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/

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.

Readers, I Need Your Help

What a wild week. The launch was a success, and 30 copies of my eBook activated at the stroke of midnight. At least two people have been reading on Kindle Unlimited, and several people have had paperbacks shipped and received! Not to mention the hardcovers which ship later this month. I’m so excited this many people are eager to read my work.

To celebrate the launch, and to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary, my wife and I got some tasty tex-mex. Nothing says love and victory quite like a good burrito. I’ve been taking it easy on the writing front for a while now, as I was all-consumed with the production of Pallas Lost. It’s time to shake off the cobwebs and get back into the writer’s seat.

Which brings me to the point of today’s short blog. Please, share and encourage your friends and family to read Pallas Lost as well. Every little bit helps. And once you’ve read it, please review it. Reviews on Amazon are absolutely critical to the success of my novel. The algorithm demands a sacrifice, unfortunately. So please, write a review on Amazon, and Goodreads if you can, and help me become a success. They literally down rank you if you don’t get reviews. It’s a necessary evil in today’s digital marketplace.

I really can’t stress enough how important sharing and reviewing are. It’s by far the hardest part of being an independently published author; the percentage of people that review after purchasing is, like, low single digits. Please help me blow that out of the water. The more reviews, the more people get to see my novel.

I have a lot of irons in the fire right now, and it is a difficulty to deal with everything, everywhere, all at once. (I really need to see that movie.) I’m doing my best to juggle it all, and I am looking forward to recruiting Alpha readers for Pallas Found. It’s going to happen soon, I promise. Perhaps even as early as next month!

May the Fourth

As discussed a few weeks back, I have long held the belief that my writing is terrible. This is in spite of many people telling me that I was okay, even good, which I struggle to accept. This week heralds the occasion of me finally trying to accept those compliments. Two days from now, on May the 4th, my debut novel Pallas Lost goes live.

I find it hard to believe that this is actually happening. Ten years of writing, shelving, editing, re-writing, and worrying have all come to a head this week. The eBook should go live at midnight, and the paperback and hardcover should be live by that point as well. As of time of writing, 30 people will have access immediately, which is just crazy. 

I can only hope that they enjoy it, and leave good reviews.

May the 4th is going to be a full day. Not only is it the release of my novel, it is also my wedding anniversary. Six years ago, my darling wife and I got married behind J. Lorraine Ghost Town in Manor, Texas. The location was a haunted house charity we volunteered at called Scare for a Cure. We had a lovely little wedding with a few dozen friends and family in attendance, complete with a taco bar, waffle bar, and a life-size BB-8 cake.

That’s right, the theme was Star Wars meets Mass Effect. There were lightsabers, blasters, and people in cosplay. The tables were festooned with custom coloring pages, Funko pops, and the “guest book” included Cards Against Humanity custom cards for guests to create.

All in all, it was a pretty great wedding. People we loved surrounded us. This has remained true. While some friendships have come and gone, others have stayed, strengthened, or even began anew. I’m ever grateful for those who were involved with the wedding, those who came, and those who watched via the livestream.

That wedding also marked the time of my wife getting sick. A mystery ailment struck her, and at the time all we knew was that she had tons of fatigue and wasn’t able to stay upright for long periods of time. The near future would see her with a cane, and then relegated to a wheelchair for longer distances. That wheelchair also travelled to Iceland with us a few years later for our honeymoon.

Six years is a long time, though. In those six years, she got very sick, but she has also greatly recovered. She no longer needs a cane to walk, and it has been a couple of years since she used that wheelchair. She still has some fatigue and memory issues, but overall she’s gotten a lot stronger.

Even when she was sick though, she was there for me. She buoyed me up and dealt with my worsening depression. She cheered me on and encouraged me when I showed glimmers of interest in hobbies and activities. She’s always done her best to try and elevate Team Jikki to be the best we could be.

I’m not great at public displays of affection. My depression, anxiety, and more lead to me struggling to feel, well, human most of the time. I may have been the one pushing the wheelchair for years, but Nikki is the one who stayed strong, always pushing me to be better.

Nikki, my darling, my impossible girl, my loving wife, I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart.  You are my everything, we are Team Jikki, and we’ll keep doing better.

Happy Anniversary, my love. Let’s go get tacos or something.

A Taste of the Future

Last week’s post was a bit heavy for me, but talking about my imposter syndrome is important. Unfortunately that doesn’t solve it, but I like to think that it helps. This week I would like something a bit lighter, a bit more aspirational, but just as personal. That’s right, I’m here to talk about the Future.

As always, the Future is a muddling miasmic muck of vague hopes and ideals tempered by the crushing reality of doubt and fear. Despite the odds stacked against us, we all hope for a brighter future. Though I dare say that things have been very difficult for me on that front. This post aims to change that. Or at the very least, lay out a crude road map.

The launch of Pallas Lost is right around the corner, and that is both exciting and terrifying. Even though I’ve had great response so far from friends and family, that imposter syndrome is making it hard to hope the success will continue beyond that. But because humans are mercurial creatures capable of living with dichotomy, at the same time I have plans to continue the series.

The second book, Pallas Found, is 90-95% written. As I am a plantser by nature, during NaNoWriMo this year I took a turn I didn’t see coming. I completely invalidated my original ending, and I’m currently working out what the new one will look like. I’ve given myself a pretty good deadline, however. I intend to release Pallas Found in 2023, ideally one year to the day after Pallas Lost.

That is an ambitious goal, however. It took almost a decade to bring Pallas Lost to this point, and I’m determined not to let another decade go by without a follow-up. Plus, my wife will literally kill me if I renege on finishing the sequel. I hope to finish writing the first draft in the next month or so, and then pushing it to Alpha readers.

Hell, maybe a year is too optimistic. But I’m going to do my best to stick with it. Once I push the Alphas out, I’ll start laying the groundwork for the threequel. I always saw the Pallas story as a trilogy, and that plan hasn’t changed. It won’t end where or how I originally planned, however, so I’m excited to see where the story takes us all.

At the same time in the background I’ve been working on a fantasy series. It is based on my homebrew D&D setting, though significantly changed and tweaked to be altogether, well, novel when compared to the world of D&D. Part of my planning has been the creation of  unique races and creatures to populate the realm. The world is Pelynos, and the story takes place in Rhomeria. I don’t want to say too much more at this time because the story is still in its infancy.

After the Rhomeria book comes out, there will be others in that setting. I have ideas for other books in the Fifteen Systems universe to complement the Pallas books. By this point, who knows, maybe I’ll have other ideas that I’ll want to tackle instead. At the end of the day, I would just like my work to be at least somewhat successful. I’ve often said I’ll consider myself a successful author when I get my first fanart or cosplay.

We’ll see.