Monday, March 30, 2015


Commander Shepard and me at Aggiecon 46
I spent the past weekend at Aggiecon, a three-day event in College Station, Texas filled with sci-fi, fantasy, comics, art, cosplay, and general awesomeness.

I've been to Aggiecon in the past as a guest of Martin Whitmore, who runs a booth there for his company Ideaschema. In previous years I just helped out at the booth and occasionally wandered around the dealers' room, checking out what other vendors had for sale.

But this! I stopped and chatted with so many vendors and had the most amazing conversations. Aggiecon is well known for being very serious about its sci-fi and fantasy, hosting panels like "Rules Based Magic vs. Science Fantasy" and "Young Adults in Speculative Fiction." It thus attracts lots of genre authors, and this year was certainly no exception.

I talked with so many talented authors, like Christopher Dunbar (Morrigan's Brood series), Kathryn Friesen (the Power of Legends series, can you believe she's only fifteen?), Kimberly Hix Trant (#hashtagged), and Kathleen White (Lost and Found). And I had the most wonderful conversation with Monique Happy, owner of Winlock Press. Monique and I discussed the future of publishing and how self-publishing is changing the way books are made.

The cosplay this year was truly stellar, and I was thrilled to run into Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect game series (by far my favorite video game). The photo on this page is me with the Commander!

I was also able to attend more panels this year, which was really wonderful. As I mentioned previously, Aggiecon is superb for getting very deep into the nitty-gritty of great storytelling, and this year's panels were no exception. I especially enjoyed "Rules Based Magic vs. Science Fantasy," mentioned above. Not that all panels were serious: "Cosplay Bachelor/Bachelorette" was tremendous fun (and the Shaggy/Elsa matchup inspired Marty's creative spirit!).

Aggiecon this year really felt like my community, like a place where I belong. I had such a blast, and I can't wait to go back next year!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Following my Ethical Compass

Last week I turned down a job. I feel certain that act will stand out in my memory for a long, long time.

Let me explain. I am still getting my business running. I don't yet have enough work to fill my time, so I'm seeking clients fairly aggressively. Because income has been thin the past couple of months, every dollar a client pays me really counts.

So turning down work is a big, bold step. Why would I do that?

I had learned of the job via Craigslist, where the company posted an ad without a lot of details about the company itself. I met the qualifications so I emailed my résumé to the contact listed in the ad. I got a response within a few days asking for a writing sample, which I provided. At that time, I learned the company name and began some investigation into them.

A it turns out, the company engages in a practice I find unethical. What they do falls in a legal gray area, and some people have sound reasons for supporting the type of work they provide. I, however, feel their service is harmful. Their mission clashes with my personal ethics.

I spoke on the phone briefly with the man I had been in email contact with, and he was very excited to have me join their team. He had work for me right away, and the pay would not have been bad.

It was a real challenge to decline to take that work. It wouldn't have filled the gaps in my time completely, but it would have gone a long way toward doing so.

But I know that eventually I will have enough work to fill my time and enough income to pay my bills. And then I will look back on this decision and be proud of myself.

I began freelancing so I could have the professional freedom to take only projects I felt had merit. I have always disliked doing work someone else deemed important, especially when the product clashed with my sense of ethics. If I sell out when times are tough, I've gained nothing by freelancing except a great deal of stress.

An ethical compass is useless if it points toward money. I am glad mine points true, even if it's difficult right now. I am setting myself up for a better road ahead by doing the right thing even when it's the hard thing.

I know this decision was the right one, and I know I will always feel good about having made it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Science Says

Something I've seen more and more in the age of social media are phrases like "Science Says..." and "According to Science...." Headlines like these can include everything from how much coffee you should drink to why you should believe in God to which Pokemon can kill you. If it's not obvious yet, these phrases are complete bunk, and are used to sensationalize and legitimize clickbait, scams, and reactionary drivel.

Now that I'm working in science communication, this sort of misleading hyperbole is even more bothersome. Take it from me, as a scientist and a writer: science never says anything. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to make you fall for something.

Science is a way of investigating the world. It's an action, not an entity. You don't have to have a degree, a lab, or even an education to conduct science. You need only an idea and a way of testing it. Anytime you answer a question by trying different things, you're performing science. Have you ever modified a recipe? That was science. Taught yourself a new bike trick? Also science. Tried out a few different shampoos until you found the right one for you? Yup, science.

It can be tempting to think of Science as an institution, an enormous, inaccessible compound filled with old men in white lab coats dictating to the rest of the world the way everyone should behave. In reality, professional scientists are just people, as flawed as any other people. Some are true geniuses in pursuit of the advancement of knowledge, like Ellen Stofan and Fabiola Gianotti. Some are charlatans advancing their own gain, like Andrew Wakefield. Most are somewhere in between—normal people working hard to gain some knowledge for the world while paying their mortgages and saving for retirement.

What they are not is a unified body. There is no one institution called Science conducting research into the appeal of Indian food and the ideal length of eyelashes. There are, however, hundreds, maybe thousands, of public and private research institutions, each with their own goals and ideals. There are more journals than anyone can keep track of, and pay-for-publication journals are becoming a serious area of concern for those in research.

What does this mean for you?

First, never believe any claim that "science says" something. It doesn't. Science is an activity, not an entity. That would be like saying "sports says" or "gardening says" something. Scientists may say something, but they don't necessarily speak for the entire field, just as one athlete doesn't speak for all of sports.

Second, recognize that anything a scientist says (or anyone else, for that matter) must have the weight of expertise behind it in order for it to be meaningful. It can be tremendously difficult to suss meaningful credentials from shady ones. Some questions can help you determine whether a journal is credible, and you can also check neutral third-party recommendations.

Finally, keep in mind that anything titled "Science Says" or "According to Science" is a journalist's (or worse, a blogger's) interpretation of someone else's research. Reporters with greater integrity use titles like "Researchers Find" or, even better "According to NASA" or the name of another institution. If you want to know the truth, go to the source. Read the paper cited in the article. It can be tough to understand academic papers, but it's even tougher to figure out who to trust to do your understanding for you.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Dreams Come True

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Not when I grew up, but right then. I wrote constantly. I had a blue binder filled with lined, 3-hole-punched paper on which I outlined my stories and wrote them. Longhand. In cursive.

I finished my first novel when I was eleven. The story was about a young girl surviving the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. It wasn't very long—about 15,000 words, if I have to guess. It also wasn't very good. I cringe now to even think of it. But it was a rather big achievement for me.

As I got older, my dreams of being a published author began to fade. I became interested instead in biochemistry and genetics. Influenced largely by Dana Scully and Clarice Starling, I embarked on a career in biotechnology, which I pursued doggedly for well over a decade.

Yet I kept writing. I journaled about my life and thoughts. I made up myriad stories and wrote them down. I enjoyed brief fame as a live romance writer, creating stories in chat rooms with real-time feedback. I blogged about issues I felt were important. I even started another novel or six.

I decided, finally, to switch careers and enter the literary world. And yet, I shied away from writing. I became an editor, focused on making other people's writing shine. I was never confident in my own voice. The words that came out were never quite right, never exactly what I had meant to say or how I had meant to say it. Honestly, I still feel this way, about everything I publish, including this blog.

So I was quite surprised to be offered a job as a writer. It was a small contract position, writing short pieces for educational purposes. Yet it was writing, and someone was paying me to do it.

The thought settled on me when I sent in my first piece: I am a professional writer. Wow!

It was as if my eleven-year-old self had skipped up to me and given me a big hug. My current self is uncertain, unconfident, and downright confused as to why anyone would pay me to put words on paper. But that girl who wrote stories in a blue binder between classes? She's absolutely thrilled. She's always known we'd end up here. She knows we'll do even greater things.

That girl was asked, in sixth grade, to write a goal on a star to be hung in her classroom. She wrote, "Get a book published." Well, young Elizabeth, we're well on our way. Good job!