Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

Since it's still Wednesday at home.

Currently On: Chapter Fourteen, Page 145
Total Pages: 290
Total Words: 92,000

I did get some writing done on the flight over. It feels good to make my story lean and mean!

When In Japan...

Do as the Japanese do.

Shortly before the start of the work day in the lab, music plays over the intercom, and the people in the office area do a series of stretches. I do my best to follow along. Then there's a short assembly before work begins.

I've gone through all the documents the QC manager had for me, so now it looks like I'll be practicing experiments for the rest of the time. Some of the techniques are different from what I do at home. For example, most of their pipetting is done by mouth. (At home, I use automated pipets.) I haven't done mouth pipetting since high school biology class, when I got urea into my mouth. I'm doing it here for some of the work -- and yes, I've sucked up enzyme solution into my mouth again. Harmless, but not very tasty.

It can be hard to communicate with the people in the lab. Some are more fluent in English than others. We use gestures a lot. Sometimes they bring other people in to translate.

I use chopsticks at lunch, but my technique isn't the best. At this point, it's hard to retrain myself.

Getting to and from work is pretty straightforward. I take a taxi from the train station to work, and someone brings me back to the train station at the end of the day.

One of the people who can speak English very well (he and his family lived in London for several years) took me out for dinner last night. We had shabu shabu. If you're not familiar with that, a boiling pot of water is set on the table (which has a built-in heating unit), along with thinly sliced meat and vegetables. You cook the meat and vegetables in the water and dip it into sauce. Very filling--and very messy.

Yesterday at breakfast, I sat next to a couple of tourists. They're from Hawaii, though the man was originally from Chicago. (They were chatty types--at least he was.) When they got up to leave, he put on Groucho Marx glasses. I think he thought I was too young to know who that was, but I've seen a couple of the Marx Brothers movies.

Speaking of breakfast, it's time to eat. More later.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Japan: The First Day

The good news: I survived my first full day in Japan. The bad news: I'm not sleeping very well, which is why I'm posting before 6:00 a.m. local time. Here are a few things I've noted so far:

The Japanese keep their buildings at higher temps than we're used to. Plus, it's also humid; we're expected to get rain for the next several days. No wonder fans are popular here!

People do wear face masks when they're sick.

I see a fair amount of young girls with short, full skirts and knee-high socks. Even some older women dress like that.

It feels weird to have the hotel staff kneel when they present the morning Japanese paper to me and push the elevator buttons.

Work is going OK so far. The first thing I did was meet the company president as part of my official welcome. Then I was shown how to get to the Quality Control/Assurance building. This involves taking the subway to a station and then taking a taxi. I was shown around in the morning and had lunch at a company cafeteria. Good thing I can use chopsticks! Afterward, the manager of Quality Control showed me several documents, mostly in Japanese. I recognized some parts, but it's a good thing the manager has a little electronic dictionary to help translate. Everyone has been very kind and helpful to me so far.

They let me leave a little early yesterday due to my jet lag. Someone took me to the subway station. It wasn't too hard finding my train or the right stop, but once I left the subway station I became disoriented. For some reason, I thought I had to go straight to get to my hotel, so I walked for several blocks, realized I didn't recognize anything, then turned around and walked back to the subway. I tried another direction and got the same result. Meanwhile, the light rain grew heavier and heavier, and my feet hurt. Finally, I realized I needed to make a turn somewhere, and from that point, I found my hotel very quickly. I think part of what confused me is that I left the hotel in the morning from a side entrance, not the main one. Hopefully, it should go more smoothly today.

Anyway, it's time to "get up" and get ready for work. Here's hoping I don't fall asleep during my assay.


I’m writing this blog post at 10,000 feet as I fly to Japan. (OK, I’m not the one doing the actual flying, but I bet you guessed that. And yes, I wrote this Saturday but didn't post it until now.) Over the next two weeks, I will practice various enzyme assays (and hopefully become qualified to do them) and learn everything I need to know to be a one-woman Quality Control Department. At least in theory; I’m not sure how well anyone in the Japanese lab speaks English. Hopefully we’ll be able to understand each other.

I’m not too thrilled about having to make this trip. I haven’t slept well in months, and my insomnia has been even worse lately; I don’t need massive jet lag on top of that. I don’t know how well I’ll handle the culture shock. But the worst thing about this trip is leaving my family, especially Alex. My trip in June had him talking about “Mommy’s bus” for days. He was asleep when I left the house this morning, so at least I was spared having to hear him wail again. I hope this long absence doesn’t traumatize him! Eugene really has to cut his work hours to care for Alex while I’m gone. We’ve been long-distance before, but that doesn’t make it fun.

Characters in novels go on journeys fairly often. Physical shifting of scenes can help to move the plot forward, make the story interesting, and introduce the character (and the reader) to new cultures. Journeys are useful in fiction for another reason: they can force character growth. Placing a character in unfamiliar settings takes them out of their comfort zones and make them develop new skills. This is something I’ll be experiencing firsthand!

I don’t know how much time I’ll have to post during my stay, but I’ll try to keep you updated on how my trip goes. I do get a couple days to play tourist, so hopefully that will go well.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: What Makes You a Writer?

For this time around, Michelle asked the following philosophical question:

Do you choose what you do because of who you are? Or is who you are determined by what you do?

Mandy posted before me, and Eric comes next.

Personally, I think questions like this are best answered by "yes." Your innate traits and tendencies as well as your actions affect your identity; it's not a case of only one or the other. In fact, I think they work together.

We are all products of both our genes and our environment. Genes may set the potential, but the environment can affect how well those genes are expressed. Together, your genes and your environment give you traits that make you better at some things than others. For example, as a five-foot woman, I'm not very good at basketball; however, I have good verbal skills. For the sake of argument, let's say that people tend to prefer doing things they're good at over things that they're not so good at. Since I have good verbal skills, I enjoy reading and spend a lot of time doing it--or at least as much as time permits these days. My love of books and reading is part of what led me to start writing. However, by definition, a writer is someone who writes, so action is essential here. It took me a while to realize I was good at writing and enjoyed it, but the more I practiced writing, the better I became at it, and the more writing became a part of what I am. Other factors in my life influenced what I wrote about, but the more I wrote in the science fiction/fantasy genre, the more I identified with it.

I think many working people identify themselves by their jobs, no matter how they feel about them. If you lose your job or get transferred to a new position, it can cause an identity crisis. Still, there are some parts of my identity that do not change with my job title. While I may have good writing days and bad ones (today was one of the latter), writing has become a part of who I am, just as my love of science will always be a part of who I am, even if I never perform another research experiment.

Finally, I would like to answer this philosophical question with one of my own: why does it seem to be part of human nature to want something to be one thing or the other instead of embracing the duality? Although it may be easier to assign things to strict categories, in real life, there is also a lot of overlap. Acknowledging the overlap will help you see things as they really are.

Work In Progress Wednesday

Currently On: Chapter 14, Page 140
Total Pages: 305
Total Words: 98,000

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Apple Picking

Today we went apple picking at a nearby orchard. It's something we do every year, and since I'm leaving on a two-week business trip this Saturday, we wanted to do it before I had to go.

We got up early, thanks to Alex, and were at the apple orchard about a half hour after opening. This worked well, as we not only beat the crowds but were able to finish before Alex needed his nap. The bad news was that we forgot to bring a stroller and our cameras. The weather was sunny but a bit on the cool side.

We paid for a bushel of apples. Before riding on the wagon up to the actual orchard, we hung around the front area, where they had several attractions. Alex was interested in a giant purple caterpillar (kids could crawl through it and go down a slide), but he balked when he felt the air blowing out of the entrance. He briefly went into a moon bounce, and I took him into the small petting zoo, though we didn't hand out there long either. He did enjoy the pumpkin display and wanted to pick them up.

We were interested in picking Honeycrisp apples and Asian pears. Unfortunately, once we got to the orchard, we found out that the Asian pears weren't ready yet, even though we'd been told they would be. That was disappointing, but Honeycrisp apples are still good. Alex was very interested in picking apples this time. He wanted to take the apples off of the ground, and of course he wanted to put them in the bag. (I had to go through the apples when he wasn't watching and purge a few.) He did pick some apples directly from the tree, and I encouraged him to eat a couple as well.

By the time we finished and headed back, Alex was noticeably tired. He held on long enough to eat a couple of apple donuts in the car. Then he fell asleep, and as we drove home, the rain came.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I haven't had much chance to blog the past few days, which is too bad, as I have things to blog about:

Thursday was our fourth anniversary. Eugene gave me four bunches of roses and four of the remastered Beatles CDs; I gave him four books on history and photography. We're such the romantic couple, aren't we? We did go out for dinner, but we took Alex along since we didn't have a babysitter. We brought along his portable DVD player and a Wonder Pets! DVD to entertain him, but he was a restless. He didn't want the noodles we ordered for him, and he threw a small tantrum (believe me, there are gradations of tantrums) while he was sitting in my lap. Fortunately, our waitress was very understanding, as she had three of her own kids. We wound up calming him down by taking turns walking him around outside. He enjoyed touching a giant statue of a horse (we were at P.F. Chang's) and looking at a limo. He also ate one of my mu shu pancakes and some chocolate cake. We wound up getting home later than we expected, so he had a really late bedtime. It's taken us a couple of days to get him back on track.

Yesterday, our neighborhood had a picnic at a nearby fitness center. Alex didn't want to swim, but he loved the playground and dragged us back there several times. It was also nice meeting our neighbors and getting tips on where to find new parks and other places to take Alex.

We haven't done much today, but we did buy a bed rail for Alex's crib. He's very close to climbing out of the crib, so it's time to convert it. The only issue is when to do it. I'm going on a business trip to Japan at the end of the month, so I don't want to put Alex through too many changes at once.

OK, now let's see if I can get some writing done.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Work in Progress Wednesday

Currently On: Chapter Thirteen (at least I think that's the current chapter), Page 131
Total Pages: 304
Total Words: 98,000

Quote of the Day

From Edwin Schlossberg:

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Book Review: From the Query to the Call

There are only two hard parts to getting published: writing a book and selling it. And considering how many authors are out there competing for the attention of a limited number of agents, the latter task may seem even harder than the first. Fortunately, you can find an experienced guide through the querying jungle. Elana Johnson, one of my fellow Blog Chain members, has presented information about writing query letters and contacting agents at writing conferences. She recently assembled this information into an e-book called From the Query to the Call. It will be officially published next Monday (September 14), but I was able to get a sneak peek.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how well organized it was. Embedded bookmarks quickly take you to the section you're most interested in. Important tips are flagged with a special symbol. Even more important are the links to various online resources, such as worksheets to help you with your query letter and websites that can help you pick which agents to approach.

There are two main sections to this book: "Writing a Killer Query" and "Entering the Query Trenches." In the first part, Elana analyzes several successful query letters and discusses how each part works. It may surprise some writers how much of the query letter is devoted to the story itself, not to the writer's qualifications. In the second half of the book, Elana walks through the query process, from researching agents to talking to them on the phone. She includes several interviews with other authors describing how they handled "the call." It may be reassuring to learn other writers get nervous about talking to agents--and to remember that agents are humans too.

At 63 pages, this book is a quick read, which is good for overworked writers like me. Thanks to Elana's easy conversational yet empathic voice, a topic that strikes fear into the hearts of writers becomes less daunting. Although I've written query letters before, I think Elana's step-by-step approach to setting up the hooks, central conflict, and consequences of a story will help me greatly when I'm ready to send out Across Two Universes. I recommend her book to all fiction writers ready to send their books to agents.

For more information, please visit From the Query to the Call's official website or Facebook page.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Breaking the Rules

As promised, it's time for another blog chain post. This time, Kate came up with a very interesting topic:

What writing rules/advice -- whether it was a matter of cannot or will not -- have you broken?

Amanda posted before me in the chain, and Eric comes after me.

I consider myself to have a decent grounding in basic grammar (for those new to my blog, I have a master's degree in technical writing and copyedited a local newspaper for a couple of months). While I'm not infallible, my drafts tend to be mostly "clean" of grammar mistakes. However, while I think the Oxford comma should be used all the time, I also realize that fiction writing isn't as formal as academic or business writing. There are times when it's OK to break the rules -- provided you first know what the rules are and why they exist.

One of the rules I've broken in writing is the one against sentence fragments. I've read a Beatles fanfic story that had so many sentence fragments I couldn't force myself to finish it. But fragments can be used to alter the pace of your story or set off items in a list. For example, here's a paragraph from one of my stories called "The Movement You Need." The main character suspects someone has invaded his hotel room and is checking the closet:

He yanked the closet door open –

Shirts and slacks, neatly hung on the hangers provided by the hotel. His suitcase on the luggage rack, lid open. A couple pairs of non-leather shoes on the floor. Nothing else.

In my opinion, using fragments here emphasizes each item and shows how the main character thoroughly checks out his closet. The short phrases also increase tension.

As far as storytelling rules, one I've broken several times is writing novels over 120,000 words. The conventional wisdom is that they're too long to sell. The first novel I queried, Day of All Seasons, was about 170,000 words. I had a couple of agents request partials, but that's as far as it got. I don't know if the length turned them off or if there were other story issues bothering them. Originally, my current novel consisted of a novella and a sequel; I decided to drop the first part (the novella) in order to bring the word count down to something manageable.

Another rule I'm breaking in my current scene is to have characters sitting around drinking a beverage and talking. The idea behind this rule is to keep the tension high and to have your characters do active things. I'm using this scene to increase romantic tension right before my hero is forced into a nasty dilemma, so hopefully it will work for my beta readers.

That's all I have for now. I hope these examples inspire you to learn how to make the rules work for you instead of following them blindly. Please follow the rest of the blog chain to see how other writers handle the rules.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

It seems harder to find time to blog lately than to find writing time, and that's saying something. I've been meaning to post something about style in "fat fantasy" for a while now, but I haven't had a chance to write it up yet. Perhaps I'll be able to do so in the next couple of days. Anyway, here's a quick update on Across Two Universes:

Currently On: Chapter Twelve, Page 127
Total Pages: 300
Total Words: 97,000

I'm not sure if my current scene is going to work as well as I thought it would. My original plan was to have Paul and Yvonne discuss how to save Sean without telling him how he'll be killed (since he insists he doesn't want to know). Ultimately, I want to end the scene with Paul realizing he'll have to face Sean's killer and risk his own life, but I'm having trouble seeing how to get them to that point. Maybe I just need some more sleep.

I'll be back with the next round of the Blog Chain on Friday, so come back then to see what it's about!

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