Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Rewrite Progress Tracker (v1)

I just spent the afternoon working on rewrites for Dormant. So far it hasn't been nearly as painful as I feared, but I have a long way to go. I suspect that it will become more challenging to maintain story pacing as the weight of the book unfurls behind me. (It's always hard to cut material.) To keep my motivation going, I will post and update this tracker as I make progress through the manuscript. I plan to create a dedicated tracker location on this blog when I have my book cover. This is to get me started.

2/34 chapters

Not much color in the progress bar at this point, but it will happen. I have five months to go.

Do book covers influence your reading decisions?

Book covers are much on my mind as I work with a graphic artist to create my own cover. I have always been of the “less is more” design camp, but that may be hard to do while branding the book as science fiction.

Why do publishers think that book covers that are busy, at best, or garish, at worst, sell science fiction books? I have been a science fiction buff since high school, but I was always vaguely embarrassed to actually be seen reading books from the genre. Oddly enough, I am drawn to science fiction because of the science. A good science fiction author takes the science and molds it into a “what if” scenario that stretches the facts just a bit, or a lot, further. I look for the reality shift when I suddenly see the story in a totally different light—the “ahha” moment. Beyond engaging my imagination, this kind of recreational reading helps to spur creative thinking.

I recently became aware of the parody site Good Show Sir: Only the Worst Sci-fi/Fantasy book covers. For example, the comment posted with the cover for A Mind for Trade, by Andre Norton and Sherwood Smith: “Sing with me, little one!  ’I-I-I’m a lumberjack and I’m okaaaay…’” Funny, yes, but I think the man's pose may be the least of the problems with this particular book cover.

Either I am an unusual science fiction buff, or publishers have it all wrong as they compete to put the most sensational attention-grabbers on a cover, whether or not it reflects the story. I recently read a blog illustrating the point. In Of Covers and Frustrations, author Jane Fancher is talking about the cover for one of her hard science fiction books.

I wanted a computerchip background theme running through all three covers. For the first book, I wanted the foreground to be the Miakoda Moonrise…a double moonrise over an alien landscape that is a key moment in the book with one or more of the characters in the image. Barclay gave me a lovely computer chip…which the art department completely covered with type. A double moon, the smaller of which the art department completely obscured with my name, thus eliminating the “alien”. And a secondary female character beside a fire because statistics said female figures sell.

Not even the covers on a notable book like Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, escape re-imagining. I must admit that the 1973 printing may be an illustration of a case where less is not more.
(As an aside, I came across a mesmerizing infinity animated gif, called Moving Water, while searching for the above cover images.)

What makes a good science fiction book cover?  Do book covers influence your reading decisions?

Monday, May 30, 2011

H1N1 influenza pandemic, vaccine, and my part in the response

My fascination with nearly all things medical probably started with my mother’s stories of her work as a Labor and Delivery nurse. When I read my first account of the 1918 influenza pandemic, that fascination turned to stories related to the epidemiology of how viruses spread and the public health measures taken to prevent, when possible, or contain when not. I knew that I would see a flu outbreak in my lifetime, but I never expected to have such a close experience with the response efforts.

H1N1 Influenza A
When I began my work as a public health information specialist, I was thrilled to combine my interests with my skills. That is how, in early May 2009, I found myself elbow-deep in disseminating information related to the H1N1 pandemic. I was the smallest cog in a tremendously complex response effort—much of it done by people whose expertise I could grasp just enough to admire. Seeing the flu response unfold from inside a public health laboratory was everything and nothing like I had imagined.

H1N1 flu is a novel form of the influenza virus that first sickened humans in the United States in April 2009. In June, the World Health Organization declared that the widespread H1N1 outbreak, while unexpectedly mild to moderate, had developed into a pandemic, the term for a global outbreak.

A shortfall in influenza vaccine stocks exacerbated the 2009 pandemic. Because I was pregnant at the time, I was at the top of the vaccination priority list issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (update 11/9/20: The priority list link for the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 has expired, but here is updated CDC info on the influenza vaccine and pregnancy). Despite this priority, there was no vaccine available. While working long hours at the flu response, my husband and I tried numerous sources to locate vaccine, including my Ob/Gyn, Primary Care Provider, work (normally a good source to promote public health preparedness), and local clinics. Months later, we finally found a source. After screening to ensure that I was a member of the priority group, a small city clinic administered the vaccine on November 5, 2009.

The beginning of December 2009 marked a real turning point for those working hard to effectively allocate the limited vaccine supply. With H1N1 vaccine availability increasing, the priority groups were expanded. By mid-December, availability again expanded. Health departments issued news releases urging everyone to get the H1N1 flu vaccination. The crisis was over.

The flu pandemic response in Dormant is based, in part, on my experiences during the H1N1 outbreak.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Writing a Tagline: Does this grab your attention?

A tagline is a short statement that explains your book to others. I have used this: "A science journalist must use her investigative skills to stop an influenza pandemic caused by a time travel experiment." Descriptive, yes, but it is also a bit awkward and lacking that certain something that makes it shine.

This is a stab at a better tagline.

Before Sundown, reporting was just her job. No longer Dormant, the flu made it personal.

Science journalist, Jackie Davenport, must uncover the truth about a time travel experiment in order to stop the pandemic.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Edited tagline:

To stop the flu pandemic from sending the population to the brink of extinction, journalist Jackie Davenport must uncover the truth behind the government's secret time travel experiment. Humanity’s future hangs on Jackie’s courage and ability to convince with the scoop of a lifetime.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A more succinct version:

To stop a pandemic, Jackie Davenport must uncover the truth behind a secret experiment.

Does this grab your attention and make you want to read my book?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Heinlein "On the Writing of Science Fiction"

Robert A. Heinlein is one of the great masters of science fiction. His novel Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, was the first science fiction book to hit the best seller lists. His work is largely responsible for my own introduction to the genre and, as such, is influential in my own writing.

In a 1947 essay he published the following rules "On the Writing of Science Fiction."

Heinlein's Rules
  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must never rewrite (unless to editorial demand, and then only if you agree)
  4. You must mail what you finish.
  5. You must keep the story in the mail until someone buys it.
My mind balks at the third rule. I am the queen of rewrites. Rewrites make the story better, don't they?

I just finished my first flash fiction story. Flash fiction is fiction of extreme brevity. As of this moment, I only exceeded the word count by 19 words. Not bad for this loquacious writer.

In the theme of flash fiction, and in an attempt to honor Heinlein's advice, I am going to keep this blog brief—time to walk away from the keyboard.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mumps Outbreak Response

Most of us think of mumps as a thing of the past, if we think of it at all. But viruses tend to hibernate, mutate, and pop up again when and where we least expect. As an information specialist in public health, I see the cycle often.
Mumps is a viral infection that causes fever, headache, and inflammation of the glands under the jaw. Once a common childhood illness, mumps has been largely contained through a nation-wide vaccination program that began with the first vaccine licensed in 1967. Further information on mumps can be found via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Mumps page.
In December 2010, a mumps outbreak was identified in the Texas correctional system. Inmates live in close quarters, and there is frequent movement within and between facilities—the perfect scenario for virus transmission.
Reading mumps test results
Outbreak-related specimens were sent to the Department of State Health Services Laboratory in Austin, which began testing mumps specimens on December 15, 2010. The average incidence of mumps in Texas is around 26 cases per year. In less than three months, the Viral Isolation laboratory verified mumps in 12 of the 42 submitted specimens (saliva, throat swabs, and urine). Testing was also done in the Diagnostic Serology Section; during the same time frame, three specimens (serum in specialized tubes) tested positive for mumps, of 36 specimens submitted.
This was just the beginning. Time and a second mumps outbreak in the correctional system brought the total cases to 40. The public health response was decisive and well-planned. Outbreak response plans were activated. Vaccination and quarantine halted the mumps virus before it spread through the state correctional system and beyond, to the community at large.
Samples forwarded to the CDC will be used to determine if vaccines need to be adjusted to account for a new type of mumps. Within the public health system, each outbreak is treated as a learning opportunity. We act quickly and then we analyze the process and outcome to see where we can improve.
My career in public health resulted from a personal fascination with outbreak scenarios, combined with a near-miss at becoming a nurse before obtaining an English degree. Those who work around me have varied but similar stories. Public health work progresses because we care.
My personal fascination has even turned toward my creative pursuits. Dormant is fiction, but it is science fiction based on experience. Though admittedly tweaked for storytelling purposes, my novel remains rooted in fact. What would happen if public health responders were missing or ineffective?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi

John Scalzi ranks as one of the few science fiction authors whose books have earned my automatic purchase. His tongue-in-cheek humor, unique characters, and complex plot twists caught my attention from my first read. Old Man’s War had me on the first line: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

Fuzzy Nation appeared on my Kindle in early May, thanks to my pre-order. This book is not set in Scalzi’s usual universe; it is as a writing exercise/tribute to a 1962 novel by H. Beam Piper, Little Fuzzy. Scalzi basically took the story, characters, and plot and re-wrote it, incorporating new characters, elements, and events. Because of this, Fuzzy Nation is different than his usual books in plot, tone, and pacing, but all of it with Scalzi’s usual flair for reveals and humor. 

Minor Spoiler Alert

Scalzi’s book draws you into the fuzzy universe from the beginning. By paragraph two, main character Jack Holloway is reading the riot act to his partner, Carl, for his inability to remember everything he has been taught. It is only after this diatribe that you learn Carl is in fact his dog. Carl is a very talented dog. He does not like boom, but he (allegedly) enjoys detonating explosives—for prospecting purposes only, of course. Holloway is a contractor working for ZaraCorp, a company intent on stripping the planet of resources, and yet they take a dim view of dogs detonating explosives.

We soon meet other characters. His beleaguered boss resents his lawyer grandstanding (Holloway is a lawyer turned prospector). His ex-girlfriend and company biologist dumped him for claiming, in a hearing, that she lied about Carl detonating explosives. Through them we learn that Holloway isn’t always a likable person.

Changing fortunes beset Holloway, and we alternately cheer and bemoan his fate. As a character, I found Holloway hard to sympathize with. Sometimes he seemed to be doing the right thing, but he always displayed a disturbing lack of morals.

A creature breaks into Holloway’s cabin. He looks through the window and sees a cat staring back at him. “It took him a second to remember that he didn’t own a cat. It took him a second after that to remember that cats didn’t usually stand on two legs.” Holloway names the cat things fuzzys.

The rest of the tale is taken up with determining if the fuzzys are very smart animals or people. How this is determined, and Holloway’s real motives, are worth the read. Along the way we find out why Holloway is prospecting instead of working as a lawyer. Is Holloway a good or bad person? Will the fuzzys be exterminated?

As a cat person, I enjoyed the fact that the “aliens” (the fuzzys) appeared to be extremely intelligent cats. I felt an immediate affinity for the creatures. My reaction to Holloway was more ambiguous throughout. Usually I, as the reader, come to empathize with the main character on some level. Being unable to do so in this book was somewhat disturbing, though ultimately refreshing for its novelty.

Fuzzy Nation has an involved and satisfying ending; however, it’s the ride, with its reveals and twists, that makes the story. While this book is certainly no Old Man’s War, it is a thoroughly fun, quick read.

Rating: Recommended

(Rating system: Recommended with reservations, Recommended, Highly recommended. I will not review books that I find unreadable.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Death of the Book

“Pity the book. It’s dead again,” writes Ben Ehrenreich. Kudos if you make it through his lengthy article “The Death of the Book.” Despite my interest in the facts included about the history of books, it took me two sittings to get through all 2,644 words (not counting the title, byline, and citations). Perhaps it was simply that I disagree with his major premise. Maybe it was only because I don't like to read for long on my computer screen.

Ehrenreich says, “Last summer Amazon announced that it was selling more e-books than the paper kind. The time to fret had passed. It was Kindle vs. kindling.” To be fair, he does illustrate that the death of books has been discussed for generations, but he also includes his personal bias. “For the record, my own loyalties are uncomplicated. I adore few humans more than I love books. I make no promises, but I do not expect to purchase a Kindle or a Nook or any of their offspring. I hope to keep bringing home bound paper books until my shelves snap from their weight, until there is no room in my apartment for a bed or a couch or another human being, until the floorboards collapse and my eyes blur to dim. But the book, bless it, is not a simple thing.

Despite his clever analogy, I must take umbrage with Ehrenreich’s view of the electronic book (eBook) reader as the opponent of books. I see it instead as the companion and expansion of books. Books have been my lifelong love, a fact which I touched on in my opening blog (Beginnings: I am a writer because I am a reader). I lugged six bookshelves worth of books through numerous moves, and I would return from my frequent library visits with a stack of five, six, or even seven books.

Jimi with her Kindle
Then Amazon announced the Kindle. I jumped to be an early adopter, placing my first Kindle order on June 6, 2008. I have upgraded with each successive generation. My paper book collection has reduced in inverse relation to my eBook collection. This is a good thing for my sometime nomadic lifestyle. My back is thankful each time I pack my slim Kindle in preference to my previous stack of paper books. Like my paper books, eBooks take me to new worlds, challenge me with new thoughts and ideas, and teach me new skills (like photography). And yet there will always be bookshelves in my home. There are some paper books that I will never trade for eBook editions, though I might also buy the eBook version.

An eBook is no less a book for being electronic; it is simply a book in another form. Books are not dead. Growing and changing is a function of living. Books are very much alive, and I am eager to contribute this growth by releasing my novel as an eBook.

Is an eBook a real book? What is your reading platform of choice: paper, Kindle, Nook, Sony, computer?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Customizing My Blog

I enjoyed creating and launching this blog, and I continue to have fun personalizing the format.

My good friend, Amy S., is responsible for my customized background. A graphic artist by training and copy editor by trade, she really has an eye for detail. At left is a thumbnail of her beautiful art. It's hard to see in this size, but the fortune cookie actually reveals my web address. I can't help but be inspired by her depiction of writing new worlds and exploring flights of fancy with my cup of tea at hand.

Thank you, Amy! I intend to tweak the layout to display more of the background. Just one thing first.... I'm going to do some writing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Identity Crisis: Choosing a Book Title

My book is going through an identity crisis. Pulling my manuscript out of long hibernation has its benefits. Titles and names are not my strengths, and it shows. I didn’t see it before, but I now realize that not only does my novel need a new title, but in several cases my characters have also outgrown their names.

Book Title

As mentioned in a previous post, I need a new title. I really like Crude Awakening, but I wish there weren’t several other books with similar titles. That the other books are primarily nonfiction is at least some help, but it is also the reason for my reservations on a title that would otherwise be perfect. These are the result of brainstorming with fellow writers who are, mostly, much more talented in the title department than I am. I have included the more tongue-in-cheek suggestions to keep things fun.
  • Sundown
  • Near Sundown
  • Before Sundown (But most of the story happens after Sundown—the town, I mean.)
  • Sundown Flu
  • Deadline
  • Time Release
  • Dormant
  • Pandemic
  • Viral
  • Resurrected
  • Jurassic Yack (*groan*)
  • Terminal
  • Incurable
  • Time Pandemic
  • Even Dinosaurs Get the Flu (Brilliant! *lol*)
  • Time Kills
  • Killing Time
  • Deadline at Sundown (Too much like a Western?)
  • Time’s Up
  • Time’s Up at Sundown (I’m not such a big fan of apostrophes in titles.)
  • Dead Crude
  • Deadline Crude
  • Crude Deadline
  • Dateline: Pandemic (I prefer to avoid the colon, unless a subtitle is necessary.)
  • Crude Lies
  • Crude Exposure
  • Under Pressure (The Queen song springs to mind.)
  • Virulent
  • The Source
  • Surviving Time
  • Carrier
  • Time Strain
  • Time in a Bottle (Anther song)
  • Crude Deception
  • Crude Timing
  • Suspended Time
  • Crude Awakening
  • Texas-T and the T-Rex (*lol*)
  • Drilling for Trouble
  • Refining Time
  • Refining Death
  • Refining Lies
  • Pandemic Time
It helps to see them in a list. I even came up with a new idea. Please vote in my title poll. (Expired)

Character Names

I reworked character names in a fun brainstorming session with my friend/sounding board, a.k.a. hubby. It helps to say names out loud. I also did a few searches on popular baby names by year, based on the character’s age, and name meanings. Meet my main character.

Newbie science journalist, Jacqueline Nicole Davenport, doesn’t feel she lives up to her elegant name. She prefers the snappiness of the nickname Jackie. She is quick to throw out an interview question, and then she mostly keeps her mouth shut; you learn a lot by listening. Just don’t push her too far.

And my most important secondary character.

Preston James Scott, PhD, physicist and director of a secret research project in time travel, doesn’t worry much about his name one way or the other. Preston answers readily to his given name, Dr. Black, or Director, as long as you let him get on with his research. "Exactly. Have you seen my glasses?”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Should smallpox virus stocks be destroyed?

Smallpox seen through a microscope
(National Geographic Photo Gallery)
The United States Stopped routine immunizations for smallpox in 1972, three years before I was born. I was vaccinated against smallpox in 2001. Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas put out a call for volunteers to test the effectiveness of diluted vaccine—randomly administered at five times dilution, 10 times dilution, and full-strength. I had a long-standing interest in the transmission and spread of viruses. I volunteered.

After the initial screening and disclosures, I was shown to a room where a doctor dipped a two-pronged needle into the vaccine and rapidly jabbed a small circle in the skin of my right shoulder. The pain was no worse than any other immunization, and I have something of a fascination with medical procedures, so I watched and gamely smiled for the press. They applied a transparent semi-permeable dressing—to protect the site and prevent exposure for those around me—and I went back to work.

About six days later, I knew that the diluted vaccine was effective. A large, itchy blister formed at the site of the vaccination. My temperature spiked and I had a persistent headache. I swallowed twoTylenol and went to see the study doctors and nurses. They took very good care of me (there was a number I could call 24/7) until I felt well again. My itchy blister became an itchy scab. I no longer needed the dressings. I went back for occasional follow-up visits for the next two months. My part of the study was done.

This week health ministers from the World Health Organization (WHO) are meeting to decide whether to destroy the final two stocks of the smallpox virus. I have been reading articles on the debate.

·      Destruction of smallpox strains urged (UPI Science News)

For a fascinating and very readable account of the incredible work to eradicate the smallpox virus, I recommend reading The Demon in the Freezer, by Richard Preston. Preston also explains the battle between scientists who want to destroy all known stocks of the virus and those who want to keep them until there is a cure for smallpox.

While destroying the smallpox virus would prevent the possibility of accidental release, only the destruction of legitimate stocks of the virus would be guaranteed. The proposed destruction also means no chance of further research should there be a future epidemic. My own research has taught me the very real inevitability of the latter; the cause will not necessarily be the smallpox virus, it could be any number of others. My book, Crude Awakening, explores an influenza pandemic scenario. Though my scenario is fiction, I based it on research and experience in public health disaster planning and response. Despite this knowledge, I am still undecided. In a perfect world, I would like to see all such threats abolished, but we do not live in a perfect world.

Where do you fall in regard to the debate? Should smallpox virus stocks be destroyed?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Doing the Math: Calculating Time to Manuscript Completion

That’s right, I said "doing the math," which will shock family and friends. I made it through classes like Algebra and Geometry only because of my personal tutor, a.k.a. sister.

Based on information gained from a professional edit of the first 3,000 words, my years spent writing and editing academic and scientific material are showing. My book needs work on pacing, to remove or re-write slow spots, and added reality through increased use of scents, tastes, and sounds. My application of all of these was somewhat sparse. I at least got the story line, visuals/settings, dialogue, and character development down.

I’m going to be generous and give myself four months to finish the project. My manuscript has approximately 83,500 words, divided into 34 chapters. Editing/re-writing roughly two chapters a week will get it ready for editing and Beta readers by September. With a 13-month-old toddler, that means burning the candle at both ends—already my normal state of living—but it is an achievable goal.

During this process, I also need to find an affordable graphic artist and a copyeditor. I would like to have cover art in three to four months, and I will need an editor in October. Any takers? Please post recommendations or your own contact/website, if you have skill in that area.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What's in a name? Help title my book.

My science fiction thriller has had two working titles. Biomass is too scientific and Out of Time is over-used, so I am in the process of selecting a new name for my book. Fellow writers on the Kindle Boards gave me several suggestions, and my husband contributed another. The top two contenders are Dormant and Crude Awakening. Based on the blurb below, what is your suggestion?

Warning: I left out part of the story twist and the resolution, but there are spoilers ahead.

A science journalist must use her investigative skills to stop an influenza pandemic caused by a time travel experiment.

Jackie Davenport graduated from college minus an abusive boyfriend and with a coveted job writing for the Houston Chronicle. Her assignment is small: travel to the oil refinery in Sundown, Texas to research high gas prices. The outbreak that obstructs her research is more than “just the flu.”

Unable to merely observe, Jackie becomes a catalyst in local containment efforts, but influenza jumps outward, escaping local and national containment measures to cause a pandemic. At her sister’s sickbed, Jackie must choose whether to trust a man she had tolerated only for her sister’s sake—brother-in-law and absent-minded physicist, Preston Black. Trust is not something she does well, at least not since her self-image was smashed along with her heart.

Jackie’s reality shifts when Preston admits directorship of a top-secret research project in time travel. Risking both her health and her burgeoning career, Jackie enlists Preston’s help to uncover proof of a cover-up spanning time and rank. Now Jackie must gather her new-found courage as she presents the scoop of a lifetime.

Beginnings: I am a writer because I am a reader.

I grew up at home with books. My parents’ bookshelves were wonders to explore. I flipped through history books and National Geographic magazines, looking at the pictures and imagining the places where they were taken. Our bedtime ritual included one of my favorite times of the day—story time. My siblings and I memorized the stories, leading to family legends of how we would correct Dad or Mom if they happened to “accidentally” skip a word or page.

My passion for reading bloomed when I learned to read. While I fondly remember Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot, my first real book was Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As my reading advanced from stumbling phonetic deciphering to fluency, I forgot the words and lived the stories. My imagination painted exciting adventures with Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, and so many other new friends from my books. My imagination took me around the world and back in time. I was in love with reading.

As I devoured books, I soaked in the English language and began to appreciate the rhythm and flow of words for themselves. I dabbled in poetry, wrote my secret thoughts in journals, and eventually tried creating my own stories.

My schooling enhanced this exploration of the written word. By the time I reached college, I had discovered the joy of research and a knack for document writing, editing, layout, and design. At work, I use these skills to craft web pages, brochures, and publications. I feel a deep satisfaction with each completed and posted web page or newsletter, and a real pride in my work, but I crave more creative outlet.

Years ago—more years than I like to admit—I turned that creativity to writing my first novel. Then life happened and I let it distract me from my goal of seeing my manuscript published. Now I am unearthing my book from its long repose on my hard drive. My goal for 2011 is to finally re-write and edit my novel for distribution on my beloved Kindle. Publication as an ebook is only the beginning.