My Writing Spots

I’m a coffee shop kinda writer.  You know the type, sitting in the coffee shop, laptop open, earphones in, typing away and, when asked, “I’m working on my next novel!”

Yes.  It amuses me to be a stereotype.

But it’s funny because that stereotype is part of why I love to be in coffee shops, writing.  When people look at me, I want them to see a writer and I want to be that writer.  So it’s much easier for me, trying to prove all these strangers who probably aren’t even paying a lick of attention to me, to just sit and concentrate on writing.  Essentially, instead of distractions, I have a room full of accountability, because I am a writer, and writers write in coffee shops (not play on the internet…which I do sometimes too.  But I write much more.)

This isn’t to say I can’t write at home.  I can, but home is very distracting to me.  There’s the people in the house to pay attention to, the chores, the dog, the tv, the kitchen full of enticing food I could eat, all instead of writing.  This means that writing at home means either sitting my booty down and saying I can’t get up for a full hour, locking myself into a room, or having a stroke of inspiration so good that I feel at liberty to tell everyone to “Shut up!  I’m writing!  I’ll be with you once I finish this!” (This often happens without any warning whatsoever, much to my family’s chagrin.)

I discovered this penchant for the coffee shop in college.  Augsburg has a nice mini Starbucks in the corner of the student center.  My homework I did in my room, but my writing almost always was taken outside.  This is probably where I gained my mild reputation as Nanowrimo girl.  By November, Minneapolis usually has at least a little snow, and so I’d make myself comfortable with a coffee and the fireplace (man those fireplaces were warm and awesome) and just blitz out on writing.  If I needed a break, there were two art galleries less than twenty feet away, a coffee shop, and a variety of people to talk to.

One day, though, I needed a bit more of a break.  There was a hallway I’d actually never really been down, despite having been at Augsburg for two years.  On the left were the bathrooms, but I saw a door to the right at the very end of the hall.  It said “Meditation Chapel”.  What the?  I’ve never seen that before.

So I opened the door, and this is what I found:

From Solveig, a classmate.

Yeah.

Holy crap.  Wow.  Is someone gonna yell at me if I appropriate this place for a few hours a day?

It turned out, that no, no one would yell at me.  Heck, I think once in two years I walked in on a group having a meeting in there, and maybe twice someone walked in on me tapping away at my laptop (one of those times, it was just someone looking for their jacket).  It was the most peaceful, most awesome, most beautiful writing place I could have imagined, and even looking at the picture makes me want to go back just to sit on the floor and write again.

Unfortunately, night classes often made it difficult to get into that room, and my senior year I wasn’t in the dorms which were attached to the student center (and in winter, this made a huge difference).  I also had a car, and thus I was able to find my second favorite place to write, Tea Source.  

Tea is a huge thing in my family.  Some people drink coffee every morning.  My mom drinks tea with all the strength of coffee.  Red Rose Orange Pekoe tea was a staple in our household (including those little plaster figurines they used to have in every box) up until an acquaintance of my mom’s started a tea shop in Minneapolis.  It’s a great little place, filled with all the vibes of a great coffee shop, plus several interesting people.

From http://uniquelytea.blogspot.com

Ahhh, tea.

Around my writing, I observed the most wonderful grey haired woman sipping tea who looked as if she’d stepped straight out of a black and white movie (complete with a floor length wool coat).  There was also the lady who was trying to get people into an awfully sketchy wine selling scheme, and the student who took all her tea leaves home in a little tupperware.  And then there was me, my Nanowrimo, and a pot of Jasmine tea with the afternoon sun (and sometimes an orange scone.  Yum.).

When I moved to Peoria, I found an odd Mecca of coffee shops.  Awesome.  There’s the Starbucks, the Panera as standbys, but there was also Kade’s, Panache, Apple’s Bakery, and Leaves’n’beans (Kade’s and Leaves’n’beans were tied for favorite).  Weirdly, there was also a Steak n Shake that proved to be utterly awesome for writing.  Working second shift, I needed a twenty four hour place for Nano 2009 and there it was, right across the street from the apartment.  It helped that the late night workers liked me.  And I liked them – after all, they brought me ice cream and chocolate.  On November 30th, as I madly sprinted to finish the book, rather than just the 50,000 words, one even brought me extra chocolate chips and fudge sauce.  I still laud the kindness of that steak n shake man.  Last I was in Peoria, he had moved on.  I hope it was to a high paying gig full of happiness and unicorns.

As I’ve said before, I wrote most of Nano 201o in a dunkin donuts across from our Korean apartment.  But I want to share one more place with you, because I think that while it isn’t my favorite place of writing, and it was only one night, it is definitely the coolest place.  

pic by Jenny E.

That's a Nanowrimo shirt, btw.

Where the heck am I?  Thailand.  This was on my trip to Thailand, and right there I am finally getting the chance to read the outline of the final three books in The Athele Series that Michael had been working on for the last two weeks.  Let me reiterate that – I have been working on this series for three years, and I’m reading the culmination of everything.  You’ll excuse the completely stupid look on my face.

The entire village we were staying at was on stilts.  I remember the small cracks in the wood were awesome because underneath the tide was coming in under us.  The boat landing was across from us, complete with a prepared racing boat.  The open door behind me goes to our room, two sleeping pads covered by a mosquito net (with more cracks in the floor)  About two minutes after this picture, Moniqa, the girl next to me, suddenly gestured for me to take the earphones off – it was 6 o’clock and the village was singing their prayers.  The sound floated across the water and echoed against the mountain formations around us to the most amazing effect.  While I wasn’t writing there, I was definitely working with writing, and that’s why it’s the coolest place I’ve ever done any writing.

What about you?  Where have you written that was amazing in some way?  What’s your favorite place to write?  Do you like coffee shops or home?

Also, check out my Nanowrimo guest post over here, complete with a steampunked out picture of Michael and I!

Caffeinated Nanowrimo Posts (pt. 2)

As I said in part 1, I loved many things about Nanowrimo, including the people, the ideas, and the material.  Part 1 was mostly about the people (and some of the experience itself).  So here I’m going to concentrate on some of the ideas and material.

Here’s the breakdown of Nanowrimo:

50,000 words
30 days
1667 words/day.

Put like that, it’s about 1 and 2/3s of a typical blog post on this blog per day.  That’s not so bad, except this is a prolonged exposure, we have to do it for 30 days in a row.

Let me give you a few similes for what  an endeavor like this feels like:

  •  Nanowrimo is a lot like that moment in Star Wars Ep. 4 where Han goes charging down the hallway at the storm troopers, screaming.  Except he doesn’t run the other way.  He turns into Trodgor and burninates as a plot twist (because you’ll use at least a thousand words closing up that plot hole).
  • Nanowrimo is like running a foot race.  Through a forest.  That’s haunted.  And has a mine field.  With ravenous, cannibalistic hippos (because why not?)  It’s insane, huge, scary, has explosions (usually) and may eat you (or may not – spend 200 words on your MC deciding this).
  • Nanowrimo is like losing your balance on a very long, steep, snow covered hill.  Once you get started, you’ll definitely hit a few bumps, but it’s kind of a snowball effect.  Get rolling, pick up a character here, an inner monologue there – you’ll be in novel territory before you know it! (and watch out for ‘The Artist’ wishing to sculpt your snowball aka your Inner Editor!)
  • Finally, to me, Nanowrimo is a bit like Christmas, except longer, and less babies (well, maybe, after all, it would be a great way to get that romance angle your Nano is missing…).  After all, I spend the whole month unwrapping my present to myself – a shiny first draft!  (For me!?  Aw, you shouldn’t have!)  And believe me, sometimes you haven’t the faintest idea what’s in this gift.  You’ll shake it in October and be all “I totally know what this is!” and then you’ll remove the last bit of wrapping paper and be like “…it sounded NOTHING like what it is… and that is AWESOME!”
Ok, my simile making is pretty crazy, but Nanowrimo is crazy.  It all works out!  But those similies aren’t just similies… they’re talking points!  (genius!)
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First of all, I wasn’t kidding about the plot holes.  While I tend more towards issues with actually having a point to my first drafts, as they’ll sort of delve into interesting-to-me-but-pointless-in-terms-of-plot places for the sake of word count.  And I’ve certainly known people who simply set off an explosion just to see what happened, and to meet their word count for the day, because you need an awful lot of words to explain something that happened completely out of the blue, like Han Solo turning into Trogdor, for instance.  How the heck did he do that?  Has he always been Trogdor?  Does he want to date Leia, or just burninate her?  Inquiring minds wish to know!
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My first Nano was absolutely full of weirdness and holes.  I had no idea what I was doing until the very end and it was fabulous.  I inadvertently created a world, a back story that I could bend around later to my own devices.  This isn’t your presentation, this is your sandbox.  Go and play!
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Nanowrimo is a scary endeavor.  That’s why we do it.  That’s why I love it so.  It’s something scary, because even though I’ve done it seven times now, every single time has been under a different circumstance.  I have done Nanowrimo while taking Organic Chemistry (I reeeeeeally shouldn’t have, but I did…).  I have done it single, engaged, and married.  I have done it through at least four different jobs.  I have done it in three states and two countries.
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… you know, this is starting to sound a little like a dirty joke.  ANYWAY, the point is that yes, it’s scary, and it will never stop being scary.  But all you need is an explosion (or a death) and you’re back on track!  And yes, it might eat you.  Maybe.  I often treat Nano time as one would treat a cannibalistic hippo.  Cautiously, but with great  curiosity, while I decide if it’s going to omnomnom me this year.  Once it becomes clear that it will not, we’re best buds, going to coffee shops and dunkin donuts together and doin’ the can-can.  (ok, not that, because no self-respecting hippo would do the can-can, they’re much more given to the Samba.)
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Now, the next thing you have to know about is your inner editor.  This concept has never come up for me, but Nanowrimo has ensured that for first drafts, it never will.  Your inner editor is that niggling little voice in your head going “GAH.  YOU CAN’T DO THAT!  ON PAGE 13 YOU SPECIFICALLY SAID THE OPPOSITE OF THAT!”  It’s a great thing when you’re trying to edit for consistency in the fourth draft.  It has no place in Nanowrimo.  Take that snowball effect of writing and run over your inner editor.  Then stick him/her in a freeze-o-matic to be thawed out once you’re done.  Otherwise you’ll be going back to page 13 and taking out a sentence, then reading some more and replacing some sentences, then fretting over a word choice… etc.  You get the idea.  Don’t kill it, that’s mean.  Just kidnap it and place it in a convenient storage spot for a month.  :D
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Finally, don’t get set on your nano story.  Let it flow.  You are the writer, but you don’t necessarily have to be the story teller.  That’s what your characters are for!  An example for me was trying to figure out what the heck was going to happen in this bubble of nothingness that was going on.  I had literally nothing to do for a few months before the climax of the book started.  So I decided that one of the characters was going to get proposed to in high fashion, and let the fiance’ to be go wild on his engagement plans, involving my two MCs and various ‘quests’ to get things like flowers and a ring and… man, it’s depressing, because a day after she said ‘yes’ she was killed by the mean ol’ government, which was not exactly my plan.  (Ok, if we’re going for honesty, I had no plan, but if I did, her dying wouldn’t be it!)
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That’s the way chips fall in Nanowrimo.  Things happen because you have to allow them to, not necessarily because you want them to.  I liked that character – her name was Liza and she was one of my first forays into writing someone with a penchant for prophecy (oh trust me… that is huge in The Athele Series).  I didn’t really want to kill her – but suddenly she was dead, and my MCs were on the run and everything was going down.  In other Nanowrimos, things had suddenly happened, and I’ll get done writing and wonder where in the world that came from; whole scenes materialize out of nowhere!  It’s great – and if I was strictly following my outline instead of the break-neck speed writing that Nano inspires, I might have missed it.
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So, what have we learned?
  • The Nanowrimo is good.  Trust the Nanowrimo.
  • Plot holes aren’t always a bad thing.
  • Scary things can be good for us.
  • Inner editors need to be shown their place.
  • Crap happens.  But it happens fast, and that’s what’s great about it!
So tell me, what crazy things has you novel (doesn’t have to be Nano) done to you?  Which of your novels is your favorite?  Any die-hard rules to share with the class?

The Caffeine Induced Nanowrimo Post! (pt. 1)

It is October the 19th as of this sentence.  If you are a relatively normal and sane person, with your caffeine/blood ratio in a healthy place, this is just a day.  A rainy/sunny/nice/terrible/working/off/school day.

Whatever.  That’s cool.

But what you may or may not know is that October the 18th is a mere 13 days from Nanowrimo, a month-long celebration of crazy ideas, lofty goals, and days of coffee-laced literary abandon, so please excuse me as I use a few choice capitals and overused internetisms.

OMG.  BEST. MONTH. EVAR!!!

Alright, thanks for your patience.  This post is part one, because I simply have SO MUCH to talk about with this little tidbit that I could probably go on for a full week’s worth of blog posts (and I very well might.)

But seriously folks, since I started to take part in Nanowrimo in 2004 (holy crap that was a long time ago) I have absolutely fallen in love with every facet of it; the people who run and participate, the ideas and barrel-through discipline it fosters, and of course the material I create.

First of all, Chris Baty has since retired as Nanowrimo’s director, and I wish him the absolute best of luck.  He was the voice of nanowrimo, and has this off-beat, driven humor that not only makes you laugh but makes you want to get things done.  And I can’t tell you how great that is to see when your stuck somewhere in the 15k range wondering what you were thinking trying to write a novel this year.  Every person I’ve had contact with has had that same kind of thing going – the one that just makes you think ‘oh my god, they are so unbearably cool I can’t even stand it.’  This summer, I sent an e-mail asking if I could run panels about Nanowrimo at conventions.  Not only did they say yes, they congratulated me on the pending publishing and called me a ‘go-getter’ (*insert fangirl squee*).  It was pretty much one of my highlights of the summer.

My first four Nanowrimos were done in relative loneliness.  I was a college student, had no car and not much spending money for things like coffee at a starbucks.  My freshman year of college, my bestie from high school, Sarah (whom I have spoken of before) mentioned this crazy thing the blogosphere was talking about and that maybe I should do it.  Nanowrimo.  In case you are unfamiliar with the term (hey, it’s possible) NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month.  You take an idea for a story and you write.  50 thousand words in one month (30 days).

Before I get into the assurances that this is indeed possible, let me framework you.  I had been away from home for a total of a month and a half at this point, away from Omaha, NE and in Minneapolis, MN.  I was working on the beginning bits of a Biology major, still with great dreams of being a zookeeper; but I really enjoyed writing.  I’m keeping up with my classes, yes indeed, but really?  I have no idea why I decided that Nanowrimo was a good idea.  Maybe it was just that crazy that I had to try it.  So I signed up.

I’ll be honest with you though.  I have no memory of that Nanowrimo.  I’m pretty sure I pounded out most of it away in my dorm room, amusing myself on the forums and the internet in general.  (For reference, I hadn’t met Michael yet, nor even joined the forum which brought us together.)  I remember my story, though.  It was a sort of fantasy that was trying to be sci-fi with mages marked by their brightly colored hair.  I took it from a 50,000 (or so) word mess into a streamlined 10,000 word short story that I actually didn’t write in Nanowrimo.  That story is an integral part of one of the later books in The Athele Series.  

I attended a few TGIO parties at The Loft Minneapolis (which is a great place, and if I was still there I’d be a junkie), but for the most part kept to myself.  I wrote in the common rooms.  I wrote at the coffee shop.  I wrote in the art galleries.  I wrote in the meditation chapel (that was and is still one of my favorite places to have written, ever.)  I’m pretty sure by the end of my bachelor’s degree, roughly half the people at my school knew me as ‘that one chick who writes books in November’.  And that was so ok with me.

I graduated and moved to Peoria, IL to live with some friends and figure out what the heck I was gonna do with this Biology degree which wasn’t actually doing me much good.  And that’s where the people facet of Nano really took off for me.  I moved in August.  I found a Nanowrimo group and went to their meet-up on the same day in October.  It was pretty cool to be in a new town and find a group of people that didn’t think I’d sneezed when I talked about my favorite time of year.

That first year, I finally decided to take this mess of ideas for a one-off character I’d been playing with for awhile and make it into a proper story.  That character was Morgan.  That story was Sleight of Spirit.  It was a great year, and our TGIO party involved me, the ML, and one other woman (Who is now ML for that region! <3)  The second year, I just kept right on going with that story, and this Nanowrimo was even better.  We met every Saturday for word wars, way too much coffee, and commiseration in sympathy of our characters (because sometimes the ML could put me to shame in terms of character’s bad days!).

I still talk to those ladies – they’re some of my best memories of Peoria, and if I had to choose a place to live just based on the Nano group, I’d probably go there.

In South Korea, I was nearly two hours from the writing group, and wound up writing mainly in the Dunkin’ Donuts (yeah, in Korea, it was pretty cool) that was across from our apartment.  Coffee, donuts, writing.  It was an easy match.  But I still got the people of Nanowrimo experience, through forums and facebooking with my Peoria group, who was so supportive of their wayward nanoer (and still are, because I’m still quite wayward!)

There’s one other group, that honestly I’m not sure when I joined.  They’re the Nanoljers.  At some point they were featured in Livejournal’s communities, and I signed up.  The group is primarily run by Rhonda Parrish, who is a really fabulous person and a great writer.  One of her nanowrimos was published, which really inspired me to keep plugging away at Sleight of Spirit.  The group really picks up in November, complete with ‘teams’ named after the muses, word challenges and word wars (I once wrote 10k words in 2 days thanks to one of those challenges!).  It’s so much fun to take part, and I’m happy to be one of the team reporters this year (gogo Team Calliope!!).

The point of all this rambling is that starting to associate with like-minded people has really enhanced my writing experience; and Nanowrimo is essentially the reason that I now look up writing groups just about anywhere I settle.  If there isn’t one, I just look for the writers.  All though I’ve never really been in one place long enough to get an ML spot, I’ve done a few writing meet-ups and they turned out shockingly well!  Nanowrimo is a very specialized form of break-neck writing, and if you associate with others that have that penchant for writing dangerously, you’re very likely to find some friends.

If you nano, feel free to look me up – Zurizip – on the Nanowrimo site.  I’d love to friend you, and possible get some word-warring going on.

Part two on Nanowrimo will be out… at a later date. In the mean time, do you write with a group?  Is it online or in person?  Are you doing Nanowrimo this year?  Tell me about it, I LOVE to talk nano!

Through the Lens of Spoken Word

Today I decided to check out the Freshly Pressed and found a post on the Spoken Word.  It’s an excellent post and I suggest you all check it out because it’s got some really great youtube videos I’ve been working my way through.  It’s making me think about the role of the spoken word in novels.

Generally, after about first grade, we’re taught to stop reading our words out loud.  While there is merit in this, I think that it’s a skill which should be retaught somewhere around middle school.  Spoken word is critical to our culture, and in general spreads ideas much faster than the written word.  (Ok, I could get into an exception with twitter and the internet, but I won’t).  Most of us have never read a book out loud longer than, say, a children’s starter chapter story.  Even though most books are meant to be read silently these days, there is a lot to be garnered from actually speaking the character’s words and actions.  It makes one slow down and visualize, rather than barreling through just to see what happens (I admit, I’m guilty of this).

As I was thinking about this, I figured that here are three types of novels when looked at through the lense of the spoken word.  The ones that are written from the spoken word, those that are written with the spoken word, and those meant to be interpreted to the spoken word.

Novels written from the spoken word are generally simple to pick out.  These are the stories which started as spoken word stories and much later were adapted to paper.  They are often terrible to read, sloggy and confusing.  My favorite example is the Odyssey.  I took a Greek literature course and our teacher had us buy a translation with no novelization.  It was still in its poetry form and lines repeat over and over and the names go on for two or three lines at a time.  It’s a terrible readand before we’d even opened the book, our professor acknowledged that.  He went on to explain, though, that the Odyssey was never meant to be read in the first place.  It was a collection of stories which people told around fires, at celebrations, in boredom.  The repeating lines (‘When dawn with her rose-red fingers shone…’) and descriptive names (‘Odysseus, the ingenious hero’) helped the speaker keep their place in the story and gave them a touch point for their story to return and regroup.

Reading the Odyssey in English is a matter of the translator and how they chose to walk the line between technically correct and flow.  However, read aloud with a good translation, the story comes alive and is easier to keep track of.  It is meant to be heard this way.  To find this in modern things, just read the lyrics of a song or a spoken word poem.  There’s something to be said with reading aloud, but the emotion and grit a speaker can put into the right poem means that there’s a huge disparity between only reading and only listening.

Novels written with the spoken word are easy to find as well.  These are prose novels which can be read aloud but were not written specifically for such a treatment.  Many, many books fall into the category on one side or the other (from ‘wow, that works really well read out loud’ to ‘eh, it’s fine out loud.’)

I know this category the best because of my father.  When I was very young, our ‘father-daughter time’ was right before bed, where he’d take me a snack, sit down next to my bed and read to me.  I’m not sure how we graduated from kids books such as The Boxcar Children to heavy duty material such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I like to think that dad just got bored and figured I could handle it.  He got through all of The Lord of the Rings, as well as Jurassic Park and, if I remember rightly, The Lost World before I finally started reading myself to bed.

Neither The Lord of the Rings nor Jurassic Park were written to be read aloud by any means.  However, they are both very well written.  They work with the flow of words and not against them, keeping the direction of the story consistently aligned toward the goals of the story.  In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien keeps us focused on the sweeping effects of the war and the trials of each character.  Jurrassic Park guides us through the process of pride and mistakes which led to the loss of control in the park.  Good writing is good writing, though.

That’s not to say that books in the last category, those meant to be interpreted to the spoken word, are badly written – not at all!  These books have a different goal, and in general, that is to educate.  They are greatly detailed and highly ordered, using extremely precise language.  Books in this category are often non-fiction, but fiction books sometimes stray into this category.  They are not meant to entertain, but to inform.  Some people I know believe that The Lord of the Rings strays into this category, and as it is sort of a historical account of the war of the ring, I can understand where they would get that.

The reason I call these interpreting books is that while you are not meant to read straight from the text, there is information in the text which is meant to be shared.  In textbooks, it is the role of the teacher to interpret the text to the students the first time, reword it to understandable measures, and then allow the student to rehydrate the text into its original detail through reading.  Essentially it’s as if the book is a sponge filled with knowledge.  The teacher wrings the sponge out and presents it to the students empty and ready to fill.  The student takes the sponge and mops up the knowledge remaining in the book with it.

That was a really, really involved metaphor but I’m going to hope it gets through.

So, to recap:

Books written from the spoken word were originally oral stories, and are still better that way.
Books written with the spoken word are where many good books fall today – while they are not written to be read out loud, can be enjoyed that way with ease.
Books written to be interpreted to the spoken word are created dense with information.  They are meant to be simplified first, and then read again to fill in understanding.

Where do the books you’re reading these days fall?  What kinds of books do you enjoy?  Have you ever tried reading your favorite books out loud to someone or by yourself?

Mad Science!

In college, I studied a bit of English.

I studied an awful lot more Biology.

I was always a nerd.  I love science a lot.  Even though my current career (Author, ESL teacher) has only the barest iota of relevance to my major, I will never regret the 4 years I spent getting that Bachelor of Arts in Biology.  Because darn it, Biology has some of the best, most important, most fascinating stories in human history, and I don’t even mean science fiction.  I mean real live, it actually happened stories that literally changed everything.

I’m sure this is news to some people.  Heck, this might even be news to people familiar with biology, but to me the stories in science were always glaringly obvious.  My father is a neurological and genetic researcher, and I was given many children’s books with the history of science all pictured up and explained in the ways I can understand.  They were pretty amazing books, such as Cells Are Us and Microbes Bugs and Wonder Drugs.

It may have given me a bit of a warped view of the world.  I admit, my favorite horror film is Outbreak.  The one about the e-bola virus that a monkey brings to the United states and the scientists all have to rush to find a vaccine, and then a cure too.  I don’t do well with aliens, monsters, and zombies.  Just ask my husband (who still makes fun of my reaction to Alien) and his left hand.  But I can totally get into pandemics, partially because of the implications which go behind them.

First of all, illness is not an evil.  It’s not even sentient.  It doesn’t care.  In some ways, epidemic movies and stories share ties with any disaster story – tsunami, hurricane, tornado, whatever, none of them are necessarily evil.  The difference is that while a natural weather disaster will destroy property and leave a town obviously in ruins, an epidemic does not.  In a classic disaster movie, people are just trying to get to safety, escape the storm, find the safe haven.  But often part of the problem with a pandemic movie is that no one knows anything is wrong.  Until it’s too late, obviously.   There is also the fact that unless you’ve put a mastermind behind the release of the virus (in which case it kind of becomes a terrorist story) your antagonist is non-sentient.  Certainly this doesn’t shoot the story down, but it does limit the variation on  the antagonist.  Finally, straight disease stories often remove the human element from the danger .  There is no convincing a microbe that its actions are unjust, no chance of redemption from the real villain, because it isn’t a villain at all.  Just a little bug trying to survive in the big bad world.

But science doesn’t even need the movies to have cool stories.  When was the last time you were sick?  I mean really sick, enough to go to the doctor.  The doctor may have prescribed you something ending in -cillin.  You took all your pills and felt better.  Hooray!

But prior to the 1940s, you wouldn’t have been so lucky, especially if the problem was something serious.  Cue Alexander Fleming, the first to officially note and pursue the effects of the blue mold Penicillin notatum.  I say note and pursue because while penicillin had been used in various ways before (including being grown on bread during the Civil War), Fleming was one of the first to actually conduct the experiments necessary to bring it into the spotlight.

But it wasn’t by hearing rumors of ancient Greeks growing mold to treat wounds, or reading Civil War histories that Fleming discovered the properties of the mold.  It was actually complete accident.  Fleming was cleaning up his lab.  This included tossing a few petri dishes of Staphylococcus into antiseptic solution.

Or not.  Maybe one of the dishes really didn’t sink, even though he threw it in the sink.  Maybe he just got lazy and left it out.  Either way, when Alexander Fleming left that day, one of his plates was still out at room temperature to incubate.  And when he came back, this is about what he saw:

On his dish, mold had grown.  Normally that wouldn’t be surprising, but then he noticed that around the mold, where bacteria had been before, there was nothing.  The mold had killed the bacteria!

This one accident and then observation set the ball rolling towards the wonders of antibiotics, and that pretty much changed everything.  By the time penicillin was able to be mass produced, the US was gearing up for World War 2.  Combat was rarely the biggest killer of men – disease was.  Disease in the water, in the trenches, in otherwise non-threatening wounds.  Doctors now had a very powerful line of defense and offence.  Single handedly, penicillin and the lines which arose from it lowered infant and mother mortality, stabilized population, and just in general changed the world.  Most of us have probably had a better life some way thanks to this quirk of medicine – whether because we’ve taken antibiotics or someone in our family has.  I for one, have penicillin to thank for getting me through several rounds of strep throat in my elementary school years.

It was a big deal.  A huge deal.  Paradigm changing.  We take antibiotics so casually these days.  Some countries don’t even require a prescription for the low-level ones any more.  We barely pay attention to our medicine.  But there’s a story there – a huge, staggering story which goes around the world from the point of discovery, and the story isn’t just Fleming, but the scientists who struggled to purify, then mass produce penicillin, and the doctors who conducted trials to see how far it would go.

There’s even modern continuations of the story, wherein many types of anti-biotics have been created and used to target many different bacteria.  And the bacteria have begun to fight back, becoming resistant to certain antibiotics, forcing us to find new ones.  It’s a sweeping story taking place everywhere around us and who would have thought it way back when Alexander Fleming realized that his petri dish was full of mold?

This is the kind of story I really like.  Seemingly innocuous beginnings with roots further back than anyone can comprehend that are slowly opened into something which changes the world’s paradigms.  I like to think that Sleight of Spirit will be that kind of beginning.  That when the entirety of the series has been published, people will go back and read again and go “Oh wow!  I never would have thought, but it was there all along!”  I believe that these are the stories which stick with people.  After all, penicillin’s stuck with me.

Words are My Art (Or, Why I Love Artists)

I draw a mean stick figure.  I’m really great at rainbows.  And trees!  For some reason I can draw trees reasonably well.  Oh, and I can draw while looking in a microscope, a talent developed in Biology Laboratory.

And that’s as far as my visually artistic talent goes.

I took a drawing class in college.  Augsburg is a liberal arts school, which required that I take two art classes in two completely disciplines.  The first credit was easy: I’m a chorus nerd.  I’m a pretty good singer and had no trouble in the choirs.  The second, not so much.  For some reason, creative writing didn’t count, and so I was behooved to take an 8-week Saturday drawing course.

Any real artist would cringe at my work.  I managed a pretty good still life of a pair of combat boots I’d bought from the thrift store my Sophomore year.  I liked charcoal drawings of trees.  I did a pretty cool pastel coloring of a tree with a bunch of roots.  But really?  I just am not cut out from drawing.  It might be my patience for it – I just want the color out there on the page and to look pretty!  You mean I have to pay attention to where that line goes?  Crap – it’s already way over there.  Oo, shiny silver pen!  Can I put it here?  No?  Here?  Oh dear, now I’ve gone and smudged it.

You get the idea.  For some reason I can’t get get drawing implements to cooperate with the image in my brain.  Maybe it’s technique and I could learn, but then we run into the problem of patience.

Words are my art.  Whereas I cannot turn a pencil to create a shade of gray, I can turn a phrase to find the impression of gray in your mind and bring it up.  I cannot draw a sad expression, but I can make you feel that sorrow in your heart.  With something as subtle as a word order change, I can create tension, fear, comfort, urgency, anger.  I can’t draw my characters, but I can make them come alive as surely as any artist.

But, it’s nice to see them, none-the-less.  These characters have been in my head for several years.  I know them.  I know how this one has a tendency to stroke a small chunk of hair through two fingers over and over when she’s thinking, how another is secretly the most normal guy in the whole series but one wouldn’t think it given his life, and how another’s lips just barely quirk and one eye squints a little when she thinks something is a little suspicious but amusing.

I can show you all through words how that looks.  But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Well, dang it, I want the thousand words and the picture!

And with talented artists, who have talent which I do not, I can have said picture to go with my (170) thousand words.  It’s a very special picture, the one that goes on the cover.  This is the one that everyone’s going to look at, see when they fire up that kindle or browse through the bookstore, and whatever reviews we get, whatever talk shows we manage to land ourselves on.  It’s one of the few parts of the book that we can’t make.  It’s what we’ll look at later and say ‘there’s our first book cover’.  It’s therefore, very important.

We could probably go to a professional book cover artist and say ‘what up, make this’.  And hey, it would probably be lovely and very acceptable.  But Sleight of Spirit is a labor of love, and signing with WriteLife LLC has given us the exciting and fairly unique privilege of finding our own cover artist.  So here are the facts:

  1. I love art.
  2. I am willing to pay for good art.
  3. I want an artist who is willing to care about what they’re drawing.

To that end, I will be announcing auditions (this time in a much less haphazard way than my last post).  I’d call it a contest, but audition has a much more correct connotation for what I’m trying to do here.  Contests imply winning something.  Admittedly, you are winning something, but auditions imply that you are earning a spot to do something special.  You don’t have a contest for a spot in a movie, you audition.  These will be auditions for cover artist.

Watch this spot.  Like a hawk.  Ok, not that hard, it’s not like I’m going to put it into tiny text or anything.  In fact, it will probably be in rather large text.  So watch more like… I don’t know, a cat?  A human, if so inclined?

Also, I have finally conquered the great widget monster and gotten a Facebook like button installed into the side bar.  Press that little button.