Tag Archives: Advice

Reader Question: Should I Read Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Someone recently found this blog by googling the following question:

Should I read science fiction or fantasy?

I thought it was a great prompt for today’s post. Just like apples and pears are both types of fruit, fantasy and science fiction are part of the wider speculative fiction universe that also includes sub-genres like horror, dystopian, utopian, supernatural, science fantasy, and superhero fiction. Science fiction and fantasy share a lot of similarities, but they aren’t identical by any means.

On the off chance that they ever see this post, I’d be happy to give the person who did this search some personalized reading recommendations if they’re interested in such a thing.

Since I don’t know that person or what their tastes in reading material are like, I’m going to keep my advice as general as possible. The only assumption I’ll be making is that you were interested in exploring both of these sub-genres and are wondering which one you should dive into first.

Like most children in western cultures, fairy tales were my first taste of speculative fiction in general. I quickly developed a preference for the original, and often surprisingly macabre given the age group they were marketed to, versions of classic fairy tales, so I was soon introduced to the horror and supernatural genres as well through my insatiable appetite for as many new fairy tales as I could find at our local library.

There is so much overlap between the science fiction and fantasy, though, that I quickly found myself wandering deeper into the science fiction end of the spectrum. I now have a preference for hard science fiction, but I’ll never forget my love of fantasy or many of the other sub-genres under the speculative fiction umbrella.

The question of whether you should read fantasy or science fiction really depends on the sorts of stories you enjoy versus the ones that you don’t find so alluring. I’m going to be making some broad generalizations here that definitely won’t apply to every book or author out there. They may be helpful in steering the original visitor and everyone else reading this towards a specific section of the library or bookstore as you decide what you want to read next.

Science Fiction tends to be:

  • Realistic.
  • Related to what is, or could be, scientifically possible. For example, the discovery of a vaccine for AIDS or a cure for cancer.
  • Set in the present or future.
  • Rational. When someone weird happens, there is generally a logical reason for it.
  • More political (in many cases).
  • Interested in exploring specific ideas, ideologies, or conflicts. These themes can often be traced back to controversial subjects that are or were hotly debated when that specific book was first published.

Fantasy tends to be:

  • Imaginative.
  • Related to things that will never be scientifically possible. For example, the existence of Hogwarts (*sob*) or a pet dog that suddenly begins speaking plain English.
  • Set in the past.
  • Supernatural and/or magical. When something weird happens, it is not generally explained rationally to the reader.
  • Less political (in many cases).
  • Interested in world-building. You stand a good chance of meeting dozens of characters and many different fictional cultures when reading fantasy, so their page counts can be dramatically bigger than a science fiction novel.

Again, there is a lot of overlap between these sub-genres and these lists shouldn’t be taken as a strict interpretation of what you’ll find in either one. There are many speculative stories out there that combine elements from both of these sub-genres together (along with many other themes), but many of them do tend to lean one way instead of the other.

This isn’t even to mention all of the other genres, from romance to mystery, that are often swirled into these tales as well. Figuring out how to label books these days is so complicated, especially for fans who don’t always enjoy seeing their favourite genre being mashed up with other styles of writing, that I think I’ll save a more detailed discussion of that aspect of it for another day.

Readers, what would you recommend to this person? is there a specific fantasy or science fiction author you think would be a nice introduction to their genre? Which types of speculative fiction do you tend to gravitate towards most often?

6 Things I Wish My Gym Teachers Had Done Differently

The other day I had a conversation with some  friends online about our experiences in gym class when we were growing up. Most of us disliked that class quite a bit growing up, and none of us came away from it with positive feelings about sports or exercise in general.

There were many different reasons for those reactions, but the biggest ones had to do with our  complete disinterest in sports and lack of athletic prowess in general.

This is a real shame. Physical Education teachers have a golden opportunity to show students how to stay fit regardless of how coordinated or athletic they might be. I empathize with how difficult it must be to get kids interested in gym class if they show up already expecting to hate it, but I’d also argue that there are a lot of changes that could be made to the way P.E. classes are run that will make them far more appealing to kids who aren’t athletic and who don’t think of exercise as a fun activity.

Today I’ll be sharing those recommendations. If there are any gym teachers reading this blog, I’d be quite interested in hearing your response to this post. These are the six things that I wish my gym teachers had done differently when I was in their classes.

Explained Why It’s Important to Exercise

My English teachers regularly explained why it was important to know how to write a grammatical sentence or be familiar with certain authors. They used examples like writing a formal letter or understanding certain literary references that the vast majority of adults know.

My math teachers told us how equations helped you save money or solve problems as an adult. They used examples like figuring out how much a sale item will cost after the 30% discount or calculating how many gallons of paint to buy when you repaint your living room.

None of my gym teachers ever made the connection between what they taught in class and what we’d need to know in order to function well as adults. We played endless rounds of basketball, football, volleyball, and other sports without hearing a single word about how exercise strengthens your heart, builds your muscles, burns calories, or reduces your risks of many different diseases.

It was like being given an equation that didn’t make sense and then never being told what the real answer should have been.

Because I said so isn’t a persuasive or helpful response in these scenarios. Kids, and especially teenagers, are smart enough to be told why they’re being expected to do something. It might be a while before they come to fully appreciate these lessons, but I think that explaining the reasons for gym class would go a long way to encouraging reluctant students to change their habits.

Taught Us the Proper Form

I wasn’t the most coordinated kid in the world, so I’m definitely not going to lay all of the blame on the  injuries I regularly received in gym class on the teachers.

There were multiple times when I sprained fingers or got bruised up in gym class.

Yes, some of them were true accidents that could have happened to any child.

With that being said, I do think I would have been injured much less often if we’d all been taught the proper posture for the sports we were playing and if someone had corrected my posture if it still wasn’t right.

This never happened once in all of my years of attending public school. As an adult, I sympathize with my teachers for being responsible for the physical education of so many kids. I don’t think we should expect perfection from teachers in this area, but I do think they should have the support and resources to prevent as many injuries as possible.

Eliminated Dodgeball and Picking Teams

Dodgeball is the only sport I can think of where the purpose of it is to throw balls at people and purposefully hit them. I don’t know about you, but I remember feeling pain when those dodgeballs smacked me. This was not a pleasant experience in any way.

It’s one thing if a small group of friends decide to play this game at recess, but school isn’t an appropriate place to make kids to throw objects at each other.

If it happened in any other context, the kid who threw the object would be sent to the principal’s office and possibly even suspended or expelled for assault.

Picking teams is unnecessary, ripe for bullying behaviours, and a waste of time. It would be so much faster to divide the students by preassigning groups or having them count off (e.g. 1 through 4) so they could quickly be divided into four equal sections.

Spent 1/3 of the School Year on Non-Competitive Sports

Yes, I know that many schools have limited budgets for their physical education departments and therefore can only offer certain types of workouts to their students.

The schools I attended didn’t have anything fancy like swimming pools or tennis courts. We had gyms that always smell faintly of perspiration, plenty of old sports equipment, and far more wrestling mats than we knew what to do with.

With that being said, there are plenty of inexpensive and even free types of exercise out there that don’t require any competition at all.

For example, there would be little to no equipment needed at all for a P.E. teacher to teach martial arts or several different units on various types of dancing. The music for the dance classes could be piped in over the loudspeakers or played on an old boombox. Many types of martial arts don’t require any equipment at all.

Spent 1/3 of the School Year on Individual Sports

One of the reasons why I hated gym class so much growing up is that 95% of the units we did were team sports.

Basketball, volleyball, baseball, football, and hockey might be good workouts, but they didn’t appeal to me in the least. The more I played them, the less open I became to exercising at all.

While I do think it was a good idea to expose kids to team sports, I’d also argue that it’s just as important to show students the many ways they can work out that have nothing at all to do with competition or teams.

There are so many other ways to strengthen your heart and body that could easily be taught to students depending on their ages and what types of equipment are already available at the school: yoga, weightlifting, jogging, bodyweight exercises, and gymnastics to name a few.

The final third of the year could be dedicated to various team sports. Some kids honestly do enjoy those forms of exercise, so I’d be fine with keeping them as a small part of the curriculum.

Occasionally Given the Students a Say

This is by far the biggest change I’d recommend making to the way physical education classes are currently run.

My high school Spanish class was allowed to vote on which pre-approved Disney movie we wanted to watch after we’d studied that language for a while and were reading to start practicing our listening skills in real time.

One of my elementary school teachers regularly let us vote on which pre-approved book to read as a class next. This would be a little trickier to do in high school since certain authors are often required to be taught, but I could see a secondary English teacher narrowing down the choices to two or three Shakespeare plays and then seeing which one their class was most interested in studying over the next month.

Being able to have a say in those classes made me much more interested in reading those books and watching those movies.

There’s no reason why gym teachers can’t offer their students the same choice. Why not let them decide whether they’ll spend the next few weeks playing basketball or learning how to square dance? They’ll be exercising either way, and the fact that the teacher listened to them will mean a lot.

What were your experiences with gym class growing up? What could your P.E. teacher have done differently to get you more involved in that class?

Why Unsolicited Advice Is a Terrible Idea

Yes, I appreciate the irony in writing a blog post about unsolicited advice that could be read as unsolicited advice.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of never giving anyone any advice that they haven’t asked me for, though, and I thought it would make a great topic for a post here while I’m adjusting to the idea of keeping my mouth shut until or unless I’m asked for my opinion.

Perhaps someday I’ll revisit this topic once I have more to say about it? For now, let’s talk about why giving people advice they haven’t asked for is a terrible idea.

 You Don’t Have All of the Facts

Everyone has private parts of their lives that are only shared with very few people or maybe even no one else at all. It could be as simple as a soothing bedtime ritual or as complex as an uncommon hobby that they only discuss with others who have also devoted their free time to perfecting the art of underwater basket weaving.

The parts of someone’s life that others see  almost certainly don’t give a full picture of who they are or how complex their problems – or their perceived problems –  really are.

Sometimes what looks like a banana isn’t actually a banana after all. (Also, I love this picture in and of itself. Isn’t it interesting?)

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

I’ve seen this happen multiple times with various friends of mine who are living with serious, longterm mental or physical health problems.

No sooner do they mention having a particularly bad day or dealing with a troublesome, new symptom than someone else will jump in with a half-dozen suggestions for how they should fix their disease once and for all.

Yes, they’ve tried all of those cures already. No, that random Internet article isn’t going to magically fix deep-seated health problems that have been bothering them for decades and that have been treated by multiple doctors and other healthcare professions over the years.

I’ve only ever had this happen to me briefly once or twice, and even that made me irrationally angry. I can’t imagine what my friends who must deal with possibly well-meaning but ultimately wrong and judgemental assumptions about their bodies over and over again go through.

What works for one person can fail miserably for another even if they’re both dealing with similar circumstances or diseases.

 It Doesn’t Work

Advice is only useful when the person receiving it is open to the idea of changing. It’s not like a vaccine that will protect someone from dangerous diseases regardless of what thoughts flutter through their minds while their immune systems are learning how to recognize and destroy inactivated polio germs.

One has to be ready to accept what the advice-giver is saying in order for it to have any hope at all of working. Changing your personality, habits, and/or current situation is such a difficult task that there’s no other way of going about it. Anyone who isn’t motivated to keep going even if they don’t see any results right away is almost certainly going to give up long before any of the work they might have put into their current personal project has had any chance at all to fix things.

Unwanted advice also doesn’t work well for adult relationships in general. When someone who isn’t in an official place of authority over me tries to control what I do or how I live, I feel annoyed and confused. If they continue to do it over a long period of time despite being asked to stop, I slowly begin to share less about my life with them.

Not only does unsolicited advice not work in the short term, it makes me much less willing to listen six months or a year from now if they have something else to say to me.

Rather than prompting me to change whatever it is they think I’m doing wrong, what this kind of interaction teaches me is that they’re not a safe person to confide in. I will often start spending less time with them and guarding myself when I do see them. Their intentions may have been noble, but the results of their poor boundaries are going to be the exact opposite of what they might have hoped for.

Some Lessons Have to be Learned the Hard Way

Not everyone is willing to take the experiences of others as the ultimate truth.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the urge to warn other people about certain types of mistakes I’ve made in the past, but you can’t live someone else’s life for them.

Sometimes they have to find out for themselves that something is a terrible idea regardless of whether it takes thirty seconds or thirty years between their decision and reaping the consequence of it.

The only thing the rest of us can do in the meantime is to respect their boundaries and hope that they’ll learn their lesson as quickly and easily as possible.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Writing

1. Not Explaining How Things Work

One of my favourite books when I was a preteen was Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s an excellent example of what happens when authors don’t explain how their worlds work.

The idea of growing up in a society that had no suffering, premature death, disease, or pain of any kind mesmerized me. I spent hours fantasizing about what it would have been like to live there, especially early on before I realized what price the characters had to pay for that slice of paradise.

There was one part of the plot that drove me up the wall, though. Jonas, the main character, explained in an early chapter that  100 babies were born every year in his community. All of those babies were placed with adoptive parents, no single parent families were allowed, and no family was ever given more than one son and one daughter to raise.

The women who were chosen to give birth for the colony only needed to give birth three times in their entire life. Once they completed those pregnancies, they spent the rest of their lives as single adults. They never were allowed to marry or have/raise other children.

So out of Jonas’ 50 female classmates, about 17 of them would need to be classified as birth mothers in order to produce the next generation. This means that 17 of his male classmates would never be assigned a spouse. If you continue to do the math, each generation of this society would be smaller than the rest because of the restricted family sizes and the large numbers of people who were never assigned a life partner.

This problem bothered me for years. I couldn’t figure out why Ms. Lowry wouldn’t have added a throw-away comment about some women giving birth more than three times and/or some families being assigned more than two children. If my math is correct, both of those things would need to occur in order to keep their numbers steady from one generation to the next. Small details like that would have gone a long way in explaining why Jonas’ society had survived for so long.

2. Forcing Endings That Don’t Fit

Lately I’ve read several different books that pushed two characters who barely even liked each other into falling in love. No, I do not have a problem with romantic plots or subplots in general. There is definitely a time and a place for them, but not every story needs to end with two people falling in love and pledging to be together forever.

Some characters are better off as friends. Other characters might make a great couple in the future once they’ve gotten to know each other or have solved at least some of the problems that are currently preventing them from being a good partner to anyone.

I have also noticed this happening a lot when it comes to happy endings. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a happy ending tacked onto a movie or TV show when there was absolutely nothing in the beginning or middle of the storyline to indicate that anyone would be lucky enough to end up that way.

Do I have a problem with characters living happily ever after? Of course not! I love it when a plot unfolds in such a way that every single character in it gets everything they need and want in it. With that being said, not every tale is meant to turn out that way.

If the ending doesn’t fit, don’t force it.

3. Telling Instead of Showing

Earlier this year I began reading a story whose blurb sounded amazing. I was excited to begin it and sure that I was going to love every single second of it.

By the end of the first page, I knew I was wrong about that. It was a real struggle to finish it, too, because of how much time the author spent telling the audience what was happening instead of showing it to us. When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t visualize anything that had happened in the scene I’d just read.

None of the characters’ adventures caught my imagination in any way because everything from what they ate for dinner to the battles they fought were described so vaguely that they almost might have been the same thing.

There was nothing to pull me into that universe, and so it was quickly forgotten.

4. Chasing Trends

Some people say you are what you eat. That may be true, but I also say that you are what you read.

The first time a teenage girl in a supernatural universe fell in love with a 200-year-old vampire who turned out to be a pretty decent person despite his sunlight allergy and intense cravings for human blood, it was fascinating. The twentieth time it happened, I didn’t even bother to finish reading the description on the back cover before I put it back on the shelf.

This isn’t to say that I’m totally against the idea of a normal person falling in love with a vampire. If I ever stumble across an author who has come up with a fresh twist on this idea, I will read his or her work with joy.

In general, though, it’s best to follow your characters instead. Maybe someday someone will write about a teenage girl who meets a vampire she finds vaguely attractive, gets extremely weirded out by the fact that he’s several centuries older than her, moves far away to attend college, and then eventually meets back up with him for a cup of coffee after she’s graduated and come back home to take over the family business.

5. Not Researching Your Subject Matter

No, this advice isn’t only for people who are writing nonfiction or historical fiction. After listening to one of my writer friends talk about this on Twitter lately, I’ve come to agree with her stance on this issue: everything that can be researched should be researched!

For example, if you’re writing about a character who has a  peanut allergy and you don’t already have personal experience that kind of medical condition, go research why allergies occur, how Epi-Pens work, and what could happen to someone who starts wheezing after they eat something that was accidentally contaminated with peanut oil and then realizes that they can’t find their Epi-Pen anywhere.

One of the things that will make me close a book and stop reading immediately is if the author gets something very wrong about a topic I know a lot about. I don’t expect perfection in every single detail, but it sure is nice when writers at least attempt to get the facts straight.

6. Only Reading Books in Your Genre

Last year I wrote an entire blog post about why everyone should at least occasionally read books that aren’t from their favourite genres.

If anything, I believe this even more firmly now than I did back then. There is nothing wrong with loving one or two genres, but I’ve seen the difference between authors who only read books that are from the genre they write in and authors who have branched out into other types of storytelling.

Every genre has areas it excels in and other areas that it usually handles poorly or even ignores altogether. It is only by moving from one genre to the next that you will begin to see what your favourite genre is and isn’t good at discussing.

7. Even Worse, Not Reading Books at All

I’ve met a few writers who have stopped reading anything that isn’t directly related to whatever project they’re currently working on.

While I completely understand being crunched for time, reading well-written fiction is almost as important as attempting to write it yourself. One of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read essays, stories, or books from authors who have spent years perfecting their craft.

They say you are what you eat. I say that you are also what you read, for better or for worse.

How about you? What do you think are seven deadly sins of writing? Come tell me about it on Twitter.