Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: What Color is Your Dinosaur?

This article, while it doesn't particularly inspire me with story ideas, is still pretty cool. Some dinosaur fossils have structures that appear to be feathers, although not all scientists agree that's what they are. By looking at these structures under the microscope, scientists can compare them to feathers of modern birds. Both the fossilized structures and feathers have tiny components called melanosomes, or colored bodies. The melanosomes in the fossils appear to come in two kinds so far: one gray to black; the other, reddish and white. There isn't enough data yet to speculate what a dinosaur's overall colors were white, but this might give some writers ideas for describing dinosaurs or even aliens. And the purpose of a particular coloring? Again, that's something for you to play with.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Whose Voice is It Anyway?

I'm back again with another installment of the Blog Chain. This time, Sarah asked the question:

How did you discover your particular voice as a writer?

Mandy answered this question before me, and Eric will post tomorrow.

I have what may be an unconventional take on voice. While there are some parts of my writing style that are constant -- I use semicolons and long sentences, and even semicolons in long sentences; I like beats, similes, and interior dialogue -- my voice changes with each project. My voice is flavored by the viewpoint characters who tell my stories. In the end, they are all products of me, filtered by my perceptions of how a noblewoman, seamstress, teenage male actor, embittered lab tech, or magician in exile might view the world. But I work hard to ensure that the words I choose fit the character. It's like the improv game of All in One Voice, where two people have to make up and sing the same lyrics at the same time:

Voice is especially important when writing a story told in the first person. My two most successful stories so far were written in first person. ("Move Over Ms. L.," the prequel to my current novel Across Two Universes, earned an Honorable Mention in an international competition for novellas. "A Reptile at the Reunion" was published in an anthology two years ago.) I think part of the reason they worked so well is because of the voice. It's interesting that both main characters had some things in common with me: both women worked in a lab, either scientific or veterinary. They were also both soured by events in their pasts, and this cynicism and hurt carried over into their voices. (I hope I don't come across this way in real life!) Jo, the heroine of "Move Over Ms. L.," is described by her husband in Across Two Universes has having more chip than shoulder. Jo reconciles with her past over the course of "Move Over Ms. L.," going from this:

I stopped myself from blurting out the rest of my private nickname for him – Uncle Jackass. He was the heir to the wishing well – not to mention the money well.

To this:

And you’ll be loved, Paul. No matter what happens, both George and I will always love you. I promise you that.

My current novel is told in third person, mostly from Paul's point of view. I find it harder to establish a voice in third person, though as I said before, I try to filter the narration through his perspective. The expressions he uses are a product of his upbringing. For instance, when he gets in trouble, he refers to himself as being "in heavy water" instead of hot water. Although heavy water isn't used in the fusion engines that power the spaceship where he lives, it still seems like something he would know about and know was dangerous. Paul is also much more free with swear words than I am in real life, and as an actor, he likes to quote Shakespeare. I don't think Shakespeare counts as part of my voice, though.

One final point I'd like to make about voice is that for me at least, it takes time to develop. My first draft of a scene tends to be sparse, mostly dialogue, beats, and action. Dialogue comes fairly easily to me, but setting doesn't. I'm an organic writer who tends to figure out the purpose of a scene as I create it, so this is part of the reason why my drafts are quite drafty. And frequently, especially if I'm tired, the words I choose tend to be ordinary. Once I have a better sense of the scene and what my viewpoint character's motives and emotions are, I can go back and punch up the scene with details and interesting phrases to give it some spark.

To sum up, the voice of a particular story isn't just mine; it's a fusion of my perspective and my character's. We improv and experiment together until we come up with the words that sing. And my readers are lucky in that they don't have to hear me actually sing my stories. I'd drive them all away!

What are your thoughts on voice?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Contest for Book Lovers (and Views of My Library)

Rebecca Knight, one of our blog chain members, recently reached 100 followers on her blog. To celebrate, she's running a contest. You can enter from now through February 14th; the details are here. The prizes include a $25 gift card, a synopsis critique, and a copy of Shiver, plus some other goodies. You can earn points for the contest by spreading the word about it and showing your love of books, such as writing reviews of books, taking pictures of yourself with books, and posting pictures of yourself with your library. Here are my photos; please focus on the books, not me! I'm not very good at self-portraits.

The picture on the left is me in front of my non-fiction bookshelf. Included here are books on philosophy, literature, history, and textbooks from undergrad. On the right is the bookshelf devoted to my SF/fantasy paperbacks. I estimate this bookshelf contains over 500 paperbacks!

On the left is another view of my SF/Fantasy paperback bookshelf. On the right is a bookshelf with fiction hardcovers/trade paperbacks. The lower three shelves house my Beatles books/magazine collection.

In addition to these bookshelves, I have two other bookshelves in my office that aren't pictured. One holds more fiction hardcovers and trade paperbacks; the other, my writing books. They're not in good spots for picture-taking. I also have some books still in boxes in our basement. I probably have at least a thousand books, most of which I've read. (I don't shelve my books until I read them, with the exception of books like encyclopedias that you wouldn't read cover to cover.) And this doesn't include my husband's or my son's book collections!

Another view of my non-fiction.

So, Rebecca, that's my library. Five points, please!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Animal Antifreeze

Do you like winter? I sure don't. If you happen to like winter so much that your story is set in a very cold location, you might want to read this article in the New York Times. It discusses ways in which fish and insects cope with cold weather. For these creatures, one of the main dangers of cold weather is the buildup of ice crystals, which can damage cells and organs. So, some of these animals have proteins that act as antifreeze. These proteins bind to ice crystals and extend the range at which water stays liquid. The really interesting thing about these proteins is that each different species has its own unique antifreeze; they all evolved the trait independently. Other insects use alcohols and complex sugars to control ice development. These molecules don't stop ice from forming the way the protein antifreezes do, but they keep the insides of cells unfrozen.

So, how can we apply this science to science fiction? I can think of a few ways:

1. These animals can provide inspiration for aliens in cold environments.
2. As a way to preserve organs for transplant (researchers are already studying this) or to save and freeze tissue/embryos so they can be thawed later (perhaps colonists could bring infants or young animals with them this way).
3. As a way to send humans on long space voyages; they can be frozen and then thawed on arrival.

Does anyone have any other general ideas they'd like to share?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Where Does the Time Go?

Today was one of those rare days when I didn't have to work and Alex's daycare was open. I shamelessly brought him in. He had to stay home Friday since he wasn't feeling well, so I figured it would be good to get him back into the routine. Besides, I can get more done when I don't have to worry about him. I had a lot of plans for today, but as usual, I overestimated what I could get done in a day. My day went something like this:

6:10--Woke up (before the alarm), checked my computer, and exercised.
6:55--Came back upstairs to get ready.
7:20--Alex started to fuss. Eugene checked on him while I finished getting ready.
7:30--Went downstairs and prepared breakfast for the three of us. Wrote out grocery list. Kept Alex entertained and finished getting him ready for school while Eugene took his shower.
8:35--Finally got Alex bundled in the car.
8:55--Dropped Alex off at daycare.
9:10--Arrived at grocery store and bought a cartload of groceries.
10:20--Arrived back home. Put groceries away. Vacuumed upstairs. Realized I didn't have time to clean the master bathroom. Prepared a casserole and a frozen dessert. Warmed up leftovers for lunch.
12:15--Headed out for a spa appointment, leaving dirty dishes in the sink.
12:30-2:00 Had my eyebrows waxed and got a facial. It was very relaxing and long overdue.
2:20--Returned home. Cleaned up and unloaded dishwasher. Made tea and brought computer upstairs to my office.
3:00-5:30 Worked on Across Two Universes while surfing the Net, checking out stories to crit on OWW, and other things. Despite goofing off, I still wrote nearly 600 words, which is pretty good for me.
5:30--Left to pick up Alex.
6:10-7:30--Returned home. Finished cooking dinner while trying to find something Alex wanted to eat. Made French toast for him, but he refused it for plain bread and part of an apple. Set up a loaf of bread in the bread machine. Watched umpteen zillion episodes of Busytown Mysteries with Alex.
7:35-8:30--Eugene came home from work. He washed the salad, served dinner, and cleaned up while Alex occupied my lap. Ate dinner while watching umpteen zillion more episodes of Busytown Mysteries. Alex nibbled on a few wafer cookies.
8:30-9:30--Brought Alex upstairs and gave him his bath. Eugene helped him say "goodnight" to various things around the house and changed him into his pajamas. Alex finally decided he wants to eat ham. I brought some upstairs and watched him devour several deli slices while Eugene read several bedtime books. Helped Alex brush and floss his teeth. Finally get him in the crib.
9:30--now. Came downstairs, made more tea, checked a couple of my favorite sites, and finished this blog post.

What's the point of listing my day in so much detail? To show how much time goes into everyday chores like cooking, cleaning, and childcare. The sad thing is there were several other chores I had planned to do, like clean the bathroom, organize my office, and run a couple of errands at the mall. If I had done them, then I doubt I would have had any time to write at all today. (I was also hoping to critique a story on OWW today, but I haven't found one I want to do yet.) If you're not careful, chores can expand to fill all of your time. Some chores have to be taken care of, but sometimes you have to ignore them and carve out time for yourself.

So, dear readers, how do you allocate your time? What's your chore/writing ratio?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

2009 High Fives

I was nominated for an award last night over at Inkpots n'Quills: the 2009 High Fives. If I understand this correctly, I'm supposed to list five accomplishments from last year and nominate five more blogs. This took some thought, but here are my accomplishments:


IFT stands for Institute of Food Technology, a professional organization. They hold a convention every year; food companies give out samples, and scientists present their food-related research. Last June, I flew out to California to present some of the research I'd done for my company at a poster session. Although it's relatively easy to have a poster accepted, it was still the first time I'd done something like this. Overall, the poster session went well, and we made some new business contacts.


Since I was transferred last year from research to Quality Control, I was sent to Japan for two weeks to our parent company for training. (There are a series of posts discussing my trip, which was in late September-early October.) I'm still trying to perfect the assays I need to do, but considering I don't speak Japanese and not all of the QC people spoke English very well, I'm glad it went as well as it did. They praised me for my ability to use chopsticks, and I made it to the lab in the aftermath of a typhoon. I also got to see the John Lennon Museum near Tokyo.


One of the hardest parts about my business trips last year was leaving my family, especially my toddler son. Last year, we finally got him to fall asleep on his own and in his crib, instead of on us or with us in his room. We had to force him to cry it out, which was hard for all of us, but now everyone sleeps better. (Except for me, but I'm at the point where I need medical help to cure my insomnia.) I'm also pleased to report that while Alex isn't completely toilet training, he does use his potty. I think being in daycare and seeing the other kids use the toilet got him interested in it.


I didn't finish revising my current project as I'd resolved to, but at least my opening survived a public flogging.


I was part of three panels at WisCon last year. The topics were keeping up with science, the science of time travel, and keeping science in science fiction. I contributed more to the first and last panel than I did to the one on time travel. That was a busy time of year for me, as we also had to plan for Alex's second birthday party and my trip to IFT. Adding preparation for the WisCon panels on top of that made things stressful. I'm glad they went well, but I think I won't sign up for so many this year.

I also have to nominate five other blogs for this award, so here we go:

Deathday Letters
Don't Think Twice

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Epigenetics

Welcome to a new feature on my blog: The Science of Science Fiction. Whenever I find interesting science articles online, I intend to link to them and discuss both the science and its potential in science fiction. My first article comes from Time and is titled "Why Genes Aren't Destiny."

As you probably learned in high school biology, deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA, is the carrier of our genetic information. (For a refresher course on DNA, please check here and here.) With the exception of red blood cells and eggs/sperm, all cells in the human body carry all of the instructions, or genes, needed to create a human being. However, not all genes are needed in all cells, and even the ones that are on in a given cell have to be regulated. In order to turn genes on or off or to change how often their instruction are read, small molecules bind to DNA in specific places. These chemical markers form the basis of epigenetics, the study of non-genetic changes in genetic regulation that are heritable.

These changes in gene regulation can persist for a surprisingly long time. The article in Time discusses a Swedish study linking overeating as a child, even for a single season, to significantly shorter lives for that child's grandchildren. (That's a very scary thought, given the typical American diet!) Fortunately, unlike changes in the DNA sequence, the markers aren't permanent and can fade if the environment changes. Also, these markers are a possible target for new drugs to treat certain illnesses. Some markers can even overrule poor genes. Pregnant women are urged to get extra folic acid during pregnancy. It turns out that folic acid is a source of markers called methyl groups (one carbon and three hydrogen atoms), and a study in mice showed that giving folic acid to pregnant mice with a genetic tendency toward diabetes resulted in the babies turning out healthy.

So, what does all of this mean for a science fiction writer? Epigenetics is still a very new field, with much to be learned. One thing that is known, however, is that some genes have different effects depending on if they came from the father or the mother; this is another example of DNA markers at work. As a science fiction writer, I could see using epigenetics as a way to explain differences between genders or as a way for a population to change very quickly in response to their environment. You could even create a single alien race with several distinct types of individuals; they could all have the same genes that are regulated differently based on the genetic markers they bear.

I hope you found this new feature of my blog interesting and not too overwhelming. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to post them. Like our genome, this blog is also open to evolution!

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Writing Resolutions

Welcome back to the Blog Chain! This round, BJ picked the topic:

What are your writing resolutions for the year 2010?

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

Last year, I resolved to finish revising Across Two Universes. Unfortunately, I couldn't sustain the pace I set for myself (I got bogged down at some points). However, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, I am much farther along. My new goal is to finish this draft by my birthday (April 28). That will give me some time to take a break from it before the final review/polish. And by then I really, really want to start sending it out.

I'm not sure what else I'll work on besides ATU. I do have a sequel planned, but it might be nice to take a break from Paul and return to my NaNoWriMo project. (I have to do something better with that singing owl!) I might even work on some of my short story ideas.

Along with actual writing, I have several other goals in mind:

1. I will attend WisCon Memorial Day weekend. I go every year (except when I'm nine months pregnant), and I'm already booked for the con and the hotel room. I'm not sure yet if I'll be on any panels this year or if I'll just attend them.

2. I will read the writing books on my to-read list: Flogging the Quill and The 10% Solution.

3. I will blog more frequently than I have been lately--at least 10 times a month. I'm thinking of blogging about some of the science news stories I read and discussing the implications for science fiction. I will also search for more blogs to follow and leave comments.

4. I will critique at least two chapters or short stories on the Online Writing Workshop (edited to add: per month). I haven't had much time for it lately, but while my writing brain cells fade by the end of the day, the reviewing cells might still have a chance to function.

That's enough for now. Will I actually stick to my goals? Well, I do have my mind set on them:

But we'll see next year how well I did.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Five Random Things

Christina Fonseca posted this meme on her blog, and it looked interesting enough for me to follow suit. If you'd like to play along too, please feel free to do so in either a comment below or on your own blog. If you post it on your blog, please link to it so I can see what you said.

1) Most unusual or interesting job I’ve had

My previous job in Research and Development for an enzyme company (I was transferred to QC last year). I had the opportunity to choose some of my own projects. Sometimes I'd go shopping at the grocery store and bring back different types of food to experiment on. Of course, that meant I had to taste-test the results, and they weren't always good!

2) Childhood Memory related to writing…

When I was in middle school, I studied German. It wasn't very popular, so when we held our Foreign Language Fair, we didn't get to perform the way the French and Spanish students did. I tried to change that by writing a short play called "A Little Demonstration of German." It was a couple of short scenes with German phrases. Nothing too fancy, as my German wasn't up to much--and I've forgotten a lot of it since! We didn't get to perform it, but my teacher gave me a special certificate that year.

3) Things I collect

I collect postcards whenever I travel. It started when I visited Germany as a teenager. I even taped them to the wall of my dorm room in undergrad. I don't display them any more, but I still buy them.

I also like to collect books and magazines about the Beatles. For a while, I used to buy Time's special Year in Review issue, but I've let that slide.

4) Obsessions

My pet dragons on Facebook. Sometimes if I wake up in the middle of the night, I'll log in to check on a battle. Heck, perhaps they're why I can no longer sleep more than six hours at a stretch. Yes, I'm strange.

5) Unusual “talents”

I'm not sure what to put here. I can crochet. There's nothing unusual about that--except I do it with my "weak" hand. I'm left-handed, but crochet patterns are written for right-handed people. It was easier to learn to crochet right-handed than to keep reversing the directions.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Baking Day

Since we were supposed to get 6-10 inches of snow today, I took the day off from work. I have a lot of vacation time this year, and my boss didn't mind. Although I haven't written much (Alex didn't nap for very long today), I did manage to bake a loaf of our regular sandwich bread (a variation of nine-grain honey bread, made in the bread machine), two loaves of potato bread, and a batch of lemon scones. The last two recipes were new to me. The potato bread wasn't too difficult, but I had more trouble with the scones. I had to cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a fork, and the scone pan we have increased the baking time (the recipe called for cutting the scones into wedges and baking them on a parchment-lined baking sheet, but I wanted to try the scone pan). They were still good. We had the potato bread with homemade lentil soup--a good dinner for a winter night.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Work In Progress Wednesday

It's been a long time since I've done one of these, so I thought it was time to post an update:

Currently Working On: Across Two Universes, Chapter Eighteen, Page 187
Total Number of Pages: 266
Total Number of Words: About 84,000

The word count shrunk because I took out a chapter, which I'm currently rewriting. Still, I'm finally beginning to feel that I'm close to the end of this draft. It's still too soon to predict when I'll be finished; it depends on how much I revise the end.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Tea at the Drake Hotel

If you're my friend on Facebook, you may have noticed that my most recent status update was about having tea at the Drake Hotel. This is something Eugene and I have been meaning to do for a while, and he booked a reservation a couple of weeks ago on a whim.

Earlier this week, I was wondering what to wear. This hotel is a posh place, and I don't have any winter dresses. I did look around a bit earlier, but I didn't find anything. Even if I had, it's too cold for a dress today--unless it comes with a built-in space heater. My characters in Across Two Universes have smart clothes that can warm or cool them, but they're still not quite ready for the general market. I finally settled on something warm: my best jeans and a nice sweater. Although there were some older women in furs, there were also plenty of other people in jeans, so that worked out.

The hotel was still decorated for Christmas. There was a huge Christmas tree and a little village outside the Palm Court. Alex also liked looking at the big wooden soldiers posted by the stairs. We sat next to the fountain and had a good view of the harpist's back.

We each got to order our own pot of tea (we didn't get any for Alex, but I let him try some of mine). Unfortunately, they were out of my first choice, White Jasmine, so I ordered Gunpowder Green instead. I probably should have chosen a herbal tea, as Gunpowder Green becomes especially bitter if it steeps too long. The selection of scones, sandwiches, and pastries was pretty good. Alex particularly liked the bread (I can't remember what kind it was). He behaved pretty well throughout the tea, though he did get a bit antsy toward the end since he wanted something else to eat.

I normally don't blog about bathrooms, but the ladies' room was quite impressive. After going through the main door, there's a short flight of steps leading down to two long couches. Each stall has its own private sink, mirror, and vanity stool.

All in all, it was an enjoyable experience, though I have to admit I preferred the high tea we had in London. Of course, the Drake is a little easier to get to than London (sigh). One of Eugene's classmates wrote a book called All the Tea in Chicago; I'd like to visit some of the other places in the Chicago area that offer a tea service. Or even better, I'd also like to bake my own scones and host a tea party sometime.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

I've been a bit lazy about blogging the last couple of weeks. I've been off of work since December 23rd (I had plenty of unused vacation time), but most of the time I've been doing things around the house, writing, or even relaxing. (It's probably not surprising I do less relaxing than writing!) So I didn't get around to doing a year-in-review post yesterday. However, since January is named for Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, I figure I can still look back before I look ahead. I know technically the new decade doesn't start until 2011, but since I hit a significant milestone this year, I feel like looking back to 2000, the year I turned 30.

Ten years ago, when I rang in 2000, it was with Eugene, although we weren't married yet. I was living up in Wisconsin (we were in a long-distance relationship), and I was working for an enzyme company up there. I can't remember exactly what writing project I was working on at the time, but it might have been an early draft of Across Two Universes or a related work. Well, today I'm married with a toddler son, and while I'm still in the enzyme industry, it's for a different company. I've had a short story published in the meantime and worked on some other writing projects too. I started this blog and joined Facebook; both of them help me network with other writers. And while it may seem as if I've taken a real long time with Across Two Universes, I feel that this draft is pretty close to final. We'll see if I feel that way after I have other people review it. (grins)

As for looking ahead, I'd really like to finish Across Two Universes and start submitting it to agents. My job is going in a new direction, so I'll have to see how well that works out. I'd also love taking a vacation with Eugene; I don't think we've had a real one since Alex was born. And yes, I do turn 40 this year. It's a little strange to think about that, though it may feel a little more real as my birthday approaches. Then again, I have too much to do to sit around and brood about it.

Happy 2010 to all of you, and if you made any resolutions, good luck in following them!

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