Monday, May 31, 2010

WisCon 34 Recap

Well, another WisCon has come and gone. As you can tell, I was so busy I didn't get any blogging done at the con. I'll try to recap the high points quickly.

We left Friday afternoon after picking Alex up directly from daycare. The drive wasn't too bad, though we stopped a couple of times for potty breaks. Alex refused to go in the bathroom at the reststop, so we took him to my parents' house, which was on the way. I'm pleased to report Alex is now using regular toilets as long as he has something to stand on. (If you're not a parent, trust me, this is a big deal. He's not completely toilet trained yet, but he's definitely ready for preschool.) We arrived at our hotel in the early evening. After dinner, I picked up my badge from the registration desk. Unfortunately, they had no record of Alex being registered for daycare, but they let him in anyway. That was a big relief.

We didn't bother bringing a separate bed or crib for Alex, as we knew from past experience he wouldn't use it in a strange place. We had a very rough night trying to get him to sleep in the same bed as us; I bounced from one bed to the other. I still got up to swim, though.

Saturday morning, we visited the Farmer's Market on Capitol Square. I saw only one stand with lilacs and no lily of the valley for sale; I wonder if that's because it was so warm or because Memorial Day weekend was so late. But I did snatch up some locally grown strawberries. Then I brought Alex to daycare. He was timid and very clingy at first, making me late for the morning panel. But he ate well at lunch and did better in the afternoon. I attended three panels on varying topics: infectious diseases, raising feminist boys, and witches. Eugene went around on his own to take pictures. He also stopped in one of my favorite Madison stores, the Soap Opera, and treated me to some scented shower gel. In the evening, we visited some college friends. They hosted a get-together dinner so we could see more friends too. That was very nice. I did go to some of the parties briefly when we got back, but I was too tired to stay long.

Sunday was Alex's third birthday. We'd brought along some presents, so he finally got to open them. After a quick breakfast in our room, I attended a panel on urban fantasy in Madison. (We did bring Alex to daycare, but he wouldn't let Eugene leave. But he didn't fuss when I brought him back for his nap.) I attended two more panels that afternoon, skipping the middle one to have gelato with Eugene, attend a tea, and chat with a friend. After panels, we took Alex to Ella's Deli for dinner. It boasts a carousel outside and lots of animated puppets/toys inside. Alex didn't know where to look! We treated him to a banana split, but he wasn't too interested in it. He did get to ride the carousel before we left.

Today as the con wound down, we took Alex to Vilas Zoo. He was more interested in the zoo train I bought than the animals. Then we drove down to visit my parents, where he got more presents and a cake. I also got to see my niece and her baby. We finally came home in the early evening.

I didn't network as much as I wanted to this time between being so tired and Alex's struggles with bedtime. Hopefully when he's a little older it'll be easier. (We're already registered for next year's WisCon.) I didn't buy too much this year, only two books and a blouse from Wintersilks. However, one of the books I bought entered me into a drawing for a sword. I had a good feeling about my chances, and sure enough, I won it! It's a black sword with a wickedly shaped blade. (The edge is dull, however; I couldn't risk bringing a real sword into the same house as a toddler!) I will post a picture of me wielding the sword at some point; I just have to decide what to wear. I don't have the body for a metal bikini, so don't even suggest it!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

and I'm not talking about Christmas, but WisCon! WisCon is the world's leading feminist science fiction convention (yes, men are still welcome). It's a really great convention for writers, as it attracts plenty of authors, editors, and agents. As if that wasn't good enough, it's held in my beloved Madison in my favorite season. (Though that doesn't guarantee good weather.) I've lost track of how many years I've been going, but I did start last century. I must admit travel has become more complicated now with a toddler, but luckily WisCon does offer good childcare for a nominal fee. Besides attending the con, we'll be meeting up with college friends and celebrating Alex's third birthday.

So, my readers, do you go to writing conventions? If so, which ones? I know they're not too hard to find for SF and romance, but what about other genres, like YA? Do you have conventions dedicated to your genre?

Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend, and if you can, come back here for updates!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Don't Dream It's Over

The Blog Chain came around so fast to me this time I nearly missed it. ;) I'm second in line this time, the first to address Amanda's question:

What do you do to keep yourself motivated when you feel like you're not making any progress in your writing career?

For a theme song for this post, let's use Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over."

I've been writing fiction since graduate school, though I wasn't really committed to it until about 1996. I've completed five novels (though only one of them I queried extensively) started and abandoned a couple more, and worked on various short stories (including some about the Beatles), some finished, some not. I've invested countless hours in reading, writing, editing/revising, and critiquing. To make time to write, I've cut out most TV and seldom go to movies, so I'm way out of touch with popular culture. After all this, I still haven't sold a novel, my main goal. So what keeps me going?

By this point in my life, writing is as much a part of me as one of my limbs. To give it up would be to lose a precious part of myself, something that keeps me going when the rest of my life is frustrating. While I want to connect to other people through my writing, it's still important for me to do it for me. One thing that I do get encouragement from is the feeling that I'm still learning and trying new techniques. I mentioned before that I only queried one of the five novels I finished. The first novel I ever wrote is no longer accessible, two of the other novels were sequels (so they couldn't stand alone), and the final one is my current project, which is getting very close to becoming query-worthy. I've learned a lot from the many writing blogs out there, and I think it shows in this draft. While working on sequels and Beatles fan fiction has delayed my writing career, I learned a lot from them. Besides, the Beatles stories evolved into my current project, so they were a roundabout way of getting there.

I think writing really has to be considered a journey, not just a means to an end. As Robert M. Pirsig said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, "When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do, it's a hollow victory." Writing can't be just about stoking your ego, because your ego will definitely get bruised along the way. If you want to be a writer, you have to do it because you enjoy the process, and you have to be willing to keep going even when you want to stop. It's a lot easier to walk away from writing than it is an unfulfilling job or a marriage gone sour; perhaps that's why we writers spend so much time encouraging each other.

With that, I'll send you over to Eric for his take on this question.

Ten Word Tuesday: You Know You Work in a Lab When...

you wrap your son's gifts in boxes from chemical suppliers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: 12 Events That Will Change Everything

The June 2010 issue of Scientific American has a must-read article for science fiction writers. It's called, as you may have guessed, "12 Events That Will Change Everything." You can find an interactive presentation, complete with the text of the individual stories, here.

The events listed include many staples of science fiction: cloning of humans (considered likely to happen by 2050), the rise of self-aware machines (also likely), and fusion energy (considered unlikely, unfortunately). Some of them, such as the discovery of extra dimensions, may have more effects on science itself than the everyday world. (The odds of this event occurring are given as 50:50). On the other hand, a big earthquake in California (almost certain) or a deadly pandemic (50:50), would have much more impact on people's lives. One event, the creation of artificial life, actually was announced last week. In theory, being able to design the genes of an organism base by base would allow scientists to create new food and energy sources, as well as create organisms that could break down toxins, form useful materials, and even grow naturally into pieces of furniture. In practice, how the genes are regulated and how the proteins they code are produced and expressed also play critical roles in how the organism works.

With twelve separate topics, there's too much material for me to analyze in one blog post. Plus, it's late, and I'm too tired to come up with much. But if you read the articles, please come back here and tell me which topic or topics interest you. If I get a significant response, we can look into some of the topics in more detail later.

Friday, May 21, 2010

It's the Reader, Not the Writer, That Counts

I wasn't planning on a second post today, but Maria Zannini posted something on her blog that I think is worth passing on. It's part of her Killer Campaign series about book promotion. (I urge you to search for those posts on her blog, as they provide valuable advice on what works and what doesn't.) Maria's post is a reminder that promotions shouldn't be all about the author; they should be focused on the reader. If you can establish a bond with the reader--perhaps through something unrelated to writing--it'll make her more interested in reading your book than if you keep shoving it in her face.

Anyway, enough from me. The link is here. If you agree with Maria, please tell her--and tell her I sent you.

Ask Sandra--Writing Habits

Barbara had several questions for me about my writing habits:

What time of day do you prefer to write during? 

Before I had Alex, I used to write in the evening, but now it's mostly on my lunch hour. As a working mother, I'm either too busy catching up on household chores or computer stuff to write. Sometimes I'm just too tired.

And what do you like your environment to be like when you write (music? TV? children destroying the sofa? Do you lock yourself in the basement?) 

Since it's on my lunch hour, I write right at my desk at work. I bring in my own laptop so I'm not using my company's computer. It's not my ideal setup, but it works, and that's the important thing. Sometimes my husband watches our son while I "run away" to the bookstore to write. Even though I can still get distracted by the Internet there, being out of the house during "extra" writing time helps me be more productive. I'm sure tea and a treat help too. ;) 

And also, when editing, do you like to do revisions on the computer or hard copy?

Usually I print out a hard copy for a beginning-to-end read, just to get a fresh perspective on it. I sometimes write notes on the hard copy, but after the read-through, I return to the computer for revision.

Those are all the questions I have this time around. Thanks, Barbara! Have a good weekend, everyone!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Standing on the Shoulders of Other Authors

Wow, it's been a month since my last Blog Chain post. I started the last one, so I'm near the end this time. Christine started us off with the question:

“Which author or authors have most influenced your writing and how?”

Amanda posted before me, and Eric will share his thoughts tomorrow.

I think a couple of people mentioned earlier in this chain how they're influenced by every book and author they've ever read. I feel this way too. I started reading when I was three, so that's a lot of authors! I'll only mention a few of them here.

When I first started reading science fiction and fantasy, I read a lot of the really popular authors, such as Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffery, and Mercedes Lackey. Of the three, I would say Lackey made the longest-lasting impression, especially when it comes to interior monologue. My early novels had a lot of interior monologue, though I'm using less of it now. These days, one of my favorite authors is Patricia McKillip. I really admire her poetic style and her unique angle on story-telling, but to be honest, I don't feel my style is similar enough to hers to claim her as an influence.

These days, I read a fair amount of urban fantasy, and that's influenced the next project I have on my list, an urban fantasy about a pair of shapeshifting sisters. (Charles de Lint's work still defines the genre for me. Some of his novels have a pair of shapeshifting sisters too, though I intend to take my characters in a different direction.) While I read quite a few authors in this genre, I think the most influential one for me has been Carrie Vaughn. I like how her werewolf heroine and her mate still have to deal with mundane problems along with supernatural ones. They're ordinary people thrust into a supernatural world, and it makes them feel more real and easier to empathize with.

I'm sure there are plenty more authors who have influenced me, but that's all I can think of for now. Just as Newton said he saw farther by standing on the shoulders of giants (those who came before him), I stand on the shoulders of other authors. If what I write isn't the classic SF of the Golden Age, it's because the authors I mentioned above, along with many others, helped redefine the genre.

Tune in tomorrow when I answer questions from readers, as I promised in Monday's entry. There's still time to ask me something if you'd like, so please leave a comment in that blog post. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction--Starting Life on Other Worlds

There were three articles in the New York Times online edition on Monday that are of interest if you're writing about life on other worlds. The first is an interview with Jeffrey Bada, a marine chemist who studies how life began. He worked with Stanley Miller, one of the scientists who performed the classic Miller-Urey experiment. This experiment was meant to test if the chemical compounds of life could be made on our planet when it was very young. (Miller and Urey had to make several assumptions about conditions on Earth at that time.) Bada was able to analyze the extracts from the Miller-Urey experiment with modern equipment and found even more organic compounds then Miller and Urey had back in 1953, thirty versus five. (Personally, I wonder how good those extracts were several decades later. Could Bada be sure they hadn't become contaminated in the interim? But if the results are accurate, they're pretty cool.) What's even more interesting is that the range of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) they found are similar to those found in a meteorite. Bada thinks if the Miller-Urey experiment were repeated today, scientists could potentially find thousands of compounds in the primordial soup.

Another article in the NY Times discusses new evidence that Titan, Saturn's moon, has a liquid sea. Unfortunately, the liquid is most likely a mixture of ethane and methane (with some nitrogen), not water. Water can dissolve a wide range of materials and is less dense in its solid form than its liquid form; these are just a couple of the reasons why water has been so critical to the development of life on Earth. If Titan's sea can support life, the chemistry of these lifeforms would be different from terrestrial ones. I would need to do more research before speculating about life on Titan.

While I was writing this post, a third interesting article appeared in the NY Times. This one has to do with a new fossil find in Morocco. Slightly over half a billion years ago, in the Cambrian period, complex multicellular life forms began appearing in the fossil record. One of the best sources for these fossils is in the Burgess Shale. Scientists thought for a long time that most of these life forms became extinct in a major event, since so few descendants could be found. But the fossils found in Morocco can be linked to the ones in the Burgess Shale. This suggests two things: one, the gap in the fossil record is due to lack of preservation, not extinction; and two, more of the Cambrian-era species survived or evolved for a longer time than previously thought. As a science-fiction writer, I think it would be cool to take one of these species and base a whole ecology around it and its descendants.

To summarize, evidence continues to mount that life on other worlds really is possible. While Bada thinks the chemistry of life is universal, Earth-like conditions may not be. Even if we do find another planet similar to ours, there's no guarantee that evolution took the same path there that it did on our world. Just by looking at our own past, we find tantalizing glimpses of what might have been. But in our imaginations, what might have been can become something more.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Quote of the Day

For all of you nervous about crit groups:

"Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger."

Franklin P. Jones

P.S. Don't overlook my previous post, in which I offer to answer your questions!

Ask Sandra!

I figure it's time for something a little different. This week, I invite you to post questions in the comments for me. They can be about me, writing, science fiction -- whatever you'd like to know about. Be warned; I may choose not to give a straight answer if the question is too personal or if I don't know the answer. (heh heh heh....) I'll post answers either Wednesday or Friday.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Contest Annoucement

I'm trying to make up for my lack of blogging this week by posting over the weekend. Specifically, I want to share this "Dear Lucky Agent" contest with you. It's run by the Guide to Literary Agents blog, which I've linked to in the sidebar. If you write science fiction or fantasy, submit the first 150-200 words of your novel along with a one-sentence description for a chance to win a critique of the first ten pages of your manuscript and a one-year subscription to The full rules and details can be found here. The contest runs through May 26, so you have some time to polish your entry. Good luck!

Uncle Karl

I've been debating about whether I should blog about this or not. I finally decided it was too important not to.

I found out about two weeks ago my Uncle Karl had bladder cancer. Apparently he had had some symptoms since last year, but they were initially diagnosed as something else. By the time they figured out it was cancer, it had already spread. Other medical conditions he had made treatment options very limited. Ultimately he requested no life support be given, just pain medication. He passed away last Friday, a week after being admitted to the hospital. Eugene and I were able to see him last Monday. I'm not sure if he knew we were there, but at least I got to say goodbye. We will be going to the funeral today--a lovely way (NOT!) to end a grueling week at work.

So make sure to visit your relatives regularly and tell them you love them. And make sure you get yourself checked out at the doctor regularly too. My aunt has asked donations be made to this cancer prevention organization. Sometimes the best way to remember someone is to do something good in his or her name.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Fighting Fat with Fat

Who doesn't want to lose a few extra pounds--or maybe more? Turns out there's a type of fat tissue called brown fat which burns calories to generate heat. Babies use it to stay warm, but adults still have a small amount in their necks. Scientists have found a way to trigger the enzyme that makes brown fat burn calories in normal white fat by tweaking the metabolism of rats to simulate cold temperatures. This has to be done carefully, as the enzyme is present in other tissues throughout the body. If you trigger its activity in the wrong place, it could cause side effects. See here for the full article.

Obviously, if we could make this work in people, we could increase our metabolisms and make it easier to lose weight and keep it off. But what would we do with the extra energy? Would it just raise our body temperatures? That could have other consequences, especially as we face a warming environment. It would be cool (pun not intended) if this energy could be channeled into other things. Perhaps it could be used to power electronic implants, for instance. Our brains consume a lot of energy as it is; could this energy be used by the brain? If so, would it enhance our current abilities or make new ones possible? If you want to delve into science fantasy, this energy could be used to fuel some sort of supernatural power, such as something psionic. But perhaps that's pushing the limits of plausibility. I would be happy just to have enough energy to get me through the day!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Writing and Life Experience: Follow Up

Last week was very busy, so I didn't get to follow up on this post as quickly as I planned. (Today is going to be even worse, as I have to stay so late at work a co-worker will have to bring Alex here. I'm not even sure I'll get home before his bedtime; my husband will have to pick him up.) That actually worked out for the best, since another writer commented on this post when it uploaded to my Facebook feed. Both Elizabeth and Ann said that life experience helps make your fiction seem real. Barbara reminded us how imagination and listening to others can help us write about others who don't share our life experiences. Patty Jansen, a fellow OWW writer, pointed out that you don't need just life experiences, but also perspective on them so you can "distill them into a character." (Patty, I hope you don't mind me quoting you here.)

If I had to summarize what I think about life experiences affecting your writing, I'd say everyday life provides you with the details to make your fiction seem real, while extraordinary events are the ones that challenge you and make you grow, just as they do for your own characters.

I'd love to say more, but it's back to the lab mines for me.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Discussion: Writers and Life Experience

While I was bathing my son last night, I thought about the saying that authors need a certain amount of life experience to have something worth writing about. Do you agree or disagree? I think some insight into human nature is necessary to create realistic, compelling characters. What kinds of life experiences make for good fiction? The ones that came to mind for me were travel to different countries and relationships, particularly friendships and romances. (You don't see too many novels about co-workers, at least co-workers in an office setting. Relationship between co-workers who spend a lot of time together, like a partnership between police officers, might deepen into friendship.) Of course, the major life events, like marriage, parenthood, and death, also provide lots of fiction fodder. They certainly beat mowing the lawn! Can you add anything else? I'm going to be extremely busy today at work, so I probably won't be able to comment much during the day. Perhaps I'll do a follow-up post in the evening.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Contest Annoucement

Looking for some help editing your first chapter or your synopsis? Have no fear, the pros are here! You could win a chapter or query letter/synopsis critique from The Alliterative Allomorph. Check the link for more details. The contest ends May 31st--just in time for me to get back to Across Two Universes!

Ten Word Tuesday: Writer Friends

Only other writers understand the ups and downs of writing.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Lilacs 2010

In addition to having lunch with two writer friends yesterday, Eugene, Alex, and I made our annual trip to Lilacia Park to see the lilacs in bloom. I'm a lilac junkie; they're one of my favorite flowers. Would I enjoy them so much if they had a longer blooming time? As you can tell from the photos below, the park also has lots of tulips, with Alex really liked. But he preferred watching the trains pass by even more!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

A Meeting of Blog Chainers

Heather Dyer introduced me to the Blog Chain, and Mary Lindsey used to be part of the Blog Chain as well. Today all three of us (plus Eugene and Alex) finally got to meet in person. Mary was in the area for a writers retreat; Heather and I live close by but haven't had the chance to get together yet. We introduced Mary to Chicago-style stuffed pizza. We all had a great time; hopefully we'll be able to do it again sometime! Who knows, maybe I'll even learn how to smile in a photo by then!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Who's Live Anyway? (Ryan Stiles!)

If you've been following my blog long enough, you know Eugene and I are big fans of improv comedy, especially the show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" But after a while, watching repeat episodes umpteen zillion times can get a little old. We've seen Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady live, but my favorite cast member is Ryan Stiles. So when we found out he was performing at a theater in Skokie, we had to get tickets. We chose the early show so as not to interfere with Alex's bedtime. Eugene's parents watched him while we were at the show, so this was our second Date Night in a week. (We went out for fondue for my birthday; my dad took care of Alex then.)

Ryan wasn't performing by himself; Greg Proops, Chip Esten, and Jeff Davis. As Greg said at the beginning of the show, they brought everyone but "the fat guy, the bald guy, and the black guy." They did several of the games from the show. I can't remember too many of the lines beside "Todd is the past tense of Ted," but Eugene and I laughed more than we have in a long time. (For me, it was to the point where it had physical effects.) They used one of my suggestions--paprika for a spice. (That's probably the closest brush I'll ever have with any of the cast members.) The show was about 90 minutes, three times the normal episode length, but it didn't feel like it. If you have the chance to see this show, I wholeheartedly recommend it, even though every performance will be unique.

Quote of the Day

"Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it."

Tallulah Bankhead

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