Sunday, August 25, 2013

Novel Update #5: Ready

Image Credit: NASA
It's always satisfying when I punch through and finish a draft. But I have to say, there's nothing quite like finishing the draft where I get to say, "I'd let an agent read this."

I've only ever gotten to say that once before. Today, I get to say it again.

I have an agent-ready draft. Is it perfect? No. Of course not. But it's ready.

I know it is, because the thought of an industry professional reading it in its current state doesn't send me into physical tremors of terror. Instead, I feel comfortable. Excited, even. I think agents and editors would enjoy this draft.

Hopefully one of them will enjoy it enough to represent it.

How did I get here? 15 months ago, I hadn't even conceived of this story. But the concept captured me so much last June, I couldn't rest until the story was told. And not just told, but properly told. I would get up early before work every day, stay up after dinner, sit indoors every weekend... I poured countless hours into this novel over the past year, revising draft after draft after draft. My writer's group says I'm a machine, but the truth is, I just don't know how to tackle a writing project any other way. I have to throw myself into it to the point it consumes my life.

The last thing I did for this novel was read it through from start to finish in one sitting, to make sure the pacing truly felt right. There isn't any magic formula for pacing (which I'm pretty sure would really irritate my main character). Pacing is a feeling. And with just a few small edits during that read-through today, I can now say that I'm satisfied with how it feels.

And so, here I am. I've got a polished draft of what I believe to be a pretty kickass futuristic sci-fi thriller, and now I need to find an agent for it.

I think I will. Maybe that sounds overly optimistic, but that's what the "finished draft" high does to me.

Querying, here I come.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #22

Time for another roundup! Sad news for space, but cool news for biology this week:

1. Kepler Telescope Damaged Beyond Repair

The planet-hunting Kepler telescope, launched in 2009, is unfortunately broken too badly to fix. Back in May, technicians noted that one of the wheels that rotated in the telescope was busted, making it impossible for the telescope to remain steady. Since this telescope floats out in space, there isn't a way to get to it to repair it by hand. Engineers tried to come up with a method to jury-rig it to fix itself, but sadly no solution was found.

The images and data collected from Kepler from the past four years are used to try and identify Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. The good news is, we have only scratched the surface of the data that's been collected, and that's already resulted in over 100 confirmed exoplanets and 3500 other candidates. By delving more into the collected data, we'll undoubtedly find even more, and perhaps even that Earth-like planet scientists (and everyone!) is so eager to find. Kepler's given us a lot to work with, thankfully, and we'll spend years catching up to everything it's shown us.

In the future, Kepler may be for other types of data collecting, but its primary mission is sadly over. Thank you for your service, Kepler! Science owes you so much already.

In other "dead" news...

2. New Mammalian Fossils Take Us Way Back

Artwork Credit: Emily Willoughby
It's been a big week in ancient mammalian news. Three different discoveries have shed light on our fuzzy origins.

First, there were these two discoveries made: Arboroharamiya (160 million years old) and Megaconus (165 million years old). Researchers initially placed both of these finds in a group called the haramyids. Since these were both such complete skeletons, naturally people couldn't wait to start including them in bigger pictures studies and pinning down when the mammalian lineage officially began.

By plugging Arboroharamiya into mammalian family tree calculations, evidence suggests mammals broke away and began evolving independently over 200 million years ago. But doing the same with Megaconus suggests that mammals broke away about 180 million years ago. Those are two very different numbers.

Hrm. That's troubling.

Or is it?

A third discovery has recently been made. This new discovery (Rugosodon) is of an animal that belongs to a group called "multituberculates" (see above picture of a multituberculate getting chowed on by a dinosaur). Multituberculates were an incredibly successful lineage of mammals that had large, bumpy teeth, and filled a similar niche to rodents. They're all extinct now, but they had 130 million years of a good run. This particular find is similar to Arboroharamiya, which had, if you recall, originally been placed in the same category as Megaconus. But with this new arrangement--if Arboroharamiya is actually a multituberculate--that messy family tree may start to actually shape up.


Regardless of family trees, Rugosodon does give us a big clue as to why early multituberculates were so successful: they had a special, flexible ankle that would've allowed them to move quickly over all sorts of different terrains. That's neat stuff. Our early cousins were agile little buggers.

And finally, speaking of mammal discoveries...

3. Brand New Species of Carnivorous Mammal Discovered

Photo Credit: Mark Gurney

So, this adorable creature has been eluding us for decades. How about that.

Mistaken for an olingo in museum collections and even a zoo, this olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) is actually its own species. It lives in the cloud forests of the Andes mountains, which is a great place to hide since much of the canopy is constantly foggy. Like it's cousin, the olingo, olinguitos are part of the same family as racoons. As such, it is identified as a small carnivore that moves at night and has a nice, bushy tail. It was tracked down finally in 2006 by researchers who knew it must exist after figuring out from dead museum specimens that some of the "olingos" looked a little funny.

This is the first time a new species of mammal has been found in the Western hemisphere in 35 years, so it's kind of a big deal. A big, adorable deal.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Origin of that HUGE METEOR over Russia

Life might be busy, but everyone can take a short break to enjoy some science. I've got too much going on to do a full Weekly Roundup, but I couldn't pass this one story up.

Everyone remembers that huge space rock that exploded over Russia on February 15th earlier this year, right? That amazingly terrifying and yet super awesome meteor that hit our atmosphere (and luckily broke up before smashing into the ground)?

Well, even if you've forgotten about it, scientists haven't. They've been working around the clock to pinpoint where that thing came from. And they may have finally found its point of origin: the near-Earth asteroid EO40.

By using computer simulations to model the meteor's path, they traced it back through space to see if it intersected with any known objects. It did. Asteroid EO40, like most asteroids, is a weakly held together conglomeration of space rock, and part of it must've broken away. The asteroid had already been on our watch list, since it is a NEO (Near Earth Object), but no one had anticipated a piece of it to break off and come hurdling our way.

Lesson learned.

Needless to say, scientists are taking a closer look at all such objects now, to determine the risk for this happening again. The best we can do for now is just continue to fund organizations like the Minor Planet Center, who track things coming near us in space.

Fun fact before I wrap up this post: at least twenty more pieces may have broken away from EO40. Of course, the odds that any of them would hit Earth are slim, but it is good to remember that one piece did beat the odds.

Let's all just think about that for a little bit. Anyone still think NASA's funding needs to get cut?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Curiosity!

It's been one year since the eyes of Earth were glued on Mars, waiting for Curiosity to touch down. At 1:31am, August 6th, EST, the rover landed. And a handful of minutes later, the signal traveling through space from Mars reached Earth, and we all learned she was safe.

It was the best birthday present ever (my birthday is the 6th!). And knowing that a year later she's still going strong, makes for yet another amazing birthday present.

For as long as I'll live, I will never forget the exhilarating feeling upon learning Curiosity had touched down. I was watching the livestream of JPL, as much of the world was, and actually burst into tears as we learned "we're safe on Mars!". I screamed, jumped up and down, rocked back and forth, and pretty much terrified my cat, but wow was that a moment to experience.

Curiosity has already taught us so much. Our perspective of Mars is changing rapidly, thanks to this rover and the team of scientists who analyze the data she sends our way. For a long time, water on Mars was a contested issue--we knew there had been some, but was it common? How much was there? Could it actually have supported life? Curiosity has already shown us that water existed once in great quantities. It flowed in rivers like we have on Earth. And most importantly, this water contained the right stuff for life. And all this we've learned in less than a year. Wow.

This is easily the most memorable moment in space exploration of my entire 28 years of life. It's brought me to tears on more than one occasion, and I just love that Curiosity is paving the way for even cooler Mars missions in the future.

Happy Anniversary, Curiosity. Roll on, girl! Roll on!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Novel Update #4: So Close Now!

This picture is very relevant to this post, I promise.

This is it. I can feel it.

Based on the suggestions of my critique group after their full read-through, I've now finished several sweeping revisions to my current WIP. In addition, I've tightened up every single scene (and cut many others) so that I'm down over 16,000 words from my previous draft's final word count. That's right. I've hacked 16,000 words from this baby. While adding in new scenes.

That being said, it's not done yet. I'm in the midst of polishing draft 3.6 (yes, my drafts get decimal designations). I'd like to chop an additional 2,000 words still, if I can. I want to do my read-aloud. There are still line edits to do.

But I am close. After spending years developing my professional writing skills, participating in critique group discussion, and watching my partners become agented and published, I have a much better grasp on what is "query ready" than I did before. And this novel is very nearly there. It just needs one last spit 'n shine.

I can't describe how exciting it is, knowing that after fourteen months of work, within a matter of a week or two this manuscript will be in a solid enough place for agents to read.

...I'm not going to lie, this is also rather terrifying. See, I've got a bit of a scarred psyche from my first querying experience, as many authors do. After a year of many nibbles, but no bites, I had to shelve my first beloved novel at the end of 2012.

This new story, though... something in it just tells me it is the one. My first novel was well written with great characters (so several professionals told me), but it was a rookie novel. It wasn't going to work on the current market. That's a mistake I've worked tirelessly to avoid this time around.

So I'm just about ready to take the plunge yet again. If anyone reading this blog knows of any agents looking for an upper middle grade sci-fi thriller with solid science and a smart female protagonist, please let me know! I've got a running list going, and would love to add more names.

I'll end this post with my main character's instrumental theme song. Yes, I know it's a My Little Pony fan-written piano piece, but it's gorgeous and it's perfect.