You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2012.

Putting Children Off

Teachers are concerned that children in primary schools (that’s age 5 to 11 for those from foreign parts) are being put off reading for pleasure by the time they reach the top end of their school.  74% of teachers polled said that children did not spend enough time reading outside of the classroom.

The article also gives some guidance on what types of stories those readers are likely to enjoy – action, crime, fantasy, horror and adventure.  No surprises there then.

Another ariticle on the BBC talks about the low literacy rate in Welsh secondary schools (that’s age 11 to 16).  Apparently, most of them can read – although up to 40% start secondary school unable to read “properly” – but not fluently enough to really apply the skill in other subject areas.  I only hope that the literacy co-ordinators that they will be appointing have read the first article and don’t limit themselves to actions in the secondary schools!

Teaching Reading

A third article examines the system of Synthetic Phonics, which is the current government-approved method of teaching reading.  Phonics is contraversial, as some believe it doesn’t teach children to “read” but to “decode” writing, which is less fluent.  Not only that, but

The books that have been devised in order to support synthetic phonics offer a restrictive diet, says Lambirth.

So here we have a contraversial system for teaching reading, with a limited selection of books that they can use to learn with.  No wonder children aren’t learning to read for pleasure.

One of the contraversial things about it is the use of made-up words to test whether children can decode properly.  Children will be asked to read words such as “terg” or “thazz”.  It might confuse some children, but it does provide an early look at reading scifi… maybe they could include “grok”.

Some Thoughts

Clearly more, better books are needed for children in all age ranges.

Not only that, but books which are phonics-friendly will likely get used more in schools, at least in the UK.  If you’re planning to write something for children, it’s a good idea to do some research.  How are children taught to read in your country?  Are there any special considerations you should think about because of that?

I work in the Financial Services industry.  Every year we are required to undertake “Anti-Bribery and Corruption Training”, and every year I fall prey to the same thought.

Is it Anti Bribery-and-Corruption training?  Or Anti-Bribery, and Corruption training?

So here’s a little challenge for you – write a story about a man who is totally anti-bribery, but somehow corrupted.

Should we be worried that robots can learn to speak through interaction with humans?  This seems to be one of the first steps in making them sound more human, a process which could end up creating robots which are indistinguishable from humans.

I, Robot springs to mind.

On a side note, I was in Spain when I, Robot was released on DVD, with a huge cardboard cut-out of Will Smith in every video store, and now every time I see it I can’t help but think of the spanish title… Yo, Robot.

If you can’t see why, think about how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would say it.

Richard Leonard has kindly tagged me in the Lucky Seven.  What that means is that I have to:

  • Go to page 7 or 77 in your current manuscript (fiction or non-fiction)
  • Go to line 7
  • Post the next 7 lines or sentences on your blog as they are (no cheating, please!)
  • Tag 7 other authors to do the same

Now, the issue here is that my current manuscript doesn’t really have a page 7, since it’s mostly research with the occasional random scene thrown in.  So, I figure I’ll take the seventh paragraph that’s actually been written, and go with that.

In this scene, the protagonist has escaped from the factory where shi lived as slave labour all hir life, and is discovering the real world.

The apparent mistaken spelling of pronouns is intentional, for reasons which I’m not going into right now.

Zahra peeked out from behind the tree again.  The shouts of the other children drew hir slowly from hir hiding place.  In the factory, shouts had meant mistakes, punishment, but here the children seemed happy.  They ran in aparently random directions, and climbed on odd shaped objects.  Zahra didn’t really understand what the point was.

There were a number of adults standing to one side.  They seemed to be ignoring the children, but Zahra noticed that every so often they would glance over at them.

And now for the tagging.  I shall try to avoid anyone who has been tagged by Richard, or Goran, who tagged Richard, since that seems a little circular!

I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

Yes, you read that right.  Scientists have turned a snail into a battery.

They cut small slits in the shell and inserted electrodes.  Glucose and oxygen in the snail became the fuel for the battery, which produced 7 milliwatts of electricity.  And feeding the snail caused it to recharge.

They’re using it as a starting point for designing medical applications, for example pacemakers that run on human-generated electricity rather than batteries.

If you want to know more, watch this video from the New Scientist.

In the meantime, a challenge.  Can you write a story from the point of view of the snail in the video?

When we’re writing, we need to think about the places that our characters live, work and play.  How much time to you spend thinking about the effect of buildings on the environment?  This recent article from the BBC reminded me that conditions on streets depend very much on what buildings surround them.

Skyscrapers are becoming ever more common, and many sci-fi novels contain massive cities which tower into the sky and spread for miles.  Where several large buildings are grouped together, canyons can form, with noise at street level being massively increased and wind tunnels springing into existence.  Even one skyscraper, if badly designed, can cause high speed winds from higher up to be diverted to the ground.

And that’s ignoring the long shadows and sometimes ugly car park entrances.

Fortunately, modern architects seem to be taking notice.  The Gherkin in London has an unusual shape not just to look good – it helps the winds go around the structure.  The almost-completed Shard (also in London) casts its shadow mainly over the River Thames.

When you’re writing about life in a city, whether it’s real or fictional, it’s important to understand what kind of city it is.  Is it modern?  Old?  Has it reached the point in its development where the citizens have started to build skyscrapers, but are still building them square?  Has the government of your country or planet decided to limit the size of buildings for any reason?  What effect will all that have on the microclimate at street level?

And of course, the feel of a city centre is enormously different to the feel of a suburb.  Cities in different parts of the country can be poles apart, let alone cities in other countries.  Ultimately, the best thing to do might be to find a real city with similar conditions to the one you are writing about, and go there.  Soak in the feel of the place, and notice the little things.  And then write.

Scientists have catalogued over 10,000 different types of microbe living on or in the human body.  They used DNA sequencing on samples taken from over 200 healthy americans, from various parts of their bodies.

Part of the study was concerned with discovering whether there is a common set of microbes that all humans share – and the answer appears to be no.  Microbes that do the same job in different people share genes, but are often distinct species.  Other discoveries include the presence of microbes such as Staphylococcus aureus, which is involved in MRSA, at low levels in healthy people.  Perhaps it isn’t the bug itself that causes problems, but a change in the way it interacts with its neighbours.

What if, when running this project, the researchers had found a significant proportion of microbes which didn’t conform to earthly norms?  Alien microbes, which had been living among us undetected.  They have now started to cross-breed with Earth microbes and the offspring have some interesting properties.  Do people try to eradicate them?  Or do they become the most sought after “enhancement” for rich humans?

Some people are more psychically sensitive than others – what if we discovered that all of those people had the same set of microbes in common?  A real, provable cause for psychic powers.  Wouldn’t that be something?  And since microbial loads are picked up very early in life, it would even account for the tendency of psychic powers to run in families.

Children with older fathers live longer.

The telomeres (the tips of chromosomes which protect them from damage) in sperm cells grow with age, unlike those in other cells, and that added protection is passed on to the children.  Yes, older fathers increase the risk of miscarriage, but scientists think that the health benefits outweigh the risks.

“As paternal ancestors delay reproduction, longer telomere length will be passed to offspring, which could allow life span to be extended as populations survive to reproduce at older ages.”

Many future fiction has a humanity with greater lifespan than at present.  Is this one of the methods we will use to achieve it?

Please can this be the newest inclusion in the Olympics?

I would be more excited about them if they included things like that!

Apparently, people like me.  Specifically, Matt Williams and Richard Leonard have both nominated me for a VBA.  Thank you both!  May I encourage people to go check them out?

So, according to the rules, I need to tell you seven things about myself and then nominate some people.


Hmmm, now to think of things which are interesting that I didn’t say last time.

I have a thing for secret identities.  Seriously, superheroes, spies, anyone who leads a double life.  My particular favourite is Superman (Dean Cain was the best version), but I’ll take any of them, any day.

My guilty secret – fanfiction.  Harry Potter time travel stories are great, and also Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

I write far less than I want to.  I suspect this is normal.

I’m not sure if Stargate SG-1 is the best show ever, but it certainly comes very high up the list.

I sleep better on camp than I do in a bed.  Or I would do if I actually went to bed rather than chatting with the other Leaders.

I don’t have a pet.  If I owned my house and didn’t have to bow to the wishes of the landlord, I would be crazy cat lady.  And my husband would be crazy cat man.

I like cauliflower cheese.  Can you tell I’m running out of interesting facts?


Some nominations – mostly people I’ve discovered since the last time I got this award.  I’ve decided to exclude people I nominated last time, despite the fact that they still deserve it.

The Struggle to be a Writer that Writes, by Cat.  When I first discovered her she was in the midst of a month-long challenge to post a story every day.  She didn’t quite make it, but did discover some interesting things about herself and writing in the process.

Suzanne Conboy-Hill writes short scenes which really draw you in.

Human Nature and Superpowers; Preston Fuller is blogging about the process of creating a novel, as he does it.  The plot sounds intriguing and it’s fascinating to get an insight into how the creation process works.

The Best Place by the Fire, by Kari Fay.  Short stories on many different topics, which are well written and manage to get you emotionally invested very quickly.

Catherine, Caffeinated, by Catherine Ryan Howard.  She writes about the process of self-publishing, giving well thought out and helpful advice.

Keep up the good work, guys!

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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