Sunday, February 28, 2010

Alex at the Shedd

It's been another busy week for Eugene and me, so we decided we needed to do something this weekend. We discussed a couple of options, but we finally chose a visit to the Shedd Aquarium because it seemed the most toddler-friendly.

Although we were all up by 7:30, it still took us a while to get ready. We got to the Museum campus around 11:30; it was still pretty chilly by the lake. I'm glad Alex was free admission since the ticket prices are very expensive, even without paying for the aquatic show. We also had some problems stowing our coats, as the locker jammed. I had to go to the Information desk for help. I considered using another locker but decided it wasn't worth it.

Once we got those frustrations out of the way, we were able to focus on the fish. We saw only a fraction of the exhibits. One of the one we did see was about the coral reef in the Philippines. After lunch, we visited the toddler play area. Alex had talked about seeing the dolphins, but when he finally did see them, he wasn't too impressed. Perhaps they weren't close enough, or perhaps it was because we only viewed them underwater, so he didn't see them jump. But he did enjoy a yellow submarine with lots of buttons and knobs to play with. The only thing that got him out of there was a stuffed penguin Eugene bought for him; when Alex saw that, he tried to reach it through the glass window. We then spent some time watching the real penguins swim. I got a kick out of one penguin standing on the rock; he posed for a while as if he was some penguin martial arts master about to dramatically dive into the water, but in the end he waddled off like a poseur.

We knew Alex would need to nap at some point, so we wouldn't be able to spend the whole afternoon there. Although he was obviously tired, he gained a second wind from eating and a third from playing. But by 3:00, even the fumes of energy were gone. He fell asleep in my arms as I carried him toward the exit. He woke up for a short while but napped on the way home.

Later this evening, Alex put shoes on his stuffed penguin's feet and made him dance. I took a couple of pictures but haven't uploaded them yet. We've never shown him Happy Feet; it's possible he may have seen it at daycare as a special treat. But at least he has a friend to remind him of his visit to the Shedd; we probably won't go back until he's old enough to last a full day.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain--Building Your Characters' World

This round's topic was suggested by Cole, who asked


which translated, means How do you get inside your character's world?

(And no, she didn't post the number, but when I pasted it in accidentally, I thought it would be funny to leave it there.)

My current project, Across Two Universes, literally takes place on two different worlds: one is a future Earth, and the other is a 1980 Earth. Travel between them occurs through a wormhole, so much of the story is also set on a spaceship. I have a lot to keep in mind when I create my settings, so how do I do it? It's a mixture of research and extrapolation.

Researching the 1980 setting would seem to be easier, but sometimes I have trouble tracking down the specific information I need. My characters land in the western part of the U.S.; how do they get to Chicago? In earlier drafts they flew, but this time, they have less money, so they take a train. I had to research routes and schedules, estimate prices, and look up pictures of the cars in service at that time. The Internet was a big help here, not just for looking things up directly, but by finding people willing to send me additional information. I even researched some points the old-fashioned way, via books at the library. An important scene is set outside the Museum of Science and Industry at the U-505 exhibit. I remember seeing the submarine when it was still outside the museum, but I couldn't remember how it was set up and if it was roped off. I found a book about the history of the submarine, but the pictures didn't show me how the exhibit looked. In the end, I went with what worked for my story. I tried to be as accurate as possible, but if it's not quite right, I can always claim that that's because it's an alternate universe.

With the futuristic settings, I start with what's known or what's projected and go from there. The future Earth setting contains references to global warming, problems with agriculture, and overpopulation. For the spaceship, I chose to make it fusion-powered (since that seemed the most likely power source to me) and made it self-sufficient with fish ponds and greenhouses.

To bring these settings to life, I think about what my main character would notice as he moves from one location to the other. He smells, feels, and tastes differences between the two universes. He misses having access to computers in 1980 but is amazed by how lax security is. It's all in the details, so I try to include telling details when I can.

That's all I have for now. Go check out what Mandy said yesterday and what Michelle will say tomorrow!

Thursday, February 18, 2010


I have links to two unrelated petitions to share with you.

British libel laws impose severe restrictions on free speech, to the point where they are about making money instead of saving a reputation. They interfere with both journalism and science. Foreign libel suits are brought to London because of these laws. Because of this, an international petition has been set up to reform British libel laws. You can read a report about the libel laws and sign the petition here:

I believe they're also on Facebook, though I'm not a member of the group.

Speaking of groups leads me to my favorite musical group, the Beatles. Their historical recording studio, Abbey Road, has been put up for sale by EMI. (I've been there and have pictures -- somewhere.) If brought by property developers, the site might be turned into apartments. Fortunately, the National Trust has expressed interest in preserving the site. If you'd like to show your support, please go here:

More Math Articles

Trying to catch up on my blogging here. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the New York Times online was posting a series of articles about basic math. Here are the next two articles in the refresher course:

Rock Groups (on the properties of numbers)

The Enemy of My Enemy (subtraction)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The 10% Solution

One of my goals for this year was to read two writing books on my ever-growing to-read pile. I've already read one of them: The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. This book is subtitled "Self-Editing for the Modern Writer," and that's what it teaches you to do.

It's a short book (less than 100 pages) with two main parts. As promised, this book teaches you how to trim your writing so it's crisp. The first part discusses Rand's theory of editing, which is basically a left-brain/right brain approach. The left side of your brain tends to be more analytical (the editor part), while the right brain is more creative (the writer part). The trick is to focus on one task at a time, either writing or editing. I admit this is something I have problems with, as I tend to ease into a writing session by editing my previous day's work. The second part of the book discusses some of the most common words to look for when editing, such as "that," "of," and "was." While these may not always be problem words, they can indicate wordiness. Some of these words are ones I try to avoid in my writing, but it's still useful to have a refresher course. In summary, this is a useful book for any writer and packs a lot of punch per page.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Family Business

Several interesting things have happened with Eugene and Alex this week, but I've been so tired I haven't felt like blogging. So here's a quick recap:

We took Alex to a birthday party Sunday. It was at a place called Jumps and Jiggles. Alex has been there before, but not recently. This indoor playground features tunnels, slides, big blocks, and a carousel. The party was during prime nap time for toddlers; Alex fell asleep on the way over, but luckily he wasn't cranky when we woke him up. When we got inside, he found a small compartment with a steering wheel, and since he's into cars, he really enjoyed that. I finally got him away from there to eat, and he ate more pieces of cheese pizza (minus the crusts, which he gave to us) than I've ever seen him eat before. He was a little hesitant to ride the carousel at first, but once he did, he didn't want to leave. He even stayed on without me holding him! (He was wearing a safety strap, and I rode next to him, holding onto his shirt like the paranoid mother I am.) We finally lured him off with the promise of cake. He only had a couple of bites before it was back to the steering wheel. We left with a goody bag of candy, which he quickly figured out how to open. All the sugar couldn't keep him from resisting a late and much-needed nap.

I'm a whole four months older than Eugene. Yeah, I was a cougar before the term was even invented. :snort: Eugene always teases me that he gets to razz me first about my birthday. So this Monday, on his 39 1/2 birthday, I surprised him with a birthday card. I wanted to do more, but Alex got sick at daycare and had to go home early (and stay home on Tuesday). I gave Eugene a nice card; I'm not ready for the "Over the Hill" stuff yet!

Tonight was our date night. Instead of going out, we prepared a special meal from Dinner by Design: shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped filets, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and white chocolate raspberry cheesecake. Then we curled up and watched some Whose Line before picking up Alex. It was a quiet date night, but the important thing was spending some time together.

I have several writing topics I'd like to discuss, so hopefully I can post them next week. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A 21st Century Brain Under a 19th Century Hat

Just how much do you love history? Sure, the Victorian era fascinates you, but would you really want to live there? Apparently, some people do. CNN has an interesting article, complete with a slide show, about people who regularly dress up in clothing from different eras, from the Victorian era to the 1940s or 1950s. (I wonder if there are people who dress in pre-Victorian styles.) These people aren't just Civil War re-enactors; they wear these clothes at home, on the street, or even at work. The "timewarpians," as some of them call themselves, choose this lifestyle as a reaction to the values of the modern world. Given the behavior some of the reality shows seem to encourage, I can't blame them. But timewarpians don't avoid all modern conveniences; they use social networking sites to meet others with similar interests. Since the timewarpians are becoming more visible and accessible, they sound like a great resource for writers looking for information about historical eras. They could tell you more than what the clothing looked like; they could tell you how it felt to wear it.

As for me, I love my jeans and wouldn't want to wear a long dress in the lab. However, I do find 1940s style of clothing appealing. I doubt I could find anything vintage in my size, though!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Shall We Dance?

I didn't plan to post twice tonight, but then I didn't plan to dance either.

Alex's daycare center had a dance for the kids, complete with a DJ. I took Alex last year, and he clung to me the entire time. I didn't think he was ready for it this year, but his teachers conspired against me. When I picked him up tonight, they had taught him to say, "I want to go to the dance!" He was so excited, running around with one of his friends, so how could I say no? I called Eugene to let him know about the change in plans, and off we went.

I took Alex to dinner at Panera first, and he ate pretty well. (The secret to a happy toddler is to make sure he eats well and gets enough sleep.) Then we drove to the banquet center where the dance was being held. It was pretty slippery; I fell as I got out of the car. Luckily, I didn't fall when I was carrying Alex (his Royal Highness doesn't walk if he can get me to carry him, and I usually do, no matter how awkward it is).

Many of the kids were dressed up for the dance. Alex was still in his casual clothes, but there were plenty of kids going casual too. I brought him to the edge of the dance floor for a couple of songs, but as I predicted, he clung to me. Eventually he wanted to leave the room. He started to get a little more active, especially once he saw a couple of boys from our playgroup. They had fun running up and down the hallway, trying to get money from an ATM machine, and generally acting like toddlers. Alex even latched on to one of the other moms for a while! Eugene met us at the dance and talked to a couple of other fathers there. One of Alex's teachers actually brought him onto the dance floor, and I danced a little bit too. It's been a long time, and I was amazed I still had the energy for it! But eventually the dance ended, and Alex ran out of energy. So we'll see how he does next year.

Back on the Blog Chain--Your Best Mistake

I'm back with another edition of the Blog Chain. This round, Rebecca wants to know, "What is the best mistake you've made so far in your journey as a writer? How has that mistake helped you grow?"

Check out Amanda's and Eric's posts to follow the other links in the chain.

This is a tough topic for me to answer. As a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes, not to mention admitting them. Of course, I do make mistakes, and I've had a lot of time to make them with my writing. The problem is I really can't point to a specific instance and describe it as a light bulb moment. So I'll discuss a few that are worth mentioning.

My very first attempt at a novel was pretty awful. I had what I thought was an interesting premise (characters who refrain from speaking to build up magic inherent in language encounter people who speak a different language), but the heroine was a bit cliche (white-haired female magician), and I tended to avoid conflict. They traveled, but it wasn't an exciting journey. I'm glad that one will never see the light of day.

I'd like to think my second novel, Day of All Seasons, has a better plot and setting, more characters, and more conflict. But it's also very long (about 170,000 words), and features a lot of viewpoint characters. I'm amazed it worked out as well as it did! My first mistake with this one was to submit such a long novel. I had a couple of partial requests, but I never got farther than that. Lesson Number One: learn to write shorter novels.

A few years ago, I dusted Day off and posted some of it on the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. (The link is in the sidebar.) I tried reworking the beginning a couple of times according to suggestions, but I felt they were changing the story into something I didn't want it to be. Eventually the novel went back in the trunk. Lessons Two and Three: Sometimes you can't go back, and you can't change everything to please other people.

Many of my most memorable mistakes involve critiquing. I don't want to go into too much detail, but there have been misunderstandings by people who didn't understand what I was trying to do with the story. I've run into problems when I've tried to critique a genre I'm not familiar with. I've brought in stories that weren't thought through enough, I've made characters too unsympathetic in the beginning (my intent was for them to change over the story, but perhaps I went too far with their flaws) and made characters sound younger than they were. It took time to overcome these problems, and I'm sure there are others out there I'm not aware of. And while I'd love to start submitting Across Two Universes as soon as I finish this draft, I know I need some time away from it and a fresh reviewer to read it. Impatience can lead to some pretty big mistakes!

Mistakes are inevitable anytime you try something new. It's commonly said that you first have to write a million bad words before you can start writing good stuff. I guess that's one good thing about writing long novels in the beginning; it helped me speed through my first million words faster! I have no idea how many words I've written by now, but I hope they're starting to add up to something good.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction--Rotifers Don't Do It, But Bees Do

I saw two interesting science articles in the New York Times Online today. The first one has to do with asexual creatures, like rotifers (a class of microscopic animals, most of which live in fresh water). The vast majority of animals reproduce sexually, even though that means each parent passes down only half their genes. One possible reason sex is so popular (besides the obvious) is that shuffling genes helps animals cope with pathogens. So, what do asexual creatures do to avoid parasites and pathogens? In the case of rotifers, they can literally dry up. By doing this, they can either outlast their pathogens, like fungi, or be blown away to a cleaner place.

I think this is an interesting idea to consider when creating alien life forms. If you want to create asexual aliens, how do they avoid disease? (And what do they do on Valentine's Day?) The dry-up-and-blow-away approach may not work for multicellular creatures; they would need to come up with some other method of dealing with parasites and pathogens. The fun part is dreaming up what that could be.

The second article is about bees, which do have sex. However, this article is about their ability to recognize human faces. Although they have a much smaller neural network than humans do, they can still be trained recognize human faces, and they even use the same technique (mapping parts of an image into an overall pattern). The science fiction aspect of this suggests that insects might be more intelligent than one would suspect. This research may also be used to make computers better able to recognize faces. Humm, could a hive of bees be used as a biological computer, with each bee processing a few bytes of information? It's a fun idea to think about, but I sure wouldn't want to be the computer programmer!

Ten Word Tuesday: On Politics

Primary today--my Taoist reading said to push demons out.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Reintroduction to Math

I meant to do a wrap-up post yesterday about my goals for 2010. Although I haven't written much in the last few days, I've made progress in other areas: I passed my goals for blogging and critiquing, I started one of the writing craft books that's been on the shelf for a while, and I suggested some panel topics for WisCon. Although I exercised more often than not last month, my weight's been steady. I don't know if my doctor will be pleased or not.

Anyway, I found a column in the online New York Times that may be of interest. It's not about science or science fiction, but math. If you fear math, this is a series you should read. It starts with the basic principles of math (going all the way back to Sesame Street) and promises to explain them. This first column is about numbers, counting, and addition. I'm not sure if I'll link to the rest of the series, so you may want to keep checking the column for updates.

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