Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I did it!

After much studying and even more worrying, I passed the national certification exam of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Sciences. I made it! I'm the prettiest! Uh, well, not that last one.

The last few days of waiting for the results were the worst, because I started dreaming about the damn results, or lack thereof. I was also consumed with the utterly irrational fear that I had forgotten to sign the form that came with the exam, meaning the whole thing would have been invalidated. But it's finally over. Now I can celebrate! And get a job, of course.

*dances around*

Monday, March 19, 2012

Five uses for sharks in fantasy

1. Variety

Go beyond the Great White. Sharks come in an incredible range of shapes, sizes, colors and types. As well as the hammerheads, there are thresher sharks, where the upper part of the tail can be as long as the shark itself, and sawsharks have long serrated snouts to slash prey.

Megamouth sharks, as the name suggests, swim along with their giant mouths open to swallow and filter plankton. Cookiecutter sharks are small, but they feed by gouging out round plugs of flesh from larger animals, hence their name. What’s scarier than this? The fact that they sometimes travel in schools.

And the names of milk and angel sharks just sound cute.

2. Scouts

If I lived in or on the sea, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have watching out for me than a shark.

As well as some species being able to detect one par per million of blood in seawater, others have external features that further enhance their senses—the hammerhead’s widely spaced eyes, for instance, or the nurse shark’s whiskerlike tactile organs. Their lateral lines contribute to their hearing.

The most fascinating sensory feature they have, though, is the ampullae of Lorenzini, electroreceptor organs that detect the electromagnetic fields all living organisms produce. I keep trying to imagine what sensing these must be like, how the sea appears to a shark in consequence, and if there’s any way to deceive or circumvent such a sensory system.

3. Weresharks

I rarely read books about shifters—burned out on werewolf novels a long time ago—but if there’s a book about people who turn into sharks, that will be the exception. It would just be a great change from wolves and big cats. One caveat: the weresharks shouldn’t be mindless killing machines to be destroyed in the end or destined for soup. They have too much story potential for that.

4. Despots

But do you want terrifying, thousand-fanged leviathans of the deep? Go for the ocean version of the mob boss.

These sharks patrol a territory and every other creature within it pays tribute by bringing in prey (such as luring unsuspecting humans in?) or sacrificing members of their own species which are weak, ill or which have just pissed off the rest of their shoal. In return, the sharks defend their territories fiercely, especially from rival sharks. Better the devil you know…

5. Submarines

The world is covered with water, or the land is just not habitable. People have to live beneath the sea, but why go to all the trouble of building submersiles that must be maintained and resupplied when the submarine could carry out self-repairs and defend itself?

Living inside a creature that dwarfs a megalodon would be an interesting experience. Such a shark would have to be genetically modified to contain living spaces for humans, and to reroute oxygen to interior chambers. Though a convincing argument would have to be made for the humans being symbiotes rather than parasites on a creature which could do very well without them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

"Your cells will make you immortal."

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks lay in a "colored" ward of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, losing a battle against an aggressive type of cervical cancer. She was thirty-one. When she died, she left behind five children, the youngest not even a year old.

She left behind something else, though--something taken from her without her permission or even her knowledge. When she was operated on, the doctors took a sample of tissue from her cervix and tried to make the cells grow.

The science of cell culture was still in its infancy at the time, mostly because human cells were difficult to propagate in vitro. Experimenting to find any cells which would grow well in a flask, doctors tried hundreds of patient samples. Informed consent wasn't considered necessary or even relevant at the time. None of the samples yielded results; the patients' cells died.

But Henrietta's... didn't.

HeLa, as the cells are now known, were the first immortal human cell line to be grown in a laboratory; they can multiply an infinite number of times provided they have the right growth conditions. Even compared to other cancer cells, they grow fast. Highly adaptable, they can become airborne to infect other cell cultures in the same laboratory.

They revolutionized cell biology and virology. HeLa cells were used to test the first polio vaccine and used to create the first hybridomas--cell lines producing large quantities of antibodies. They were shipped all over the world and sent into outer space.

Slowly, a multi-billion dollar industry selling human biological materials was born.

The tragedy, though, was that no one told Henrietta's children about any of this. Her name was revealed in the media for the first time in 1971, and her children only learned of the industry surrounding her cells in 1975. They struggled to deal with the fact that people were buying and selling cells from the mother they never knew, when they couldn't even afford medication.

"I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make."

Rebecca Skloot researched and vividly described The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Ever since she took a biology class in college, she was curious about the unknown person behind HeLa, the woman who was buried in an unmarked grave, yet who impacted science--and medical ethics--long after her death, and the mother who left behind a daughter longing to know more about her.

Finally the cells popped into view for Deborah. And through that microscrope, for that moment, all she could see was an ocean of her mother's cells, stained an ethereal fluorescent green.
"They're beautiful," she whispered.

Striking a perfect balance between the science and the people involved, this book was a New York Times bestseller. Although I knew of some failures of medical ethics, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, others were new (and horrifying for someone who studied medical laboratory technology in a different time and place). Most of all, though, this is the story of an ordinary family who learn about an extraordinary legacy from a woman who should be remembered for her life, and death, and immortality.

Read an excerpt here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


For most of my life, my tastes in music were predictable. I liked pop and New Age/Celtic, so my playlists featured Enya and Michael Jackson, with Roxette and Loreena McKennitt backing them up.

But then I heard a Finnish symphonic metal band called Nightwish.

Heavy metal, or any kind of metal with loud drums, electric guitars and snarled lyrics, didn’t work for me. What hooked me on Nightwish, though, was their unusual combination of the drums and guitars with a truly operatic voice—their singer, Tarja Turunen, has an incredible vocal range. As a result the songs have a sense of depth and drama, and the lyrics often contribute to this as well. “Wishmaster” references both The Lord of the Rings and DragonLance, while "7 Days to the Wolves" is inspired by Stephen King’s Wolves of the Calla.

Nightwish and Tarja Turunen parted ways in 2005, however, and while I listened to a few of their songs after that period, they never quite did it for me. The band had a new vocalist, Anette Olzon, but her voice was just too different—the grand soaring quality was gone. I’m not so invested in music that that came as a disappointment, though, so I just listened to the Nightwish songs I did like, and thought it ended there.

Then I heard of their latest album, Imaginaerum. Maybe it was the name, the lovely cover, or just curiosity which made me listen to a few of the songs, but… they’re superb. Fast-paced but haunting, infused with atmosphere, just right for a night carnival, a dark-side-of-the-mind wonderland and an “Imaginarium/dream emporium”.

I am the voice of Never-Never land,
The innocence, the dreams of every man,
I am the empty crib of Peter Pan…

Last Ride Of The Day evokes a roller-coaster ride under the moon. Turn Loose The Mermaids is another of my favorites—sad and dreamy at the start, yet seguing into an energetic C-part that’s apparently influenced by spaghetti westerns.

Then again, the album is the soundtrack for an musical fantasy film, and it shows—the songs reflect the panorama of the big screen. Anette’s voice fits perfectly with this new style. I don’t think Nightwish will ever reach that operatic plateau they did in the past, but they don’t need to—they’re brilliant, bold and evocative. Metal has never been easier to listen to.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Word counters

Does anyone else use a word counter when working on a novel or story? If you know the length you're aiming for (in words or chapters), it's fun to watch the little counter inching along towards your goal.

I usually use Ticker Factory. It's got a lot of different styles to play with, so the counter can be customized for any setting. Here's the one for the book I'm working on right now:

Now, back to writing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fake literary agents

Writer Beware’s latest blog post referenced this literary agent profile. It’s either hilarious or jawdropping or both.

I'm an hungry hunter... YES, but only of... bestsellers!!!

Maybe there’s so much merda taurorum on this page that even the greenest of newbies will steer clear. I’d like to believe that. I really would.

Our policy is FREE (for first reading!) and very different from other agents:
1. We accept to read all your book (the first 3 chapters, in my opinion, are not sufficient to judge the whole book! They are sufficient only to mock you!).

Scammers are usually consistent in telling writers what they want to hear. We’ll read your book from cover to cover. We’ll reply fast. We respect you. We believe in your dream. Sometimes they go further—hopeful clients were conned out of hundreds of thousands of pounds by Robin Price, who told them Johnny Depp and Martin Scorsese were among his contacts. He was convicted in 2011, not that that’ll help the retiree who mortgaged his house to pay Price.

I entered “fake literary agents” into Google, just to see what cropped up. One result was an article about the increasing number of literary scams in India, which was something new, so I read it with interest. Unfortunately, the advice it gave about how to avoid such scams was not very good.

Talk to them: All these agents have fancy websites and online profiles. However, a chat with them over the phone can be a revelation. It is very important to know about their intellectual level and the seriousness with which they are going to try and place your book.

Firstly, this may work with legitimate agencies in India. I can’t say how they operate. I really hope, though, that aspiring authors don’t try it with agencies in the States.

Secondly, it’s easy to say “talk to them”, but do writers know what kinds of questions to ask? If they’re inexperienced, scammers will find it easy to take them in. Anyone can make any kinds of promises over the phone, and some salespeople come off as very convincing.

Finally, “intellectual level”? An agent can have a PhD or be a member of Mensa, but this is irrelevant to the question of whether they’re experienced at selling books.

Talk to some of the authors these agents claim to have represented: A candid feedback from them can be invaluable.

Talking to authors is a step up from talking to agents, but again… what are the questions to ask?

“Hi, I was wondering if you’re happy with your agent.”

“Oh yes. I signed up with him last week and I couldn’t be more thrilled. He made my dream come true.”

This is certainly candid feedback, but it’s not going to help the first writer make an informed decision. Plus, some writers are honest about mistakes they’ve made and some aren’t. I know someone who signed with PublishAmerica because she asked two PA authors about their experiences—and they both provided glowing reports that failed to mention overpriced books, lack of availability, poor royalties and so on. New writers need better information than that, or at the very least, they need to know where to go to get such information if they want it.

This Is Nothing Like An Official FAQ – from Absolute Write’s Bewares and Background Checks forum.
Writer Beware.
Preditors and Editors
Publisher’s Lunch – a free ezine with the latest industry news and a weekly deal report. People who claim major publishers don’t sign unpublished writers have never seen one of these deal reports.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Starting with trauma

Fun activity: outlining a new manuscript.
Problem: characterization – specifically, of the hero, Flecton Burwood.

I had a bit of a backstory for him. What I didn’t have was a good grasp of how he thought, what flaws he had, or what he liked about the heroine. Then I asked myself a question.

Hey, Marian, I said. If, from the ages of eight to thirteen, you lived in fear that your charming older cousin would secretly kill you, what would you be like now?

This was the most important part of Flecton’s backstory, by the way. When he was eight, his twelve-year-old cousin Leighton came to live in Burwood Hall. Flecton had two sisters, so he was happy to finally get what he thought would be a big brother.

Leighton was happy too. He wanted to be the master of Burwood Hall, and the only thing standing in his way was the heir.

The first accident killed one of Flecton’s sisters and put him on his guard, but Leighton was too clever and too patient to be caught. After the second accident and Flecton’s narrow escape, he accused Leighton, only to be punished by his parents for telling such horrible lies. This only ended when his father died (of natural causes) when Flecton was thirteen. He became the master of Burwood Hall, and Leighton lost no time in heading for the hills before anything could happen to him.

So getting back to my question, what would I be like if I were Flecton?

Cagey. I wouldn’t trust anyone easily. I’d sleep with a weapon in the room. I’d be over-prepared for danger. I would double-check doors to make certain they were locked.

I’d also have some less rational habits. Like having some kind of weird little ritual to remember the past or protect myself, something that really doesn’t make sense to an outsider or looks bizarre but which kept me more or less sane when I was a child.

I would find it difficult to enjoy life. I might have few qualms about listening to private conversations because hey, maybe that once saved my life when I was a kid. Also, because I didn’t know whether I would live out the day as a child, I’d be even more of a control freak than I currently am.

Suddenly I had a lot of material about Flecton. Plus, now I really want to give him a happy ending.

Starting with a major trauma and extrapolating how that might affect someone will only work for some characters, and they’ll need traits or habits that are not caused or influenced by the trauma, or else they’ll look pretty one-note. But it worked for Flecton, especially since the heroine is direct, well-balanced and can enjoy life.

Too bad he sees her making out with his cousin…

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Five monobiome worlds

1. Plants

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass begins with a lyrical description of the world—how the grass forms hills and dunes that fall away into valleys of grass. The colors are different—some grass might be more blue than green, some yellowing—but it’s all a single great endless sea of grass.

Jungle planets fall into the same category—the future Earth in Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse is one. A true Daisyworld isn’t ecologically feasible, but more biodiversity can be added—or the single-species system itself could be sustained through some alternate method, such as magic.

2. Ice

There’s the planet of Winter in Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, and any SF story about an expedition to the outer giants of the solar system or their moons is likely to describe such conditions.

I’d love to read about iceworlds in a fantasy setting, though, where the characters have fewer hi-tech resources to help them survive. It would be especially cool, no pun intended, for the perfectly preserved corpses of woolly mammoths and so on to be found entombed in the ice—or, for that matter, utilized by the people.

3. Sand

Arrakis, the world described in Frank Herbert’s Dune, is a great example of this, but a far more frightening sandland is the one in Stephen King’s short story “Beachworld”. Not only is there no water to relieve the endless miles of sand, the sand itself is sentient, seeping into machinery to damage it and hypnotizing one of the astronauts into swallowing great handfuls of it.

4. Water

Reviews of Waterworld don’t paint it as promising, but such a biome has a lot going for it. Even if the people haven’t physically altered to handle such an environment (growing gills, being able to hold their breath for long periods), they could adapt in other ways. A tamed dolphin helps protect the ship-city of Armada in China Mieville’s The Scar (the book for sea adventure), but I’d love to see something other than dolphins or killer whales in such a role. A plesiosaur, maybe.

5. Fire

Perhaps not literal fire, but a world like Venus would be interesting.

Everywhere I look, all across the expansive basaltic plains, geysers and fumaroles belch up sulfurous plumes of smoke.

Volcanic features, water reserves deep underground, physical modifications to cope with high CO2 levels and most of all, lots and lots of volatile, dangerous and potentially explosive chemical compounds. What’s not to love?