Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Starcrossed: A Review and Book Drawing

Some of you will remember back in May I shouted out my mad-passion for Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold. Since then her lovely publisher has sent me a copy of Bunce's latest book, Starcrossed.

Would you believe that I loved this one even more? Believe it!

This book had everything I love in a novel:
~ A fun and likeable main character
~ Exciting and unique plot
~ Fully realized world
~ Perfect pacing that kept me wanting to read well into the night
~ A twist at the end

It had Clue-like plot elements with a who-done-it mystery set in a fantastical world. But beyond that, the story was oh so much more. It was fast-paced and complex, while Digger was one of those rare characters you are sure you know in reality because they become so real to you. The only sad thing about this book? I have to wait for the sequel. Wah!

The skinny from Goodreads.com: Digger thrives as a spy and sneak-thief among the feuding religious factions of Gerse, dodging the Greenmen who have banned all magic. But when a routine job goes horribly wrong and her partner and lover Tegen is killed, she has to get out of the city, fast, and hides herself in a merry group of nobles to do so. Accepted as a lady's maid to shy young Merista Nemair, Digger finds new peace and friendship at the Nemair stronghold--as well as plenty of jewels for the taking. But after the devious Lord Daul catches her in the act of thievery, he blackmails her into becoming his personal spy in the castle, and Digger soon realizes that her noble hosts aren't as apolitical as she thought... that indeed, she may be at the heart of a magical rebellion.

Available October 1st, there are two ways you can get your hands on this book:
1. You can preorder it now. It comes out this week so you won’t have to wait long!*
2. Leave me a comment! I’ll draw one winner on Friday, the day of the release, and send you my copy of Starcrossed. (Yes, I’ll be sad to part with it, but since it was free, I wouldn’t feel right keeping it all to myself.) YOU HAVE UNTIL FRIDAY, 8 pm EST TO ENTER.

If you want a comment topic, I love children’s book recommendations (including Middle Grade and Young Adult). Please leave me one or a few.

As with all the rare reviews I give here, this book is one I truly love and wish into the hearts of all its readers. Even getting a free copy would not change my honesty about a book.**

* When you read Starcrossed, please drop me an email and let me know what you think of it.
** While Scholastic sent me a free copy, this review is my opinion and has not been swayed by their generosity nor have they even required me to review it. All was by my own volition.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Characters: The eHarmony Technique

Blogger and author extraordinaire, Elana Johnson, had another amazing idea aptly-named The Great Blogging Experiment. Since Elana’s ideas are always “great,” I signed up. The idea is to see what each of us would come up with given the topic of characters.

I had a vague idea about what I wanted to write on and then Whammo! a conversation with a friend turned my post into something entirely different. You see, this wonderful friend had had a sticky divorce and for six years swore off dating. After some persuading from her teenage children, she decided to be EXTREMELY brave and put herself out there. She joined eHarmony.com. Now, before this conversation, I didn’t know anything about eHarmony, but apparently their philosophy is to use “scientific predictors of long-term relationship success”. They set people up by asking their clients hours and hours of questions to turn that person inside out—to get to know the individual first from within. Granted, there is one little profile picture, but really the dating service is looking to match people’s personalities and interests rather than their looks and dress. As I understand it, the client isn’t even allowed to converse with someone they are interested in until after the two people have answered more questions for each other via their online system. One of the most interesting things about my friend’s experience is that after all these hours and hours of questionnaires, she was asked to name one thing she wanted most in a relationship. For this question she had to search deep! After all, she could only say one thing and it was to go on her profile page. For me, I would have put something shallow like “must be outdoorsy” or the like. Instead, my friend once again thought from the inside out and recalled back to the point in her failed marriage when she knew it wasn’t going to work. She remembered when she was so sick that the only thing she could think to do was to pray. She asked her spouse if he would pray with her and he said no, he thought she should just sleep and then she’d feel better. But she wanted him to share that moment with her and he was unwilling. She answered that question “must be willing to pray with me”. Whether you believe in prayer or not isn’t the point, but I hope you saw how much my friend dug inside herself to find her essence and put it on paper. My writing brain was on fire after she told me that last bit.

So I came up with a list I now call The eHarmony Character Plan, things that will help develop characters into people readers want to know about:

1. Write a brainstorming web or list. Start from the inside of the character’s being and work out. Never focus on the outside alone. That is going to be left up to the reader’s imagination anyway.
2. State the one thing (The. Most. Important. Thing.) your character is looking for. What they want the most. State that at the top of the page. This is going to drive just about everything else in the story.
3. Dig deep inside your character’s head. When I’m planning/plotting a story, I also write 100 things about my characters. They don’t have to be things I’ll end up using, but I’m getting to know them and what they might be like. After this, I take a paper and just write as that character (in 1st person—even if the story is not) as if they have possessed me and they’re using my hands to scribble in their journal.
4. Give them a past, a present, and a future. Hopefully their present is the most exciting period of their lives, but make sure you know the other major moments as well. That’s where the 100 things and journaling for them come in handy.

Thankfully my friend found her happily ever after from the experience. She was building character by reaching out of her comfort zone, but we can take her experience and build characters from it as well. All without ever having to create our own eHarmony accounts!* (Ha, ha.)

What do you think? Did eHarmony/my friend’s experience teach us anything? (Ahem... It's okay to say no.)

~ Jackee

P.S. And as a teaser for my next post, the last time I signed up for a
Blogfest ala Elana I sung my love for Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold. Well, Elizabeth and her wonderful publisher Scholastic sent me her latest book, Starcrossed, for review. Due out in October, I have in my hot little hands a copy before it’s released and I’d love to pass it on to you. Come on back next week for a chance to win it! (Oh, and to read my review because I LOVED Starcrossed even more than Curse!)

*DISCLAIMER: eHarmony.com has not paid me any sort of sum to advertise for them. Nor do I endorse them. However, if you work for eHarmony and would like to pay me, please feel free to do so!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Axioms of Writing

1. The more time you take to write, the more your commitment to the art of writing.

2. The more art you create, the more you crave to create.

3. Practice may not make perfect, but it develops craft.

4. Giving yourself physical space to write also gives your brain mental space (and permission) to create.

5. Giving yourself permission to write causes a balance in the soul of a writer.

Q4U: Does anyone else have any axioms of writing to share? Or being creative in general?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wild Wednesday: Mammalian Reproduction (Delayed Implantation)

Erm… I meant to post this yesterday. Sorry!

Anyhow… today (that should have been yesterday), I’ve a topic that has fascinated me as a biologist for many years: reproduction! Specifically, I’ll be discussing a cool reproductive mechanism occurring in some mammals. Now, should you not share my excitement about reproduction, you probably don’t want to read on. No hard feelings if you leave (and thanks for stopping by anyway)!

Still with me? Cool!

First of all, a definition: Diapause is a phenomenon in some plants and animals where a temporary halt in the growth of an embryo takes place. The most well known type of diapause is delayed implantation (DI). DI is found in mammals and much like a little alien lying in wait for the best moment to grow forth out of its host, these little wannabe babies wait for certain chemical cues to initiate growth. Over 100 species of mammals have this unique ability and include many rodents, weasels, skunks, pandas, nutrias, armadillos, badgers, bats, wild dogs, sea lions and other marine carnivores, bears, lions, and marsupials like wallabys. What happens is that instead of attaching to the uterine wall, the tiny ball of fertilized cells (called the blastocyst) free-floats. After a time, physiologic cues create one of the following scenarios: a) the blastocyst attaches and begins to grow or b) the mother’s body reabsorbs the cells because the conditions aren’t optimal for becoming pregnant.

Though we don’t know why this happens in some species and not in others similar in either form or habitat, scientists have a few theories as to why it is a good idea:
1. A female's body can allow fetus development in autumn, creating an early spring birth, which gives the newborn offspring a long summer to learn survival skills before the harsh tests of the next winter.
2. The mother can be lighter and swifter during the foraging seasons of summer and early autumn because she is carrying an embryo rather than a fetus.
3. Mating can occur in the fall when the males are in prime condition without the females becoming pregnant until it’s an optimal time for them too.
4. DI can prolong the separation time between the males and females in order to reduce the competition for food in a localized area.

Some mammals have a seasonal DI, where the fertilized cells are stored every year around the same time for about the same length of time. For example, a certain species of weasel will store the blastocyst around three months until it's time to hibernate. Storing times vary by species, but some sea lions can store the blastocysts as long as 10 months! (And here I thought Twinkies had a long shelf life.) In some species of rodents and marsupials, implanting the blastocyst doesn’t depend on the season, but rather when the female stops nursing the young already born. The female’s body cues to the cessation of suckling young and then the fertilized cells implant. This is why many rats can have multiple litters of young within a year and why kangaroos can produce a new joey almost immediately after the other jumps the pouch.

Are you fascinated yet? Glad humans don’t do this? I am on both accounts!

Other cool facts about DI:

I. Conservation: Species with delayed implantation may be more vulnerable to the effects of pollution through endocrine (hormone) disruption. For example, female polar bears are food deprived during pregnancy and their pollution loads increase because they use their fat stores, where pollutants are stored, for energy. Since the cubs are first grown in fetus during that time then nursed on fat-rich milk as well, the cubs are exposed to very high pollution loads from their mother.
II. Human Medical Research: If shutting off growth to a wannabe baby is possible, then it might be possible to shut off growth in other cells, such as cancer. Cancer cells are characterized by rapid growth as is fetus growth, so understanding the mechanisms that cease or retard cell division in DI could shed light on how to do the same with carcinomas. Something my mother and I would thank God for every day more we have together.

If you, my lovely readers, have nature-related questions you’d like me to answer, feel free to email them to jackee(dot)alston(at)gmail(dot)com. I’ll post them on Wednesdays (or Thursdays if I'm a slacker) as I get them.

Have a wild Wednesday... erm... Thursday!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blogsplash and Life Paths

It seems as though a lot of writers I cyber-know had books just debut or soon will this coming year. Those lovely copyright symbols will be followed by a 2010 or a 2011. I’m happy for them. Really! But for a milli-moment I admit it makes me… wistful. Honestly, I thought Courtesy and Patience would be with an agent by now. That hasn’t happened and after the momentary sigh, I suck up my selfishness and remember a very important thing about life:

Not one single person on this beautiful earth follows the same path. My life path is not your life path. My publishing path is not your path.

This is kind of an embarrassing and personal story, but I’m going to share it anyway:

You YA writers have probably heard of a book called The Duff by Kody Keplinger. I (anonymously) followed (Okay, fine. Cyber-stalked. Whatever. No need to split hairs.) Kody’s journey because we both submitted to her now agent the same day. While she signed with said agent over the weekend and then turned around to sell the book within DAYS (or something wonderful like that) of signing, I waited a few grueling months to hear from the agent. When she got back to me, it was a revision request. Great! I appreciated the opportunity to learn something. It still ended up a sweet and sincerely regretful no. Now, I don’t hold this experience against Kody or the agent at all. Instead I’m telling you this story to illustrate what a stupidhead I was to compare myself against another. (Yes, I occasionally call myself a stupidhead. Occasionally.) I’m not Kody and though I’m sure she’s amazing, I’m okay with not being her. I know she and the agent are destined for great things, but I should have never thought my success need parallel hers.

 There are great things ahead in my life too and they’re there for my discovery. Mine alone.
 Life doesn’t always happen the way we envision it, but once we look back we see that it has become much more than what we could comprehend at the time. We become who we are because of the experiences we have encountered along the way. At this point in my life I’m just grateful—if nothing else—to say that I at least got that funny, little book to the one (different than Kody’s) agent I thought was unattainable, one that only takes referrals. And I’m grateful to say that I know so many wonderful writers who are about to be published. Or already are. Step up and take the spotlight. Truly, with all my heart, I’m happy for you. You have each and everyone earned it. I’m waiting impatiently to read your lovely books!

 And speaking of friend’s books I’m impatient for…
 Talli Roland’s SPLASH into the rom-com world is soon at hand. Please help her prove that an Indie book can take over the jungle that is Amazon by clicking HERE. Good luck, Talli!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Real Characters

Comments on Sunday’s post about how cool my husband is got me thinking… do you use people you know as characters in books? Steve is a very talented individual. He’s actually quite the Renaissance man… if Renaissance men dressed in tie-dye and Chacos. He’s very multi-faceted with a lot of likes, dislikes, and internal characteristics. Now, obviously he’s my ideal guy, so quite possibly all the love interests in my books have some part of him in them. But one, Tristan in my Beatles book (Her Ticket to Ride), I tried consciously to make a lot like him. In fact, some of the conversations he has with Leena are exact conversations we’ve had about John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The only problem is, I lost the feel for Tristan because I made him too much like Steve. What I think happened has a lot to do with translating real people to paper. Though we want dimensional characters, we don’t want them to come across as contradictory, with too many personalities. Often characters that come across as contradictory seem unable to stay IN character and pull us as readers away from them. There is also the problem of having only so many pages available to show their personalities in your book. To make my point on where I went wrong, I interviewed Steve. Here are his answers to a simple character worksheet:

ME: What’s your profession?

STEVE: I am a product specialist for a medical device company. It's kind of like a project manager, but heavy on the clinical side. Right now I am working on research and development for some therapies to treat lower limb peripheral artery disease.

ME: What did you study in school?

STEVE: I studied chemical engineering as an undergrad. I studied biomedical engineering for my doctorate, but it was in the chemical engineering department, so my degree says chemical engineering.

ME: What are some of your hobbies?

STEVE: I have way too many hobbies. I'll try to list some of them in no particular order. Playing guitar, cooking, traveling, camping, hiking, backpacking, biking, running, hunting, fishing, reading, woodworking, and gardening. I know there are a lot more than these, but I can't think of any this close to my bed time.

ME: Describe your ideal friend and enemy.

When I read the question I told Jackee that I am like Red Forman from That 70's Show, "Kitty, I don't like people." If I have to choose an ideal friend it would be someone that can make me laugh. My ideal enemy, simply put, is someone I would have no problem killing with my bare hands.

ME: What is your idea of a fun day?

STEVE: Anything other than going to work (though I do like my job). The day would involve spending time with the family, working in the yard, going to a good restaurant, doing any one of my hobbies (see above), etc. Take your pick.

ME: What are your biggest pet peeves?

STEVE: I told Jackee that I don't have any pet peeves, but she didn't believe me. My biggest pet peeve is the word like, I can't stand it when people say like every other word. Personally I think it makes some one sound really dumb when they don't use the word correctly. For example, someone says, "I like went to the store". Well, did you "like" go to the store or did you go to the store? The other pet peeve would be the use or misuse of the word your and you're and there, their, and they're. It really gets on my nerves when people who have graduated college can't use them correctly.

ME: What are some of your favorite books?

STEVE: My favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo. The story is great and the character development is incredible. Sadly, I don't think the book would sell today, people don't have the patience or attention span to read a book that long. Others include: Les Miserables, Dracula (the original by Bram Stoker, not those vampire atrocities people read today), The Jungle, Hunger Games (working on Mockingjay right now), Citizen Soldiers, The Demon in the Freezer, and The Terror. There are probably a lot more, but those are the ones that come to mind.

ME: What were some of your favorite books as a kid?

STEVE: I didn't really read many books as a kid, I spent more time outside. I loved Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attack. I enjoyed the book Hatchet as a kid too.

ME: Favorite music?

STEVE: All kinds of music. My favorite genre would have to be late '60s San Francisco psychedelic. Here's a list of some of the musicians/groups I like to listen to, in no particular order. The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, The Beatles, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Phish, The Velvet Underground, Cream, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, George Harrison, Mozart, Berlioz, U2, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Wilco, Tea Leaf Green, Jerry Garcia Band, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. And that's just that start of a very long list. I like music.

ME: What do you think is the most contradictory thing about you?

STEVE: I think that I am one big contradiction. The one thing that comes to mind is that I am sort of a hippie, yet enjoy hunting and fishing.
From his answers you can see that he is all over the place. Many people are! Which is why I think it is very hard (if not impossible) to take a single person and put them on paper as they are. I believe certain characteristics of people we meet and know aid us in creating real and rounded characters in books, but obviously I couldn’t put a real person into a fictional story the one time I tried. What do you all think? Am I right? Or have you tried to take a person and made them the same on paper as they are in real life, whether memoir or fiction? I’m curious to know!

P.S. Sorry there’s no nature post today. I’ll get one up next Wednesday. If you have a burning question about plants or animals between now and then, feel free to ask it.


Sunday, September 5, 2010


I'm always late to the blog parties. But I think I hit this one barely in time. Those of us hanging around our computers Labor Day Weekend should pay a visit to Karen Jones Gowen's Blog Party BBQ. Tell her what you'll bring and then meet a new friend or few. I'm going to!

And here's what I am bringing. My husband just made some Panna Cotta. Which was divine............ (The recipe.)

Then we mixed up some peach Pellegrino Italian sodas.............

Enjoy the virtual food, friends, and fun! (And if you're here for the first time, please do introduce yourself. I only bite family members.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

The When to Give up in Writing

Ha! You thought I was going to tell you to quit writing, right? No! I would never be so presumptuous to tell someone to stop following their dreams. That’s not my place. Ever. No, really what I was thinking in the shower (I get all my best ideas in the shower) was what I’ve had to give up to take writing seriously.

There are the obvious things like:

~ Writing when I could be sleeping the same time the rest of the world is.
~ Trading in my biology PhD so I could write those fiction stories that wouldn’t let me be.
~ Still working and earning that unnecessary but ever-so-helpful second income.
~ Getting to bed at a decent hour, when I’m tired the first time.
~ Watching TV, actually enjoying the unproductive mindlessness of the activity.
~ Did I list sleep yet as some thing I miss?!

But really, I’m thinking of other things—every day things—that I give up so I can write:

~ A house as clean as I would like it to be.
~ Exercising enough to be that toned 125 lbs again.
~ Daily/weekly playgroups where I sit and visit with moms while our kids play without thinking how I should be writing rather than chatting away.
~ Always having permanent shadows under my eyes because often the stories at night won’t let me be.

Then I thought of all the things I get out of writing and the list far, far exceeded these lists combined. Writing makes me happy and in return I’m a better person (especially a mother!) when I can write. It invigorates me more than anything else, even when the writing becomes frustrating. I’m creating something only I can create. Only I can tell the stories in me. Either I have chosen a writing life or it has chosen me. Which ever way it is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Q4U: What things have you had to give up for writing (or another passion, if you’re not a writer)? What rewards have come from writing or following that passion?