Write about what you know.  But it’s not what you think.

Porphyra_yezoensisWhen I first became serious about writing, I thought it wise to get advice, but pre-internet days, this was not an easy task.  I had attended adult education courses at NYU in creative writing and at the New School in NYC on publishing.  Added to that, I would spend time leaning against racks of books in the NY Library and branded bookstores (pre-amazon) reading up on writing and publishing. 
To really make things hard on myself, I had zero pedigree in writing—zero!    I was a geek scientist with a great imagination.  That’s it.
Whether attending a lecture or reading up on my own, the advice seemed rooted into this simple concept:
     “Write about what you know”
Seriously?  No mater how hard I tried, there was no way I was going to make seaweed or TCP/IP into a Sci-Fi. 
      “She stood before me, the silhouette of her supple figure entrancing.  It was there that I draped my Porphyra yezoensis (Nori) over the banister and waited for the packets of TCP/IP at my hip to be delivered.  Bully!  What was I to do?…”
As a Marine Biologist with a specialty in seaweed and later as a technologist in network engineering, that is what I knew about.
I also learned that the lectures and Instructors of the events I attended as well as the ‘How to be an author’, authors,  were as frustrated as I was.  So I shelved my ideas of writing for 30 years, trying now and then, but never a spark.
It was maddening.  Like looking at a beautiful painting or reading the most perfect, flowing prose of a favorite author and then trying to apply that same lucidity into my own work.  It wasn’t happening.  My characters and words fell as flat onto the surface of the paper they were written on.  I had these great stories in my head and wrote the treatments into a leather bound book, hoping one day I would figure it out.
That day came three years ago.  I had just taken a rental on the upper east side of Manhattan and my neighbor in apartment 12K came over in a panic with a computer problem.  Before I even knew her name, she told me she was to give a lecture at Sotheby’s on famous jewelry heists the next day, and while finalizing her digital thoughts,  the laptop blue-screened with all her notes, images, and videos on it.    As I worked my magic, she occupied her panic by asking me about myself.  I hinted at being a writer one day and told her of a storyline (Silversides) and she loved it.   
The laptop resuscitating, she said to me,
      “So just fucking write it!” 
You have to know, she is a tough NY broad and the thought of not doing it, scared me.  So I did.  My characters were just as faceless and flat as always, but I got around the speed bump by not naming my characters.  She and Her go a long way.  I wasn’t concentrating on style or how fluid it read. Honestly, I was more afraid of not doing it, knowing Diana would check back with me as promised.
Page after page, I had been putting off naming my protagonist, She, and I knew any day now, Diana, was going to be knocking on my door.  In my own panic, I typed out, Nori……
That light bulb moment was blinding.  Suddenly my character had a face and I was no longer writing, but having a conversation. I quickly named my core remaining characters after seaweeds: Cyan (antagonist) Phaeo (beautiful), Rhodes (Nori’s right hand man), Corilline, and Codi (my fauna and flora buddies)—all shortened, genus names of seaweeds.
With my hand placed upon my forehead for effect, I had been taking the advice to literally and the lecturers and authors who touted the same advice were either keeping the secret to themselves or passing that information along because that is what they were taught—never truly understanding the meaning behind it.
It is not so much you need to write about what you know—after all, how much do I know about alien planets or cultures, or even spaceflight for that matter. What I do know a lot about is seaweed, biology and network connections.  So giving my characters names of seaweed, made that connection for me.  I could see their facial expressions as we spoke.  I followed them on trails through alien terrain. I was on the journey with them, documenting their tale as told to me.
Don’t take the advice of writing about what you know so literally.  Make a connection to plot and characters with what you know in the form of names and places and the rest will fill in more easily.  Get the story down in the form of a straw man, then go back through it, filling in the legs and arms to give it life and where it can stand up on its own.  Then go through it again, dressing it in a crisp ironed shirt and overalls.  Give it color and then present it to the world. 

1.5 billion pixels – compliments of Hubble




Even as a writer of Sci-Fi, I am overwhelmed by the detail of this image (Andromeda).  I got so use to seeing a galaxy as an object, that I forgot just how much ‘star stuff’ it takes to make that galaxy.   But looking at this image has brought me so much closer to my current writing, as if I get to travel to where my story takes place.  Sweet.

Improve your writing with technology

IvonaOne of the best ways to measure your writing skill is to hear your own work read out loud.  Unfortunately, when we, as the writer, attempt to do this our writing sounds terrific—we’re bias.  You really need a third party and I found one—Amy. (http://www.ivona.com/)

I live in New York City and on my way to work one morning, I assisted a blind man onto the M79, which is a cross-town bus.  I sat next to him and asked where he was heading and offered my assistance.  He was on his way to the Apple Store on 5th Ave.  As a technologist, that got my attention.  I asked why?  It turned out he was having problems with his iPad and wanted to get there early before the crowds—this was around 6:20 AM, and now, he had my full attention.  I asked him what problems he was experiencing, what he uses his iPad for and how.  He told me the iPad has some great text-to-speech technology, but it was not working correctly.

A technology I thought would be cumbersome for someone blind was everything but that. He was quite tech savvy and the iPad was a window to the world, just like it was for myself.  After spending the morning with this gentleman,  I now think we, the seeing-prepared, are held to a disadvantage.   He was making full use of the inherent features of the iPad, much more so than myself, and here I was, a technologist. His iPad would announced what keys he was touching, alert him of incoming messages and read aloud his email, texting and web page content after a search. His eBooks were read aloud and the navigation of the streets in NY directed him to his destinations (You have arrived at your destination). He could hear documents sent to him as well as transcribe documents he sent. He used the on-board microphone and voice commands to navigate around the web. I accompanied him to the Apple Store that morning.  I needed to find out more about the technology.  During my ride with him, I am not sure which impressed me more: the technology or his ability to make it through the grid of NYC on his own.  It’s a challenge, for anyone.

How ironic.  It was a blind man who opened my eyes that morning.  When I returned home that evening, I explored the technology of my Samsung Galaxy Pro 10.1 tablet as well as my S3 smartphone.  I forced myself to use the voice-commands to launch applications, set tickler reminders, navigate web sites and use the voice-to-text for crafting emails, text messages.   Since that time, I have upgraded both my phone and tablet to the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Pro Tablet 12.2 (respectively).  I use GoogleNow (creepy good). After that day, I realized that having sight makes one blind to some of this technology.  Our eyes have actually dumbed us down a bit.

Now familiar with a lot of the text-to-voice and voice-to-text capabilities, I was still missing was a true text-to-speech engine (outside of Google’s built-in voice navigation). Searching the web and Google Play for other people’s experiences, I settled on Ivona for my text-to-speech engine.  This is not to say that Ivona is the best engine out there, but it is free, so that’s a good start.  With Ivona, you need to add in a persona—the voice interface.  I chose “Amy.  Her sultry, sophisticated British accent is perfect since the protagonist in the Sci-Fi I am working on (Silversides) is female.

Unfortunately, Ivona does not allow one to open a document within its application directly, at least in the free application.  The only way is to cut and paste the text from my document into the Ivona applet.  That works great, but you can get lost quickly cutting and pasting text back and forth between your document and the Ivona applet. In addition, the Ivona applet does not like more than about two paragraphs at a time or it will overload the capability and do nothing.

To streamline this aspect, I used an additional application.  I looked at the list of compatible apps, recommended by Ivona, and selected Moon + reader Pro ($2.49).  I looked at the other free apps, read the reviews, but Moon +reader pro seemed to be the app of choice.  I made the right decision because Moon + reader Pro was able to identify both my DropBox and Google Drive folders, making adding documents to Moon + reader Pro’s bookshelf easy.

NOTE:  There is one drawback and that is Moon + reader Pro will not recognize .doc or .docx (WORD) format.  You first need to save your document into at least PDF format for Moon + reader to open into its built-in reader. This is easily accomplished with DropBox’s or Google Docs to convert doc or docx formatted files on the fly. You can open a .doc or .docx file through Moon + reader, but it will launch your default .docx application (in my case, Documents2Go), rendering the text-2-voice aspect out of the picture.

So I now use a combination of both practices.  When editing, I will cut and paste a paragraph from my Document2Go or Google Drive doc file directly into Ivona and play it back.  This allows me to edit until I perfect the read—then I paste it back into my Documents2Go editor and save it back to .docx.

NOTE:  Do not cut and paste too much into Ivona.  I found a paragraph is good.  There are two main drawbacks to loading text directly into Ivona: 1) Too much text takes time to process before it reads it back to you; 2) Every time you stop to edit, then resume, it jumps back to the beginning.

But if I want to hear what I have edited to date, I save to .pdf format, load it onto my Moon +reader Pro bookshelf and let Amy read the most spectacular novel ever written. Priceless.

As a product, I am impressed with the plethora of features of Moon + Pro.  I even downloaded a restaurant menu (PDF) and Amy read everything out loud to me, including the wine list—she’s not much of a drinker and she butchered the French wine names….   I think there is a way to correct pronunciation, but I have not explored that yet.

What you need to know about Moon + reader Pro on Android

The application is packed with features, but getting to those features without reading takes a bit of trial and error, with emphasis on thee error. As an example, I somehow dimed my screen setting within Moon + reader to where I could not see the screen.  I thought it was my tablet settings, but it only occurred when I opened a document within the Moon + reader.  I had to go on-line and learn that if you touch the middle of the document, it brings up the navigation bar.  I then had to go into a dark closet so I could see the screen.  Finding the setting to brighten the screen was buried, but I found the correction by swiping my finger up or down on the left side of the screen: brighten (up) dim (down).  You can also speed up or slow down the speech using finger touch sequences—you will want to learn them right at the start.

Adding files to your bookshelf and favorites is the next thing.  I suggest you do not conduct a search—way too many unrelated documents get loaded and you can only delete one document at a time.

Now that I have taken the time to understand the features of these two apps and how they work in concert with each other, I feel like I have gained sight.  It has helped me in my writing, significantly.  To hear your written words through the voice of someone else is your true editor.  Amy never criticizes my writing, only improves it.

I am using the free beta of Amy.  I think when the beta program ends, I can switch to another persona or outright buy one, but the price is steep ($125 – $250).  I have to admit, I fell in love with Jennifer, but can’t afford her.. just yet….

My writing platform (all links active below)


NOTES: I have written and published my novella, November Seed (87 pages), and the first draft of Silversides , my Work In Progress (489 pages), entirely on a Samsung Galaxy tab 10.1 and more recently upgraded to a Galaxy Pro Tab 12.2, using android 4.4.4. For compiling my work into .mobi and .ePUB, I use Scrivener’s on an iMac. All eBook cover art was taken on a Galaxy S3 & S5 Android smartphone and using either the onboard photo editing or SnapSeed app for android for finalizing.