Tuesday, March 31, 2020

My Consumption: Entertainment not TB

BROM: Lost Gods (a novel with illustrations)
Man, I love some of the topics my fellow bloggers choose.

"Books vs Comics vs Movies vs Games"

Yes, please. I'll take a bushel from column A and a tower from column B and...

It should be no surprise I love books. Hello, author here. Historical fiction, spec-fic, romance, gimme All The Books. Movies, I prefer action flicks but I won't turn down a good sci-fi. Mysteries and magical-realism? Yep, my ass is warming the seat. As for games, I can't call myself a "gamer." I'm more a Cribbage and Quiddler kind of gal. I've never played D&D (Gasp! I know! I think I lose my fantasy-author credentials for that.) Video games? Uh, no. I don't have the skills. Or the patience. Or the dexterity.

Now, comics...comics....~rubs hands with glee~

My love of comics/graphic novels comes from the evolution of learning to read. As ankle-biters, we start with picture books. Big pretty pictures and a dozen or so words per page. Comics have more pictures and about the same number of words on the page. I went from The Littlest Raindrop to Archie to Classics Illustrated. My Flash Gordon (the movie) comic survived traveling the world and my childhood. Asterix & Obelix taught me German. Monstress shares a shelf with Sandman and Snow, Glass, Apples. I really want to build out my mythology collection with more non-Western sources. (If you have suggestions, drop them in the Comments, please!)

I'm the fangirl who keeps checking my favorite webcomics to see if/when they're going to end up in paperback. So yeah, you could say I like comics. I am in awe of the talent of the artists, the colorists, and the letterers. My not-so-secret author wish is to collaborate on a graphic novel series. (Yo, Universe, puttin' it out there!)

Then there's the middle ground between the novel and the graphic novel: the illustrated novel. Has the word count of a novel, but way fewer pictures than a comic. Regardless, the illustrations are amazing. The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits and The Child Thief are glaring across my living room at The Fairy Bible.

So, uh, there you go.

Hope you all are staying healthy, washing your hands, and practicing physical distancing. We like our readers and want you to hang around for a long time.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Which Should Jeffe Vote For?

Our topic here at the SFF Seven this week is: books vs movies vs games vs comics.

I suppose that, with everyone hanging out at home, social distancing all responsibly, we've all been indulging in our media of choice.

For me it's books and movies. I tried comics - grudgingly - and they just never quite grabbed me. In college a couple of my artist friends set to convincing me to love graphic novels. I still have the copy of Maus by Art Spiegelman that one gave me. I found the combination of drawings and stories powerful. One of my roommates took me out for dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant as a bribe for me to sit and read a graphic novel. (One of the Dark Knights? I don't remember.) I enjoyed it, yes, and groked why he loved it. (Plus, the crab Rangoon was amazing.) But it never led to me picking up more.

Much later in life, I acquired the Sandman Box Set by Neil Gaiman, which I also love. At least, I love the first book, Preludes & Nocturnes. I confess - with a fair amount of chagrin - that I've never gotten around to reading the rest. It's not that I don't want to, it's just that... I haven't felt compelled. I've found it takes a while to wrap my brain into reading text that weaves around images. I enjoy it, but I love plain reading more.

Because it's not that I don't read at all. I've read 41 books so far in 2020, and I've read all or part of all the 2019 SFWA Nebula Finalists for Novels. (I'm still reading as I have until the 31st.)

Games... I just have never gotten into them. I don't know why. Could be for the same reason as graphic novels? I'd rather have text than images. Even with movies, I think I don't appreciate them visually like many film buffs do.

In fact, this is where you all can help me. I have no idea which game writer to vote for in the Nebulas, and have no way of deciding. Which should I vote for from these?

Best Game Writing 
Outer Wilds by Kelsey Beachum, published by Mobius Digital
The Outer Worlds by Leonard Boyarsky, Kate Dollarhyde, Paul Kirsch, Chris L’Etoile, Daniel McPhee, Carrie Patel, Nitai Poddar, Marc Soskin, and Megan Starks, published by Obsidian Entertainment
The Magician’s Workshop by Kate Heartfield, published by Choice of Games
Disco Elysium by Robert Kurvitz, published by ZA/UM
Fate Accessibility Toolkit by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, published by Evil Hat Productions
Feel free to offer suggestions in the other categories, too. Cheers to you all!

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Little Things

At chez Too Many Cats, we're concentrating on the little things. Repotting plants, some of which have stowaways. (That's a frog in that pitcher plant. This is a problem because the pitcher plant will kill the frogs. We rescued this one, even though he didn't much want to be rescued.)  We're playing with felines, cooking, wiping down all the doorknobs and heavily used surfaces with disinfectants every day. We're taking more walks. The whole neighborhood is, it seems. I've seen more of my neighbors in the past few weeks than I've seen since moving in here over a year ago. The friendly quotient has gone way up. Everyone waves or calls hello, simply glad to have the access to other people, I suspect. We cross the street when we see one another coming so we can all keep that distance we're supposed to keep. 

And I write. At the moment, it's The Never Ending Synopsis from Hell. It's for a book that's finished. An agent has requested the full. Yay. It was a bit of a shocker because I hadn't realized I was subbing the MS when I participated in a workshop my local RWA chapter put on awhile ago. We sent in our first three pages of a story and it was critiqued by an editor or an agent. I honestly thought that was the end of it. So it surprised me a bit when I got an email asking for the full. Sure. No problem! I have the book right here -- aaand no synopsis. Woo. So that's what's on my mind. Little things. Story summaries. Frogs being digested by carnivorous plants. And, of course, here's what's on my lap. My coworker doesn't respect my personal space, much less social distancing.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Books to the rescue!

(from my backyard)

The day started off like any other day; the sun rose and the coffee brewed as the household began to wake. But that’s where the normalcy ended. There weren’t any eggs for breakfast which meant a trip to the store…which meant disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer…which meant venturing out into the pandemic.

Our world has changed. 

Science fiction writers imagine countless possibilities to countless disasters, but, at least for me, we never expect to live out one of those possibilities. And now we’re living one, COVID-19, that had been written by some and predicted by few. 

Our world has changed, and it’s dumping stats, announcements, warnings, and news stories on us. Schools are moving to distance learning for months, social distancing is our reality, stores are closed, restaurants and cafes are curb-side only. We’re overloaded. 

(overloaded is never good, even if it's just flour)

Though, it’s not all negative. There are clips of Italian opera being sung from balconies, choruses of neighbors joining their voices together from safe distances, and instrumental solos serenading the evening air. We’re human, and we’re defiant. 

We’re fighting back, together. We’re learning how to take care of one another and I believe we’ll be better because of it. That’s the heart of science fiction, battling against the odds and clinging to the aspects that make us human. Together. 
(Ullr standing on the edge of the bank)

If you feel as if you’re standing on the edge, know that you’re not alone, even if no one if physically at your side. And if your walls are closing in and you need an escape…books can be a rescue. They can take you far, far away, or they can take you back in time. Books can take you anywhere you want to go.

Right now, epic fantasy is really hitting the spot for me. Take me away into the trees and mountains where the fearsome are giant trolls or dark mages and not invisible viruses. Do you need a book rescue? Drop a comment and I can make some suggestions.

Remember, you're not alone. Narnia’s in the wardrobe, Hogwarts is just a letter away, and you can spin the Wheel of Time for hours on end!  

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Trying to think about the good

Things that are on my mind:

- It's spring and the bluebonnets are out.

- This distance learning thing my kids are doing rocks. They were done with all school work before lunch time, and that was even with sleeping in till 8. Boom.

- Same with their music lessons, which they are doing right now via Zoom. I can hear them playing (one plays bass, the other piano), and it's just deeply comforting, even when they get notes wrong.

- The strawberry plant that I was afraid wouldn't make it through winter is growing eight strawberries! 

- I bought a ladybug house for the ladybugs I ordered. I hope they like it. (We have an aphid problem, and my milkweed plants are struggling.)

- Okay, yes, I read the news. I know what's out there. It's horrific. And it's exactly why the thing that is not on my mind right now is writing. Having written a post-apocalyptic series and now being faced with an apocalypse in process, I just can't. 

- So I started writing a fantasy. So far, my characters are wandering in forests and doing a lot of self-care. I know that fiction is about torturing characters, but I just can't hurt these guys. They're weird and complicated and good and human. And we all deserve to be looked after and cared for. 

Even fictional characters and ladybugs.

Be good to you.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On My Mind: Let the Process Break

This week, what's on my mind is change. Large, sweeping, long-overdue change. The kind that comes from the complete and total failure of an administration, an industry, and a national individualistic mind-set.

Once upon a corporate life, in the heyday of "do more with less," I had my weekly status meeting with my boss. We were dusting off the ashes of surviving the latest layoffs and trying to squeeze everybody else's "Priority 1" into our already overbooked schedules. I showed her my "escalations" list and her face went blank. Two heartbeats later, she took my hand, looked me dead in the eye and said,

"Let the process break."

Wut? My overworked brain didn't grok what she was saying. Was she setting me up to fail? Was she putting me on the firing list? (She wasn't.)

"No one knows how badly things are broken if you keep bending over backwards to fix them. 
Let things break. 
Projects will either get scrapped because they weren't really that important
 or they'll be properly resourced."

Twenty-ish years later and I still think of that moment, that lesson, that sanity-saving insight.

This week, I'm wondering if we, as a nation, can see how continuously and consistently screwed over we are by industry and politics that real change, beneficial change, will come from it. For example, is our healthcare industry broken enough now that for-profit health will be replaced by actual care? We're good, sort of, with the actual care providers: the nurses, the doctors, the orderlies, the environmental services. But the insurers? The administrators? The bloated bureaucracy feeding off our human problems? Have we learned our lessons yet? Or will we have to see the tens of thousands of dollars charged by insurance companies for a COVID-19 patient being treated by an "out of network" ER doc? How about the privilege of being charged a couple grand for being denied a test? Oh, then there are the lab bills because the tests are being processed by facilities who didn't pre-negotiate a contract with the insurer. And don't think for one moment the inflated cost of the PPEs that are in such staggering short supply isn't going to show up a patient's bill. Hospital stays are over $15k/night before beds ran out; tack on ICU, ventilator, and the battery of drugs they hope will work and you're over $20k/night, easy. That's if you're lucky enough to be "chosen to live." Better hope your insurer allows the doctor to sedate you if you draw the short straw, since you can't breathe and are drowning in your own blood and fluids.

Gods forbid you survive the worst of this because now you have a pre-existing condition and a government that's bound and determined to make sure you aren't entitled to healthcare because someone will actually have to treat you...which means less money in the pockets of the industry CEOs and stockholders. You can get in line behind the mass shooting survivors, coal miners, cancer patients, military, civilian DOD injured in the line of duty, and 50% of the non-senior citizenry.

And if you don't have insurance? Bankruptcy is your only option. (No, suicide won't help you; your bills get passed on to your family.) Congrats, you get to lose everything! Hope you're not looking to the government to help with that homelessness problem. What's that? Scar tissue on your lungs? Can't breathe without aid? You want welfare? Are you kidding? You think you're some multinational corporation entitled to government bailouts? Bootstraps, boyo!

Is 30k dead from a pandemic enough to prove that the healthcare industry is broken? Will it take 300k dead to make the shift? 3 million? 30 million? What's the magic number that makes us as a nation say, "enough"? What is the number that finally frightens the politicians into doing what's right for the people instead of the corporations? The motivation has got to be fear because ethics isn't working and neither is shame.

Sadly, I don't think we've reached the tipping point. I don't think the tragedy is real to enough of us to affect change. Not yet. Not enough to last through November, certainly.

Don't let this screed make you horribly depressed, I hope it makes you angry. Angry enough that whenever you can push for change, you push. HARD.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Finding the Good in a Changing World

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is whatever is on our minds. With pretty much the entire world in sparkling isolation, there's really only one thing on our minds: COVID-19.

We're also exhausted of thinking and talking and reading about it!

So, I'm asking everyone - what good things have come out of this massive change? I want to hear about how your lives have altered in positive ways.

For us, the biggest change has been that David has been at home with me. My daily routine is very much the same, since I work from home anyway.

Yesterday, though, David and I took a very long walk. We enjoyed the spring sunshine, waved to neighbors from a safe distance, and we marveled at how it felt like we had more time in the day. "It's like the whole world is on vacation," David commented, and I agreed that it does feel that way. Of course there are people working hard to keep us all healthy, fed, and safe - but for most of us, we're hanging at home with family. I've been baking bread - which I haven't done in years - and even made pizza crust from scratch, which I don't think I've ever done. We're getting creative with meals, and being thankful for our home and the garden.

What I've missed most is that I can't attend the wonderful yoga classes at my fave place Yoga Source. Then today, I was able to attend my first online class with them! I figured out how to connect my laptop to our large-screen TV, and we streamed the Zoom meeting. David even did the class with me, which he's never done IRL. Tomorrow my mom is going to "attend" the Yin Yoga class with me, from her home in Tucson. I figure that, doing this from home, I can attend classes five days a week, which is tons more than I seem to fit in when I have to drive back and forth.

What about all of you? What's something positive you've been doing that wasn't part of your life "before"?

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Murder Mysteries of All Types From SF to PNR To While Away the Hours

Much as I like to respect the topic of the week here at SFF7, this week I just can’t. It’s something about methods of murder. Well (a) I don’t write murder in my books – characters die in the course of the plots but that leads to (b) I am TOTALLY not in the mood to discuss death this week. Enough of that grim stuff going on in the real world right now, thank you. And to be fair, we here at SFF7 develop a list of 52 blog topics months in advance and then it’s fixed on the calendar for the year ahead, so I don’t mean to sound critical of whichever member proposed the one for this week.

One thing we’ve all got too much of on our hands right now is time and we’re looking for diversion. Well, at least I am! So it’s a good time to binge watch series and movies, and to work through that To Be Read stack of books. In the spirit of honoring the weekly topic AND doing something at least a little bit useful (I hope) as an author in the current situation, let me offer some mystery diversions.

The classic TV show would have to be “Murder She Wrote,” with Angela Lansbury. The series ran twelve seasons, 1984 through 1996 and also included four movies. I did a quick Google search and it can be found in various places like Hallmark Channel and on Amazon Prime (a few seasons and only through March 31)… I swear over the course of the show every single movie and TV star of any recognizable stature appeared and it was fun to see them pop up. Of course anywhere the Jessica Fletcher character travelled, murder and genteel mayhem soon followed. I enjoyed the early seasons in Cabot Cove, ME the most but it was probably a good idea to open the plots up more and make her a world traveler.  No offense to Kevin Bacon and his six degrees of separation (I myself have two degrees of separation from him) but I think Angela Lansbury/Jessica Fletcher met everyone in Hollywood  in those twelve years.

A recent murder mystery movie with rave reviews is "Knives Out," which is in my queue to watch soon.

My personal all-time favorite mystery novel series is the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters, set in England in the first half of the 12th century. The author created a full and complete world that I happily went to live in (and I frankly don’t want to know if there are historical inaccuracies or anything else because I love those books…not saying there ARE because I frankly have no idea and am not an expert on the 1100’s in England.) You might think stories about a monk wouldn’t be all that adventure and action filled. Fortunately he’s an ex-Crusader and a bit rebellious, within limits and there’s a wonderful supporting cast that grows along with him as the books take us through the years. St. Peter’s Fair and The Sanctuary Sparrow are two of my favorites.

Of course when I was young I read Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and more. At a somewhat older phase I went through a spell of reading all the Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Diane Mott Davidson, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books…I don’t know, I almost never read mysteries anymore but for a while I was really immersed in them. Of course being a full time author now does cut into my reading!

Despite the title the Murderbot Diaries by New York Times and USA Today Best Selling author Martha Wells, the science fiction series isn’t precisely a classic mystery but is wonderful and the title character is out to solve and resolve some weighty interstellar issues. I highly recommend these books.

Confession time: I’ve never read any of the Eve Dallas scifi detective series written by New York Times and USA Today Best Selling author Nora Roberts. I know so many people who never can get enough of her books under any pen name and this particular series is hugely beloved. Set in the mid 21st century, mostly in futuristic New York but also occasionally going off the planet, there’s also a focus on the romantic relationship between Eve and her husband. Hmmm, maybe I should give this series a try again, probably with the first book, Naked in Death.

Famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov also wrote mysteries, including Caves of Steel (The Robot Series Book 1), dealing with a New York City Detective and an android who have to learn to work together.

USA Today Best Selling science fiction romance author Pauline B. Jones also writes a mystery series set in New Orleans, The Big Uneasy series. Ms. Jones is a former resident of NOLA and her ability to transport you to the city in her novels is part of the allure for me. She’s very good at devising intricate plots and infusing moments of humor.  The latest book in the series is Fais Do Do Die about a caterer and a disgraced SWAT team member and here’s the book’s teaser: He kicks down doors, and she serves hors d’oeuvres. And the Big Uneasy delivers them both a huge helping of high stakes danger—and a chance at romance.

SFR author S. J. Pajonas has the Miso Cozy Mysteries series set in Japan, which I thoroughly enjoy. I love the way this genre can transport the reader to an entirely different place or time and Ms. Pajonas’s books don’t disappoint. Here’s how the author describes her first book and the series: The Daydreamer Detective is the savory starter to the Miso Cozy series of cozy mystery novels. If you like twisty plots, delectable food descriptions, and rural Japanese towns, then you’ll love S.J. Pajonas’ culinary tale.

Since I’m not trying to do any kind of exhaustive survey of the literature here, merely to present some brain teasing reading material to help divert socially distancing readers in these trying times, I’ll finish with a few more entries in the cozy mystery genre, only these come with a paranormal twist. I haven’t read any of these myself, but the authors are very well regarded in their niche and are consistent best sellers in the category. And if you enjoy the books, there are many more in each series to choose from.

Amanda M. Lee is HUGE in this genre and has a number of series going as well, including Spell’s Angels, Moonstone Bay, Charlie Rhodes, Wicked Witches of the Midwest…her latest was No Crone Unturned (A Spell’s Angels Cozy Mystery Book 3) and here’s the beginning of the blurb to give you a flavor of the offerings: Scout Randall is on the verge of getting information about her past. Patience has never been one of her virtues, though. As she’s waiting for her source to get settled, a new problem arises … and it has fangs.
When she was a kid, a chance encounter in a park left Scout questioning the existence of monsters. Now, one of those potential monsters is back … and he’s taken up residence in Hawthorne Hollow. He isn’t alone either.
Vampires are on the prowl and it’s up to the Spell’s Angels to figure out what they want and eradicate them through any means necessary…

Lily Harper Hart has several paranormal cozy mystery series going – Hannah Hickok Witchy Mysteries, Ivy Morgan Cozy Mysteries, Supernatural Speakeasy – lots to choose from…her most recent was Wicked Reunion (An Ivy Morgan Mystery Book 16).

CC Dragon is another well-established author in the cozy paranormal genre and her latest is A Nursery, A Necromancer, and a New Chapter: Deanna Oscar Paranormal Mysteries Book 13 (Deanna Oscar Paranormal Mystery).  The blurb: The house is clean and safe for the newest member of the Oscar family…but when a necromancer starts circling the mansion, Deanna knows she must empower a new team while she tackles the challenges of motherhood. She’ll supervise and help but one way or another, she’s taking a break and this is her last case while her little one is vulnerable. Passing the baton isn’t easy but the legacy of Oscars in New Orleans must go on.

I’m sure I’m missing any number of mysteries and mystery series that are much beloved so please feel free to share your favorites with us in the comments!

Best wishes to you and your loved ones on staying safe and healthy during this current crisis situation…

Friday, March 20, 2020

Live by the Sword . . . Well. You Know.

When it comes to murder most foul, or in this case fowl, I lean toward being an Angry Old God. Especially for the final boss fight. Sure, my books have body counts. The SFRs tend toward the usual thing - laser rifles and plasma pistols with maybe an odd genetically-designed plague thrown in. The kicker in the SFR is that the ones who develop the disease engineered it so they can't be infected. They're using the disease to poison humans like we might poison vermin. And maybe as a bit of payback, since their first contact with humans gave them every illness known to humans and nearly wiped them out as a species. They have very little sympathy.

In the UF, it's magic every time, baby. Specifically, magic tattoos that draw their power from your life force - maybe from your soul. If you have the will power to maintain balance, you and your tattoo will be pretty darned powerful. Fail and that tattoo will suck up every ounce of who and what you are to take control. But if a power hungry bad guy starts trying to hijack other people's power? Then the tattoos rip right off of your body, taking vital animating force with them when they go. 

When it comes to my heroines rising to meet their final challenges with whichever nemesis is theirs, they turn the bad guys' favorite weapon against them. In that regard, I am very much live by the sword, die by the sword. Even if that sword is a figment of your telepathically enhanced imagination.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

I'll take fantasy murder, please. With a side of pasta sauce.

(the closest I've been to a murder scene off-page: 
my attempt at jarring homemade pasta sauce without a funnel)

No matter what genre you read or write, there’s murder lurking there. Murder’s been around since Cain and Able, and ever since then people have been talking about it. 

But what do I consider the most intriguing fictitious murder method? Hmm…I guess it depends on the genre!

In my sci-fi thriller, The Mars Strain, there’s a world-wide pandemic that takes people out by the thousands. *cringe* I do love viruses, still can't take the lab outta the girl, but a little too close to home for you at the moment?

Fantasy! I also write fantasy and in them there’s: 
  • brutal trolls with club-like arms (don’t get squished)
  • undead creatures called Draugr (watch out for their teeth)
  • swords (naturally my heroine’s carry fabled, named ones, but you’ve gotta be careful with the ones swinging at your head)
  • assassins (shadows peel from their skins and you’re not even aware you’ve let them in)
  • aaaand magic

Magic. That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it! 

In both of my fantasy books magic in inherent, if a character has fae blood in their ancestry then they have some amount of power. In The Dark Queen’s Daughter my MC’s power allows her to tap into the magic of the world and use it for brief moments. So she’s able to control the trees and crushes revenants back into dust and stabs a draugr, though they regenerate up to three times so different methods are required. 

Magical murder can range from gristly to the soul passing on a sigh. I appreciate that it’s fantastical in nature and therefore has a certain distance to it. Because when it comes down to it, I’d rather write about magic’s glitter and healing properties. Still, when I want to do good evil is right there with me, so murder will keep worming it’s way into my stories. In one form or another. 

Do you have a favorite book-murder, magical or not?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

My weird relationship with murder

We're talking this week about our favorite methods of fictional murder. In terms of story, I found Inigo Montoya's sword fight with Count Rugen in The Princess Bride compelling. Of the murders I've done in my own books, the funnest to research was how to kill a person with a class-4 laser. (Spoiler: it takes time.)

But I don't get really into murder as a thing. Recently, I read a book on the Japanese invasion of Nanjing during World War II and had to put it down several times. Some murder is too much murder, especially if it actually happened.

And I guess that can be said for death in general. I remember when my dad was dying in the hospital, I saw a cockroach on the back porch of my house. My usual reaction to seeing a cockroach is to kill the thing immediately because eew, but right then I just watched it skitter. With death so close and immediate, I couldn't bring myself to take a life, even a cockroach life.

That's sort of how I feel writing this post in the middle of a pandemic. I mean, yeah death can be fictionally useful for story, but right now, with all of that darkness looming, I'd rather think about life.

Also, "I want my father back, you son of a bitch."

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Beware the Ides and Plagues of March: Favorite (Written) Murder

As days in quarantine stretch without a light of reprieve, those who enjoy being left the hell alone now find themselves trapped with other beings who require attention and maintenance. They may find their thoughts turning to murder...

...Fictitious murder, folks. We're all about the fantasy here.

Not gonna lie, people and non-people die in my books (but never the dog!). Usually amid spatter and gore. Depending on the series, death is by blade, brute strength, or magic. Parasites that extract salt from a body while injecting venom that boils the blood. A portal that tears open a heart. Angel fire or electrocution. Eviction of a soul. How 'bout an old fashioned neck snap. The bodies do pile up in my stories.

The murder that still makes me snicker (because I'm an evil author, natch) is from my debut novel LARCOUT where our fire-warrior protag is being introduced to a new culture that assumes women are feeble:
Vadrigyn pivoted. Her fist connected squarely with the nose of the closest fool…and punched through the back of his skull. Blood and brain oozed down her wrist and stained her vambrace. The body reduced to sand, leaving her with a skull bracelet.

Fragile blood-beings.

Soft blows, barely more than a swat at the air, would suffice to incapacitate a blood-being. She knew that. Gentle. She must be gentle in combat.

How absurd.
In this time of social distancing, please, Wash Your Damn Hands and Stay Home when possible. You don't know who around you is a carrier or immunocompromised. Dying from the plague is a shitastic way to go.

🍀 Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit! 🍀 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Dead Is Dead - Or Is It?

*kitty is not actually dead
Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is: Beware the Ides of March: Fav/Most Intriguing Method of (Fictitious) Murder.

Do I get to pick pandemic??

Seriously, it’s kind of creepy that Calendar Maven K.A. Krantz picked this topic while we’re all practicing social distancing to #flattenthecurve on COVID-19—and she picked it months ago, before she could possibly know this would happen.

Or did she?

I mean, a global pandemic sounds like a great Evil Mastermind Plot…

Anyway, all of this is to day that I don’t really think about types of murder. Just not my thing. I occasionally have to kill off characters, but I tend to do it in efficient, not very interesting ways. I guess I figure dead is dead and I don’t have a lot of morbid curiosity about how to get people that way.

Probably this is why I don’t write murder mysteries.

Is this something you all pay attention to as readers? Are there more interesting deaths than others? Do you have a favorite fictional death?

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Fishboning Clears Story Tangles For Me

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: "The most difficult scene you ever wrote and why."

If I have a scene that for some reason isn’t flowing well, I remind myself that the first draft is supposed to be ugly. It’s allowed to be fragmentary and lacking details and maybe even full of X’s here and there or notes to myself like “add more here”. I just have to get words on the paper (or into the computer file) and build from there.

(Time for my standard disclaimer that there is NO one rule for how to write and everyone should write their books in whatever way works for THEM.)

I do as much as I have creativity for on the first pass and then each time I re-open the file thereafter, to keep writing the rest of the narrative rather than obsess over the one scene, I do go through the specific moment again and build upon it, refine it, in a process I think of as ‘layering’.  Each time I touch it, I end up adding words and depth and color and actions and…by the time I finish the entire book, each scene inside is finished.

DepositPhoto - A classic fishbone diagram.
The ones I do for my writing do NOT look like this.
If I’m really at a standstill, I fall back onto what I call ‘fishboning’, in honor of a very useful process improvement technique from my days at NASA/JPL.  I end up building a structure with the possibilities that flow from any decision a character could make in the scene’s situation (or that I, the omniscient author might drop upon their heads) and as I brainstorm and work through this, the path with the most possibilities or the most exciting-to-me events along the way becomes clear and off I go to write. I can’t tell you how many times this has worked infallibly for me. I use my trusty, very sharp No. 2 pencil and a pad of legal sized yellow (or lavender) paper. Something about doing this just really clears the way for my Muse or my creativity or whatever one chooses to call it, to break loose and enhance the story telling.

In actual fact, it’s a combination of true fishboning for root cause analysis and “The Five Whys” technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, where you drill down and down to what the ultimate root cause of any problem may be. The fishbone is a cause analysis tool, which a trained facilitator (which I used to be) might pull out to use when a problem solving team has hit a dead end or finds itself in a rut.

I am a NASA Lean Six Sigma Black Belt so trust me, I’ve had training in these and many more process improvement techniques. I’ve amalgamated and adapted them for this creative purpose of mine and it leads my Muse through the cluttered field to the right path for the story.

Now most of the time I just sit down and write the book, and don’t do any fishboning or anything else. The story flows, I type and it’s all good. But every once in a while, perhaps once or twice per book, I resort to pencil and pad and brainstorm.

As far as the most difficult scene to write because it affected me so much – there’s a scene in  Timtur, book 2.5 of the Badari Warriors series, where Lily the human heroine sits through the night with a dying soldier and does her best to comfort him, even forgiving him for participating in kidnapping her. (And no, this is a supporting character, not the hero.) Folks, I cried writing this scene. I’ve never had that happen to me before or since on a book I wrote.

I have a feeling the scene might be mining an experience in my own past where I sat vigil through the night by a person beloved to me who was not going to survive. (I’m not normally too self-reflective or even conscious of where and what influences my Muse is drawing upon deep inside my own memory and experiences to spin the stories I write. Sorry if it seems weird to discuss my writing process as disengaged somehow from my everyday, entirely rational ‘thinking’ mind, but when I write, I’m in the flow.)

So anyway, here’s a portion of that scene. Lily and the dying soldier are both imprisoned within an alien lab:
Hastily, Lily ran to the sink and filled a piece of lab glassware with water, before going to the table where Hilkirr was restrained.

He lay still, fangs and talons extended, all the veins in his body standing out and glowing blue as if filled with liquid phosphorescence. As she approached the table she observed his eyes were open and his breathing was labored.

“I brought you the water,” she said in a near whisper. “Can you raise your head enough to drink?”

“Teacher?” He blinked as if his vision was impaired, although even in the darkened lab he ought to be able see so much better than she could.

“Yes, it’s me.” She slipped one arm under his head and helped him get the right angle to sip at the water, although he didn’t take much. His whole body trembled.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “Stay?”

Lily shot a glance at the door, assessing the risk.

“Please?” His voice was a raw thread of its former volume. “I—I don’t want to be alone, and I can’t hear the pack in my head anymore.”

“All right.” She searched for a stool or a chair and found one shoved into a corner. She went to retrieve it then sat next to the table, wrapping both of her hands around one of his, mindful of the extended talons. “I wish I knew how to get these restraints off so you could lie more comfortably.”

“No. It’s better this way.” Hilkirr shook his head feebly. “Might hurt you.”

“I don’t believe you would,” she said as warmly as she could. “Do you need more water? Are you cold? I could try to find a lab coat or a blanket.”

“Just your company.”

“Okay.” She sat and closed her eyes, unable to bear looking at his abused body for too long. His grotesquely expanded muscles and tendons were distressing, as were the brownish-yellow bruises spreading over his body as the experiment slowly extinguished his life. The glowing blue of his veins was fading, to be replaced by more ominous colors, a vile mix of purple and black.

Hilkirr’s clasp grew lax, and she sat up with a start, afraid he’d died, but he’d only dozed off. She went to the sink and got a wet cloth. Back in her place beside the table, she brushed his hair off his face then bathed his upper body carefully, as much as she could reach, drying him off with another, softer cloth.

With obvious effort, he turned his face toward her. “Feels good.”

“I wish I could do more.” After dropping the cloths in the refuse bin, she resumed her spot in the chair and clasped his hand again.

“I’m sorry, teacher. We shouldn’t have kidnapped you. That was wrong.”

“I forgive you,” she said and found she meant it. Hilkirr had suffered so much as a result of following Vattan into this hellish lab that she only had pity for him.

“Swore a blood oath to my Alpha,” he said. “Had to obey.”

“I understand.” Lily wasn’t sure she truly did but pack meant everything to the Badari, and blood was the magic used to seal all their most important bonds and agreements.

“Wish Aydarr had been my Alpha. The valley was so beautiful.” Now his voice was wistful, and Lily had to blink back tears.

“I’m glad you got to live there in freedom for at least a little while.” Sorrow in her heart like a stone, she patted his hand and wished she could do more.

“Do you think the goddess will forgive me? Can she forgive me?” His whisper was intense.

Lily bit her lip, throat tight with repressed sorrow, pondering how best to answer the question. What would Timtur say to comfort a dying comrade at a time like this? Words came to mind. “I don’t know much about your goddess. But I know you call her your Great Mother, and I know a mother loves all her children equally and forgives them. So, you hang onto that thought.”

“You should be a mother,” Hilkirr said a minute or two later, surprising her. “The cubs all love you, did you know that? The boys think the Great Mother sent you to them.”

“Maybe someday I’ll have a baby,” she said, thinking of Timtur and what a child born of the two of them might be like. Motherhood was a dream far removed from her current situation and she pushed the happy subject to the back of her mind with regret.  Her muscles were complaining at the awkward position so she shifted a bit and stretched, while hanging onto Hilkirr’s hand. “Do you need more water? Are you in pain?”

“Can’t see anything. Can’t feel anything.” His hand twitched. “Other than your fingers. Warm. Nice. Would you sing? Like you do for the cubs after classes, if they’ve been really good?”

Happy to have something she could do to comfort him, she said, “Of course.”
There's more to the scene in the novel but I think this gives the flavor...

Friday, March 13, 2020

Curing Writer's Block

Happy Friday the 13th! Gather up your good luck charms while ye may. I've got mine.

We're chatting difficult scenes and writer's block this week.

Have you ever had one of those arguments where long after it's over, you bolt awake knowing exactly what you SHOULD have said??

That's me writing scenes. Any scene. I've learned this about myself, though, so I give myself permission to write my the high emotion/high conflict scenes as pieces of junk first. They flow pretty easily because I know that overnight or in the shower the next morning, I'll suddenly get this brain dump of all the things I should have had these characters say to make everything much worse.

Yeah, but what about the scenes that aren't like that? *Shrug* I can't tell you what scene was hardest. Mainly because I get stuck so often. When I do, though, it is almost always because I can't see a way forward within whatever scene I'm working on. I get wrapped up in the back and forth between characters, but I may not necessarily be moving the story or conflict. That stops me every time, and I bog down.

To move forward, I have to walk away from the recalcitrant scene. I move on to the next place where I know what happens. Or I work backwards from the end of the book. I almost always know where and how my books end. I know the beginning. I very know the middle. Which, of surprise to no one, is where I get stuck. But you know what? There's no magic in writing in a straight line. There's no reason not to skip and hop around inside a story if it's what breaks you free.

For me, working from the end reminds me of what these characters have at stake. I'm reminded of what matters to the arc of the story. Based on that, I can go back to the scene where I bogged down and I can ruthlessly pare it down to its bones - to the skeleton that supports the tissues and fibers of the story.

I suspect strongly that one of the major cures of writers block is giving up the notion that there are Right Answers when it comes to plotting and executing a story. There's only 'hey, this looks like an interesting direction, let's try it!'

Thursday, March 12, 2020

How to cheat yourself out of a difficult scene/writer's block.

This week we’re talking about the most difficult scene we’ve ever written. And I really don’t want to talk about it because I don’t have the mental capacity to unbox that at the moment. So, I’m going to cheat!

Cheating’s fun! We do it all the time! That donut in the break room, the extra coffee even though we’ve already had a whole pot, staying up till the wee hours of the morning to finish that Netflix series or book. We cheat in life.

And if you find yourself stuck…writer's blocked…try a cheat! 

*This is for those times you’re simply stuck: can’t think of what to write, can’t figure out how to get your characters from point A to point B, can’t get the words on the page. 

Are you wondering how to cheat at writing? It’s as easy as reaching for that glazed old-fashioned. Simply fill in a sentence or two, or however many it takes, to warp-speed you to the next scene that formulates in your head or the next plot point in your summary.

YMMV, but when I’m stuck with writer’s block I just need to find a way past that sticky point because my brain is what’s stuck on that scene, those details that don’t fit, or that plot hole that I can’t see yet but my subconscious knows is there. 

By cheating, I give my brain a pass to move on and return to production state. By cheating, I’m giving myself a bandaid that will eventually fall off, because those dang things never stay on long enough, but by the time it slips free it’s usually because I’ve found the source of the plot hole or character inconsistency and fixed it. By cheating, I take away the stress. Did you get that? It takes away the stress which is the biggest road block of anything, mentally and physically. Get rid of the stress and everything opens up.

An example? I was writing THE MARS STRAIN and my MC, Juliet, had to end up at the CDC with the Martian virus. But!!! I didn’t know how to get her there. Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. I wasted a month staring at my computer screen, trying to write and ending up with a handful of words or some nifty new adjectives. 

Then, I decided to glaze over the details on how she got to Atlanta and focus on what she’d be feeling when she got there. So I wrote, and Juliet had a breakdown, a full-on sob fest breakdown from the stress of fighting the Strain, losing her best friend, and possibly losing the man she loves. And then I knew exactly what had to happen before she reached the CDC!

Game over writer’s block! I’d broken through and all it took was a little cheating. 

Go ahead! Give it a try! Reach for that cake donut, toss a couple glaze-over-sentences in that WIP and move on! 

(Which totally has me craving one right now…I’m going to have to convince my wonderful, amazing husband that it’s time to whip up a batch. Since I can’t eat store bought ones the only donuts I get are his made with organic heritage wheat. Jon, you’ve been warned!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Those murderous first 20k words

Writers talk a lot about being blocked, getting over blocks, getting unstuck: the malaise has a lot of terms. And a lot of solutions. Just Google "writer's block" and settle in for a bunch of fun reading. But what if the block is more than just a block but is actually more of whole-thing a slog and you wouldn't call it writer's block, exactly?

Further, what if that slog-state happens every time you start a new book? Every. Single. Time.

Here's my fancy term for when that happens: the murderous first 20k. And if you're experiencing that, man, I feel ya.

If you've ever taken a workshop or read a book on story structure, you're familiar with that 20% mark. It's where the first major story-spanning conflict is introduced. I mean, inciting incidents happen before, but right at that 1/5 spot, your story approaches a cliff and should be ready to leap off into the great adventure it's about to become. It's a heady moment for both story and storyteller. If I know my characters and their mission at that point, the rest of the book is like a roller coaster: it just speeds along and takes my breath away and is so freaking fun.

But everything leading up to that point? Is hell. Figuring out who my characters are, what they want, what their mission is, what's making that mission impossible ... as an organic-style "pantser" type writer, I'm often figuring out those things as I go, which means a lot of rewriting and rethinking goes on in that first fifth of the story.

Here's the hardest truth I've learned about the first 20k: if I get to that cliff and am not excited about shoving my characters off it, the story premise probably isn't very good, and readers probably won't be very engaged. So I end up stopping at of stories right there.

In business, management types sometimes adopt a "fail fast" strategy, and I guess that's kind of what I'm advocating here. If the first 20% does not work, if every word to that point was a slog and none of it is coming together at that point, your story might just be a victim of those nasty, murderous first 20k.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Scenes That Refuse To Be Written: Writer's Block or Lack of Focus?

My mind's astounding ability to be recalcitrant and adamantly refuse to focus is what makes a scene "difficult to write." I've yet to encounter a scene that's "too emotional" or "too...too" to put into words. I've written scenes that made me cry--which I consider a good thing. If they don't provoke an emotional response from me, the creator of the characters and world, I can't expect the reader to care nearly as much, right? I've written such detailed fight scenes that I've acted out the staging to ensure plausibility. Do the readers care as much as I do that it's left foot forward, right shoulder back? Possibly not. Didn't stop me from spending a lot of creative time penning that scene.

Are there scenes that didn't turn out the way I'd thought they would? Oh sure. Are there scenes that didn't come remotely close to what the outline said they should? ~slaps knee~ Oh, so very many. Are there scenes that ripped out my heart that exist only in a Cut Scenes file? Ayup.

Now, what do I do when my mind says, "Yeah, no, no we're not holding a steady train of thought today"?  Oh, dear reader, I wish I had some glib sure-fire solution. I wish I could say those No Words days only lasted a day or two. I don't classify those days as "writer's block," because I know what should happen in that scene. I'm not creatively stumped, I'm unable to focus. Different problems.

Writer's block is akin to having no pulse from your creativity feed. Solution? Immerse yourself in the creativity of others. Let their spark be your jolt. Let their imaginations be the yeast that helps yours grow. Rest. Let that yeast ferment, let your creativity proof, rise. Pretty soon the story is ready to bake. No guilt. No time wasted. It's all part of the process.

Lack of focus? Gah! It's opening the doc, staring at the chapter header and knowing that the opening paragraph is setting the scene...yet envisioning the setting opens all thirteen-hundred tabs in your mental browser and now you're wondering if you should be planting the wildflower seeds or if you've properly calculated the time and budget for Universal Design modifications on the off chance your aging parents will need to relocate and if you release four books a year you might be able to get to that series about those characters that have that thing but... By the time you shut down all the extraneous tabs, you've blown through your day, your eyes are barely open, and the cursor is still flashing after the chapter header. That...that is my challenge, dear reader. I don't know the answer. Meditation? Discipline? Mindfulness? Uh. For some, maybe? But, if you too suffer from Squirrel!, you're not alone. It just takes us a little longer to get to The End.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

When Writers Block Means to Dig Deeper

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: "The most difficult scene you ever wrote and why."

I'm guessing that's why was it difficult, not why we wrote it. Though I do think the why we wrote the scene in the first place is relevant.

There's a school of thought among writers and writerly-advice givers that if a story becomes difficult - if the writer hits a block and grinds to a stop - then that's an indicator of Something Gone Wrong. I see this advice a lot. Writers will say - often in response to questions about how they handle Writer's Block - "When I hit a block, I know I've done something wrong, taken a wrong turn somewhere, so I go back and rework the plot."

You all have heard a version of this, right?

Makes me cringe every time. I'll tell you why.

What I hear in this dubious advice is writers advocating walking away from the hard parts and looking for an easier path forward. Now, I know this isn't always the case. Part of becoming a professional writer is learning to decipher your own internal voices - to differentiate between laziness and being truly depleted. To separate painfully accurate critique from toxic attempts to undermine you. To know when resistance means you took a wrong turn - OR when it means you need to dig deeper.

{{{Important caveat: Sometimes writers block can mean depression. Or physical or emotional exhaustion. I'm talking about if those factors have been ruled out. That's a whole 'nother kettle of fish and Mary Robinette Kowal has a great post about it.}}}

For me, resistance has always meant I need to put my nose to the grindstone. Keep picking at that wall. Make myself walk through the fire. Pick your metaphor: in my experience, the best stuff lies on the other side of that wall. I've experienced it repeatedly.

My friend and SFF author Kelly Robson talks about not taking the Monkey Bypass. That's a great essay she wrote about it at the link. In essence, the Monkey Bypass is an opportunity to avoid filth and damage. Robson argues, and I agree, that you can't let your characters bypass danger. I think an author also can't allow herself to retreat from pain and difficulty.

Why have I persisted in writing those difficult scenes? Because the story required it.

I have never once been sorry that I kept pushing through those blockades.

I recently released THE FATE OF THE TALA, the climactic book in my Twelve Kingdoms and Uncharted Realms series. Those who follow me regularly - especially those who listen to my daily (almost) podcast, First Cup of Coffee - know that I had a hell of a time writing this book. I'm not sure if I can point to a specific scene, because the whole freaking book was mostly picking at that wall. And kicking it, pummeling it, then collapsing in a sobbing heap and scraping myself together to try again.

At one point, my mom - who listens to my podcast with the loyalty of a mom - asked if I couldn't just put the book down, walk away from it and write something else for a while. "Isn't this supposed to be fun?" she asked.

Well... no. I don't believe that good art only comes from suffering, but sometimes writers DO need to hold their own feet to the fire to get to the good stuff.

I discovered a lot of things in writing that book - and not just that it's a bitch to write a novel that ties up a 16-episode thread (counting novels and shorter works in the arc). I realized I was working out emotional issues in my own life and marriage that I hadn't faced. And I discovered amazing things from the seeds I'd planted ten years ago, when I began writing THE MARK OF THE TALA.

Now I have readers coming back and telling me how they loved the way I tied this up. Here's one from this morning:

Totally worth that slog through the monkey enclosure!

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Lack of Trust Isn't the Issue


This week at the SFF Seven, we're asking: how do you know who to trust with your writing, especially early drafts and idea bouncing.

It’s not a question of trust for me, it’s a question of the way I work, which is that I never share a work in progress with anyone, ever. I’m not afraid of ideas being stolen but rather that whatever story I’m telling is MY story, with my characters and I’m not interested in how anyone else might think the story should go. Ooh, you might be saying, crochety much? No, just stubborn and confident in my story telling abilities. Not trying to sound arrogant but I don’t need or want other opinions when it comes to exercising my creativity and telling my version of a story at the ancestral campfire. (For sure no one beta read or critiqued those first story tellers LOL!)

 I brainstorm with myself if I encounter plot challenges along the way- I actually use a couple of techniques I was taught when I led teams and did process improvement, although in a much scaled down way since it’s only me in the room now, thinking through the alternatives and the ‘If this, then what?’ and the ‘Why?' questions, with the occasional Venn diagram thrown in.

 I also don’t feel any need to share my writing until the point where I regard it as being a complete and finished work. When it’s done, I’m thrilled to put the book out into the world, let it receive reviews from readers as to their experience with the story, and move on to writing my next novel.

Part of this attitude of mine may be that since I’m not a person who plots in advance, the story unspools for me as I write it and therefore it’d be pointless to show the manuscript to anyone else prior to the work being complete because even I don’t always know all the ins and outs of the plot ahead. I do always know the ending, however.

Writing is kind of a fragile thing to me and the finished story is a strong enough edifice to withstand reader reviews and the opinions of others, whereas a story in progress doesn’t yet have that strength and if I got feedback that derailed or distracted me, I’d probably never finish the thing.

Maybe I’m missing out on a whole set of wonderful, rich experiences by not gathering with other authors and exchanging ideas on WIP’s…but I can only do me and my Muse doesn’t think writing is a group activity. She shuts down and goes into silent running mode. I'm happy for people who flourish in that collaborative group environment and find writing partners who share and enhance each other's creative sparks but I know my own limits.

(Pretty much Rule One of Writing to me is that there's no one perfect or right way that everyone MUST write...thank goodness!)

I do give the book to my developmental editor once it’s complete and has gone through several edits by me. She provides very useful feedback and I have made changes or added or deleted things in response at times…but I’ve also chosen to ignore the inputs completely at other times where I’m happy with the story as it was. Having the dev editor’s comments certainly enables me to grow as a writer and to avoid repeating some mistakes as I go forward with more books.

I don’t do beta reading or critiquing for anyone else either with very rare exceptions that had unique circumstances. I can probably count those instances on one hand. Normally I refuse requests to beta read as kindly as I can.

I’m a solitary person up there in my cold garret, writing away and telling my stories! (Well, okay sitting here in my cozy and warm apartment if you must know…)

Happy reading to everyone!