Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Passionate Sinning

"The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit is to be joyless." - Dorothy Sayers.

I've been periodically haunted by this particular saying since I read it in Gaudy Night as a teenager.  I say haunted because it comes back to me, either in memory or in some random reminder, and each time it hovers before my mind, teasing me to pursue it to its furthest logical ends.

But I dare not, because I am afraid of where it might take me. It's hypocritical of me, I know. I have so often urged my students not to be afraid of the truth and the hard questions that lead there.

Part of me looks at this saying and says, oh yes, that certainly is true. There must be joy in the passion, whatever its object, or passion becomes obsession, possessiveness, exploitation, infatuation and eventually destruction. The object of passion will either be enslaved or become the enslaver and slavery is a hallmark of sin. Joyless passion would be deadly - another hallmark of sin.

But another part of me recoils from the implications of that "only."  Is joylessness the only sin passion can commit? If I do what I know (or believe) to be sin, but I do it passionately and take joy in it - and I'm supposing real joy here, not simply ephemeral pleasure mistaken for joy - does the joyfulness wipe out all the sin? I'm very much afraid, and afraid is not just a figure of speech, that it does not. To do what we know is wrong, even for the right reasons and with fervent, joyful passion...no, I cannot believe that is true because I see in it a license to choose to sin.

Actually, I see a logical loop developing. If joy = not sin, then that might eliminate all sinful passions from the start. If so, then it would be impossible to sin joyfully. Either one would discover that there was in reality no joy in the passion, or one would find that the passion was joyful and therefore not truly a sin.

But what an awful risk that poses to the desiring soul. Sayer's words imply a massive, awe inspiring, knee weakening freedom. It's like being presented with a great cliff and told "Leap into the abyss. So long as you keep a grip on joy, you will land safely." Or is joy rather a signal beacon along a rocky shore dotted with a thousand false lights that present themselves as joy, but are not truly joy? If we are free in Christ to pursue our passions, whatever they are, so long as they are joyful... Where might we go?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

After Sept 11th...

Sunday was, as it should have been, a day of solemn remembrance. Many of us posted those memories to facebook as a way of sharing and memorializing. I couldn't bring myself to write out my memories of that day - they are both too much and too little to say in a facebook post. I've never been a New Yorker. I was in Columbus, OH when it happened. My roommate and I sat on our living room couch and cried while we watched the towers fall on tv, over and over until we could believe it wasn't just a bad special effect in a cheesy day time movie.

But today, I want to remember another day. A day after Sept 11th. The first day I got on a plane after it all happened. I was flying home for Christmas. The lines were long, the security procedures were still crisp with newness and a sense of purpose. We fellow passengers lined up and marched, shoes in hand, proud to be doing our little bit for duty, for country, for the safety of our fellows and ourselves.

And when I got to my seat on the plane the woman in the aisle seat was plainly Muslim. She had on the full chador and hijab minus the niqab, meaning that she was covered head to toe, with only her face and fingers showing. She was young looking. Somali. And reading from her Koran with intense devotion. She was also plainly terrified.

Was she afraid of being a Muslim on a plane full of jumpy fellow passengers? Probably. I would have been. Was she afraid to fly so soon after the September tragedies? I was. Most of us were. The tension ib the plane was palpable. Or was she simply afraid to fly? Many people are. Or perhaps she carried some other, secret sorrow that no one else could have guessed.

But there she sat right beside me, rocking just a touch, lips moving silently as she cradled her book in her hands. Another, dark haired woman joined us, squeezing into the window seat. As she buckled her seatbelt she and I exchanged quick, nervous smiles. I leaned back in my own seat, eyes half closed and prayed for safety as the engines roared underneath us. And the dark haired woman beside me pulled out her rosary, kissed it, and closed her eyes in prayer.

We rose into the sky, each of us in that row calling out with our hearts, "Hear me, merciful God. Keep me safe."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Helping your Favorite Authors

Too broke to buy books all the books you want from all the authors you love? Steven Zimmer has a post up on his blog about 7 (count 'em!) no cost ways to support your favorite authors.  I highly recommend it.

And WHY should you do these 7 things you wonder? Shouldn't those artsy writery people support themselves? Well...yes.  But...(you knew there was a but in there, didn't you?) We writers should work our butts off to produce work and to find suitable venues and means to put it out there. But publishing is still a game of word of mouth and numbers. One 'OMG! You have to read this' from a fellow reader whose tastes I trust is worth far more to me than an NPR book review. I can count on one hand the number of times I've bought a book based on an expert's opinion that the book was good. And some of those ended up being wasted money. But my shelves are full of authors I heard about through word of mouth, fell in love with and then went out and bought more of. Word of mouth is still the best way for us readers to find authors we might never otherwise have read. And that is delightful for us.

And this is where the numbers come into it. Publishers want sales. Of course they do. And if you can't buy the book yourself, you can up the chances of generating sales from others. If your favorite author has a small, select coterie of devoted fans that author may not get another contract, no matter how much you and your three best friends love her work.  And that would make you sad, right? Because there would be no next Book from Author I Can't Get Enough Of.

So use those social media my friends. Tell us what you love to read.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Words to Make the Heart Sing

Tolkien was fond of pointing out that the words "cellar door" were more beautiful than the word "beautiful." And he was right - if you don't believe me try saying "cellar door" aloud six or seven times until you hear just the sound of the words, not the thing they represent.

Certain words are like that. The sound of the word itself evokes a response in the imagination that goes beyond its dictionary meaning. I once read a lovely essay about the word "dauncerly" - the author had misheard the "dawn's early light" in the national anthem and for years believed it was an adjective meaning a fluttering, delicate movement such as one sees when shorebirds flirt and play in the water's edge at twilight. Now whenever I see light playing through leaves, or glimmering off the water in the evening I think "dauncerly."

My word today is Gonaive (gon-ai-eve). Go on. Say it out loud. Roll the sound of it around on your tongue. Shouldn't it be the name of some gold bedecked queen carried on a litter by six strapping slaves? Or perhaps a city, ancient, noble, and proud, crowded, stinking of donkeys and spice merchants, with a golden temple rising out of the center. Perhaps the city was named after the queen, built in her honor by an emperor whose rule is long forgotten. Only this city lives on in the remnants of their empire, thriving at the crossroads of a thousand paths, the queen's name remembered only in its name and a song that the children sing in the marketplace.

So, tell me your words.  What words do you like to roll around on your tongue? What words inspire stories in your mind?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sherman Alexie and More on YA's "darkness"

Go here for Sherman Alexie's defense of current YA. It's excellent. He finishes with this:

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

This YA debate has really gotten under my skin because it's not just about books, it's about how we talk about and cope with reality, especially the realities too gruesome to contemplate. Megan Cox Gurdon's article accurately traces an arc in YA books that gets darker and more explicit as publishers have become more and more willing to allow such things onto the shelves. But she's wrong in thinking that the publishers' willingness is a cause rather than a symptom. And she's wrong to imply that all or even most kids used to have idyllic, easy lives with two loving, functional parents who protected them from all the scariness in the world.

The more I think about it, the less I think the "old days" for kids were any easier than they are today. In fact, they may have been harder. I think the difference is that today we're more vocal and aware of certain kinds of struggles in children's and teens' lives. I think writers are now saying things that were unprintable a generation ago, and I think the internet has given a way for people speak to a larger audience, but I don't really believe there ever was a golden summer of childhood in which all children grew up safe and warm.

How many women and men of my parents' generation were sexually abused? How many were date raped? Physically abused? It took me until I was in my 30s to hear the stories from my own family members.  These are the kind of stories that women tell only to other women, quietly, standing in kitchens, looking at the floor, or hunched over the kitchen table, toying with a cup of tea. These are the stories they tell when the daughter or niece or cousin has become a woman like them. I'm not going to name names, but I can tell you that in my extended family alone we're just about at the 1 in 4 statistic that people like Megan Cox Gurdon deride as a gross exaggeration. And that's just the women. I don't know the men's stories.

If you don't believe me, go back and look at the statistics on children with sexually transmitted disease over the last hundred years.  England's medical community kept sporadic records on such things starting around the turn of the century, but even those grossly spotty numbers will make you weep. A big difference between then and now isn't a rise in child sexual abuse, but in the way society handles the abuse. Today we have laws explicitly protecting children as a special class of extra vulnerable victims. We also have a foster care system that, while deeply flawed, at least attempts to put endangered children into safe homes. In 1923 girls under age 9 who were diagnosed with gonorrhea were likely to be sent home with advice to their mothers to keep a closer eye on them. If older than that they were likely to end up in a reformatory and labeled as social deviants.

Shall we retreat to the lovely Victorian era?  One of the best selling books on the paperback market in the 1800s was a guidebook to brothels in major American cities, detailing exactly what kinds of services a customer could expect from which houses. It included where the youngest whores were to be found. It was like a Fodor's of sex. The first child abuse prosecution in the western world was brought only by applying animal safety laws to a child using Darwin's theory of evolution to convince the court that the girl in question was technically an animal and therefore entitled to the same protection as a draft horse. She was so badly abused by both her parents that she had to be carried into the courtroom on a stretcher for the jury to examine.

Want to go back further in time to find Neverland? In the 1660s Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about the prostitutes who dotted the London streets. If you read his, and other gentlemen's writing, you'll find that they did not consider a 10 year old prostitute either surprising or difficult to find. Some of them express disdain that parents should sell their children so soon. None of them are surprised. Today we have laws against beating and starving children.

One more leap back in time - to the wife of Bath. A fictional character, I know, but much in her story squares with historical details found in other sources. She was married to an old man at age 12. She tells the audience that she learned very quickly to use her body as a bartering chip for money and the freedom to leave the house. What would we call that today? Slavery? Prostitution? Pedophilia? All three? But at least now marrying off a 12 year old is illegal in every state in the US.

Megan Cox Gurdon wants to believe the darkness isn't really there, that it only exists on the pages of YA books produced by a small group of boho liberals who, for some obscure reason, want to bring horror into the lives of innocent teens. I say the darkness is there and has always been there. We may look at it only through our fingers, but it's no less real for all that. It's been there since the moment of original sin brought the darkness into our own souls. And we can't fight the darkness if we don't turn to face it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Con Carolinas Rehash, Or More Cups Next Time

This is going to be more of a series of highlights than a profound meditation.  To whit:

- Despite various insanities with cell phones, passports and plane delays, all the long distance Magical Words Beta people (self included) made it safely to the con.

- I managed to insult self-published authors right in front of one of the best quality self-pubbers out there-John Hartness. He was very gracious about it and later had dinner with Emily, me, and a bunch of others.  Hilarious fellow and a good story teller. I've decided he's the exception that proves the rule. 

- Em and I had a party for the Magical Words Beta Critique group in our room and 30 people came - twice what I had expected. There were insufficient cups, but we soldiered on.  Next year more cups and possibly plates. The Magical Words writers Faith Hunter, Ed Schubert, David B. Coe, Stuart Jaffe, AJ Hartley, Kalayna Price all came to the party. It was like college all over again except nobody tried to quote Spinoza (thank goodness!) and we didn't make it to 4am. 

- Misty Massey did not come this year, alas, but hopefully she'll be there next year. Missed you Misty!

- Emily was a panelist this year, so I had to resist the urge to point and say "I'm with the talent!" She was hilarious and informative as usual. 

- I learned a new term; "War Porn" - the writing of weapon/battle scenes that are not plot or character necessary, but just sate the reader (or author's) lust for battle.  Porn is porn, people - if it's not about people, it's just porn whether it's body parts or gun turrets. 

- The panels on censorship provoked about the same levels of rage and consternation you might expect. 

- The writer's track this year included two panels on using the web for authorial self-promotion. They were probably in the top most useful panels of the con. Bottom line, this is the era of personalities, so get yours out there and make it sell your work. 

- Hands down, the most useful single panel was Allen L. Wold's panel on developing and outlining a plot through character and setting. I'll elaborate on this in another post. (Meanwhile, See Allen's books on Amazon). 

- Valkyries roamed the halls. Discussion of the subject position of the male gaze ensued. (That's academic speak for we teased the guys for noticing what you'd have to be blind not to notice. No Wagnerian diva was ever more attention getting.) 

And that was this year's con in a nutshell.  Some people go to family reunions to recharge and reconnect with their tribe.  I go to ConCarolinas. Thank you all for the encouragement, the good advice, and the hilarious story telling in the halls between panels. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Self-Righteous Illiterate Slams Genre She Doesn't Read

Hmmm.  I may be coming off as too negative.  Megan Cox Gurdon can't actually be illiterate - she's written for National Review Online for years and I'm sure Bill Buckley's magazine and it's blogchild wouldn't hire someone who couldn't read. But I question the subtlety of her reading skills when she says things like "publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into [...] children's lives." (See here)

Before I go further, allow me to engage in a bit of Toulminesque common ground finding.  I agree with Mrs. Cox Gurdon that parents have an obligation to wisely oversee the content of their kid's reading for the child's own protection. (We can argue about what wise oversight looks like in another post.) And I agree that there probably are some books out there that portray violence, sex, drug use or what-have-you just for the heck of it.  At ConCarolinas just last week I attended a panel that addressed the question of "War Porn" in the fantasy genre.  So there is a real issue worth discussing here. 

However as the #YASaves thread on twitter shows (check it out!) many, many thousands of teens and adults can testify that the books that Mrs. Cox Gurdon condemns made a huge difference in their lives by giving a face and a voice and, most importantly, a hope to the problems they face. As Susan Lazear says over at GeekMom.com "I wish today’s YA had been around when I was a teen, when I felt like no one understood.  When I quite literally shut everyone out for nearly two years because I couldn’t deal with the stress, the pressure, the hormones, all those things I felt inside but couldn’t verbalize.  When I quietly dealt with eating and body image disorders for years all on my own, and no one ever noticed." And she's not alone.  Thousands of other readers, including me, can say similar things. 

Because the YA that Mrs. Cox Gurdon condemns isn't really all YA.  It's the fantasy genre.  The vast majority of the books she lists to support her claims about YA being too dark, too ugly, too full of bad habits kids could pick up, are urban and epic fantasy. In the process, she reveals the major flaw in her argument - she either doesn't read or doesn't understand these books.  To give just one example, she condemns The Hunger Games as being full of dreadful violence.  End of story. It's violent, ergo it's bad for teens and evidence of the coarseness of the genre.  But what she fails to realize is that The Hunger Games is fundamentally a book about moral choices in an immoral world, about finding the strength and the wisdom to know what to protect and who when you can't save everybody, not even yourself.  And that, my dear friends, is a problem faced by every teen in America and indeed the whole world. Because it's a fundamental problem of the human experience. And because the teen years are when we start to realize such ugly truths as well as realizing how much we have to choose to become the heroes we are looking for.

Disney used to tell us that someday our prince would come. But when I was a teen, lo these many moons ago, I read and reread every book I could find that told me a hero doesn't have to be super, or handsome, or well prepared. The hero has to be willing. The books that mattered most to me, the ones that steeled my soul, were the ones where the hero has to crawl through their own weakness to finish the quest.  Frodo says "I will take the ring to Mordor," and then walks nearly all the way there.  The Aerin of the Hero's Crown kills a dragon all alone because the armies have gone in the other direction and no one else is left. In The Forest of Hands and Teeth (ooh, zombies and teen sexual tension!) the heroine has to grow the hell up and push on alone through a world that literally wants to eat her to find the land beside the sea. Do I need to go on? Of course not, you, dear readers, could write a list a thousand books long, I'm sure. 

The point is, that as a teenager I desperately needed someone to tell me that it was okay for me to (metaphorically) pick up a sword and become the hero of my own story. And I needed to have hope that whether I found a Samwise at my side or not, it was worth slogging onward because change is possible, a better world or at least a better self are possible, and there are intangible beauties in the human soul even in a broken world.  Faulkner certainly didn't tell me that. Heaven knows Hemingway didn't tell me that. Nor did Fitzgerald or most of the other authors we read in High School.*  But C.S. Lewis did. And Tolkien. And McKinley.  And McCaffrey and many others, including S.E. Hinton, who Mrs. Cox Gurdon credits with starting this downward slide into "darkness."  And that's my fundamental problem with Mrs. Cox Gurdon's argument. She's straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. 

To conclude, I'd like to point out one more camel she swallowed. Why isn't Twilight at the head of her list? This is a book that actually is influencing millions of young teens to engage in dangerous behavior. I don't mean running around in the woods with vampires - I mean mistaking infatuation for love, emotional and physical abuse for romantic passion, and sexism for gentlemanly affection. Somehow Mrs. Cox Gurdon's desire to shield her dear children from the darkness doesn't extend to that piece of literature. So maybe she is illiterate after all. 

*I freely admit that this may be a flaw in my High School's reading list, not in the whole category of literary work as a whole. For example, I never knew how both hopeful and sarcastic Dickinson could be until I got to college. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

And now there's coffee everywhere...

It's funny what you spot on a read through when you've had time to forget what you wrote. For example, I had one character hand his roommate a cup of coffee. Roommate was holding a beer in the other hand. Roommate dumped the beer into his coffee and, (watch closely now) shadowboxed cheerfully out of the room.

Did you catch that? Doubtless you did - I had a man with a full cup of coffee and beer in his hand punching at the air. Thus the title of this post. *Sigh*

Now shadowboxing cheerfully early in the morning is completely in the Roommate's character. But even he isn't dumb enough to slosh hot coffee-beer all over the kitchen. Writing like that is rather like the hammer problem in cartoons. You know - the completely naked, except for gloves, rabbit suddenly produces a hammer the size of his torso, just in time to smash the duck. It works in cartoons because we accept that we're in a sort of surreal bizarro world where this is consistent with cartoon physics. But if your character is holding hot coffee in his hand and he waves it around, it's going to spill. When I wrote the scene the first time, I was thinking of Roommate's personality, not the physics. But all actions, even the most delightfully symbolic ones, have consequences and those consequences can't produce an unwanted effect or they will kick the reader out of the story. Suddenly the reader is wondering why the Roommate isn't covered in scalding coffee-beer instead of following the plot.

Have you guys caught any moments like that in your own writing?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Retreat - Lots of Work, Little Writing

God was willing, so here I am having a literal mountain top experience at the Franciscan Serra Retreat Center. So far I have walked the Labyrinth and the stations of the cross, attended a lecture on global warming's implications for national security, and gotten to know my colleagues better. All very edifying, not to mention fun.

What I have not done is write much. This is partly due to circumstances from last week. My brilliant plan was to compile the research for my article the week before the retreat and then spend the retreat pounding out the actual first draft. Instead, I spent last week contemplating the relationship of law, justice and Ciceronian rhetoric as Juror #11 in a criminal case. (More on that later.)

The other reason I haven't written much is that I'm tired. I've taken two hour naps both yesterday and today. Apparently, I can't wait until I'm dead to sleep. Some of it has to happen now.

So tomorrow, I face a choice. Continue working on the article OR set it aside and work on my fiction for the next two days. On the one hand, I haven't done any scholarship for months and I miss it. I miss the intellectual wrestling match, the assemblage of reason and academic language that goes into an article, not to mention the meticulous documenting of evidence to build a persuasive case. Furthermore (see, I just can't resist academese sometimes) I'm neck deep in this article and it has to be finished sometime. It is my job, after all.

But I also miss the rapid fire outpouring of fiction, when my imagined world runs through me, so that I inhabit two worlds at once, the real and the fictional.  In one, I'm just a sedentary little woman sitting cross-legged in a straight-backed chair, her hair in a bun. In another, I am a berserker tracking ice demons through the gullies of upper state New York. I'm a red skinned lizard woman herding 20 little hatchlings on a field trip to her planet's surface. I'm the Queen of the Summer Court, plotting my rival's downfall.

Ah, choices.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Retreating Forward

So tomorrow, God willing, I'm off to the APU faculty Writer's Retreat.  First item of business will be to finish a 5 page synopsis with my writing partner because an agent has asked for one.

Updates as events warrant.

Friday, May 6, 2011

You want fries with that? The value of your English degree

This is for all of my darling students who are graduating this weekend, or have graduated, or are looking forward in fear to the day you do graduate. Go read Sugar's graduation address to the students of Alabama.

Go! I say. Go read it now and have a tissue handy because it will heal your heart from every thoughtless jerk who said "you want fries with that?" when you said you majored in English major and from every well meaning but wrong person who pushed you to switch to dentistry or law school or whatever other thing they hoped would make you a lot of money.

Here's a sample:

"You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.

You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.

But that’s all."

Now go read the rest of it. It's my final assignment and my blessing to you. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Goodwill, Good reads

It's not winter that makes me discontent, it's spring. That's when the wander lust gets into me and I dream of exotic locations, fabulous adventures. But spring is also when the grading ramps up into high gear and my allergies assert their personality while my bank account stays stubbornly absent of funds for luxury vacations.

When that happens I take little mental vacations. I drive a random road I've never tried before, start a hobby (yay! knitting) or buy something cheap, but fun. In this state of mind, I read Misty Massey's post on finding  magical objects for inspiration and it reminded me how fun a good thrift store can be. (I once found an entire set of forks, knives and spoons for $0.50 at one in Columbus.)  So, after giving my last final exam, I hied myself over to the new Goodwill on Foothill and spent a happy hour wandering among the goodies in the back of the store. I came away with a tiny japanese style tea pot (I'm a sucker for teapots), an ornate metal thingy that is either a jewelry holder or the mystic key to the final lock barring the doors to the dungeon of Azadruul, and books. Books galore!

I had left the book section for last, expecting nothing but an incomplete Time Life home repair series and left over self help books from the 80s.  Instead I came home loaded down with classic sci-fi.  And a book of bread machine recipes. There was even an old edition of the compact Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes. I had to make myself leave when I couldn't carry anymore.

So now I'm off to meet up with Frederick Pohl. We're visiting the Alpha-Aleph system on a routine science expedition. If all goes well, we shall return before grades are due.

PS I left  a lot of good stuff behind if any of you local folks want to check them out. At two bucks per paperback even a broke college student could afford one or two of these books.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


As my last student was leaving after the last final exam of the day, an email popped up in my Entourage. The subject line said RE: Query - KnightSpelle.

"Crap," I thought. "Just what I need. Another rejection." For a second, I thought about moving it to the submissions file without reading it. I could at least go home, get dinner, and take some more decongestant before I passed the bad news on to my co-author, right?

But it never pays to put off nasty realities, so I opened the email.

And read this, "Thank you for sending me sample pages of your novel, KNIGHTSPELLE.  I would like to take a look at the entire manuscript."

WooooHooooo!!!! Somebody is willing to read our novel! Somebody not already our buddy!

There's lots more in the email about format and return times and stuff. And I know from painful experience that a "please send me your ms" is not an offer of representation. But it's a big step in the right direction! Yay!!

Much like my reaction to the death of OBL I have very little rational reaction to this. Just a big dopey grin and a sense that the horizon has become visible again.  Updates as a events warrant. (Though I doubt President Obama will throw us a press conference.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hideous, Emotionally Exhausting, Completely Unavoidable

Anybody remember Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day? Yeah. It's been like that lately. With slightly less whining and foot stomping, but also fewer understanding moms, absence of coddling moms being a hazard of growing up, getting a job and moving to California. 

I've been submitting queries for my co-written novel, though by submitting I mean I've been letting my co-author send out queries, get the rejections and then tell me about it. I tell you, it makes opening my email file an adventure in stomach tricks. Those aren't butterflies in there. More like agitated Green Horned Worms. 

And now it's my turn at the query wheel. My co-author took the first round of query only submissions. I'll handle the ones that want a query plus some random assortment of first pages, synopsis, blood sample/ability to spin straw into gold. So now I get to be the receiver/harbinger of email doom. 

Sometime in the coming month I have to get myself in gear to do it all over again for my own solo novel, Winter's Dawn. And if I'm really, really lucky and succeed as an author, I'll get to keep doing this periodically for the rest of my life. 

No wonder people fear success. Failure is faster and requires less effort. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why we journal

Those of you who know me might be surprised by the title of this post. Journaling, to me at least, connotes writing in the journal every day, logging your thoughts and daily life. I cannot bring myself to do that. I've tried and it just feels too self-absorbed, even for me. Not to mention boring. Life just isn't always exciting and I can't bring myself to record all the small doings of every day, even in the interest of future social historians.

Having said that, I am rarely without a notebook in my bag.  Somewhere on me at nearly all times are writing tools and a blank book, even when I'm carrying my laptop.  This is where I jot down everything from street addresses, to story ideas, to new recipes, to poems. I take notes at conferences in my journal and doodle in it. The journal becomes an archive not of my whole life, but of moments that merited being written down.

Yesterday, as I dug in the back of an upper cupboard looking for a glue gun, I found one of these previous journals. In a sentimental moment, I flipped through it. Perched on the top of a step ladder I found a poem, not too bad. Notes on Aemilia Lanyer, taken 2 years ago at the CCL. Advice on moving a plot forward from Faith Hunter. (Kill someone. Works every time.)

And the first draft of my grandfather's eulogy, written on the plane to his funeral. "He did so much of his grandfathering in the background that I have a thousand images of him, but no stories. Grampa coming up from the cellar with sawdust coating his green work pants. Grampa patting my shoulder with a hand like seasoned oak. Grampa carrying frozen rhubarb and homemade bread because he never, never came to our house empty handed.  Grampa working for hours with Dad on one ancient, beat up van after another. Grampa putting six heaping teaspoons of sugar in his tea.  Grampa telling me to clean my plate. Grampa devouring the sight of his grandchildren opening their Chrismas presents.  Grampa, was like the Vermont rock.  Permanent, immovable, solid. A fact. There was no arguing with, around, or through him. There was no changing him. There is no replacement for him."

The eulogy is sandwiched in between a scene from a YA novel I haven't decided to finish yet and a grocery list. And that's why I keep a stack of old journals tucked in the back of a cupboard, never to be thrown away. Others have picture albums. I have my journals.

What's in your journal? What makes you smile or shake your head or shed a tear as you flip through those old notebooks?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Green Eyed Monster or For anyone who has ever thought Why NOT me?

If you don't know the Dear Sugar column over at Rumpus.net (one of my favorite literary blogs) you are missing out on something beautiful. Sugar writes an advice column, often dealing with literary matters, but that's like saying the Pope offers occasional theology tips. She's the one who coined the phrase, in response to another young writer, "write like a motherfucker." (I want that needlepointed on a sampler and hung in my office.)

This week's column is titled "We're All Savages Inside."  It's her response to a young writer who asks, essentially, how do I cope with my jealousy over other writers' success?  Her response is lyrical, compassionate and beautifully insightful. It's also a much needed kick in the pants to all of us who feel or have felt that way.

She tells the young writer to, in so many words, get over herself. But she does it so kindly, with so much good will that it doesn't sting. And she writes about why we write, and how money does and doesn't matter in the artist's life. So consider me to be grabbing you by the hand and dragging you along, shouting "You have GOT to go read this!"

Best Reference Book EVER!

Okay, possibly I exaggerate a touch. But really, what would you call The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi? It lists everything from Erebor, the Lonely Mountain where Bilbo met Smaug, to Zanthodon, a prehistoric world miles beneath the earth. Entries go all the way back medieval sources - the oldest reference I've seen so far is from Geoffrey of Monmouth.

What's Not to love?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ups-a-Daisy, or the Ups and Downs of Butt-in-Chair

So I haven't posted any updates here lately, largely because I haven't been doing any actual writing. I know, bad thing to admit. Worse that it's true. The only writing related accomplishment of the last two weeks has been finishing a synopsis of Knychtspelle, the novel I've co-written with Emily Leverett.

(Thanks to Stuart Jaffe, by the way, for guidance on how to write a synopsis in an organized and relatively painless way. See his directions here.)

So, what's my excuse this week? And why am I writing about it?  Because that's the way life goes sometimes. Sometimes you have to just power through and sometimes you have to accept that life has twisted your ankle and you'll be limping for a little ways. In my case the "twisted ankle" is more like a twisted brain. (Tee hee. There you have it. I just admitted in print that I'm off plumb.)

Frankly, I'd rather have the ankle twist. Recently my neurologist recommended I try a certain prophylactic drug to stop my migraines. Fabulous! I said. Unfortunately, the side effects that only catch 1/3 of users have caught me.  Dizziness. Nausea. Fever. Joint pain. Sleeping 13 hours a day. Slurring and stumbling. Just driving the 2 miles from work to home was dangerously difficult. I tried to outline a new novel idea, but all I could manage was one sentence. Then I went back to bed for four hours. So that's my excuse for not writing lately.

I'm blogging about all this because, at the risk of being preachy, this is one of those attitude tests that life throws at us all the time. Let me repeat that. This is normal. This is life. This is why Proverbs says that man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. I don't mean this pessimistically. Quite the opposite - life is good and beautiful. But what makes life beautiful is not usuall an absence of difficulty. What makes life beautiful is most often what we do with our difficulties.

Obviously, I'm going off the medication. And I'll sit down with the doctor and talk about other options. But the real test is what I do internally. Self pity is a damned ugly thing, my friends, and I say that from experience. As C.S. Lewis, said I'm not swearing here; I mean it literally. Do I simply treat my medical needs, or do I make them the source of my identity? Do I curse God or do I praise Him? The answers to these questions determine whether or not I'm living an ugly life, or a beautiful one into which some trouble has fallen.

If that sounds too preachy or too "New Agey" consider the wisdom that I've heard from multiple experienced Christians. Whatever choice we make about how we respond to particular problems is a choice we're making for our eternal characters. The people we choose to be today are the people we're practicing to be at age 80. Someday, I may be an addled old lady in a rocking chair, but I hope I'll be the sweet old loon who makes the nurses laugh, not the crabby old bat they pass off to the new guy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Are you a Nook User?

Hi folks! I've listed the Amazon page for Extinct is Not Forever below, but some of you might want to buy from Barnes and Noble for the Nook.

If so, here's the URL - http://tinyurl.com/extinctantho-bn


Extinct Anthology is now listed on ISFDB

That's the International Speculative Fiction Database that is. How weirdly delightful to be in a database somewhere. Not at all Orwellian as it turns out.

Check out the listing. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?347255

I hope the story title list inspires you to read the book. Still available at Amazon for less than a latte!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

And We're Live! Extinction Anthology is now available on Amazon

That's right!  The anthology is for sale at Amazon right now as a Kindle download. Go to http://tinyurl.com/extinctantho.

Don't have a Kindle? No problem.  You can also download it to PC or Mac. Just think, you get 20 short stories for less than the cost of 4 songs on iTunes. And you still get cover art!
Buy it Now! 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Go little mine book...

As Chaucer wrote at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, 

Go, little book, go, little myn tragedye, 
Ther God thy makere yet, er that he dye, 
So sende might to make in some comedye! 
But little book, no making thou n'envie, 
But subgit be to alle poesye; 
And kiss the steppes, whereas thou seest pace 
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, Stace.

Or perhaps I should quote Byron's Don Juan, since it neatly references my favorite verse from Ecclesiastes,*

Go, little book, from this my solitude!

I cast thee on the waters – go thy ways!

And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,

The world will find thee after many days.

My goodness, I’m in exalted company tonight!  But allow me the moment of celebration and anxiety all together. I just submitted Winter’s Dawn to the Suvudu novel contest, all 74,500 words of it.  It is officially no longer a work in progress, it’s a finished work that might (certainly will) need editing.

The deadline is Friday the 18th and it’s already 5am on the East Coast, so I didn’t leave myself any too much time. But the book is out there and out of my hands.  On to other tasks. 

* Eccl 11:1 "Cast thy bread upon the waters for thou shalt find it after many days." 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quick Novel Update

THE END!  Yes - I got to write that Saturday night, on schedule!  It's just over 73,000 words, which is a bit short for a commercial fantasy paperback, but not too short to be submittable to agents and editors.

Specifically, I now have to edit and proof it for Friday, which is the deadline for the Suvudu novel contest. First prize is a complete edit by a Del Rey editor.  Runner up prizes are a shelf load of Del Rey books. And even if I don't win the contest I will have won myself a complete manuscript that can then be sent out to editors. Let the editing binge begin!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Inspiration Pictures, or Where DO you get your ideas?

The editor of Extinct Isn't Forever (coming soon!) created a blog for the anthology authors to chat with each other.  One poster asked us to share where we got the idea for our stories. 

Usually the answer is "<Shrug> I dunno. The back of my brain I guess." Story ideas pop up out of nowhere when an something in the world suddenly connects with something in my subconscious to become an image and a character and a concept. It can be a phrase in the litany at church, the color of sunlight on a leaf, a daydream. It can be a personal frustration that I want to work out on paper.  

Writer's brains are like compost piles full of books, images, sounds, scents, a half heard conversation, the look on a stranger's face, and all the questions we ask ourselves in the dark at 3am, or on the bus ride downtown. I probably say to myself "there's a story in that" a dozen times in a day, but I never know which seeds will germinate and grow into a story. 

But I do have a slightly better, or at least a more concrete answer for this particular story. Like the protagonist, I actually do hike the Glendora Mountains. I'm fascinated by the thought of running into one of the mountain lions that everyone else seems to have seen already. (It seems that every other hike I meet someone who has a story to tell about seeing one.) 

So far, all I've seen are tracks like this one; the distinct M shape tells you it's a cat, not a dog track. (That print was about the size of my palm.)

I love the outdoors. I'm an urban comfort sort of girl, most of the time. Give me your Asian fusion cuisine, your antique shops, your obscure booksellers' shelves, groaning with ancient tomes. But there is still a part of me that needs the outdoors; somehow it reconnects me to myself, puts the frazzled pieces back together into a saner whole.  Problems get solved, ideas coalesce and swim to the surface.  

So this is where one of my ideas came from. Can't you just see the sabertooth? Don't you want to?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Update on push to finish the novel draft

I got another 3K words written last night and today. (Actually it was pre-dawn this morning and then all afternoon today, but who's counting.)  I also outlined the last five chapters and divvied up the material I have which showed me where the gaps were.

Then I went to the gym.  'Cuz you know, if this body wears out on me too soon I won't be able to keep typing. So I got to enjoy huffing and puffing in front of all the lovely people who had come to the gym after classes got out. As usual, just as I was thoroughly sweat soaked and red faced, and reaching the point where I start to negotiate with myself about whether or not to quit early, one of my students strolled in and waved at me. So, naturally I had to wave back and keep going lest I spend the rest of the evening on the couch feeling like a wimp.

It's not the cheerful students who recognize me that I mind actually. I don't even really care if they go back to the dorm squealing OMG! You won't believe who I saw on the ellipticals!  We all have a right to freak out (in private) if we see our professors/bosses/terrifying neighbors doing something normal like exercising or buying milk.

No, what I mind are the students who do a double take as I walk by. I'm sure it's not my rocking biceps they're staring at. Nor is it my fabulous work out gear. No, it's the quite obvious that they're wondering what on earth someone as floppy and unglamorous as I is doing in their workout space. I mean really, I'm not even wearing a Nike swoosh.  My sneakers came from Target. My sweat pants came from who knows where. Wal-mart probably. And my gut came from too many Burger King runs.

But I soldier on regardless, sweating and red faced. Whipper snappers. I'm just going to crank the elliptical machine to 6 and rock out to the 1812 Overture on my ipod. That'll show 'em. ;)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Of the writing of books there is no end

Or at least of my book, specifically the one featuring Harvey the berserker in modern day Buffalo there appears to be no end. Right now it's about 68,000 words long and I have discovered at least one chapter still to be written. (Chapter 19 - in which frost demons kick some serious butt and modern man finds himself unable to cope.)  I also have to give the story a genuine denoument instead of the hastyness it has right now. And somehow this has to all bring it up to the minimum word count for a novel. This means that I need to write about 7,000+ words between now and Saturday. I only have a plan for about 5,000 of those words.  Where the other 2,000+ will come from, or where they will go in the novel, I couldn't tell you.

Nonetheless, I have promised myself that I will, I WILL do you hear me? have a finished, really truly finished, complete draft ready by next Saturday.  

At which point I will inflict the draft on my friends for critique. Brace yourselves.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pictures of my Cats - Because, hey, it's my blog

So here are my two cats. You may have heard of them. If you took a class with me, you may have heard about them more than you cared to. 

This is Miss Thisbe.  The expression is fairly typical. As my mother once said, she is the primmest cat I know.  She also does not suffer fools lightly.

This is Pest. He's pretty much a fool.  Or perhaps a Fool in a capital-F, Shakespeare sort of way, though I have yet to hear him say something profound. 

My cats get along, in the same way that elderly Victorian aunts got along with Tom Sawyer-like boys. Which is to say I suspect she's beginning to care for him, but she still feels the need to slap the sass out of him on a regular basis and he frequently feels the need to chew on her tail or pounce on her. Like the Tigger he resembles, he's a great fan of pouncing. He'd make it an international sport if he could.  

Also breaking things. In the first week after I brought him home he broke two plant pots, a ceramic deer, two toothbrush mugs, a saucer, and a water glass. ALL by accident. He's also well aware of how cute he is. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Well this bites...

Apparently the eastern cougar is officially extinct.


Meanwhile, the western cougar remains alive and expanding, which is good news, unless you're a jogger who gets mistaken for prey.  I confess a completely foolish desire to come face to face with one of these creatures.  I get excited every time I see a cougar track on one of my hikes. (Mind you, I also carry mace with me and keep an eye out for rocks to throw.)

When I moved to California, Em and I made a stop at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center.  Now, I realize that these are giant carnivores who will eat my face (and other soft bits) as soon as look at me. While we were there the center workers were unloading an entire cow (already dead) to feed the cats.

But isn't that part of the attraction? The incredible combination of sleek beauty and bone crunching force.  The dark expressive eyes and the killer instinct behind them. The instinct to play as much as to hunt. We saw all kinds of cats at the center, including three 700lb tigers. And yet, it was the cougar whose face stays with me.  Her name was Cou and she'd lost the tips of her ears to frostbite before the center rescued her. She came right up to her fence and stared at us as we approached her compound. And then she offered us the lazy blink and shrug that is the universal cat sign of non-aggression.

I'm against keeping wild animals for pets.  But I still think about Cou and her giant Cleopatra eyes.  I want to sink my fingers into the tawny fur around her scruff and massage those fuzzy, damaged ears. I want to bury my face against her shoulder and hear the sound of the only large cat that can purr. The lion may lie down with the lamb, but when the kingdom comes, I want to throw my arms around a cougar.

Promises to Keep

Do you ever have that moment when you realize you've kept a promise to yourself? And that it actually matters that you did?

When I was a kid we had an avocado green, two level, circular spice rack.  We cleaned it once a year in the ritual spring cleaning spasm. Every cupboard was emptied. Every item was washed, every shelf wiped down. And then it was all put back. The twenty year old, mostly full bottle of peach brandy. The canned goods. The baking pans. The spice rack with its faded plastic bottles. The only spices on the rack that we used with any regularity were the Christmas spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla.  And the little packet of food coloring.

I used to stand on tiptoe and spin the rack, watching the spices float past. Curry powder, used perhaps three times to make curried chicken and rice.  Parsely, faded to hay green, with the same smell. White pepper powder, faintly sharp when I sniffed it. Rosemary, dried to brittleness. Hot pepper flakes that my brothers shook onto pizza. A bottle of tabasco, used only as a disciplinary tool. (Two drops on the tongue if you said bad words.) Oregano, occasionally dashed into a pot of spaghetti sauce.

Ours was not a spicy heritage. It wasn't even a flavorful one. My mother had grown up in a house where Kraft Miracle whip was the spiciest thing on the table. Where lukewarm red flannel hash was a regular feature. Where green beans were picked only when they had grown hairs and were then boiled into submission. Mom mastered homemade bread baking, an impressive feat even for someone who had been raised cooking. She made some darn tasty roast chicken on Sundays too. Her pot roast?  Delicious.

But spices and the variety they offered eluded our table. As child I used to read and reread the Joy of Cooking, searching for recipes that would use the mystery spices on that spinning rack. I searched my mother's cookbooks the same way I searched through our Encyclopedia Britannica, perched on the basement stairs, a giant book balanced on my knees. Boiled Artichoke with Hollandaise Sauce was as exotic to me as the dancers of Thailand. I dreamed about Rosemary Studded Lamb with the same romantic fervor as I dreamed about the castles of the Black Forest. I imagined a future kitchen in which every dinner plate had color on it.

Somewhere in those dreams I promised myself that I would taste these foods and see these places. That I would be the kind of person who used up spices.

Tonight I made a simple little meal, made up of what I had on hand. I shook out the last of the dill to make cucumbers with sour cream dressing, served with maple sausage links, and cinnamon sweet potato. Promise kept.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cover Art is Here!

Here's the cover art for the anthology Extinct isn't Forever. Isn't it fantastic? Phoenix Sullivan edited the collection and it will be marketed through Amazon and other e-book venues.  You can download it to your e-reader or to your personal computer. I can't wait to read all the rest of the stories!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

If you can't say anything nice...

Sit next to me, darling and we'll chat.

But seriously, I face a dilemma.  I really want to vent about the novel I finished last night, but I'd rather not savage a fellow author on the web.  (Disclaimer - if I know you, then no it wasn't your novel. I've never met this author. He doesn't even live on the same continent.)

The problem isn't that the novel was bad.  The problem is that the novel was so good that I was with it right up until the end.  I was there, man, rooting for the protagonist through every twist and turn.  I was so there that I stayed up until 4am finishing the novel. (Just one more chapter, Mom!) It has nearly everything my little heart desires in a good book. Literate allusions, moving backstory, a touch of the noir plus gothic plus detective thriller with a strong dose of meta-fiction, castles, Paris, obscure Latin clues, one armed Nazis, decayed nobility, an inexplicably likable anti-hero, and a fallen angel with pale hazel eyes.  My gosh, there's even a dark and stormy night.

And then the ending happened. Oh that ending. Anti-climactic doesn't begin to describe it. If the whole book had been weak, I would have been prepared. I certainly wouldn't have stayed up until 4am finishing the darn thing. I might not have finished it at all. But to invest that much in the novel and then be let down was agonizing. It was like being promised brownies and getting wheat thins. Stale wheat thins.

If you promise big, you'd better deliver big, or the reader will want to strangle you.  If you promise the reader a world shaking satanic ritual that will summon the prince of darkness himself, you'd better give us a good reason when he doesn't show up. If the villain is going to get sucked into the depths of hell, readers want to see it happen, not hear about it later. And the protagonist better actually protag about it, not just sit on the sidelines and wonder, in an idle sort of way, if he's going to get paid.

Deliver what you promise, fellow writers! Keep faith with the readers.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

If I Write What I Know, How is it Fantasy?

So, dear reader (forgive me, but I love books that address the reader this way), I've been thinking about the old adage "write what you know." On one level it's nonsense.  Or a recipe for navel gazing.  Taken to its logical extreme all writing would become a form of memoir. Or a technical manual.

But let's assume that whoever said it first wasn't a fool. Let's assume, for a minute, that it means something subtler than that. I think that "writing what you know" means that we should tap those reserves of experience that make us unique, that give us insight into the human condition, and translate them into imagined worlds, imagined people so that those people become real. This applies whether we're writing a gritty novel of love and hardship in the rust belt or a ripping space adventure set in the gas clouds of Setii V.  If that's what it means, then "write what you know" is the writer's version of method acting.

It's true, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a vermillion skinned lizard woman, trying to protect her collective's pod of youngsters from the acid mists that rise every evening. I'm not even a mom. But I have been a camp counselor - I know what it's like to usher a bunch of giggling, fast moving, semi-hysterical little girls through the woods at night. I know what it's like to fear for their safety. I also know what it's like to love them and want to strangle them at the same time. So maybe I know what that lizard woman is going through as she tries to find little Icz (who has disappeared again!) and tell everyone to keep all five of their limbs inside the land rover and stop little Icz (he was under the driver's seat) from telling everyone else in gruesome detail exactly what will happen if they don't get back to the pod house before the acid mists begin seeping out of the ground, all while not panicking herself because the land rover won't start.  

And with that, dear reader, you'll have to excuse me. I think I hear a story calling...