Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Find Out What They Don't Want You to Know: Read a Banned Book!

Click the picture to check out the ALA information on Banned Books Week

Someday I hope to see my books banned. Given the caliber of literature that attracts this kind of ire, I would be in excellent company. Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, JD Salinger, Alice Walker, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck. It's quite a list of literary luminaries.

If my books were to be banned, it would mean I wrote something that truly mattered--that scared certain kinds of people with the power of the words and ideas. It would mean I shook the establishment. That would be quite a measure of success!

This is Banned Books Week, which is always a great opportunity to see what "they" didn't want you to read. So, to celebrate,  here are some thoughts on the top five Banned and Challenged Classics on the ALA list. It turns out I've read them all, because I'm a rebel, Dottie.

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Well, of course, they don't want you to read this one. It might give you the impression that rich people are not infallible bastions of society out there to protect the common people with their good sense and practical decision making. You might come away thinking that money can't buy happiness and that there are dangers in trying to be something you're not. G-d forbid!

2. The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger. 

Another dangerous, subversive book. A person reading this might come to think that there is beauty even in a flawed world or a flawed person. They might come to value sincerity and honesty. A reader might feel less alienated by connecting with a character who feels even more alienated than she does. Can't have that now, can we?

3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. 

Bad things happen in this book. Good people come to harm. And they don't just roll over and take it. They keep moving, they fight back, they endure. Despite their seeming powerlessness against big bankers and the one-percenters of their day, the Joads have a nobility. You might just walk away from these pages thinking that there is such a thing as righteous anger and that respect is worth fighting for. I'm surprised they let this one stay in print. That's some dangerous stuff there.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Atticus Finch has gotten a bad rep here lately, thanks to another book. But he was a voice of reason for generations, and I think he still deserves his reputation for patience and calm, clear thinking. The novel allows for plenty of shades of gray when it comes to big moral issues. There is no black and white, even in a story that is largely about the relationship between blacks and whites. Truth is messy. Kindness and empathy are keys to understanding that many forget they have in their pockets, especially during a presidential election. So, yeah. Obviously this book is the devil.

5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

This one is a triple threat. The main characters are poor, black women. Three things a lot of America doesn't want to talk about, especially not when they pile up into one person like that. Life has not been easy for Celie and Shug, and the story doesn't pull any punches about that. It's not a diatribe or a rant. It's a moving story, one that lets you in on realities that are not pleasant or easy to stomach. So, if we're to keep denying that racism, poverty, and misogyny are problems in this great nation, then this book must be stopped!

So, there you have it.

I'll never understand the impulse to ban a book. If you're not ready to have your horizons stretched or your assumptions questioned, then, fine, keep reading only the things that feed your own egocentric world view. But, it's really not your business what other people read.

When someone tries to tell you that a book is dangerous, I recommend you rush out and read it immediately. Because your mind is your own. You should look at things for yourself and decide their worth. Otherwise, what's your brain for?

Happy Banned Books Week! Read something they'd rather you didn't.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Burden of Creativity: a #HoldOntoTheLight post

Sylvia Plath was the beginning of awareness for me about the tangled relationship between creativity and mental health wellness. Her suicide happened in 1963, before my own birth. I learned of it in the 1980s, when we read one of her poems in a high school English class. I'm pretty sure it was "Daddy," a poem which confused the heck out of me even while it broke my heart.

I'd been a pretty sheltered kid. I mean, sure, one of my best friends was bulimic and another was sometimes afraid to go home, and there were weird relationship dynamics all around, but I still believed that everyone around me was basically all right. My rose colored glasses were firmly in place. The idea of someone mourning that her father died before she could kill him herself was quite a shocker. The biographical fact that the poet later killed herself even more-so.

Sylvia's suicide was glossed over in the biography in my textbook. It probably said something euphemistic about death by her own hand, rather than giving the shocking details I later learned, wringing them out of English teachers, since this was before you could just google things like that.

I couldn't understand.

I couldn't grasp why she couldn't persevere, couldn't believe in the possibility that things would get better.

Some of my friends could, though.

We talked about it with a morbid kind of fascination. We read The Bell Jar and Flowers in the Attic. We talked about Romeo and Juliet for months after our English class was done with it. My friends told me about the times they had almost taken the walk off the crumbling bridge above the railroad tracks at the edge of our hometown or showed me the scars from aborted attempts to end their suffering. They talked about feeling like others would be better off without them or that it might be easier just to stop fighting.

I listened with wide eyes, weeping sometimes and begging them not to give up. I wanted to think that it was just overly dramatic talk, a way to stand out, like an outlandish hairdo or coming to school with visible hickies on your neck. (I probably knew even then that it was something else entirely, but I denied it as long as I could.)

It was like that for me--I was interested in the dark side, but it didn't drag me in. I could still walk in the sunlight. I wanted it to be that way for them, too. I didn't want to believe that people I knew and loved could have come so close to taking themselves out of the picture entirely. That was too awful to contemplate.

In college, I was an English major. I read The Awakening, Antigone, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, all books where strong and vibrant women came to tragic ends. I learned about Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Michel Basquiat, Alan Turing--so many authors, artists, and geniuses who took their own lives.

As a creative writing minor and habitué of coffeehouses and open mic readings, I heard and saw a lot of creative work about the struggle against inner darkness, against demons of doubt and despair. It began to seem that despair and creativity were two sides of a single coin, or just different interpretations of the same view. Like stubbornness and determination, which are really just the same thing, viewed differently. Creativity seemed to come so often intertwined with a darkness. The same agile minds that can create wonders can create demons--and sometimes the demons consume us.

Imagination is a blessing…and a curse. A double edged sword that sometimes cuts us back.

I was a grown woman, a teacher in a classroom of my own, the first time depression truly beat someone I loved and took them from my life. I know now that I was fortunate to have made it that long. Like everyone else around me at the time, I asked myself what we missed, what we should have seen, what we could have done. I still want to know.

And there have been too many lights extinguished in this way. Co-workers, students, friends, uncles, cousins. Stars in my personal sky that no longer share their light.

So, please. I beg you. When it feels like the darkness is winning, reach out to someone. The world needs all the light within all its denizens.

(There are a list of places to reach out for help or to donate to support in the message below)

#HoldOntoTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOntoTheLight, find a list of participating authors, or reach a media contact, go to

Saturday, September 17, 2016

My votes: #SonofaPitch

It was my great pleasure to provide feedback and vote on which pitches would go onto the next round in the 2017 Son of a Pitch contest.

We had some really fantastic entries this year! My schedule was incredibly tight (remind me not to judge a contest and have a writing deadline during the same week, especially not during the schoolyear!), so I didn't get to comment on as many of them as I would have liked, but I definitely enjoyed the reading!

Here are my top five picks for #SonofaPitch 2016:

Best Laid Plans in Scotland: I don't even read romance, generally, and I want to read this one!
Improbable Girl: Great protagonist. I was really drawn in by the first 250.
Fount of Power: I was already rooting for the MCs in just this short selection.
Doleful Creatures: Delightful storytelling style.
The Doll Train: Strong narrative voice.

Pitch contests and other critiquing experiences are always a great learning experience for writers at all stages. Having to articulate why something does or doesn't work for you, and offer suggestions for improvement trains your mind to read like a writer: identifying the techniques, word choices, patterns, etc. that make a piece work, or not.

Round three begins next week, with agents and publishers. You can follow the action over on Katie's Stories. Katie Hamstead Teller is a talented novelist, and the brains and heart behind this feedback intensive pitch contest. She's part of why it's such a pleasure to participate, and why I came back for a second year.

We're already planning another one for February. Hope you'll all come back then!

Monday, September 12, 2016

#SonofaPitch #10: Crave Me

For my regular readers, these are some special posts this week as part of a pitch contest I'm providing feedback for.

For participants, welcome to my blog! I'm happy to host you and excited to see what kinds of stories you've written. Please remember that only the author of this piece and the participating judges are supposed to comment. All other comments will be deleted.

Title: Crave Me
Age and Genre: NA
Word Count: 100k


Mourning his mother’s death, Dante Arzola seeks refuge from the world of wealth and corruption he was born into by trying to win the affection of childhood friend, whose darkest secret could ruin them forever.

First 250 Words:

Dante Arzola

If I had to pinpoint it, everything began with one drunk, redheaded cheerleader. Or, at least, she might’ve been cheerleader.

From her stance on top of Sade’s bar, I—along with the rest of the party—had a perfect view of her legs that looked far too soft as they flirted with the crowd before them. Had me abound with inappropriate thoughts. She definitely had cheerleader legs.

The heat in the room incremented. I was in mutual agreement with most of the men here. She could have been wearing jeans, the windows would still be fogged with our fervor. Things like that were bound to happen when you were in a room full of intoxicated college students whose perception of adequate clothing lay somewhere between way too small and way too tight. We’d all become libidinous and ready, men and women alike. Our bellies would heat and our pulses pick up speed with each stinging shot of Finlandia.

I sat so much farther from the others that to a bystander I’d look like a bystander. Then again I was a wallflower, blending in with the furniture.

It wasn’t that people failed to see me, it was that they ignored me. It was like this most of the time, and I’d been dulled to any insult it should have encased. There were perks to being invisible.

#SonofaPitch #9: Fount of Power

For my regular readers, these are some special posts this week as part of a pitch contest I'm providing feedback for.

For participants, welcome to my blog! I'm happy to host you and excited to see what kinds of stories you've written. Please remember that only the author of this piece and the participating judges are supposed to comment. All other comments will be deleted.

Age and Genre: YA Fantasy
Word Count: 90,000


In most ways, Tessa resembles the destitute masses of Avende. The Harian army drove her from her home, pillaged her nation and separated her from her beloved older brother, Aldo. She yearns for the same things as everyone else – to lead a normal life and for the recent peace treaty to last.

But unlike her fellow Avendese, Tessa possess Harian magic. Aldo forced her to use her powers to recruit soldiers to the Harian side, making them both traitors. If her true nature is discovered, she’ll hang for treason.

She needs to find Aldo and escape Avende as soon as possible, but the only person willing to help her is Captain Jerome Redat. An Avendese war hero, Redat gallantly offers her a job with his refugee company. Starving and out of options, Tessa accepts. But working with the Avendese military puts Tessa in constant danger of discovery. And as her feelings for Redat grow more tender, she’s not even sure she wants to escape anymore.

But when Aldo tracks her down, it’s clear that hiding her abilities will no longer be an option. Aldo and the recently defeated Harians are already marshalling their numbers, but they’ll need Tessa’s powers if they want to succeed. And joining them would mean far more than losing Redat. It would mean another war.

First 250 Words:

Tessa’s basement window let in the faintest smear of sunset, just bright enough to illuminate the dust in the air. Outside, footsteps tromped in unison along the cobbled streets. The Avendese soldiers marched through their evening rounds, making certain no one remained on the streets of Sarcey past curfew. Ocean air blew through the brick walls, tracing damp tendrils along Tessa’s skin. There would be snow again tonight.

But neither the wind nor the soldiers concerned Tessa, their rumblings as familiar as the ache of hunger. Her ears were primed for a stealthier, more malicious foe. She might have ferreted it out already, but the little boy nestled against her side was restless.

Chay shivered, rubbing his hands until flame sparked at his fingertips. “C’mon, Tessa.” His breath curled in a frosty puff. “Let’s light the fire.”

“Not yet.” Tessa placed a finger against his chapped lips. “I know I heard something."

Chay sighed, but with a shake of Tessa’s head, he pressed his hands together and extinguished the conjured flames. Bless him, he hated disappointing her, even though he didn’t understand her worries. She pulled him close, trying to squeeze him warm.

Thdd… Thdd…

The soft thrum of water against wood.

“Do you hear that?” Tessa’s grip tightened around Chay.

“No.” He stifled a yawn.

“A leak. There’s a leak in the flat.”

Sages, how was she supposed to plug a hole in the roof? Now they might freeze to death before the soldiers even got a chance to shoot them.

#SonofaPitch #8: Improbable Girl

For my regular readers, these are some special posts this week as part of a pitch contest I'm providing feedback for.

For participants, welcome to my blog! I'm happy to host you and excited to see what kinds of stories you've written. Please remember that only the author of this piece and the participating judges are supposed to comment. All other comments will be deleted.

Title: Improbable Girl
Age and Genre: Adult Women's Fiction
Word Count: 82,000


Daniel knows how many steps there are to his fifth floor walk-up, and tonight he counts as he climbs a little slower than normal. Inside his apartment, his numbers and rational logic can't comfort his wife, Jane. When he finally opens the door, it’s worse than he thought: Jane’s in the tiny living room trying to put a crib together—but she isn’t pregnant.

IMPROBABLE GIRL is a dual narrator, dual-timeline love story that begins in the middle as a marriage cracks under the weight of infertility. The story bounces back and forth in time, connecting the dots between the excitement of first dates and budding love to the turmoil of needles and ultrasounds. In the present, Jane, a former dancer who’s always been in control of her body, is so consumed by getting pregnant that she neglects everything else in her life. Daniel, a hyper-logical math teacher, can never say the right thing, so he retreats into silence. In the midst of an expensive and exhausting third round of IVF, Daniel’s infidelity is followed by a confession that he can’t handle the emotional toll of more treatments. Jane packs a suitcase and walks out, barreling forward with her third egg retrieval. She browses a sperm bank, unsure of what she wants more, her marriage or a baby. When doctors discover a tumor on Jane’s ovary, Daniel's fear of losing her for good impels him to find her and earn her forgiveness. For Jane, more than a baby is at stake now, and she recognizes that she can’t do everything alone. Reunited, they face Jane’s surgery together, knowing the cancer may have spread and she could wake up from surgery unable to ever carry a baby.

First 250 Words:

I counted the stairs on the day we moved in. There are 50 steps to our apartment on the fifth floor, so every five steps is equal to 10% of the trip to the top. That is, if you ignore the 6 steps on the stoop. If I count those, then every 5.6 steps is 10% and really, that is not so nice. I’d have to break the steps into fractions, and therefore break the rise of my foot as it travels between one step and the next. I walk home tired after teaching eleven year-olds and I can’t achieve that level of precision. So we’ll disregard those first 6 steps.

Tonight as I walk up, I count by ten percent as I always do. It’s a nice rhythm as my foot strikes each step and my shoe scratches across the surface. One, two, three, four, ten, one, two, three, four, twenty. That’s five-four time in music—five beats to the measure. If it was four-four time, it would be symmetrical, but five is prime. Tough choice, symmetry or primes. In general, four-four is my favorite, symmetrical with two downbeats.

One, two, three, four, fifty. Fifty percent is nice, but my legs are burning a bit. By seventy-five, I’m getting close, so I take the steps two at a time.

I like to know exactly where I’m going and how long it will take to get there.

Beyond these stairs and their five-beat rhythm, I don’t know where Jane and I are going or how far away it is. That distance is undefined.

#SonofaPitch #7: Best Laid Plans in Scotland

For my regular readers, these are some special posts this week as part of a pitch contest I'm providing feedback for.

For participants, welcome to my blog! I'm happy to host you and excited to see what kinds of stories you've written. Please remember that only the author of this piece and the participating judges are supposed to comment. All other comments will be deleted.

Title: Best Laid Plans in Scotland
Age and Genre: Adult contemporary romance
Word Count: 74,000


Marie Christie’s ex-boyfriend is a dirtball. When given the opportunity to escape his drama for her oldest friend’s destination wedding inScotland, she pounces. The trip gives her a chance to heal her heart and earn the coveted *I don’t need a man card*. Nothing can stop her. Well, except for the hot Scot tour guide she has to spend a week with on a small tour bus. Exploring Scotland with the most delicious kilted man in the British Isles makes protecting her heart and keeping her distance…complicated. Marie must steel herself against his charms and focus on returning to her life back home because she needs to support her sister since their flake of a mother won’t stick around long enough to do it.

Oliver Stuart has the chance of a lifetime to expand his tour business and offer his part-time guides full-time jobs, unless rival beats him to the opportunity of a lifetime. Not to mention the distracting American lass he can’t get out of his mind. Add a bus full of well-meaning busybodies playing matchmaker (and a few trying to get in the way) and they’ve got a wild holiday in Scotland. They can’t deny their burning attraction, but they live an ocean apart and can’t ignore their responsibilities at home.

First 250 Words:

Whisky flavored condoms? Marie chuckled as she reached in her purse to snag a few coins for the vending machine. Her first day in Scotland and she’d already found the perfect souvenirs for her friends. The toilets may not be clean at this Glasgow pub, but at least it offered flavored prophylactics in festive packaging.

She admired the red and orange tartan cardboard packages as she exited the bathroom. Her body slammed into a hard chest. She tore her eyes away from the packets and looked up. "Excuse me. I'm sorry, I-"

A curly haired sexpot with eyes as bright as the Caribbean Sea gifted her with a wicked grin.

Her first thought? She wanted to jump up and wrap her arms and legs around him.

Second thought? Don’t. That's inappropriate behavior.

Third thought? Wuss.

She stared at him and watched his eyes lower to the ridiculous handful of condom packets she pressed into his chest.

"Hoping to pull?" he said with a toe-curling brogue.

"Pull? No, these are souvenirs." A laugh bubbled up and escaped her throat in the form of something far too close to a squeak. "These are hilarious. Back home the condom machines don't have anything as fancy as this."

He grinned down at her. She appreciated that he was at least six inches taller than her. “The flavored ones are only in the machines. I prefer the plain ones.”