Silliness

Maureen Johnson, author of Little Blue Envelopes and the very funny The Bermudez Triangle, hung out with Justine and me last Friday, and describes our day in this VERY SILLY POST.

We had a blast, but I don’t think Maureen got all her facts straight. For one thing, I don’t remember ever calling anyone “kiddo.” And I can fly a helicopter, and read lips, or at least I assume I can.

For more of Maureen’s extreme silliness, check out here next book, Devilish, which comes out September 7. It’s about a demon who shows up in 16-year-old girl form at a Catholic high school, ready to buy some souls.

September 7 . . . That’s right! The same day as The Last Days!

So many books, so little time.

Galapagos Reading

In all my perterbations about Pluto, I almost forgot about an appearance I’m doing tomorrow night as part of The Last Days month!

Here’s the scoop about the event, a night of strange and varied entertainments celebrating the release of Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Shriek: An Afterword.

It’s a big multimedia extravaganza that includes my pals Ellen Kusher and Delia Sherman. But the big event is a screening of “Shriek: The Movie,” a short film based on the novel, directed by Juha Lindroos and with an original soundtrack by legendary art-rock band The Church.

I’ll be reading from The Last Days for the first time ever.

Here’s an important note for young fans: Galapagos is a bar, and you have to be 21 to get in. (Sorry.)

It’s $7, and here’s where it is.

The Last Days is a sequel to Peeps, comes out September 7, and can be pre-ordered now.

Cthulhu Can Eat Me

John Scalzi and I have been warring for the last few months (seems like years) over the subject of whether Pluto is a planet or not.

Of course, it is not. Even the Pluto-sympathetic IAU, which is meeting this month to discuss such matters, will probably politely demote it to “dwarf planet,” “ice dwarf,” or some other humiliating category.

But in his slavish devotion to schoolchild memorization exercises, Scalzi will not give up the fight. Now he’s even impressed his charming daughter into the doomed struggle.

Watch in awe as Cthulhu eats me, Scott Westerfeld, in effigy.

Okay, I’ve avoided the subject on this blog, because it’s Last Days Month, after all. But enough is enough! Because when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one heavenly body to dissolve the astronomical bands which have connected it with another and to assume among the powers of the solar system the separate and superior station of “planet” to which the Laws of Nature entitle them, and to demote the other to the station of “ice dwarf,” a decent respect to the opinions of humankind requires that the inhabitants should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. So . . .

WHY PLUTO IS NOT A PLANET

Position


Hey, look! One of these things is not like the others. That’s right, the purple one. It’s all over the place: inside Neptune’s orbit one decade and then outside the next; topsy-turvy and crooked. Or as an astronomer might say, “Several orders of magnitude more elliptic and eccentric than the eight real planets.”

By the way, that red splodge in the middle is the four terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.

And see how neat the eight real planets are? Why are they all in a plane like that? Because they all formed from the same disk of material (known as “the accretion disk”) and are therefore all cousins. They are related.

Pluto is just a crappy piece of leftover, non-accretion-disk ice. Which brings us to . . .

Composition

Pluto’s exact composition is not known, but a third to a half of the dwarf is almost certainly composed of ice. That’s right, it’s almost equal parts rocks and water, and we have a name for rock + water objects in space: comets.

Pluto is compositionally a comet. And that’s why its orbit is incredibly eccentric. A little more eccentric, and it would be lighting up our skies as it melted away, and would be called “Tombaugh’s Comet” or something like that.

History

Now here’s where the Plutophants always get nostalgic. They think that the millions of plastic Denny’s placemats printed over the last 70 years that call Pluto a planet somehow legitimate the term. Pluto should be “grandfathered” in, or maybe we should make a special name like “minor planets” for Pluto and its numerous Kuiper Belt pals.


Image courtesy of Northwest Nature Shop. Get them while they still make ’em.

But here’s the problem with that, Plutophants: we’ve been down this road before. And your side LOST!

In 1801, Guiseppe Piazzi discovered a new “planet” called Ceres Ferdinandea. The lame last name was soon dropped, but otherwise everyone was thrilled and excited. Then a second “planet” was spotted in Ceres’ orbit, called Pallas. Then two more: Juno and Vesta.

Now, some folks immediately suggested downgrading Ceres and its buddies to non-planets, and suggested the term “asteroids.” But the Ceres-lovers refused, because planets are wonderful and pretty and Denny’s had already printed up some lovely placemats!

In 1828, a book called First Steps to Astronomy and Geography listed the planets as, “Eleven: Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Vesta, Juno, Ceres, Pallas, Jupiter, Saturn, and Herschel.” (Herschel is the old name for Uranus, changed to facilitate the snickering of generations of schoolkids.)

That’s right, we had eleven planets, and that was before Neptune or Pluto hit the scene.

From 1845 to 1851, 11 more “planets” were discovered in Ceres’ orbit. It was pretty clear to everyone that things had gotten out of hand. But the always optimistic planet-o-philes didn’t want to outright demote anyone, because that would be mean.

So they came up with the lame idea of “minor planets.”

In 1866, the Paris Observatory first used the description “petites planets” to describe the ever-more-numerous asteroids. Tellingly, Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta were “grandfathered” into the ranks of full planets at first. (I didn’t know they had Denny’s in Paris back then.)

The U.S. Naval Observatory went psycho for a few decades, using the word “asteroids” until 1868, then switching to “small planets,” then back to “asteroid” in 1892, then to “minor planets” in 1900, and at long last to “asteroids” in 1929, only a year before Pluto was discovered.

Phew. Close call there.

Other organizations used various wordings, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Denny’s-eating, planet-loving lobby had been largely defeated.

This, my friends, is exactly what will happen to Pluto. Yes, the IAU may come up with “minor planet” or “dwarf planet” or some such drivel, but as new discoveries mount, and the list of “planets” get longer and longer and more and more embarrassing, we’ll slowly stop using that word. And by the way, we’re not talking about mere dozens of planets here; some estimates put the number of significant Kuiper Belt objects in the tens of thousands. But long before we find that many, we’ll be calling Pluto what it is:

The King of the Kuiper Belt!

Which brings me to my final point . . .

Common Decency

Why would Pluto want to be a planet?

As a planet, it’s a tiny little, out-of-whack runt! As a Kuiper Belt Object, it’s a rocking big heavyweight bruiser. Okay, not quite as big as UB313, but it’s got more moons!

So as a matter of common decency, we should realize that Pluto would rather rule in the icy reaches of the Kuiper Belt than be subject to mockery in the warm glowing warmth of the inner solar system. It’s named after the god of the underworld, after all.

But the Cthulhu doll was cute.

For even more detail on the “minor planets” of the nineteenth century, written by people who (unlike Scalzi and me) actually know things, check here.

Zombie Cockroach!

In the spirit of Last Days Month, I’ve decided to dust off a few old parasite posts I’ve been meaning to do. So . . .

Meet the exoparasitoids!

Um, what? Well, do you remember toxoplasma, the beastie that lives in peoples’ brains and makes them act like cats? (See chapter 5 of Peeps for details.) Toxoplasma lives its entire life inside other animals; it’s a pure parasite, in other words.

But exoparasitoids spend most of their lives as free-living animals, flying or walking or swimming around like the rest of us. But at certain stages of life, they transform into parasites, sort of like werewolves turning from human into beast. An example of this in Peeps is the screwflies of chapter 10. They are normal flies as adults, but they grow up as parasites.

A few days ago, I was checking out Carl Zimmer’s blog and came across a post about a wasp called Ampulex compressa. Ampulex lives its life like a normal wasp, until it gets ready to lay eggs, at which point it becomes a full-fledged, zombie-cockroach-driving parasite!

Warning to the squeamish: Stop reading! Flee to Kitten War right now!

So what happens is this: when Ampulex is ready to lay an egg, it stings a cockroach on its belly, temporarily paralyzing it. Then it sticks its stinger into the roach’s brain, performing a little bit of neurosurgery. When Ampulex is done, the cockroach’s willpower has been destroyed!

It’s a zombie cockroach, a slave.

Ampulex takes it by the antenna and leads it home. The roach meekly follows, allowing itself to be sealed up inside the wasp-lair.

Do you think what happens next is pleasant? Then you would be wrong. (But Kittenwar is still available.)

Ampulex lays its egg, and when the larva hatches it eats its way into the enslaved roach, feasting on its organs. After growing into a fully formed wasp, it pops out in Alien fashion, as shown in the photo above.

Was that fun? Then tune in next week for parasitic cancer!

Plus, go buy The Last Days. Or the new paperback of Peeps!

Don’t they look pretty together?

And if you want to check out where all my parasitology is stolen from, go buy Zimmer’s book, Parasite Rex.

Last Days/First Lines

The Last Days, sequel to Peeps, comes out in exactly thirty-one days. So I hereby proclaim this Last Days Month!

We’re kicking off the festivities with a strange literary experiment. Below is a “poem” made from the first lines of every chapter of TLD, in order.

Some chapters have been censored by the Spoiler Control Board, but you still may get flickers of plot, character, and theme. Those with weak spoilage tolerances should look away now!

One explanatory note: The book has five points of view, both male and female, so it’s sort of like Midnighters. Except it’s in first person, like Peeps.

So here we go, and see if you can spot Westerfeldian first-line-of-chapter technique in action!

1. I think New York was leaking.
2. “You know what the weird thing was?”
3. The next day, Zahler and I saw our first black water.
4. The new girl was intense. And kind of hot.
5. “One of those boys was rather fetching.”
6. Pearl was glowing.
7. My dogs were acting paranormal that day, all edgy and anxious.
8. Times Square was buzzing.
9. I took the subway to Brooklyn, so Mom wouldn’t find out from Elvis.
10. Pearl was shiny, glistening, smelling of fear.
11. I got there early, just to watch.
12. Her uncovered face was radiant, shining with a brilliance that liquified me.
13. The halls of Julliard seemed wrong on that first day back to school.
14. CENSORED FOR SPOILAGE!
15. It felt weird, waiting for 1AM exactly.
16. Mozzy was taking forever.
17. I’d bought a new dress for this, and nine kinds of makeup.
18. CENSORED FOR SPOILAGE!
19. When the doorman heard our names, he didn’t bother to check the list or use his headset.
20. The noise in my body never stopped.
21-29. ALL CENSORED FOR SPOILAGE!

Hmm. That was . . . weird.

One thing is obvious: I like my first lines short and declarative. No complicated sentences, except maybe chapter 19. Of course, that’s not really a Scott thing. It’s pretty classic grab-the-reader technique, though it can look weird when all the first lines in a row like this.

Something more particular to me (and that I didn’t realize until now) is how groups of similar concepts tend to repeat close together:

1-3. “leaking” and “water”
4-5. “hot” and “fetching”
6-12. “glowing,” “shiny,” “radiant.”
7-10. “buzzing,” “edgy,” “intense”
10-13. “smelling of fear,” liquified me,” “seemed wrong”
15-16. “waiting for 1AM,” “taking forever”

That’s kind of cool. And you can sort of see the book progress in those groups, from anticipation (water dripping), to attraction (fetching and shiny), to growing intensity (buzzing), to fear (and wrongness), and then a pause before the storm (waiting, taking forever).

But thanks to the Spoiler Control Board, you didn’t get any lines from the climax of the book, so it’s hard to show what happens next. (Heh, heh.)

Anyway, I hope that makes you salivate at least a little.

“Last Days Month!” I say again.

UDPATE:
I started a mini-meme!

E. Lockhart, author of The Boyfriend List and Fly on the Wall, has posted her own first-line poem, using the first lines from her upcoming novel The Boy Book.

I haven’t read it yet (though I loved Fly on the Wall), but the first lines give you an excellent sense of the novel’s voice. Very salivating-making.

The Last Days in Kirkus

The Last Days has its first review. And it’s starred!

This is actually my sixth starred review from the always supportive and never snarky Kirkus. I won’t post the whole review, because it has spoilers galore. But I will reveal this happy-making blurb:

“Suspense, touches of humor and eminently appealing characters.”

In honor of this fine review, I will now reveal the cover! (Side by side with the new paperback version of Peeps.)

As you can see, there’s more peep-eyes action going on. And the real 3-D version has excellent embossing on the eyes and lips. Shiny.

Can’t wait for my author’s copies. (Which are currently sitting in the warehouse, under embargo until the book gets into stores. Argh.)

The Last Days comes out September 7, as does the new paperback Peeps.

Pre-order TLD now from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. (Powells doesn’t have it yet. Hmm.) You can also pre-order the paperback of Peeps!

Breaking Elmore’s Rules

There’s a blog-meme going around about Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. The Leonard Rules are pithy and fun, but I’ve found the meme oddly boring.

Why? Because everyone’s commentary about writing rules is pretty much the same: “Yes, that’s true, except when it’s not.” Or more detailed (and even more boring): “Following this rule would prevent beginning writers from making common mistakes, but many fine writers have eaten this rule for breakfast and shat gold before lunch.”

(Pardon my French on that last bit, but I spent last week in New Orleans. Mmmm . . . gumbo.)

So I thought I’d move beyond these generic comments and look specifically at how I break the Leonard Rules in my books. With examples!

Let’s start with Leonard’s opening caveat:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Of course, most writers who set down rules start with something like, “These may work for you or not.” Well, duh.

But Leonard is saying something much more interesting, that every set of rules has an agenda. That’s the whole point of rules, actually: to ingrain some sort of aesthetic into the style of your prose. Leonard’s rules are designed to allow him to “remain invisible.” That is, he doesn’t want you thinking about the writing or the sound of his voice, just the characters and their situation. This makes sense, given that he’s writing hard-boiled crime fiction, where flights of literary fancy clog up the works.

So one of things I’ll be looking at below is how much I want to remain invisible as a writer. Short answer: I’m not writing tough-talking gumshoe fiction, so I don’t want to be as invisible as Elmore Leonard. But I don’t want to be slathered across every page, either.

Another nice feature of Leonard’s rules is their explanatory notes. These tend to get left out (sort of like that “well ordered militia” bit in the Second Amendment), so I’ve included his clarifications where I think they’re important.

Okay, here we go. Note that bold is Elmore Leonard, italics are quotations from my books, and normal text is me jabbering.

Rule 1. Never open a book with weather.

Hmm . . .

The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. Uglies

Yeah, baby! I not only start with the weather; I start quarter-million-word trilogies with the weather. That’s how I roll.

But at least it’s weird weather: cat-vomit clouds! So you can already tell something funny is going on . . . probably in the point-of-view. Or as Elmore goes on to say in a well-armed-militia moment:

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

Aha. And as Uglies continues in paragraph two:

Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold.

Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.

See? I’m not even breaking Rule 1. This cat-vomit sky is in someone’s head; the sky is actually quite beautiful, but Tally’s depression turns it ugly (so to speak).

And to return to Leonard’s overall agenda, starting with this glimpse of the weather through Tally’s eyes is probably more invisible that saying, “Tally was so depressed that the sky looked like cat-spew.”

Although that would have been funny too.

Rule 2. Avoid prologues. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

Yep, that’s me. I never start my YA books with prologues. I generally start with a big action scene of some kind (crashing a party, fighting a vampire, having time freeze) and then drop back to explain what’s going on during a lull in the action.

Of course, I don’t mind info-dumps, as we call them in science fiction. In fact, the even-numbered chapters in Peeps are all info-dumps. And unless fanmail lies, readers totally love that stuff.

As Leonard goes on to quote John Steinbeck, “Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

Aha. That’s pretty much what Peeps does: it has special chapters where the parasite-related hooptedoodle lives. You can skip ahead and read all the parasite-hooptedoodle first, as some readers have told me they did, or skip past the parasite-hooptedoodle and sweep through the story first, as others prefered to do.

But here’s an interesting factoid: When I first turned in Peeps to my editors, the parasite-hooptedoodle chapters and story chapters were reversed from how they are now. That is, the first chapter (and all subsequent odd-numbered chapters) were hooptedoodle-icious. Which meant that the book started with that long description of a snail-eating parasite’s life-cycle: pure hooptedoodle prologue!

Without refrence to Elmore, my wise editors suggested that I swap them around, so that the book started with Cal fighting Sarah, his vampire-afflicted ex-girlfriend. And thus Rule 2 was followed.

It is with these small (but huge) changes that books are made better.

Okay, I’ve gone on a while here, and I’ve certainly typed the word “hooptedoddle” more times than I’d ever hoped to. So I’ll stop for today.

Next time, I’ll do Elmore’s Rules 3 and 4, those old stalwarts: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue and Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

“Oh, crap,” Scott asseverated wolfishly. “I’m in big trouble now . . . ”

But look over there! It’s the freaky yet colorful eye-stalk of a parasitized snail!

See you next week.

Toxoplasma in the News

For all you Peeps fans, the NY Times has a big article on Toxoplasma today. (That’s the cat-loving parasite in chapter 4 that changes rat and—possibly—human behavior.)

Best of all, the piece is written by Carl Zimmer, the author of Parasite Rex, the book that the non-fiction parasite chapters of Peeps are based on. It includes this memorable paragraph:

Next, the scientists observed how Toxoplasma spread through a living animal. They added a firefly gene to the parasites so that they produced a glow. When they injected the parasites into mice, a little of the light escaped from the animals. By putting the mice in a darkened box, Dr. Barragan and his colleagues could track the parasites as they spread . . .

Kewl. Glowing infected mice of the world, unite!

In honor of this event, I am posting the new paperback Peeps cover, in all its peep-eyed goodness:

Revealed at last, the source of new header for my blog! (Don’t you think that “Cal” looks a bit like a young Ewan McGregor?)

For more biological degustations, check out Carl Zimmer’s blog.

The Pleasures of Research

While everyone’s been off chatting on Westerboard.com, I have been hard at work on book 1 my airship trilogy. There are 7,500 words in the bag, thank you.

Now unlike all my previous books, this one is not set in the future or the present, but in 1914. In other words, it’s in the past, that crazy country where they talk different, think different, dress different, and eat different. Well, okay, the future of Uglies is like that too.

But here’s the thing: You can’t make up the past!

You have to do research. Argh.

Of course, a book like Peeps had some pretty cool research in it. I had to understand all manner of parasites and rats and other ickies. However, I could do something simple like get two characters to sit down in a restaurant together without heading to the library.

But let’s say I wanted to go to a restaurant in my 1914 novel . . .

What were restaurants like in 1914? Did they have waitresses back then or just male waiters? How rich did you have to be to eat in one? How much would you have to dress up? How many things would be on a menu? And would it be handwritten, printed, or spoken? Would you pay with cash? Cheque? Or would they simply send the bill around to your house later, like other tradesmen did back then?

Eek.

One of the writers of House has been meditating on this lately, and points out:

You cannot write one paragraph of a novel without knowing a shocking amount: what the inside of your character’s head is like; how dusty the street they’re walking on is; what sounds they would hear; what direction they’re walking in (refer back to your several maps of Elizabethan London); what their clothes feel like as well as look like; what shops or houses they would pass; and any number of other details that will put the reader there with you.

Read this post by her too, about how you’re never right, no matter how many experts you’ve got helping.

But don’t think that research is all bad, because it’s also a) fun, and b) a font of new ideas and storylines. For example, I’ve been compiling a list of all the Things That Can Go Wrong with a Zeppelin, and boy are there a lot!

Excellent . . . After all, Things Going Wrong is conflict, and conflict is good.

So here are a few of my current favorite research books:

Hindenburg has text and glorious paintings by John Marschall. It has lots of cool fold-out diagrams like this one, which shows the front end of an airship control car:


The full-sized version shows much more.

I’m also loving the War Department’s Airship Aerodynamics Technical Manual, which tell you all kinds of fun stuff, like how to steer a blimp around an obstacle.

Plus it has cool pictures like this one:

I also like the historical reminder that it was called the “War Department” back then, and not the “Defense Department” (like we’d never invade anybody).

Another cool book is Sky Sailors, about the men of the Royal Naval Air Service, the guys who actually crewed the first British blimps and dirigibles. It’s finally answered my questions about what the ranks would be in the airship service. You know: Captain? Commodore? Admiral? Turns out they have this wacky mix of air force and navy: Flight lieutenants and coxswains, air marshalls and riggers (yes, riggers were guys who tied knots! And fixed airbags instead of sails), and even this rank called “engine room artificer.”

Artificer! How olde worlde is that?

Anyway, I’m having a blast. And I have a feeling that this book will be illustrated . . .

Talk amongst yourselves.

New Look

No, you’re not going insane . . . This is my blog’s amazing new look!

Because we all know that the old look was lame. It was one of those generic WordPress templates, which somehow seemed cool back in the ancient days of last year when I picked it. But it was lame and blue and not befitting.

This new template rocks, though. (Thanks, Justine!)

But what is that image at the top? Well, it’s a tiny fraction of the new cover for Peeps. You see, when Peeps comes out in paperback, it’s going to be wearing a new look too. One that goes better with the semi-secret The Last Days cover that you haven’t seen yet.

It’s all very complicated. Just repeat after me: “Everything’s getting slightly better all the time.”

And speaking of The Last Days, you can order it right now on Amazon. You will receive it September 7, or perhaps sooner in that myserious way of book release dates.

That’s it, except that Specials is holding at number 9 on the NYT Children’s Chapterbook list. Let the w00ting continue!

I know it’s a bit shakey and uneven right now, but it will be lovely soon.