My Life This January: In Which There are Holidays and Deadlines and Another Semester Begins

Hi, everyone! It’s the last Friday of January (seriously, what happened to the month?), so I’m here to tell you what happened this month. This will actually cover a longer period than usual, since I didn’t post on Christmas last month. In rough chronological order, here we go!

Christmas and New Year’s

Ah, I love those end-of-year holidays! On Christmas Day, it snowed here in the Northeast, so we went down to Connecticut to visit my aunt and uncle and grandparents on Christmas Eve day. It was a really nice visit with lots of good food and family socializing, and really, at the holidays, what more do you want?

Then, of course, came Christmas itself. (Merry Christmas, belatedly!) I did pick up a few books, including DNA by James Watson and The Battles of Tolkien and The Heroes of Tolkien by David Day. The former is a history of modern genetics and biotechnology, and the latter talk about the inspiration behind Tolkien’s works and include some nice illustrations.

I also bought a few books after Christmas: a one-volume edition of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, my own copy of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and (finally) King’s Blood by Jill Williamson. I have not cracked open the first two yet, except to look at the Tolkien-letter foreword in the Space Trilogy, but I did devour the 600-page King’s Blood in two days. It was SO good! If you like epic fantasy with a Christian bent, and you haven’t read Williamson’s Kinsman Chronicles, you need to. I’m so excited for the third book to come out in June!

Winter Break

So thankfully, this was also a thing. The University of New Hampshire happens to have a nice long winter break, five weeks to be exact, but even that felt too short. I pretty much worked full-time in the lab so I could get some research done; I’m still catching up on summer and fall work. In the last week of break, I managed to get into some more explicitly genetic-engineering type stuff, working with bacteria preliminary to transforming plants, so that’s been fun! I’m looking forward to where my research will go next.

Spring Semester

It’s only been a week so far, but spring semester still merits inclusion in this post. This semester, I’m taking Genetics of Prokaryotic Microbes (so, bacteria), Plant Systematics, and Principles of Biochemistry II. I was also going to take a biostatistics class, but I dropped that in favor of not overwhelming myself, since I’m also an undergrad teaching assistant for a genetics class, an undergrad researcher, and a biology tutor. So far, all my classes look to be enjoyable, and I like being a TA since I get to help out with the class without doing any homework!

I am also trying to write more this year; as I talked about in last week’s goals post, I have a goal to write/outline/revise/worldbuild at least 3 days a week this year. This month, I think I’ve averaged a little over 2 days a week, but that’s still better than normal! I am keeping track with little check marks on my calendar. I initially set out to do more work on Circle of Fire, my NaNoWriMo project from 2016 that really needs to be rewritten, but my mind wound up wandering to Windsong instead. So far, I drew a map (again, see last week’s post) and found out more about one of my key villains. I’m starting to like where this is going, and plan to do more with it in the next couple months!

Well, that was my month in a nutshell! How was yours? Have you done much writing? How were your holidays? Did you get any books? If you’re in school, what classes are you taking this semester? What did you do over winter break? Tell me in the comments!


My (Obligatory) 2018 Goals Post

Hey everyone! So it’s 2018, and it seems (at least to me) as though everyone out there in the blogosphere is putting together posts about their goals for the new year. I figured I’d hop on the bandwagon, just for fun! Plus, it’s a nice quick post to put together for the first week of the spring semester. So, in no particular order, here are some of my goals!

1. Read the books of the Bible I’ve never read.

Yes, it’s true: I’m 20-and-a-half, and I haven’t read the whole Bible. Last year, I started going backwards through the Old Testament to finish up the books I’ve never read, and I want to finish this year. I’m currently a good way through Jeremiah, then I only have 1 and 2 Maccabees (Catholic here) to go!

2. Read 24 (non-Bible) books.

A little history of my Goodreads yearly goals…. In 2016, when I joined Goodreads (in March), I thought 24 books would be a feasible goal for the year. I failed miserably with only 17 books finished by the end of the year, so last year, 2017, I set a goal of 20. I reached that goal, and even read two books extra–yay! So this year, I figured I’d go back to 24 and see if I can do it. So far, I’m already on my third book, re-reading To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson.

3. Apply to graduate school.

My initial reaction upon thinking of this goal: Oh, shoot, is that this year already?!?

Seriously, though. I’m going into my senior year of college this coming fall (!) and it’ll be time to start applying to PhD programs. I am currently working toward this goal by making very many spreadsheets (thank you, Microsoft Excel) of potential schools I’d like to apply to and faculty I’d like to work with. It’s so crazy to think that in about a year’s time, I’ll start hearing back…. Let’s move on, shall we?

4. Make time for writing and other creativity.

This is SO important this year. I think in previous years, I’ve gotten so caught up in college that I haven’t been able to make time to do the other things I really want to do, specifically writing. So I have resolved to write, outline, edit, or worldbuild–anything that contributes directly to one of my books–at least five minutes three days a week, just to keep in practice. So far I’ve already failed on that, with only two days last week (don’t look at me like that; I took the GRE on Saturday), but I think I made up for it with the map I drew Saturday night. I think it’s my best version yet!

DSC_0004 (2)
My latest map for my fantasy book Windsong.

Well, those are some of my goals for the year! What are some of yours? How are they coming so far? Tell me in the comments!

Biology for Writers: Some Awesome Genetics Techniques I Use in the Lab

Good morning, everyone! Welcome to the first Biology for Writers post of the new year! Today, I wanted to talk about some common techniques used in genetics and molecular biology, particularly those I use in the lab, since those are what I’m most familiar with. As a result, the list will probably be skewed toward plant biology, but I will include other techniques I’m somewhat familiar with too. If you’re interested in a specific discipline or something you don’t see listed here, let me know in the comments, and I’ll be happy to tell you what I know or help you find some resources! Let’s get started!

DNA/RNA Extraction

Why? If you’re working in genetics or molecular biology, you often need to isolate a nucleic acid, be it DNA or RNA. These molecules are useful for learning about genes and the various proteins, including enzymes, they produce (more on this another time).

Why DNA vs. RNA? Well, the DNA contains a gene’s complete sequence, including introns (which are removed in the messenger RNA that determines the protein’s amino acid sequence) and regulatory sequences that control when the gene is turned on or off. So if you’re interested in the pure molecular genetics of an enzyme, you might extract DNA. DNA is also useful if you’re trying to sequence a new genome (the complete DNA of an organism); genomes are often useful for future research.

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RNA, on the other hand, might be useful if you want to, say, produce a human protein in bacteria. To do this requires gene cloning, which is much easier with only the coding sequence (the part that actually codes for the protein–i.e. messenger RNA) rather than all the extra introns and “junk DNA” that comes along with a complete gene. So for things like genetic engineering, it’s better to extract RNA and back-convert it into DNA (more on this in a minute).

How? Extracting DNA/RNA is, in a nutshell, getting it out of the cells of your plant or bacteria or whatever organism you’re starting with, and separating it from the proteins, fatty acids, and other stuff that also belongs in a cell. (If extracting DNA, you also want to separate it from RNA, and vice versa.) The first thing to do, then, is to break open your cells. In plants, you usually start this by freezing your leaves in liquid nitrogen, which helps minimize molecular degradation, and grinding them up in a mortar and pestle. Then, a lysis (cell-opening) buffer is added to fully lyse the cells. (Buffers are solutions with a specific pH that “buffer” against big changes in acidity.) During this process, nucleases, which degrade DNA, are inhibited by the cold temperature from the liquid nitrogen. Other chemical inhibitors may be added as well.

Next, a series of centrifuging steps separates the DNA (in various liquid buffers) from proteins, lipids, and other cellular detritus (often in the form of a pellet at the bottom of the little test tube). DNA in the top liquid, or “supernatant,” is removed into several different tubes, until ultimately it is collected without the liquid on a little pad within a special tube. The DNA is then resuspended, or “eluted,” in super-sterile water (a small amount, like 150 microliters–a microliter is a millionth of a liter). This serves to make the DNA more concentrated. You can then measure how much DNA you extracted with an instrument called a fluorometer, and if you got enough DNA, you’re all set to go on to the next step!

Polymerase Chain Reaction

Why? Once you’ve extracted DNA, what do you do with it? If the answer is “isolate a gene,” your next step is polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is an “amplification” technique that takes advantage of DNA’s structure to make many copies of your gene of interest. Then, you can move on to DNA sequencing, genetic engineering, or something else.

How? Let me first make a small digression into the basics of DNA’s structure. DNA is made up of four kinds of nitrogenous bases (let’s just call them A, T, C, and G) that join together in two long strands. The bases pair in a complementary manner to form that familiar double helix shape; A only pairs with T and C with G. When I talk about “DNA sequence,” I’m talking about the order of bases; AATCG is different from ATACG, for example. “Complementary sequence” refers to the sequence of bases on the other strand of the DNA; each DNA strand is the opposite of the other. For example, TTAGC is complementary (opposite) to AATCG. Got it? Great! Let’s go on to the technique.

PCR exploits DNA’s structure to make many, many copies of a gene or other sequence of interest. You can find a great fact sheet about PCR, including a helpful figure, here. Basically, if you know the sequence of your gene of interest, you can order custom short DNA molecules, called oligonucleotide primers (or just primers), of 15-25 base pairs each which are complementary to the ends of your gene. In a tiny little test tube, you mix together DNA, water, primers, and free nucleotides, and stick it all in a machine called a thermocycler, which can be programmed to heat and cool the tube for certain times. The heating profile basically does the PCR.

There are three basic steps to PCR. First, denature the DNA (separate the strands) by heating to about 95 Celsius. Next, drop the temperature to about 60 Celsius for annealing (of primers to DNA). The last step is extension (addition of new nucleotides to make a new DNA molecule), which happens at around 70 Celsius. Together, these steps make one cycle. PCR is usually repeated in about 36 cycles, which because there are more templates with each cycle, makes thousands of copies of the gene of interest, hence “DNA amplification.” PCR is a very useful technique and is indispensable in most genetics laboratories.

In fact, a form of PCR called reverse transcription-PCR (RT-PCR) is used to back-convert extracted RNA into complementary DNA (cDNA). RT-PCR uses primers that are specific for messenger RNAs, enabling the isolation and amplification of only the coding sequence of an organism’s genes. This is the next step from RNA extraction (see above).

Gel Electrophoresis

Why? This is a sort of confirmation technique. Once you have your extracted DNA/RNA or your PCR products, you want to make sure you did your previous techniques right, so you run an agarose gel. This helps you determine the size of your DNA fragments (or genomic DNA in the case of an extraction), so you know you can proceed with the next step in your research.

How? Gels are made from agarose, a compound found in seaweed, and buffer. You pour molten agarose into a rectangular mold with a comb stuck in, so when it hardens and you pull the comb out, you have a flat, rectangular Jell-O like surface with a line of wells at one end. After pouring buffer over the gel so it’s under the surface of the liquid, you mix your DNA/PCR product with a blue loading dye and put one sample into each well (called a “lane” once you’ve run the gel). You should always load a size standard, called a “ladder,” into one lane, and it’s good to run a positive control (you know the result will be what you want) and negative control (you know the result will be the opposite of what you want), so that if something’s wrong with your samples but not the controls, you know it’s the samples themselves, not your PCR.

Once you’ve loaded all your samples, the next step is to turn on the electric current and let the gel run. Because DNA has a slight negative charge, it will migrate toward the positive end of the gel (away from the wells in which you loaded it). As it moves, it will bump into all sorts of molecules within the gel, i.e., the gel itself will get in the way of the DNA’s movement. This allows for size separation of DNA fragments; smaller fragments will bump into the gel less and therefore move a greater distance in the same time. When you look at the gel under ultraviolet light, you see bright “bands” that indicate where the DNA is; the closer to the wells, the longer the DNA fragment. Comparing these bands to the ladder size standard (which shows up as many bands of known sizes) allows you to identify the size of your PCR product, so you can tell whether you got the right gene. This makes gel electrophoresis an immensely useful technique.


Story Starters #11: King’s Folly

Aldair Livina sat at the table in the great cabin of his privately owned ship, the Half Moon, looking over his most recent chart of the Eversea. After an eleven-night voyage north-northwest from the Port of Everton, he had discovered a new island. He had named the isle Bakurah in honor of the first ripe fruit of the season. Aldair hoped that this island would be the first of many.

King's Folly
Image source

Happy New Year, everybody, and welcome to my first post of 2018! In case you don’t know, Story Starters is a series of posts, on the first Monday of every month, where I analyze the first paragraph of a book. Sometimes that’s just a line, sometimes it’s a great big block of text, but today we have one in the middle.

King’s Folly is the first in the Kinsman Chronicles, a trilogy from Jill Williamson which is currently awaiting its third installment. I recently read the second book, King’s Blood, and it reminded me how much I love this series, so I thought today I’d feature the first. Let’s break down this opening sentence by sentence!

  • Aldair Livina sat at the table in the great cabin of his privately owned ship, the Half Moon, looking over his most recent chart of the Eversea. All right, so this is not the best opening line ever written. It does start with a character (although not a major one) and set the scene, though, which are good things. But because this first sentence is actually from a prologue, the character and setting we’re starting with are not things we’re going to return to as we read on. I have seen prologues discouraged for this very reason: they often block the reader from getting into the book right away. But in the case of this 544-page epic fantasy, the prologue exists to set the tone for the whole story in an immediate way you couldn’t get from any of the more major characters’ points of view. Read on for more about this.
  • After an eleven-night voyage north-northwest from the Port of Everton, he had discovered a new island. Here we have some action, or some narration of past action. But still, we’re left wondering: so a new island has been discovered. Why should we care? This turns out to be setup for the next paragraph, in which the immediate conflict of the entire story, the Five Woes that will destroy the continent, are first brought up. If you think about it, a lot of openings contain at least some setup, like the contextual zooming-in technique used a lot in classic literature. So this sentence is perfectly at home in the opening paragraph.
  • He had named the isle Bakurah in honor of the first ripe fruit of the season. This sentence is more or less filler, although it does actually plant some seeds of a goal for the end of this book and the beginning of book 2, which is impressive foreshadowing when you think about it.
  • Aldair hoped that this island would be the first of many. Again we wonder: Why? Why does he hope that and why should we care? And this leads us to the whole purpose of this opening paragraph: raising questions. We, as writers, must raise questions in our openings in order to get the reader to read on–as I’ve talked about before, this is the essence of a good hook. Of course, answering the questions is just as important; you want to give enough information to keep readers appeased and interested, while holding back enough that you can continue to have reveals throughout the book. That’s more of a second-paragraph thing, but still relevant to this first paragraph.

So there you have it, everyone! Before I go, I should note that most of the analysis in this post springs from my extensive reading of Helping Writers Become Authors, which is an excellent blog for all things writing! For more on hooks and so forth, check out the “How to Structure Your Story” series linked to on the left sidebar. I highly recommend it!

That’s all for me today! Happy New Year! Have you read King’s Folly or its sequel, King’s Blood? If so, what did you think? I’d love to discuss it with you! Did you have any further thoughts on this opening that I may have missed? Tell me in the comments!

My Life This December: Five Down, Three to Go

Hello, everyone! Happy December, and Merry Christmas! You may have noticed it’s not the usual week for my monthly life post, but I’ve decided to do it today since a week from today is Christmas, and I will take a one-week break from blogging. I shall be sure to tell you all about my holiday in January’s life post!

It’s been a good month so far! The major event has been wrapping up my fifth semester (out of eight, hence the title of this post). Three more, and I’ll have my degree! Yay! It was a long semester, though, and also went by very fast; somehow they always manage to do that. As of now, I believe I’ve finished out with good grades in at least half my classes, and I’ll probably have to wait till after Christmas to find out for sure about the others. But I feel pretty confident. I only had one final this semester (yay!), out of four possible, which was excellent. I got more time in the lab that way.

Speaking of the lab, research is officially taking over my life, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising. With the semester over, and the minor annoyances that are class times out of the way, I’m gearing up for what will hopefully be a productive winter break, including repeating an experiment and possibly (fingers crossed!) genetically engineering some plant cells. It should be fun, if a lot of work!

And because of all my research and associated applications for scholarships and summer programs and what have you, I have hardly written at all this month. To celebrate the end of finals, I did pound out one 1500-word scene a couple days ago, so that was fun! I’m taking next week off from the lab, so maybe I can squeeze in some synopsis writing for Circle of Fire, which I think I mentioned last month I’m doing to help with the editing.  Then maybe I can actually get to editing, and work toward my perennial goal of finishing a book.

Anyway, that’s it for me! How was your month? Did you do any writing/editing/outlining? Did you see the new Star Wars movie (which I forgot to mention I saw and am still deciding what my opinion is)? What are you reading? Did you finish a semester this month? Tell me in the comments!

Biology for Writers: What Scientists Do All Day

Hello, everyone! It’s the second Monday of the month, which must mean I’m doing a biology-for-writers post. Okay, so I know “what scientists do all day” doesn’t have that much to do with scientific topics of interest to writers, but it’s finals week and I wanted a post that would be quick to write but still informative. And hey, some of you might have scientist characters and be wondering what research looks like, or what different stages of academic science look like. (Science also happens in industry–pharmaceuticals, anyone?–but I’m most familiar with academia, so I’m going to focus on that!)

Life Stages of Academic Scientists

(I’m going to talk a little bit about this first, so I can talk about how research looks for the different stages of scientist in my next section.)

People don’t become scientists overnight. Especially in academia, there’s really a hierarchy, and you can find every stage of scientist working alongside each other in a lab.

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The first step is to get your undergraduate degree in a science field (which is where I’m at right now). If you’re an undergrad scientist, you’re probably taking a fairly heavy course load to complete all your general education, major, and elective courses in four years. Undergrad costs a lot, too (at least in the U.S.), so you might be working on the side to help cover that. If you think you want to go to grad school, you’re probably working in a lab, helping a grad student with their research and/or assisting with lab maintenance things (yes, someone has to wash the flasks and beakers). If you’re extra motivated, you might have your own research project, but you get a lot of help from the professor who runs your lab since you’re still so young and inexperienced. And the project can’t be too big, because you really don’t have that much lab time when you’re also taking four classes and working. But you do what you can to get you into grad school.

The next step is to get one or more graduate degrees. If you want to work in industry, or you don’t have enough research experience yet to get directly into a PhD program, you get your master of science degree first. If you want to teach at the college level and run a lab (i.e. be an academic scientist like your faculty mentor), you need a PhD (short for Doctor of Philosophy). Master’s programs usually take two to three years, and PhD programs in the biological sciences average around five years. You take some courses, but not as many as you did when you were an undergrad, and once you’ve selected a faculty advisor, you get right to work in their lab on your thesis project. In order to graduate with your degree, you need to write a thesis (basically a book on your research) and defend it orally to your faculty committee, who will then decide if you get your degree or not. In a PhD program, you also have to pass a comprehensive exam somewhere around halfway through your degree, which will determine if you get to go on to “candidacy” (full-time dissertation research) or not. Now I’ve gone into a lot of details, but basically grad students do a lot more research than undergrads, because their degree depends on it.

Say now you’ve gotten your master’s and your PhD, and after eleven years you’re finally out of university schooling. Phew! What happens next? Well, if their research is outstanding, some lucky souls get hired straight to faculty positions. Most go on to postdoctoral fellowships (“postdocs” for short). The postdoc is the most senior member of the lab save the faculty member who runs it, unless it’s a really big lab and has a professional lab manager who reports to the professor. Postdoc fellowships usually last one to three years, and they work full-time, similar to grad students except no classes and no thesis defending. As I understand it, this serves as a time to build up one’s resume before applying to become a faculty member.

The highest tier is your PI (primary investigator), the faculty member who runs the lab. They determine what is studied in the lab and who works under them doing their projects. They also teach classes and, when they’re young, try to get tenure (which is basically where your university can’t fire you because you’ve proved the quality of your work). I’ve heard there’s a lot of pressure on young faculty to publish a lot of research in order to get tenure. Older professors (like my PI), who already have tenure, can be more relaxed since they are freer to study whatever they might be interested in–contingent, of course, on the availability of funding. PIs manage all aspects of the lab, mostly from their offices, although mine sometimes comes in and reorganizes things in the freezers or teaches students techniques. They usually teach classes for undergrads and grad students, and write up research articles for publication in scientific journals.

What Science Looks Like (In a Laboratory)

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With some understanding of the academic science hierarchy, we can now get a general idea of what scientists actually do all day. Naturally, this depends on the discipline, in that different scientists do different things. A neuroscientist, for instance, might do behavioral experiments or brain dissections on mice. I have less idea what ecologists do, but my guess is they go into the field to at least collect their samples. When I worked in a seaweed lab, I used to go to the shore and collect seaweed sometimes. Now, as a rice geneticist/biochemist, I split my time roughly 85% lab/15% greenhouse. Some of the things I’ve done in my lab are in bullet points below.

  • Lab Maintenance
    • Washing dishes
    • Making tissue culture medium (think Petri dishes)
    • Disposing of biohazardous waste (seriously not a big deal–I’m only in a Biosafety Level 1 lab)
    • Cleaning up ethanol spills (also not a big deal–it’s basically handcleaner)
    • Preparing/organizing work surfaces (we put this paper on our prep room bench to absorb any spills)
  • Experimental Things
    • Collecting samples (read: cutting up rice leaves and putting them in tubes)
    • Subculturing tissue cultures (the medium dries out every so often)
    • Checking tissue cultures for bacterial contamination (things have to be sterile)
    • Extracting and quantifying biomolecules
    • Data analysis (Microsoft Excel, anyone?)
    • Checking raw data files for quality control (on lab computer)
    • Pouring salt water on plants (so I’m a little sadistic once in a while)
    • Planting seeds
  • Common Genetics/Biochemistry Lab Equipment
    • Petri dishes
    • Pipettes (used for EVERYTHING)
    • Disposable pipette tips
    • Microcentrifuge tubes
    • Boxes with little dividers for freezing things in tubes, and tube racks
    • Freezers (4, -20, and -80 Celsius)
    • Autoclave (a kind of steam sterilizer; usually common to multiple labs)
    • Heat/stir plate and stir bar magnets
    • Small spatulas, forceps, scalpels, razor blades, “scoopulas” (cross between spoon and spatula)
    • Beakers, flasks, graduated cylinders, other glassware
    • Test tubes (although I use these less than the microfuge tubes mentioned above)
    • Centrifuges, spectrophotometers, and other larger equipment
A pipette and Petri dish with medium (Image source)
A lady with some cool lab glassware. (Image source)


So that post was a little bit longer than I meant it to be, and it didn’t even include anything about specific techniques that are often used in biology. If there’s interest in a post about techniques, let me know in the comments and I’ll drum up something for next month!

That’s it for me this week! Did you find the day-to-day of science interesting? Do you think it will be helpful to you? Would you like to hear about techniques? Isn’t lab glassware awesome? (I’m going to be that person with chemistry-themed dishes someday!) Are you interested in becoming a scientist? Let me know in the comments!

Story Starters #10: A Wizard of Earthsea

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.  From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

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Good morning, everyone! Happy Monday and welcome to December! For this first Monday of the month, I am as usual analyzing the first paragraph of a novel. A Wizard of Earthsea is an excellent classic young adult fantasy by Ursula K. Le Guin (see my review for more!), which I highly recommend. Having been originally released in 1968, however, its opening isn’t quite as gripping as other’s we’ve looked at. Let’s break this down sentence-by-sentence.

  • The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts is peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. So this might not be the most immediately engaging opening line ever written (personally, I prefer openings that start right off with character action or dialogue), but it still catches the interest, which, as K.M. Weiland writes, is required for a hook. Why? Well, I think the answer is in two things: genre and phrasing. Genre, because as a fantasy novel should, this describes an interesting setting far outside the average experience, which helps to catch interest. Phrasing, because of the short-long-short phrase structure within the sentence (look at where the commas are). There’s a graphic I’ve seen floating around the Internet about how varying sentence length and structure reduces boredom in the reader, and I think it applies here to phrases within the sentence as well. In fact, if you want to go really far, you could say it echoes the three-act structure typical of writing in general. No matter how far you go with it, the phrasing does keep reader interest, in a slightly intangible and intriguing way. And of course, the mention of wizards doesn’t hurt; it helps reinforce what we expect from the title.
  • From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Ah, back to my later point on the previous sentence, here’s a longer sentence to support that shorter hook. The hook can’t reveal everything at once, so this second sentence is here backing it up. By now we can gather that there’s going to be an omniscient narrator, not uncommon in older works, and that this narrator is currently setting the scene, giving us the historical context before we actually get to our character. Of course, it’s dangerous to do too much of this, which is called “infodumping;” we want to save tidbits for later reveals, both in the cases of backstory and worldbuilding. In this case, though, it’s appropriate; we have just learned a little about Gont, and now we learn a little more, and that there’s a whole Archipelago out there of which Gont is only a part. And the wizard theme is reinforced once again, which leads into our next sentence.
  • Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage.
    Aha, our character makes an appearance (if only through the narrator talking about him)! And now that we have some background, we think, “Of course the greatest wizard came from Gont. Gont is known for wizards. Doesn’t everyone know that?” It makes sense with the information we’ve already been given. And the shorter sentence holds our attention better than if we’d been given another behemoth like the second sentence, which is good for introducing the main character. Oh, and dragons–don’t you want to keep reading now?
  • His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made. Wow, this guy really is important–they made songs about him! Oh, but we realize now that this story is about something the songs don’t tell about, which heightens our interest, because even if said songs are fictional, we like having exclusive information. This sentence completes the hook started in the first sentence.

Overall, this paragraph led in very nicely from setting scene and historical context to the context of our character, which in the next paragraph, will become a sort of biography of his early life. Although not necessarily something used in today’s fiction, this “funneling in” technique works well for A Wizard of Earthsea.

That’s it for me today! Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? If not, I’d love to know: did this post make you more interested in it? What do you think of setting the scene in your opening? Any further analysis that I may have missed? Tell me in the comments!

My Life This November: In Which College Life is Crazy and I Give Up on NaNoWriMo

Hi folks! It’s the last Monday of the month (already), which must mean I’m here telling you all about my life. It’s been a little crazy this month (isn’t it always? I can’t remember the last time I had a quiet month), so I shall try to organize my thoughts by putting them into semi-coherent sections, and hopefully thus not overwhelm you all. Here goes!

Student Life

Ah, the dominant section in the great dichotomy of my life. Well, by November, the fall semester is always in full swing. All my classes have ramped up considerably; we’re doing unknown labs in microbiology and the very complex topic of intermediary metabolism in biochemistry, and I have three exams on December 1st, lucky me! But at least I had Thanksgiving break this past weekend; happy Thanksgiving, everybody! I’m thankful that I got to sleep in for three days in a row (luxury!). And I’m also thankful for time spent with family this weekend, and creative time (more on that later), and that I registered for spring classes before Thanksgiving–yay! Next semester, I will officially be taking Genetics of Prokaryotic Microbes, Biochemistry II, Biostatistics, and Plant Systematics, which I’m the most excited about because I love plant classes.

Research-wise, I’ve been plugging right along. In two weeks, I should see the end of a long experiment involving rice leaf development that I’ve been working on since September. Then, over winter break, I plan to get cracking on all the work I haven’t been able to do by being busy with classes, as well as running another drought/salt experiment (I just love torturing rice plants, haha). But before then, we will of course have Christmas, and I’ve enjoyed watching decorations get put up this weekend, though I haven’t been able to participate because of studying. It’s so strange to think the year is almost over already. But more of that next month.

Writing and Creativity

Those couple paragraphs I wrote above do not convey how completely school has taken over my life. Yet I’ve had more creative time this month than I thought I would. I started the month on the whim of doing NaNoWriMo again, knowing how good it was for me last year, and I epically failed. I got almost to 2,000 words in two scenes, and that took five days. I have concluded from this (and other) experiences that you really can’t force creativity. Don’t get me wrong, writing every day and being super disciplined like that is amazing, and I admire all you who do it; but I’m at a stage right now where it’s more beneficial to the quality of my work (and my mental health) to go with the flow, write whatever comes into my head, create however I feel like it.

So writing-wise, I haven’t gotten much done. I’ve picked at my Windsong reboot a little (I actually need to finish a scene), and it’s at about 18,000 words, which I’m proud of. I did decide, against the conclusion of my last paragraph, to do a disciplined rewrite of Circle of Fire, last year’s NaNo novel, but first, I’m writing a synopsis for it. So far, I’ve almost finished the rough draft of that. I meant to work on it more this past weekend, but I got caught up in the visual arts; I don’t usually think of myself as being inclined toward, or having any talent in, painting or drawing, but I started a watercolor a couple weeks ago, found it fun, and on Thanksgiving surprised myself with a decent pencil drawing of one of my characters. It’s always good to have creative outlets other than writing, and I think I’ll be doing more visual stuff in the future when things pop into my head.

That’s it for me this month! How was your month, and your Thanksgiving? Did you do NaNo this month? Did you win, or give up like I did, or something in between? Did you not do NaNo but still write? What are your creative outlets other than writing? If you’re also a college or high school student, how’s your semester going? And have you started decorating for Christmas yet? Share in the comments!



Thoughts on The Two Towers, Part I

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Good morning, everyone, and happy Monday! Normally today I would do the Beautiful People link-up, but since this month it’s about NaNoWriMo and I’m not participating (anymore *cough* I gave up), I wanted to share some thoughts about one of my favorite books with you.

Every year and a half or so, I get a gut feeling that it’s Lord of the Rings time again. I love The Lord of the Rings. It’s my absolute favorite book ever and probably the single greatest influence on my writing over my lifetime. And (you guessed it) it’s Lord of the Rings time right now! Right now, I’m almost finished with The Return of the King, the third part, so that means I’ve recently finished The Two Towers, the (I think) underappreciated filling in the Lord of the Rings sandwich. And I have some thoughts on it, which I’ll share below! (There are, of course, spoilers here for anyone who has not read The Lord of the Rings.)

The Two Towers: The Bridge of The Lord of the Rings

As it says in the header, it is my opinion that The Two Towers (which, for simplicity, I’ll refer to as TTT for the rest of the post) is really the bridge of The Lord of the Rings (LotR). In other words, without it, The Fellowship of the Ring (FotR) and The Return of the King (RotK) would be lost and alone and probably make no sense. TTT pulls it all together in many ways.

Probably the most important thing about TTT is that everything is interconnected, at least within each of the two major parts, Book III (which follows Aragorn, Gandalf, and the rest of the fellowship after its breaking) and Book IV (concerned with Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor). In writing this post, I found that when thinking about one element of either book, three or four elements it was connected to would pop up. I attribute this to J.R.R. Tolkien’s seamless weaving together of storylines into one vast epic, and indeed this is one of the qualities that make LotR as a whole so enduring. TTT is an excellent example of this beautiful interweaving.

So what are some of those elements I was talking about? In Book III, let’s take Saruman. Saruman was introduced, but always off-screen, in FotR when Gandalf told the Council of Elrond about his imprisonment in Isengard, Saruman’s stronghold. In TTT, he is a much more present menace; for instance, it is revealed that some of the Orcs who captured Merry and Pippin at the end of FotR are acting on Saruman’s orders, to bring back hobbits, alive. They fail, of course, when Eomer and the Riders of Rohan intercept and destroy them. This leads us into the role of Merry and Pippin (who coincidentally constitute one of my favorite literary pairings ever), who, after escaping from the Orcs, wander into Fangorn forest and bump into Treebeard and the other Ents. This seemingly minor movement of two small characters proves to be earth-shattering (literally), when the information Merry and Pippin bring galvanizes the Ents to break Isengard.

This is one of the instances in which TTT reinforces one of LotR’s key themes: even the smallest people can change the world, especially when they don’t intend to. Merry and Pippin didn’t set out with Frodo to become great in their own right, but only to support him in his journey. But because they refused to be left behind, in the Shire and again in Rivendell, they became two of the most important movers and shakers in the War of the Ring. And their combined influence in TTT set them up to go even further when separated during the events of RotK.

Right, where was I? Oh, yes, Saruman. Another key personage who is intimately connected with Saruman is, of course, Gandalf. The end of FotR saw Gandalf fallen in the Mines of Moria, supposedly never to return. In TTT, however, it is revealed that he has in fact survived (or died and risen–I’ve always found the distinction rather ambiguous), and has returned to continue supporting Frodo’s quest by orchestrating the War west of the River Anduin. He takes up this role most fully in RotK, but first, Gandalf must deal with Saruman. He first throws Saruman’s influence out of the land of Rohan (more on that later), then rides on to Isengard, where he proves his primacy by asserting power to cast Saruman down from his high horse, as it were.

So in TTT, Gandalf grows (debatably–I suppose he always had this in him) into his new role as the head wizard and war-orchestrator, which he takes on more fully in RotK. His new primacy makes the reader wonder, though: if Gandalf is greater than Saruman, isn’t he on a level with Sauron? He is so wise and powerful; shouldn’t he have taken the Ring and taken Sauron on one-to-one, rather than sending Frodo with the Ring to Mordor? But deep down, we know that Gandalf would ultimately have been corrupted by the Ring, and that he did the wisest thing possible in sending Frodo. This also gives more impact to the climax of LotR; when the Ring is cast into Mount Doom, and Sauron is overcome, it has that much more impact because we know that little Frodo and Sam did something that great, wise Gandalf could not have done. Again, TTT reinforces that overall theme of the influence of seemingly unimportant people.

Then there are the other pieces on the chessboard of TTT: Rohan with its king, Theoden, and the other members of the Fellowship, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Like Gandalf, Aragorn grows during TTT into the king he was meant to be, and will become in RotK. He is sure of himself; he makes executive decisions, like when he goes west after Merry and Pippin rather than east after Frodo and Sam at the beginning of TTT, and it is clear that Legolas and Gimli acknowledge him as their leader. But he is not overconfident or over-proud; once they meet Gandalf, he submits to his authority, which he will continue to do in RotK, because he knows Gandalf is wiser. And he always treats Legolas and Gimli as equals, and befriends Eomer, who is much younger than he is. This last move pays off in RotK when Eomer and Aragorn are both kings and become official allies.

Rohan is also an important piece of the puzzle. Without Theoden and his host, Gondor would have failed in RotK at the Pelennor Fields, and the quest of the Ring most likely would have failed as well. But without the events of TTT, Theoden and his host could never have come to Gondor’s aid. For starters, it was Eomer’s Riders who ambushed the Orc host, allowing Merry and Pippin to be freed and having a domino effect on the rest of the story as discussed above. And if Theoden King had continued to despair after Gandalf cast out Wormtongue, or had given in to Saruman’s voice at Isengard, Rohan would have been bereft of a leader and probably overwhelmed by Saruman’s forces. Instead, they won the battle at Helm’s Deep (with the help of the Huorns, another piece moved by the hobbits’ escape) and lived to help Gondor and ultimately stand before the Black Gate of Mordor at the climax of RotK, with the other peoples of the world.

Well, those are my thoughts on Book III of LotR, the first book of The Two Towers. I was going to put my thoughts on Book IV in here, too, but I think this is long enough for one blog post. Come back next month for my thoughts on Frodo’s journey to Mordor!

That’s all for me today! What do you think? Do you have anything to add to my thoughts on TTT? Which installment of LotR is your favorite? Who are your favorite members of the Fellowship? Tell me in the comments!


Biology for Writers: The Human Microbiome

Good morning, everyone! Happy Monday! It’s the second week of November (already!), so here I am with a quick post on a bioscience topic which may be of interest to some of the writers who read my blog (and don’t have that much background in science). Let’s get right to it!

The Overview

One of the biggest topics in science right now is the human microbiome. What is a microbiome, you ask? Well, it’s simply the entire set of microbes that inhabit the human body.

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Yes, that’s right–there are microbes in you, right now, and they’re even supposed to be there! As a matter of fact, there are more bacteria, archaea (basically extreme-environment microbes), and unicellular fungi in your body than there are human cells. Yes, you heard that right–we humans are more microbial than human. Blows your mind a little, doesn’t it?

So what do these microbes do for us? Are they good for anything, or do they just sit there? Well, my friends, I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at some of the parts of our bodies where our normal microbes are most influential.

The Mouth

We all know about dental plaque, and brushing our teeth so we don’t get it. (Seriously, I hope you all brush your teeth, ’cause plaque is disgusting.) But your mouth also contains 50-100 billion normal bacteria of at least 500 different species, mostly anaerobes, or bacteria that don’t require oxygen to live. (In fact, some anaerobes die when exposed to oxygen.) Streptococcus mutans and S. sanguinis, the organisms that cause plaque when they build up into a biofilm, are both “facultative anaerobes,” which means that they can either use oxygen or not depending on conditions in their environment (the mouth). Many other normal mouth bacteria can cause problems for the human host if there is bleeding in the mouth, or some other abnormal condition, bringing up an important point for the microbiome in general: Microbes that are normal inhabitants of our bodies (“normal flora” or “microbiota”) can be pathogenic if they are moved to a different spot or if something abnormal happens. These are called “opportunistic pathogens,” and we’ll see more of them as we move through the body.

The Gastrointestinal Tract

This is one of the places where the human microbiome is most important and best characterized; a lot of work has been done linking the gut microbiome composition to everything from diet to Parkinson’s disease. And gut microbes do a lot for us. For instance, we can’t digest vegetables without our gut microbes, and other microbes make vitamin K for us. That’s pretty darn helpful of them, don’t you think?

But when I say “gut microbiome,” what am I talking about? It turns out that not every part of the human body is colonized by microbes; accessory organs such as the liver and pancreas are sterile, and the stomach has a very low level of microbes due to the high acid content there (the stomach’s pH, a measure of its acidic content, is about 2–so very acidic). Not many things can survive the acidic environment of the stomach, which is why it’s great for digestion. One Helicobacter species, however, survives by burrowing into the stomach lining and secreting basic compounds, which neutralize the surrounding acid to create a neutral pH (good for life). This species can also cause stomach ulcers when it has lived in the stomach lining for a long time.

So if the stomach doesn’t have very many microbes, where is this gut microbiome I’ve been telling you about? Most of the gut microbiota live in the ileum (the last part of the small intestine) and in the colon (also known as the large intestine), where, as I mentioned, they help us digest our food, give us nutrients, and take up space so invaders can’t enter. This is known as a “mutualism,” in which both symbiotic partners benefit from their relationship. How do the bacteria benefit from us? Well, most parts of the body are at a neutral pH, which as I’ve already said is good for life, and they remain at a constant warm temperature, which allows microbes to grow.

I also just want to point out quickly that taking too many antibiotics can interrupt your gut microbes, and thus actually make you susceptible to sickness, since with space freed up by antibiotic treatment, pathogens can easily colonize your gut. Since this post is mainly about the microbiome, that’s all the space I can give to this extensive topic, but if you’re interested in learning more, feel free to comment below!

The Skin

The skin is one of our first defenses against microbes, since we are constantly sloughing off dead skin cells, but it is also colonized by many microbes. Similar to the gut microbiome, these take up space on your skin, preventing infection by pathogens. The skin microbiome also includes Staphylococcus aureus, an opportunistic pathogen which normally lives on the skin surface, but can cause problems when it penetrates deeper into the body. For instance, if you have a deep puncture wound, your normal S. aureus may get under your skin (literally) and cause nasty carbuncles and things when it infects you. So if you’re writing a novel and your character gets wounded, this is one thing that could follow that up if you want to give them extra torture be realistic about the consequences of wounding.

Find out More!

Here are some resources if you’d like to find out more about the human microbiome!

Human Microbiome Project–This would be a great resource if you want to find out some of the specific microbes that exist in each place on the human body (there are many, many more microbes than the ones I talked about today).

The Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease–A scientific paper about the gut microbiome. (Please note this is intended for a scientific audience, so it may be a bit dense.)

When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function–An interesting general-audience article about how gut bacteria impact the brain.

I will continue to add more resources here as I find them! If you find interesting resources, feel free to let me know in the comments and I will consider adding them to this page.

That’s it for my first Biology for Writers post! Are you thinking of using the microbiome in your story? If so, how? Is there anything else you’d like to know about the microbiome? (I’m definitely not an expert, but I can point you to more resources if you’d like!) Are there other biology topics you’d like to see addressed in this monthly post series? Let me know in the comments!