Conversation Corner with James Pailly, Sci-Fi Writer and Science Blogger Extraordinaire

I’m thrilled to have James Pailly as a guest today on Doorway Between Worlds. I’m a devoted follower of James’s blog Planet Pailly, where he shares knowledge about science in a way that never fails to make me laugh while I learn. James also writes science fiction, and I thought he might have some interesting ideas to share about how to communicate sciency concepts to readers. I was right! Here is our conversation about high school fears, molecular personalities, and the art of bringing science into science fiction.

On your blog Mission Statement page (I love that title, by the way – very science fiction!), you talk about how you’re working on improving your scientific knowledge, so you can grapple with its complexities in your writing. What prompted you to share that research on science with others through your blog?

First off, thanks for inviting me!  I could never resist crossing a doorway between worlds.

I guess I started my blog because of a deep-rooted sense of insecurity.  As a kid, I loved Star Trek and Star Wars, but I hated science class.  Especially chemistry.  Chemistry and I are old, bitter adversaries.  So I grew up really wanting to write science fiction and knowing next to nothing about actual, factual science.

Most of my writing instructors reassured me that it didn’t matter.  Good storytelling comes first; just make up the sciency stuff.  But I couldn’t shake the fact that when it came to physics and astronomy and biology, I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.  I felt embarrassed by my ignorance, and that stopped me from writing anything at all.

I believe the best way to overcome that kind of insecurity is to face it directly.  So in a moment of either extreme courage or extreme foolishness, I decided to teach myself science.  In order to ensure that I’d stick to it for more than a weekend, I also decided to blog about my research.  I figured regular blogging would keep me from getting lazy and that readers would hold me accountable if I made mistakes.

For the most part, it’s worked.  There’s still loads of science for me to learn, but I don’t feel so insecure about my ignorance.

That’s fantastic. I’m ignorant in a lot of areas of science, too, and I love learning about all the different things you talk about through your blog. How did you end up developing the ideas for your various series?

I’ve had multiple special series come and go on my blog.  Sciency Words is by far the longest running.  The original idea was that I’d write brief, dictionary-style definitions of important scientific terms.  Now Sciency Words posts are much longer and usually include what I describe as “highly technical scientific diagrams.”  Like this one:

Earth: Ahh!!! What are all these things crawling on me? Moon: I think some of them got on me too.

Image courtesy of James Pailly

The other currently active series is called Molecular Mondays.  Every other Monday, I focus specifically on that subject I dreaded most in school: chemistry.  This is another case of me directly facing my insecurities.  I’ve tried to talk myself into canceling this series several times now, but the feedback I’ve gotten has really surprised me.  Apparently I’m not the only one who struggled in chemistry class, and I guess people like to see that I’m not giving up on something just because it’s hard.

Yes! I am one of those who struggled with chemistry. I think part of the issue was that it wasn’t very relatable for me (as opposed to biology, which I did quite well in) – it felt abstract and boring. But your posts on chemistry are inspiring me to learn more. And your “highly technical scientific diagrams” are a big help in making it fun. Do you have a background in art? What do you see as the role of art in communication?

You know, the funny thing about studying art is that when you really get into it, when you’re learning to mix pigments and get them to adhere to a surface, you’re actually doing chemistry.  With figure studies, you’re doing anatomy and biology.  When you’re working with light and shadow, you’re starting to do physics.

I think a lot of science can feel abstract and boring, as you said.  Chemistry is especially guilty of this.  But once you get to know atoms and molecules, you find that they sort of have their own distinct personalities.  Carbon makes friends with everybody.  Helium just wants to be left alone.  Oxygen’s super greedy for everyone else’s electrons, and most metals are sort of blasé about letting their own electrons go.

Oxygen: Gimme, gimme, gimme!Oh, these old things? Take them, if you want.
Images courtesy of James Pailly

That’s not really a scientific way of thinking.  It’s sort of my artistic interpretation.  I take a bit of creative license on my blog, but I think a little creative license can help make science feel less abstract and more familiar.

Applying character development to scientific concepts is brilliant. (I can imagine science teachers taking fiction writing classes to broaden their communication skills.)

Actually, one of my favorite teachers — my high school physics teacher — wrote two episodes of Star Trek, one for The Next Generation and another for Voyager.  Now there was a man who knew how to turn science into good storytelling!

That is so cool! I wish my high school physics teacher had been a sci-fi writer. Although he had his own talents – he was a born comedian and a talented dancer. (He used to entertain us with some Russian dances if we asked nicely.) 🙂

I love that whole idea of cross-pollination between different knowledge areas. I’m curious – have you found that learning more about science has helped you with your original goal of improving your science fiction writing?

I have two science fiction projects that I’m actively working on.  The first is called Tomorrow News Network.  It’s a short story series about a journalist who travels through time, covering the biggest news stories in the galaxy before they happen.

I started writing T.N.N. shortly after I started blogging.  The T.N.N. universe is filled with fairly standard Sci-Fi tropes: wacky time machines, emotionless cyborgs, sprawling space empires, etc.  From the beginning, I’ve tried to fit my research in wherever I can, but T.N.N. is still what some would label “soft-core” science fiction.

Tomorrow News Network

Image courtesy of James Pailly

My other project is still in the world building stage, and I’m sort of approaching it in the opposite way to how I approached Tomorrow News Network.  This time, I’m starting with my research — specifically my research on planetary science, orbital mechanics, and chemistry (of course) — and I’m fitting in traditional Sci-Fi tropes wherever I can.

The result is a universe that feels much more grounded in reality.  At least, I hope so.  Also, with all the omnipresent hazards of space travel hanging over my main characters, I think this is a universe that will feel a whole lot more dangerous.

I’m so glad it’s been a worthwhile endeavour for you. I can’t wait to see the results! Before we wrap up our conversation, I was wondering — do you have any recommended resources for those who are interested in writing in the sci-fi genre?

A lot of science fiction writers seem to skip the research part of their work.  I’m not saying you have to go research-crazy like I do, but you can find a lot of cool story ideas buried in scientific literature.  Real life science is often weirder and more wonderful than anything you could possibly imagine.

So I’m going to repeat a piece of advice from Isaac Asimov (at least, I think it’s from Asimov).  He told new science fiction writers to get a subscription to Scientific American.  They’re one of the best at making science accessible without oversimplification.

Of course, the world has changed a bit since Asimov’s time, and now you can find quality science journalism all over the Internet for free.  You’ve got websites like Live Science, Universe Today, and Space.com (although these websites are sometimes guilty of oversimplification). Magazines like Popular Science and Scientific American post a lot of their articles online too.

And if you feel like diving into the more technical stuff, check out Google Scholar.  It’s Google for academic papers (as opposed to regular Google, which searches the entire Internet).  Actually, Google Scholar is an amazing resource no matter what subject you’re trying to research, and I’m surprised by how few people seem to know it’s there.

Thanks, James! I used to love reading Scientific American, and I need to get back to it.

Finally, just for fun, I have to ask: Which do you like better? Star Wars or Star Trek? (Or something else? I’m a Babylon 5 person myself.)

Oh jeez, you’re going to get me in trouble.  Okay, I’d normally pick Star Trek, but… the trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just came out.  I’m pretty excited about Star Wars right now.

I think we all are! Thanks so much for being such a great guest, James, and sharing your thoughts with my readers. You’re welcome back any time!

***

Do you have a question for James, or a comment on our interview? Please leave your thoughts below – we’d love to continue the conversation with you!

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When Writing Turns to the Dark Side: My New Year’s Resolution

There is no such thing as bad writing.

There is no such thing as bad writing.

I’ve decided this is my mantra for the New Year. And I hope you will join in with me.

I can hear what you’re thinking…what about that paragraph I wrote with all those horrible mistakes? Or the slogan I read the other day with the misplaced apostrophe? Or that sentence that violates everything my elementary school English teacher held dear? I want to pull out my hair, it’s so terrible!

It’s time to channel Obi-Wan Kenobi. Look at yourself in the mirror, wave your hand in the air, and tell your inner critic:

There is no such thing as bad writing. This just isn’t the writing you’re looking for.

jedimindcontrol

If Obi-Wan can do it, so can you.

Encountering the Empire

I went through school at a time when learning grammar was not fashionable. I was lucky to have grasped the general concept of a noun or a verb. I learned most of my grammar through reading—what I think of as “practical” grammar. And I guess I mastered it sufficiently, because I went on to pursue a degree in English.

I remember a day when one of my professors returned an essay to me. There was a note scrawled in pencil beside one of my carefully crafted sentences: “split infinitive.”

Split what now?

It sounded vaguely Einsteinian, like the theory of relativity. This was supposed to be an English class!

So I dutifully looked it up. And discovered that one of my favourite phrases from Star Trek, “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” was grammatically incorrect.

This was shocking to me. How could something so poetic be wrong?

According to certain English language authorities, the infinitive form of a verb (“to go”) can’t be divided up by another word, such as an adverb (“boldly”). This no-no is called a split infinitive.

Apparently those Star Trek writers should have said, “To go boldly where no one has gone before.”

Ick.

Over time, I encountered more of these kinds of rules. “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Never start a sentence with a conjunction.” It was enough to make my head spin. I wondered if I knew how to write after all.

My confidence slid further when discussing the act of writing with other English students. I encountered people who were downright nasty about writing that did not follow “the rules.” After all, if Strunk & White said we should do it a certain way, then that’s the way it was. And if you didn’t know this, then you were horribly ignorant and should be stopped.

Since I am a fan of all things science fiction, this attitude inevitably reminded me of the evil Empire from Star Wars. The leaders of the Empire believed all planets should be ruled according to their dictates. Anyone who objected had to be punished.

I was left with no choice but to join the Rebel Alliance.

Frozen in Carbonite

To obtain some ammunition in the war on confusing grammar rules, I researched the split infinitive. How had this rule come about? Had it been around since the beginning of modern English—a long time ago (in a galaxy not so far away)?

Nope.

Writers have been splitting infinitives for a long time. There’s evidence that this has been going on as a normal practice since at least the thirteenth century. [1]

The attack on split infinitives began in the 1800s, when scholars attempted to standardize grammar. Up until that point, English speakers were wandering around linguistically like a bunch of rogue Han Solos. They developed the language based on the needs of the day. Then along came a select few intellectuals who attempted to freeze our language in carbonite. They thought English should be more dignified and structured, like Latin. Never mind that Latin was a dead language.

Han-Solo-Carbonite

Someone please rescue me! I don’t want to speak Latin!

The first grammar book to state a rule against split infinitives was A Plea for the Queen’s English, published in 1863 by Dean Henry Alford. Alford objected to split infinitives as follows:

“A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers […] there seems to be no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.” [2]

If it was “entirely unknown” to use split infinitives, when why would the correspondent be writing about it? In reality, people used split infinitives all the time. So what was going on here?

Some historians believe that the standardization of grammar was an attempt to maintain distinctions between social classes. The elite established rules based on their ideas of what “good English” should be—ideas that often ignored common usage.

A concern with status and language is reflected in the other main source for the split infinitive rule. “P” sent this anonymous letter to the editor of the New England Magazine in 1834:

“The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mood from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons […] This fault is not often found in print, except in newspapers where the editors have not had the advantage of a good education.” [3]

Ouch! This doesn’t sound like someone I would like to have dinner with.

What did I learn from my investigation? That English teachers believe split infinitives are incorrect because a handful of people in the 1800s didn’t like them. People like “P” felt that split infinitives were not “good English.”

Luckily, we’re more enlightened these days. We don’t make fun of people for failing to understand an arbitrary set of writing rules. We don’t call them uneducated or ignorant. Right?

Wrong.

Time to boldly rescue Han from Jabba’s Palace and get him back into action. He needs to help those “primitive” Ewoks fight off the Imperial stormtroopers.

Even Darth Vader Wasn’t All Bad

It’s not only the split infinitive “rule” that is questionable. A lot of writing concerns commonly presented as rules are more like myths. Just ask Grammar Girl. This can make the writing process confusing. How do you know if something you’ve written is good or bad? Where should you turn?

If you are a staunch prescriptivist, then you turn to resources that describe “normal” usage and follow whatever is considered to be “proper” or “correct.” You attempt to follow a single standard.

If you are a die-hard descriptivist, then you look at how people use language in the real world over time and follow whatever they are doing. You accept that different communities have different approaches to language and that there is no single standard for “good English.”

Most of us are somewhere in the middle. I may like split infinitives, but I cringe whenever I read a billboard with a misplaced apostrophe. I sometimes start a sentence with “and” or “but,” but I have difficulty with the word “ain’t,” even though I know it is acceptable in many contexts.

I remember feeling uncertain when others pointed out my ignorance of writing standards. I have looked at my writing and seen nothing but flaws. It’s a terrible feeling. And yet I have complained about the “bad writing” I’ve encountered in newspapers and mail flyers. Shame on me.

So here is my New Year’s resolution:

I need to remember that writing is an act of courage that should always be celebrated. All writing is on its way to becoming. The path is messy and hard. Writers feel like they’re confronting Darth Vader in a desperate attempt to win the day. We should always support their fight.

The act of criticism is like using the Force – it is neither good nor bad. We can be like the Sith, and act out of anger, fear, and hate. Or we can be Jedi, and remember compassion.

Life isn’t black and white. Luke insisted that there was good in Darth Vader—that the fearsome dark warrior could not be entirely bad. And in the end, Luke was right.

Darth Vader

It was a difficult decision, but he made the right choice…

As you struggle through your writing, or read someone else’s difficult attempt to communicate with the world, please remember:

There is no such thing as bad writing.

Let us be kind to one another. And may the Force be with us.

***

Do you feel like you are more of a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? How do you keep things positive when dealing with difficulties in writing? How do you handle negative criticism of your work?

[1] R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Revised Third Edition (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1998), 736-737.

[2] Wallace Rice, “The Split Infinitive,” The English Journal 26.3 (March 1937): 238-240.

[3] Moisés D. Perales-Escudero, “To Split or Not to Split: The Split Infinitive Past and Present,” Journal of English Linguistics 39.4 (2011): 318.

First image from Star Wars; other images from Return of the Jedi

Seek Out Your Writing Intention…and Engage!

Have you ever read through to the end of a book and still couldn’t figure out what it was about?

Chances are you probably gave up long before that happened.

When assessing any kind of manuscript, the first thing that an editor looks for is the author’s intention. What is the author trying to accomplish with this text? It’s a simple question, but it can be a challenging one to answer.

As an editor, I have found myself lost in the deep space of a manuscript with no apparent way home. I’ve completed first reads on manuscripts that were trying to pack everything into 250 pages. I understand the writer’s need to include all of their favourite shiny bits. But this makes the editor’s job more difficult. Before I can provide any meaningful advice on what to change, move, remove, or add, I need to understand the intent of the work.

While reading through a chaotic manuscript, I was reminded of the classic Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok.” In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise are trying to establish relations with the Tamarians, who communicate using metaphors. One of the Tamarians, Dathon, tosses a dagger to Captain Picard while saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.” Picard interprets this as a request for the two of them to duel, and refuses. Dathon was actually referring to a story of two warriors who met and became friends by fighting a beast together on the island of Tenagra. He wanted to forge a relationship with the Federation by fighting an enemy together. Picard had completely misunderstood Dathon’s intention.

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together...

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together…

An author’s intention can be as mysterious to an editor (or to a reader) as a Tamarian metaphor. Please don’t force your reader into a tragic experience. You need to get to the heart of your story and find the core that your audience can recognize and engage with. To help you on this journey, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about various elements of intention. Just think of yourself as the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, where you need to find out your mission before the story can begin.

Overall Purpose

A good starting point for defining intention is to identify your overall purpose in writing the work. There are four main reasons for writing: to inform, to instruct, to entertain, or to persuade. You need to think about your primary purpose. There may be a secondary one, but your primary one helps you determine the best structure and appropriate content for your work.

Most fiction stories (like those on Star Trek) are there primarily to entertain the audience. But they can also serve as moral instruction, or as a method of persuading people to accept a point of view. The trick is to make sure your secondary purpose does not overwhelm the first.

Audience

Who is your ideal reader for the book? What experience are you trying to provide for that reader? You need to construct your work according to your target audience’s expectations so they can understand your intention. Thinking about the age, gender, interests, reading habits, and knowledge of your readers will help you refine your approach.

From a practical perspective, the broader your work’s appeal, the more likely you are to have success in selling your manuscript. So think about your secondary readers as well as your ideal ones. Star Trek has had multi-generational success because it appeals to a large audience (and not just to sci-fi geeks like me).

Logline

A logline is the one-liner description of your work. Blake Snyder discusses how to create a marketable logline in his excellent book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He stresses the need to be able to answer the question “What is it?” in one line. According to Snyder, a good logline is emotionally compelling, creates an intriguing mental picture, and attracts the target audience.

Think about the logline for your work. It’s difficult, I know. But if you can’t explain your story in one line, you may need to look at all the threads and think about how to focus your intent.

Here’s an example of a logline from the Star Trek universe to help get you started:

War breaks out across the stars as the Klingon and Romulan Empires fight for supremacy… with the Enterprise caught in the middle.

(Can you imagine having to write a logline for every single episode of the television show? The mind boggles.)

Personal Intent

I’ve saved the most important piece for last. There was a reason why you chose to spend hours of your life writing or typing rather than surfing the internet or chilling out on the couch. Why did you write? Was your intent to write a famous story that would sell millions of copies? Did you want to tell everyone about a cause that matters to you? Or did you simply want to put your thoughts on the page, and say you have written a book?

Everyone’s intention in writing is ultimately a personal one. Knowing this will help you determine your direction. Maybe you don’t care about marketability, and only want help in writing clear prose. Maybe you want to make sure that your theme is coming across to a wide audience. Know what you want, and tell your editor. Then you’ll be able to collaborate together and create a work that both you and your readers will love.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, stated that “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

Even the fictional crew of the Starship Enterprise had a clear intention: “To explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So what’s your intention? Seek it out, and you’ll be ready to engage.

***

How do you deal with intention? Do you find you have a clear idea of what you would like to accomplish before you begin, or do you figure it out as you write? What helps you to focus your writing?

DBW Review: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Welcome to my first DBW Review! In this series, I will share some of the resources that have helped me develop my communication skills.

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better WritingI’ve talked about Grammar Girl in some of my previous posts. Her real name is Mignon Fogarty, and she started out producing short podcasts to help people understand language rules. She has a website called Quick and Dirty Tips, where she posts her podcasts as articles. Her site is one of my go-to sources for grammar information, and so I decided to pick up a book she wrote called Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

What I Liked

Fogarty’s writing style is consistent with her podcast voice: friendly, fun, and knowledgeable. She shares her tips on various grammar and writing challenges in an approachable way and never talks down to her audience.

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. They’re pros, like stuntmen. When Aardvark, Squiggly, and Grammar Girl are feeling overworked, they call in a pronoun. Because pronouns don’t get the same recognition as the big stars, they’re a little temperamental. It’s their way of getting even. (139)

She includes a broad range of topics in her book, from common grammar and usage issues to advice on writing style. My favourite section is called “Punch Up Your Punctuation,” where she goes through all of the essential elements of punctuation in detail. (In keeping with Grammar Girl style, the sections are named things like “Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon” and “The Question Mark: Huh?”)

Fogarty uses a lot of great examples to illustrate her tips. Two cartoon characters called Aardvark and Squiggly entertain us with their antics while helping us learn. There is also a fantastic appendix called “Quick and Dirty Grammar at a Glance,” which summarizes the most important tips in five pages. (The book has other useful appendices as well, like lists of irregular verbs and subordinating conjunctions.)

What Could Be Better

I attempted to read this book from front to back, and got overwhelmed at the beginning with the large first chapter on usage (called “Dirty Words”). This chapter includes many small sections on word confusions like your vs. you’re and affect vs. effect. The later chapters on topics like capitalization and pronouns are more coherently presented and can be read straight through. I think the usage section is useful to consult when you need it, but it’s not something you are going to want to read like a chapter book.

The book is designed to cover many topics quickly, at a level that works for most audiences. One thing I missed was the in-depth background information that Grammar Girl provides in her podcasts. If you’re looking for a detailed explanation of why a certain rule exists, you won’t find it here. For that level of information, I would encourage you to go to her website. (She is also on Twitter as GrammarGirl.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

Since this is Doorway Between Worlds, after all, I kept an eye out for any sci-fi or fantasy fun. Fogarty tells us on page 57 that she is a Star Trek fan. (She uses this show in some of her examples.) For those of you who may be wondering: her favourite series is Star Trek: The Next Generation, followed by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Verdict

Grammar Girl was one of my big inspirations for starting my own blog, and I’m happy to see that her focus on fun in education is alive and well in this book. Whether you are a novice at grammar or an experienced writer who is struggling with a specific usage issue, this book has something for you. It’s a great summary resource of writing tips.

***

Disclosure: I am not being compensated in any way for this review. Just in case you were wondering. 🙂

DBW Reviews is a new post series, and I welcome your feedback on whether this review was helpful for you. Please feel free to comment below. And if you have other great writing or grammar resources you’d like to share, please do!

Would Your Captain Be Proud?

My favourite scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is known as “Captain’s Orders.” I’m not going into all the details here, because I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it. In this scene, Captain America tells a group of people a difficult truth that goes against what they believe. He then asks them to take courageous action based on that truth. And they do it. Why? Because the Cap asked them to.

If I had seen this in any other movie with any other character, I would have rolled my eyes. In today’s environment, where we have lost faith in so many of our leaders, who would act based on one person’s word? But it works. Because this is Captain America as played by the talented Chris Evans. And his character has unquestionable integrity.

Would you follow this man? I know I would. Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Would you follow this man? I know I would.

Anyone who’s worked in the corporate world knows how difficult it is to maintain your integrity, especially when you are in a leadership position. My worst experience as a manager was a time when I disagreed with upper management’s direction but needed to inspire my staff to follow it. I had to separate out the corporate message from my message, and speak to what I believed—because I needed to hold on to my integrity. At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to look at myself in the mirror.

Since that time, I’ve been careful to avoid putting myself in that situation. I try to live one of my favourite sayings from Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” This is the best statement on integrity I have ever seen. But it’s difficult to follow. So it’s good that I have many captains to look to for inspiration. Captain America may be the best of the bunch, but he’s not the only captain out there with integrity. What about Captain Picard of Star Trek: TNG or David Weber’s Honor Harrington? Speculative fiction abounds with captains who lead with integrity. And we can learn a lot about leadership and communication from them. Here are three things that I have learned:

Let them see who you are

The more genuine you are in your communications, the more your team will relate to you. Everything you say should come from your heart. This can make you feel vulnerable, but it will support you through difficult times. Don’t try to pretty things up or try on a different personality. People can sense when you are being yourself, and will respect you for it. As Captain Picard tells us, “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for who we really are.”

Communicate with a clear intent

Do you have a purpose for communicating that you believe in? Your agenda in speaking should be clear to you and your team. I’ve written in the past about Captain America’s direct communication style. This goes beyond style and into substance. Having an influential speaking style is not going to get you anywhere if people do not see your belief.  Get out from under the corporate speak and say what you mean.

Tell the truth, but don’t feel like you have to tell everything

There are some things you just have to keep to yourself. If communicating something will make things worse for people, don’t say it. Talk about what will help, not what will hurt. If Honor Harrington always told her crew the truth about upcoming spaceship battles (“We are almost certainly going to die”), they would never triumph against the odds. Holding a harmful truth close to your chest is not a lie—it is an expression of your values.

The most important lessons in life are basic truths that you can post on your office wall. Walk the talk. Think, speak, and act in harmony. Value your people. And make your captain proud.

***

Thank you to Andrew Knighton, whose post on self-publishing and integrity inspired me to write this.

How do you maintain your integrity at home or at work? Are there captains in your life or in fiction that inspire you?

Can You Read My Mind?

Today, I’d like to share a story from the early days of my career. It’s the story of a dedicated manager, a clueless employee, and the complete failure of telepathic communication.

It’s the middle of a long afternoon. I’m thinking about going for a tea break when my manager storms into the room. She is visibly upset, and launches into an explanation of a crisis that one of our clients is having. I listen intently. While she is talking, my mind is churning. I am figuring out what I need to do to handle the problem. Just as I’ve solved it, my boss suddenly yells at me: “You’re not taking this seriously!”

All I can do is stare at her. Can’t she see that this problem is all I’m thinking about? While I am still in shock, she tells me to take care of it and stomps off. I don’t get a chance to explain. The thought there goes my performance rating drifts through my mind.

I learned an important lesson that day: People cannot read your mind.

(Aliens are a different story. Imagine if your manager was Martian Manhunter from the Justice League. Hmm, maybe not a good idea.)

Martian Manhunter

Reveal your secrets to me…

The moral of the story? Since people can’t read your mind, you need to rely on what they can read:

  • Your words, which tell them what you are thinking.
  • Your expressions, which show them what you are feeling.
  • Your actions, which prove to them who you really are.

What could I have done differently in this situation?

Words

I didn’t say anything to my manager. I was too busy thinking about what I needed to do next, when I should have been focused on her.

People need to know that you are listening to them. Don’t just stand there in silence. Remember to respond by saying things like “Mmmhmmm” or “Yes?” or “That’s terrible!” Ask questions to show that you are taking them seriously. Repeat their words back to them in your own words, so that they know you have understood them.

Expressions

When I’m thinking deeply about something, I tend to put on my “poker face.” It can be hard to read my expression. It could mean boredom, or indifference, or deliberate blocking of negative thoughts (like “Wow, my boss is an idiot!”). I had my poker face on that day.

People need to know that you care about what they are saying. Since that day, I’ve worked at adding expression to my poker face. (Just like Data from Star Trek: TNG did in his quest to become more human.)

Data's Day on Star Trek TNG

I hope I’m doing a better job than that, though! Ouch.

I have also learned to nod my head, lean toward the person who is speaking, and leave my arms uncrossed. All of these signals show that I am interested in what the other person has to say.

Actions

This was the only part I got right. After my manager left me, I got right on to solving that client problem. Later on, she thanked me for my work. I had demonstrated that I took the crisis seriously. But my manager might still wonder: Did I care because she yelled at me, or did I care because it was important to me? Luckily, I got other opportunities to prove myself and have her get to know who I am. Sometimes, all we get is one shot.

Don’t waste your opportunity. Make sure you use all three of your powers to reach a meeting of the minds. It’s almost as good as telepathy.

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Have you ever experienced a time when someone failed to read you? Please share your stories below…