Queries: advice for the searching

I came to the novel writing late in life, having enjoyed what I was doing as a human being. I was satisfied with my life and with an occasional published short story.  I didn’t want to tip the balance. Sadly, the short story market mostly evaporated. I took the plunge and began a novel. Many writers struggle with depression, some of it might be induced by the writing profession itself. After all, only trouble is interesting. Fortunately, my worry-wart grandma along with being a chemist gave me enough lessons in foreseeing trouble.  When I returned to writing, I could do it with minimal disruption to my mental health.

I finished my first novel around the same time as my mom died. The tolling bell of death reminded me of the slippage of time. I wondered if I’d ever live to see the novel published or enjoy a writing career.

You could say I jumped into publishing my novel with death sniffing at my heels. I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully, I had publishers willing to take a chance with my work and now, ten years after, I’ve learned a thing or two.

When I took up novel writing, I had no idea how to go about getting my foot in the publishing door. I’m too careless of a proof-reader to go it alone and I like editorial feedback. I read advice about writing a query, done after the whole novel was written. In a nutshell, a query is a letter of inquiry, asking if the recipient would like to see some or all of the novel. It should include these elements:

The title, word count, genre or category, how it compares to published novels.

The pitch or hook which describes the story and the most important aspects of it.  If the recipient is looking for romance, describe the romance for example. This is usually 150-300 words.

A little about yourself to convince the agent or editor you aren’t a one-hit wonder.

Before querying have a polished manuscript ready to go. Until I found a publisher, I paid for both copy editing and proof-reading. You should know what the agent or editor is looking for—their Manuscript Wish List.

You should never have to pay to submit your work.

Author Lauren Connolly advises making a personal connection. She says, “I found attending in-person events helpful. The first year I put a book out, I was focused on self-publishing, but at a romance conference I happened to sit next to a literary agent. And we had a nice chat and she gave me her contact information. A year later when I had a book deal offer, I reached out to her asking about representation. She remembered me, and I think having a face to put to a name was a big help. Making personal connections and showing that you’re ready to put yourself out in the writing world is a good way to show agents and editors the passion you have not only for your writing but also the writing business.

Lauren brings up a reality I had difficulty facing: being an author is a business and you need to be ready to commit to selling yourself and your work. This is tough if you’ve been trained not to bother people or ask for things, as I was at my previous job. She gives another bit of advice, yes you can submit to publishing houses and agents at the same time. Lauren says, “There are plenty of publishers that accept un-agented submissions (like City Owl), and if they offer you a deal you can request some time to seek an agent to represent you. You certainly don’t have to do this, but the fact that you already have an offer makes their job easy, then you have someone to negotiate your contact, and they can shop your future work for you.”

Author Emily Hornburg adds,” Etiquette would be if you get an offer from an editor or publisher, request two weeks before you say yes or no so you can reach out to the other people you’ve submitted to. Email those…you haven’t heard from yet and let them know you have an offer and when you need to know by.”

For my latest query, a new series, I won a query critique from author Em Shotwell. Her advice was this: “The query’s ONLY JOB is to make the reader request the pages. You want to keep it snappy and short—but leave them wanting more.” She helped me with a problem I have with my queries. My books have comic elements, but when I query, I’m business serious. 

Here’s the finished query:

SNAKES IN THE CLASS is a 68K novel and Book One in a series set at Manster College, for humanoid monsters.  I plan to have the series follow the same characters, led by gorgon Professor Gormley Grimn, as they struggle between being monsters, fitting in with humans, pacifying the fickle demigods, and claiming an education for themselves and their students. 

At Manster College, monster professors guide students in the fine art of fitting into human society–easier said than done. 

Professor Gormley Grimn didn’t choose the Gorgon life—the Gorgon life chose her…sort of. Born a human, Gormley led an uneventful existence until graduate school, when she was cursed by the jealous fiancé of her study partner. Her only recourse was to leave her behind her husband and son and become a professor of chemistry at Manster College, teaching young Gorgons, trolls, and other monsters. It’s a passionless and secluded life…until she falls into a lusty affair with Dean Ormr Snaakemon—half smooth-skinned man, half smooth-scaled snake, one hundred percent hottie. They tell themselves snakes don’t get attached, but the attraction is undeniable. Besides, Gormley is overdue for some fun—and Ormr is more than happy to oblige. They even start partying with the trolls at the local bar!  Life as a cursed Gorgon finally doesn’t seem so bad.

 A hostile intruder from the Purity League suffers a fatal mishap in Gormley’s chemistry lab. Seeing financial opportunity from an anonymous backer, the President Reaper insists Gormley tutor her Gorgon students in the art of “civil defense”.  There’s a problem. Gorgon powers don’t work as described in classical mythology. Instead of turning instantly to stone, men are more likely to have accidents such as falling onto soda dispensers and getting attacked by stray dogs. It doesn’t matter, anyway—Gormley is far from an expert wielding the ancient powers. And even if she did know how—she isn’t sure it’s the right thing to do. That is, until her long lost son appears. It turns out he is a were-coyote. The Purity League wants to stamp out all monsters. Should Gormley stick with her no-killing-just fit in principles, or join forces with the Knobbers—a group of demigods, including the woman who cursed her? And is Ormr going to stay by her side, or is he a snake in the grass?

Snakes In the Class is playful with a heat level of 4.  Think: The Adams Family with mythological creatures, and an even spicier Gomez and Morticia

 I’m happy to make any changes you find necessary to reach readers. Thank you for taking a look and I hope you enjoy it!

Catherine (Cathy) Haustein

author of Lost in Waste, Mixed In, Wolves and Deer: A Tale Based on Fact, and Cleaner, Greener Laboratories for Analytical Chemistry and Instrumental Analysis,  Wrinkles in Spacetime



I’m glad to have the query stage behind me. It took a few jolts of Vietnamese coffee to get me this far. Now, on to write Book 2. And many thanks to my editor, Danielle DeVor.

Inside view of a brief moment of purgatory

This week, I found myself in author purgatory. I’d finished my manuscript and submitted it to my editor along with a synopsis and a pitch.  The manuscript I’d labored over for a year, put my heart and soul into, was out of my hands. It’s a feeling nearly as confusing as empty nest. 

This book, Snakes in the Class, meant a lot to me. I previously published a satirical dystopian series set in what was once Iowa, thanks in part to the governor of Iowa’s shady ways. It sells steadily but not smashingly.  For this next novel series, I moved to comic Dark Academia… similar to Wednesday, but for adults. Since I’d been a professor for most of my life, this book was 100% my mind looking for a meld. How did I get here?

A year ago, my publisher put out a call for their authors to consider writing a monster book set at a college–a mature contrast to the old familiar monsters in high school. I was happy to oblige. Except, this one is told from the professor’s point of view, not students. Is it too dowdy? Not “college” enough when told from a more mature point of view? I worried.

I’d taken other risks including having the leading man be half snake (the bottom half). Thanks to my spring 2022 Short Story Writing class for that inspiration! Is it too weird?

The waiting was torture. You’d think after five novels, I’d be used to it. I’m not.

I don’t have an agent to reassure me or to negotiate my contracts. How did this happen? I was looking for one rather half-heartedly (because I liked my day job and it’s difficult to get an agent) when I saw an advertisement on duotrope.com looking for novels. I sent my first one, Natural Attraction (now out of print) to Penner Publishing and it was purchased in a “nice deal.” Nice deal means an advance of less than 50K.  You need to get an agent for a bigger deal. Here are some truths about getting an agent.

My next novel, Mixed In, was accepted by City Owl Press, sent to them after they opened a one-month window for un-agented novels. How did I find them? On Twitter. They were seeking a dystopia without vampires or zombies. I had one ready—a dystopian satire that’s a cross between Idiocracy and Handmaid’s Tale set in the near future in what was once Iowa. There’s the rub with writing a novel—you write it without any assurance someone will want to publish it. Writing what publishers are looking for is a big advantage but the landscape can shift. Dystopian novels got less popular once Trump was elected. He brought the dystopia. And some of my dystopian novel nightmares are inching towards reality. Despite this, I finished a trilogy, trying for an upbeat ending. Dictators fall after all.

My worry was unfounded! I just signed a contract! Now my editor and I can go through it together as the first step in its journey to publication.  And of course, I need to start on the sequel.

Snakes in the Class is a Dark Academia. Think Lessons in Chemistry plus The Addams Family set at a college for monsters in a small, midwestern town. Out this August—in time for back to school!

Can and should authors avoid sexism?

Cheater man cheating during a marriage proposal with his innocent girlfriend

For quite a while, I’ve gotten incensed at the story of Medusa—seduced or perhaps raped by Poseidon and turned into a monster for breaking her purity vows. It’s an example of an early story promoting hostile sexism. 

As far as ancient stories are concerned, the examples of sexism are endless.

Fairy and folk tales are filled with sexism—from princesses being kissed (or more) without consent to wicked older women jealous of youth and beauty, leaving the protagonists with no female role models, only men to turn to. The stories we grew up with aren’t great examples of how women should be treated in society. Do fiction authors have any obligation to tell different stories?

Internalized sexism teaches us how we view ourselves in the world and it comes from the stories we tell about each other. It can affect academic performance, create shame, make women doubt their competence, and give misogyny a boost.  

I never considered how much we internalize and accept misogyny. It’s so prevalent we can’t even recognize it in ourselves or others. It wasn’t until I wrote two historical novels that I realized how often women, such as Queen Victoria, can be sexist and oppose rights for other women. Author Clare Tomalin does masterful job pointing out the misogyny woven through history in her numerous biographies. Many times, other women perpetuate this sexism.

I can thank a psychology prof for introducing me to the various types of sexism prevalent in society, meant to promote female subordination. 

For those who haven’t recently taken a course, and in case this type of information gets banned politically, here’s a run down:

Hostile sexism has one goal: To keep females subordinate.  Women who step outside this box are resented and punished. Hostile sexism takes the form of harassment and violence against women. Women are seen as beings who seduce and deceive men. (Sirens for example.) It can be seen with sexist insults or comments on women’s sexuality. 

These views are most often held by people with lower economic status and who perform manual labor. Some of this is thought to be because these types of jobs and social circles are less integrated, keeping people uncomfortable and stereotyping of each other. 

This type of sexism can slyly manifest itself in story telling with a lack of female characters. Thus, a good way to avoid this sexism in your writing is to show men and women working together as equals. 

Another common manifestation of this sexism is normalizing rape. Rape happens and we need to talk about it but think twice about having it as part of a plot line aka entertainment. Yes, you want to make your male villains bad but is this the only way to do it? These scenes not only make rape seem normal, they might even encourage it! Try finding another way to spice up your plot. Please stop dramatizing rape.

More socially acceptable, benevolent sexism is defined this way: benevolent sexism is hostile sexism pretending to be nice. It might involve chivalry, comments about beauty, delicacy, and purity. It sees woman as compliments to men (not equals). However, even this seemingly nice form of sexism can undermine female confidence, autonomy, and options in the world. Consequently, it’s also a nearly invisible social force that perpetuates gender inequality

This type of sexism is much less dependent on social and economic factors and is more a result of up bringing. Educated women in particular are less likely to appreciate benevolent sexism. Ironically, boys learn hostile sexism from those around them while girls learn benevolent sexism from their contemporaries. To counter it as an author, mix up the jobs your characters have, show them sharing parenting duties, and add a non-puritanical sex scene here and there.

Ambivalent sexism sees some women as deserving and others as threats. Women who accept benevolent sexism are often “recruited” by a hostile partner. As long as they fit his expectations, they can be safe and even successful. Ambivalent men see women as something you “can’t live with and can’t live without.”

In the ambivalent world, women might be seen as being superior to men (saintly, caring, long-suffering), or in contrast, as too easily insulted. We see this in the anti-abortion movement. Bad woman are irresponsible and have abortions. Good women do not. 

Sexism is behind male rage and behind the anti-abortion movement. It’s linked to environmental destruction. People who don’t care about mother earth are also likely to not care about women in general. These sexist people win elections in my home state. It’s oppressive, which is why I wrote a dystopian series

Sexism is behind how older women are treated by society with “gendered aging” being one of the worst prejudices around.  Getting older in human society gives women a lot of shame and guilt. Loss of looks means lost social currency and 80% of older women are treated poorly at work. Therefore, a challenge for authors is to write older female characters who are taken seriously, enjoy what they are doing, are relevant, and have self-confidence. Stereotypes to avoid include sagging breasts, being wicked, and being self-sacrificing. Keep in mind that older characters have rich experiences and have had time to process them. 

 How much sexism has filtered in to your everyday? Click on this link to take the ambivalent sexism quiz. 

It’s pretty darn hard to shake sexism out of stories. Having it in there is realistic. Sexist characters are bound to pop up in your fiction. My question for myself is: how do I not make them protagonists? How can I move a plot forward without women being raped, rescued, or kidnapped? How can I show men and women working together and women supporting each other? We’ve got centuries of myths and fairy tales to overcome. I’m not sure I can do it (thanks to internalized misogyny) but I’ve got to try. Are you with me? 

Do you still go to church?

It’s Sunday in my small town. It used to be said that the only traffic jam we had was when people went to church on Sunday mornings. But there’s no traffic jam. There’s barely a car on the road.

Religious affiliation in the U.S. is declining. Churches are left scrambling–what to do with their building? What to do with their remaining people? In a desperate attempt to find new, younger, church members, our state legislature passed a bill to give public school money to parents so they could pay private schools, many with religious affiliations. These people, of course, are Republicans, which gives a big signal as to why some people don’t want to go to church anymore. You might not be a Republican, but you’ll have to deal with them, and here in Iowa, they’ve done enough damage. They are so mad about groups of people who might not be Republicans that they are doing things like underpaying nurses at the U of Iowa hospitals. Some want to ban books and get upset about gender. They might litter their yards with signs connecting Trump with Faith. Here in Pella, many displayed both Trump and the religious private school affiliation. I’m from a religious family but politics sullied religion and Trump made the hypocrisy all too clear.

I went to a church which had a big church fight twenty plus years ago. Why were some people mad? I’m not sure but most turned out to be conservative. One reason cited was the minister saying the church should be more welcoming to gay people. Another item people had a fault with was praying for peace. The angry in the congregation took their money and left. What did this say? Even God couldn’t escape the long fingers of the well-moneyed.

The issue of gay rights is sometimes a turning point. One person I spoke with had friends who came out as gay. They expected the church to come around and lovingly embrace these members. Instead, the church got more conservative. The pastor even compared gay marriage to beastiality in a sermon. It came off as cruel. The person didn’t want to stay silent, couldn’t do it. They left the church and the denomination, moving to a “social justice” church. (According to Pew, affluence and secularism contribute to accepting homosexuality even though gay people aren’t necessarily affluent. It is more a sign of security.)

One person became disenchanted with spiritual dancers in church –seeing them as young girls in nightgowns writhing around sexually in a church which wouldn’t allow gays to perform in any capacity.

Like schools, churches had to adapt to covid. This is when many pastors found out how much misinformation their parishioners absorbed on a constant basis. One pastor had an uphill battle in his request for people to wear masks. The no-masks won. One outspokenly anti-mask octogenarian ended up with covid, spent months in the hospital, and was out in time to attend the minister’s good-bye party–without a mask. Feeling that churches are “too germy” is another reason people avoid going there.

“Churches don’t show love and culturally, the mean aspects of Christianity are taking over. Secular people are nicer,” is one thing I was told when I asked.

Allegedly, “alienation” isn’t the only reason people are leaving churches. Church isn’t the marriage market it used to be. Being home surrounded by technology is considered fun. Others have become comfortable with “caving.Gym membership is also down. Possibly, people are finding that belonging to something that gives you a strong sense of identity in reality, stunts your ability to belong to the human race. This could be due to the authoritarian flair some memberships rely on.

Some simply stop believing. One person told me “it’s hard to take a book that has a talking snake literally.”

I don’t have the answer to this. The internet is filled with stories of people who have lost their faith and gotten it back. However, fewer young parents are raising their kids with religion. The studies show, these kids will be just as moral. Which brings up the question, without some sort of manufactured crisis, will many people even want to use school vouchers for a religious school? I honestly hope not.

Science stories of 2022 Part 2: Mendel’s corpse to Molecules to Star catching

  1. Mendel resurrected. When I read about Gregor Mendel being dug up and his genes sequenced, I considered finding a job as a soothsayer.

In my first and now out of print novel, monks and Mendel play a small role. The novel is set in 1872 a time when the field of biology was exploding with perception changing information. You see, before Czech botanist and friar Gregor Mendel showed that both male and female pea plants contributed equally to the offspring, people thought that the male contributed more. They even thought that a tiny person was inside sperm. Yes, men were the seed and women were the dirt. But Mendel’s experiments contradicted this. Although he didn’t achieve fame during his lifetime, when his studies were found, they supported the popular and controversial theory of evolution. Darwin said that sexual selection and survival determined the fate of a species and that diversity helped a species survive. Mendel showed how the diversity comes about—through sexual selection and genetic recombination. This is one thing people didn’t like about Darwin back in the day. People are equal and diversity is good? It made them feel too guilty about exploitation.

Adding to the connections with my writing, my most recent novel revolved around Isaac Newton being dug up and “reconstituted.”  

Right up my alley, the story about raiding Mendel’s casket for DNA is one of my top stories. The whole article is worth a click, especially if your knowledge genetics history is a little rusty. One interesting finding was that Mendel may have had epilepsy. He carried the genes for it. Mendel was a big guy with a huge brain. Like Newton, he suffered from bouts of “nerves.”  I’m not sure if there is a sexy Mendel novel in my future but his “resurrection” supports the notion that diversity contributes to the survival and richness of a species.

2. Molecule of the year. I admit, I’ve always found fluorine a little scary. Maybe it’s the atomic symbol F. Or the fact that F2 makes bleach look like a baby lotion. Or maybe it’s because no kind of birth control worked for the researcher I knew doing fluoride chemistry. It’s kind of a surprise that F8Cwon a molecule of the year beauty contest. It beat out some new magnetic materials for the prize (of bragging rights.) It can capture electrons so might have a use someday but right now, it’s kind of quirky—a characteristic that attracts chemists like catnip.

3. How cool is fusion? We’ve all seen a fusion reaction. It’s what’s happening on our sun. The lovely, clear light of the stars are also fusion. So, what is it exactly?

It’s a nuclear reaction which right off the bat makes it special. Most day to day chemical reactions are not nuclear reactions. They involve the outside of the atom, the electrons. Electrons make up most of the space of an atom. They are fairly easily removed with energy. Static electricity and its dramatic counter part, lightning, are example of electrons being moved by rubbing, not liking where they are, and shockingly returning to their place around atoms.

We’ve all seen fanciful atomic images where the electrons swirl around in shells or favored paths. Most chemical reactions involve those electrons hopping about or sharing their spaces to make bond. When this happens, the heart of the atom, the nucleus, remains intact. The nucleus is what gives an atom, an element, its identity. When the nucleus is changed, the atom becomes a completely new element. The energy that holds the nucleus together is tremendous and this is released in a nuclear reaction.

Most types of atoms are far too stable, too held together with energy, to do anything like this. Electrons are flighty. They’ll move. Change the nucleus? Most elements say no thanks. I like who I am. Elements in the middle of the periodic table are most likely to refuse to participate in nuclear reactions. Take a look if you want. There’s good old iron right in the center. But iron rusts you might say. It does but rusting is an electron reaction, not a nuclear reaction. It’s more of a hook-up between iron and oxygen than a change in identity for either element. An iron nuclear bomb or reaction would be in the realm of the unbelievable. Also unbelievably devistating.

Nuclear reactions as we know them occur with the extreme elements–the very small or the very large. Fusion squeezes together the smallest of the elements, hydrogen, and makes helium, the last massive inert gas. It takes much less energy to hold together the helium than the two hydrogens. The reaction releases so much energy that of course, we’ve made bombs from the process. They are ignited with a fission bomb. But to make a non-bomb and get the energy out is much more difficult.

Fusion reactors have to essentially put the sun in a jar. The payoff is massive energy that has simple by-products: helium and an energetic neutron. But is it all it’s promoted to be? Atomic scientists have doubts. But this year scientists in California created a non-bomb reaction that made some energy without blowing the container to smithereens. It’s progress towards a clean energy future. Unlike Mendel being dug up, this story was perhaps bigger than it needed to be. But I couldn’t resist giving a lesson in chemistry, and being not too tall, I like it when small things get a big reaction, so thanks for reading!

Science stories 2022 from the quirky to the personal. Part one: private items

Every science journal is rolling out a list of the top science advances of 2022. I’m going to review my favorites.

  1. Male birth control. Humans are a complicated hormonal mixture. Female birth control pills work by mimicking pregnancy hormones and prevent the release of an egg. Giving males hormones has been a bust—the men gain weight, get depressed, and have elevated bad cholesterol. Now, a non-hormonal male pill is on the horizon. It works by messing up vitamin A, which plays a role in cell growth. Apparently, a little damage to Vitamin A sensitive proteins stops sperm production. Congratulations to the University of Minnesota for this pioneering work.  
  2. Being an anti-prude, sex studies top my list and finding out that snakes have clitorises was a breakthrough.  Long standing prejudices against female animals is as old as the Bible. One of these biases is that female animals don’t need to enjoy sex. It was believed that female snakes and birds have “lost” their clitorises in an evolutionary sense.  This lead to the idea that sexual coercion or even rape was natural in the animal world. Finding that female snakes have two clitorises to match the two penises seen in male snakes shows that both male and female snakes evolved together and have mutual attraction. It would be nice to drive a stake through the Mars vs Venus idea and support the many factors, including female choice and pleasure, are at play in sexual selection which has been so successful in promoting diversity in species.
  3. Playing defense. Plan B is not an abortion. No matter how you slice it, some people have been driven mad by the thought that somewhere out there could be a homeless fertilized egg. At last, scientists are getting ahead of the game and releasing what everyone should know, but doesn’t want to. Plan B prevents ovulation. It’s isn’t causing a none of your business abortion.
  4. In another defensive move, American Medical Association called out the Supreme Court.   The AMA and more than two dozen leading medical organizations believe abortion is “safe medical care that is a decision to be made between the patient and the physician, subject to the physician’s clinical judgment, and the patient’s informed consent.” They said the “Supreme Court’s opinion would lead to government interference in the patient-physician relationship, dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine, and potentially criminalizing care.” We all know that invasion of privacy is in the realm of authoritarian dictatorships.  The Supreme Court has been shoved upon us by the Federalists. They are not a scientific organization.
  5. When it comes to health, Iowans are not too savvy. Our covid death rate remained high and our vaccination rate was low compared to many other states.
  6. Cooking and cleaning are bad for you. These activities release airborne toxins. Frying is particularly dangerous, which makes me feel better about my short stint (was it one month or two?) as a fry cook when young. This might seem like bad news but hey, give yourself permission to skip the New Years scrubbing and frying and enjoy yourself!
  7. Feminine hygiene and hair products demystified. The life expectancy for US women is decreasing. There are many theories as to why but one thing is true—female products & their chemical content haven’t been carefully studied. One example of this is hair products, used for decades. These have been found to be a culprit in inducing some breast cancers.Another long-used product category finally getting some attention is period products. A vagina is a sensitive area as you probably know. It’s highly permeable. This means, what goes in is bound to have an effect both locally and on the reproductive system as a whole. You might think these female hygiene items are simply natural cotton but they contain thin layers of plastic  (which can release microplastics) and sometimes dyes and colorants. Some such as cups are plastic and might be dyed. Many of these are not proven to be safe. Neither of these studies were new in 2022, I wrote about one here but they are finally getting attention. This year.  the state of New York has ruled that the composition of period products must be put on labels. With increased scrutiny, manufacturers might be more careful about the health effects of their products. Now, consumers can make choices which are more informed.

Taylor Swift Vs a Robot. Where do you side?

How much of what you are reading and absorbing hasn’t been written by a person? Content can now be created by artificial intelligence. Everything from novels to political speeches, blogs and journal articles, advertising to social media posts, memes, and business reports is being created by A I programs. (How do you think those politicians get identical tweets which sometimes make no sense?)

Perhaps people are coming to like the AI style of repeated words and phrases and short sentences. But writing to create a human connection and stimulate the brain requires more work.

Expressions not meant to be taken literally–figures of speech –add illumination to the written and spoken word. They bring a mind picture by connecting familiar things in an unfamiliar way. Reading a good book is metal gymnastics. Reading and writing from an early age is linked to higher income and better cognitive function and a reduced chance of mental decline during aging.. Good reading material provides these connections. Humans, especially English speakers, use figures of speech to connect the seemingly unconnected and use these to connect with each other.

My students used to recite Taylor Swift lyrics to me and now it seems she is a modern example of someone who is gushing with figurative language.

For those of you seeking a lesson, examples of figures of speech include:

Metonymy—one thing is represented by another thing associated with it ex) the crowns of the Realm

Synecdoche-a part stands for a whole ex) all hands on deck

Personification-bestows human characteristics on something non-human ex) snow waved its white flag over everything (Billy Collins)

Metaphor—a comparison ex) my love is a rose

Simile-comparison using word “like: ex) my love is like a rose

Metaphor and simile bring intensity to the imagery because the reader is asked to equate two things. They challenge the mind and provide satisfaction when the connection is made.

Hyperbole-extreme exaggeration ex-I was quaking from head to foot and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far. (Mark Twain)

Oxymoron two contradictory words joined-jumbo shrimp

Pun exploits to meanings to a word ex—tomorrow, you will find me a grave man

One difference between a writer and an author is that an author is expected to have a unique and personal voice.

“Finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult…you try on other people’s personalities for size and you fall in love” A. Alvarez

Voice is diction. Vocabulary (words chosen) and syntax (the order in which they are used) help define you as a writer.

Rich vocabulary illuminates while a limited one conceals. In fact, AI has a distinctly limited vocabulary with repeated words.

Run your writing through a word cloud program. Do you see a wide variety of words? Favorite words?

Another thing to do to be as expressive as Taylor Swift is to watch out for cliches and idioms.

A cliché is a word, phrase or figure of speech that is overly familiar or predictable. An Idiom is a cliché so familiar it is part of the language ex) nose to the grindstone, runs for office

Ex) eyes like pools, dark as night

Instead: Try to  create figures of speech that both surprise and illuminate. Pull out a kaleidoscope of heartbeats (TS).

Here are even more!

Reading a good book is mental gymnastics. Reading and writing from an early age is linked to higher income and better cognitive function and a reduced chance of mental decline during aging. Figures of speech help with these gymnastics.

By the way, an AI title generator suggested the two titles for this blog


What’s in your reading, and writing, isn’t written by humans?


What you’re reading, writing, and broadcasting – it’s all artificial intelligence

One advantage of AI is that it is supposed to generate more searchable headlines and more engagement. What do you think?

What’s your logline?

I got my royalty check recently and I was pleased to see it was over $20! You thought maybe I was getting rich with my stories–think again.

It can take upwards of twenty novels before an author has a chance to make a living from books alone. Some are even turning to AI to help generate books as fast as one a month. I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered some student papers written or at least helped by AI and paraphrase generators. My reaction was to suspect the students had schizophrenia. Not only is critical thinking missing, the lack of figurative language gives it away as being not fully human. I nearly called the mental health councilors until a friend sent me an AI generated short story. Besides having some shorting comings, AI generated content is considered plagiarism

Needless to say, I enjoy writing for other reasons beyond making a living–at least for now. I want to entertain and in a way, teach. As you may recall, fiction is a sort of mental dress rehearsal for bad things that might happen, and if enough people read fiction, perhaps the bad things won’t happen. Reading can give you things the school of hard knocks won’t–such as critical thinking skills and other mental habits. Readers even live longer. As I see it, we are all different and therefore, need a diverse set of authors with a myriad of experiences to help us humans survive.

As a kid, I always asked “what if..”It’s a good skill for both a scientist and an author and much safer in the hands of an author. Being an author has taught me as well. In a way, it’s like putting together a puzzle. The first part is a bit of a slog but when it all comes together, it’s extremely satisfying. It fills my need to be creative and feed my curiosity. Some books can take a huge amount of research in order to be accurate, even if they are a work of imagination.

You might not aspire to write a whole novel but a fun exercise is to write a fictional log line. Or maybe you want to sum up your 2022 by writing a logline for the year.

A log line is like the blurb that tempts you to watch a movie or perhaps a show on Netflix– sentence or two with main characters and what there is to gain or lose (the stakes as we call them in writer lingo)

There are two predominant styles for writing these short, enticing summaries.

Inciting incident + protagonist + action + antagonist


Protagonist + action + antagonist + goal + stake

These are the loglines for books in my series:

Book 1 Mixed In

Catrina uses her scientific know-how to help bartender Ulysses expand his black-market condom business while playing it cool with the authoritarian Vice Patrol, who’d love see her deported and Ulysses executed.

Book 2 Lost in Waste

If she wants to see her genetically modified lover again, Callie must devise a way for a giant lagoon full of hog shit to turn a profit while keeping lecherous authority figures pacified.

Book 3 Wrinkles in Spacetime

Stella helps a resurrected version of Sir Isaac Newton create a homunculus for the authoritarian Cochton brothers, risking her neck to pull off the impossible task. It becomes even more dangerous when she unwittingly uses germplasm from a killer vine to fashion a make-believe baby for each brother.

(I had to get a little advertising in here. I was asked to start a blog by a former publisher and the book is out of print but the blog persists.)

I’ll take a stab at writing a logline for my 2022

Seeking adventure, protagonist leaves the stability of her job, but will $20 be enough to live on?

One thing I like about loglines is the way they condense the essence. Think of them like a game. It should come as no surprise that AI can generate book blurbs and loglines. But let’s not go there. So far, I’m living on the stipend I got for quitting my job so I’m not planning to AI soon. Besides, I want to keep my mind sharp.

If you wrote a logline for 2022, what would it be?

Warm wishes, cheers, and may you be the hero of your tale in 2023!

Sneak Peak at Air Pollution Today

Pollution and I have a long-standing grudge match. Pollution is a form of chemical assault. Anyone and everyone should be angry about pollution. So what if it helps the economy? You know what else helps the economy? Innovation.

Many studies have connected sickness and hospitalization for respiratory problems with air pollution.  For example, COVID and other viral respiratory diseases are harder to fight when the air around those affected contains particulates and chemical pollutants. Particulates are a pervasive form of air pollution here in Iowa.  The most hazardous of particles are the very fine ones known as PM2.5.  These tiny particles can clog your lungs and accumulate.  You can never cough them out.  Once your lungs are coated with them, you either need a lung transplant, or you will die. They come from combustion.  Gas and diesel engines, home heating,  power plants, fires, and cigarettes all contribute to these damaging particles.  Chemical reactions such as those associated with farming and industry are other contributors. 

Coarse particles known as PM10 will cause respiratory illness.  They come from such things as grinding and crushing rocks along with dust from unpaved roads.  Course particles can aggravate existing conditions, cause shortness of breath that could result in a hospital visit, create susceptibility to respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis, and cause excess strain on heart muscles. 

Particulates, both large and small, can change the weather by “invigorating clouds” and causing more rain to fall. Smoke and other tiny particles can affect the upper atmosphere and cause more and stronger tornados far from the source of the smoke.

            Recently, I got an air particle monitor as a gift. It uses a laser to count the small PM 2.5 particles. I connected it to a sensor network and you can follow the Monitor here.

Here’s what it looks like when displayed:

An air pollution station in Pella Iowa tells all.

You can see that currently, Pella’s air pollution isn’t too bad. It was pleasantly low during Thanksgiving week-end. You can see a spike on the left -hand side of the top graph when someone smoked a cigarette near the monitor. Smoking puts out a small, dangerous cloud of particulates—enough to register as hazardous. There are ebbs during quiet times and after the rain shower, followed by rises corresponding to traffic, when neighbors were using leaf blowers, and when smoke from a wood stove or bon fire drifted on the breeze. The thing about pollution, especially air pollution, is that it doesn’t stay put. No doubt you remember from chemistry class that gases have a lot of kinetic energy. They move.

Iowa’s own aged Senator, Charles Grassley, has been blowing the anti-environmental dog whistle for decades, and I’ve written about it. There is no excuse for him to pretend he doesn’t know about the harmful effects of air pollution. He simply doesn’t want to do anything about it because agriculture is one of the largest contributors to air pollution. This is worse when farms are combined with other industrial processes (such as manufacturing).

For now, we are in an air pollution lull. It’s early in the week and industries haven’t gotten into full swing. The fields are dormant after harvest. What can we expect in the future? No doubt air pollution will rise this spring.

Fertilizer itself is a pollutant, resulting in significant air pollution and particulate emission. Because of its demand for fertilizer, corn is one of the dirtiest, most polluting of crops. Fertilizer manufacturing is in itself polluting.(Note the higher air pollution levels near the Mississippi which is the site of numerous fertilizer plants.) You might be grumbling about the coming winter but for today, go out and enjoy the air.

The Slow, Deliberate Erosion in Education

As a scientist, it took me a while to grasp why Iowa’s governor stood fast against mask wearing during a respiratory pandemic. Not only did she and her cohorts not support mask mandates, they banned them and made those who wore them pariahs. The net result was more covid deaths, but even worse than this, the college where I worked supported her.  We briefly had a mask mandate, following a student petition, but for the most part, this is what we signaled.

The message was: you can wear a mask if you want, you poor, weak thing instead of stressing the science: masks work to slow the spread of covid by at least 40%. In a place where people sit close and windows won’t open, this would have gone a long way to keeping covid out of the classroom. 

It took a while for me to process it was one more academic microaggression—Second Class Citizen status in a place of higher education. There was no need to protect the professors. If you wanted to protect yourself it was up to you to be the outsider. It was also expected that if we got covid, we had to carry on someway somehow.

The response of my college and my state to covid gave me a moral crisis. It’s been widely documented that the Trump administration played down covid and withheld supplies to blue states because he wanted to punish the governors. My son was doing his emergency room residency in Detroit when the pandemic nit. The struggles he had to get supplies and the deaths he saw, especially among public workers and CNA aids, were real. Our family had grown to love Detroit and to read about their helplessness in the face of the Trump administration gave me a deep loathing. Fortunately, assisted by the auto industry and the governor, it fought back. To see my supposedly educated employer somewhat shrugging off the dangers of covid hit me hard. Students even said some coaches told them not to get the vaccine! Ironically, I never got covid in the classroom.

As I had long suspected, this view is handed down from above and intentional. Rich donors hostile to academic knowledge are transforming colleges and universities in order to make them less like places where you think and more where you get some job training—including training how to knuckle under and put up with dangers. They’ve donated to anti-intellectual politicians, started their own programs, appointed their people to boards, and even gone the way of the “businessman college president.”  It’s no different than any oligarch buying the silence of their critics.

The bottom line is, I retired from a job thought I’d take to the grave with me or at least work at until age 70. As an educator from a family of public school teachers, college administrators, and librarians, being a professor was a familiar fit for me. The stimulation of new ideas, research, and writing was a dream come true.

This isn’t to say there weren’t snakes in the garden, such as the visit from the governor devoid of passion. As a chemistry professor, I became aware of the desire of legislators to both praise, harness, and censor scientists. It quickly became apparent that the powers that rule in Iowa didn’t want our opinions on climate change, pollution, or saving the wetlands. If we couldn’t produce some engineers, preferably conservative in outlook, what good were we?

I was only accused falsely by a student once, thankfully. It had to do with the Vagina Monologues, which my school no longer performs. This was around the time purity culture was rampant. Students even fell victim to the No Dating Movement, a form of benevolent sexism. The student was most certainly pushed to be angry with me by outside forces.

There were a few uncomfortable moments with the staff –unimpressed with the egghead professors–as well. When the science building, of which I was once dubbed the czarina, underwent renovation, I made my request to keep the humidity down in one room. It contained equipment which measured infrared (heat) absorption of molecules. In simple terms, substances can be held together by a plus-minus attraction as found in salt. They can be held together in a restless sea of their outer electronic charge as with metals. Or as with everything from water to oil, they can hold together by sharing their outer coating of electrons in clearly understood patterns. This equipment measured the later. But since the detectors were looking for shared electrons, the optics had to be made of substances in which electrons were not shared in order to make them transparent to what was being measured. Some of this was salt crystals. Predictably, my pleas were ignored, the salt in the instrument took on water, and the equipment needed costly repairs.

My past includes a long list of things I tried to shrug off.  Poor ventilation in my office—enough to give OSHA concern. My lab roof leaked. A student had terrible allergies whenever he walked into the room. Years later, a plastic bucket filled with collected rainwater that had been hidden in the ceiling burst with a shower of gunk and mold. I became so afraid the fume hoods would break down, as they were known to do, that I came up with a whole book of labs that didn’t need them. Here’s the thing—I was often chastised for bringing up these valid concerns as if I was a naughty, out of control pest instead of an employee worried about health and safety.

I’ve been given emerita status and can return any time to use the new equipment the college bought after I left. The people who ignored my demands for lab and office quality control have long since retired. Although I’d intended to, I don’t go back. I’m not sure why.

Across the nation, teachers suffer from poor salaries and lack of time for professional development. Want to know a lack of time example? I was grading papers beside her bedside when my mom died! It seemed perfectly normal to both of us.

Meanwhile, our governor has the luxury to pardon turkeys remotely to help stop the spread of disease. Turkeys are more important than teachers and students, who by the way, are spreading flu and RSV, but never mind, mask mandates are banned.

I’m writing this to bear witness. What we had in the way of education—supported and encouraged educators passionate about their subject matter and their students—is eroding faster than an Iowa field. Here in Iowa, few care to do anything about erosion. It’s too darn bad. We had a good thing.