NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The care and feeding of Science advisors and beta readers... [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

I almost titled this "Betta" readers to play off of Sarah Hoyt's recent blog: Since this is a timely response to Ms. Hoyt, the Monday Funnies will appear on Wednesday this week.  I think you may enjoy this column in its place, if not, come back Wednesday for your dose of funny science.

What I have learned as a Science Adviser / Beta Reader.

First - don't put us in the same aquarium (Oh, sorry, that's 'Bettas' again!) [with apologies to Sarah Hoyt.]

First - I have learned that every author wants something different from a beta reader, but they often want the same thing from a Science Adviser.

I have often heard or read despairing comments from readers that see early versions of a manuscript "Didn't the Author even *show* this turkey to Beta Readers? It's *full* of typos!"  As Sarah Hoyt mentions in her blog, she doesn't want her beta readers to be copy editors - she wants them to advise her on the "readability," "likability", "believability" and overall sense of the manuscript.  Their job is not to mark every typo or grammar error, but to tell the author when the plot has too many wholes, when a character is inconsistent, or the progression of events is not understandable.  In this respect, the reader despairing of typos in an "Advance Readers Copy" is out of luck.  Copy editing is not done at that stage.

However, they do have a valid point when it comes to science advising.  The role of a science adviser *is* to pick up on the inconsistencies.  Examples: (a) "Light years" as a measure of time; (b) space drives that produce 400 gravities of thrust in one section, and 4000 gravities in another; (c) males as "carriers" for an X-chromosome-linked disease that affects only women; (d) viruses treated with antibiotics.  I have seen variations of these errors in many published books as well as manuscripts.  [By the way - the answer to (c) is that if the disease was on the X chromosome, the male would not be a "carrier," he'd have the disease since he does not have a second X chromosome to carry a normal gene to counter the disease gene.  For (d), antibiotics treat "biotic" infections - i.e. bacteria.  Viruses are not "biotic."]

The science adviser is supposed to catch inconsistencies.  What the science adviser is *not* expected to do is to change anything that would alter the essential plot or characters.  Early in my tenure as an adviser to SF authors I had an exchange with an author that went something like this:
Me: "Hey __ - scientifically that's "an epithelial colonization with papules and pustules."
Author: "Speaker - my characters are grunts.  To them its a bad rash with pus blisters.  Now, if I need dialogue between the scientists who are *creating* the disease, I'll write it differently."
The story is more important than the science.  That is not to say that accuracy is not important, after all, the hallmark of *good* SF is a good foundation in science, but there needs to be understanding that other parts of good SF include speculation beyond current capabilities, and above all, it has to be a good story.

Which brings me to Lesson Two that I learned as a beta reader and a science adviser:  Make it understandable.

I know plenty of scientists that are excellent at what they do.  They publish papers, get research grants, give seminars - but they can't explain what they do to someone without the same level of education that they received.  A science advisor has to first explain the concept to the author, then be able to guide the process of getting the idea into the story.  Note: you are *not* writing it for the author, you are helping them by saying "no, this is not consistent", "this doesn't read well", "this doesn't make sense."  In addition, you can say "this is not accurate" and provide the appropriate information.  It's not easy, and anyone that wants to try to position themselves as a science advisor needs to first *read* a lot of SF, then see how well they can explain their own work in SF terms.

SF authors *want* the reader to feel that the science is accurate enough to allow "willing suspension of disbelief." This is important to any form of SF, fantasy, speculative or adventure fiction.  Readers are often willing to accept one (or two) unbelievable things if the rest of the science is accurate.  For examples, I would draw your attention to Jack Campbell's "The Lost Fleet" series.  There are two major "gotchas" in his Space Opera - first is the existence of a faster-than-light drive, second is ships maneuvering at significant fractions of light speed.  Yet the rest of his space battles entail the slow ballistic trajectories of missiles and bombs dropped onto fixed outposts such as moons and planet-bound cities.  Likewise, David Drake postulates a "sailing culture" for his RCN Lieutenant Leary books, yet he includes many realistic issues such as not having elevators on a spaceship due to various stress which would jam the elevator shafts.

It's a mix of  the unbelievable, with science and engineering which is quite believable and understandable that aids the author in setting up the plot.  It is the adviser's job to check the accuracy and understandability of the science to a much greater degree than that of a beta reader.

The third thing I have learned is to be careful in how you send your comments back to the author.  Some authors prefer that you take the manuscript, mark your changes/comments in line, then send it back.  To do so, you need a unique marker that the author can find using the search functions of their word processor. Authors I know use "###" or "///" for the purpose.  Make sure you mark both the beginning and the end - and be careful to distinguish between corrections and comments.  I once wrote a paragraph of side explanation to an author.  I was surprised to find the complete paragraph in the final version of the book.  I asked the author about it, saying "It was only meant as a comment for you."  His response "Oh, I didn't realize.  However, it fit, so I put it in."  From this I learned that comments to the author - particularly long, involved ones - should be sent separately, so as not to confuse the poor author suffering from brain strain as they try to reconcile five sets of beta reader comments.

The most important thing I have learned as both a beta reader and science adviser is to find out what the author wants from you.  Do they want "gobbledygook" and "handwavium" that they can use to give the impression of science to a particular scene?  Do they want (allow) their scientist/engineer character to have a 500-word infodump to which the grunt characters can respond "Huh?"  [Don't laugh, I know a best-selling author that allows his scientist co-author a single 500-word exposition per book!]  Do they simply want the scientists to read a passage and comment on whether it "feels right?"  It is very important for the scientists to not only have read other SF, but also that author's own works to get a feel for style and composition.  Also, keep in mind that even if the author actually says "I need gobbledygook" they don't really mean nonsense such as "unobtanium" or "full-sprocket framistan with punctate lobes."  No, what they usually want is science in terms that their readers will recognize as being realistic, without requiring a PhD to read it. 

The down side of being a science adviser and beta reader is that when those other readers are saying "Why didn't somebody catch this mistake" they are talking about you.  So it behooves the beta to look for the big issues, the ones that leap out of the page and hit you between the eyes.  Perhaps the author will decide they don't matter, at which time it is best to leave it alone.  But if you approach the task as recreational reading because "Wow, I get to read it *first*!" then you'll probably miss things that you would pay more attention to if you had a checklist from the author of items that they want you to review.  On the hand, you *do* get to read it first, and sometimes that can make a difference to understanding how the author's mind, and the craft of writing actually work.

And when you're a neuroscientist that is interested in how the creative mind works, that can be more rewarding as seeing your name in the acknowledgments.  


  1. Regarding your example c, I assume this isn't the case in the example you're thinking of; but couldn't something affecting the female reproductive system qualify since those genes would be turned off in a male carrier?

  2. Dan:

    Essentially true, the other such example being that a male would be a "carrier" if the disorder required complementary X-chromosome sited genes, and the single X chromosome gene was not active. However, that is not "simple" genetics, and in the few cases where something like this is known, it would not be accurate to call the male a "carrier" since they would not really be asymptomatic, just have a different manifestation of the disease.

    Keep at it, Dan - your comments and questions are keeping me on my toes!

  3. I try. I'm trying to make up for not being able to study any of it in school.

    PS I left a followup to my question your MMJ post; but scope wise it might be a better fit as a future blog post than a comment answer.


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