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.

Picking an Agent (or #PW Mentor) To Query

Whether you’re querying PitchWars mentors tomorrow or literary agents on Friday, it’s best to do your homework first. Querying an agent (or mentor) simply because they represent your genre is the bare minimum to not get thrown into the trash in 0.005 seconds.

I know it’s hard to pick — and harder yet not to get emotionally invested in a person who knows nothing about you.

I’ve talked a lot about picking agents and my own pitchWars experiences. From querying agents and mentors, here’s a list of my biggest tips.

2 Things NOT To Do To An Agent/Mentor

  1. Do Not Stalk Them.

    As I’ve mentioned before, do not stalk agents or mentors. Do not go through their facebook/instagram feed and like everything they’ve posted for the last five years, scour their photos to find out their favorite foods, their friends, vacation places. Don’t Do It.
  2. Do Not Rules Lawyer Their “No Thanks” Lists

    Some agents or mentors mention things they want A, B, and C. But never Z. And you have A, B, C, and Z. They’d be perfect except for that last thing!

    I can promise you, they do not want you messaging them asking if off-screen Z counts. Or, yes, they have Z, but it’s not that explicit.

    Imagine saying you hate dogs and then your inbox gets flooded with dog pictures asking if this one is allowed because of whatever excuse. You’re now flooding them with exactly what they asked NOT to get.

5 Things To Help You Select An Agent/Mentor

  1. Read their wish lists
    – on their bios
    – profiles
    – on #mswl/www.manuscriptwishlist.com
  2. Read their don’t want lists
    – Then REMOVE from your list of agents/mentors to query if you have a match. No matter what.
  3. Read their twitter feed
    – see if their personality seems like a good fit
  4. Examine their bio
    – see what sort of agent/mentor they are (editorial/big picture/etc)
    – what experience they have
    – what sort of publishing experience/connections they have
    REMEMBER – This is a two way process. It’s not just “do I have what they’re looking for”, it’s also, “do they have what I’m looking for”.
  5. Check out their list of favorite books
    – if those books would be a great comp for your novel, or are evocative of your tone? That’s pretty promising!

Querying is scary and intimidating. It can be easy to stall by doing your research… FOREVER. But, eventually, you have to query or move on.

All you can do is your best. Then, it’s out of your hands.

Best of luck to all of you out there in the querying trenches — with agents or PitchWars!


Let me know what you’re querying!
Let me know if you’re a pitchWars hopeful.

And link your social media below. I love connecting with other querying (and beyond!) writers.

Done To Death: The Art of Killing Characters

When you’re reading a story and a character dies, you can tell if it’s just the writer trying to manipulate your emotions or if it’s good storytelling.

In the titular panel at Worldcon77, Patrick Rothfuss, Veronica Roth, Su J Sokel, Amy Ogden, and Daryl Gregory did their best to make sure we know that every death should count.

Before we got started, the panelists listed their credentials…

How many characters have you killed?

  • Su killed 3 in one novel.
  • Veronica, in her Divergent series, asked if we counted “outside of catastrophic events?”
  • Amy killed all of humanity. Twice.
  • Patrick has killed 5 characters.
  • Daryl says his only die offstage.

How To Use Death and What Deaths Are Overdone

Fridging Characters

There are tropes that keep popping up, and one of the most trite ones in fiction is using the horrific death of a 2-dimensional female character to motivate the (usually male) main character.

From TVTropes: “The name of the trope comes from a storyline in Green Lantern, in which the villain Major Force leaves the corpse of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, literally stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find.

We’re not saying horrific deaths are bad (in fiction. Please don’t kill people.) We’re just saying they need to matter beyond character motivation.

Parents

Many stories start off with the parents being killed. Even books for those who aren’t old enough for school. And this is traumatic for small kids. We want to teach empathy. We want them to understand death. This is a bad way to do it.

Daryl’s daughter would always go ask him for a snack during the Lion King stampede and get back just as Simba was running away.

Patrick’s sons loved the 3 Little Pigs and the wolf destroying the houses. But they wanted him to tell it without gobbling the pigs all up.

As Amy said, “as a mom, I’m tired of seeing myself die. As a queer person, I’m tired of seeing myself die.”

Queer Characters and Characters of Color

Either as bad guys or as expendable characters, queer characters or characters of color are often the first to die.

Children

Killing children, just to demonstrate that the villain is a bad guy.

Patrick declared, “if that’s all you can do, you’re a bad writer. I stand by this.”

Other

Veronica, in retrospect, admits that there is a bullshit death in her second book. She could have handled that differently. There are plenty of horrible ways to LIVE!

The list could go on. Do we want to show readers the gritty truth, or a better world?

How Do You Make a Death Not Bullshit?

  1. Give fullness to the dead character’s story arc
  2. Try to only kill well rounded main or secondary characters, but think first if there is another way to progress the plot.
  3. Listen to the character – they should tell you if their death is bullshit.
  4. Feel free to have foreshadowing — best done when it’s only obvious in retrospect.
  5. Context matters — who is being killed by whom?
  6. If you do kill characters — parents, children, lovers, make it matter. Make the reader cry and miss them forever.
  7. Showing life after trauma is important.

The Power Of Writing

At this point, the panel started to meander, but we followed along for the ride.

Patrick shared a story. After the Frog Princess, 70 kids were hospitalized from salmonella (from licking frogs). Now, he worries a lot about the consequences of what he writes.

Veronica asked, “then how do you write?”

Patrick — the man whose audience is still waiting, 8 years later, for book 3 of his series — replied, “I’m the wrong person to ask.”

Where You Are Emotionally Affects Your Writing

For almost all of us, what we’re worried about and what we’re struggling with tries to come through in our writing.

There are two approaches.

  1. You can try to leave it at the door.
    • Personal essays, blogs, etc on whatever is bothering you can be a cathartic way to get it out, so you can focus on the story you want to tell.
  2. You can use your writing to work through it
    • So many writers end up doing this. Even if they don’t know that they are.
      • Veronica’s first series was literally about exposure therapy. Later, she went on to be prescribed it!
      • Patrick was thanked for his handling of PTSD in his writing. 10 years later, he realized where it came from. Now he’s in therapy.
      • Amy notes that as a mom, she’s leaving a worse world for her child than she was given. Everything she writes is about climate change.
    • NOTE: Mission-oriented novels come across like after-school specials. It’s okay to work through things, but forcing the theme doesn’t come across as genuine.

[Audience Question] How Do You Handle Villainous Deaths

Everything should be complex — the desire to simplify makes it less real. Just remember, death is a change and it’s the final one. [source?]

Disney took the violence out. Took the blame out. The hero still wins, the bad guy still dies. But, the hero isn’t the hand by which the villain dies. And that might be wrong. There should be consequence.l

[Audience Question] Which Death Would You Undo?

Veronica said, “Lynn.”

Amy’s answer? “Humanity deserved it.”


What stories have you read where death was handled wrong? Which ones have done it well?

If you write, how many characters have YOU killed?

How To Tell Science From Pseudoscience

Throughout time, there has always been a struggle between science and pseudoscience. Even as we’ve learned more, done better, some have always insisted on ignoring those advances.

On the titular panel at Worldcon 2019, Dublin, Eugene Doherty, Sam Scheiner, Cristina Macia, and moderated by Stephen Nelson, discussed the daily fight against pseudoscience beliefs.

What Is Pseudoscience?

There are three main types of pseudoscience

  1. Things that cannot be tested or examined
    • i.e. “The world was created last night, with false memories and records to deceive us all”
  2. Things that have been proven false
    • i.e. The ptolemaic universe – the universe does not revolve around earth
  3. Conspiracy theories, which use the trappings of science without the techniques

Panelists Favorite/Least Favorite Examples of Pseudoscience

  1. Homeopathy – Based on a theory similar to vaccines, the less “medicine” you dilute in water, the more effective it will be. It used to be helpful… in that it kept the quacks away. But, diluted water isn’t treatment for cancer, pneumonia, or worse.
  2. Creationism – the belief that world was build in 7 literal days.
  3. Climate change is fake – has been proven false!
  4. The effectiveness of placebos – we’re not sure. But placebos may be a placebo themselves.
  5. With Ghost Hunters – the EMF (Electromagnetic field) meter is beeping – must be a ghost! Not… an indicator of a cell tower? Or, “I can’t think of anything natural that caused this, thus… GHOST!”

[Audience Question] Does Science Disprove Faith?

Faith is outside of science. By its very definition, it is supernatural.

[Audience Question] How Ethical is Homeopathy For Something Unavoidable – (i.e. childbirth, chronic illness, or something more terminal)

What if it gives them comfort? Or acts as a placebo?

It can be a slippery slope, but perhaps, not entirely unethical when offered as a complimentary treatment.

Why Are People Not Trusting Science?

  1. Science writers are good about caveats and double-checking results, to be certain that they are reporting good science. But… caveats and double-checking facts aren’t convincing! i.e. If you aren’t 100% sure, why should I believe you?
  2. With the death of traditional newspapers, laypeople are reporting on science and writing for clickbait.
  3. Scientists are often poor communicators with laypeople
  4. We often teach science by promoting facts (that might change based on later studies – think of diet and nutrition) rather than teaching critical thinking and the scientific process.
  5. Telling people they’re wrong doesn’t work. It makes them cling to their beliefs stronger.
  6. Some attack people/pseudoscience believers, rather than the pseudoscience itself
  7. Some pseudoscience believers have a lack of intellectual humility — and can’t believe anyone can teach them anything they don’t already know through experience or education or their own logic that ignores anything that doesn’t match their theory.
  8. People want simple, straightforward answers. Science doesn’t always have those.

Ways to Get The People To Rebuild Trust

  1. Target those who are open to learning
  2. Convince those AROUND the opinion leaders – politicians/ celebrities/ etc of your truth. So, they can hear it from someone they trust.
  3. Citizen projects! Get people involved and personally invested in the science.
  4. Make sure the objective of the science is known, not just the details
    • i.e. “Studying the Sex Lives of beetles” — is actually watching how to disrupt the breeding cycle of beetles that are destroying fields of potato crops.
  5. Prioritize teaching critical thinking and the scientific process over memorizing facts.
  6. Treat people with respect.

What are your (least) favorite examples of pseudoscience?

How do you think we can get people to stop believing in pseudoscience? Or can we?