Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Snippet -- One Week from Launch!

From MOSAICS, beginning of Chapter 8:
“What heated argument? We brainstormed over the next budget report, that’s all. Who gave you that kind of misinformation?”

“We prefer to ask the questions, Doctor,” Satish replied.

Dr. Fredrick Lyons walked fast and in long strides. A gaudy Hawaiian tie and the neon green of the reading glasses swinging from his neck intentionally clashed with his white-shirt, black-suit attire. He had longish gray locks, a short beard trimmed close to the jaw, and shrewd eyes that sized us up impatiently, yet found the time to linger over a nice pair of legs as we strode across the curving corridor back to the office suites. He looked too wealthy not to be opinionated, and too smart to be unpretentious.

The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend Writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group on Facebook, too). Make sure you check out all Weekend Writer Warriors participants, it's a fun way to find forthcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

Aaaaaand... drum roll, please ... MOSAICS is coming out in one week! I'm so excited and have lots of great news to share:

  • MOSAICS will be at the special launch price of only $2.99 for a limited time only.
  • In conjunction, CHIMERAS will be on sale too, last sale before I take it out of Kindle select, so grab it while you can -- sale will run from Sept 7 through the 13.
  • The audio book for CHIMERAS will be available soon! I can't wait, you won't believe how good the narrator is!
  • Come by on Sept 7th for a special MOSAICS release party and get the chance to win an Amazon $25 gift card, a signed copy of MOSAICS and two Kindle copies for the next two winners. Woo-hoo!

Book Description: Dubbed the Byzantine Strangler because of the mysterious mosaic tiles he leaves at the crime scene, a new serial killer is stalking the streets of Los Angeles. Racing to decipher the code encrypted in the tiles before the killer strikes again, Detective Track Presius faces a new challenge: the "awakened" genes that make his vision and olfactory sense so sharp are now taking a toll on his life. When a new set of tiles appears in his own backyard, Track makes a chilling realization: those very same genes that are threatening his life are drawing the Byzantine Strangler closer and closer. The line between hunter and hunted has suddenly blurred. Will Track be the next piece of the mosaic puzzle?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Investigating the past: Cindy Amrhein and Ellen Lea Bachorski recount how they pieced together the life (and murders) of Polly Frisch

Today I have not just one guest but two! Cindy Amrhein was the historian of the town of Alabama, NY, from 1997 to 2007 and currently serves as the Assistant Historian in Wyoming County, NY. Ellen Lea Bachorski is the former owner of The Trading a Post, a shop in Alabama, NY, and is currently a member of the Batavia International Peace Garden. Together, Cindy and Ellen authored the true crime book Bread and Butter: the Murders of Polly Frisch, the story of one of the first women in Genesee County to ever go on trial for murder.

Bread and Butter is not your usual whodunnit because, for starters, we already know who the murder is. But don't be fooled: this is a completely different kind of investigation that keeps twisting and twisting because it's a historical investigation. Forget fingerprints and luminol: to get to the bottom of the story Ellen and Cindy spent months digging into historical archives, reading trial transcripts, and looking for news clips (and there weren't that many news clips in the nineteenth century). They had to sort out often contradictory testimony to find out who the real Polly Frisch was.

Intrigued by the idea of conducting a historical investigation, I invited Cindy and Ellen to the blog to tell us about their experience writing Bread and Butter. Welcome, Cindy and Ellen!

EEG: I'm curious about your job, Cindy: what does a historian do on a day-to-day base?

CINDY: We get genealogists in on a regular basis, of course. The office of Wyoming County Historian has been in existence since 1946, so we have built quite a collection of family files and other research material. The office has printed a quarterly publication since 1947 called Historical Wyoming, so I do a lot of research and writing for that. My favorite subject is crime, particularly murders, but I've done some articles that were fun to explore like the UFO sightings back in the 1950s and 60s.

Then there are the more unusual tasks: people will bring us in everything from Bibles to silverware they have found in recently purchased homes for us to track to see if we can find descendants for us to pass them along to. We do a lot of work on historic properties in which I get to use my skills as an abstractor to track the land backwards. Since we are part of county government, we also provide information to town or county officials on certain projects.

EEG:  Tell us about Polly: how did you come across her story and how did you have the idea about the book?

CINDY: When we were working on The Basom Post back in the early 90s, someone asked us, "Why don't you do something on Polly Frisch? She killed her family and they are buried up at Alabama Center." So we went up there and asked the locals what they knew. What we found was a lot of folklore and not many facts, so we dug deeper. We printed one article about her, if I remember, but the more we investigated, the bigger the story got, so we decided the only way to tell the story well was in a book.

ELLEN: During this time I owned and operated a small store in Basom, a hamlet within the Town of Alabama. The small printing business Cindy and I ran was called the Basom Press and our monthly newspaper, The Basom Post. During this very busy time we both had young children and at first could not fathom how any mother could be capable of murdering her husband and children. As the new information contained in old local newspapers and court documents began to accumulate, we both realized it was way too much for our small newspaper.

EEG: What I loved about your book is that it's a murder investigation done through historical records, which entails a completely different set of skills than a normal murder investigation. Tell us a bit about the process and what were some of the challenges you had to face.

ELLEN: Although we both enjoyed writing, we also had families, young children; they were our first responsibility. Second was the business, so the book just waited until the time was right to compile it. We focused on the story daily while we continued operating our business and tending to our separate families.

We spent many hours collaborating with each other with new information found in the articles of different papers during the time of her trials. Every new piece of information became our quest. We were determined to uncover the truth. At first we thought perhaps she was innocent. Once all the documents and articles surfaced, reality of her guilt became clear. Once the decision to compile our vast research into a book was made, our most challenging story began.

CINDY: As far as the story itself, the challenge was trying to find records that still existed from the 1850s. Since at the time I was the historian for the town of Alabama (in Genesee County, NY) the Genesee County Clerk allowed me access to some of the older records that aren't out in the regular public area. So I was able to go through and copy inquest files, transcripts, court motions, county receipts, affidavits, minute books, etc. The county should be commended for retaining them. The case was also covered extensively in all the local newspapers as well others out of the area. We had a lot of information to go through, and putting it in chronological order was key.

We also tracked down descendants of Rosalie and Albert Hoag, the two children that lived. We wanted any stories that got passed down through the family. The children had been taken away from Polly by relatives in different states, so they were split up. We know Albert's story that was passed on was that his mother shot them all while he hid under the bed. That was the furthest from the truth. Rosalie was a bit sympathetic to her mother at the trial, being only 7, but 14-year-old Albert had testified against Polly. What he did was basically severed his ties with his sister.

EEG: Ellen, I hear you do a lot of volunteer work in your community. Can you tell me a bit about that, and what is the Batavia Peace Garden about?

ELLEN: The Batavia Peace Garden is dedicated to the War of 1812. Batavia, NY played an important role at that time. It is located next to the Holland Land Office Museum and gift shop on Main Street. Commemorating the war of 1812, it is stop number 13 on a 600 mile trail that runs through Canada and the United States. During the war, Batavia became a rallying location when British forces burned most of the homes in Buffalo; many families came to Batavia for shelter and relocation also providing an encampment for American soldiers. Flags from 23 countries fly proudly representing the international connections of peace gardens throughout the world. For more information go to www.bataviapeace

The Friends of the Batavia Peace Garden is a non-profit organization that maintains and continues to enhance the garden. Fundraising, promoting, and educating is necessary for the growth of the garden. The perpetual care is provided entirely from volunteers and donations. I am proud to be a part of this wonderful and rewarding organization.

I’m also part of The Batavia Cemetery Association, which is also a non-profit organization. Located on Harvester Avenue in Batavia, NY it is the final resting place for many founding people of the area. William Morgan’s epitaph is also located here. He was the free mason who disappeared due to printing a book about the masons in early 1800's. Cemeteries are an important resource for documenting many types of histories. The upkeep is endless as time and weather continues on. Both these nonprofits have hard working volunteers that I enjoy volunteering with to enhance and promote the rich history of Batavia.

EEG: Cindy, I know you have more books on the burner: another non-fiction about Native Americans and a fiction book. Tell us a bit about those books and when you think they will be out to the public.

CINDY: The Native American book is called, The Right of the Soil: An Abstractor's View of Indian Land Title in New York. Although this one is being looked at by a publisher, I'm still not sure if I want to go that route or self-publish. I wrote a weekly column for a Native American newspaper in northern New York State called The Akwesasne Phoenix Sundays for 2 1/2 years, and in it I wrote a lot on Native American land rights and the theft of their land through shady means. In it I don't just look at treaties like most books on the subject, but the land itself. For example, I did a land title search on the St. Regis Indian Reservation back to 1796, and it took going to three different counties in northern NY to do it. Much of their land was conveyed illegally. Even after the newspaper ceased production I still got phone calls and emails wanting more information. What I decided to do was put all my articles in book form, expanded upon it, and add maps and other images. I hope to have it out in spring of 2015 if I decide to self-publish it.

The mystery is a book I did for NaNoWriMo called The Milk Carton Murders.  I am editing it now but I'm not quite satisfied with the ending. The very ending I like, it's the part right before that needs adjusting. My MC Dave Robertson, a seemingly average guy with an average name, is a reporter for his small town weekly newspaper. When Dave goes to cover a story on the dredging cleanup down at Wiscoy Creek after a storm, three small coffins come loose from the bank—coffins where they are not supposed to be. Pinned to the dress of each skeleton is a clipping off a milk carton of a missing child. Dave recognizes one of the pictures as a foster child that stayed at his house when he was a kid. Only problem is Dave can't remember what happened to her. Then there is this voice in his head that he always thought was normal—who doesn't talk to their self once in a while, right? But as the case progresses and he tags along after Investigator Pepper Black to get his scoop, more and more of his past comes back—along with the needling voice in his head. Add that to Dave suspecting his dad is the killer, and well, average Dave's life just got a hell of a lot more complicated.

I would like The Milk Carton Murders out sometime next year, but it depends how confident I feel about it being good enough for public consumption. Writing fiction is a heck of a lot different than writing the non-fiction I am used to. History is a lot of telling and facts. I try to make historical accounts interesting and write it like I'm sitting down and telling someone a story. Fiction is much different than that—show, don't tell. I found creating a world where people did what I wanted quite freeing, if that’s the right word. I think the plot is great, but it will need a few beta reviews and reworks until I feel it is crafted on a level I'm satisfied with before it’s put before the public for purchase. I do post 8 sentence snippets on Sundays on my blog if any of your readers want to check this story out.

EEG: Well, you already have at least one beta reader who can't wait to put her hands on the book! :-)

Thank you so much Ellen and Cindy for stopping by the blog today.

You can find Ellen on Facebook and Cindy on Facebook, Blogger, and Twitter.
Bread and Butter: the Murders of Polly Frisch is available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and iBooks.

Ellen (left) and Cindy (right)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Milky Way Galore, 2014 edition

Milky Way Galore is one of my most popular posts from last year -- my first attempt at Milky Way photography. This year I've been eagerly waiting to reproduce the same results but, alas, monsoon season has always been in the way (which is actually a good thing, we need the rain around here!).

Until last night.

Prints available here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

From smashing particles to post-apocalyptic fiction: Massimo Marino talks about his award winning trilogy, Daimones

You know I always get excited when I meet a fellow scientist who's also a fiction writer, but this time I have one more thing to be excited about: today's guest is Italian, writes in English, and has lived on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Massimo Marino was born and raised in Sicily, got his PhD in physics and worked for 10 years at CERN and 8 at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California. His debut novel Daimones received the 2012 PRG Reviewer's Choice Award in science fiction, was awarded with the Hall of Fame - Best Science Fiction by Quality Reads UK, is a 2014 National Indie Excellence® Awards finalist.

The sequel to Daimones, Once Humans, is a 2014 Readers Favorite Book Award finalist, like my Chimeras, which is how I came across Massimo's amazing work. Together with the third volume The Rise of the Phoenix, Massimo's Daimones Trilogy is a post-apocalyptic story where one of the dominant races in the galaxy culls the human race for inscrutable reasons.

Please welcome Massimo Marino to the blog today.

EEG:  I usually start discussing the science: you spent many years working at CERN. How did you enjoy working there? Has that experience resurfaced (in one form or the other) in your stories?

MM: CERN is one of the ultimate destinations for physicist and researchers. It’s the kind of place where it’s common to sip a coffee in the morning in the same hall as three or four Nobel Prizes in Physics. My time spent in fundamental research is the most rewarding, almost close to writing :)
CERN appears in the first novel, “Daimones”, as one of the locations explored by the survivors, and has a role in the plot that the discerning reader will be able to discover.

The international environment that one breathes every day at CERN gives me lots of material for developing characters; the diversity in human types is so large that I have material to describe aliens’ minds and their twisted logic as well ;) Some of those physicist ‘live’ on a different sensorial dimension.

My scientific background helps in creating future technology and envision alien scientific breakthroughs that have a solid scientific ground and are within what could become reality in due time. I don’t like much the kind of science fiction where fantasy and lack of scientific rigour voids a story of all its value and potential. Readers' belief is to be challenged, not ignored or ridiculed.

EEG: How long have you been writing fiction?

MM: Probably since I’ve been able to hold a pencil in my toddler's hands. My dad and older brother were into science fiction. I grew up, when allowed to read those books, with the greatest names in the genre. Concerning the seed for writing, the fault lies on the “Astounding Stories” covers. For years I could only lurk at those pictures and imagine what stories might arise from them or lead to that conclusions. The next step of putting them on paper was little enough for a child to exercise his imagination and hone his skills.

EEG: How does science inspire and/or shape your writing?

MM: A lot. All I conceive and invent — as technology — is a possible consequence from the extrapolation of our current scientific knowledge. In addition, I happen to befriend other scientists in different branches. When in doubt, I ask them. For example, in “Once Humans” — finalist at the 2014 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards for Science Fiction — I have (induced) brain tumors as part of the plot. I entertained lots of discussions with an oncologist friend of mine, and she has provided me with some leading edge papers on the subject.

EEG: What about the fact that you've lived in so many different countries -- how does that affect your writing?

MM: It has changed and affected me as a person, thus as a writer as well. Accepting diversity, embracing cultural shocks — rather than rejecting them — learning languages, traditions (even culinary), allows to open your heart and mind. And these last are like umbrellas: they work at their best when they’re open.

EEG: Have you considered writing any other fiction genre besides science fiction?

MM: I did, as an exercise in style. There’s a collection of short stories, crime dramas and horror little tales, that have encountered the favour of the readers. Some discovered me through those.

EEG: What are you currently working on?

MM: I’m writing my fourth novel. The galaxy that resulted from the events described in the “Daimones Trilogy” is in turmoil: different, competing forces are in place, and the relative peace enjoys only an unstable equilibrium. The novel — per se — is not a fourth book in the trilogy, but readers of the trilogy will find themselves in a familiar ground.

It will be a YA sci-fi tale, and the themes I explore in it are Law and Order, repression for security, racial tensions, and love between two young members of different races. It’s about the reasons of the heart vs the diktats of the brain. The struggle between what you *feel* you must do, and what you *must* do because of how you feel.

EEG: Do you ever write in Italian?

MM: No, I don't. My stories and dialogues are born in English. In fact, I had "Daimones" professionally translated and the Italian edition should be release in September.

EEG: That's exciting! Thank you for being with us today, Massimo.

You can find out more about Massimo on his webpage, his Amazon Author page, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sunday Snippet: MOSAICS

From MOSAICS, end of Chapter 1:
“Shit happens, Track. Never forget that.”
“Hard to forget on days like this.”
I rolled down the window and let cool air blow in my face. The freeway droned in the distance, as another night descended upon Los Angeles. Another murder, another killer on the loose.
It was June 2009, the beginning of summer.
Killing season had just started.

The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend Writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group on Facebook, too). Make sure you check out all Weekend Writer Warriors participants, it's a fun way to find forthcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

MOSAICS, the second in a detective thriller series featuring LAPD Detective Track Presius, is slated for publication on September 8. I'm planning a giveaway with lots of freebies on the release day, so, to make sure you don't miss all the fun, sign up for my newsletter and download a free desktop wallpaper as a thank you for subscribing.

The first book, CHIMERAS, is now available from Amazon.

Book Description: Dubbed the Byzantine Strangler because of the mysterious mosaic tiles he leaves at the crime scene, a new serial killer is stalking the streets of Los Angeles. Racing to decipher the code encrypted in the tiles before the killer strikes again, Detective Track Presius faces a new challenge: the "awakened" genes that make his vision and olfactory sense so sharp are now taking a toll on his life. When a new set of tiles appears in his own backyard, Track makes a chilling realization: those very same genes that are threatening his life are drawing the Byzantine Strangler closer and closer. The line between hunter and hunted has suddenly blurred. Will Track be the next piece of the mosaic puzzle?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Enhancement: Anthony J. Melchiorri envisions a world of renegade biohackers and the powers to fight them

My guest today is another author who, like me, is fascinated by DNA. And that's not just a coincidence: Anthony Melchiorri is a bioengineer working on tissue engineered blood vessels for children with congenital heart defects. When he's not busy with his research and PhD dissertation, Anthony writes. His first book, Enhancement is a fast-paced, near-future thriller about genetic engineering, organized crime, and the abuse of advanced technology. And now Anthony has two more books coming up, The Human Forged and The God Organ, both near-future science fictions that explore the consequences of advanced biotechnologies and the improper use of DNA.

Welcome to Chimeras, Anthony!

EEG: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself: I know you are pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering. Can you tell us more specifically what you're working on?

AJM: In one sentence, I’m developing a method of 3D printing custom tissue engineering scaffolds for children born with heart defects.

Heart defects, or congenital heart disease, is the most common form of birth defects worldwide. Many of these defects require surgery to restore normal blood flow, which is absolutely essential to a child’s growth and well-being. In cases where surgeons must correct the anatomy of a patient, they often are forced to use grafts, or artificial blood vessels, that are made from a limited array of sizes and shapes. This means that the surgeon must cut and shape a graft (or more than one) while the child is on the operating table. Plus, the grafts that are currently used in these surgeries are made from materials that do not grow with the patient. This means that the grafts must be replaced as the child’s body changes and grows. Not to mention, these grafts used today often cause blood clotting or calcification, which can lead to more complications!

So, my work addresses these challenges in two ways.

First, we are using 3D printing to create custom grafts suitable for a patient’s specific needs. This means that we can take a medical image of the patient using commonly used techniques like MRI or CT scans. From that computer image, we can make a computer model of a custom implantable graft for the patient. That graft will be unique to the child and designed specifically for them, eliminating the time a surgeon needs to decide how to address the heart defect.

Second, the big development in my research is the material we are using to construct these grafts. It is very difficult to print a material that can withstand all the forces and motions of a pumping heart. Not to mention, we have to make sure that the material is soft and flexible—and, of course, it must be able to be 3D printed. To add to our list of challenges, we wanted to design a material that biodegrades over time. That means our graft will encourage the patient’s own tissue to grow over the implant. Over time, our 3D printed implant will disappear and be replaced entirely with the patient’s own tissue. No more implant! The child is left with only their own cells which should adapt as their body grows. This, in theory, eliminates many of the challenges associated with the permanent grafts used today.

That was long but I hope it all makes sense!

EEG: Your latest release, Enhancement, is set in the future and deals with "black market genetics." Tell us about the premise behind the book.

AJM: Genetic-based therapies are commonplace. But not everyone is satisfied with using genetic-based technologies as the medicine. I think we often dream about a future, especially in science fiction, where we can easily modify our bodies with a simple injection of viral vectors, nanoparticles, or what have you loaded with new genetic material. We dream of superhuman strength and stamina, improving our cognitive capabilities, or maybe just keeping our skin free from wrinkles.

Of course, anything related to medical devices (including toothbrushes!) are regulated by the FDA. That means you need sometimes decades of research and millions of dollars just to get a new medical-related product to the market.

Some people aren’t willing to wait that long. Christopher Morgan, an enterprising bioengineer, tries to jump on the underground market of illegal genetic enhancements. But his forays land him behind bars. He thinks he’s learned his lesson until someone else from the world of black market enhancements places a hit on Chris’s head. Chris has to figure out why someone wants him dead and finds that he can’t escape the world of black market DNA as easily as he once thought.

EEG:  Do you see any of the issues you deal in the book becoming a reality in a few decades?

AJM: I think it’s entirely possible that we’ll see renegade biohackers messing with genetic enhancements just like skilled computer hackers exist today. So much of medical research is available through the internet. Everything can be accessed, from experimental methods to gene sequencing information. And it’s not just this availability of information that makes this a reality. There’s been a small, but increasing movement of do-it-yourself bio-research with the decreasing price and increasing availability of discount laboratory equipment and supplies. It might sound silly but it’s true. (There are a couple books on the subject by Marcus Wohlsen that cover the subject.) The “biohacking/biopunk” movement is relatively small, but so was the community of computer software and hardware developers just decades ago.

So, I think we’ll have plenty of capable people interested in do-it-yourself research for fun or for noble causes. But there will undoubtedly be people looking to make a mint through whatever means necessary. Or they might just be out to cause trouble.

EEG: Through your field, you get to see state of the art medical advancements and technology. What amazes you the most of such technology and what, instead, scares you the most (meaning: what if it gets in the wrong hands, etc.)?

AJM: One of the most amazing medical technologies that I’ve seen in used today is the combination of medical imaging and 3D printing. A couple of collaborator’s at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC recently used high-resolution medical imaging to visualize the internal organs of a set of conjoined twins. Amazingly, they used these astounding images to create a 3D model of the infants and their entangled organs. They 3D printed these intricate models like stackable LEGOs. Using these models to guide them, the team of physicians and surgeons planned out their surgery. The separation was a huge success.

While my currents works focus on genetic enhancements, I think a more frightening technology related to the bio-punk movement is bio-terrorism. If synthetic biology really takes off, it could be possible for a renegade at-home “researcher” to engineer, for example, a deadly, contagious virus.

EEG: What's your next writing project?

AJM: I’m about ready to release two new novels. One is set to release in early September. The Human Forged, follows an ex-soldier who is abducted and imprisoned in an off-shore medical research facility. The only person that can help him is someone he never knew existed—his clone. This book is more of a sci-fi action/adventure novel. Another, will be released at the end of September/early October. The God Organ is a near-future medical thriller based in Chicago. It’s centered on the LyfeGen Sustain, an artificial organ designed to give its users virtual immortality. Instead, its owners are dying. The inventor of the organ, Preston Carter, must figure out why before the organ kills him too. The novel involves elements of conspiracy and financial thrillers with biotechnological based science fiction. Besides those two upcoming releases, I’m currently working on the second book in the Black Market DNA series. This one incorporates the fear of engineered diseases I was talking about earlier!

EEG: Wow, between your PhD and your forthcoming book releases, you sure are busy! :-) Best of luck to you and thanks so much for visiting Chimeras today!

AJM: Thanks so much for having me on the blog.

You can find Anthony on Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for his newsletter to make sure you won't miss the launch of his forthcoming books.

Monday, August 18, 2014

When the "cure" is only the beginning: author Deirdre Gould's talks about war, guilt, and the inspiration behind her books

There are many zombie and post-apocalyptic books out there, yet very few ask the following questions: "How do people live with each other after doing horrendous things to each other?" Especially when those "horrendous things" weren't meant, as if, for example, enforced by a disease. What if the "zombies" were cured and suddenly realized they had killed and eaten other human beings?

Author Deirdre Gould addresses these and many other questions in her books After the Cure and The Cured. Deirdre is an anthropologist whose novels were inspired by "a severe addiction to Post-apocalyptic literature combined with a lifetime of a very rural existence, first in central Maine and now in northern Idaho," as she herself states in her biography. And, also quoting from her bio, she says: "Though fiction can never come close to the reality of living with atrocity, it can help us ask important questions about our world and our treatment of each other." I was so intrigued by these ideas that, after buying Deirdre's book, I knew I had to have her here on Chimeras for an interview.

EEG: Welcome Deirdre! Let's start from your background: what prompted you to study anthropology and how does this inspire your stories?

DG: I studied anthropology because writing, husband and kids weren't part of THE PLAN (you know, the one you think your whole life is going to follow perfectly). I went to college to study war. Not how to fight it and not the history of war, but why we as a species seem to have a perpetual need to fight. And not the way an animal fights. We fight over the same things that animals do: territory, mates, and resources, though we dress it up in more complicated reasons. But we take it farther than other animals. Most animal fights don't end in death (some will, but most don't). One animal capitulates and to the victor go the spoils. And the fight is done. We don't do that. Our wars cost more. We're cruel to one another, we do terrible, terrible thing to the losers in war, even today. Enslavement, torture, genocide. And I wanted to know why. I wanted to know why so I could help stop it. I'm not crazy and I'm not isolated- some colleges even have Peace and Conflict Studies majors. Most of these recommend political science classes as their core. But during my freshman year I happened to take an anthropology class on Postmodernism and Development (which is a fancy way of saying that because of terrible things like slavery and war and colonialism in the past, some countries are at seemingly permanent disadvantages to others) and it struck me that studying man as a species, how we act and why we think the way that we do both as individuals and as societies was going to get me much farther in understanding war than any obscure law on international trade ship flags ever would. That's not to discount international law and its importance, it's a vital tool in ending and preventing wars. But anthropology was like studying the face behind the mask of government, the why instead of the how.

Obviously, anthropology and warfare are heavily present in my stories and in my own reading lists. It colors everything from how my characters think and act to their societal setting and the long running themes of all my stories (even the children's book!) though a lot of the time it's more of an unconscious way of exploring those things than something I set out to do (I try not to be preachy).

EEG: Your book's premise is novel and fascinating: a cure has been found. For most books, this would be the ending. Yet you take it as the beginning point and ask the question: "What now?" When did you get the idea and how did it evolve into After the Cure?

DG: After the Cure started as a mash up of me reading too many zombie books and studying warfare as mentioned above. I was on the gazillion and first zombie novel I'd read (I love em, all sorts, can't get enough) and it struck me that of all the causes of zombieism, I hadn't read any that started with a bacteria. Viruses, chemical spills, radioactivity, weird signals, all kinds of stuff, but no bacteria. And I started to wonder why. It struck me that there is no cure for a virus. Vaccines, yes, cures, no. But a bacteria could have a cure. And I thought, what would a place that had cured zombies look like? (this was before In the Flesh by the way so I had no guide!) The story would have to have certain rules: 1. the "zombies" couldn't be undead, just normal people that got sick, 2. it had to be the sickness that caused the violence, not people's will, and 3. I wanted my zombies to be able to remember. Without that third rule, the story would become a dystopia, sure, the healthy people would never trust the ex-zombies and would treat them as second class at best. And without memory it lacked what real war sometimes also lacks: Guilt. With a massive "G" Because this world would be very much like a country that had been at war and had certain groups commit atrocities during that war. Think Germany after World War II, Rwanda, Serbia and Croatia, Cambodia, the U.S. after slavery and forcibly confining Native Americans to reservations. These people who had done terrible things, for the most part, went back to their daily lives afterward, with their victims as their neighbors. And that is both fascinating and maddening to me. So I got to arrange a little Karmic justice and complicate things even a little more. The ex-zombies in After the Cure remember, whether they want to or not, both what they have done while they were ill (which in many cases included killing and consuming loved ones) and what has been done to them (being hunted or in Henry's case in the next book, The Cured, being used as a guard dog or for other purposes by healthy people). Unlike some real atrocities, nobody in this world is innocent. The innocents are long dead. Everyone has killed or thieved or left someone else to die in order to survive. And the memory is what makes them accountable to each other. Sure, the ex-zombies are still treated as semi-second class, but they aren't hunted down and an uneasy peace exists, at least within the City. And absolutely everyone is walking around with this massive weight of guilt for what they have done, because the memory still exists. They can't deny what's happened. There are witnesses. And the fact that everyone is involved makes those witnesses undeniable and undismissable. Of course, this is fiction and no fiction can ever come close to what people have actually suffered in the world, but maybe it can help people think about how personal guilt can perhaps lead to healing, about the impact of war, and especially about blame. At least, I hope it does.

EEG: What's next in the series? How many books do you have planned?

DG: The next book in the series will be called Kríses and is the third book in what is planned to be a five book total. It will introduce a few new people but readers will also see a few familiar faces from After the Cure as well. I'm working hard at it right now!

EEG: You've also written a children's book. What was the inspiration behind The Moon Polisher's Apprentice?

DG: The Moon Polisher's Apprentice is completely due to my daughter, Laura. The Moth Queen is the first of four parts. I needed something to escape from the grim post-apocalyptic stuff I was writing too, so this is a nice change of pace :) I wanted something that would give her something to reach for as an early reader but would also be entertaining when she was older. She wanted a "real" book so I worked very hard to make it something that would appeal to others as well. It's about a little girl who has to save four versions of the moon from thieves. The next part will be The Mist Pirates and I will be working on it as a break after Kríses.

EEG: Ooh, I love those titles! What else are you working on besides the next installment in After the Cure?

DG: I just finished a story for the Robot Chronicles and a part of a collaborative story for a box set, and aside from The Moon Polisher's Apprentice episodes, that's probably all I will schedule myself for besides the Cure books this year. I do have ideas percolating away, so if I get a chance to work on things between, I will be doodling away on those, but probably nothing serious yet. Once all the kids are in school, I will hopefully be able to be more ambitious!

EEG: Oh, yes. I too have been waiting for school to start ever since the beginning of summer! ;-) Best of luck with all your writing and thank you for sharing your thoughts on wars, guilt, blame and human nature.

DG: Thanks for inviting me to do this Elena!

To connect with Deirdre Gould and learn about her forthcoming books, follow her on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A mosaic vaccine that could potentially protect from different ebola strains

Disclaimer: The mosaic vaccine paper discussed in this article is from my own group and overlaps with some of the research I do. 

I'm sure you've been following the latest news about the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa.
"The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the world's deadliest to date and the World Health Organization has declared an international health emergency as more than 1,000 people have died of the virus in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria this year." [Source: BBC News]
The ebola virus was first described in 1976, with outbreaks reported starting from 1967 [3]. It's part of the Filovirus family and its natural reservoir is believed to be fruit bats, though there is evidence that it could be wider than we think. In fact, ebola can infect other animals like monkeys and pigs. Because the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids and it can survive for a few days after the host's death, it can be easily spread through the butchering and consumption of bushmeat.

You've probably heard from the news that two infected Americans were treated with "serum". Some headlines even dubbed it a "secret serum." The serum is actually no secret and has been used not just for ebola but also for other viruses like RSV [1]. The treatment, called passive transfer of antibodies (or antibody serum), is based on the transfer of antibody serum from one organism to another. The idea behind it is that the immune system of a person previously exposed to the virus has developed antibodies that can help other immunologically naive patients fight the infection. For the ebola virus, the therapy is still in the experimental phase and, up to these two patients, had only been tested in animals.

There are several vaccines currently being tested, each one at various experimental phases. Friedrich et al. [1] list a nice summary of all the current testing in their review. The one they do not mention in their review is a mosaic vaccine being developed by my group, which is based on ideas originally designed for an HIV vaccine.

What is a mosaic vaccine?

A vaccine is an attenuated form of a virus. Even though unable to start a full infection, when injected into the body, the attenuated virus is detected by the immune system, which can then mount the appropriate response and "create" neutralizing antibodies. Typically, the attenuated virus is created from the natural virus found in organisms.

And then came HIV and baffled everyone.

The problem with HIV is that every single HIV-infected person has a different virus. In order to protect from every possible infection, one would need to put into a vaccine the over half a million genetically distinct circulating strains. Clearly, that's not possible. How do you protect people from a viral population that's so diverse? Natural strains are no longer sufficient. You have to come up with clever ways to 'summarize' the whole population of viruses with just 2-3 viral strains.

That's when computers come in handy: the mosaic vaccine is a vaccine created in silico. Suppose you want to create one genetic sequence that "summarizes" all the genetic variants found in a population of 100 strains. The algorithm that creates the mosaic starts from the 100 strains and it literally reshuffles them bit by bit. The "bits" are not cut out randomly but in a way that, when reassembled in a full genome, the proteins are still functional and working. In other words, you want to make sure that after the reshuffling you still have functioning viruses. You repeat the reshuffling for a few times and at the end of the iterations you pick the one strain that best represents the original pool of 100 genomes.

HIV-1 mosaic vaccines have given great results in guinea pigs and monkeys. But what would be the advantage of using them for ebola?

If you are familiar with phylogenetics, you will certainly object that the two viruses (HIV and ebola) are quite different: while HIV spreads out in a star-like fashion (which translates into the fact that no two individuals have the same virus), ebola evolves more like the flu, with new emerging viruses causing new outbreaks. So, why would the mosaic vaccine help with ebola?
"While the techniques used here are very similar to those used for HIV-1 mosaic vaccine design, a pattern of repeated introductions of the filoviruses into humans (and primates generally) gives a crucial difference from HIV-1. HIV-1 shows great diversity within the pandemic, but that diversity has developed continuously, leaving intermediate isolates in its wake. In contrast, known filovirus diversity has episodically increased as new outbreaks are found to result from novel viruses, lacking intermediates." [3]
The fact that the ebola virus "lacks intermediates" seems to indicate that there are reservoirs that we don't know of where the virus accumulates diversity. This is worrisome: we not only need to protect from the current outbreaks, but also be prepared for new viruses that might emerge in the future. In [3], Fenimore et al show how the mosaic algorithm can be readapted from HIV to ebola, accounting for the evolutionary differences between the two viruses.

A mosaic vaccine would protect from all ebola subspecies and also against new strains that could potentially develop from the current outbreaks. The problem with ebola is that its reservoir could be wider than we think. The viral diversity found in bats has not matched the diversity of the ebola strains found in humans. So, where are the new viruses coming from? There are likely pockets of diversity that come from reservoirs we don't know of.
"The implication is that a vaccine against the filoviruses should strive for good coverage of common epitopes from the maximum number of types and strains currently available, in the hope that future outbreaks will retain these elements, so the vaccine will still be effective when challenged by a novel strain in a new outbreak." [3]
The authors tested the ebola mosaic vaccine on a mouse model and compared it with a vaccine created with a single natural strain from Zaire. All vaccinated mice in either group (mosaic or natural) survived the challenge. The natural strain vaccine provided 82.8% coverage of other Zaire strains, but only 14.0% coverage of non-Zaire strains. On the other hand, the single mosaic vaccine provided 54.7% coverage of other Zaire strains (still sufficient to protect the mice from infection) and 23.2% coverage of non-Zaire ebola virus strains, proving that a mosaic can indeed improve protection against different subtypes. Furthermore, comparing a cocktail of a two-mosaic vaccine with a two-protein natural cocktail and a vaccine that was previously tested in macaques (Hensley et al., 2010), the mosaic cocktail achieved the highest coverage.

[1] Friedrich BM, Trefry JC, Biggins JE, Hensley LE, Honko AN, Smith DR, & Olinger GG (2012). Potential vaccines and post-exposure treatments for filovirus infections. Viruses, 4 (9), 1619-50 PMID: 23170176

[2] Fischer W, Perkins S, Theiler J, Bhattacharya T, Yusim K, Funkhouser R, Kuiken C, Haynes B, Letvin NL, Walker BD, Hahn BH, & Korber BT (2007). Polyvalent vaccines for optimal coverage of potential T-cell epitopes in global HIV-1 variants. Nature medicine, 13 (1), 100-6 PMID: 17187074

[3] Fenimore PW, Muhammad MA, Fischer WM, Foley BT, Bakken RR, Thurmond JR, Yusim K, Yoon H, Parker M, Hart MK, Dye JM, Korber B, & Kuiken C (2012). Designing and testing broadly-protective filoviral vaccines optimized for cytotoxic T-lymphocyte epitope coverage. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23056184

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Weekend Writing Warriors: this Sunday's MOSAICS snippet

From MOSAICS, Chapter 18:
“You think too much,” Satish said.
I peeled the label of my Corona off the bottle. “Maybe.”
He wobbled his head. “It’s okay. You think too much, you screw your own life. You think too little, you screw everybody else’s life.”
“What a philosopher you are, Satish.”
The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group on Facebook, too). Make sure you check out all Weekend writer Warriors participants, it's a fun way to find forthcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

MOSAICS, the second in a detective thriller series featuring LAPD Detective Track Presius, is now available for preorder! I'm planning a giveaway with lots of freebies on the release day, so, to make sure you don't miss all the fun, sign up for my newsletter and download a free desktop wallpaper as a thank you for subscribing.

The first book, CHIMERAS, is now available from Amazon.

Book Description: Dubbed the Byzantine Strangler because of the mysterious mosaic tiles he leaves at the crime scene, a new serial killer is stalking the streets of Los Angeles. Racing to decipher the code encrypted in the tiles before the killer strikes again, Detective Track Presius faces a new challenge: the "awakened" genes that make his vision and olfactory sense so sharp are now taking a toll on his life. When a new set of tiles appears in his own backyard, Track makes a chilling realization: those very same genes that are threatening his life are drawing the Byzantine Strangler closer and closer. The line between hunter and hunted has suddenly blurred. Will Track be the next piece of the mosaic puzzle?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"It's in post that you can bring out your true vision": award-winning photographer " talks about his work, his passion, and the true value of post-processing

"Eternal Flux" © Sairam Sundaresan

A couple of weeks ago I posted a pseudo-tutorial on textures and said how textures can turn a landscape shot into a "story-telling" shot by evoking a different set of emotions. This reminded me a of a great photographer I met through G+, Sairam Sundaresan, and his G+ mentorship titled Storytelling Landscape Photography.

Sairam's work is outstanding and mind-blowing, and if you haven't seen it already, you should. Last year, Sairam won 12 Honorary Mentions at the prestigious International Photography Awards, and this year he was just recently awarded First place in the PX3 2014 contest in the Nature/sunset category with his image "Apocalypse". That's why I'm so excited to have Sairam here at the blog today, to share a few tips and secrets about his work. Welcome, Sairam!

"Apocalypse" © Sairam Sundaresan

EEG: Tell us a bit about your background and how photography has become your passion.

SS: Well, I'm basically an engineer by day and a photographer by night. Growing up by the coast, I'd often visit the beach. The cool waves, the colorful sky, and the glowing sand used to excite me every single time I went there. My parents had a nice kodak camera when I was a kid, and I used to play around with that. Given that it was a film camera, I'd have to be careful with how many shots I took before a new roll was needed (I ended up using a lot of it!). Rest assured all the family portraits I took had the background landscape in sharp focus and my family all blurry. Little did I know then that I would pursue landscape photography as a serious passion. In college, all my friends jumped onto the DSLR bandwagon. I didn't quite know what the fuss was about, but I saw their pictures and wondered how they managed to get such high quality images. Without a second thought, I invested in a Canon Rebel Xs, and started pressing all the buttons on it. At first, all I did was shoot in one of the auto modes. While the pictures I took looked nice, I didn't quite feel happy about them. There wasn't this sense of "creation". One fine day in late 2011, I decided to switch to manual mode, and there started the journey. I made a ton of mistakes, but never stopped shooting. I used to pore through blogs, videos, and books on photography and glean as much as I could. Somehow, reading was never as good a teacher as actually going out there and shooting. While looking through my collection of images, I realized that most of my subjects knowingly or unknowingly belonged to the natural world. Fast forward three years, and I have never felt more excited about shooting my next landscape image. I guess nature gives me a sense of peace. When I am out shooting in the wilderness, there's a sense of connection that I experience with the whole world that I quite don't find anywhere else. Alright, I'll stop now before this becomes a novel.

EEG: When you set off shooting, how do you choose the perfect spot? In other words, what factors come into play: angle, light, framing ... ?

SS: I strongly believe in preparation. Mother nature is extremely talented at throwing curve balls at you, so the more prepared you are, the more you can embrace the moment and capture what you experience. With the evolution of technology, we've been blessed with several tools that help us prepare and plan way ahead. If I'm visiting a spot I've been to many times, I first focus on weather conditions. Natural light changes dramatically based on weather, and I try to pre-visualize what kind of light I may have at the scene based on the weather. Say it's the coast that I'm going out to shoot. I look at the tide charts. High tide and low tide offer completely different opportunities. By knowing how the tide would behave, you can have a sense of opportunities that will be available for you. For example, in low tide, you could have the possibility of reflective sand, since the water washes through the sand and recedes. This allows for symmetric compositions where the sky can be seen in the sand. Next, I look at the google maps for directions. If I had a nickel for every time I've lost my way to a scene, I'd be richer than Warren Buffet. Knowing where to park, how much traffic there will be and most importantly how to get to the place will save you valuable time that can be better invested in searching for good compositions. Now if it's a place I've not been to before, I search online for images of that place to see what opportunities are available. I don't try to "learn" compositions from these images that I could use at the scene, but rather get a sense of light direction, foreground elements, etc. I also look at google maps to see how the terrain is to find out more opportunities. At the scene, I like to take my time to find nice compositional elements to incorporate into the shot, so I usually get there ahead of time. Once I've found some interesting opportunities, I wait for the right light. Without good light, even great compositions fall flat. I like to find some elements that tie everything in my shot together. It may be things like colors reflected in the foreground, or shapes that the clouds and the foreground elements share and so on. Most importantly, I believe it's important to keep an open mind while shooting and embrace any opportunity that comes your way. Trust your gut. If there's something that made you stop in your tracks and take notice, there's probably something worth shooting there.

"Shine on You Crazy Diamond" © Sairam Sundaresan

EEG: Tell us about the G+ mentorship. I love the idea of story-telling through landscape photography: how do you go about doing that?

SS: Google+ has been a real blessing for me. I've been able to connect with so many world class artists and learn from them. It's a platform where inspiration is available for free. One such artist whom I owe a lot to is Robin Griggs Woods. I got the chance to participate in her mentorship at G+ and my eyes were opened. What really touched me was the fact that Robin taught so many amazing things for free. Look around anywhere else for this kind of knowledge and you'd be asked to pay out big bucks. I felt it was time for me to give back to this nurturing community, and that's when the idea of the "Storytelling Landscape Photography" mentorship came about. I approached Robin with this idea, and she graciously accepted my request to teach. With her guidance, I prepared a 12 week program which covered things from basics to a little more advanced tools in landscape photography. I wanted to make this knowledge available to anyone who was interested, and I didn't want people to go through the same "Search and hit a brick wall" routine that I went through. I put out a post on G+ announcing this mentorship, and nearly 100 people signed up. I had a really hard time culling down the list to 27 people. I also had the help of some amazing friends I "met" during Robin's mentorship in running the actual mentorship. They'd comment, inspire and help out the "mentees" when I wasn't there. In the end, I ended up learning a lot from these amazing people, and they inspired me and my work in a big way. The goal of the mentorship was to provide each participant with the tools to tell a compelling story. Without a story (literally or in a more abstract sense), a landscape image wouldn't have much visual value. I'm delighted to have been able to offer something small back to the community, and hope to offer it again in the near future.

EEG: What do you value more, in-camera work or post-processing? (I'm guessing it's a mix of both.)

SS: You guessed right! :) It's definitely a mix of both. I'd add one more thing to it, "Vision." A great image is an equal combination of Vision, technique in the field and post processing. Knowing what you want to shoot, pre-visualizing an idea really helps focus your energies in the field. Developing a vision is probably more difficult than actually shooting, and processing an image. With the right vision, it's important to capture the scene in the way that will best bring out this vision. For this, proper technique is essential. Ensuring the image is well focused, properly exposed, and has a powerful composition all give you something worth working on in post. Finally, post-processing is just as important as technique. A lot of people say, "I believe in Straight out of Camera shots." Even there, the camera actually does the post processing for you before it saves the jpegs. I really feel that it's in post that you can bring out your true vision of the scene. Learning good post processing can make a good image a great image provided the RAW file you started off with had the first two elements I spoke of. To conclude, I'd like to show viewers how a place 'feels' like and not how it 'looks' like.

EEG: I really love that, the "feels like" rather than "looks like." That's exactly where the creativity comes in, otherwise the camera would be a mere "recorder", instead it's a medium, just like oil paints and watercolors.

Thanks so much for being with us on the blog today, Sairam!

SS: Thanks a bunch for interviewing me Elena!

Check out Sairam's portfolio for more outstanding eye candy, and don't forget to add him to your circles if you're interested in his next G+ mentorship.

Wishing Well © Sairam Sundaresan
Eye of Mordor © Sairam Sundaresan
"All Roads Lead Home" © Sairam Sundaresan
Big Bay Boom © Sairam Sundaresan

Friday, August 8, 2014

Cutting dependence on technology: bestselling author Michael Bunker talks about his life off the grid and his upcoming webinar, "Indie Book Launch Secrets"

Today's guest on CHIMERAS is an amazing person, besides an acclaimed indie author, and to prove it to you, I'll start quoting his intro on his website: "Author, Homesteader, Reasonable Man." Michael Bunker is the bestselling author of WICK and Pennsylvania, besides a number of other books, both fiction and non-fiction. Michael and his wife and four children have been living "off the grid" since 2005 and so, when I contacted him for an interview, I was interested in learning more not just about Michael's books, but also about his life and choices. What I learned about this man is truly compelling, so please join me in welcoming Michael Bunker to CHIMERAS.

EEG: I read the interview you did with Jason (fantastic interview, BTW!), and I understand that you weren't raised "off the grid", but that you and your family made a deliberate choice in 2005. What prompted this decision? Was it something that had been brewing at the back of your head for many years, or did something happen in your life that suddenly made you see things in a different way?

MB: We'd been moving slowly in that direction since 1994, when my wife and I (we had one daughter at the time) chose to leave the Dallas/Ft. Worth area to move back to Lubbock, Texas, to "get out of the rat race." Well, before long Lubbock was a rat race and we wanted to move even further "out." So we got 5 acres of land out in the country and started a small farm. That was 1997. From '97 to 2005 we learned a lot about farming and gardening and we learned that we wanted to go completely off-grid and that we wanted to, if possible, live around like-minded people. So in 2005 we made the plunge and moved here to Central Texas. Several friends made the leap with us, and we bought land in a bunch. Others moved down later. All the way, we were studying off-grid living, sustainability, and the "Plain" life. It has just been a long and interesting journey!

EEG: I really like your philosophy on technology. Your office is solar-powered. You produce what you need. If we all did that, our planet would last longer and there wouldn't be so much waste and pollution. Correct me if I misstating, but with technology, you take what is needed and doesn't compromise the environment, and refuse the rest. Let me ask you, though: do you ever find yourself on the fence about something? Something you can't honestly tell whether it's "good" or "bad"? Take modern medicine, for example: the technology it uses is not always black and white. I'm asking because as a scientific researcher, I often face questions that are not black and white.

MB: There is always going to be that moral conundrum about technology. We just try to be deliberate in how we live. We never accept something without really thinking about it and discussing it. Is it good for us? Is it good for our community life? Will the negatives outweigh positives. Unhappily, most people think in "parts" and not "wholes." Decisions are made in microcosm and not looking at the ramifications to life, happiness, the planet, the community, and what kind of lives our children will have. So we try to be deliberate about what we accept or reject. And we have a philosophy that helps us decide. The over-riding philosophy is DEPENDENCE. We will accept some technologies so long as we don't become dependent on them for life, living, or happiness. We won't accept a solution that has great positives but that causes us to depend inordinately on something we cannot make or produce. Such that if that technology disappeared or was disrupted we would harm our likelihood of survival, or the lives of our children, or the sustainability of our land. So those philosophies help us make decisions. I have technology (Internet, power, wifi, etc.) at my office, but I do not allow myself or my family to get dependent on it for our survival. We want to be able to turn it off and walk away. Toward this end, we've worked very hard to make sure that these technologies don't become life-support systems for us.

EEG: That actually makes a lot of sense. And it teaches a great lesson about life. You know, as a European immigrated to the US, I love this country very much as it has become my home and has welcomed me in a way that no other European country ever welcomes immigrants. At the same time, I'm shocked at how wasteful most people here in the US are: food, water, electricity--all resources that, if used sparsely instead of wastefully, could be shared across the planet and last a lot longer. Same goes with technology.

Let's talk about writing: your books are an intelligent mix of science fiction and history, of literature and adventure and, in a way, of past and future. Take Pennsylvania for example, which features an Amish young man, Jedidiah Troyer, who embarks in a colonization adventure searching for new farmland in the planet "New Pennsylvania". Basically, you invented the "Amish science fiction" genre. What inspired the story?

MB: I think it came from a lot of my own experiences. I walk from my completely off-grid life that might as well be 200 years ago down a trail to my office where I have a laptop, the Internet, an iPad, and a cell phone. That jarring contrast every day keeps me thinking about technology and how it affects our lives. So I thought about the original Anabaptists... the people in Europe who became the Amish and the Mennonites. And the decisions they had to make to leave Europe and get on frightening and technologically advanced ships to come to America. There was no difference, in my mind, to what a modern Amish would have to face to travel to another planet for more land. And I believe the Amish would do it. So it is a completely natural examination of a truism. When I was at Worldcon in San Antonio last year, people asked me, "Don't you think Amish Sci-fi is just too cute? Too outlandish?" And I said, "No. I think it is the most natural and perfect example of what Sci-fi is and what it has been historically."

EEG: Given the beautiful intertwining of past and present of your books, and mixing of genres, who are your readers?

MB: I have to have the most eclectic and diverse mix of readers in all of sci-fi. I have "Plain" people (actual Amish do read my books), Sci-fi geeks, ultra-conservative back-to-the-landers, ultra-liberal save-the-planet folks, anti-government people, pacifists, history buffs, survivalists, you name it. It's a crazy thing sometimes reading my mail and getting to know all of the different kinds of people who read my books.

EEG: Crazy but also very satisfying, I bet. Especially given that most traditional publishers these days veto "cross-genre" books, at least from starting authors (I know from personal experience). So, not only you're proving them wrong, but you're also showing that a cross of genres reaches a much wider audience.

I loved your post about "Kindle Stuffing", the idea that with so mean "cheap" books out there, people tend to "stuff" their Kindles, but the fraction of books they actually read is very low. Given that you believe the era of the 99 cent bestsellers is over, what advice do you have for indie authors who are just starting to sell their books?

MB: To be clear, there are now and probably will always be .99 books and .99 bestsellers. My position is that the era of using .99 or free books to Kindle Stuff and use that for the basis of building a career... that is over. .99 still works IF you can build value and demonstrate quality - either in your book you are launching, or in your brand as a whole. I just had a magnificent .99 sale on Pennsylvania and I demonstrated a really long and effective tail after the sale precisely because I was patient and built in the notion of quality and value before I went to .99. I have data that shows that this is the only way .99 really works any more. Without taking the time to build-in value and demonstrate quality, here are the facts about .99 (or free): Fewer people are reading their Kindle Stuffing books. Of those that are opened, fewer readers are getting past the 10% mark in the book before quitting. Of those that read the books from cover to cover, the probability that the reader will remember the name of the author has plummeted. So this trend has to be combated. And the only way to combat this trend is to focus on quality and value up front. Building brand. Building platform, and demonstrating quality and value. My advice for new Indie authors is to up your game. Stop thinking that dumping books in Kindles is the way to success because that day has passed. You want READS and not downloads. Focus on quality, harvest reviews, build your email list. Soft launch at full price and don't do a Grand Opening kind of hard launch until you have 50 reviews. 100 would be better. Keep your price high and work on saturating your superfans for at least 60 days before you go for a big promotion and a price drop. There's more to it, but this is what I'd do if I were just starting out. Also, don't try to make your first novel a bestseller. Build your backlist first.

EEG: Well, that makes me feel better. :-) Chimeras has certainly not hit the bestseller list (though I haven't given up hopes), but it really helped me set the foundations of a faithful readership.

What are you working on right now?

MB: I am completely overwhelmed! I'm working on Oklahoma, the sequel to Pennsylvania. I'm writing three Pennsylvania short stories for collections and box sets. I'm working on a brand new Amish Sci-Fi thriller entitled Brother, Frankenstein that is exciting and tragic and dark. If people thought just Amish/Sci-fi was groundbreaking, BF is a Amish/Robot/Frankenstein story. Think WITNESS meets Transformers meets The Hulk meets Jason Bourne only in a Gothic/Noir world. Yep!

EEG: That's actually pretty fantastic. :-) Do you want to tell us about your Indie Book Launch Secrets Workshop coming up on August 19th?

MB: As you might expect, I've been kind of hammered by authors who want information/data/tips on my marketing and promotion philosophy. But because it is so contrary to the common wisdom, and because it takes some time to show how the philosophy all fits together, I've had difficulty even wanting to share the information. Well, Tim Grahl - my friend who is one of the foremost experts on platform building, social media, and book marketing - talked to me after my recent Pennsylvania promotion. I was going through page after page after page of insights, data, philosophy, and anecdotal evidence and after 4 or 5 long email pages Tim stopped me. He said, "I want to talk to you face to face about this." Just dumping the information was very confusing. So we had a Skype call and Tim easily understood it all and he said, "We need to put together a webinar. You explain it all better in person." Well, we didn't want to have a free-for-all where just anyone could attend because the technology we're using would get bogged down bandwidth-wise, and Tim felt it was better that the information not get diluted by too much use. We wanted the strategies to remain effective, so broadly broadcasting them would have a deleterious effect on the success of the suggestions. So we decided to limit the participation to only 100 authors. It will sell out.

EEG: Thanks so much, Michael! I'm not as brave (and resourceful) as you in order to make a lifestyle choice like you and your family did, but I do believe that we could all do our part by wasting less and stop the binging craze. People like you and your family set an example. Thank you.

MB: Thank you Elena! I appreciate you very much and thanks for having me!

More about Michael Bunker on website, Facebook page, and Twitter.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sequels, nail-biting, and POV switches

This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event.

Well, this is my chance to let it all out: I just sent out advanced copies of my new book, MOSAICS, and I'm a nervous wreck. Yes, yes, I was nervous when I sent out the first book in the series, CHIMERAS, but somehow, I wasn't this nervous. After all, many agents had read CHIMERAS and loved it. Many readers loved it too, to the point that they started asking when the sequel would be out. Which brings me to MOSAICS and the fact that now I have a responsibility towards the small readership I built with CHIMERAS: I'm thrilled by the response, but I don't want to disappoint them.

There's one issue in particular with my books that makes me nervous -- the switch in POV. Such switches are common, but you usually see them done from either always a third person POV or always first person. Tess Gerritsen, in her series The Surgeon, has first person chapters interspersed in a mainly third person narrative voice. I do the opposite. My books are narrated mainly in the MC's first person voice, except I occasionally add a third person chapter. This seems to through some people off. I had a beta reader tell me she refused to read those chapters. So, in this second book, I took them all out. The next reader asked what happened to the bad guy's POV, and why had I taken them out because she missed those parts. So I threw them back in.

Mind you, there are things I feel strongly about and so, no matter what readers say, I'll keep them in. Like with freeways, for example. A couple of readers criticized me for constantly naming freeways in my books. It's clear those readers never lived in Los Angeles.

Back to my third POV chapters. I'm on the fence about them because I agree the switch can be jarring. On the other hand, I like to probe into people's heads and I do believe that evil guys are way more interesting than the good guys. I like to probe into their motivations in a way that the good guys could never find out. Thomas Harris does the same: he probes deep into his bad guy's head, only he does it using an omniscient narrator. That, too, can be jarring at first, yet once you get into the plot you can't help but love it.

I do agree that switching from first person to third is highly unconventional. Yet, please don't tell me you don't like it just because it doesn't go by the rules. We wouldn't have masterpieces like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Ulysses or The Castle if all writers strictly stuck to the rules. Those books take some mental effort to read. And yet ,when you take the leap and make that effort, you discover a complete new world. So, let's find the guts to break the rules, and do it creatively. Perhaps the most beautiful review CHIMERAS has received is from Rabid Readers, who wrote: "Giorgi is also not a fan of convention and tends to shift P.O.V. as needed to advance the story." You can find the full review (which is awesome, BTW) here.

So, yes, I'll be biting my nails waiting to see what these first readers will think of the switch in POV and of the new book in general. Though I kinda know I'll be keeping those parts in. ;-)

What about you? What bold choices have you made in your work that make you nervous? And how do you go about addressing your readers' feedback?