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!

 

 

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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!

Story Starters #9: The Two Towers

*Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read this far in The Lord of the Rings*

Aragorn sped on up the hill. Every now and again he bent to the ground. Hobbits go light, and their footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read, but not far from the top a spring crossed his path, and in the wet earth he saw what he was seeking.

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Good morning, everyone! It’s the first Monday of the month, and that must mean I’m here analyzing the first paragraph of a book. I currently have the joy of re-reading The Lord of the Rings, for what must be the fifth or sixth time, and recently finished The Two Towers, the underrated middle of the epic. So naturally I thought I’d analyze the beginning of that book today! Let’s break it down line by line.

  • Aragorn sped on up the hill. This starts with a character, and it’s also an action, which is great for getting the reader interested in what will happen next. In addition, since this is a sequel, it picks right back up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off.
  • Every now and again he bent to the ground. Another action. We get the hint that Aragorn is looking for something, without needing to be told.
  • Hobbits go light, and their footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read, but not far from the top a spring crossed his path, and in the wet earth he saw what he was seeking. This sentence makes up most of the opening paragraph, and the two shorter sentences before it lead nicely into the longer phrasing. It also reintroduces some things from the previous book: the involvement of hobbits in this story, the worldbuilding fact that they’re hard to track, and the fact that Aragorn is a Ranger, a Numenorean of the North, which will become important later on. Aragorn’s searching for hobbit footprints here also nicely foreshadows his spending most of the book searching for the two captured young hobbits, Merry and Pippin.

Overall, this first paragraph starts with a character doing an action, picks up where the previous book left off, and reminds the reader of things that have been and will be important to the story, particularly regarding our opening character. It also foreshadows events important to how this book will play out. A good beginning, all in all!

That’s all for me today! Have you read The Lord of the Rings? Did you like The Two Towers? What do you think of its opening? Anything to add to my thoughts? Tell me in the comments!