Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stay tuned...

Great news: an editor read my first few chapters... and requested my complete manuscript! I have a lot of polishing to do before I send it out, so I'm going off the blog-rid for a week or so. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Extremophiles: Word of the Day Part II

Reading the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, I came across a word I didn’t know. This happens occasionally-- the WSJ sometimes uses big words -- but this word was so utterly foreign to me I thought it was a typo. The word was chthonic, which means: of or relating to the underworld, infernal. When I'm in a vocab crisis, I run to Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day. Last year, I attempted to write a short story using a month's worth of M-W words, in order. For today's post, I tried it again, but with only two weeks' worth of words (hey, I have a day job now). It turned out to be more of an essay than a story... or a stream of consciousness... actually, I don’t know what the hell it is... but it sure was entertaining to see where it led me:

Have you ever looked closely at your computer’s keyboard? I'm doing it now. It's disconcerting to see it in the bright sunlight. You notice things. Sometimes, I wonder what I’d find under there if I removed the keys. There could be a whole colony of tiny extremophiles living off of skin flakes and potato chip oil. Creatures so frail and diaphanous that, if viewed under a microscope, there’d be nothing but innards -- there’s its digestive tract, there’s its beating heart.

But what if they were visible to the naked eye, and one of them crawled out from under the F5 key in the middle of my PowerPoint presentation? Would I shriek? Feign indifference and causally smash it between my fingers? Or would I turn my keyboard upside down, shake the rest of the critters out, and, with an effeminate moue, stomp them with my feet?

We go through life in epistemic denial of the creatures lurking beneath our field of vision. Surely you’ve heard about the mites in our sheets, or eyebrows, but what of the ones resting just under the vulnerable pulp of our fingertips -- ready to strike out with their claws? (Why do unseen creatures always have claws, or at least fangs? Is it not possible these beings are beautiful? That, having evolved unchecked in the purlieus of computer circuitry, they’ve developed brilliant colors, glass-blown siphons, or giant (relative) iridescent wings which flutter to the rhythm of our key strikes?).

Or perhaps they’re climbers -- yes, this makes more sense -- scaling the hachure of wires with otherworldly aplomb. Or maybe they’re more sophisticated then that even; maybe they use their segmented withies like cell phone antennae, tapping into our PCs, drinking our information -- one massive telecommuting workforce spread across the globe. With a billion bio-processors acting in parallel, the colony could occupy a dimension superjacent to itself; like the ultimate quantum computer, it could be everywhere and nowhere at once.

And what if an entity of such raw power and scope became lickerish? It scares me to ideate the kind of havoc it could it wreak! I’m thinking of chthonic (take that WSJ!) foes of biblical proportions – on par with Satan or Beelzebub or whatever sobriquet you prefer.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, though, and I tend not to believe in things that have never been seen. Yet, I can’t slake my appetite for stories about tiny worlds that seem even bigger than our own. And this is what I think about at my desk, after lunch, between meetings.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Be an Agent for a Day

There's a mind-blowing experiment going on this week called Be an Agent for a Day. Nathan Bransford, a literary agent in San Francisco, invited his blog readers to do what agents do -- review a boatload of query letters. In publishing lingo, a “query” is the proposal you send to an agent or editor to try to get them interested in your work. Agents get tons of these -- often hundreds a day. Nathan asked his readers to volunteer their own queries. Then he set his blog to post 50 queries at different times throughout the day to simulate an agent’s email inbox. The blog readers review the queries, and accept or reject them in the comments section. We're only allowed to accept 5 (request the manuscript); we must reject the other 45. Sprinkled throughout the 50 are three queries for books that actually went on to get published. Our job is to find those three. At the end, Nathan will see how good we were at picking out the winners.
The response to the event has been overwhelming. I think this shows how desperate new writers are for feedback. It has also shown -- not surprisingly -- that writers are especially critical of each other. Halfway through the event, Nathan had to jump in and tell the "agents" to tone down their rejections -- reminding us that there are real people behind these queries, and saying "if some of you were real agents you'd have a pitchfork wielding mob outside of your office by now."
Harsh critics aside, I was really hoping my query would get used. What a great opportunity to get feedback from over 200 people. But Nathan said he got hundreds and hundreds of volunteers, and could only use 50.
Check out the contest -- you can still participate. I did, and found it really hard -- and kind of addicting. Here, you can start with my query. Since it didn't get used, I'll post it here:

Dear Mr. Agent:

It was a pleasure meeting you at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Per your request, I am writing you about my novel, DOUBLE-BLIND, a thriller about an FDA inspector who travels to Mexico City to investigate a fraudulent drug trial. The highlighted disease is lupus, an autoimmune disorder that affects over one million people in the United States alone. Ninety percent of lupus patients are women, which presents a unique marketing opportunity for this book. As Ian McEwan said in this week’s New Yorker, “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

I've worked in the biotech industry for over a decade, and a year ago I quit my day job to write full time. One look at a major newspaper will tell you that biotech, clinical trials, and the FDA are increasingly in the spotlight. Yet, these subjects are underrepresented in fiction. DOUBLE-BLIND introduces readers to this world, but in palatable doses: the novel is, at its heart, a page-turner, a love story, and a portrait of a man ascending from a pit of grief.
Ethan Cole left medical practice for a job with the FDA after his wife, Sarah, died of lupus. A stoic, 35-year-old physician, Ethan isn't well-equipped to deal with the loss of his wife. On the first anniversary of Sarah's death, the FDA sends Ethan to Mexico City to investigate a doctor who's testing an experimental lupus drug.

Walter Grenon is a 58-year-old biotech CEO whose obsessive-compulsive disorder has recently flared out of control. When he discovers that his company’s new lupus drug doesn't work, he hatches a plan to manipulate the drug's clinical trial to guarantee positive results. He employs Felix Torres, a charismatic rheumatologist in Mexico City, to carry out the plan.

While investigating Dr. Torres, Ethan has to review graphic descriptions of lupus patients, and persistent memories of his wife threaten to derail his investigation. Then he meets a beautiful nursing student named Carmen, who turns out to be the whistleblower who tipped off the FDA. He doesn't know if he can trust her, but as they work together, he feels a growing connection to her—a connection he's not ready to acknowledge.

As Ethan unravels the medical fraud, he discovers that Dr. Torres is substituting a malicious drug for placebo—and patients are dying. He soon realizes that the biomedical fraud extends beyond Mexico's borders, and his own wife's hasty death may have been due to more than just lupus.

Your list of clients is very impressive. It would be an honor to work with you on this project. My novel is 65,000 words and fully complete. May I send you a copy of the manuscript?

Brian Crawford

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

City of Love

I officially changed by blog description to "On quitting my day job to write for a year, and then going back to my day job while still trying to write." I can't deny it any longer: I'm back to working full time, and I can only find a few hours to write each week. When I do find some time, I need about half of it just to decompress to the point where I can focus enough to write anything worthwhile. That's what I miss most, I think -- the quiet time just before the good writing comes. When I used to have the time to leisurely walk Chester to the park, instead of the way it is now, where I follow nervously behind him, focusing on his butt and willing something to come out of it, so I can go back inside and quickly get ready for work. 

When I'm in a hurry, I don't notice the little things. And noticing the little things is critical to writing. Lately, the things I do notice seem mainly to annoy me. Consequently, I started a list today of things that annoy me about San Francisco. I'm sure it will grow over time, but here's what I have so far:

  • People who wear bike jerseys into breakfast cafes. It's bad enough that I'm hungover and you're not, but do you have to rub it in by wearing a bright yellow jersey?

  • People who move their cars only once per week -- during street cleaning. Then they are somehow able to move their cars back into exactly the same spot. This is usually confounded by the person having a really conspicuous, annoying car so you KNOW it's the same one.

  • People who cross in the middle of the street and then look annoyed because YOU didn't slow down. In some countries, buddy, drivers speed up when they see someone in the street.

  • People who run through Golden Gate Park with water bottles in their hands. Come on, it's 53 degrees outside and you're only running for 20 minutes. You can make it. 

  • People who have those built in poop-bag dispensers on their dogs' leashes. I mean, who's that put together?

  • People who give you an evil stare because you stopped your car in the middle of a crosswalk. Hey, I know where my tires are -- at least I stopped. When this happens to me I usually pretend like I'm talking on my phone -- but now I get a double-stare for talking on my phone while stopped in a crosswalk.

  • Cab drivers who turn on their "for hire" light when they're clearly not for hire. Did all the drivers get together one day and decide this would be funny?

  • When a bus doesn't come for 45 minutes and then three pull up in a row.

  • When you miss a turn and can't turn left again until you hit the ocean.

  • Emeryville. I know, it's not technically in the city of SF, but seriously -- are ALL those people going to Ikea? 

What annoys you about SF?