SYNOPSIS OF THE NOVEL I'M WRITING
LEVI McPHERSON, a graduate student of analytical chemistry at the University of North Central Florida, is approached by agents of the Homeland Security’s Counter-terrorism Unit. The agency is recruiting Lee to study and expose the loopholes of screening instruments in airports. Struggling financially, he accepted the offer, making him a paid, benevolent hacker of the nation’s gateway. Yet Levi is horrified when an Airbus from Los Angeles disintegrated in mid-air.
At 40, when everybody’s career trajectory is going up, Levi’s still a poor graduate student, struggling financially. His research projects however, are worth million dollars. Researching the highly classified and heavily guarded secrets of detecting traces of explosives, what Lee know was a goldmine. The agency's offer is his financial break . So Levi tackles the problem like a scientist, detailing the loopholes of the aviation security and turning what he knew into a big time money machine.
JIM and JONATHAN of the counter-terrorism unit, where nowhere to be found after Charlotte International Airport, a hub of Delta Airlines closed abruptly because of instrument malfunctions in their security lines. And in a post-Osama Bin Laden’s era, the biggest blow to the United Stated after the 9/11 disaster comes unexpectedly when a passenger plane blew up in the skies of Washington D.C., in the heart of the nation.
Levi knew it was only the start of more troubles, so he recruits his fellow graduate students to counter the future attacks. They have to think like criminals—and scientists too. With the help of FBI counter-terrorism experts, Homeland Security and Transportation Security Agency, the team races to close and plug the loopholes Lee identified.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
—J.T.R., Gainesville, Fla.
Although the Modern Library's "200 Best Novels," edited by Colm Toibin and Carmen Callil, was published in 1999, and I'm always interested in "best of" book lists, I had never run across it until I received this question. It's no longer in print in the U.S., but I found it on a used-book website.
The purpose of any list of best books is to get people riled up, and the "200" did its job on me. Colm Toibin is an Irish writer whose fiction I have enjoyed and admired (a new collection of his short stories, "The Empty Family," will be published in the U.S. in January). I wasn't familiar with Ms. Callil; it turns out she was a founder of Virago Press, a British publisher of past and current books by and for women. She also set off a literary kerfuffle earlier this year when she resigned as one of the three judges of the International Man Booker prize because it was awarded to Philip Roth. "I heard the swish of emperor's clothes," she wrote later.
It's a useful exercise for any reader to create his or her own best list if only because nobody else's list will be as incisive and brilliant as one's own. I did this several years ago (my 50 favorite novels of the past two decades), and it was surprisingly difficult—some books acquire a retroactive glow because they are associated with the time or place they were read. I revised the list a few years later, which was even more taxing because I had to knock off some earlier choices to make room for new ones. Sure, I could simply have increased the size of the list, but it's more intellectually challenging to stick with an arbitrary number.
In their introduction, Mr. Toibin and Ms. Callil acknowledge than any such list is "entirely personal." They say each of their choices had qualities of genius and excitement and gave the reader "a feeling that you would love to hand this book to someone else to read." Fair enough, although genius is often in the eye of the beholder. I was perturbed by their admission that neither cares for science fiction, fantasy or most historical novels. Most of all, I was troubled by their—or their publisher's—claim not that these were their favorite books but that they were the best. I love Carl Hiaasen's novels, but I don't believe his "Double Whammy," which appears on their list, is one of the best novels of the second half of the 20th century. It's nowhere near as good as "Sophie's Choice" by William Styron or "The New Confessions" by William Boyd, neither of which made the 200.
There was some overlap between my list and theirs, including some lesser-known novels like "Asylum" by Patrick McGrath and "The Winshaw Legacy" by Jonathan Coe (the British title is "What a Carve Up!"). We all liked Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove"; Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy; and Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance."
Then, inevitably, I started to quibble: "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis? Definitely worth reading but a leaflet compared with Barry Unsworth's majestic "Sacred Hunger." I read Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter" (on their list) and have never been tempted to read another of his novels. Yet they made no room for Richard Russo's "The Risk Pool" or Kazuo Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day." In my opinion they chose the wrong Anne Tyler book ("Breathing Lessons" rather than "St. Maybe") and the wrong T.C. Boyle ("Tortilla Curtain" instead of "World's End"). But this likely qualifies as the "petty snobbery" Clifford Fadiman referred to in his introduction to "Good Books," a 1982 compendium edited by Steven Gilbar. Mr. Gilbar judges a book worth recommending (he mentions 9,000 titles) if it is "rewarding and pleasurable."
A few other book lists to entertain and infuriate you: "The Best Novels of the Nineties" by Linda Parent Lesher; "The Reading List" by David Rubel; "The Novel 100" by Daniel S. Burt; and "The List of Books" by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish.
Anthony Burgess, who edited "Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939," was later asked about the furious reaction his choices had provoked. "That was the intention," he said. He added, "I think one has to do this kind of thing occasionally to make people wake up and start considering what really makes a good book."
—Send your questions about books and reading to Cynthia Crossen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Write to Cynthia Crossen at email@example.com
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Punctuation arouses strong feelings. You have probably come across the pen-wielding vigilantes who skulk around defacing movie posters and amending handwritten signs that advertise "Rest Room's" or "Puppy's For Sale."
People fuss about punctuation not only because it clarifies meaning but also because its neglect appears to reflect wider social decline. And while the big social battles seem intractable, smaller battles over the use of the apostrophe feel like they can be won.
Early manuscripts had no punctuation at all, and those from the medieval period suggest haphazard innovation, with more than 30 different marks. The modern repertoire of punctuation emerged as printers in the 15th and 16th centuries strove to limit this miscellany.
Many punctuation marks are less venerable than we might imagine. Parentheses were first used around 1500, having been observed by English writers and printers in Italian books. Commas were not employed until the 16th century; in early printed books in English one sees a virgule (a slash like this /), which the comma replaced around 1520.
Other marks enjoyed briefer success. There used to be a clunky paragraph sign known as a pilcrow ; initially it was a C with a slash drawn through it. Similar in its effect was one of the oldest punctuation symbols, a horizontal ivy leaf called a hedera . It appears in 8th-century manuscripts, separating text from commentary, and after a period out of fashion it made an unexpected return in early printed books. Then it faded from view.
Another mark, now obscure, is the point d'ironie, sometimes known as a "snark." A back-to-front question mark, it was deployed by the 16th-century printer Henry Denham to signal rhetorical questions, and in 1899 the French poet Alcanter de Brahm suggested reviving it. More recently, the difficulty of detecting irony and sarcasm in electronic communication has prompted fresh calls for a revival of the point d'ironie. But the chances are slim that it will make a comeback.
In fact, Internet culture generally favors a lighter, more informal style of punctuation. True, emoticons have sprung up to convey nuances of mood and tone. Moreover, typing makes it easy to amplify punctuation: splattering 20 exclamation marks on a page, or using multiple question marks to signify theatrical incredulity. But, overall, punctuation is being renounced.
How might punctuation now evolve? The dystopian view is that it will vanish. I find this conceivable, though not likely. But we can see harbingers of such change: editorial austerity with commas, the newsroom preference for the period over all other marks, and the taste for visual crispness.
Though it is not unusual to hear calls for new punctuation, the marks proposed tend to cannibalize existing ones. In this vein, you may have encountered the interrobang , which signals excited disbelief.
Such marks are symptoms of an increasing tendency to punctuate for rhetorical rather than grammatical effect. Instead of presenting syntactical and logical relationships, punctuation reproduces the patterns of speech.
One manifestation of this is the advance of the dash. It imitates the jagged urgency of conversation, in which we change direction sharply and with punch. Dashes became common only in the 18th century. Their appeal is visual, their shape dramatic. That's what a modern, talky style of writing seems to demand.
By contrast, use of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid—a separator that's also a connector—but it's a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.
More surprising is the eclipse of the hyphen. Traditionally, it has been used to link two halves of a compound noun and has suggested that a new coinage is on probation. But now the noun is split (fig leaf, hobby horse) or rendered without a hyphen (crybaby, bumblebee). It may be that the hyphen's last outpost will be in emoticons, where it plays a leading role.
Graphic designers, who favor an uncluttered aesthetic, dislike hyphens. They are also partly responsible for the disappearance of the apostrophe. This little squiggle first appeared in an English text in 1559. Its use has never been completely stable, and today confusion leads to the overcompensation that we see in those handwritten signs. The alternative is not to use apostrophes at all—an act of pragmatism easily mistaken for ignorance.
Defenders of the apostrophe insist that it minimizes ambiguity, but there are few situations in which its omission can lead to real misunderstanding.
The apostrophe is mainly a device for the eye, not the ear. And while I plan to keep handling apostrophes in accordance with the principles I was shown as a child, I am confident that they will either disappear or be reduced to little baubles of orthographic bling.
—Mr. Hitchings's latest book. "The Language Wars: A History of Proper English," will be published in November.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Here's my 20 Novel-ending lines (as part of the assignment).
1. It has to end, and it begins with him.
2. After all it was America, where they both belong.
3. A crowd is a company.
4. The map was full of tacks.
5. He lost some but win some.
6. America spread before him.
7. He knew science and people and what to believe.
In act two, the professor, Lee's adviser speculated that the leak of confidential technologies came out from his laboratory and his research. In here I described the wreckage of the plane. One unexpected problem arose when Lee realize the plotters knew something that Lee was not aware of. Maybe the post doc Oleg knew and supplied it to the plotters, but how? Was it Farzad? Lee will try to connect the dots.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
1. What's the "significant event" of the novel
2. What's the character's motivation? What is at stake for her?
3. Have you included enough background for him?
I already answered those questions in my draft, so I'll go straight to the assignment.
1. Come up with the 20 first lines of your novel. (There should be tension involved)
1. Lee showed no emotions after the professor told him that traces of LLM 106 were found in the wreckage of the airplane.
2. The smell of money was crisp, wafting in the air after Lee opened the duffel bag.
3. Lee closed the doors behind him, confused, trying to forget the pictures he saw on the television, images of a passenger plane, possibly Boeing 747, images of burned passengers, knowing that he has a part of the blood-boiling terrorist attack.
4. Lee called his brother and told him "they got us, again", tears welling in his eyes.
5. Lee slammed the phone, frustrated, after letting it ring for the 10th time.
THIS IS ONE SCENE AFTER LEE TOOK THE MONEY FROM THE COUNTERTERRORISM AGENTS.
Back in his lab, Lee made a little bit of work in front of the computer. He had smelled the oil from the lab before, but this time, he’s more aware of it. Like a car, the instrument he was working on periodically needed an oil change. By today’s standard, the machine looked like a primitive device. But what it was capable of detection will definitely change airport security. For now, it can only be operated by experts, but sooner or later, a trained operator can man the instrument behind the hustle and bustle of an airport security screening line.Lee stared at his computer monitor. The proposal from the guy Lee assumed to be working with the counter terrorism task force was not easy to pass. But still, he has four choices.The first choice was to do nothing at all. Second, was to call later on the number in a business card that was handed to him during the meeting. Third, was to call his adviser, and the fourth options was to call 911. He ruled out option number 1—part of the money was already in his position. It was past the point of no-return, past the red light or stop sign. Option number three and four will take him somewhere. But then again, the money is too grand to pass.He opted for the second and conducted himself like someone who just found out that he was holding the winning lottery ticket. He wanted to shout. “So, this is how someone feels after winning a lottery” he whispered to himself. The combined smell of used oil and crisp money wafted through his nose as he fanned through the stack of bills, totaling ten thousand dollars, two inches of Benjamins bundled together neatly by blue rubber band. He can’t contained his heart racing.
Lee’s decision was about money—and more. Jonathan definitely complemented him and got his attention, an attention he didn’t get from his peers. Lee’s age is just north of 30. And he was angry to himself for being still in the stupid graduate school program. With his caliber, he could be a head of a company by now. But he sabotaged his life in every possible way. His contemporaries were working already big time. Former classmates in high school have stellar career trajectories. While his contemporaries were setting aside money for the money market and 401K, Lee’s mom still sends extra money in order for him to survive. Without mom, he’s only a phone call away from eviction. By many, he is a failure: He’s probably better to be shot in the back than living in a dingy apartment.There’s no money in science, but the science he knew is worth a million dollars. With a less stellar career trajectory, and no reputation to loose, taking the money was the best option. No more bidding from eBay for the pistols he wanted. No more credit card debts. No more elementary students asking what’s inside the cabinet during a field trip to his lab. Weekends will be spent in firing range. Lee opened the crumpled pistol magazine sitting at the bottom of a pile of papers and books.It was almost 2 AM when he left the lab. During his night shifts, when he decides to work at night alone at the lab, he drives his dented 1994 Honda Accord. Inside the old car, he cracked his knuckle and drummed his huge fingers on the small and worn steering wheel, and then wildly imagined what his new life would be.However, he was specifically instructed to not flaunt his wealth. He’ll still drive his shit-box for now, but definitely, no more debts in his cards. For sure, weekends will be spent in firing range—to stay away from labeling tubes and pipetting liquids, in his shitty, windowless laboratory. Scientists deserve monetary rewards too, not only Nobel prize winners.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Mark Weed pulled up his white truck, grabbed his badge and coffee cup from the cup holder and moved to the back of his truck. After grabbing his stuffs, he mentally noted the row letter of his parking spot, knowing that he’ll be lost once the Charlotte Douglas International Airport parking area is packed.Yesterday, he and his truck were subjected to a random inspection. Although he already went through a thorough background check before he took this job, the random pat-down for screening airport contract workers surprised him. It was a minor inconvenience.Mark put on his badge and walked straight to the area of the terminal that was cordoned off by a black rotabelt. He aligned more orange safety cones to clear his work place from passengers. Although it was still early, the airport can be a theater of scenes, ranging from emotions of tears after a goodbye kiss to a panicking student with hangover streaking past the unfinished floor. The emotional scenes can pop out anytime.Today, his job was to replace the tiles near the bathroom but he went inside the bathroom, taking him almost 40 minutes.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Since Lee is a graduate student, most of the minor characters that he will encounter will be fellow graduate students, especially international graduate students. Some of them will be scientists, bomb experts, post doctoral fellows and airport screeners.
In what ways will these individuals react? This will give clearer picture about your protagonist.
One of Lee's research group mate came from India, from Bangalore University. His name is Satish Patel. Satish was born poor, but his Slum-Dog Millionaire flare have gave him the opportunity to study Pharmacology. Science was cool for him and started applying for graduate schools in the US. In 2005, he came to the United States with $50 dollars in his pocket. His dream was big, however. The dream will propel his life to greatness. He envisioned of buying his parents a house when the day came.
The first time he came to the United States, he felt everything was different from his previous life. Life was easy in the US. Water comes out from the faucet, whereas in his hometown, they have to walk and fetch water from the town's well. He tried to use his hands to drink water from the water fountain once he arrived in Detroit. People were looking at him.
Monday, October 10, 2011
Here's some minor conflict.
Farzad looked around the cubicle and found Lee.
"There's UPS box in the warehouse that needs your signature in order to receive. " Farzad said, setting down his 2 boxes.
"Where is it from?"
"The label says Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory." Farzad said. "I didn't know we have collaborations with them?" Farzad added.
"Actually we do."
"To be honest, the High Explosives Applications Facility, that's where they study explosives in general."
"Have you been there?" Farzad asked.
"Twice, maybe. It's a highly secure lab since they deal with explosives. There are areas that are restricted, as you may know. One secretary told me that one area was highly classified you need 7 passwords to enter 7 doors, different pass code for every door, just crazy."
"And the facility I would imagine is state of the art?"
"It is, but I probably won't work there. It's dangerous. I'm a little bit clumsy sometimes. The last time I visited there, our host told us that people carrying explosives sample through the hall must stay on the white path, so that if accidents happen, it won't affect the adjacent lab."
"Crazy." Farzad said nodding. "How come I didn't know about this collaborations?"
Lee didn't answer.
"Is it because I'm an international student? An Iranian?"
"It's not that? Why not just tell me because I'm a Muslim."
"Because you are not a US citizen." Lee said lying, but his Deep South roots is biased to Muslims.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
The remarks reminded me of the Black Swan, a controversial book with the recurring theme that we cannot predict the future.
Nassim Taleb is the maverick thinker and author of the book. When I first read the book, it became apparent to me that the sentences were long. I was always told, as a science writer, to be concise and direct to the point. His however was long. Nassim infuses a lot of statistics in his book, and I must say, I was seldom lost.
The Black Swan showed me that long sentences has its place in scientific books, and also showed me the idea that we cannot pinpoint any reason for anything.
How Google became the wealthiest company? We may never know never know, but in hindsight we can pinpoint explanations.
I "read'" most of his books in an audio form, while training for a marathon. If I read the sentences aloud here, I know its his writing, no doubt. Take a look at his delaying tactics.
He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.
And this one too.
If you were obsessed with the future in the seventies, you were obsessed with Xerox PARC—which was why the young Steve Jobs had driven to Coyote Hill Road.
Here's the whole article:
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
My assignment: Just re-write what's in my notebook in a third person, omniscient.
Lee took the sheets to his cubicle and read the confidential fax again. He knew he has a hand on this, the troubles besetting Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. But he can't tell Chuck, not now. The situation was not ideal.
It's not a secret that most of his groupmates harbor fear and hate towards the man who demands perfection in their experiments and data. It's not a secret that their adviser is a slave driver. But Chuck's been very nice to Lee and chuck trust Lee.
Professor Morrison's God complex had irritated most of the faculty in the department. If firing a tenured faculty is possible for being an ass, by acting like horrible drill sergeant, Chuck's the first one to go. But unless he's not caught fucking his own graduate student, he is untouchable. Despite the hatred toward Lee's adviser, Lee knew he's one of Chuck's favorite. Lee was like a favorite son. He doesn't want to destroy the trust now, by confiding to the professor that he may have a hand in these troubles. He may have a hand, unless he sort things out first and call Jonathan. They were the only people, besides his groupmates, who knew the details of his findings.
He needed to get into the bottom of everything.
Lee took out he business card out from his old, fat wallet. He cautiously looked around making sure he's alone in the office and dialed the number.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Right now, my challenge is writing a dialogue. The scene is in the professor's office, talking to Lee regarding the fax the professor received:
Lee closed the door behind him. He saw the professor stroking his white beard, focusing on the fax in front of him. The professor said without looking to Lee "the way I see it, the perpetrators knew the science behind the airport."
Lee couldn't decipher what the professor was trying to communicate but he has a feeling that it was about the problems encountered by Charlotte International Airport. Lee asked a question slowly, "I don't understand Chuck, what are you talking about?"
"The masses that appeared in the spectrum are not traces of explosives" He handed Lee the fax.
Lee studied the 2 pages in his hands.
"Could it be possible that the instruments malfunctioned? The numbers are close to the SRM provided by the Institute of Standards."
"I know, but it's not the exact masses, they are close." Chuck handed Lee again 2 pieces of paper.
Lee read the headings
STANDARD REFERENCE MATERIAL (SRM) 2905, Trace Particulate Explosives.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology published an aid for security personnel and researchers to
Writing a novel in one month requires writing 1600 words a day. I'm not into that thing, but I'll do something similar, the 90-day challenge.