colonial Christmas (Christmastide in Virginia): Jamestown Settlement, Williamsburg and Yorktown, Virginia
17th and 18th century holiday traditions
At Jamestown Settlement, a film and guided tour compare the English customs of the period with how Christmas might have been observed in the early years of the Jamestown colony.
At the Yorktown Victory Center, you can learn about Christmas and winter in a military encampment during the American Revolution ands holiday preparations on a 1780s Virginia farm.
Observances That Have Nothing to Do With Religion!
N.B.: Observances that cross categories are listed only once.
“Matunda ya kwanza” means “first fruits” in Swahili and is the origin of the holiday’s name. Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga, creator of the holiday, wanted to celebrate family, community, and pan-African cultural traditions. The seven days and nights of Kwanzaa are full of significant sevens. The seven Principles (unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and joy) and seven Symbols (Kinara candleholder, seven candles, crops, corn, unity cup, gifts, all on a traditional mat) were celebrated by nearly seven million people last year.
’Tis the season: people travel, and houseguests—welcome, or not—can be annoying. Now, I recognize that some annoyances can be avoided if you have a big house and/or household help. But for the rest of us, an extended visit can be a trying time in ways big and small.
Your housepest leaves shoes or boots in public, trip-hazard places.
Outerwear overflows the closet.
Hats, gloves, scarves, keys, etc., are left on kitchen counters otherwise used for cooking.
Your favorite chair is otherwise occupied!
Shod feet end up on coffee tables, chairs, or sofas.
Your housepest insists on helping when it would be so much easier to just do it yourself!
Dirty dishes make it as far as the kitchen sink but never into the dishwasher.
A housepest sleeping on the sofa can effectively dictate when you’re allowed in your own living room.
You like a quiet house until time for a drink and the evening news. Your housepest turns on the TV for daytime game shows and soap operas.
You try to watch TV with a channel-surfer who tunes away for every commercial, only to encounter commercials on other channels, eventually switching back to the original program, often having stayed away too long.
You prefer PBS, news, and nature programs and your pest prefers sports, comedy, and reality TV—or vice versa!
Your housepest turns on the TV, radio, etc., and leaves the room to shower or whatever without turning it off.
Your housepest talks over whatever else is going on—e.g., while you are watching TV or carrying on a conversation.
You are spending time with a person who talks at great length and volume while saying little, especially annoying if the monologue is on repeat.
A pest arrives with too few clothes for the visit and presumes you can fill in any gaps for sweatshirts, socks, or pajamas.
And/or your housepest arrives with dirty laundry for you to handle—and this is not your own kid home from college!
After you mention what you are currently reading, your current read is confiscated for the entertainment/education of the pest.
Your housepest dons any jewelry or accessories not currently being worn and then says, “Is it all right if I wear this today?”
After arriving, your housepest announces that s/he is vegan, lactose intolerant, off all carbs, allergic to garlic, etc.
On the flip side, careless housepests could bring or make food that triggers your allergies or goes against your religious or moral convictions.
Every morning involves a food-run that results in muffins, donuts, bagels, or similar breakfast fare that everyone must share.
Some people won’t eat peas, cooked mushrooms, tomatoes (except in ketchup), onions, or any vegetable that isn’t cooked to mush.
Crumbs, candy wrappers, and drink containers left about could attract vermin that stick around long after the human housepest has gone.
Whenever alcohol is added to the situation, there are nearly infinite opportunities for disagreement:
Is red wine an absolute travesty with fish?
How many drinks are acceptable with dinner?
What if one party is an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic?
You are a 1:00 a.m. to 10:00 sleeper while your housepest is an 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. sleeper.
You and your housepest know that you disagree on social, political, and/or religious issues but s/he keeps bringing it up.
Your housepest knows best: the right things to do and how to do them, what to eat, the best way to get anywhere, the proper way to celebrate any occasion…
Pests Who Come With Pests
They bring along their pets, complete with shed fur, messes on the floor, midnight barking/ chirping/ squeaking, stinky food, and the strange idea that they are welcome on the sofa.
Children who throw tantrums, draw on the walls, complain about anything and everything, cry all night, break Great Grandma’s antique china, or just sulk in a corner with headphones on because nothing is fair.
Secondary pests might even be brought unknowingly, such as lice or bedbugs.
There’s always a chance that a visitor could transmit infections, anything from a cold to the Bubonic Plague.
Bottom line: Few people match perfectly on every dimension. Acknowledging that means you won’t set unrealistic expectations for a visit. And sometimes, forewarned is forearmed!
If you want dialogue to sound real, listen to it. Literally. Longer, more complex sentences are much smoother and more graceful on the page than in the mouth. Reading silently, your brain fills in and evens out. So, when you feel your work is in pretty good shape, read it aloud.
Any place you stumble needs to be reworked. Reading your work aloud–whether prose or poetry–helps identify rough patches, awkward words, and other problems.
If feasible, it’s even to have someone else read your work aloud for you. (See what I did there?)
But even before you manage to cajole or coerce a friendly bystander, try running your words through a TTS reader. Text To Speech software is becoming more accurate all the time. It improves accesibility for those with dyslexia, vision problems, aural learning tendencies, busy hands, or a myriad other reasons why hearing words is more effective than reading them.
There are several freewebsites that will convert your writing to spoken words, though they tend to sound like robots.
What these TTS apps lack in cadence, they make up in unrelenting accuracy. There is no friendly human brain to fill in a few words or switch a letter here or there entirely without realizing it.
At many tutoring centers and school writing help centers, students are instructed to read their work aloud during sessions. When the brain is forced to process words orally and aurally as well as visually, it’s much more difficult for mistakes to slip through the cracks.
Sometimes, it’s even possible to break free of the “…said …said …said …said” quagmire. When you hear yourself saying said after said after said, you might say to yourself that your characters need to say something else or say nothing at all.
Sometimes we say—and write—more than is necessary. When we talk in bloated sentences, it often goes unnoticed. But with the written word, it’s right there on the page, weakening the prose and sometimes exasperating the reader.
Find the Bloat
Enough said. Here are several examples close to my heart (and very near my exasperation gland). In each case, words that are unnecessary are in parentheses ( ).
Tell me where you are (at).
The (very) start
At this point (in time).
OR, At this (point in) time.
A woman sitting in a chair: She stood (up)
He nodded (his head).
The (small) ten-by-ten room.
They waved (their hands).
Walked (over) to the table
To face a husband (whom) she didn’t remember
Shred it (to pieces)
They might have found (out) a way
She took his hand with a smile (on her face).
They (both) stopped and turned to face each other.
They (both) waited.
She led him (over) to a chair and sat (down).
They stared at each other till he blinked (his eyes).
Her heart was pounding (in her chest).
Trying to calm everyone (down).
He pointed her out (with a single finger).
A (quick) glance.
A (brief) second.
And Then There are Excess Words in Specific Contexts
There are times when every word counts. Some journals or contests have strict word limits, to the point of specifying when and how contractions are counted. Or maybe you have limited space on the greeting card. You could even have a character who never wastes anything, including words.
These are examples of word bloat I’ve collected from the actual writing of best-selling authors. I’ve replaced names with pronouns.
(Now) she looked (to her) left and sprinted toward the door…
Buy (some) tickets.
He pulled her close (and kissed her). His lips met hers.
Behind the tenderness was (a) passion.
There are (a total of) two.
Something tells me you don’t want to draw that kind of attention (to yourself).
He went (over) to the table.
She held up her hands (in surrender), though she stayed (at the) ready to move in either direction.
The true irony (here) was that…
He nervously clicked (the back of) his pen.
“…he picked up a newspaper clipping. The dated pages (of newsprint) felt brittle (in his fingers)… He stared at it (in his hands,) just as he had a thousand times (before) since that day.”
A single tear (fell from his eye and) dropped onto her hand.
She peeked into the room, as she passed (it).
He shook his head (from side to side) before he spoke.
She didn’t have the same affinity for the ocean as most (other) people.
She stopped next to a pickup truck(, got out,) and went into the motel office.
Three Ways to Minimize Word Bloat
1) One good way to decide what words are truly necessary is to try to shorten every paragraph by one line—which is easier done with narrative than dialogue!
2) Check all to-be verbs (is, are, was, were) looking for places where a stronger verb can replace a phrase. For example, “He was standing there” might be shortened to “He stood there.”
3) Examine all modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) to decide whether they add anything to the meaning. Often a stronger word choice can eliminate the modifier. For example, walked quickly might better be replaced by rushed, dashed, hurried, or scampered.
Another example: “Her long hair hung to her waist” would better be “Her hair hung to her waist.” Depending on the surrounding text, the whole concept could be encompassed by “her waist-length hair.”
I love food. For me, eating and drinking across cultures is one of the main reasons to go somewhere new! Wherever I go, I try to buy a cookbook (written in English!). For me, the danger of writing about food and drink is going overboard. Describing every type of potato at Thanksgiving dinner, listing all the ingredients in Potato Cottage Pie…
Unless you are Waverley Root, or your book is actually about food, remember that a little goes a long way. It’s like transportation in that way.
So, when people come together over potatoes (or other food), keep the focus on advancing the plot:
Who says what while passing the potato rolls?
What is the significance of Mama making instant potatoes?
What are people thinking and feeling as they dig into the smashed potatoes?
Meals can be extremely important to your plot. They can be a platform for bringing people together.
Awkward or humorous character interactions
Demonstrate relative wealth or poverty
Plot world domination
Make revelations or confessions
But while the dinner table is the platform, keep the focus on the action.
Another function food and drink can serve is to illustrate ethnic roots—either for the first time, or as a reinforcement. Jacket potatoes are clearly associated with Ireland and England in ways that sweet potato pie just isn’t. On the other hand, kumpir (baked potato bars) are almost exclusively Turkish!
Additionally, food and drink preferences can define your character.
Does s/he prefer kumpir with just butter or with all the toppings piled on?
Do they mix sausage and beets into the baked potato or eat it in layers?
Extra pickled cabbage?
Cacik and ketchup on top or on the side?
Drink (and food) choices can say much about your character’s roots, socio-economic status, and self-concept.
One way food and drink can poison your prose is by focusing on the food and drink to the detriment of the plot, action, and character. But cliché food and drink is just as hazardous.
You need to bring two people together to talk. You have them sit down with soda and potato chips. Ho-hum. First of all, try to bring in food only when it’s relevant.
So your first defense against this poison it to get them together over something less stereotyped.
Peeling potatoes together
Comparing scalloped potato recipes
Making French Fries in a fast food kitchen
Visiting the Potato Famine Museum
Sourcing Russian Blue potatoes for an elegant Mafia dinner
Even planting potatoes together!
Your second line of defense is to add a few vivid sensory images. Consider the coffee and potato bread option. Even if eating and drinking is background to the conversation, make your reader smell the coffee, feel the dense chewiness of the bread, savor the potato flavor in the dough, etc.
Bottom line: Food and drink can be great or deadly—your choice!
I don’t mean rules like fastening seatbelts, which are self-regulated laws. I mean personal rules of conduct.
Many “rules” somehow become engrained in one’s thinking/behavior, but are actually totally personal.
So where do self-imposed rules come from?
We notice what behaviors bring love and affection, and which result in punishment or rejection. Over time, we develop “rules” to maximize rewards and minimize punishments.
(For an extended example of this, visit bbekercoaching.com and learn about the personal rule “Don’t Be A Sourpuss.”)
Some self-imposed rules are consciously adopted.
No more than three pieces of chocolate at a time.
Walk 10,000 steps a day.
No alcohol before 5:00PM.
At least one page of writing a day.
Talk with family at least once a week.
Never let them see you cry.
Many of us have internalized rules that could be voiced but seldom are.
The first time I was alone with my future father-in-law (a retired English professor and college dean), he said, “Tell me, what were the guiding principles by which you were reared?”
First I gasped. Then I paused. Then I said, “Your word is your bond. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Finish what you start. If you don’t try, you can’t succeed. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If you don’t succeed, at least you’ll know you gave it your best shot. Don’t threaten if you won’t or can’t follow through. Always be there for family. And, of course, The Golden Rule.”
Upon reflection, I realize that I’ve lived my life by those rules, even when I didn’t consciously call them to mind.
Virtually everyone has comparable rules, developed through childhood, plus rules about bedtime rituals, morning routines, getting dressed, etc. These are rules we follow because we’ve decided they are good for us.
Please note: sometimes what we think is a good rule might not be.
For example, Don’t argue in front of the children lest they be warped.
But how will they learn to disagree productively? Will they be gobsmacked when their parents announce that they are getting a divorce?
Many such rules are about what not to do.
Many rules relate to clothes, where unwritten rules/expectations demand dressing a certain way for work, but on weekends are pretty much irrelevant. Even so, one usually stays within the bounds of what one should wear as a person of a given age and gender. Why not wear hats or jewelry around the house?
Similarly, certain hobbies or activities may be passed over because one is of a certain age, or not the right ‘type’ of person for that. Think paintball, rollerskating, singing while walking around outside, learning to play a harmonica…
And then there are things one does not do simply because, somehow, it isn’t “right.” Think running the dishwasher when it’s only half full. Or leaving dirty dishes overnight. Sleeping in the same clothes worn all day, no matter how comfortable.
Never telling a lie is a rule for some people—and not easy to abide by.
Many self-imposed rules compel us to do things for no objective reason.
For example, these rules might compel us to put up and take down holiday decorations at particular times, in a particular order. Many people have rules around pet care and household chores.
Always load the dishwasher or dish drainer the same way.
Always sort the laundry by color
Or wash temperature
Or not at all
Or depending on what one thinks works
And speaking of clothes: change socks and underwear every day. And clothes appropriate to the occasion: says who?
Even in this day and age, some people send only hand-written notes of thanks or condolence, and only send them by U.S. mail.
At this point, you might be thinking, “But there are reasons! That’s the best way!” By what standard? Much of this happens on a non-conscious level, until challenged—or until the pattern is disrupted.
What about making the bed every day?
Or changing the towels once a week?
Always making the toilet paper unroll over the top of the roll rather than from under?
Hold the door for others?
Say “please” and “thank-you.”
All of these and more are “rules” for some people. In other cultures or times, any one of these could be impractical, irrelevant, or downright offensive.
The upside of self-imposed rules: they simplify your life and increase productivity.
Living by the rules is efficient.
One doesn’t have spend time/energy making the same decision repeatedly.
Rules provide predictability.
Things done repeatedly require less effort.
Rules provide clarity about behavior.
Rules provide security, the knowledge that one is “doing it right.”
Rules reduce anxiety.
Rules help make sense of the world.
The down-side of self-imposed rules: breaking them has consequences.
Breaking rules is uncomfortable—and the extent of the discomfort reflects the importance of the rule.
Not keeping (or being able to keep) self-imposed rules can reflect on one’s feelings of self-worth and discipline.
On the other hand, sometimes keeping the rule(s) causes more trouble/damage than benefit. Sometimes keeping rules induces anxiety. Some researchers (e.g., see psych diary.com) suggest that perfectionists have more rules and adhere to them more closely. I’d suggest that the effort to comply with one’s rules can be stressful beyond the apparent importance of the behavior.
People differ in the number of self-imposed rules they have and their adherence to them. In the extreme, one might suffer from Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder. Think of Adrian Monk, “the defective detective” whose compulsions keep him from living anything like an ordinary life.
(N.B.: related to but different from phobias.)
Getting over self-imposed rules.
When rules become stressful, and/or interfere with living happily, something’s gotta give. Maybe someone people just realize they were unconsciously restricting themselves in certain ways, and choose to change the pattern.
Some of these rules are relatively easy to recognize and break, but others are much more elusive and potentially insidious.
Ultimately, the person must consciously break a rule and realize that no one exploded, small children did not die, and (probably) s/he didn’t even get negative feedback. Indeed, people close to/living with the rule keeper may express relief, approval, and/or appreciation!
BOTTOM LINE: Consider your own self-imposed rules and (if you’re a writer) those of your characters. Consider bringing the non-conscious to awareness.
Virtually everyone is late sometimes. Flat tire, flight cancelled, wreck on the interstate, call from child’s daycare, slept through the alarm—it happens.
But some people are perpetually late – perhaps just a few minutes, but always. Why? There is no one answer, and therein lies the richness for writers.
Some people grow up in a family, culture, or subculture where precise timing just isn’t considered important. For example, in Mexico being 30 to 60 minutes late is entirely acceptable. A Vietnamese friend refers to “elastic hours” — they stretch to fit as much as you need in them. In Morocco, it’s okay to be late by an hour or more—even a day!
This concept shows up linguistically in South Africa. Elements of multiple languages have made their way into modern slang, making time estimation especially difficult for visitors. “Right now” means pretty soon, probably. “Now” refers to something that will likely happen before too long… but not now. “Just now” is an indeterminate amount of time later: maybe in a few minutes, maybe next month, maybe never.
Ever showed up to a party ten minutes late and still been the first guest there? Understanding the variations in punctuality among communities can be crucial to avoiding social awkwardness. It’s even more vital for people working in the entertainment industry: you don’t want to schedule multiple gigs in a day if one of them is likely to start two or three hours late.
When where you’re from doesn’t line up with where you are, the likelihood of negative encounters—anything from awkwardness to hostility—skyrockets. In general, status is related to privilege, and that includes timeliness.
The CEO, president, or queen has more latitude; underlings, as a group, feel pressed to be present before their “betters.” Thus, people who are prompt may resent their habitually late peers or colleagues for “putting on airs.”
Said another way: they assume that tardiness is a passive way for a person to say that his/her time is more valuable than the time of others.
According to therapist Philippa Perry (Jan. 1, 2020,theguardian.com), “The reason may be the opposite of arrogance. It could be that they don’t value themselves enough. If this is the case, might they be unable to see how others could possibly mind their non-appearance?”
Our perception of lateness—its importance and its meaning—is strongly influenced by setting. Different expectations apply at work versus in social settings. And just consider medical settings!
Perry also notes, “Late people often have a sunny outlook. They are unreasonably optimistic about how many things they can cram in and how long it takes to get from the office to the restaurant, say, especially if it is nearby.”
This is my personal bugaboo when walking: somehow I never build in enough time to chat with a neighbor, return for a mask, or whatever. I’m not late when driving!
Also according to Perry, “Lateness can also be caused when we have a reluctance to change gear – to end one activity and start another. We don’t like getting up, we put off going to bed. Stopping something we are absorbed in to do something else can be annoying. It takes willpower to carry out.”
One important area where tardiness can be detrimental is the workplace. So why be habitually late? One possibility is that, at some non-conscious level, that person is avoiding success.
Results of my dissertation research indicated that “fear of success” depended on whether a woman saw success in this situation, on this task, as consistent with her perception of appropriateness for women. More generally, if one expects negative responses from spouse, family, or social group if one is “too good,” that fear would undermine or depress performance.
For such people, lateness is probably one of many self-sabotaging behaviors. Perry reported on one client who fits this model. “When we unpicked what success would mean to her, she uncovered an old family belief that people with money were evil, bad people.” Then there are people who are just oblivious of or inaccurate about the passage of time.
And FYI, as we age we become less accurate in judging the passage of time, erring on the side of underestimating how much time has passed. Learning to overcome this handicap requires major effort. And a conscious determination to take the necessary steps, not just a generalized intention to try to do better.
Bottom Line: Habitual lateness has reasons and consequences. Consider how everything from self-perception to interpersonal relationships, tension, even disasters, might be related.