Monthly Archives: November 2014

Monthly update: November 2014

My last “progress” post was November 6, so might as well make it a monthly feature. That way I’ll have to squirm uncomfortably if I fall behind in my writing.

1) Resubmitted my fantasy story “Weights and Measures,” now to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I love submitting to BCS – their rejection letters always provide useful feedback about what the reader did & didn’t like. I hear that’s because BCS is run by a Viable Paradise graduate!

2) Revised my VP18 Thursday science fiction story, “The Nursery”, in time for the one-month deadline! I already got the rejection letter, though. One of those so very encouraging “We didn’t even finish reading it” ones.

3) Polished up my flash fiction story “Custom Made”, with the help of various VP folks. I don’t list the genre because it’s… um, Lovecraftian political comedy, maybe? Hard to say. But I am quite happy with it!

4) Touched up an old story, “The Coin of Leadership”, another one from my steampunk setting. It’s off to Buzzy Mag though I think it’s a reach.

5) Revised my old steampunk story, “The Demands of Iron,” and sent it off to Uncanny. This is the one that got shortlisted for the 2014 James White Award, but has yet to find a home. I still have faith in it!

6) Wrote a first draft of a new fantasy story, “The Deceiver.” It’s in pretty crude shape, but I know what the next pass will be.

It looks like I accomplished a lot! But half of these happened over the Thanksgiving break.

Writing plans for next month: revise Deceiver, revise Nursery, rewrite Distant Shore (my VP18 submission piece), grumble over anything that comes back with a rejection letter.

Tryptophan, Turkey, and Sleep

By popular request, an explanation for why tryptophan in turkey does not actually make you sleepy. Neuroscientist Approved(tm)!

The wikipedia article on this is pretty good, and has nice references, but it’s not exactly in layman’s language. Let me try to explain it in my own words:

What is tryptophan?

Tryptophan is an amino acid, a building block of protein. Your brain uses it to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in sleep. So if you eat a food with lots of tryptophan, you should produce more serotonin, and thus get sleepy, right? Well…

Tryptophan in food ≠ tryptophan in brain 

Most things cannot move easily between your blood and your brain. It’s a delicate environment in there! Tryptophan (like all amino acids) needs another molecule to drag it bodily across that blood-brain barrier. However, that transport molecule is already working at full speed, hauling a full load of various amino acids. Unless you’re starving, your blood already has plenty of tryptophan, so a little extra from the turkey will make no difference. When the ferry is moving at full speed, and there’s already a backlog, adding more cars to the waiting list doesn’t get any more cars across the water.

So why do we get sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner?

Part of it’s just meal size — after a big meal your body diverts resources to digestion. But let’s focus on Thanksgiving dinner. It does contain something special, but not the turkey. When you eat lots of carbohydrates, your body produces insulin to pull sugar out of the blood, into storage. Insulin also makes your body pull some amino acids into storage… but not tryptophan. So after a lot of carbs, more of the amino acids in your blood are tryptophan. When a bunch of non-tryptophan cars bail out of the ferry line, you do end up with more tryptophan cars across the water.

In other words, tryptophan in your brain can make you sleepier — but you get more tryptophan in your brain from eating the potatoes and the stuffing, not the turkey.

On top of all that, turkey doesn’t even contain more tryptophan than chicken, pork, or cheese. Anyone know where the heck this urban legend comes from?

Plausible Failure Modes

Last night I saw Interstellar, my first Hollywood movie since Viable Paradise. It allowed Kelly and I to try out our new Plot X-Ray Glasses.

One-sentence review: I thought the movie was okay; some great stuff, but also a lot of terrible stuff. But this post is not about Interstellar; the movie is just here to provide today’s example. (Minor spoilers ahead, however.)

What makes a threat feel real?

Early-ish in Interstellar, we have a scene where Mr. Sidekick tries for the first time to dock the launch vehicle with their mothership. The music swells and pounds… but if you ignore the emotional tug of the music and think about what’s happening, there is no tension here. You know the heroes cannot fail; what’s more, you know exactly how they will achieve their goal. What’s missing?

The missing element is a plausible failure mode. What happens if the astronauts fail to dock successfully? Then they never get on their spaceship and the movie ends. The story cannot progress unless the heroes succeed. Worse yet, there’s no tension* about how they will succeed. If something goes non-catastrophically wrong, the astronauts will pull back a couple of feet and try again; but that won’t happen in the movie, because it would make boring and repetitive viewing. While in-story the characters could fail (novice astronauts could crash and die), this is a movie about interstellar travel, with no backup ship or crew. Failure would end or derail the story. This is a challenge with no plausible failure mode.

Contrast with a later spaceflight challenge in Interstellar: their attempt to rescue the spinning and half-destroyed mothership. When that ship exploded, I thought, “I guess they need to get the heck away from the flying wreckage, and the movie’s next act will put them in Dr. Mann’s shoes of isolation and survival.” But instead we have an awesome spaceflight rescue scene! This scene (like most of the stuff on the ice planet) worked very well for me. We had a plausible failure mode, which made me legitimately curious how things would turn out. That curiosity greatly increased my interest in watching the scene unfold.

Moral of the story: a threat will be more believable, and thus more compelling, if it includes a plausible failure mode. Readers will be less afraid of a threat if they realize the writer cannot follow through.

If your threat risks ending or ruining the story, then the heroes cannot fail. If your reader/viewer is sufficiently engrossed that they aren’t thinking about the outcomes, you can get away with this. But if you really want to put the reader/viewer on the edge of their seat (proverbially or otherwise), give the threat a plausible failure mode.



*: This isn’t the only way to create tension, of course. For instance, inevitability can create tension. To stick to Interstellar examples, consider when Cooper and Dr. Mann** go out on the ice together. However, this generally requires inevitable failure/danger, not inevitable success.

**: While I really liked all the stuff with Dr. Mann, I have to say: they called him “Mann?” For the brilliant driven confident flawed self-preserving person who embodies the best and worst of humankind? Might as well have given him the first name Hugh.

Progress post-Paradise

Since Viable Paradise XVIII I have:

1) Revised my steampunk story “Machines in Motion” and submitted to Crossed Genres. This one I think is well worthy – the first two pages appeared at a reading at Viable Paradise and got a great response, and Victoria Sandbrook helped with the revised post-VP version. Of course now I feel like I left a niggling-but-hateful conceptual flaw, but (A) probably nobody else will notice, and (B) too late to change it!

2) Revised my fantasy story “The Grasp of the Waves” and submitted to Crossed Genres. I got Scott Lynch to critique this one at VP, and and got some good feedback from Shveta Thakrar too, but this perhaps needed more work than I could accomplish before its 10/31 deadline. I decided to give it a shot anyhow, because it’s a very good fit for that theme/deadline; CG is a rare market that allows 2 submissions at once.

3) Revised my fantasy story “Weights and Measures” and submitted to Strange Horizons. I got Elizabeth Bear to critique this one at VP, followed this week by a delightful #VP18edits Twitter swarm-critique of a single troublesome sentence. This story is *awesome* and I cannot wait for someplace to buy it so I can show it off! Hands-down my best work so far.

4) Submitted my science fiction VP-Thursday story “The Nursery” to my online critique group, and gotten feedback from two people. The major issues seem to be the ones I already know about. They are fixable, but it will take some major finesse and craft to resolve. Not sure I can accomplish them before the 11/16 deadline, what with traveling 12th-21st to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference. I will risk the wrath of the jellyfish and aim for the end of the November.

5) Not even touched my VP submission story. All those lovely notes are still sitting on the corner of my desk, wrapped in a ziploc bag. I did get a brilliant plot suggestion from a friend when I read it to my secret post-VP party, so I have some general ideas how to rebuild it. Probably not until December though.

6) Read all kinds of other wonderful post-VP wrap-ups. So nostalgic already! I need to live in a place with more SFF authors around. Twitter is an all-too-timesinky replacement. At least I’ll get to see a few classmates when I travel this month!