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Technical Critique for Fiction and Nonfiction



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SCIENCE WRITER, contract writing and editorial support for the American Institute of Physics. Contributions spanning the frontiers of physics today.

WRITE BY THE RULES, your readers demand it. Nonfiction obeys the rules and may report new ones. Fiction can bend the rules and anticipate new ones. Fantasy creates its own rules then abides by them. Take any road and your reader will follow you to the end; stumble off that road and you fall alone.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE. Computers, cell phones, space travel …as the world grows more technical, the rules do too. Sophisticated readers put books back on the shelf at the slightest impossibility. Find your errors before they do. How? Start with the usual suspects:

Physics 101: Things tend to happen the way your science teacher told you. On Earth, things fall; in space, they don’t. Fires burn slower in zero gravity and without flames. Explosions are smaller in vacuum, and they are silent. Surveillance cameras don’t have unlimited resolution; they can’t read the license plate down the block from the ATM.

and then a miracle happens: The protagonist is in trouble and only a miracle can save him. Divine Intervention is tempting–germs spontaneously evolve into benign species just in time. You could try the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes—one monkey produces enough serum to cure thousands of humans in hours. Don’t cheat your reader.

Nonsense numbers: Numbers let you "show not tell" in fiction and nonfiction. But abuse of numbers shows things you’d rather not tell. You wouldn’t write about a woman with 2.7 children, but you might ask her to give 110%. That’s ill advised with her credit card and generally impossible. In going from 5000 to 1250, the NASDAQ dropped 75%, not 400%. No matter what your computer tells you, 12.3450.678 is just twelve.

Accidental jargon: Roget doesn’t warn the lay writer, but technology has highjacked common words to name uncommon concepts. The Enron accounting system was complex and involved imaginary receipts. The numbers they used were neither complex nor imaginary—those are specialized terms best avoided.

NEED HELP? Let an experienced Cal Tech Ph.D. scour your synopsis, script, or manuscript for technical traps. E-mail me about your project. Simple answers, estimates and I don’t know’s are free.

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