Showing posts with label Human Remains. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Human Remains. Show all posts

09 May 2017

The most important thing in the world

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eleventh in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Melissa Yi, Patreon

“Mom. You don’t spend enough time with us.”

“I finished the Wimpy Kid book and read most of Big Nate to you!” I told my grade one daughter, Anastasia, and my grade five son, Max, in turn. He likes Wimpy Kid too, but he’s finished them already.

“You’re always on your computer.”

“Right. Right. When I’m done, I’ll play with you.”

“But you’re never done!”

This is true. And yet, somehow we manage, much like Melodie Campbell pointed out. Still, there’s a reason that I grabbed Ayelet Waldeman’s book, Bad Mother, and ripped through it. I’d already enjoyed her Mommy Track mysteries, long before I had kids.



On the other hand, there’s this:

Anastasia: I wrote a book!

Me: Wow, that’s really good. I like the first three pages.

Anastasia: Now, you draw one page, Mommy.

Me: Oh, okay. I see it’s all blond girls. Let me draw one with brown skin.

Anastasia: I don’t like people with brown skin.

Me: But that’s us! That means you don’t like us. Clearly, we need to hang around with more brown people. [I draw a brown girl anyway.]

Max: Do you want to sell your book?

Anastasia: Okay.

Max: I’ll give you 24 cents.

Anastasia: Okay.


Mixed feelings. On one hand, my kids have learned to make, sell, and buy books. On the other hand, I obviously have to work on race relations and self-love.



“That character is obviously Max,” said my husband, after reading about Kevin. “He takes off his pants and squashes your blanket? No contest.”

“That’s me,” said Max.

But actually, I started writing Hope’s little brother after I graduated from residency, years before I had him. It’s scary how long I’ve take to write these books, since now Max is older than Kevin, who’s turning nine. But he has definitely been incorporated into Kevin. When I was working with Kobo on a promotional campaign, the creative guy said, “I don’t know what eight-year-old boys like,” and I said, “I’ve got you covered.”

“Where’s me?” said Anastasia.

“She doesn’t have a little sister or cousin in this series. Maybe later,” I said.

She nodded. She’s good about stuff like that.



So family and writing has a variable relationship for me. Family cuts into my time, but also inspires my writing and makes my life so much richer and more vibrant.

John Wooden says, “The most important thing in the world is family and love.”

I feel torn about this. For sure, without my family, I could have medical and writing success, and I, personally, would feel empty.

On the other hand, I truly need a room, time, and mental space of my own in order to create.

How do we balance this?




In other news, Human Remains debuted April 25 th and hit the Kobo top ten, plus I made some inroads on Amazon. Celebrate with a free copy at https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/human-remains-5 with the promo code HRemains!

If you don’t know how to use a promo code on Kobo, I made a page here: http://melissayuaninnes.com/how-to-use-a-kobo-promo-code/.

Please note that the code HRemains does not work on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon UK, Amazon international, iTunes, iTunes Canada, B&N, or Google Play, but it’s only 99 cents on all platforms today.

Speaking of human remains, here’s a photo from my Montreal launch at Librairie Bertrand. Someone asked, “How many people here are doctors?”

I said, “Half. Hey, why don’t we get the civilians to lie on the floor and the doctors can pretend to resuscitate them?”

They thought I was nuts, but they’re my friends, so…

Aren’t they awesome?
Dr. Chryssi Paraskevopoulos with author Day's Lee, who interviewed me here;
Dr. Ted Wein with author Su J. Sokol; Dr. Melissa Yi with artist Jessica Sarrazin.
Not pictured: Dr. Rob Adams and reader Maria, and artist Jason Jason de Graaf

18 April 2017

Help(,) Police!


Imagine feeling like every kiss goodbye to your loved ones each day might be your last kiss. Police officers and their families feel this way every single day. Karen Salmansohn

Let me be clear - no one is above the law. Not a politician, not a priest, not a criminal, not a police officer. We are all accountable for our actions. Antonio Villaraigosa


The police feel besieged. Like they can’t get anything right. Everyone wants them to save us from the bad guys, yet never persecute or killing any innocent people. That’s the ideal. They’ll never live up to it.
I feel for police. I relate to them. As an emergency doctor, I also have to deal with the most violent, most ignorant, most manipulative people, and I'm not allowed to make mistakes.
And yet we’re all human. We’re all going to make mistakes. Mistakes that sometimes kill people.
It's so easy for those outside the system to point their fingers and talk about how awful we are, yet those same critics never step in the arena.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Theodore Roosevelt

That said, I am a Black Lives Matter supporter. I never want to detain or kill innocent people. It is never acceptable.

But I feel for individual police officers who are doing their best, who are trying to save the public, who are literally putting their lives on the line every day and every night, for very little thanks and little pay, and a ton of screaming abuse.
So how do we support the police and make sure that the people are protected?
And how do we write about them?
“Where are the police?” Dean Wesley Smith asked me, about my first draft of Code Blues.
Look, they match!
Please admire my new cover.
The truth was, I didn’t know much about the police, so I wrote around them at first and had to add them to subsequent ones. 

Dead bodies? Check. A daring doctor who solves the crime and saves the day? Check. But the police who’d be investigating the murder? Hmm. They came in and dragged away the bad guys at the end of the book, but what about the beginning and middle?

I tried to correct some of my ignorance by attending Writers Police Academy in August.
I’ve written about some of the seminars I attended, but it really made my day when they critiqued my police interrogation scene in Human Remains. Writing about officers is a balancing act. I want to be realistic and portray the police as neither saints nor Satan, but somewhere in between. I want to create tension and drop clues to the murder, yet stay in Dr. Hope Sze's PTSD point of view.

Paul M. Smith wrote, “In a nutshell, the interview sounds very realistic and I don't really have any suggestions for change. You did a good job.  The only thing I could think of is that prior to any interview/interrogation the officers would have read her her rights, even if she wasn't a suspect. Otherwise, if at sometime she would become a suspect none of the interview would be admissible in court.”

Colleen wrote, “The questions you asked are very relevant and realistic. Cops love timelines and nail down timelines  - for suspects. When the timeline doesn’t match, then we begin to peel back the layers of deception for the truth. Nice job.”

Officer Matt wrote, “It looks good and sounds real. The use of the word Billy club is good. Cops call it a baton, but to the normal citizen, it is appropriate.”

Mike Knetzger wrote, “Yes, these are realistic questions. You might also want to explore the cognitive interview technique for some additional insight into questioning people about what they did before a significant event, such as finding a body.”
When Hope asks for a lawyer, Mike suggested that the officer reply, “I can’t give you legal advice.”
At the end, when Hope points out that they’ll be able to track her and her boyfriend’s footprints in the snow, Mike wrote, “When people mention footprints to me, I often reply, “‘Footprints? Are we looking for Big Foot or are we looking, instead, for shoe prints?’”
It made me realize that language has to be precise, especially when you’re dealing with legal matters. So yes, it would be shoe prints (or boot prints, because we’re in Canada), not foot prints.
Mike Knetzger probably had more to say because he’s an author himself. His stepdaughter was killed by an impaired driver one night when he was on duty, and he was unable to save her life. In response, he wrote the book Ashley’s Story, and he speaks out against impaired driving across the Midwest. You can support his cause by buying his book, as I did.

My profound thanks to these officers, and the ones who keep us safe in our beds every night.

Support our police. Support our people. Surely we can do both.

28 March 2017

How to be a Hero: Debra Komar



Trigger warning: sensitive souls should not read this. [NSFW. NSFL.]

Dr. Debra Komar spent over two decades investigating war crimes as a forensic scientist for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She testified as an expert witness in The Hague.
In other words, she’s a smart, hard-working, funny and unflinching real-life hero who now writes historical crime fiction.
Capital Crime Writers featured her as a speaker this Fall. I wrote as fast as I could, but I still couldn’t get everything down. I recreated it as best I could, in an interview format, to give you three simple lessons on how you can be a hero too.


1. Work hard.
Melissa Yi: I’m an emergency doctor, so I know how to work hard. But I have no idea what it’s like to do a genocide investigation. What does it involve?
Debra Komar: “Start with witnesses and aerial photos. Go in. Exhume. Take photos. Identify the remains. Return them to families. Create the narrative.”
So when you’re on the ground, what is your day-to-day life like?
“In Iraq, there were shipping containers around us, 75 people in a room. Only eight of them were the scientific team, but you need that many to get you out safely and back in. For six months, you work twenty hours a day, in the desert, with people shooting at you, emptying graves and doing autopsies all night.”
That sounds…
“Soul-destroying.”
I’m not sure  I could do that.
“It was the same 19 of us who’ve shown up for the past 20 years. You’re considered retired after ten missions. I did 18.”
Debra Komar and Melissa Yi. Photo by Patricia Filteau.


2. Learn how to laugh.
How did you deal with it?
“A lot of people in my industry drink too much. My way was to turn off emotion…and [use] morgue humour.”
Komar teaches forensic science, and she has some popular sessions like Museum (autopsy lockers full of interesting specimens. One of them was filled exclusively with rectal foreign bodies, i.e. items pulled exclusively from a rectum).
They also played Spot the B.S. They’d play a clip from TV, and students would call out the errors.

3. Learn how to leave.
How did you become a writer?
“I always wanted to write. I had a quiet agreement to myself: I’d do this work as long as I could, and then retire.”
So you’re retired now?
“It’s hard to retire. I still have students, and I appear in court.”
Was it hard to make the transition from genocide investigation to writing?
“When you work in a morgue, you realize life is short. I was prepared to fall on my face and fail, but I wasn’t willing not to try.”

When Komar started writing true crime books, she chose to write historical crime. Which doesn’t mean she pulls her punches.

For example, in The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, she describes the Nova Scotia case of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in 1896: someone clubbed Annie with a piece of firewood and slit her throat three times with a kitchen knife, then sat down and ate a jar of homemade jam, leaving a spoon covered in bloody fingerprints, before abandoning her body.
Peter Wheeler, a “coloured” man, found her body when he came to the house to buy milk in the morning. In this book, Komar explains why Wheeler was innocent and how racism, the court system, primitive forensics and the media played a role in convicting and hanging him. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
In her most recent book, Black River Road, Komar follows teenaged berry pickers in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1869, to discover the decomposing body of Maggie Vail and her child. The accused? John Munroe, an architect, the lover of Maggie Vail and father of her child, who claimed he was innocent because his character would not permit him to commit such a heinous act. Komar explores the role of character in the court of law in a world before forensic science became the star witness. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
*
After I met her at CCW, Komar generously agreed to read an excerpt of my novel, Human Remains. In the second chapter, Dr. Hope Sze and her boyfriend Ryan confront a dead man, thanks to a Rottweiler named Roxy.
Komar wrote, “It's clear you are a doctor, not in a bad way.  You keep it simple and define terms were necessary - all very good.  You also do a great job of capturing the na├»ve enthusiasm of a resident - wanting to help, even in the face of a clearly deceased individual.  We've all seen (and been) overanxious eager residents that think they can bring people back to life.”
She explained that Hope shouldn’t disturb the scene and the forensic evidence, but the operator would defer to Hope’s medical expertise in resuscitating, because saving a life takes precedence over preserving evidence.
I should mention that she said the operator wouldn’t normally put Ryan on hold to debate the point, but I kept that bit in as creative license. All this to say that Komar was exceedingly generous with her time, and I am grateful to Capital Crime Writers for the opportunity.
*
Komar recently completed a writer-in-residence position at Pierre Burton House in Dawson City, Yukon, in preparation for her next book. If you follow her on Twitter, you can see some photos of dogsledding and a thermometer hitting almost -40 in both Celsius and Farenheit.
In other words, when you’re a hero, you may never stop creating adventures for yourself and your readers.

Long may she reign.

Melissa Yi is an emergency physician and award-winning writer. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
Dr. Debra Komar is on Twitter.

07 March 2017

PTSD and Human Remains

by Melissa Yi

“I hate how Miss Marple solves murders and remains completely unaffected by them,” said my friend Jessica. “I like that Hope is real.”
Dr. Hope Sze is real to me, too.
The problem is that Hope has gotten a little too real in my latest book, Human Remains.
After the hostage-taking in Stockholm Syndrome, Hope has post-traumatic stress. Which means I have a few problems, as a writer.
1. PTSD may not be compelling to read about. Hope is numb and antisocial and angry. Not the cute little pixie detective your average reader might want to get to know.
2. Hope has a lot of backstory. For starters, I have to mention the hostage-taking and the fact that she has two boyfriends, without too many spoilers.
3. Normal writer concerns: I try to set up character, setting, and a problem in the first paragraph, ideally in the first sentence. I also need to establish that she’s an Asian female physician and that the story is set in current-day Ottawa, Canada, just before Christmas. Finally, I have a clear voice for Hope.

Here are the first 201 words.

Next, I'm coding it based on these three main concerns.
You may argue about how successfully I've accomplished my goals, and how well I'm telling a story, which is the ultimate bar for a novel, but one of the things I like about writing is the problem-solving. You get more skilled, but there's always another part of the craft that needs work.

The "My name is Hope Sze" paragraph is not my first choice, because I prefer subtlety in explaining the hostage-taking backstory, but in the end, clarity and accessibility to new readers were more important than my poet's sensibility. Also, I feel like it's a tribute to Sue Grafton, because I would smile in recognition when she'd start off, "My name is Kinsey Millhone..."

I generally have to add setting in afterward. Mysteries are all about plot, to me; I already have Hope's character and voice; but especially for this one, where she works in a stem cell lab, I had to tour Dr. Bill Stanford's stem cell lab, quiz him and Dr. Lisa Julian, and still ask questions months later. Even then, Michelle Poilly, a local college science teacher, asked me pertinent questions about adding shakers to the virology lab or explaining plasmids differently.

I don't pretend to be a PTSD expert, either, but at the Writers' Police Academy last summer, I had the opportunity to meet Paul M. Smith and his service dog, Ted. Paul is a counsellor for traumatized officers and their families. Paul suffers from PTSD himself, so he has a service dog named Ted. At one point, when students surrounded Paul with questions, Ted came up to Paul, reared up on his rear legs, placed his paws on Paul’s shoulders, and looked him in the eyes, grounding him.

Maybe that's why Hope befriends a dog named Roxy in this book. I believe animals are a wonderful way to rebuild ourselves.

What about you? How do you balance all the information you have to convey with the story you must tell to hook the reader?

And how do you talk about the serious issues in the world?

MD/Ph.D. Dr. Stephen M. Stahl points out that PTSD is an increasing problem. Of the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, he estimates 1 in 1000 died, and 1 in 100 were injured, but as many as 1 in 5 ended up with a mental illness (PTSD, depression, or suicide). Twenty to thirty veterans die from suicide every day.

As writers and readers and citizens, how do we acknowledge these terrible realities, yet continue to create and shape a better world?


13 December 2016

Wrestling the Book Monster

by Melissa Yi, Patreon


“I’ve heard other writers say this: eventually you’ll struggle with a book. The plot will unravel, the characters will elude you, the theme will mishmash….
I just turned in my fourth novel, and I’m so happy to be rid of the Book Monster.”—Kate Moretti, author of The Vanishing Year

When I read Kate’s words on Writer Unboxed, my heart dropped in recognition.
Yes. I have spent over a year wrestling with one.
I never fully related to writer’s block. It’s not like I couldn’t physically write. The imagery of a single block didn’t appeal to me.
But a Book Monster? Some unknown, dripping thing rising from the depths of my subconscious swamp, its ichor and poisons hewn by my enemies, fearsome and loathsome, multi-tentacled and growing every-stronger?
Kate pointed out character and plot and author doubt problems in her excellent article. Now that I’ve finally vanquished the first draft of Human Remains, I’m going to share a few Book Monster symptoms with you, and see if any of you can relate.
How do you recognize a book monster?
How did mine get so out of control?

1. Plot? Where, where?
My plot popped and locked and waacked all over the place. I had lots of ideas, so I’d write 10,000 words with that murderer or 20,000 words with that subplot, only to change my mind the next week or seven.
I’ve always been a panster (“flying by the seat of my pants” kind of writer), because if I already know what’s going to happen, I won’t bother to write it.
After months of this, I considered plotting the book out properly instead. I also went to the Agatha Christie exhibit in Montreal and considered adhering to a strict formula like she did in And Then There Were None. Anything to stop the madness.
What finally happened was that I decided on a murderer and started writing toward that. If my mind said, Wait! Try this other murderer instead! Or Hey, you shouldn’t—, I ignored it and kept writing. No more changes. Well, some changes. But an inexorable overall structure.
Nanowrimo helped as well as hindered. I wrote 16,000 words before I stopped myself and said, No, Mel, no more words! Figure out what you’re doing with them first. But I enjoyed the feeling that the writers of the world were uniting to finish their manifestos, and it’s not a coincidence that I buckled down and finished on the last day of November.

2. No joy
Writers talk about suffering for their art.
As Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith said, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
But I used to like writing, or at least like having written. Most of the time, I still did—except when I’d stop and look at my latest manuscript chunk and say, “Wait a minute. How does that fit anywhere?” And, because I hate waste, writing over 250,000 words and knowing I was going to toss 75 percent was torture that I felt helpless to stop.
It made me not want to write. It made me want to read about Brad and Angelina instead of pounding out the words that were just going to get incinerated anyway.

3. Too much self-pressure
CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter chose Stockholm Syndrome as one of the best crime novels of the season.
I’d go to work and a nurse would say, “Where’s your next one?”
Mysterical-E published an excerpt of Stockholm Syndrome and interviewed me for their latest issue here: http://mystericale.com/current-issue/
I love it. But I also worried.
I’d strived to make every book in the series better than the last. But what if I couldn’t do it? I could already feel the Amazon reviewers filleting me and roasting me.
I felt relieved to hear Elizabeth Gilbert quote her mom as saying, “Done is better than good.” Because more and more, this Book Monster had to be done.

4. A symptom of a greater problem
One year ago, I battled back pneumonia during the book launch of Stockholm Syndrome. In retrospect, I’d never gotten physically sick for more than a few days. My body couldn’t heal up while I spent sleepless nights trying to work and write and publicize simultaneously.
Yep, I’m that doctor who was a terrible patient.
So finally I stopped and slept, and woke up and wrote. Because that is what I do. Only it came out in inefficient, convoluted bursts., so I wrote a back pain book instead. Then came back to my Book Monster, and which I called a Creative Drought at the time.
Looking back, I wonder what might have happened if I’d taken a break from my writing, the way I did from the emergency department. I’m good at powering through, don’t stop, don’t give in to fatigue or sadness or temptation. But sometimes it’s more efficient to take a rest and come back.
The trick is figuring out how to do that.

If you have a book monster, I’d like to hear about it!
’Cause misery adores company.

And also, because I have to do the second draft. But first, I’m taking a break! Partly because I just worked hideous hours in the emergency department, but also because maybe I’m learning something. Not only about writing, but about life.

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?

11 August 2015

No Plot. Mo' Problem.

by Melissa Yi

Do you like to plot your story, point by point?

Fantasy writer Tim Powers advocated this method at my Writers of the Future winners’ workshop. He outlines his novel meticulously, sells it on proposal, and then never gets writers’ block because he just follows the outline he already wrote.

Sounds perfect, right? Except I like to just run to the computer and type madly, before my kids wake up and/or I have to run to work. Sometimes, I have almost no idea what came out of my fingers, except it was up to 1000 words and I’m done for the day.
My kids need supervision.

It means I’m a pantser (as in “flying by the seat of”). I let my characters shoot off their mouths, and possibly other body parts. They run into and out of danger. It’s a lot of fun. My characters really do surprise me, and my subconscious brain comes up with a lot of bizarre plot twists.

So the good news is that I’m 66,000 words into my latest Hope Sze novel, Human Remains.

The bad news is that I haven’t decided on a plot.

For me, if I don’t have a good plot, I don’t have the backbone of my mystery. Even though Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith teach that character and setting are the keys of mystery, especially important in a series character, I just can’t get a handle on a book when I’m constantly spinning new plot points and antagonists. It’s CRAZY.

Usually, I end up punching a bunch of words out, throwing half of them in the garbage, then stitching the survivors into a slamming good story, but it takes me so much time and energy that I spend a year or longer writing each mystery and I’m wrung out by the end of it.

So I probably should plot more.

What about you? Do you like to write into the darkness, or craft each scene in advance?A lil’ bit o’ both? Or just check out some illustrious suggestions from Jan Grape, which I discovered after I’d already written this column….