Building An Online Community

The internet can be a cesspool that promotes the worst of humanity. But? It can also bring people together. Depending on where you hang out and who you hang out with online determines if you’ve found a supportive group of friends who share your hobbies/etc or a group that will bring you down.

At WorldCon 2019’s “Building the SFF Community Online” panel, Christopher Davis, Heather Rose Jones, Elio García Jr., fromahkyra, and Kat Tanaka (oh-cop-nick)Okopnik shared tips they use to help the online communities they moderate thrive.

For most of us, when we reach out online, we’re looking to connect. Unfortunately, not everyone online is full of good intent. Some people are intentionally trying to disrupt things — for the kicks.

7 Ways to Suppress Trolls

  1. The common phrase “don’t feed the trolls”, which advises people to just ignore antagonistic comments, actually turns into a way of ceding space to the trolls and letting them take over.
    • Instead – you should make clear rules and explicit punishments for breaking them, escalating as necessary:
      • delete threads
      • temporary bans
      • permanent bans
  2. One way to discourage trolls is to be in a space that requires a consistent name for the log in — and can attach a reputation to that. Reddit does this very well – (depending on the subreddit). The more reputation and following a username has, the less likely they’ll act to destroy the community they’ve helped build.
  3. Delete comments/threads whose topics or language are banned. Don’t memorialize bad behavior.
    • If it’s a discussion that should happen – open up a new channel for the topic, but keep a close watch on it for people crossing that line.
    • Remember that comments are coming in real-time, and it can be challenging to tell who escalated things after-the-fact. Especially if the discussion is split between multiple threads.
  4. Remember that a push to enforce ‘civility’ can be used to hold the status quo and inhibit growth. Sometimes, people need to be called out.
  5. People will find ways to break the spirit of the rules, even if they don’t break the letter of it. That’s why human moderators need to be there, to draw a line — right or wrong.
  6. Warning: if you speak up to strongly defend a person or group you are not a member of, you can cause a strong push back against the very people you were trying to defend. Back them up, show support, but going on the attack can backfire. So, be careful.
  7. As a moderator, be careful who you stop an attack thread with. If you shut down the attacker, without letting the defender reply, you’ve effectively given the attacker the last word.

4 Ways To Encourage a Supportive Community

  1. Being explicitly welcoming of people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people of different genders, abilities, etc.
  2. Delegate tough topics to contained threads.
    • Easier to track/monitor
    • Easier for those who aren’t up for the discussion to avoid
  3. Not every discussion will end in total agreement, and that’s okay. People can have differing opinions. The important part is making sure that everyone’s humanity is recognized, and that people’s identities are not a target.
  4. Remember that not every member is out there posting. Lurkers may feel just as connected as the regular posters, even if you never see their names. Make it easy for audience members to make the switch to participation. Have semi-regular posts to invite people to delurk.

By promoting the behaviors you want to see, and making the space unwelcoming to those who would seek to destroy it, you can promote a supportive, and friendly community.

Let me know if there are any tips I missed!

What The Writer Needs To Know: The Brain and The Body

Writers do their best to bring life an authenticity of the full range of human conditions. Sadly, however, writers are mere mortals and can fall into some trope-tastic misunderstandings and assumptions.

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Daryl Gregory, Dr. Keren Landsman, Benjamin Kinney, Mick Schubert, and Hadas Sloin were there to set the record straight.

On “Team Brain” were Daryl and Hadas. On “Team Body” was our epidemiologist, Dr. Keren. Benjamin, as a neuro-scientist, was claiming seats on both teams. And Mick Schubert did his best to stay out of the fight.

“Favorite” Misunderstandings in Media

  • Dr. Keren – Nosebleeds as a sign of something catastrophic!
  • Daryl – The significant cough. The character thinks they’re on the mend, and they cough once, and everyone exchanges significant glances. 2 scenes later — we’re at the funeral.
  • Hadas – On The Walking Dead, they did an MRI on a zombie. By definition, there should be nothing. They zoomed in to show a single neuron (ridiculous!) And showed the ‘electrical activity’ in blue and the ‘zombie activity in red’. Claiming “it invades the brain like meningitis.” So Wrong.
  • Mick – Magical genetics, with no epigenetics. And timing! They take a blood sample and know exactly what’s wrong in 10 minutes. The tests can take longer, and more tests are ruling out what it’s NOT, than figuring out what it is.
  • Dr. Keren – On Dr. House — Oncologists don’t do surgery.
  • Benjamin – Human minds being ‘uploaded’ into digital form or AI minds being ‘downloaded’ into a body.
  • Hadas – Her career goal IS the digitization of the human brain. The human mind’s computational power is underestimated. It’s firmware — firmly attached to the body and the physical network. It’s fascinating, but we’re further away than we think.

Tips To Get It Right

  1. With sickness, we think we know how diseases work. Wrong. We only know how they affect us. Drugs are far more often to be guess and test, and then backwards derive the science to why it worked.
  2. Our brains’ perception of self is easily deceived.
  3. There’s been some cases of treating phantom pain (from lost limbs, etc) with mirror therapy. But, we’re not sure if it’s more than the placebo effect at this point.
  4. A human body can’t survive by consuming human blood.
  5. When someone is exposed to radiation, they’re far more likely to end up with cancer, like after chernobyl, than super powers.
  6. Super healing would lead to massive scar tissue and cancer
  7. Super speed would require eating more. Much more.
  8. Creating sensory experiences from the brain (i.e. in virtual reality simulators) is hard because it has to be customized per person. And is easiest when we bypass the brain.
  9. Genetics is hard. If changing one gene would change the trait, we already do that. Most are multiple genes with unexpected consequences.

Underused Diseases

  1. Tuberculosis
  2. Black death (not bubonic plague. Research the difference!)
  3. Influenza
  4. Stupidity
  5. Preventable ones (measles, mumps, chicken pox as an adult, tetanus, rabies, etc)

Books/Media That Got It Right

  1. Orphan Black (except the brain uploading)
  2. Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
  3. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  4. Blindsight by Peter Watts
    – He got it wrong. And Bad. But, it’s a great ethical discussion.
  5. Lock In and Head On by John Scalzi

Tips Specifically For Writers

  1. Your job is to be convincing. Read as much as possible. Say/Write as little as possible, to sound convincing.
  2. Write to the limits of your knowledge. Then stop and take out half. That way, you can only be half-wrong.
  3. Write from a layperson’s perspective, then you can claim that the character misunderstood.
  4. Remember that scientists have specializations. Your character doesn’t have to know how everything works.
  5. Making magic ‘scientific’ usually doesn’t work. Understanding why it wouldn’t work in real life might help you get it less wrong.
  6. Pick your premise (zombies/magic/whatever), but be consistent after that.

A Helpful Resource!

The Science and Entertainment Exchange exists to help writers of all forms of media Get. It. Right. Their mission? To connect “entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storytelling.” The website seems movie and tv focused, but Mick Schubert said it’s for all of us.


When writing about the brain and the body, beware the Dunning–Kruger  effect! A little bit of knowledge makes you think you know how something works, when you’re barely seeing the tip of the iceberg. Do your research and be sure to double-check everything you think you know.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.

YA Futures

YA is big and has been since the late 90s. But the future today doesn’t look like it did even 10 or 20 years ago. What does YA science fiction readers want today?

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, I had the opportunity to listen to the top professionals in the field discuss what they see coming. On the panel were Charlie Jane Anders, James Smythe, Eric Picholle, Fonda Lee, and Kristina Perez.

3 Things That Don’t Fit In the YA Science Fiction of Today

  1. A sense of inevitable progress
    The golden-age of science-fiction brought us flying cars and space cities. From the Jetsons to Star Trek, optimism for a better world was writ large in our stories.

    These days, we’re making our dreams a little more down to earth.
  2. Angst
    The 90s and 00s taught us that angst and cynicism were ‘grown up’ and ‘mature’. Spoiler: they not. And teenage angst when written by adults, far too often turns into teenage melodrama.
  3. Space
    With the advent of the space race, sf writers assumed our future was out amongst the stars. These days, we’re looking at our own planet and resources.

    Space, right now, is a hard-sell in YA.

10 Things In YA Science-Fiction Today

  1. Social issues
    You don’t have to evaluate them, but they should be in there.

    Related? Teens don’t need as much hand-holding or explanations when dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, versus adult readers.
  2. Near future
    Where we might be in 20 years, not 100 or a 1,000.
  3. Taking the brakes off
    With YA, you can turn emotions up to 11. As a writer, you can delve into your own neuroses and baggage and trauma on the page.
  4. Hope
    The reign of dystopia is changing. The future looks bleak and people are looking for hope.
  5. AI
    Even if we’re not there yet, we’re getting really close to being able to fake true artificial intelligence. I would say some robots are pretty close to dog-level intelligence at this point.

    And then? There’s always “the singularity”, when the first artificial intelligence becomes self-aware.
  6. Genetic Manipulation/Trans-humanism
    The science is there. It’s time to explore the moral and ethical quandaries inherent.
  7. Fun Adventures
    Doing stuff with friends to fix things, save someone or something, or just wild hijinks!
  8. Hackers
    Hackers are more and more becoming the heroes of the story.
  9. Online Friendships
    Friends aren’t always local these days. Plenty of friendships have started or moved online as distance becomes less of a constraint.
  10. Mixed media
    With text conversations and real world descriptions, mixed media storytelling is getting bigger.

Clearly, as we don’t actually have any time-travel machines, these are all guesses and YA trends change faster than any other genre.

Let me know what you think is coming for YA. Did the panelists get it right?


As always, thanks for reading and I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Author Spotlight: D. W. Welsh

  • a veteran journalist, research editor, writer of both fiction and non-fiction

Readers! Let’s give a good hearty welcome to D. W. Welsh.

D. W. Welsh/David W. Wooddell is a veteran journalist, retired from National Geographic magazine in 2009 as a Research Editor. Since that time, he has self published a few non-fiction history books, and two novellas. David served as editor & publisher of his wife’s book about the cleanup in Ellicott City, MD after the 2018 flood, called EC Stories. Under the pen name of D. W. Welsh, he has begun publishing novellas.

David, thanks for agreeing to be here today. Most interviews start off with bios and such, and while I’ll get to that as always, let’s start with the important stuff!

If you could have any pet (real/fantasy/no-allergies/no worries about feeding it) what would it be?

I think the genetically engineered living fur pet that appears in one of Lois Bujold’s novels would be lovely. Don’t have to feed it except with cuddles, don’t have to clean up after it, and it is always glad to see you.

My sheltie dogs are like that, and so is my hound named Baby Bel, but of course, I do have to feed and water them, and take them out to do their business, and clean up after them. I love them, but sometimes it would be great to have a less burdensome pet.

The perfect choice to curl up on the couch with — with a good book!

What do you write and how did you get started?

I write a little of everything. I love history, so I wrote a history of a Civil War regiment that was 30 years in research. I was trying to answer my grandfather’s question of what happened to his grandfather in the war – because Warwick Wooddell was mortally wounded on May 19, 1864 while a private in the 31 st Virginia Infantry, and my grandfather never had a chance to meet him.

Coming out of university, I wanted to be a novelist. I was a very bad writer, the stuff was crap on paper. But many of the plots, characters, and settings worked well. I seem to do better at the story aspects, and less well at the actual writing, so I’ve had to work hard on learning to write better. I’ve tried my hand at that a dozen times, but this past summer I finally produced two novellas I felt were good enough to publish.

Wow! What a wide variety. And a great reminder that we’re often our own greatest critiques.

What issues are important to you in your writing?

Human rights and the dignity of all humans is the most important theme for me. For instance, in my novella Argonaut, the main character named Angel is concerned with the disparity of wealth and poverty, and immigrants to America were influenced by poverty in 1897. In the yet-to be named sequel, in 1898, she travels to Jamaica where she encounters the situation of the “coolies” who were the migrant, indentured laborers brought to the Caribbean from India and other parts of Asia to replace the slaves.

Definitely some heavy stuff. It’s easy to tell where your real-world concerns show through in your writing.

What do you like to read?

I love good historical fiction, including Alan Furst’s very atmospheric novels about the resistance and spies in Europe during WW2. I also love science fiction. I’ve read and listened to many audio books, but have almost memorized the Vorkosigan novels of Lois M. Bujold. The Expanse books of James S. A. Carey are absorbing. Jacqueline Carey’s work is a major favorite, I love the novels she writes, and listen often to the audio books of her work. I think her Starless is one of the best fantasies out there.

For suspense and mystery, the Virgil Flower novels of John Sandford; the work of Louise Penny, Jusi Adler-Olsen, and surprising to me, Robert Galbraith’s wonderful detective novels (written, of course by J. K. Rowling under her pen name.) I love the character she created of the one-legged private detective Cormoran Strike. I’m also a great fan of Sarah Waters, and her novel Tipping the Velvet.

You’re taking the advise to be widely read to heart, clearly! What a great selection.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that doesn’t work for you.

Conflict is necessary on every page.

All of them, apparently! I’m not a natural writer, so I have to work hard at writing a legible sentence. I’m not a stylist – I have stacks of books by famous authors on how to improve style. Bah! I place them near the head of my bed so the advice will sink in, but it never does. I was an English major in college – but didn’t graduate because my grades were so bad and I just couldn’t bother to attend classes often enough. I’ve had six years of undergrad and still no degree.

But on a more specific note – the idea that conflict is necessary on every page is vastly overdone.

The theories were the product of the writer’s rooms of television sitcoms. Yes. There must be some sense of tension, but life is not conflict at every turn. Television shows need conflict, but most of us don’t write for TV, nor do we write for half-hour shows that only get 18 minutes of actual screen time because of commercials. I don’t watch TV news, I read the news online from the NY Times, Washington Post, and many other quality journalism organizations.

TV news is so absorbed in reporting conflict that I wonder if their reporters and anchors ever experience long form journalism. Or get out of the studio and experience life. I don’t believe in or agree with the idea that we should be putting a conflict on ever page.

I believe interesting characters and situations make stories worthwhile to read. When I read stories by European writers, in translation, I find a totally different feel of characters, places, and the plots are not all based on bang bang bang, conflict conflict conflict.

I also think too many writers think violence is the centerpiece of conflict. I’ve been trying to write non- violent stories in which interesting things happen. There are conflicts, but there are also mediators, and people who help resolve conflict, or who look for alternative ways around the conflicts. For instance, when violence happens in Argonaut, it is a surprise to the reader, just as most often violence occurs as a surprise in real life.

With your background as a journalist, it’s not surprising that this issue is so heart felt. And I agree, there are plenty of ways to build tension and get the readers emotionally invested without outright conflict. So many writers think that conflict needs to be physical, or the readers will miss it. Readers are more intelligent than some give them credit for.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that they can pry out of your cold, dead hands.

Write every day.

Set aside a time that works for you, and stick to it. Write your journal, if nothing else, even if you were boring and did nothing, you should make it sound like something. When in doubt, describe the room, the art on the walls, the glimpses of nature through the window. Write. Write. Write. And practice interviewing people without them realizing that is what you are doing. Record patterns of speech, and make notes of conversations.

That’s one I have to pass on (unless you count social media), unless I’m actively creating a rough draft. But I do do my best to make sure I’m sitting down several times a week to work on my writing..

Shameless Self-Promotion time!

Under my non-de-plume of D. W. Welsh:

Argonaut: An Angel and Gabri Adventure is a historical novella that brings the reader into the high-tension end of 1897 and the belle époque.

Angel and Gabri must put on a brave front in the face of danger and intrigue to succeed and survive in the high-stakes game of international arms. From Paris to New York and Baltimore, two young French researchers move through privileged berths to gritty shipyards in search of the prized submarine secrets of the Argonaut.

But who is really paying them? Are they the natural children of the famous author Monsieur V, or the dupes of secret services across Europe?

Jars is a relatively gentle comedy of manners.

Following a massive population crash, Lem, Jane, and their children, like so many others, turned to farming.

But now, civilization is returning and with progress comes choices. Families can be created in many ways, and so can children. Everyone wants to live happily ever after, including gay curmudgeon farmer ‘Jars’ Wilson, who builds his family of choice with lesbians Liz and Sylvia.

Set largely in rural America, it shines a warm and humorous light on our right to live as we choose.

My stories often have people of alternate sexuality or gender in them. I have many friends who are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or some mixture of all or none of above. I don’t look to exploit such themes, but rather include them as I do in real life, as part of the multi-faceted real world.

For my non-fiction:

If you read archives of the National Geographic magazine, you may spot me referenced in the footnotes on many articles, credited as a researcher under David W. Wooddell.

And Books

Hoffman’s Army: The Thirty First Virginia Infantry : A book that has been described as “one of the best narratives of the war fought by the soldiers themselves.”

Steam Locomotives: Nineteenth Century Engineering is a visual catalogue of historic illustrations of steam engines, from the origin of such inventions to the 1870. It’s a book for railroad enthusiasts.