February 16, 2018

​I envy people like professional athletes, dancers, musicians, and artisans who are able to pursue one goal without distraction until they achieve excellence and feel fulfilled by doing that one thing better than anyone else. Whenever I try to do the same, I end up falling short. Since childhood, whenever I’ve wanted to learn to do something cool that I don’t know how to do yet (like play the piano, for example), more often than not I’ve been so busy doing so many other things that I can’t stop doing (because I’m very stubborn, and I finish what I start) that I don’t have time to become expert at any one thing. There are so many amazing things that I want to do in this one life I've been given that I can’t choose just one, and there are not enough hours in the day to become an expert at everything I want to learn to do. So, I settle. I do my best (which with sufficient time and effort is usually good enough, if not stellar). Unfortunately, the older I get, the more responsibilities I acquire that I can’t just stop doing, which leaves me with no time to add anything new unless I give something up.  And because I’m a perfectionist, it grieves me to give up doing something until I get at least reasonably good at it.   

So, here’s the deal. I plan to continue doing things that I am at least reasonably good at for right now, as time permits, both things that I must do because I’m obligated to do them and things that I enjoy doing (for balance, because I’ve got to do fun stuff occasionally or I’ll go nuts). I’m saving the rest of the really challenging and time-consuming things that I’ve always wanted to do for later, and I’m taking excellent care of myself. I take my meds (thank you, genes for essential hypertension), eat (mostly) healthy food, exercise, get enough sleep, stay as close to ideal body weight as a post-menopausal woman with a sedentary job can manage, and I have just started meditating daily to reduce stress, since stress is associated with early heart disease. Why am I spending time and energy doing all this stuff when I just said there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day to do what I want to do? Well, I’m 54 years old. I’m probably going to retire sometime in the next decade. And when I retire I will have the one thing that I’ve been craving since childhood: free time.  When I have that free time, I intend to be in excellent health (at least for a sixty-something year old), so I can play with my grandchildren (assuming my kids cooperate with producing them—none are in evidence yet), travel the world, read the books I have no time now to read, and write more novels. I might learn to play the piano, go back to school and take art and music classes, or maybe even get a master’s degree or PhD just for the fun of it. (Yeah, I’m one of those weirdos that loved school.) Perhaps I’ll study Japanese or Portuguese or German and then use what I’ve learned to talk to people in my travels. I don’t know yet exactly what I’m going to do, but I’m getting ready for it. Because life is too short, and I’ve got a long list. It’s not a bucket list, though. When I’m done with it I won’t be ready to go; I’ll have just made another list.

February 10, 2018

​In my novel Sikkiyn and its upcoming sequels I use genetic engineering as a plot device, hypothesizing that in order to adapt to colony worlds in distant star systems, geneticists will transform their descendants into individuals better able to live in varied environments by creating different human subspecies with varied physical and mental characteristics. In my stories, future humans are more accepting of differences, and learn from childhood to relate to other people who may not look like them or think like them. I believe that due to the melting pot phenomenon brought about by the ease of worldwide travel, we are in danger of losing our rich global cultural heterogeneity. Differences, in my view, should be celebrated, not looked upon with suspicion, even differences that at first glance might seem to be deficiencies.  

I read an article recently highlighting the fact that Iceland has very nearly eliminated Down Syndrome. In fact, there are only 2-3 babies born per year with Down Syndrome in the entire country. At first glance this would seem like a good thing. I mean, don’t people with Down Syndrome have medical issues, and aren’t they burdens to society? So, it’s good that scientists in Iceland have figured out a way to prevent the syndrome, right?

Only that’s not at all the truth and absolutely NOT what’s going on. Iceland has implemented universal prenatal screening for Down Syndrome, and 100% of women who screen positive are aborting their babies. The reason 2-3 babies with Down Syndrome are born in Iceland each year is because the screening isn’t 100% accurate. No medical test is. And I’m not just picking on Iceland. They’re just the most dramatic example. Worldwide there’s an increasing tendency to abort “imperfect” children, throwing them away as if they were a cake that failed to rise, reasoning that we can always try again to “get it right”.  

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the ethical dilemma. It’s a practical question. Do we bring a life into this world that will not contribute to society as a whole? Do we want to use our resources to provide the assistance that this individual will likely need for the rest of his or her life?
Last night I volunteered at an event billed as a “prom” for individuals with special needs. There were over 160 “special guests.” Each one was paired with a volunteer ”buddy” for the evening whose job it was to watch over their partner and make sure they had a safe, fun experience. It had all the components you’d expect of a high school prom: teens (and adults) dressed in suits, ties, and prom dresses, a couple of photo stops, a DJ and a dance floor, snacks and drinks, and crowns and tiaras for the “kings and queens” of the prom – every special guest got one – with 1500 balloons dropped from the ceiling for the grand finale. I attended, anticipating tragedy and pathos and steeling myself to remain smiling, and found once I got there that it was impossible NOT to smile. The irrepressible joy emanating from every attendee had me laughing all night. They ate with both hands, they danced with abandon, they vogued for photos, they hugged everyone in sight, treating everyone in the room as if they were long-lost best friends they’d waited their whole lives to meet. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe that’s what individuals with Down Syndrome and others like them can contribute to society as a whole. There’s not enough joy in the world. There’s not enough love without them.

​February 2, 2018

A friend of mine (male) recently suggested that I should do a blog about why men should read romance novels, and that got me thinking.

Why should anyone read romance novels? For the most part, traditional heterosexual romance novels are highly predictable, usually something along the lines of:
1.       Boy meets girl
2.       Boy and girl are attracted to each other but for some reason they can’t/won’t be together.
3.       Despite this, they can’t stop thinking about each other and fall madly in love in a ridiculously short period of time.
4.       Optional sex scenes while all this is happening.
5.       Something happens to remove the obstacle and, presto, they live happily ever after.  
It’s a formulaic and highly unrealistic template, but some of us are addicted. What’s the appeal? Why is romance the largest category by far of fiction published on Amazon?
I’ve heard it argued that because women tend to be less visual than men, romance novels with hot sex scenes are just the female version of porn. That argument does have some merit, but it wouldn’t explain the popularity of less explicit romance novels. My personal opinion is that the readers who read heterosexual romance novels (and yes, they are predominantly women) are searching for fantasy interactions with men that they aren’t getting in real life. Yes, some of them are sexual interactions. How else would you explain the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey? (That’s a whole other blog right there. And no, I haven’t read it. I don’t want to read it, not because I’m a prude, but because I’m highly allergic to bad writing.) But what I’m mainly talking about are the loving gestures, manly chivalry, and unbelievable understanding of the female psyche that every male romantic interest in these books seems to have in spades. These authors are obviously very successful at bringing the fantasies of their readers to life. Otherwise, why would they sell so many books ?
So, why should you, if you are a man in a relationship with a woman, read romance novels? My response is what better way to discover what women really want in a relationship? The next time your wife or girlfriend reads a romance novel and enjoys it, ask to borrow it when she's finished with it and read it yourself. If some of what goes on in the book is stupid and unrealistic, at least the two of you can laugh about it. Ask her why she liked the book so much. Maybe it was the sex, maybe it was the fact that the hero seemed to listen when the heroine voiced her hopes and fears and knew just what to say in response without minimizing her concerns, or maybe she was excited by the way the hero took charge of the situation and protected the heroine from harm. Perhaps the part she most enjoyed was when the heroine took charge herself. Who knows what you might find out? Women love talking about that kind of stuff, guys, and romance novels are a lot cheaper than a therapist. 

​​​​January 20, 2018

​I’m back after the holiday hiatus with a blog about social media. Have you noticed how addicting it is? Have you ever decided to check Facebook or Twitter for a couple of minutes, blink, and suddenly realize it’s been an hour and you’re still obsessively checking to see if someone’s responded to your latest post? Turns out there’s a scientific reason for your inability to stop checking over and over again. It’s called operant conditioning. Psychologists in the past hundred years or so have done experiments on both animals and human beings proving that certain behaviors can be strengthened by rewards or punishments, and they’ve found that the strongest behavioral changes are caused by something called “intermittent reinforcement”, a situation in which rewards are given for certain behaviors, but at unpredictable intervals. For example, rats that are fed a pellet of food every time they press a lever will learn to press the lever to get food. They will press the lever a lot when they first learn what it does, but eventually they will only press the lever when they are hungry. On the other hand, if they’re fed a pellet of food when they press the lever only sometimes, the frequency with which they press the lever will not decrease. Since the rats have learned that pressing the lever doesn’t always result in food, but sometime it does, they’re kept in a constant state of insecurity and will keep pressing the lever even when they’re not hungry just in case it doesn’t work next time. In other words, rewards that are not a sure thing increase behaviors even more than rewards that are predictable. It’s the same response that makes gambling so very addicting.

So how does this apply to social media? It's simple. A response to one of your Facebook posts or your latest tweet is the “reward”. Oddly enough, it works whether the response is positive or negative. The key seems to be that you feel validated because someone noticed you. And since you can’t ever predict when or in what way someone will respond to one of your social media posts, these responses are classic examples of intermittent reinforcement. So, the next time you’re checking Facebook over and over again waiting for someone to “like” one of your posts, if you think of yourself as a rat pressing a lever looking for a reward, you’re not that far off. Are you addicted? Have you ever tried to disconnect from social media for a day? How about an entire weekend? Was it difficult? Some scientists believe that social media, smart phones, and the internet are actually changing the way humans learn and interact with each other. What do you think?

December 15, 2017

As a both a physician and a writer of fiction, my free time is pretty evenly divided between reading medical journals to stay updated with my day job and writing down the weirdness m
y imagination comes up with at odd hours. That leaves precious little time and/or brain space to keep up with the latest public cause celebre. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m offering for why I had no idea what “net neutrality” was until I looked it up today. I’ve been seeing the term bandied about on Facebook a lot since yesterday, when apparently net neutrality was “defeated” and everyone began to freak out.  
I did some research and found out that a law was passed during President Obama’s administration granting the FCC the power to regulate the prices that internet providers are allowed to charge for services and preventing them from charging more for faster or better service. It hadn’t been implemented yet, and yesterday (December 14th) it was repealed.  The law was supposedly intended to prevent internet service providers from starting to bundle and sell internet services the way the cable companies are doing with cable services. When I read this, my first emotion was dismay. Will I have to start purchasing “internet bundles” to maintain my access to Facebook and Twitter? Then I noticed that the same reaction seemed to be the ONLY reaction I was seeing on Facebook, I started to wonder why I wasn’t seeing ANYTHING about exactly why the law was defeated, and that got me curious. Somebody out there was in favor of repealing the law, otherwise why would the change have been enacted? Where was the opposing side in this debate? So, I did some digging.
Net neutrality is a concept that’s very appealing. The prevailing idea amongst the pro-net neutrality crowd seems to be that if the government (ie: the FCC) steps in and prevents the evil, greedy internet providers from charging more for better service, that means that we’ll all get better service at no charge, ie: free internet. And the “good guys” like Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix will be able to continue to give us content at little or no cost, and everything will stay just the way it is. Those who are pro-net neutrality are pro-government regulation of an industry that has to this point remained a free market system, regulation that in their view needs to be put in place to prevent internet providers from doing bad things they say they have no intention of doing and have not yet done (but COULD do if they wanted to.)
BUT the pro-“repeal of net neutrality” sources will tell you that major internet users like Netflix, Facebook and Twitter NEED faster broadband than the average joe to function properly. They already pay more for this premium broadband service, which provides income to the internet providers, which gives THEM the resources and incentive to upgrade and innovate. We ordinary mortals reap the benefits when our neighborhoods get fitted with tech which gives us faster service  too BECAUSE the internet providers are getting paid for their innovation by the big internet users (like Facebook and Twitter and Netflix), who are pro-net neutrality not because they’re the saints of the internet, but because they're for-profit companies, and it would greatly increase their profit margin if they didn't have to pay those higher costs for faster broadband and innovative technologies. The new law  (which was just repealed) would have made it illegal for the internet companies to charge them more than anyone else. The huge internet users want the internet companies to be forced by the FCC to provide their premium broadband service for the same cost as everyone else’s more ordinary service.  Unfortunately, new technology and innovation requires capital. No money means no progress. And if the largest users of the internet stop paying more for premium service, the internet service providers lose money, along with their incentive to expand and innovate, which means less service for everyone.
So, which side is right? What do you think? 

​December 8, 2017

​At my day job I speak frankly to my patients about sexual behavior for safer sex counseling purposes.  After all these years of talking to people about exactly what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with, I should by all rights have developed a liberal view of sexuality, but that’s not the case. Although I’m perfectly capable of being objective and nonjudgmental with other people, the combination of my southern Catholic upbringing and the tales of woe my patients frequently tell me when I have the “safer sex” discussion with them have made me quite conservative in my personal outlook about sex. Although I would never presume to tell anyone else when, how, or with whom they should be physically intimate, for me sex belongs within the confines of a committed lifelong monogamous relationship. Anything else, in my view, cheapens the value of it and turns it from a blessing into a health risk.
Although “clean” romance novels exist, I personally find them excruciatingly boring. On the other hand, many modern romance novels glorify the sexual act for its own sake and, in my opinion, put the cart before the horse. Although I’m fully aware that a large percentage of the population these days would disagree with me, being physically intimate with another person before committing to a relationship with them feels wrong to me. Does it make more sense from a strictly logical point of view to try the merchandise first before you’re stuck with it for a lifetime? Probably. But it’s certainly not romantic, in my view, to look at it that way.
In my opinion, well written sex scenes add an extra dimension to a story that might be dull without them (given the fact that most romance novels have predictable linear plotlines). The unresolved sexual tension that usually precedes such scenes keeps the reader’s interest.  When I write romance, I write for my own sensibilities, building the relationship between my characters so that when physical intimacy does eventually happen, it merely confirms the fictional emotional bond I’ve already created between them. I suppose you might call it the “sweet before heat” philosophy. Adding scifi elements and multiple sub-plots ups the ante and makes the story a lot more attention-grabbing—at least for this scifiromantic.  What do you think? What motivates you to keep turning the pages of the books you read?

​December 1, 2017

In keeping with my previously established “better late than never” philosophy, I have decided to use today’s blog to talk about National Novel Writing Month, better known to its participants as NaNoWriMo, a nation-wide group participation activity which takes place once a year in the United States during the month of November. Every year for 30 days straight thousands of people who enjoy telling stories put fingers to keyboards (or pen to paper) and attempt to write 50,000 words in one month. I say attempt because, although 50,000 words is a pretty short novel (about 166 pages at 300 words per page), it’s a LONG writing project to complete in one month, especially if you’ve got other things to do that can’t wait.  I have participated in NaNoWriMo for 5 years now and have yet to break 11,000 words, primarily because my brain shuts down after 12 hours at work (Fall is the busiest time of the year at a college health clinic), and I can’t function without sleep. So why, you might ask, do I participate in this event when I know it’s impossible for me to meet the writing goal?  Here’s why:
1.       I enjoy encouraging young writers.
Although there are a couple of people over 40 like me in our local Nano group, most of the participants are teens and young adults. I feel useful when I share my experiences with fellow writers who are just starting out, and spending time with younger writers refreshes my motivation to write.
2.       I enjoy socializing with other people who like to write.
Spending all day in a library conference room on a Saturday nibbling on sandwiches, drinking tea, and bouncing plot ideas off people who are genuinely interested encourages me as a writer and allows me to socialize. I would probably be able to get more words written sitting alone at home, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Writing is an activity done in isolation. NaNoWriMo is an exception to that.
3.       I believe in the NaNoWriMo philosophy.
The whole idea of the NaNoWriMo event is to encourage every person who has a story to tell to put that story in writing, regardless of their educational background or perceived writing “talent”. I agree with the premise that everyone is a potential writer, that writing is a skill which can be learned with sufficient practice, and that it’s never too late to start.
Nano ended yesterday for 2017, but I’m already looking forward to NaNoWriMo 2018. If you have a story to tell, why don’t you plan to join me?

November 24, 2017

​Happy Black Friday, y'all. I hope it you had a good one. Personally, I've never understood the appeal of it.  But then, I've always  hated shopping. I would love to be able to find everything I need online and have it delivered. Well, except for books. Books, I could shop for all day. 

​My love affair with books has been going on as long as I can remember. I have no recollection of a time when I didn't prefer the company of a book to virtually anything else. In fact, waiting to read my latest book until after I'd finished doing my homework, a decision I can remember forcing myself to make as early as 3rd grade, was my first real exercise in self control. Throughout my childhood I averaged up to 3 novels a week during school, 8 or more in summer. In high school I really didn't notice that I wasn't being invited to any of the parties because I was perfectly happy at home riding dragons on Pern, travelling with Thomas the Unbeliever, and giggling over awful puns on Xanth. I wasn't much interested in boys my own age, or girls for that matter. We didn't really have much in common. I preferred older people I could have conversations with. People who had read the books I had read. People like my school librarian and the adult members of our local science fiction club. A member of the club brought me with her one day to a Dungeons and Dragons game she attended weekly with a group of friends, and I became the youngest member of the group. We created new stories every Sunday, made up as we went along, and it was glorious. One of the group was young man six years older than I was who paid a flattering but respectful amount of attention to me and bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve as Superman, complete with that little curl in the middle of his forehead. We were good friends for 2 years (until I turned 18), at which point he asked me to a New Year's party, and the rest is history. It's been 37 years since that party, and I've been married to my own personal Superman for 34 of them. You could say that my love of books, particularly my love of literary science fiction, allowed me to find a real life lasting relationship. How's that for a scifiromance?

​November 17, 2017

​I should start by telling you that this week's blog contains spoilers for the newly released movie Justice League, which I just saw tonight. So if for some reason you've managed to avoid seeing the dozens of internet articles and Facebook posts about Henry Cavill being one of the primary actors in the movie, and are therefore completely unaware of what that says about a certain character from a previous movie being only mostly dead, stop reading now and come back after you've seen it.​ For the rest of you who are sticking around, I'm going to give you my honest opinion as a hardcore scifiromantic. 

​First, I should say that I love superhero movies. I love the larger than life aspects of them, all the lovely  muscles and superpowers and "saving the world" and stuff. I can even usually overlook (with some griping) the gobbledygook that passes for science in them, but there's one thing about them, and scifi movies in general, that never fails to disappoint me. ​I suppose it's because directors of superhero and scifi movies usually believe that their target audience expects explosions and bloody battles and would be bored by romance and meaningful conversations, but as much as I love the action, I always find these movies seriously lacking in emotional depth.  I want to see more interpersonal interaction. I want to see relationships develop. 

​There are exceptions, of course. I have found scifi, mostly in literary form, that does both scifi and romance well. Some authors that come to mind are Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey, Catherine Asaro, Julie Czerneda, Zenna Henderson, and Jacqueline Lichtenberg. (See a theme yet? Lots of estrogen there.) But for the most part it was my frustration with the superficiality of interpersonal relationships in scifi that got me started writing fiction. I want dessert with my entrée, and I want them both served at the same time. So I suppose I can say that it's movies like Justice League, in which the only even remotely romantic interaction was between Henry Cavill's wooden portrayal of the Man of Steel and his ever-patient tough gal Lois (in a very brief, nearly cameo appearance by Amy Adams), that spurred me to write scifi stories with more depth of feeling. I have hope that there is an audience for them, and that those of us who love scifi but are left unsatisfied by battles,  gadgets, and explosions will have our day.

November 10, 2017

Welcome to my first ever actual blog post.  

Well, not really. I did post an excerpt of my work back in 2014 on Wordpress.com, but it wasn't a rambling personal account like this one, and isn't that what a blog is supposed to be?  I'm guessing you're probably wondering why I'm just starting this blogging thing now (or maybe you're not, but I'm going to tell you anyway). The main reason is that my first novel just went out of print.

Yeah, I know. I'm doing it backwards. Blogging is supposed to draw readers who will sign up to get my posts and eventually hopefully buy my book...yada, yada, yada. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that anyone who is reading this might be interested in what I have to say, and I want to share my experience with fellow writers. Here's what I learned as a neophyte novelist under contract with a small press publisher these past 3 years, in no particular order of importance:

1.  Be patient

I initially submitted my first novel to a larger publisher who took manuscripts from authors without an agent, but then got impatient with the glacial speed with which they were considering my submission. I gave up after 18 months, and now regret that decision for numerous reasons. Not that I was badly treated by my smaller publisher - far from it.  I simply wish that I had stuck it out for a while longer.

2. Do your research

I chose my small press publisher based on a recommendation from a relative who'd published a book with them. I read her book, liked the way it was done, and signed the contract. I should have read more books from the same publisher. My publishing staff was likeable, friendly, and helpful, but not nearly as experienced or as skilled as I'd hoped they'd be at editing, formatting, and cover creation.

3. A pronounceable title is essential

​No matter how cool your title is, if no one knows how to pronounce it, you have a problem.

4. A cover that shows the reader what the book is about is even more essential

​A generic stock photo doesn't cut it, even if your publisher insists that it's all they ever use. 

​5. Make sure your manuscript is perfect when you submit it.

Don't assume your publisher will fix it. Once you sign that contract you may have no control over the quality of the editing you get.

6. Free your schedule

​Writing the book is the easy part. Effectively marketing a book takes hours and hours and HOURS of your time. If you're not ready for a part time job added to your already busy schedule, don't expect to sell many books.

Needless to say, the past three years have been a learning experience for me, and I don't regret a minute of it. It was a fun ride, and I hope to do it again at some point, hopefully with a larger publisher. I see many queries in my future.  

Confessions of a Scifiromantic