29 August 2016

HELP! (I'm told it's called crowd-sourcing)

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm knee-deep in the newest E.J. Pugh novel. Unfortunately, I should be at least hip deep, if not tickling-my-tummy deep. Why is it that, now that I'm retired from everything but writing (outside jobs, motherhood and wifedom) that it's taking longer and longer to write a book? Well, there's always the “hey, I'm retired, I can do it tomorrow” syndrome, wherein tomorrow keeps getting further and further away. And there's also the “I don't have to write X number of pages today. I can catch up tomorrow.” See above about tomorrow. And this summer it's been “the grand kids are coming by in four hours. I really need to rest up” excuse. But with E.J., I'm getting there. Slowly, but I'll make it. I always – okay, usually – do. But then there's the big problem, the one where I'm going to need some help. I'm told this is call crowd sourcing.

I DON'T HAVE A TITLE.

If I give you a quick synopsis with pertinent points can you make a suggestion? Here's the deal. It's taking place on the University of Texas campus. E.J.'s twenty-year-old son finds his obnoxious, much-despised (by everyone) roommate dead in the room – stabbed to death while Graham (E.J.'s son) slept. Guess who becomes the chief suspect? We have other wanna-be suspects, too, of course. The roommate's less than loving mother; his ex-girlfriend who keyed his car twice and sent him Ex-Lax brownies; his BFF whom he belittled in front of the friend's parents; and the roommate's student adviser whose wife the roommate came on to rather aggressively at a party.

Are ideas flooding in? I usually don't have trouble with titles, but this one is giving me a run for my money. Do I want to name it something to do with UT? Campus life? Or just murder in general?

I DON'T KNOW!

As incentive for your cooperation the winner (or the one person who actually gives me a title, any title) gets a copy of the book when it comes out. I'm thrilled, are you? Is my sarcasm showing?

A woman in my apartment complex was recently told by another woman that I had thirty-some-odd (some very odd) books published. The woman looked at me and said, “Then why are you living here?”

Yes, it was a very rude question, but I only laughed it off. I didn't explain that there are only four people who actually become millionaires writing books, and only eight who actually make a livable wage doing it. I didn't explain the “claw” theory – the one that writing success is based on the machine you see in restaurant lobbies full of stuffed animals and you have to get that big old claw to grab on to the one you want – or any one for that matter – and it never does. Success is that claw, and somebody gets pulled up every million or so tries.

So the rest of us just keep writing. Why? Well, I don't know about you, but I do it because if I didn't there would be something very big missing in my life. I once said that if I didn't do this for a living, I'd probably write really great grocery lists. Well, I don't want to write really great grocery lists. I want to write stories. I want to make people ask questions, get anxious, and, sometimes, laugh their butts off. But still and all, I need a title.

Any title will do. Really.

28 August 2016

Ending the Story

by R.T. Lawton

In Rob Lopresti's 08/17/16 blog, "The Whole Truth," he wrote about doing the setup for a story, in this case, a novel. Rob's premise was to drop the protagonist in a hole, and if the author writing the novel so desired, then throw rocks at that particular character. Essentially, it was how to setup the beginning of an author's story and then move on into the action of the plot. I liked the concept.

So today, to go with Rob's blog, here's two possible story endings as taken from the book, Story, by Robert McKee. These two endings are general category endings within which all other specific endings, such as happy endings, sad endings, ironic endings, etc., will fit.

The Closed Ending: The closed ending is mainly used with the traditional or classical designed story, the type of story written throughout the ages since Gilgamesh was first transcribed onto clay tablets. The fictional reality in this type of story is consistent and the conflict is mainly focused on the external causes, even though the protagonist may have an inner conflict to go with all the outside problems. In the story climax for the closed ending, the change is irreversible, there is no going back for the hero. As for the reader,, all questions raised in the story should be answered and all emotions satisfied.
(Some movie examples of closed ending from McKee's book are The Seven Samurai, The Hustler, A Fish Called Wanda and Thelma and Louise.)

The Open Ending: The open ending is generally used in a story focused on internal conflicts which is often prodded by external events. Here, the story climax leaves some questions unresolved for the reader, and thus some emotions may be left unsatisfied. The reader is then allowed (or left) to form his or her own conclusion as to what happened to the characters after the last word printed on the last page of the story. Different readers may come to different conclusions on the ending of the same story. For instance, one reader may believe the protagonist has now become mentally strong enough to overcome his situation and go on to a happy life. Another reader may have perceived an undercurrent of weakness and feels that the protagonist would fall back into old bad habits, thereby failing to succeed in the future. Same story; one reader an optimist, the other reader a pessimist; different conclusions on story ending.
(Some movie examples of open endings from McKee's book are Five Easy Pieces, Tender Mercies and A River Runs Through It.)

McKee's book Story is actually a screenwriting book by a screenwriting teacher, therefore it is written from a movie perspective, but to me, a story is a story regardless of the medium used to tell it. I believe it is wise to learn from other storytelling mediums to see what I can apply to my short story writing.

Most of my short stories use a closed ending. Much of that influence comes from the type of stories I've read over the decades since childhood. And, at this point, I will admit that the first few times I ran across an open ending story, I was prone to wonder where the heck the story ending was.

However, in the last couple of years, I've caught myself writing an open ending for one of the stories in my Shan Army series with the two half-brothers contending to see which one will become the heir to their warlord father's opium empire in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, and in one story of my 1660's Paris Underworld series with the orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a community of criminals. The open ending just seemed right for these two stories.

So, how about you as a writer? Which endings do you use? And as a reader, which type of endings do you prefer?

27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)

By Melodie Campbell

It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul


I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.


On AMAZON



26 August 2016

Phoenix Serial Street Shooter

by Dixon Hill

Not long ago, I posted a story about a fellow who dressed as a "Zombie Killer" and was later arrested for raping and murdering several women here in the Valley of the Sun.

Today's post concerns an on-going serial killer's actions: those of the person dubbed "The Serial Street Shooter," or in some media, "The Monster of Maryvale."  (Maryvale is an "urban village" on the west side of Phoenix.

Early shootings were largely believed to have been centered around poorer Hispanic neighborhoods there.  The investigation would later indicate the shooter ranged more widely.)

Unfortunately, this person remains at large as of this writing.

The first victim was a teenage boy, but police didn't realize what was going on for some time. And, because the investigation is still going on, they haven't released many names, or most other details, but the AZ Republic listed this timeline about the victims:

  • On March 17, about 11:30 p.m., a 16-year-old boy suffered non-life-threatening injuries after being shot while walking in the 1100 block of East Moreland Street.
  • On March 18, about 11:30 p.m., a 21-year-old man suffered non-life-threatening injuries after being shot while standing outside of his vehicle in the 4300 block of North 73rd Avenue.
  • On April 1, about 9 p.m., 21-year-old Diego Verdugo-Sanchez was shot and killed outside a home near the 5500 block of West Turney Avenue.
  • On April 19 about 4:30 a.m., the body of 55-year-old Krystal Annette White was discovered near the 500 block of North 32nd Street. She died of apparent gunshot wounds.
  • On June 3, about 9:50 p.m., 32-year-old Horacio De Jesus Pena was fatally shot while outside a home in the 6700 block of West Flower Street.
  • On June 10, about 9:30 p.m., 19-year-old Manuel Castro Garcia was fatally shot outside a home near the 6500 block of West Coronado Road.   
  • On June 12, about 2:35 a.m., an unoccupied vehicle was discovered shot in the 6200 block of West Mariposa Drive. 
  • On June 12, about 3 a.m., a gunman opened fire on two women and one girl seated in a parked car outside a home near the 6300 block of West Berkeley Road. Angela Linner, 31, and Maleah Ellis, 12, died almost immediately. Maleah's mother, Stefanie Ellis, died three weeks later.
  • On July 11, during evening hours, a gunman shot at a vehicle in a residential neighborhood in the 3200 block of East Oak Street. A 21-year-old man and 4-year-old boy were in the vehicle, but neither was injured.

Initially, police connected four shootings, with six victims, to the same perpetrator – all the victims having been shot during the hours of darkness, on weekends and within a four mile radius. By mid-July, however, forensic evidence connected four other shootings, taking place as early as March; one more than ten miles away from the Maryvale epicenter of the other attacks. Nor did that victim, Krystal Annette White, seem to have any connections to the city.

Description

Witness reports have varied, naturally.  The gunman is reported to be a light skinned Hispanic or white male in his early to mid-twenties. Unofficially, he is rumored to have a thin build, but Phoenix Police homicide Lt. Ed DeCastro cautions that the police department is actually uncertain about his height and build at this time.

Until July 11th, only a side-view composite was made available by police, because no one reported having seen him face-on.  The 21-year-old who was shot at on that date, however, assisted police in generating a frontal composite.

The victim says the shooter stopped his "black BMW" so that its driver door window and the victim's were facing each other, then stuck his head and a sidearm out of the window, giving the victim an angry look before opening fire.

The gunman was reportedly alone in most cases, though in one case he was supposedly in a car with two or three others.  Sometimes he exited his car before firing, while on other occasions he remained in the driver's seat.  Descriptions of the car varied widely, but had enough cohesion that police now suggest he has used at least two cars: a boxy, late-90's or early 2000.s BMW 5-series; or a white Cadillac/Lincoln type of sedan.  There has even been speculation that he may have access to a car lot or automobile dealership, perhaps working as a valet or lot person.

Police say the shooter appears to target his victims largely at random.  And, while most of his victims have been Hispanic or black, anyone foolishly jumping to stereotypical conclusions should be warned that there appear to be absolutely no ties to drugs, gangs or other illegal activity.  Most victims appear to have been good citizens.  In fact, nothing seems to connect these victims, except the fact that they were shot at by the same weapon, the lateness of the hour when they were available as targets, and the general lack of witnesses when they were shot at.

Police are asking for help, saying somebody out there must know who this person is.  The reward for information leading to his arrest has now be raised to $75,000 and police are hoping someone will come forward.

I'll let you know if this happens.

See you in two weeks,

— Dixon

25 August 2016

The Coming Party Crack-Up

by Brian Thornton

(Disclaimer– this is a political post. Not one advocating any one candidate, or point of view. It's more a prediction–based a look into America's past–of what may happen in the not too distant future.)

It's a wacky campaign season, full of surprises. The candidacy of Donald Trump has set one of our political parties in danger of cracking up. And it's not the one you think.

Yep. I'm talking about the Democrats.

How can I say that? After all, the Republican party is reeling, whereas the Democrats, the Liberal wing (recently revived from a long slumber by the insurgent candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders) notwithstanding, seem relatively united.

I didn't say that I thought the Republicans would escape the current crisis unscathed. Merely that they wouldn't split.

Then again, it's tough for a rump party aging itself out of relevance to split, since it's already shrinking.

Why do I think this?

Because it's happened before.

Twice.

And while the tale of the demise of the Whig Party, shattered on the shoals of the issue of slavery in the 1850s is the story you're likely more familiar with, I think the parallels between the crisis of the 1850s and our current chaotic campaign season are less exact than the crack-up that preceded it by three decades: just under two hundred years ago.


I'm speaking, of course, about the split of the Democratic Republicans into two factions: The National Republicans (later "Whigs") and the Democratic Party (yes, the one we know today).

Here's the background:

Alexander Hamilton
At the beginning of the 19th century America's first two embryonic political parties coalesced around
the national figures of Thomas Jefferson (the "Republicans") and Alexander Hamilton (the "Federalists"). Jefferson's Republicans favored strong states and limited national government. Hamilton's Federalists favored a national government strong enough to regulate trade (including by levying protective tariffs intended to protect America's budding industrial sector against cheap foreign competition), make internal improvements and other business-friendly notions.

Hamilton soon died, killed in his famous duel with Jefferson's vice-president, Aaron Burr, but his followers continued on, becoming even less of a national presence with each passing election. By 1808 they found themselves reduced to carrying only New England, and frozen out of the presidency by the electoral popularity of Jefferson, and then of his hand-picked successor James Madison.

Even Madison's move to involve the nation in the disastrous War of 1812 did nothing to slow down the Jeffersonian electoral machine. It did, however, seal the fate of the "loyal opposition": the Federalist Party.
James Madison

The Federalists opposed war with Great Britain largely because of the harm it would do to trade with the British (America conducted far more trade with Great Britain at the time than any other nation, including Napoleonic France). And the war was catastrophic for a New England economy that relied as heavily on trans-oceanic trade at the time as Seattle did Boeing in the 1970s.

So the Federalists did a very foolish thing. They gathered together at Hartford, Connecticut in late
1814 and had a convention, in which they adopted a position exploring seeking a "separate peace"with the British. The "convention" never took any action after the adoption of this resolution, because by January of 1815 news of the signing of a peace treaty (in Ghent in December of 1814) rendered their position moot.

But when word got out of Federalist intentions, they were tarred as traitors and any pretensions of being a national party were snuffed out.

A Federalist Broadside Opposing France
Which left the Jeffersonian Republicans, or the National Republicans, or the Democratic Republicans, as they were alternately known, as the only political party in the country capable of carrying congressional majorities, and, of course, of electing a president.

When Madison's second term of office ended in 1816, his chosen successor James Monroe ran for office virtually unopposed. And he ran for reelection in 1820 literally unopposed. The "Republicans" had triumphed.

The problem, of course, is that single-party rule in a republic is a dicey thing. It is human nature to abhor a lack of liberty and to crave alternatives to even the most sensible of choices. A two party system, for all of its flaws, suits this impulse among the electorate far better than even the most efficient single ruling party.

And the Republicans of Monroe's era were hardly that.

In addition the first true economic depression in the nation's history (the "Panic of 1819") and
James Monroe
differences of opinion on matters such as the admission of new states into the union (which was really a shadow argument for and against the expansion of slavery) and other sectional concerns raised their troublesome heads. So the Republicans found themselves riven by dissension. Not surprisingly they broke up into two groups: one more liberal (at least where white males were concerned), the "Democrats" and the other more conservative, backed by the bankers and the monied/middle classes: calling themselves "National Republicans," they were soon better known as "Whigs."

Henry Clay of Kentucky: the Great Soul of the Whig Party
The resulting split during the electoral year of 1824 into two opposing factions provides a cautionary tale for our own time. After all, the Republican Party in its current incarnation has experienced an astonishing number of defections by people who are saying in so doing, "I haven't left the Republican Party. The Republican Party has left me."

And while the party's agonies might stoke a certain amount of schadenfreude among Democrats, I don't know anyone who is actively rooting for the demise of the Republican Party. And I say, "Good." And furthermore I fervently hope for the rebound of the Republican Party, the party of Reagan, as a principled repository for conservative political thought and action.

Because if the Republicans don't bounce back, it's highly likely that we will witness a split of the Democratic Party, with the "conservative" (moderate) wing of the party coalescing around so-called "Wall Street Democrats" and the "liberal" wing around the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

After all, "ex" Republicans have to go somewhere. If history is an indicator, they're likely to gravitate to the existing opposition party and help by sheer numbers make its "moderate" wing more conservative.

Only time will tell. Either way it promises to continue to be an interesting election (in a Chinese curse kind of way).

24 August 2016

Back in the USSR

David Edgerley Gates


In the latest news from Lake Woebegone, we have a reshuffle at the top of the ticket - no, not the Trump campaign, but the inner circle of the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov, the president's chief of staff, one of Putin's senior guys and one of the last holdovers from the good old days in Leningrad, where the two of them made their bones with KGB, just got thrown under the train by his boss.

This didn't use to be that odd an occurrence, of course, usually followed by a trip to the basement of the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of your head. I think people were actually surprised when Nikita Khrushchev was allowed to retire to his dacha, instead of being disappeared. Milan Kundera has a wonderful aside in LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING (or maybe it's UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, sorry about that) about a Czech political figure from the Soviet era who gets erased from the history books and from collective memory. He's in a group photograph with some other party hacks, reviewing a parade or whatever, and he's cosmetically removed from the picture, but whoever retouches it leaves the guy's hat visible. So our guy's weightless, not even a shadow, while his orphaned hat floats in the empty air. For the luckless Ivanov, we ain't talking metaphorical, and the job market's tight for his particular skill set. He serviced one client and one client only. Maybe he got too big for his boots, or maybe he kept faith, but whichever it was, he outlived his usefulness.

Back in the day, a cottage industry sprang up in both media and intelligence circles. Kremlin-watching, reading the tea leaves - whose star was rising, whose sinking? This is a science still being practiced with regimes like China's and Iran's, where the workings of government are utterly opaque to outsiders, but Russia these days seems almost transparent by comparison. (Does anybody under the age of sixty remember Malenkov and Bulganin? Does anybody over the age of sixty remember them?) It seems like a throwback to the Cold War to wonder what Sergei Ivanov's political disgrace signifies. I venture there'd be more speculation if it happened on a slow news day, but it seems like a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.

An informed guess? Putin has achieved escape velocity. He doesn't need his old gang, or their street smarts. He's shaking off the past and gathering new recruits. Medvedev is just about the Last Man Standing. He's a year younger than Putin. Ivanov is a dozen years older. Ivanov's successor, his former deputy, is twenty years younger than Putin. Putin has effectively been holding the reins for the past seventeen years, since he took over from Yeltsin - and if not without dissenting voices at the time, those voices have been silenced since. It's all about the chronology. These guys Putin is sidelining, pushed into retirement or promoted to some meaningless sinecure, aren't geriatrics. They're the Establishment, ready for prime time, with every expectation of putting both feet in the trough. All of a sudden their golden parachute has turned into a box of rocks. They've been traded to the minors.

The new kids, like Ivanov's replacement, Anton Vaino, have no power base independent of Putin. And more than that, they've risen in the apparat while Putin's held office. In other words, they have no basis for comparison. So far as they're concerned, Putin is the state. Fairly obviously, this isn't a view Putin discourages. It's also been remarked that some Russians in the older generation are nostalgic for Stalin, or at least for an iron hand, and Putin doesn't discourage this sentiment, either.

I don't think we're talking about a culture of Yes Men, or not entirely. Putin isn't delusional, and his policies - Ukraine and Crimea, in Syria and the Caucasus - aren't being questioned. What's happening is simply that he's eliminating possible challengers. Having secured his position, Putin is now making himself irreplaceable. Nobody's waiting in the wings. It's only policy. When a new king takes the throne, he smothers his close relatives, thinning the herd.

For some reason, I've been slow on the uptake, along with quite a few other people, but I don't know why this should come as any surprise. Everything in Putin's methodology has always been about turning back the clock. He once said that allowing the dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of the great political mistakes of the twentieth century - I think he called it 'historic,' meaning a wrong turn, historically - and his attitude toward the Near Abroad, the former Soviet republics, bears this out. But has he actually decided to raid Stalin's closet and try on some of his old clothes? If the shoe fits, well and good.

The thing is, you're not going to get too many people who don't think Stalin was a psychopath. Vladimir Putin has his fair share of vanity, I'm sure, and he may have an inflated idea of his self-importance, or his place in history, but nobody's suggested he's a fruit loop. Not yet. Calculating, manipulative, and ruthless. Let's face it, those aren't disqualifications. Blood on his hands? Sure. Not to plead any kind of moral equivalency, but he's not the only one.

It's an inexact science, reading the leaves. Probably best left to those of us who don't have a dog in the fight. We could go back and forth about this, and never settle our differences. Let's put it this way. When you eat with the Devil, use a long spoon.


23 August 2016

Dare to Be Bad: Human Remains


Once upon a time, two writers challenged each other to write a story a week. It didn’t have to be good. In fact, their motto was “Dare to Be Bad.” But it had to be done at the end of the week.
If a writer failed to write a story, s/he had to buy the other a steak dinner. Because they were poor, this was great incentive.

They wrote a story a week. They mailed the stories to editors instead of obsessively rewriting. They got better and better. You may recognize their names today as Nina Kiriki Hoffman and Dean Wesley Smith. I met them when I was a winner in Writers of the Future in 2000 and found both of them inspiring.

Karen Abrahamson,
Jay Lake,
Dean Wesley Smith,
Leslie Claire Walker
After going to Writers Police Academy this month, I realized that part of the reason that I was locked up on the fifth Hope Sze book, Human Remains, was that I wanted it to be amazeballs.

Now I still want it to delight, entertain, shock, and thrill, but I also want it to be done. And I want to loosen up about making it perfect.

William Stanford, Ph.D.
I also got a jump start in June when I visited the stem cell lab of William Stanford, in Ottawa. He kindly gave me a tour and okayed the science in the following excerpt, which may or may not make the final cut of the book, but will probably teach you about CRISPR and other awesome innovations.

Rough draft excerpt of Human Remains, by Melissa Yi

“Do you know what CRISPR is?” said Tom, the head of the stem cell lab. He pronounced it crisper, which made me think about my parents’ overstuffed refrigerator and/or the best potato chips.
“I do.” I swallowed and tried not to look obvious about it. Medicine teaches you not to show fear. Tom’s eyes were kind and steady on mine, but I’ve seen preceptors act super understanding to your face and then sabotage you with a substandard evaluation. “At least I understand the concept of cutting genetic code with ‘scissors’ made of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”
That’s another evaluation trick. If you can spout jargon immediately and correctly, they’re more likely to nod and leave you alone. I wasn’t getting the vibe that Tom was hostile—quite the opposite, actually—but I needed a good evaluation on this rotation, or Ottawa wouldn’t accept me and McGill might fail me, both of which would torpedo my career.
Tom rubbed his chin and gazed out his window. Of course, it was a sign of status that he had a corner office with a window, but I got the feeling that he would’ve hung out in a sun-free basement for decades as long as it meant he could research stem cells. I relaxed a smidgen. He said, “Do you know the back story? I wouldn’t expect you to, but it’s fascinating.”
I nodded and smiled. Yes, please. Tell me the story. If you get them talking while you ask intelligent questions, they recall you fondly on your evals, and there’s less of a chance you get tripped up on weird questions about DNA sequences.
He said, “Yoshizumi Ishino first noticed these repeating DNA sequences in E. Coli in 1987. They were separated by short unique clusters of DNA, which was strange, because repeated DNA usually appears consecutively.”
My mind was already ping-ponging around. E. Coli causes a lot of urinary tract infections and is therefore considered my personal enemy. But I tried to contribute to the conversation. “Yes, I listened to a podcast on it. They compared it to sounds. So the repeat DNA sequences sounds like”—oh, God, now I was going to have to do it. I honked. Tom stared at me while I honked like a duck, five times, my cheeks burning. “And the sequences in between are all different. Like…” I honked, made an eee! sound, honked, oohed, honked, clicked, honked, oinked, honked, and meowed.
Tom stared at me. “I have never heard it explained it that way before. Which podcast was this?”
“Radiolab.” My friend Tori had sent me the link. Thank you, Tori. “They had better sounds, of course.”
“No, I like yours. I’m going to use that in my next lecture. That should wake ’em up.”
“I’ll send you the link.” I don’t know if I’ve ever been more embarrassed in a professional lab. But I could also tell I’d won him over within the first hour of arrival, which boded much better for me getting a stellar reference letter. I resisted the urge to cross my fingers.
“Did they also explain what CRISPR does?”
“They said CRISPR was like a mug shot of the bacteria’s enemy viruses. Like, when a virus attacks, the bacteria send out the ground troops of their immune system, but most of the troops die”—just like marines. Just like Tucker and I almost did—“and so do the bacteria. But if the bacteria survive, their enzymes cut the viral DNA up and then store short sequences—the CRISPR—interspersed with their own DNA. That way, they can carry around mug shots, or most-wanted ID’s, of the viruses that almost killed them. So if they ever run into the same viruses again, they can ID them right away from the CRISPR and send out targeted forces to vanquish them, in the form of enzymes that will slice up the viral DNA.” Faster than cutting off a zombie’s head during the upcoming apocalypse, I wanted to add, but didn’t. He already thought I was weird enough. 
There were a lot of problems with my explanation. It was super basic. I wasn’t talking about B-cells or T-cells because Radiolab hadn’t. I couldn’t even talk intelligently about RNA. I was sketching the surface. If he asked me to dig deeper, I was pretty much toast. At least I got to sneak in the word “vanquish.”
“That’s pretty good,” said Tom, drawing his eyebrows together and pursing his lips. I couldn’t tell which way he was going, i.e. if he liked my explanation because it was understandable, or if it pained him because it was too low brow. “Did they talk about Cas?”
“Not so much, but I know they’re the enzymes that do the actual cutting.” On of the online science articles, a commentator had lamented that Cas9 and other enzymes do all the work, but CRISPR gets all the credit. Another commenter said that CRISPR had the sexier name. They were a team, though. CRISPR identifies the bad guys, and then Cas9 or another enzyme will step up and do the slice and dice. Like a sheriff and an executioner, although I don’t know the legal or immune system well enough to give a proper analogy.
“And do you know how CRISPR and Cas are revolutionizing research?”
My turn not to grimace. He was a tougher customer than I thought. “I know that this technique is faster, cheaper, and more precise way to cut a gene sequence than we’ve ever had before. I know that once you cut out the sequence you don’t want, all you have to do is plant another sequence you do want, and the bacteria will help mend it by replacing the bad sequence, so the media is already fantasizing about designer babies. I know that zinc finger nuclease and transcription activator-like effector nucleases can handle longer DNA sequences, but they’re slower and less likely to work.”
“And knockout mice?”
I was starting to sweat. I’ve never worked with mice. It’s a miracle I ever got into medical school. Luckily, Tori had told me a little about her research with mice whose genes that have been disabled, or knocked out. “You used to have to inject altered DNA from embryonic stem cells and hope that they’d get incorporated through homologous recombination.” He didn’t blink. Using jargon didn’t impress him. I guess, for him, it was about as jaw-dropping as an ingrown toenail was to me. Damn
it. “The mice that successfully incorporated the altered DNA were called chimeras. Then you’d hope that the chimeras would breed and make more mutant DNA, so by the third generation, maybe you’d get a mouse with both copies of the mutant allele. But with CRISPR/Cas9, the system edits the gene right away, and the first generation has the mutation.”
Tom smiled. “Why stop with one mutant gene? We could do five at the same time. CRISPR is also the best cross-species technique so far. We used to confine ourselves to mice, rats, fruit flies, zebra fish, and C. elegans, but right now, I’m waiting to see if there’s a species that CRISPR doesn’t work in.”
I hesitated, checking his eyes to see if my explanation was good enough. I held my breath, praying that he wouldn’t ask what C. elegans was. Dear Supreme Being, should you happen to exist and care to hear my pleas, if Tom doesn’t ask me about C. elegans, I promise I’ll look it up later.
He high fived me. “Good enough! You’re the first person who ever honked at me to explain CRISPR.”
I sighed, a mix of relief and despair, while he reached for the doorknob of the pale wooden door behind his desk. It opened directly into his lab. He said, “That’s great. You’re going to fit in here just fine.”
He waited for me to enter, so I did, and he said to my back, “You’ll have to tell me about the dead body another time, though.”

There you have it. I am officially daring to be bad. I'm posting the opening chapter of Human Remains on my website as well.

How about you? Dare to be bad?