Picture This

Everyone has problems. It’s an important truism to remember, especially these days. Even the seemingly happy, well-adjusted people have their fair share of issues. Perhaps they struggle mightily from depression, or the state of the world weighs on them like an anchor, or they fight imposter syndrome in a high stakes battle for self-respect. As you can imagine, I count myself among those with problems.

The problem I’m going to talk about today though, is different. It’s not a malady of the mind or a poisoning of the body, but it has an impact nonetheless. It’s not truly a disorder, but rather just a different way of being. It’s surprisingly common as well. It’s called aphantasia. 

Aphantasia is, simply put, the inability to voluntarily create mental images. There is a test, called the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire or VVIQ, which can be used as a diagnostic marker. However, aphantasia is severely understudied and often overlooked. Most people with aphantasia, myself included, are self-diagnosed. The self-test is actually quite easy. 

Basically, read this, then answer the questions:

Close your eyes. I want you to imagine your favorite spot on the beach. Imagine the sun shining, the waves lapping at the shore, perhaps a nice cold lemonade to drink. Describe the scene you see out loud. Are there animals? Shells? What color is the sand? Does your drink have an umbrella? If so, what color?

If you can answer those questions quickly and easily because you actually have an image of the beach, then you don’t have aphantasia. If you have to think and make decisions on those answers because you don’t have an image of the beach, you have aphantasia. 

To describe it in a contemporary fashion, when I close my eyes I do not have a “mind’s eye”. I do not see colors, shapes, lights, or anything; when I imagine something, from the Ruby Shift to the face of a loved one, I see nothing but inky darkness. When I try to imagine the beach, those questions are both difficult and easy to answer.  

Are there animals? Surely there are, it’s a beach. Probably there are birds at least. Shells? There must be. What color is the sand? Well I grew up near Destin, so white. Does your drink have an umbrella? If so, what color? I’d like it to have an umbrella. No idea what the normal color for it is though. Blue maybe.

When I try to imagine that beach, I think of it more of a gestalt idea of what a beach entails. Language fails me when I try to describe what I imagine, because our cultural ideas are heavily slanted towards those who can see something in their “mind’s eye”. Imagine is the closest there is to neutral. When people ask you to imagine something, they say, “What do you see” or “What does it look like”. Another popular one is, “Picture this” or “Picture yourself in a library”. 

The verbiage is so widespread that most people who have aphantasia don’t even realize it. For me, when people would talk about “picturing something in their mind” or when shows like Sherlock talk about a “mind palace” to organize their memories, I thought that it was florid and poetic language. I truly thought that everyone thought like I did, and that such phrases were just a quirky aspect of our world. 

It wasn’t until much, much later in my life that I realized I was, well, seeing things differently. My wife shared an article with me about Professor Adam Zeman, who in 2015 published a study where they coined the term aphantasia and described it clinically. She said, “Isn’t it weird that there are people like that out there?” I was floored. I read the article and thought, “Well shit, this explains a lot.”

I then told her that the article described me well, and we talked through contrast and comparison of our experiences. We found that she has hyperphantasia, which is the polar opposite of aphantasia. She can imagine not only colors, but sounds, smells, and feelings. Hyperphantasia and aphantasia are a spectrum too, some people, for example, can only imagine in black and white. 

A 2022 study published in Consciousness and Cognition shows a prevalence of 3.9% of those with either absent or dim/vague imagery. Those lucky ones with absent imagery, like me, make up 0.8% of the population. “But Jake,” I hear you say, “you said it was surprisingly common! Point eight doesn’t sound like a lot!” In the grand scheme, it’s not. But, with rounding, that means that 64 million people have severe aphantasia. Which is a lot; roughly the population of France.

What’s curious is that there are a wide variety of people who have some degree of aphantasia. Authors, animators, illustrators, mnemonic experts, philosophers, tech giants, and actors, to name a few professions. Some of those names are Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox, Yoon Ha Lee, sci fi author, Penn Jillette, a magician of some renown, and Zelda Williams, actress and daughter of one of the most gifted comedians of all time. And this isn’t a new phenomenon, the first description of aphantasia was by Francis Galton 1880, who did a statistical study of mental imagery. 

It definitely affects my writing as well. My “image” of the Ruby Shift was a loose collection of ideas. I spent quite a while drawing different forms for it, and eventually hired a 3D artist to create a model of it so I could see it in all dimensions. I use Heroforge to create miniatures of my characters so that I can see what they actually look like. Quite literally before that I didn’t describe my characters very well at all, because I couldn’t picture them. 

So if any of this resonates with you, take heart. You can still be imaginative. Still be creative. Still be just as good an artist as anyone else. You just have to utilize a different skillset than most. 


To learn more about aphantasia, visit https://aphantasia.com/

Dragons & Dungeons

I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of my major hobbies: Dungeons & Dragons. I am the Dungeon Master in two weekly games, and I play in a bi-weekly one. I really do enjoy running my games, and those campaigns have been going for a solid 8 years combined. One is set in the world of Tal’dorei of Critical Role fame, and the other is set in my own homebrew world, Rhomeria.

 While I love both games and the players involved, I have a soft spot for my homebrew. It’s a world I created ages ago by coming up with a long history of how the nation-state of Rhomeria was founded. I planned out cities, towns, and hamlets, drew out maps of some of them, and started to recruit friends to play.

Why am I talking about Dungeons & Dragons? Ultimately, because I believe that my work and play in these games is in a very large way the reason that I am a writer, and my style, and I wanted to share my story.

My style as a Dungeon Master is very roleplay heavy. To me, the point of the game is to tell a collaborative story with a group of friends. My job as the DM is not to railroad, but to open a door and guide my players through it. The players choose their path, and I find ways to weave the story I’m telling with their actions. This means that the players never quite know what’s ahead… but neither do I.

The core skill of this style is structured improvisation. I have a very loose plan of story beats that I need the players to experience. That’s the structure. The improvisation comes from subtly suggesting which path leads to the story.

As an example, my story needs my players to investigate a farm full of cultists. However, they are currently exploring an abandoned mansion at the edge of town. I can give them what I call a “push” by having one of the rooms be an office, which will naturally lead the players to investigate. As a reward for a good roll, I present the push as a sheaf of documents including a deed to a farm, or perhaps a map with locations circled, so something along those lines. A “pull” would be more of a direct line, such as a guard or mayor directly telling the players to go to the location.

In the example, the only structure was knowing that the players needed a destination. The actual machinations to entice them to choose that destination is made up on the spot. The players can indeed miss the push as well! They could roll too low, or perhaps skip investigating the office, or even collect the sheaf of papers and not read them. That’s all part of the fun!

This directly influences my style of writing. I plan out very brief and simple plot points and story beats in a very, very rough and loose outline. That’s my structure. My characters take the place of my players, and I do my best to imagine their personalities, whims, and wants. I let the character inform me what their choices would be, and I do my best to write it down.

This means that I tend to write straight through my works; I start at the beginning, and I end at the finale. It’s exceedingly rare for me to write anything out of order. The improv nature of the bulk of my writing means that loose outline often gets pushed, pulled, and malformed with time. By the time I reach the end of the work, I’m often far away from where I expected to be.

 As for my desire to be a writer, I’ve always told stories of one kind or another. When I was a kid, I was always in my head, imagining complicated fantastical worlds to explore. I let that part of me fall by the wayside as I grew up, tired of being bullied for being different, tired of not being able to make a difference in the world. I let my artistic side whither and languish. Dungeons & Dragons reminded me that I used to be good at being creative.

So it is in large part thanks to tabletop RPGs that I rediscovered the spark of creativity. Let this be a reminder to everyone that it is never too late to start writing. The same goes for painting, sculpting, singing, and any other creative endeavor. We are complicated, complex, chaotic creatures and we need to remember that we need to be well-rounded in order to survive.

Two Months In!

Sorry for the break between posts, it’s hard to stick to a schedule starting out. On top of that, we’ve been dealing with an injured dog, which of course takes priority. On top of the top of that, I started looking for a new job too. So on top of the top of the top of that, I figured that today was an opportune time to restart my blog with a state of the author post.

Today is officially the three month anniversary of Pallas Lost’s release! I’ve sold pretty well for myself, considering I did almost no marketing during June. Nothing amazing, but I did accomplish several things:

  1. I sold more books than I expected to ever sell.
  2. I relearned I have problems believing in myself.
  3. I got a glowing review from a person I have no connection with.

Basically that’s two of the three things I needed to consider myself a success. The third, of course, being unprompted/unrequested fanart of my work.

By the end of this month, the royalties for the May should roll in. I plan to use that for advertising, and to help pay vet bills. I’ll also have a big decision at the end of the month on whether or not I re-enroll in KDP Select. The biggest “cost” to KDP Select is locking exclusivity to the eBook for a further three months. One of the benefits is the ability to run special sales; I’m tempted to forego that in order to use other sellers. I know some people rightfully don’t want to support Amazon at all, it’s just a shame they have the corner on the market.

As well, I need to push for people to leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I have a very low conversion rate of readers to reviewers. I deeply appreciate everyone who has left a review, every little positive mention is a step towards the algorithm giving a shit.

I’ve also started actually using Twitter, instead of just having a Twitter account that languishes in the dark like a particularly evasive potato. I don’t think I’ll be able to send myself to conventions to sell books any time soon, so digital marketing is going to be my big footprint. Seeing a couple of friends get pretty massive success on the back of their social media presence hit me somewhat hard. I know TikTok is all the rage right now, but I have severe reservations about the level and amount of data that the app collects on each user. Besides, I don’t have the face or musical knowledge to properly Tik some Toks.

Work on the sequel has floundered some. I had a bit of a dry spell; I took a month off that has turned into several. It really seems if I don’t hold myself to a higher standard of scheduling time for writing that I’ll fall into a trap of neglect. I’m seriously like 90,000 words into this novel, and I’m so close to the finish line. I’m finding myself excited to see what the ending will be!

My plans for the threequel have taken a huge blow. A major change mid-novel for Pallas Found meant that the ending changed drastically… which drastically changes the trajectory of the third book. My current plan is to finish Pallas Found in July, and immediately start editing it. NaNoWriMo this year will be a tossup between the threequel and draft two of Pallas Found.

I want to get Pallas Found in the hands of my Alpha and Beta readers by the end of the January at the latest. I might send the Alpha as soon as August/September if July goes well.

So that’s the plan. Stay tuned to see if I pull it off!


Just a short update this week, because life has been extra rough lately. In the midst of getting an FHO on both hips, during recovery from the first surgery Athena tore her ACL and requires an extra surgery.

So I’ve been otherwise engaged. On the book front, a spot of good news! Today, my physical copies sold matched the number of ebooks sold. Thirty copies of the ebook and thirty copies of the physical books are floating around in the wild.

Absolutely cool. Better update to come next week.

Starting the World

I like to read about worlds that are coherent and fleshed out. I don’t necessarily need a fully described and realized explanation of the economic system, or a blow by blow of the exact history of the realm. but it helps. I can’t say I’ve gone that in depth with my worlds, though I’ve gotten pretty close. For the Fifteen Systems, for example, I started with the basic idea for the setting: A series of close star systems far out in space that holds the fragile remnant of humanity.

That was a promising start. Right from the jump, I knew that humanity either had developed faster than light travel, or used generational travel of some form. I also knew that something had to happen with Earth. I worked on the Earth angle, because that thread had to be short, and it would help me figure out the rest.

For inspiration on what could happen to Earth, I had to look no further than the lamentable and broken state of our current climate condition. It’s clear that those in power only have eyes for the number of zero’s in their bank accounts, leaving the needed changes and work to the wayside for “future generations” to worry about. So the specter of overpopulation of the planet plus the catastrophic effects of a rising sea and worsening climate became my crisis point.

The thing with any story, and in my opinion the thing that makes fiction what it is, is the single-handed diversion of a looming crisis. It always comes down to one character to Make the Choice that Saves the Day and Drives the Plot. So to enact the grand story that would turn into the Fifteen Systems, I settled on the idea that one philanthropic person would make the decision to get people off the planet in a unified fashion.

I spent some time daydreaming about what humanity might do, realistically, when faced with a dying planet. I figured the first thing to happen would be the creation and development of arcologies. These aren’t just a long-held sci-fi staple, we’re building structures in real life! That would be an easy first step for humanity. plus it would have the side effect of making the rich richer, and that is always a driving force unfortunately.

As the environment grew hostile, the invention of stasis of some kind would become a necessary technology. The rich, in my story background, began to enter stasis for ten years at a time. But all of this had to be embroiled in another crisis. A near Earth asteroid would fit the bill, one close enough to scrape the atmosphere. This led to a surge in the idea of colonization. Mars is the easiest target, but in the timeline I came up with there would be fighting over the Martian colony.

That sparked my next realization of my story; that humanity has a fractious tendency to balkanize itself. Colonization would be no different; each major country would send its own contingent of colonists, with the idea that their own people would form the “best” colony.

That gave me the opening for the single-handed diversion. Someone would have to make an effort for some kind of pan-national gathering of people, breaking up the single-cultured colonies. A generational ship would need to be operated by something, so I hit upon the idea that the philanthropic person could be the creator of the first AI. An AI to run a colony ship, and eventually the resulting colony. An AI would think logically about the population of a colony, so it would create a cross-culture group of people with a wide range of backgrounds.

Now knowing that my philanthropic ancient hero was likely a programmer, I decided to name her after Grace Hopper. Admiral Hopper is one of the unsung heroes of computing, being one of the first people to believe that an English-language based programming language was possible. She then invented the complier and the progenitor of COBOL. She’s a big deal, you should read more about her.

So following that train of thought, I had a character, Hopper, inventing an AI, and deciding to use that to put together a colony ship that spanned nations and backgrounds to give humanity the best chance of survival.

That’s a lot of world-building, right? And that’s all just background stuff that barely gets a mention in the book. Yet it was absolutely crucial to understand the layout, pacing, and general themes of Pallas Lost.