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It's the official release day for the paperback edition of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, which makes me a paperback writer.

Giveaway time!

The paperback edition of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas comes out on September 1, so I'm running a Goodreads giveaway. Enter by September 20 to win a signed copy.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas

by Jacqueline Houtman

Giveaway ends September 20, 2012.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Rocket Science and Brain Surgery

I've been thinking about the phrases "It's not rocket science" and "It's not brain surgery." What do these statements have in common?


The implication is that the task in question is easy, and thus that rocket science and brain surgery are hard.

Science is hard.

I wonder how that belief has affected our perceptions. Does it keep kids from choosing science as a career? Does it dissuade them from taking science electives? Does it make it easier for them to give up on science?

It's not like it's common to say:
"It's not a persuasive essay."
"It's not spelling."
"It's not like signing a yearbook or birthday card." (Which to me is much harder than science.)

Although it's pretty common to say
"Easy as pie." (Have you ever tried to make a lemon meringue pie?)
"Easy as ABC, 123, do re mi, baby, you and me."

Reading and writing and 'rithmatic.

What about science? If we keep telling each other--and our kids--that it's hard, it will be.
Good teachers can make science accessible and fun.
And easy.

Cover Reveal!

Here's the cover for the paperback edition of THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS
Scheduled for release September 2012
Boyds Mills Press

The protein of story: a study in structure

I was bending my husband's ear about the issues I'm having with the revision of my current work-in-progress and he made a comment about protein structure. Yeah, I know, we're like that in our house. But it got me thinking, and then I read this post about the double helix of plot and character over at Project Middle Grade Mayhem. So here's what I came up with.

Proteins have four levels of structure. The primary structure is the sequence of amino acids, the order in which the beads are strung along the chain. It's the direct translation of the genetic code in the DNA and it is what makes each protein unique. This is like the prose, the order of words in a book. It's linear. It goes from point a to point b, from "Once upon a time" to "happily ever after," from the amino terminus to the carboxyl terminus. Changing the primary structure is like line editing, getting the order of words in each sentence right.

The secondary structure of a protein includes common structural motifs, like alpha helices and beta sheets. They arise from the way the individual amino acids interact with other amino acids in their general proximity. These are like the rhythm, tone, and voice. It's how the words and sentences flow together, the patterns that they make. It's how the characters think and talk and behave.

Tertiary structure is like the plot. It's how the amino acids interact with other amino acids in other parts of the protein chain. There are twists and turns. Things fold back on each other. Lines intersect. Some amino acids can even form chemical bonds with each other, joining parts of the protein chain together, connecting them at particular points along the line. The tertiary structure gives the protein/book its shape. Foreshadowing, flashback, conflict, surprise, epiphany. These are all tertiary structural elements of the story, and they ultimately make the protein perform its function. They make the story work.

Quaternary structure is only relevant in some proteins, those made up of subunits. It's how the different protein molecules fit together to form a functional unit. So maybe that's like a series. Or maybe it's how a bunch of different subplots fit together.

How do you change the structure of a protein? Mutations. How do you change the structure of a book? Edits and revision.
Some mutations change only the primary structure. They add, delete, or substitute single amino acids in such a way that the higher levels of structure are not affected. They don't really change the shape or function of the protein as a whole. Line edits can be like that. They make a sentence flow more smoothly or clarify a point, but they don't change anything about the voice or rhythm or plot.

Bigger edits, like taking out or adding scenes, can certainly change the overall structure of the book/protein and those changes depend on the size, position, and composition of the insertion/deletion. Even simple changes, single words, can have a profound effect on the secondary or tertiary structure, if they are the right changes in the right place.

Right now I'm working on the secondary and tertiary structure of my story. It's easy to get bogged down in the primary structure--rewriting and rewording a sentence over and over until it's just right. But if the changes I make in that sentence don't affect the rhythm, voice or plot, I must resist the urge to polish it, because I'm still working on the shape of the protein/story as a whole. The changes I make need to fold, spiral, bulk up, and flatten out the story until it's in its most functional shape.

Ultimately, though, it's the sequence of amino acids that make a protein function.
It's the right words strung together in the right order that make a story work.
Next week a bunch of Wisconsin SCBWI-ers will be showing our stuff at the Wisconsin State Reading Association convention.

Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 2:00pm

Frontier Airlines Center, Milwaukee, WI

Wisconsin Authors' and Illustrators' Showcase

JoAnn Early Macken

Lisa Albert

Ann Angel

Ann Bausum

Sheila Terman Cohen

Kathryn Heling

Jacqueline Houtman

Deborah Lynn Jacobs

Lisa Moser

Carol Schwartz

Stacy Tornio

Let's hope the weather is better than it was last year, when most of us made it through the snow.
Publishers Weekly was impressed.

Meet Jim (again)

This is Jim, the actual flesh and blood crossing guard after whom the fictional crossing guard Jim in THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS is named. (He doesn't know it, though.) He was profiled in this article, from which I lifted the above photo.

(ETA: He knows now, and I gave him a copy of the book.)

My dear husband chats with Jim frequently. Jim's corner is on DH's bike commuting route to work. I've met Jim a few times when I've ridden along with DH to get a bit of exercise. Every school day Jim is there, in downpours, in subzero Wisconsin winters, standing for hours and placing himself between our kids and inattentive drivers. He always greets DH with a smile and a kind word.

Danger at school crossings is a major plot point in EDDY, and it's a major concern of mine. We live next to an elementary school attended  by the littlest ones--kindergarten through second grade. There is a stop sign on the street between our house and the school, and I can see it from my kitchen window. Drivers often fail to come to a complete stop at that sign, and many ignore it completely. I share my protagonist's outrage at this.

It may seem like a trivial issue, but if you read the article, you will see that two schoolchildren were injured in one day. I have also witnessed the aftermath of another incident, a little girl lying in the middle of the street, her pink backpack  beside her, being tended to by passersby. (Traffic was backed up quite a bit, angering some commuters, I'm sure. They probably complained to the people they were phoning or texting.)

A teacher friend of mine held one of her students in her arms as he died following a similar incident.  

So the next time you see a crossing guard, thank him or her. And slow down.

Holiday Wishes

From the bloggers (including me!) at The Mixed-Up Files...of Middle Grade Authors:

A Real Live Eddy Coil!

My dear husband has constructed me an eddy coil.

If you've read my book, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, you know that Eddy's science fair project is an eddy coil. Although I described what it looks like, a picture is worth a thousand words. And a video is priceless.

View and enjoy!

My checkered past

I'm extremely excited to head up to Sheboygan, Wisconsin this weekend to see the World Premiere of Theater for Young Audiences' production of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas.

Photo by Bruce Halmo/The Sheboygan Press

You may ask yourself, "Why?"
Is it because these kids are made of awesome? Yep.
Is it because I will actually see the characters that have been in my head for years? Yep.
Is it because I am a dyed-in-the-wool theater geek? Yep.

I spent many years during and after college participating in an amateur theater group at the University of Delaware called Harrington Theatre Arts Company, or HTAC. (We were very artistic, so we spelled it "theatre" instead of "theater.") It wasn't associated with the Theater Department and--at least when I was there--most of the participants weren't theater majors. I myself was a biology major, and it was very useful that the stage we often used was a lecture hall in my building. I could run over to the lab to stain some slides, then run back to rehearsal without even going outside. The best part was that I got to do just about every job there is on a show: director, choreographer, sound, lighting, costume design, house manager.., and so on.

I'm posting some scans of old photos. Please excuse the funky formatting. My scanner is attached to a dinosaur desktop and I do not understand LJ's photo editing tool at all.

Every winter session, we'd do children's theater. Here I am in gold, as Gretchen Gresham with my grinning golden grapes.

Here I am as Maid Millicent in "Prince Charming is Missing."

I also loved designing sets. I didn't do the structural design, just the paint on the surface of the flats.

Here's my first set, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

And here's "The Boyfriend." The one on the left is kind of dark, but I wanted to get a picture of the proscenium, the arch around the main stage, which I designed. This was before digital cameras, mind you.

And I also performed. Here's me in my only romantic lead, in "Butterflies are Free." In a brunette wig:

And without the wig:

And I also danced a bit. Here was a "Saturday Night Live"-ish show called "Prime Time." I'm second from the right.

And here I am in the foreground in "Pal Joey."

It was a lot of fun to Skype with the playwrights, cast, and crew from Theater for Young Audiences. They're a creative, enthusiastic group of kids, and I can't wait to see the show on Saturday night. If you're in Sheboygan this weekend, check it out.


Head shot
Jacqueline Houtman
I'm a freelance science writer based in Madison, WI. I also write sciency fiction for kids. My award-winning debut novel, THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS, was published by Front Street/Boyds Mills Press in March 2010.

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