Friday, September 30, 2011

Science of the Week, 9/30/11

Here we are, at the end of another month already. Here are my picks for the most interesting science news stories from Science Blogs:

Video shows first tool use by fish

How global warming causes animals to shrink (can I blame my shortness on global warming?)

Research points toward Alzheimer's vaccine

Autism may have had advantages in the past

Not very much this week, but hopefully you'll find something you like.

Have a good weekend, and see you on Monday!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lyon's Legacy--The Cover

I'm very pleased to reveal the cover of Lyon's Legacy (Catalyst Chronicles: Book One), designed by Meghan Derico of Derico Photography:

I had some of the cover elements in mind when I approached Meghan. She questioned me about Jo's appearance to find a suitable model. I was able to pick the model photo that I liked best, then Meghan added in other elements. We went through a few versions of the cover before we agreed that this one was the best. Meghan was very easy to work with and has a much better eye for design than I do. ;) I look forward to working with her on the next books in the Catalyst Chronicles series.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Blurbs

Well, the cover art for Lyon's Legacy is nearly done, and the manuscript will be back from the line/copy editor within a week. It looks like I'll be able to publish it sometime in October. There are still several things I need to work on before the story goes live, including the blurb. I have two different versions and would love some thoughts on which one to use, along with any suggestions for improvement.

Blurb #1:

Sometimes being a geneticist isn’t enough to understand your family....

As a child, Joanna Lyon was pressured by her family to play and write music like her famous rock-n-roll ancestor, Sean Lyon, but her passion was in science instead. When grad school became too expensive, her Uncle Jack offered to make her rich if she did him a tiny favor: travel to an alternate Twentieth Century universe where Sean still lived and sample his DNA. Jo disapproved of Jack’s plan to create his own performing clone of Sean, but she agreed to accept the mission with her secret goal of sabotaging it.

Facing obstructive historians and her own hatred of Sean, can she obtain Sean’s DNA without being stranded in his universe? How much will she have to sacrifice to protect Sean’s clone?

Blurb #2:

When Joanna Lyon, a scientist in training, learns her rich uncle plans to have their rock legend ancestor, Sean Lyon, cloned, she’s disgusted. Uncle Jack pushed her into music when she was younger, and she hated it. So it’s particularly galling that he wants her to travel through a wormhole to an alternate universe and sample Sean’s DNA. She only agrees to go so she can secretly sabotage the project. But meeting Sean forces her to re-examine her feelings about her family, including her estranged father. Can she still protect the unborn clone from her uncle, and will she have to sacrifice her career and new-found love to do so?

Please let me know which one you prefer. If you have some constructive suggestions for a new approach, I'd love to hear them too. Thanks!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Superheroes of Science Blogfest

Look, there in the lab! It's a flask! It's a fruit fly! It's...SUPER SCIENTIST!

That's right, this week, Claudie A. is hosting a Superheroes of Science blogfest. If you'd like to join in, please sign up on her blog for a chance to win a prize. Here are the writing prompts:

Who is the most memorable scientist character to you? What's so special about him?
What scientists - dead, alive or fictional - made a difference in your life?
Is there a scientist you admire? What has he discovered or what is he working on?

Today, I'm going to discuss fictional scientists. One of my favorite scientists in fiction is Dr. Mackenzie "Mac" Connor from Julie Czerneda's Species Imperative trilogy. Mac is a biologist whose work with migrating salmon proves to be vital for understanding a deadly alien race. She cares passionately about her work, and her relationships with her friends, both human and alien, are as important to her character as her science.

If you're interested in alien scientists, check out Robert J. Sawyer's Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner for dinosaur counterparts to Galileo, Darwin, and Freud.

Finally, even though it's going to be a few more weeks until my novella Lyon's Legacy is ready for publication, I can't resist mentioning the heroine, Joanna Lyon. Joanna is the descendant of a Twentieth Century rock star, but she prefers genetics to music. As she struggles to find a lab where she can work on her dissertation, she shares her love for science with everyone, even those who are indifferent to science.

Do you have any favorite scientists in science fiction? If so, who are they?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Back on the Blog Chain: Getting Better All the Time

Since getting my Kindle last year, I tend to base my book buying on the beginning of the book instead of the blurb or cover as I did with paper books. That means if the beginning is poorly written or doesn't hook me in some way, I probably won't buy the book, let alone finish reading it. So when Sean asked,

What are three books you would tell people that they need to keep reading even if they aren't immediately sucked in by the first page?

I had to think about it for a while. After I came up with a couple of examples (which I'll name in a minute), I realized they had something in common. They were books that were highly regarded or got good reviews, but they were written in unusual voices that were difficult for me to get into at first. But since I trusted the reviews enough to keep reading instead of moving on to something else, I was eventually able to get the feel of the voice and follow the book better. Sometimes characters or plot twists that came later in the story also helped raise my interest in the book. So, here are my three books, plus an Honorable Mention:

1. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. --Set in a nineteenth century England where magic used to work (and still does for the two gentlemen named in the title), this book is written in a dense, old-fashioned style, complete with lots of footnotes. The paperback was about a thousand pages long, making the book even more intimidating. It takes a while to get the dry British humor, even for an Anglophile like me. I have to admit I liked some of the secondary characters better than the two main ones, so I enjoyed the story more when they were featured.

2. The Sound and the Fury--I actually chose to read this book for my AP English class in high school because it was challenging. (Well, what do you expect from Faulkner?) When my teachers asked me about it, I quoted Shakespeare at them: "It is a tale told by an idiot." This is literally true for the first section; I found the other parts easier to follow. One of these days I would like to go back and reread this book to see if I can understand it better now.

3. In His Own Write--I couldn't resist including one of John Lennon's books. John loved wordplay and nonsense, so his writing can be surreal. I like to say that I have to tilt my mind sideways in order to understand what he's saying. But everyone should have their minds tilted from time to time, shouldn't they?

The Kappa Child--I'm including this one as an Honorable Mention because I can't remember if I disliked the beginning or was just disappointed in one of the later plot elements. The voice, though quirky, wasn't as hard to follow as in some of the other books I've mentioned. The end tied things together in a way that still make me think about this book.

As a final point, I read all these books in paper, not e-book form. I'm more invested in paper books I've paid for than e-book samples that I can easily delete. Then again, life's too short to waste reading books you don't enjoy, especially when I know I'll never clear my "To Read" lists. I have over 180 book samples in my "To Read" collection on my Kindle now, plus another twenty or so paper books. Are you sure I can't take my Kindle with me? ;)

Please follow Amparo backward and Matt forward to see what books the rest of the blog chain recommends.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Library Lending for the Kindle

Amazon announced yesterday that library lending is finally available for the Kindle. It's starting out slowly at first, with about 11,000 libraries participating and about 25,000 titles available to be borrowed. My local library does lend out e-books for the Nook and other devices, but as of yesterday afternoon, their website said Kindle lending wasn't available. I think it's supposed to come soon; the question is how many of those 25,000 books will be in my favorite genre.

It seems that the differences between the Nook and the Kindle are rapidly disappearing. Is this new Kindle feature going to affect your book reading habits or your e-reader preference?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Would You Rather...? Writing Edition

My son watches a lot of Curious George; I probably know more about that show than any current TV program for adults. As he was watching the "Zeroes to Donuts" episode tonight (where George accidentally orders 100 dozen donuts instead of just one dozen), my husband posed an interesting "Would You Rather" question to me: would you rather eat 100 donuts or 100 scoops of ice cream?

(If you're not familiar with this game, each player must choose one of two possible options presented to her. Sometimes these options can be pretty nasty, in which case you must decide which one is the lesser evil. Sometimes these questions can be pretty thought-provoking.)

I thought it would be interesting to create some writing-related "Would You Rather" questions. Here's one: would you rather lose all the files on your computer or all the books in your library? As much as I love my books, I can replace them more easily than my computer files, so that's what I would go with.

How would you answer this question? What questions can you come up with?

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Night Circus

I just realized I have over a thousand posts now on this blog. I started it shortly after I got married, so this November will be my six-year blogging anniversary. It might be time to start thinking about a contest.

Anyway, I normally don't do a lot of book promotion on this blog, but over the weekend I read a book I really enjoyed, so I wanted to tell you about it. It's called The Night Circus. Set in the late 19th century, the book is about a pair of young magicians bound by their teachers into a contest where only one can win. What's unusual about this contest is that it takes place within a circus. Not just any circus, but one that appears overnight without warning. It opens at sunset and closes at dawn. In the meantime, it offers delectable treats and incomparable performers, all in the black-and-white scheme of the circus. (Even fire burns white here.) Instead of one big tent, the acts perform in many small tents, each with mysterious signs. There is a cloud maze, a pool of tears, a wishing tree, a carousel with magical animals, a fortune teller, and many other wonders. The circus is so extraordinary that it attracts fans who follow it from city to city, like Deadheads of another century.

Although I read science fiction and fantasy for their sense of wonder, often times the magic or science-fictional aspect of the story feels ordinary. In this book, the magic of the night circus becomes something many characters yearn for, something with a life of its own. I hope that if you read this book, you feel the magic too, the way I did when I read it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Science of the Week, 9/16/11

I can't resist starting this week's link list with a reference to Star Wars:

Tatooine-like planet discovered

Researchers discover gene linked to optimism, self-esteem

50 New exoplanets discovered by HARPS

Astronomers find extreme weather on an alien world

Researchers predict new superhard materials

Students create application that "writes" books
(Don't worry; I think this app is a long way off from writing fiction)

Blood vessels from your printer

Sea urchins see with entire body

I found all of these articles on Science Blog.

Have a good weekend, everyone! Tomorrow we plan to take our son to the local railway museum; on Sunday, we'll go apple picking. Hope you have something fun planned too!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Recommended Books

I don't think I've done this for a while, if ever: what books do you recommend the most to others? They can be fiction or non-fiction.

For me, one of my favorite non-fiction books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's one of those books that just clicked for me when I read it. As for fiction, I love Patrica McKillip's and and Connie Willis's work. One recent fantasy trilogy I'd recommend is The Accidental Sorcerer; Witches, Inc; and Wizard Squared.

What would you add to this list?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Author Logic

Have you ever found yourself applying the rules of your world inconsistently? I did the other day when a beta reader found my characters saying one thing yet acting as if what they said wasn't true. I must have been trying to increase tension when I did that, but now I have to go back and figure out how to make it consistent.

What do you do when you find you've left plot holes in your stories?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Power of "Yes"

My reading today from 365 Tao: Daily Meditations (by Deng Ming-Dao) featured a story about the author meeting a great, unnamed writer. At the time, the author of my meditation book was a novice writer, and he had a lot of questions for this much more experienced writer. As he tells it, "To most of my questions she would only answer, 'Yes.' She knew all the answers, and she knew all the exceptions, and she knew the best thing that an older person could tell a younger person was, 'Yes.' Yes, the affirmative. Yes, as in keep exploring. Yes, as in there are no ultimate answers."

What have you said "Yes" to lately?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

I Reread My Second Novel, and It Was OK...

The experience, that is, not the book itself. The beginning was slow; the characters had it too easy, worried about the wrong things, were too passive, and were unlikeable at times; there was lots of telling and summarizing; and of course it's way too long at 177,000 words. And yes, I queried it around back in the day (probably about a decade ago). I did get a few partial requests and one full from an editor who was at Tor at the time. He never formally rejected it, but I bet my manuscript has long been recycled. Unfortunately, he did tell me at a convention that he would send me a critique of my story, but he never did. I'd like to think if he had, it would have helped me, not crushed me.

The writing wasn't terrible, though it could be improved. The adverbs made me cringe, but the setting and description worked. I'm still amazed I was able to keep seven different POVs straight. That's harder than it looks!

The best part of the experience was being able to see the craft issues that kept this story grounded. When I finish some of my current projects, I'd like to go back to this world and characters to reboot the story. And this time, there'll be more tension and action and less internal monologue. (Cackles evilly.)

When was the last time you revisited something you wrote earlier? Do you think you've improved more with the story-telling aspects of writing or the word-and-sentence part?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

So, What Is the Work of Writing?

Some of you may have already read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Harlan Coben about writing. In it, Coben lists the three steps to become a great writer: inspiration, perspiration, and desperation. (Since Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are," we've made some progress since his time.) The second step is the one I want to discuss, especially this part of the article:

The second is perspiration. You have to sit your butt in the chair and write. You have to do that every day. That doesn’t mean you lie on your couch and play with your navel. That doesn’t mean you go shopping when the words don’t flow the way you think they should. That never works. It means you sit your butt in the chair and get to work. No excuses. And just so we’re clear: Outlining is not writing. Coming up with ideas is not writing. Researching is not writing. Creating characters is not writing. Only writing is writing (yes, that’s deep). (emphasis mine)

While I agree with Coben that only writing puts words on the page, compared to outlining or creating characters, I think the planning stage deserves more credit than he gives it. I started out writing as a pantser. I still pants to some extent--I recently wrote a 15,000 word fantasy novella based on nothing more than a few ideas that came to me one morning--but I'm now outlining longer works and finding it helpful. For example, as part of preparing for National Novel Writing Month last year, I outlined the story ahead of time. With this map, I was able to crank out 50,000 words in a month because I knew where I was going. However, once I veered away from the outline, progress slowed dramatically. I'm now back to outlining what I have so far so I can figure out how to get to the end of the story without stalling on various boring bits. (I think the lack of planning led to the story morass I'm currently stuck in.) All of the pre-writing tasks Coben disparges support the words of the story like the framework of a building. I do feel that I've made progress on my story if I outline it or make mental notes about what I want to change in the next draft. I can also be a faster writer if it doesn't take me six drafts to figure out the plot.

It's interesting that Coben leaves revising out of this step. Sometimes there's more perspiration in this step than in the first draft. You may wind up with fewer words on the page, but hopefully they'll be sharper words.

Well, I have to get back to outlining and revising for now. So tell me: do you agree with Coben that only writing is writing, or do you think pre-writing counts too?

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Leviathan

I didn't blog this morning because I was waiting until we got back from the Illinois Railway Museum. This weekend, they had a special guest: a working steam engine. The Leviathan 63 is a replica of a steam engine built in 1868. This engine is much more recent; you can read more about it here. Here are some pictures of it:

We got to ride the Leviathan--well, behind it in a coach. It wasn't as noisy or as rocky as I thought it would be, but we did see water get splattered on the window from the engine. We were actually in the second coach, so that was even more impressive. I also saw rainbows outside the window, and of course smoke.

While we were at the museum, the engine had to take a couple of water breaks. The trip is only a few miles back and forth; I'm not sure how many miles it can go between water stops, but it must not be much. It's amazing how much this inefficient engine was able to accomplish in its day.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Back on the Blog Chain: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

I'm back from my hiatus. I didn't get as much revising done on my fantasy novella as I planned, since I had to prepare for this round of the blog chain. No, it's not brought to you by Snoopy (I was considering using the cartoon, but I don't want to violate copyright) but by Christine. Here's her topic as she wrote it:

Since we are all writer's, I thought it was about time for us to stretch our creative muscles and do a little writing. So, take the following topic and go crazy! Show us what you've got. Your story can be as long or as short as you choice.

The topic: A dark and stormy night.

I come between Amparo and Matt this round.

It just so happens I'm rereading an old project to see if I can revive it. This novel is set in a country called Challen, which was modeled on Victorian England except for a couple of twists: they worship Four Gods and Goddesses, each aligned with a particular season; and periodically their country is afflicted by a magical weather storm called the Day of All Seasons. (Here I call it Chaos Season.) To fight this storm, a group of four mages called Season Lords must pool their magic. The four Season Lords are all born in the same year, on the solstice or equinox of the season and deity they serve. They all have different types of magic; for example, the ones born on the winter solstice have weather magic. Their official title is "Sol" or "Sola" in front of their season. They reincarnate generation after generation, remembering their magic--and any personal issues they have with other Season Lords. This can really complicate matters when each group comes together for the first time or when one group replaces the current one, as you'll see below. This is a new short story I wrote with old characters, trying to give them a new background:

Storms in the Night

Thunder cracked above the attic, sending Kay’s brothers and sisters scrambling under the covers. Kay pressed her face against the broken window. Rain pounded her skin, taunting her. For a moment, she imagined the storm was a message from Dorian, the current Sol Win. Look at this power, it seemed to say. You’ll never be able to control it.

But I can. She stuck a finger through the empty pane. With a thought, drops shied away from her finger. Compared to what she remembered from previous lives, this was small magic, something so small Dorian might not even sense it. But her power had only reawakened in this life a couple of months ago, and it thrilled her to rediscover it. When she was ready, she’d join the other three Season Lords who were her age, and together they’d tame the Chaos Season. But she was too young, her magic too new, for that. For now, another quartet of Season Lords protected Challen. They’d returned to the city of Vistichia this afternoon for the Summer Solstice ceremony. By sunrise, the streets would be washed clean by the storm.

I should get some sleep so I can wake up early and find a good spot to watch the ceremony. Kay planned to study not just Dorian, but how he worked with the rest of the Season Lords. She’d drape a scarf over her best dress, the blue one, to hide the stain on the collar. Maybe this year she’d try to talk to them. The difference in their classes wouldn’t matter now that she’d come into her magic.

Perhaps I don’t have to wait. What if I add my magic to the Sol Win’s? Then he’ll sense me and know I’m ready for more training.

But would he want to teach her? In Kay’s previous life, the old Sola Win had been unwilling to share her knowledge with her replacement. What if she had been reborn as Dorian and still harbored that feeling? If they were the same person, Kay wanted as little to do with Dorian as possible. But how could she be sure?

How will Dorian react when I use my magic? I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Kay listened past the rain and wind for her siblings’ breathing. They were silent, too terrified to breathe. Ma and Pa alternated snores, thin and deep. What a shame they couldn’t appreciate the magic weaving over their heads. Suddenly longing to be out in the storm, experiencing it first hand, Kay heaved the window wide enough for her to wiggle under it, emerging on a rail barely big enough to hold a cat.

The wind howled in renewed fury, and rain sluiced her until her nightgown clung to her indecently. It should have chilled her, even on a summer night, but Kay drew warmth out of the air. She didn’t bother chasing the water away. Instead, she clung to the rail, closed her eyes, and let herself observe Dorian’s magical trace. It was controlled, assured, confident that he could sweep up every drop of rain from furlongs away.

She opened her eyes. The rain still poured down, though she could sense it would soon lessen. Wind swirled about her, shaking tree branches. A gust blew past her into her family’s room. Kay frowned. Wasn’t Dorian supposed to care for everyone in Challen, no matter how poor? If he controlled every aspect of this storm, why would he make her family huddle miserably in their room?

Holding out one hand—Kay didn’t need to make the gesture, but the defiance bolstered her—she changed the direction of the wind until it blew perpendicular to the window instead of straight into it.

The rain continued to fall, but all wind ceased for a few heartbeats. Then it pummeled her from all directions.

Kay’s grasp on the railing slipped. She frantically kicked her legs clear of the sodden shift and wrapped them around the cold metal. As the wind lashed her, she huddled into a ball and prayed to the God of Winter that He wouldn’t let the rail break. If she fell, she could break a limb—or worse.

The Four wouldn’t let me die, would They? The other three Season Lords my age wouldn’t be able to tame the Chaos Season without me.

If she could manage the Chaos Season, a small storm like this should be easy.

Kay pushed against the winds, trying to clear a space. But Dorian refused to yield. Just when she thought she had one wind under control, he grabbed it back from her. The rail grew ice-cold under her skin.

Freeze it; wind and ice at once? How much could he do?

As Kay tried to melt the ice so she wouldn’t slip, the wind pushed her over.

She screamed once, her cry covered by thunder.

Fear gave her magic new strength. Grabbing all the wind surrounding her, she cushioned her landing. The stone pavement collided with her shoulder and side, but not hard enough to break bone. She lay there for a moment.

By All Four, did he try to kill me?

How could a Season Lord do that to his eventual replacement? They were supposed to work together. What could make Dorian reject that? Either he was mad—then why hadn’t the Sola Spring healed him?—or else he’d turned against the Four. And that Kay couldn’t comprehend at all.

Fear still prickled her skin. Could the God of Winter truly expect her to present herself to Dorian after this attack and ask him to teach her weather magic? What if he tried to kill her again? If he was so offended by a single use of her magic to help her family, what would he do when he was supposed to step aside and let her handle Challen’s weather system?

If something happened to her now, then it would be another twenty years or so before a new generation of Season Lords could replace the current set. She had to keep herself alive long enough to link with the other Season Lords from her generation before facing Dorian again. But how?

There’s no other way. I’ll have to hide myself and suppress my magic. They can track me with it.

She couldn’t even tell her family what had happened or where she was. The less they knew, the less likely Dorian could find her.

Kay stared up at her family’s room. With the front door barricaded from the inside, she couldn’t retrieve her extra clothes or the few chals she’d saved. She’d need the God of Winter’s help to survive, at least long enough to leave Vistichia. She hoped the God would understand. She wasn’t shirking her duty; she’d return when she was strong enough to face Dorian.

A voice inside her scolded her, saying she’d never match Dorian's weather magic if she neglected hers. Fear drowned the voice out and sent her running down the street, away from the Temple and toward the city gate.

The rain had slackened off, and the wind and lightning died down. But Kay’s drenched nightgown chilled her. Her physical condition didn't bother her half as much as losing her family, her home, and her magic. Would she ever be able to enjoy a storm again?

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