The Pesticide (maybe) in Your Coffee

Insecticides are a huge industry in the United States – whether we’re talking the small-scale can of Raid for your kitchen counter ants or the much larger scale agricultural market. But what if there was something already on your kitchen counter that might take care of those ants for you?

Erythritol is the main compound found in Truvia, a common artificial sweetener that many people use for baking or their morning Cup o’ Joe. Erythritol is a non-nutritive sugar alcohol – so while it sweetens your food, it can’t be digested by your body. The fact that it is sweet (like sucrose or other sugars) makes it attractive to insects such as Drosophila melanogaster, one species of small fruit fly that is a very common organism for scientific study. In this case, attractive can also mean deadly.

Figure 1. Drosophila melanogaster raised on food containing Truvia show decreased longevity. Truvia is red, Purevia is green, control nutritive sugars are dark blue, and other non-nutritive sugars are light blue. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners over time. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies raised on food containing Truvia compared to other food.
Figure 1. Drosophila melanogaster raised on food containing Truvia show decreased longevity. Truvia is red, Purevia is green, control nutritive sugars are dark blue, and other non-nutritive sugars are light blue. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners over time. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies raised on food containing Truvia compared to other food.

My lab published its first ground-breaking (what, can’t a girl brag?) paper on erythritol in PLoS One, entitled “Erythritol, a Non-Nutritive Sugar Alcohol Sweetener and the Main Component of Truvia, is a Palatable Ingested Insecticide” (Baudier et al 2014, before I arrived). As you can see on the graph to the left, flies that ate Truvia had significantly decreased longevity as compared to flies fed PureVia, Sweet ‘N Low, Sucrose, Equal, Splenda, or Corn Syrup. It’s a pretty drastic split. They also ran an experiment confirming which compound in Truvia was the killer compound (spoilers above: it’s erythritol).

Figure 6. CAFE experiments show Drosophila melanogaster actively consume erythritol over time. Upper graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually housed flies fed 5% erythritol (red columns) and 10 individually housed flies fed 5% sucrose (blue columns) over a 6 hour period. Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and separated by sex. Lower graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually house flies when presented with a choice between 5% erythritol (red columns) and 5% sucrose (blue columns). Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and is separated by sex. Note the significant increase in erythritol intake compared to sucrose intake for both sexes.
Figure 6. CAFE experiments show Drosophila melanogaster actively consume erythritol over time. Upper graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually housed flies fed 5% erythritol (red columns) and 10 individually housed flies fed 5% sucrose (blue columns) over a 6 hour period. Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and separated by sex. Lower graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually house flies when presented with a choice between 5% erythritol (red columns) and 5% sucrose (blue columns). Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and is separated by sex. Note the significant increase in erythritol intake compared to sucrose intake for both sexes.

 

 

 

But it doesn’t matter if erythritol kills the flies if they won’t choose to eat it! So Baudier et al. ran several CAFE experiments; one gave the flies access to both sucrose and erythritol of the same concentration and measured how much of each solution the flies ate over time (bottom graph of the figure to the right). As you can see, the red bars are much higher than the blue for both sexes – the flies, when presented with a choice, ate more erythritol than sucrose. If that trend were to hold in the wild, that would be very good news – the flies would self-select to eat the pesticide over other available foods containing non-lethal sucrose!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While this paper looked at a few more things, the last piece of the puzzle I want to talk about here is the effects of higher or lower doses of erythritol on fly longevity. The graph below shows that flies fed two molar erythritol all died within 48 hours! That’s incredibly fast-acting for a pretty tame pesticide.

Figure 4. Increasing concentrations of erythritol show decreased longevity in Drosophila melanogaster. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different concentrations of erythritol. Control food is 0.5 M sucrose (blue line), 2 M erythritol (red line), 1 M erythritol (orange line), 0.5 M erythritol (green line), and 0.1 M erythritol (black line) were used. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies as concentration of erythritol is increased.
Figure 4. Increasing concentrations of erythritol show decreased longevity in Drosophila melanogaster. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different concentrations of erythritol. Control food is 0.5 M sucrose (blue line), 2 M erythritol (red line), 1 M erythritol (orange line), 0.5 M erythritol (green line), and 0.1 M erythritol (black line) were used. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies as concentration of erythritol is increased.

I hear you saying: “Okay, Meghan, but this is all about flies. Didn’t you promise me that I could take out ants with this stuff?” A recent study by another lab has shown that erythritol works against Solenopsis invicta – the red imported fire ant that causes so much trouble in the United States and abroad. While that probably isn’t the species of ant you have on your counter, it is a promising sign that this stuff may just work on many different groups of insects – from flies to ants, perhaps beyond.

And because erythritol is found in a sweetener meant for human consumption it has been rigorously tested by the FDA and is known to be human-safe (though if you eat a lot, and I mean a lot, of it all at once it may have a laxative effect). In other words, you can feel better about spraying this stuff onto your countertops than Raid. Compared to neurotoxins and other nasty chemical pesticides, erythritol is also thought to be more environmentally friendly too!

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Biopoetics: Windborne

Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo
Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

A huge thank you to Crab Fat Magazine for publishing this poem; you can read it here, see the form here, or listen to me read it here.

Windborne is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Windborne occurs as the trees begin to let loose their seeds (known as samaras, or helicopters), allowing for them to be carried on the wind across the land (this is known as anemochory).

In Budbreak, adult sugar maples that are at least 22 years old begin to produce leaves and flowers; these flowers cover the entire crown of the tree and contain both male and female parts. However, within a particular flower, only one sex will be functional – even though each tree will contain both sexes of flowers. Sugar maple pollen is carried by the wind from male to female flowers, fertilizing the ovules within the female flowers that will ripen into seeds over the next sixteen or so weeks. Each double samara (two wings) generally contains one seed which is ripe and ready when it turns a nice green color. Over the next two weeks, the ripened samaras will fall – leaving a pit in their coat, called the hilum, where they were once attached to the tree. The shape of the double samara and the size of the ‘wings’ allow samaras to be carried at least 100m!

Seeds are packed with their own food source (the endosperm) to help fuel the plant embryo’s growth. The embryo has several important parts – the plumule (rudimentary shoot), a radicle root that will emerge first upon germination to reach water through the leaf litter, and the first leaves, or cotyledons. In sugar maples (dicotyledons) there are two of them, which I wrote more about here in the Biopoetics for my poem “Dicotyledons”. Seeds typically have only a year to germinate before losing viability so it’s critical they land in a welcoming, wet environment. Seeds that are carried by the wind to extremely dry areas, rocks, or other inhospitable places will likely never germinate – which is why adult trees produce so many samaras. One year in Michigan, 8.56 million samaras/acre were recorded!

Check out the link of the photo, where the photographer has provided a few more maple seed facts in the description!

Main Source:

https://www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/acer/saccharum.htm

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Biopoetics: Sapriver

I’m so thankful to Five 2 One magazine for publishing this poem; you can purchase the journal here, read my poem here, or listen to it: here.

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Photo by Duane Tate entitled ‘Trees in Winter’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Sapriver is another poem in my sugar maple cycle; when I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Sapriver occurs as the ground  begins to warm and winter (Deepnight) starts to fade into spring.

In fall, trees store sugars in their roots before losing their leaves and laying dormant through the short, cold days of winter. ABA, abscisic acid, helps the tree acclimate to the cold winter temperatures and be ‘frost ready‘ (entering a period of dormancy with fallen leaves, closed stomates, and other cellular changes).

During those winter days, sunlight can warm the cells just under the bark, causing them to expand. When night comes, the bark cools and contracts faster than the cells underneath, causing a vertical seam to split the bark open as it tightens over an expanded layer of cells. This heat stress can cause significant cell death and cracks in the barks of trees, sometimes called ‘frost cracks’ or ‘radial shakes’ (though there are also other causes of these wounds). Smaller trees can even die from these wounds, as they have fewer cell layers overall. This is just one challenge faced by trees due to weather conditions.

Longer days cause snow to melt, saturating the soil, and also raises ground temperature. The daytime heating of the ground causes sap stored in the roots (created through photosynthesis by leaves the tree lost in the fall) to also heat up; the sap expands due to the heating, creating pressure inside the finite space of the roots, causing some of the sap to flow up the trunk of the tree through the xylem. At night, when everything cools, there is now negative pressure in the roots – causing water to be pulled into the roots from the environment to equalize the pressure again. This sap and water is used by the tree to begin creating buds that will eventually become flowers and leaves, a process helped along by ‘gibberelins’  – hormones that stimulate stem elongation, breaking and budding, and seed germination after periods of dormancy (in response to cold).

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What I’m Working On

The last ‘What I’m Working On’ was all the way back in September 2016, and a lot has happened since then – so you probably deserve an update!

Research/Science Projects:

I’m still working on gathering data for the Eciton ant brain project (the only thing which did stay consistent between my last post and this one). It turns out that this project is going to be a really, really long one… we’ve got about 12 heads left to embed and slice and somewhere around 45 left to photograph and quantify. If you imagine that it takes a week to embed, 1.5 hours to slice each head, 6 hours to stain them all, 3 hours to coverslip them all, 1.5 hours each for photographs, and 2 hours each to quantify… basically, see you never! In addition to the Eciton spp project, we’re doing something similar with termites – I’m helping Susie finish up the tail ends of that project by taking photographs and embedding for her so she can be the master quantifier. Termite brains are funny (though not as funny as the spiders!).

While we’re waiting to hear back from the NSF on social spider brains, I’ve been doing some work for Sean on our super-secret pesticide project. Unfortunately, this is one I really can’t talk much about given that there’s patents and all kinds of legalese involved. Basically, I’m learning lots of things about lots of different arthropods and pesticides and animal husbandry it’s been really absorbing lots of my time in a (mostly) good way.

Photo by Arizona Board of Regents/ASU Ask A Biologist entitled ‘digging male’ (Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported), link through photo

I have a few other project ideas brewing as I begin thinking more about my thesis – some involving Centris pallida, a beautiful species of desert bee with really dimorphic male mating behaviors. I also have some developing interest in the brains of myrmecophilous beetles – parasitic beetles that live in ant colonies and utilize their resources. Hopefully, these more collaborative projects will start to develop soon, since I’m not currently in the position to collect these insects myself!

Writing Projects:

As my last post stated, I recently embarked on my Camp NaNoWriMo journey for April of 2017 and managed to write about 20,000 words of my novel-in-progress that I didn’t actually even conceptualize until April 2nd! April was a whirlwind month, but I feel pretty good about this story, and am excited to continue it when my life gets a bit more under control. The story features a journalist in England in the early 1800s, and her investigation into the Foreign Office and a prolific English assassin. I’ve had a lot of fun researching who the assassin kills, and making sure the timeline and locations fit – overall, this story is a set up for another that I’ve been working on for a long time and filling in all the background is really rewarding and intriguing.

I also managed to participate in the Creative Writing Collaboration since my last September post – but pretty much everything else has been at a standstill with graduate school at the forefront of my mind.

And that’s what you missed on… Glee?

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A Writer Walked Into a Camp…

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Alex and I celebrating Easter with his family, in sunny FL

April was an interesting month for me, in part because I really focused on my writing more than I had the rest of the year, by participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, and happens every November – participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I participated my senior year of high school and won (in only 19 days!), but November has been a pretty sh*t month every year thereafter given that I’ve been a college/grad student and things get pretty heated for school right around November.

Camp NaNo, then, happens in the spring and summer and is a lot more relaxed – you set your own goals for word count/hours of writing/pages, etc, and get sorted into cabins with other participants to chat and motivate one another. I started out April’s camp with a far too ambitious goal of 50,000 words (thinking my writing skills were more in practice than they are) and quickly lowered it to 35,000 words. But the end of April really took me by surprise, with research, classwork, friend and family obligations, and so I only ended up at around 20,000 words – still a remarkable number of words for a grad student to tackle in just one month, I think.

I have mixed feelings about how April’s camp went – on the one hand, I am 20,000 words deeper into a story than I was before and that is an amazing amount of progress for just one month while also taking classes and working on several research projects. What I’m less happy about, is how much else in my life fell to a standstill – namely, every household chore, my emotional health, and several friendships were under-served in this time “balance”. It feels like something is constantly being sacrificed – my health, my research, my coursework, my sanity, my house, my friendships, or my writing.

It’s this feeling of sacrifice, and the immense amount of weight of all the constantly undone things in my life, that seems to be dragging me down most of late. I no longer feel like an ‘impostor’ – I’m really hitting a stride in my research and have tons of ideas flowing. I love (and am annoyed by) how my story is flowing, and had fun working on it. But it’s all the papers unread, the brains unmeasured, the photos not taken, the emails unanswered, the homework undone, the laundry unfolded and dishes not cleaned, the games not made, the words not written, the calls not made, and the gifts not purchased that are paralyzing me. And each time I begin to feel really good about one or even two things, the other areas of my life start to pop up and burden me heavily with the weight of my neglect.

And paralyzing is an accurate word, I think. I come home at night and do nothing, in part because I am tired and in part because I cannot decide fully which problem most deserves my attention and suddenly nothing happens and it is time for bed. My typical strategies for dealing with stress and being overwhelmed no longer seem to work and I still can’t quite figure out if that’s because I’ve changed, or my life has changed, or both. Camp was, in many ways, lovely and encouraging (exciting and relieving to boot!) but in several senses it highlighted just how hard it can be to juggle my two big life goals at the same time and still maintain a creative, energetic flow in my life. And it certainly makes me appreciate how hard my favorite writers work to maintain their ‘day’ and writing careers at the same time.

Do you have any tricks for managing a difficult workload or schedule with several long-term projects? How do you adjust your mindset?

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Becoming a Wizard

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Chrysididae crossing! Just one gorgeous wasp I collected in NY…

Being a budding entomologist is like being a child in a muggle world, and getting your letter from Hogwarts. Suddenly, all around you, a whole new world opens up – things that were there before, unnoticed, are now glaringly obvious to you even as the rest of the world carries on, oblivious. Like running up to platform 9 and 3/4 or the wall opening to Diagon Alley, entomologists see extraordinary and unique things in their everyday environment.

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My unsuccessful Camponotus run… not a good sample population of the dimorphism I was seeing.

This is apparent to me whenever I am outside – at home, or in the city proper of Philadelphia. What’s that? Apidae nomada chasing one another around near the ground outside? Look at those three Xylacopa, buzzing by the roof of my house (uh oh…)! What a gorgeous, glossy Formica – my goodness, wing buds! She’s a queen! And check out the size dimorphism on all those Camponotus workers – they’re no Eciton, to be sure, but it’s still pretty drastic. As a budding entomologist, a whole new world opens up, right before your eyes. The everyday events of walking down the street, or exiting your car, can be filled with new, exciting observations and discoveries.

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Okay, some of them are yellow and black… Megachilidae anthidium

One of my favorite things about this metaphor, however, is where it ends. Unlike in the Harry Potter universe, I (a wizard in training!) am allowed to share my knowledge and my world with the ‘muggles’. Showing my grandmother a spider brain under the scope, or showing my fiance the large Camponotus ants I’ve been hunting all week, or showing my queen Formica ant to the inquisitive man on the subway platform, brings me joy. By far my favorite thing to share, is my knowledge of beautiful bees. Ask a ‘bee muggle’ what comes to mind when they think of a bee and the answers are:

  1. Yellow and black
  2. Fuzzy bumblebees
  3. Honey
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Augocholorini alert!

Very rarely, someone will say ‘sweat bee’ or ‘carpenter/mason bee’ to go along with the three things above. But the truth of bees, is that there is so much more – right in our neck of the woods. The amazement when I show someone the beautiful green Agapostemon, Augochlorini, or the red Nomada, or even dark blue Osmia that they can catch practically in their own backyard (not to mention the gorgeous Chrysididae wasps!) right here in PA or NY is incredibly fulfilling. Suddenly, they too are getting a brief glimpse into the magical world of insects that surrounds us – and they nearly always want to know more.

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Me being added to the collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University – pretty close to a Hogwarts letter, right?

This post comes to mind mostly because I am more tuned in to nature right now than I’ve ever been before. With spring starting up, the world is beginning to hum and buzz with life again, and I am yet another year more knowledgeable about the world around me. I also spent most of my weekend chasing Camponotus with my aspirator (they’re fast!) – which afforded me a lot of time looking at the ground, observing bees, wasps, ants, beetles, spiders, worms, etc. Despite the fact that this would seem initially unexciting, little is more rewarding than getting peeks into this ‘secret’ world, constantly in motion all around us – it is times like these that I feel extremely lucky to have received my entomologist’s letter to Hogwarts.

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Character Flaws

17990375_1652112918136755_7909619328052172307_oThis past weekend, my fiance and I took a trip to Florida for Easter to visit his family. Despite the fact that this was our third trip down (aka, I’m not new to planes), I still managed to forget to pack some Dramamine for the plane ride. I spent the entirety of our descent into Punta Gorda wincing, holding onto my stomach, trying not to hyperventilate and thankfully, not vomiting on my beloved. As we exited the plane and returned to blessed, solid ground, my legs were shaking so badly I thought I might fall over.

A more perfect version of myself would have one of two qualities:

  1. A sturdier stomach, in which I do not get plane sick
  2. A more focused brain, in which I remember I get plane sickness and bring the medicine I own for said problem

But if I were reading about this moment in My Life: A Novel, a reader enjoying a well-crafted protagonist named Meghan Barrett, it’s exactly this kind of moment that would bring me, the character, to life for me, the reader. As I read the description of my wobbly legs nearly buckling descending the steps to the tarmac, complete with a description of my fear of fainting at my father-in-law’s feet and regret at forgetting my medicine, I’d likely howl with laughter and then call my fiance over to read those same lines with me. It is a character’s imperfections that make them real and interesting.

I don’t particularly like writing my characters’ imperfections – it feels almost like betraying a friend or revealing someone’s dirty secret since no one else in the world knows these characters (and their flaws) but me. If you like a person, you don’t generally go around telling other people about all the things they could be doing better, a la “Rachel? Oh yeah, she’s great. Real smart and lovable but she does have a temper. And man could she use a toothbrush.” By writing honestly about those flaws, my characters then generally have to go through exactly what I hate to go through myself: failure or embarrassment. But it’s overcoming those moments of failure (and the humor of living through some of them) that make the story interesting, inspiring, engaging – great.

Do you struggle to write about your character’s flaws and failures? How do you make sure you stay true to your characters? What kinds of flaws are your favorites to write (or least favorite)? Why? Tell me in the comments below!

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Biopoetics: Budbreak

A huge thank you to The Waggle for publishing this poem; you can read it here or listen to me read it here.

This is another poem in my sugar maple cycle, and I owe pretty much all of this poem to Margaret Skinner and Bruce L. Parker’s Field Guide for Monitoring Sugar Maple Bud Development. I highly recommend checking out the link, to see the great pictures and descriptions of the leaf and flower buds as they develop from dormancy to ‘Budbreak’. It’s one of my favorite sugar maple resources.

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Photo by Eli Sagor entitled ‘sugar maple pointed buds’ (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic), link through photo

When I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I hypothesized what I thought would be important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. In human terms, Sunleaves is fall, Deepnight is winter, and Sapriver – Windborne take up early spring through mid fall.

Dormant buds begin as small conical shells of overlapping scales (that are actually highly modified leaves) surrounding either leaf or flower material. They survive winter by remaining inactive (we discuss this in brief in the ‘Sapriver’ biopoetics). As they leave dormancy into their initial swell, they grow larger but retain their conical shape. Trees exit dormancy when two conditions are reached:

  1. The minimum number of cold days has passed (hence why global warming creates serious concerns)
  2. Warming begins in conjunction with the longer photoperiods of spring

Basically, the longer days of spring can cause the buildup of gibberellin and this is part of the pathway for breaking bud dormancy.

After the bud swells, it continues to elongate and turn green (for leaves, yellow for flowers) and the scales surrounding the bud loosen, preparing for the emergence of what’s inside. In fact, they loosen enough to allow in parasites like thrips, which I wrote about in another poem (Comma after Late Budbreak, Defoliation by an Invasive Pear). Finally, the bud bursts into a group of flowers (called an inflorescence), or a wet-looking set of leaves (reminiscent of the ‘wet’ wings of butterflies right after they emerge from their cocoons). The wrinkled leaves are curled over the bud before they begin to unfold and spread wide, ready to photosynthesize. The flower bundles droop down, covered in pollen, before eventually shriveling up as seeds begin to form in their stead.

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Plotting and Pantsing

In the writing world, there’s a lot of talk about two kinds of people – the plotters, and the pantsers. There are the people who plot out every step of the novel from beginning to end, with scene cards and post its, while others sit down to write with almost no plan at all. And, of course, there are people in between.

Plotting is in my nature. I’m the kind of gal who wants to plan each meal she eats, who has to do lists about which to do lists to focus on each day, who wants to have her next ten years planned out by the hour (okay, not quite that bad). But plotting in writing, doesn’t seem to come naturally to me; in school, I detest writing outlines for my essays because I’d rather just finish the thing and reorganize as I go. For my story that I’m working on now, I’ve had the basic concept of the series idea in mind for at least three years and yet there’s only about fifteen post its on the wall to corral the material of four whole books – and most of those post its are about the historical context and not the story itself.

And maybe that’s because Pantsing is also in my nature, despite the fact that I want to be a plotter – I want to have control over (or at least know) where my story is going. While I certainly have a lot of lists and plans for my life, I do get distracted along the way, getting pulled towards plenty of shiny objects that aren’t my main goal. When that happens, I end up missing the mark of a lot of the plotted out ‘points’ or goals I’d been hoping to achieve. And yet, it’s these moments of ‘pantsing’ that make me real and spontaneous and human – a being that can’t be charted.

And the more I work on these continuously evolving stories, the more I realize how important ‘pantsing’ has become to my work despite my desire to plot. My characters are not going to follow the line I set for them if it’s not in their nature; instead, when I try to force them down a path I will encounter their resistance. And this resistance, while frustrating, has pointed me in the right direction now more than once.

Pantsing is frustrating because it means 30-50K words can go away like ‘poof’ when you realize something new about your plot or characters. It would be nice if I knew them well enough at the outset to plot their lives like they would actually live them; and yet this exploration is so fascinating, so decidedly not self-directed despite the fact that all the words and characters come from me, that I can’t quite find the will to be upset about it for long.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? Somewhere in between? What strategies do you use to keep your writing on track? Let me know in the comments below.

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Collaborative Writing Challenge

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Image taken from the CWC website, link through the photo

For the past few months, I’ve been participating in the Collaborative Writing Challenge – this project asks a group of around fifty authors to write a novel together, in some predetermined genre. Fifty authors! You say (I said). One book! Impossible!

Here’s how it works. The CWC puts out a call for authors to sign up for the project, a novel of a particular genre, and accepts first chapter submissions from all authors for a novel in that genre. The story coordinator, who oversees the writing of the book, chooses their four (or so) favorite submissions and sends them out to all the authors who have signed up for that project, asking for votes. The winning chapter becomes the first chapter of the project.

Meanwhile, the story coordinator is busy setting up a thirty-chapter writing schedule where all authors can sign up to try writing up to three chapters in that thirty-week schedule. No matter what happens in the book, it’d better be wrapped up by chapter 30! Each chapter gets assigned three different authors to attempt writing it within a week, using summaries of all previous chapters prepared by the story coordinator and the full chapter that comes right before theirs. The story coordinator picks a winner, to send on to the next group of writers and the process repeats. An example of how this works:

John, Taylor, and Monique are signed up to write Chapter 23; on Wednesday, they each receive the chapter summaries and reference notes for all twenty-two preceding chapters, and the full text of chapter 22. They have until Tuesday of the following week to each submit their version of Chapter 23 to the story coordinator. The story coordinator chooses Monique’s as the best submission, which is summarily is sent on to the people writing Chapter 24, and a chapter summary is prepared for all future writers.

I signed up last July when I had ‘nothing to do’ and when, in the middle of my winter quarter of graduate school, the email came that my turn to participate in the challenge I said some not-so-nice words while looking at my schedule for the week. My first attempt was a bust where I opened too many cans of worms without leaving any clues for my next-chapter authors – but my second attempt, chapter 27, for the fantasy novel Esyld’s Awakening – was chosen to be included in the final work. The blurb for Esyld’s Awakening is:

In a land of direwolves and dragons, the Abdita or “Hidden” are a species devoted to maintaining the balance between man and the earth. Guardians by nature, their powers are misunderstood.

When a dark force rises, the balance of life is unsettled. Blight and sickness spread.

Desperate for answers, King Rouaix Godfrey XVII turns to the mysterious Prime Order. He sets his knights – led by the unequaled Ser Pagaene – on the Abdita.

But the High Priestess of the Adbita summons a different kind of champion; Esyld, a guardian with wisdom on her side.

Thrown together, each tests the patience and fortitude of the other. But both sides have secrets, and it may take more than nature or man alone to stop what is coming. Can enemies work together to save all?

The project was interesting for me, as an exercise, because it forced me to write outside my comfort zone (let’s face it, almost all writing is outside my comfort zone but this was even MORE so). First, it forced me to let go of control – something I struggle to do in many areas of my life. You can’t choose what happens to the characters once they leave your chapter – your super-elaborate secret plan to solve all the plot holes may go awry after your pen leaves the page. A character you were counting on between your chapters to save the day may die (well, crap) and there’s not much you can do about it but stare at the chapter summary in frustration, shaking your head, before moving on. And because you can’t control everything, it forces you to be adaptable – perhaps, just like your characters at times are painted into a corner and must worm their way out via inventive solutions that you never would have considered were your back not against the wall. As a bit of a plotter, being forced to write by the seat of my pants in less than a week stretched my writerly talents. I also can’t control every comma placement or image description in the book; I know Esyld’s Awakening (despite our truly fantastic story coordinator) will have mistakes. But CWC is about the process, the growth for the writers, more than about the final finished product.

The CWC also forced me to write with incomplete information, something I don’t like to do which then stalls my writing progress. I’ve been thinking about some of my characters for years without ever really making an effort to put pen to paper for them. Why? Because I ‘don’t know them well enough’ or ‘haven’t researched the time period enough’ or ‘haven’t built up their world enough’. These are all valid concerns, don’t get me wrong; nothing makes for a worse book than one with huge anachronisms, poorly developed characters, and bad world building. But sometimes, you have to let go of your hesitation – of not knowing every detail – and just put words on the page. This process leads to important discoveries about characters and worlds, that would never have been made without writing it out. During CWC, you don’t have every word of every previous chapter – in particular, character development is tough. But you have to write anyway.

I’m signed up to try project 8, a romance novel (time period not stated but it seems likely to be a contemporary) and will enjoy the chance to flex my writing muscles again. CWC does play into one of my strengths very well – writing for a deadline! #sprinter – and has given me the motivation to keep up some writing even when grad school gets tough.

Would you try a project like CWC? Why or why not? Have you ever tried a collaborative writing project – with much or little success? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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