Thursday, December 24, 2020

I Read 75 Books This Year!

IKR? Guess all that extra time at home had me scrambling for travel via literature. Each year, I set a goal of 52 books a year, averaging out to one per week. I include in that paper reads, digital reads, and audiobooks, but not the unpublished beta reads I do. 

More and more of my reading these days leans to the audiobook format. Of the 75 books I read this year (Goodreads says 80, but it looks like it counted some books more than once), about 40 were audiobooks, 12 were e-books, 15 were paper (the other 8, I honestly can't remember). 

I read a lot fewer e-books this year than is usual for me, probably due to my zoom life. When it was time to read, I just didn't want to spent yet more time on screen. But audiobooks were great for my nervous energy in that I could read while I matched socks and handled the mundanities of life. 

I've fallen into a comfortable pattern in my reading, reading some things for book clubs, some things because I'm curious about the buzz surrounding them, some things because I know the authors, and some just because they caught my interest.

For my classics books club this year, I read ten books. (There was an 11th selection I didn't manage to fit in). 

Of these, I'd read three before: Wide Sargasso Sea, The Hobbit, and And Then There Were None. It's always interesting to read something again, and see how the experience changes for you over time. 

The rest were new to me. I got impatient with some of them--too much slow storytelling, outdated attitudes, etc.--but I loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I wish Anne Brontë had lived longer and had the opportunity to continue to grow as a writer. She would have earned her spot beside her more famous sisters. Reading classic literature is a sideways view into history--teaching you as much about the context the author created in as about the stories themselves. 

Looking back over the rest of my list, here are some standouts: 

I found Lydia Kang at the end of the year. I fell hard for the mixture of romance and mystery, with historical settings and exploring social classes. She's likely to stay on my watch list as a favorite author. 

Earlier this year, I fell equally hard for Cherie Priest's Borden Dispatches. Yes, that Borden, alongside Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Looks like my sweet spot as a reader this year intermixed violence and history, with a touch of romance.

In that vein, I also loved these four books. 

Captured by the Alien Vampire Highlander is an unapologetic romp through romance tropes and a delightful confection. Perfect if you need an escape. 

The Sixth Gun series of graphic novels fits firmly in the "weird wild west" subgenre, following six mystical guns that grant special abilities to those who carry them. 

Chasing the Dragon takes place in the Sherlock Holmes universe, creating a romance that fits in the holes left in the original work. Alexandra Christian is GENIUS with this era, and brings such spark and humor to her dialogue. 

Kill Three Birds created an original speculative fiction world, featuring bird-people in a wonderful tight little mystery story. I'm looking forward to more in this series. 

I also continued some series and genres I'd been reading in the past few years: 

Carmilla is a classic vampire novel I had missed hearing about until recently--it predates Stoker's more famous work Dracula, and it's easy to see the influences on that story in this one. I listened to it as a wonderfully produced Audible original and was enthralled throughout. Highly recommended for fans of classic European vampires (if you want edgier, less familiar vampires, try Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. I have a retelling of the Passover story in there that will startle you, and the other stories are blowing me away!). 

In An Absent Dream is part of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series, which follows children who find portals into magical worlds. Though I recommend that entire series, it's not necessary to read the others to enjoy this one thoroughly. Of all I've read so far, this one is my favorite. 

The Relentless Moon continues Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series, following a secondary character from previous books into a locked room mystery set on a fledgling moon colony. Satisfyingly thorough realistic science seen through very human stories. I love this series so much!

Record of a Spaceborn Few is part of Becky Chambers's Wayfarer series, an optimistic vision of the future, exploring inter-species relations through aliens and AI characters, alongside humans. I continue to love the way Chambers explores epic sagas by focusing on small, slice-of-life stories. Not quite as tense and exciting as the previous entries in the series, but still moving and well worth the read. 

I could talk for days about good books, but I'll stop there. I'm happy that I found so many good reads this year, and I'm grateful to all the authors who provided me comfort, escape, and inspiration during a very hard year.  Art is so important when times are hard. 

I'd love to hear about what books you read and loved this year, so hit me up in the comments! And if you like my reviews, you can follow me on Goodreads or check out my year in books there to see what else I read.  

Saturday, December 19, 2020

My Publishing Year: A Horror Show with Unexpected Heroism

2020, man. Whew. Don't those numbers just wear you out every time you see them? Between the pandemic, the social unrest, and the politics, I've never been so happy to see a year end. 

Oddly, it was an excellent publishing year for me, though. I guess there's balance in that? 

Seriously, though. I had eight works published in books this year! Holy-freaking-cow, that's a lot. 

Since time was this weird warped thing this year where days could last for years and months go by in a blink, I didn't really realize so much of my work had made it out there into the universe until I took a moment to look back and reflect. 

I am greatly amused to realize that I published 4 super-heroic works and 4 works of horror. That's 2020 in a nutshell isn't it--a horror show with unexpected heroism. 

Long time readers might remember that I had some publishing turmoil in late 2018, early 2019, when I had to reclaim my rights from a failing publisher and seek a new home for my work. The story has a happy continuation though, in that my Menopausal Superhero work is now housed with Falstaff Books, a thriving mid-size publisher out of Charlotte, North Carolina, full of the "Misfit Toys of Fiction.

Because their publishing schedule didn't allow for seeing a fourth Menopausal Superhero novel into print until 2021, we decided to release short works in the series this year. Friend or Foe, a novella that bridges book 1 (Going Through the Change) and book 2 (Change of Life) came out in March of 2020. 

The Good Will Tour, a stand-alone adventure for Flygirl and Fuerte came out in May. 

And Through Thick and Thin, a collection of short stories set in the Menopausal Superheroes universe came out in August. 

Finally, all the short works were collected into an omnibus edition in Agents of Change, which includes all these works in a single volume and came out in November. 

While all this was happening, I was busy writing Be the Change, the fourth Menopausal Superhero novel. I'm in the last of my self-edits/revisions right now, with plans to send the finished book to Falstaff by January 1st. I think you're going to love this one--I know I fell in love with my character all over again writing their stories here. 

Then came the horror! Although horror was one of my first loves as a reader, I didn't start out writing it. In the past few years, though, more and more of my short work has leaned toward the weird and frightening, and this year, four of my horror short stories made it into anthologies. 

Stories We Tell After Midnight, Volume 2 from Crone Girls Press has been described as traditional horror. These are the kinds of horror stories that drew me into the genre in my youth--stories that give you a good shiver and might make it a little harder to fall asleep at night. That's not to say that they are staid, boring or without humor and innovation. My story, "The Cleaning Lady," began as part of a Halloween flash fiction challenge proposed by writing-friend Bliss Morgan and might have been influenced by the fact that I was watching Downton Abbey at the time and thinking about servant-master relationships. 

Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire from Mocha Memoirs Press asked for vampire and vampire-slayer stories set in the African diaspora and featuring black characters. My daring little tale, "His Destroyer", is a retelling of the Passover story, about the 10th plague of Egypt during which the first-borns of Egyptians households were slaughtered. The story as I learned it never specified who exactly His Destroyer was, and how exactly the children were killed. So, I wrote this story imagining those details for myself. I gave myself the chills, so hopefully you'll get them, too, if you read it. This is a giant collection--with 29 stories of HUGE variety. I'm so excited to have my work included among such giants of the genre. 

Hindsight's 2020 came about when a group of writers who used to share a publisher came together as a support and recovery group for each other (yes, *that* publisher--see link above). Our theme was regret, or hindsight, and I wrote a wonderfully creepy little thing called "I Should Have Known" set in the Victorian era about love, sacrifice, and monstrosity. So much fun to write! 

Outsiders Within from Abstruse Press just came out yesterday! It's a collection of cosmic horror stories and you might enjoy your trip through madness with Margaret in my story, "Margaret Lets Her Self Go." This is the same press that published Deadman Humour: 13 Fears of a Clown in late 2019, which includes my bit of Lovecraftian horror, "The Gleewoman of Preservation." 

And if that's not enough of my work yet, you can also support the Kickstarter for Ravencon to read my story, "If the Moon is Real." Hear an excerpt here, on YouTube. 

Since Ravencon, a small Virginian convention close to my heart, had to cancel the 2020 and 2021 live events, they've put together this collection of short stories featuring corvids--a class of birds that includes the eponymous Raven of Ravencon. 

The hope is that the Kickstarter will earn enough money to keep the organization afloat and "in the black" until we can gather again as an unkindness or conspiracy of ravens in person. 

Because support has been so strong, they're already working on a stretch goal to create a second volume of the anthology! The Table of Contents includes some pretty impressive names as well as some new writers just establishing a foothold in the industry. Well worth the few dollars, AND you get to support a small convention at the same time. 

I've already got a few more works in the pipeline for 2021, so despite the weirdness of this year, I'm feeling pretty successful on the publishing front. If you've read any of these works, please drop a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Even just a few words is enough to help the visibility of my work. Just "I liked it" or "that woman writes some crazy stuff, yo!" is the best gift you could give me. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Repost: "We Value Teachers" and Other Lies

Note: This post first appeared on my teaching blog a week ago, but I felt strongly enough to seek a wider audience for these thoughts. Apologies to anyone who follows me both places. 

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I lost another colleague yesterday. Thankfully not to death (though I worry about this daily now), but to retirement. That makes three already this year and I don't blame them a bit. I've looked at retirement myself, though it's complicated for me because I don't have the optimum number of years (having spread my career across four states) to get full benefits yet and I'm too young. The calculus of life vs. livelihood is complex when you have others to support by your work. 

Besides the three who retired, I know of one who is leaving the profession and another seeking a transfer, in hopes that another school will value her work and treat her better. I've thought about both of those options, too. I love teaching, but I also love being able to protect myself and those I love from infection and death. 

Lots of us are in the crisis decision moment right now, as our district is sending staff back to the buildings on Monday and students back in January (don't get me started on the lack of faith in us this shows). I expect to see more and more talented educators making the hard choice to leave the work they love. 

I keep getting messages from my district, my state, and my country playing lip service to the idea that they value teachers. But I don't see it. Saying thank you is easy; showing actual support and appreciation is much more difficult. 

If we were valued, our voices would be at the forefront of conversations about how to handle education under the current crisis. Instead, there's barely even performative attempts to include teachers--the workers with the most expertise and most at risk--in the conversation at all. 

I fill out all the surveys I am sent and participate in all the meetings, but there's no evidence so far that it is worth my time. The results send a clear message, one that is ignored in favor of what's easier for the institution. Though we allow our students' families to choose to stay home and continue virtual education, teachers will not be afforded the same right, even though we are more at risk than our students, especially the veterans. You don't become an experienced teacher without getting old, and you rarely get old without developing some underlying conditions that put you at additional risk.  

If we were valued, the communication from above would show that those above me in the hierarchy know what I am doing and are looking for ways to make it easier and more sustainable. Even though I work in a small school district, where you would think it would be easier to keep track of who is here and what we're doing, there's little sign that anyone who isn't a direct parallel colleague understands what I actually do. It's like being a baker whose supervisor last used an oven when you had to stoke an actual fire inside to bake.   

And this is America, after all, so if we were valued, our country would put their money where their mouth is. Money would have flowed towards resources to make safe education from home tenable--providing infrastructure and tools as well as paying attractive salaries to bring our country's brightest and best to the fight. Internet access would have become free and fast for any household with a student in it. You can always tell what a capitalist REALLY values, by looking at the bottom line, and education is far too near the bottom across the board. 

So, thanks for saying you value me and my work. But if you really do, then prove it. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

IWSG: Writing, In and Out of Season


Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

December 2 question - Are there months or times of the year that you are more productive with your writing than other months, and why? 

The awesome co-hosts for the December 2 posting of the IWSG are Pat Garcia, Sylvia Ney, Liesbet @ Roaming About Cathrina Constantine, and Natalie Aguirre! Be sure to check out their posts as well as some of the other fabulous posts in this blog hop after you see what I've got to say:

I pair my writing endeavors with a teaching career, so there is definitely a feeling of seasons about my focus, trying to make regular progress in small bursts in some times of the year, and having the chance to luxuriate in longer writing sessions during others. 

During the school year, writing is shunted into a couple of hours a day at most. I still write--my daily writing chain is now over 7 years long--but I move slowly, producing somewhere between 250 and 800 words a day on average. Definitely my turtle time of year (vs. the hare). 

I made a video about this on my author YouTube recently. You can check it out here: 

Generally, when school is out, I go full-time on my writing life, devoting five or six hours a day. I still have other things to balance, of course, but even all my family, friendship, and life demands don't add up to the demands of a school day and, most of the time, I can get a couple of writing sessions a day. 

It's been a little different this year, thanks to COVID--meaning I couldn't send my youngest daughter to a friend's house or off to camp--but I still got a good four hours a day last summer by taking my writing time while she was still asleep (teenagers sleep late if you let them) and that felt like heaven. 

I look forward to being a full time writer someday, but for now, this seasonal swing works for me. It might even be the secret of my success at the moment. 

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I look forward to my months (and holiday weeks) of being *only* a writer, and my enthusiasm and anticipation probably contribute to my ability to make good use of the time. I save up ideas and promise myself I'll get to do certain projects when my writing season arrives. 

I appreciate those hours all the more because I don't have them any old day. They're a gift. Something special. 

How about you? How does your yearly flow go for your creative endeavors? 

Friday, November 27, 2020

November Reads


I started November on deadline, so I wasn't reading much. But once I submitted my novel to my critique group, I found a little breathing room and picked up a few reads. I finished four books this month, and two of them were long. I started two others, that I'm not sure I'll finish in the next few days…so I'll write about them next month. 

First was Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. I've read two other books by Roanhorse: Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts, books and 2 of her The Sixth World series. I LOVED both of those, so when I saw she had a new release at the same time that I got my monthly Audible credit, I was on that sucker. 

Black Sun
is not much like the Sixth World books, but that didn't matter after a few pages. I loved it.  An epic fantasy story pulling from Native cultures for its lore, with fascinating characters, and an interesting world. Even though I'm not generally one for "court intrigue" kinds of stories, this one attached all the plotting and machination to huge emotional stakes, and I was riveted. 
Robinson Crusoe was the selection of my First Monday Classics Book Club through my library, a group I help facilitate with James Maxey, another local writer and friend. It's one of those books that I feel I ought to know, but had never actually read. I knew the broad strokes of the heavily-referenced book and had gathered that it was steeped in British imperialist racism, so I had some clue what I was in for. I went back and forth between an audiobook and a kindle edition for this one. 

I actually found less cringe-inducing racism than I expected . . .maybe because the character spends three-quarters of the books alone. Friday doesn't enter on the scene until about that point. Until then, the book is a quiet exploration of what it might take to survive and a bit of reflection on the meaning of life. I'm still not sure how much I'd recommend it. I found the last quarter-to-third of the book frustrating since as soon as the narrator reconnected with broader society, he seems to have forgotten every "lesson" he learned on the beach and become the same shallow, self-serving idiot who got himself into that mess in the first place. 

Reading the book did put me an adventurous mood though, and I picked up King Solomon's Mines next, a pulpy story, largely considered to be the first "lost world" story. One thing that always fascinates me about reading older books is the secondary story--the story of the author and the era in which they are writing. Racial and societal attitudes permeate the pages, revealing the common beliefs of the time in a way that even nonfiction does not capture the same way. 

H. Rider Haggard, I learned, spent a great deal of time in Africa, and it showed in his depictions of the lands and peoples. Three African characters featured among the main cast, and they were more than just a collection of stereotypes and assumptions. Allan Quartermain, our narrator and main character, was a more nuanced character than I'm accustomed to in pulp as well. I'll probably go on and read more of this series. 

I started Allie Brosh's Solutions and Other Problems a few weeks ago, then set it aside, then picked it back up. I was reading it on kindle, which is not ideal for a book featuring so much art, requiring "pinch and zoom" to view some parts. But I don't buy books in print as much as I used to--I'm running out of house to store the books in!

It was a strange sort of book. Part self-help, part memoir, part comedy essay. And also kind of a graphic  novel. I alternately laughed, sighed in recognition, and squirmed in discomfort from chapter to chapter, but I walked away feeling soothed and seen (in a good way), so I'll probably read more by Brosh, too.

Overall, not a bad reading month. I read four books, loved one of them, and like three. 

As the month comes to a close, I'm in the middle of two more books.  Sarah J. Maas's House of Earth and Blood: Crescent City is an urban fantasy book I've been hearing quite a bit of buzz about. I spent an Audible credit to pick it up some time ago, but hadn't yet read it. I'm 12 hours into a 27 hour listen and am finding it hard to put down now, though I wasn't sure it was going to grab me at the beginning. I'll let you know next month what I think. 

Kill Three Birds is part of a new series from Nicole Givens Kurtz, a friend and colleague. I started reading it when it was newly released (a couple of months ago), but set it aside to meet that my writing deadline. It's a creative fantasy world where the people are birds, at least spiritually, connecting to different aspects of avian creatures. Coming from Nicole, I'm not surprised that it's also a mystery and a bit of a thriller, because those are her playgrounds.  I suspect I'm going to love this one. 

How about you? What did you read in November? Anything you think I'd love? There's always room in my TBR…though at this point, I'm going to need to find an elixir of immortality to have time to read it all. :-) 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Lulls and Valleys

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I'm pretty good at using momentum in my writing life. It took me a while to get there, but now I've got laser focus and discipline when I've got deadlines to meet. What's harder for me now is when I have short lulls. 

I'm in one right now. My critique group has my next novel, Be the Change, Book 4 of the Menopausal Superheroes series. I'm trying not to muck about with it until *after* get their feedback for two reasons: 

1. I don't want to negate their work by having changed things before I even hear what they think of what I sent them

2. I think it's good to walk away from a project between drafts, so you can come back to them with fresh eyes and enthusiasm. 

So, then the question becomes, what do I do while I wait? 

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It's only three weeks between having sent the novel and getting the feedback, and then I'll be right back on that horse, so it doesn't make sense to me to pull out any of my lingering long-term projects and dive back in just yet. I found it painful when I had to pull up short on The Architect and the Heir this summer and change my focus to write Be the Change, so I am not anxious to repeat that experience. I'll wait until Be the Change is with the publisher before I change gears again.  

But I have a seven-year-long daily writing chain, and I'm not letting it lapse just because I don't have a big project to focus on right now. It's weird, going to my Writing Oasis and finding the time is not assigned . . .that I could write whatever I want. 

My current struggle is striking the balance between burnout and losing momentum. 

So, I've written articles and guest posts, revised and submitted short stories, journaled a bit. Still two more weeks until I hear back from my critique partners, and I'm getting antsy.

Even though it leaves me a little restless, it's good for me to have this respite, this time without high pressure on producing work quickly. I'm letting myself take minimal days, where instead of my usual goal of 800 words on a school day and 2000 words on a non-school day, I let myself off the hook with only 300 or 400 words. Hopefully I'll make it to the other side of this lull refreshed and raring to go, ready to take on that revision in December!

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Book Birthday! Agents of Change

Look guys! We've got another sister in the Menopausal Superheroes series! Actually, this one is sort of triplets :-) 

If you've been following along this year, then you already saw the two novellas and collection of short stories released this year: 

Agents of Change gathers all three of these into a single collection. It's a great choice for new readers coming to my work who want to find out what the universe is all about and get a glimpse of the characters without committing to an entire series just yet. 

It's also got a few Easter Eggs for those already in the know :-)

And, if you love it, it's a great time to start reading the series of novels, since book 4, Be the Change, is on the docket for 2021! 

I can't wait for you guys to meet Patricia's mother and find out about the latest trouble to hit Springfield! 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

What is it about superheroes, anyway?

I was talking with some superhero-writer-friends online recently (my colleagues at are the bomb!--you should totally check out their work). 

We were trying to identify the essence of the appeal of superhero stories. Superhero fans can be pretty hardcore--consuming all the superhero stories the world offers gluttonously and still wishing for more. 

So, why is that?

Is it just the wish fulfillment? The wonder of imagining other possibilities for humans beyond what it's actually possible for us to do?

That's certainly part of it, but I don't think that's the heart of it. At least not for me. 

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When I try to find the core of my attraction to superhero stories, I find it wrapped around feeling small and powerless as a child and longing to be able to do something big--something that would really make a difference. 

When I found Peter Parker, I felt like I had found myself. 

Underdogs for the win! 

Like young me, Peter was physically small, smart, kind of shy, and from a family that struggled just at the border of poverty, but loved each other and took a "we're in this together" "can-do" attitude to the lemons life threw them, without becoming completely saccharine. 

He also had a heart to help and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. He might as well have been raised a Dunaway!

The things that drew me to Spiderman, and, to a lesser degree to other superheroes, are the same parts of myself that drew me to teaching as a career choice, where I have the opportunity for quiet heroics every day, making a difference for hundreds of children. 

As I've gotten older, I've remained interested in and excited by superheroes, though the type of hero that appeals to me has shifted. 

I find I'm drawn to reluctant heroes these days--heroes who say they just want to be left alone, but someone still get pulled into the fray just in time to save the day. This probably shows my own struggles with remaining engaged and hopeful in a world that gives me a lot of reasons to become cynical and disengaged. 

Fighting burnout is half the struggle of this stage of adulthood for me--keeping going even when I can't see the difference my actions make. 

Maybe that's why Patricia took the driver's seat in the latest Menopausal Superhero novel. 

I just finished a draft of Be the Change, which will become the fourth novel in the series, coming out in 2021. 

Right now, it's with my critique partners. 

The part of me that comes out in Patricia is the part that fights off burnout by staying connected with young people, being inspired by them (and sometimes being grumpy about that). 

Check out this excerpt: 
"Suzie made her want to be a better woman, to find her inner hero and do the right thing, even when it hurt. Suzie had been the impetus for her first foray into heroic action, pushing her to save the beauty queen at the mall. She’d also been a large part of the reason Patricia had agreed to sign on with the Department and work with the UCU.

Even coming to Indiana had been as much to please Suzie as out of worry for her missing mother. Would she even be here right now if not for her? Maybe not. That was the awful thing about young people—they cared. And they thought you should care, too. Exhausting."

Maybe that's the heart of superhero for me: they are characters that keep going, even when the going gets tough, the pay is bad, and the results might be unpopular. They fight for right, and I'm always up stories about that kind of heroism. 

How about you? What kinds of superheroes speak to you? Is there a type of story or character that you're always up for? 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

IWSG: Why Do I Write What I Write?

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.
November 4 question - Albert Camus once said, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Flannery O’Conner said, “I write to discover what I know.” Authors across time and distance have had many reasons to write. Why do you write what you write?

The awesome co-hosts for the November 4 posting of the IWSG are Jemi Fraser, Kim Lajevardi, L.G Keltner, Tyrean Martinson, and Rachna Chhabria! Be sure to check out their posts as well as some of the other fabulous posts in this blog hop after you see what I've got to say: 

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I began my writing career as a poet. Of course, I was six, so "career" meant that I wrote poetry for my friends who paid me in candy and "poet" meant that I understood rhyme better than the other kids in my class. 

Maybe because I started with poetry, which stems from strong emotions, I've always used writing as a coping mechanism, sorting out my feelings in verse and personal journaling.

I stuck with poetry with occasional forays into nonfiction essay and short stories until I was in my thirties. 

It never stopped being an outlet for me for tough emotions and a way for me to sort out for myself what I thought and felt, but I hadn't really moved toward making writing into something more of a vocation than a hobby. 

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Though I read things like horror, science fiction, Gothic romance, and mystery, I had this idea that I was "supposed to" write more literary things. 

It was a kind of snobbery against my own taste, like unrealistic stories were somehow less worthy

Maybe it came from my college education, or maybe it's some weird mind game I played with myself to make sure that being a "real writer" remained something unattainable. 

I don't know. It's funny to think about that now, but it was true. What I liked to read was not what I wrote because I looked down on what I truly loved. 

In my thirties, suffering from postpartum depression, I sought out and joined a writing critique group. 

At the time, I was after companionship, support, and some outside pressure to motivate me: a feeling of having a deadline. The group I found was a novel-writing group. I'm still with a version of that group today, by the way, though the membership has changed over the years. 

I had never written a novel, but thought I might like to, so I did. And four years later, I had abandoned two novels and finished my first one, a women's issues fiction book called His Other Mother (unpublished) and ta-da! I was a novelist. 

I found I loved the longer form, the way of connecting with characters longer term and riding alongside them on their journeys for a longer chunk of the trip. So, I immediately started writing another one. This time, though, I promised myself that it would be fun. 

Don't get me wrong! I wouldn't take back the experience of writing His Other Mother and everything it taught me about writing and about myself, but it was a slog a lot of the time. I wallowed in dark places to write that one and it took a toll on me. I'm proud of having written it, and may yet go back and revise it into publishing shape in the future, but one thing it wasn't was FUN.  

Somewhere along the way, I met another writer: James Maxey. He was teaching writing workshops at my public library and I signed up for a few. Through him, I learned about superhero fiction, a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that I had no idea existed: superhero stories in prose novel form rather than comic book form. James has a great book (Nobody Gets the Girl) in that genre, and has since written several follow-ups. 

I've always loved superhero stories, starting with Spidey on the Electric Company and Mighty Mouse and Underdog. I got excited about writing one of my own, and a series was born: The Menopausal Superhero series. 

The biggest lesson I learned is the value of writing what you love, not what you think you *should* be writing. 

These days, I write anything I want, my only restrictions coming from time and keeping up with deadlines for commitments I've made. 

I've been published in a rage of genres and subgenres including superhero, horror, romance, science fiction, fairy tale, nonfiction, vampire, and ghost. 

I've dabbled in post-apocalyptic, Gothic, historical, and paranormal. I plan to try a lot more kinds of stories before I'm done because part of the fun is trying something new. That's what makes it feel like playing. 

So, why do I write what I write? Because I love it!

Sunday, November 1, 2020

October Reads

October was all about writing for me--I had two short story releases in anthologies to promote and a novel to finish, so I stole every moment I could get at my computer. Plus it was October--my favorite time of year for watching scary movies :-)

All that is to say that I didn't read much this month. But I don't feel bad about it or deprived in some way this time. I still got my share of story in my life--it's just that I was writing it or watching it this month. 

Since I had really enjoyed my foray into short Audible productions last month, I continued that trend, listening to The Machine Stops by EM Forster,  A Grown Up Guide to Dinosaurs, and In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire. I enjoyed all three for different reasons. 

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The Machine Stops is maybe a little "on the nose" by contemporary standards. A little blunt and obvious in its moralizing, but when you realize it was published in 1909, it begins to feel a little more prescient. 

The short story takes place in a nonspecific future year, when the earth, having experienced some kind of unspecified human-caused disaster that left the surface uninhabitable. Our characters live completely underground in near-complete isolation from each other with all their needs attended to by a giant complex of machines. 

I know, right? What could go wrong? 

Since I knew EM Forster as the author of period pieces about relationship difficulties and the oppression of early twentieth century moral strictures--you know the types of stories Merchant made sun-drenched costume dramas about--this story was definitely a bit of a surprise. I had no idea the man had dabbled in science fiction. 

A Grown Up Guide to Dinosaurs delivered just what it promised: a program of adults enthusiastically fan-peopling over dinosaurs. The work encourages us to remember our childhood dinosaur obsessions and gives us the chance to catch up on some of the latest thinking is about what dinosaurs really were and how they ended up as chickens. 

In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire is the fourth story in a series called Wayward Children. I've also read the first one, Every Heart a Doorway but none of the rest. That didn't matter. Book 4 stands alone quite well. Quite, quite well, indeed. I loved it. The premise of the series is that there are portals in the forms of magical doorways throughout the world and that sometimes children go through them and are changed in ways that won't let them rejoin ordinary life. In this one, Lundy finds such a doorway and ends up in the Goblin Market. Gorgeous story with some wonderful life advice wrapped in its pages, like the best of fairy tales. 

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Blue Highways
 was the single long work I read this month. I read it as a combination of audiobook and kindle edition, moving back and forth between the two. This one was the selection for my Classics Book Club at my library…if it wasn't for the commitment I made to the group, I might not have finished it. Too meandering for me. Pointless. There were some lovely, lyrical moments, but in the end it felt like I'd listened to some guy natter on for hours and hadn't learned anything, gained any insight, or even come to like the guy. 

So, there's my short reading list from October. How about you? What did you read? Got any good ones I should add to my TBR? I'd love to hear about it in the comments. 


Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Haunting of Bly Manor: some thoughts

Just finished watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, a series from Netflix and the folks who brought us The Haunting of Hill House in 2018. I loved it. I loved Hill House, too, when I watched it.

Both of these series were based off of classic works: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, two of my favorite scary stories of all time. 

But neither is a telling of the story as you might know it from the books. Instead, each is a brand new story, a kind of riff on a theme. There are echoes of the originals, but there is also completely new material and interpretations not present in the old works at all.

I've long had an interest in side and backdoor stories that come into a work I already love from another angle. Things like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea which dared to ask who Rochester's first wife from Jane Eyre really was, or Gregory Maguire's Wicked which retold The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the witch. I love the fresh take on a story I already love--it has a feeling of talking with other fans, and loving the original together. 

These two series are not quite those, but there's a similarity.

Both series changed the time frame, moving Hill House from 1950 to 1992 and Bly Manor/Turn of the Screw from the 1890s to 1987, a change which opens up story possibilities and also makes some parts more difficult. 

Both stories require some serious isolation so that the events can go unobserved/uninterrupted for a while, and that kind of isolation is harder to come by in 2020. I rather thought we only went as far forward as 1992 to keep smart devices and cell phones from encroaching on the story too far. 

Both stories take place in gorgeous old homes. The houses themselves are practically characters in the story--more obviously in Hill House (which is just as Shirley Jackson wrote it, in that respect), but still true in Bly Manor

Hill House changed the premise--no longer bringing together a group of would-be ghost hunters into a known haunted house hoping for a paranormal experience as happened in the book, but instead bringing a family of house flippers into the gorgeous old mansion to try and save it and resell it. Bly Manor stuck with the original premise more closely: a nanny is hired to take care of two troubled orphaned children in an isolated mansion and paranormal shenanigans ensue.

What I loved in Bly Manor was all the new material. Henry James's story is not forthcoming about the nanny herself. We don't know her history or why she might have decided to take on a job like this one. We don't know exactly what happened to Miles and Flora's parents, other than that they died. We don't know what Miles did at boarding school that got him kicked out or why the kids' uncle is so strangely detached, not wanting even to be informed about what is going on with the children. We certainly don't know what the ghosts want, exactly.

Mike Flanagan set about answering all those questions and I LOVED the answers. They fit into the story as told by James seamlessly. Along the way, he created a whole secondary mythology of the ghost activity at Bly Manor. The imagery isn't quite as terrifying as that of Hill House (the broke neck lady is way more frightening than the blank faced ghosts, at least for this viewer), but the tension is high. 

Perhaps surprisingly for horror stories, both of these series end up being primarily about grief and surviving loss. Both manage to end on bittersweet hopeful notes. Gorgeous really. Beautiful, haunting in a completely different sense of the word. I hope Flanagan finds another story to explore this way. I'll be there with my popcorn on opening night if he does.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Horror as Comfort

 A lot of people I know don't read or watch horror, and they're surprised to find out that I do. Even more surprised when they learn that I sometimes write it. 

Actual quotes from conversations along these lines: 

  • "You don't seem like someone who would write that stuff." 
    • I guess? I mean, is horror only for people wearing dark eyeliner and capes? Or just for men? LOL. Some of the scariest stuff happens in mundane settings to people just trying to live their lives--you know: people like me. 
  • "It's so dark." 
    • It's hopeful and optimistic sometimes. And dark makes contrast, allowing you see the light. 
  • "I just can't handle the gore." 
    • Not all horror is a slasher film, you know. Some of my horror favorites don't involve any blood and guts at all.
  • "The characters make stupid choices." 
    • You could say that about ANY genre. If characters don't make ANY stupid choices, there's no conflict and the story is boring. Plus people do stupid things all the time in real life. 
  • "They're so stressful." 
    • Maybe? I find horror stress-relieving. And tension is kind of necessary for any sort of story. 

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It's not that horror doesn't scare me--it totally does! 

Ask my sister about the time I threw the popcorn during a jump scare during a really terrible, not-that-scary vampire movie. Or check out the mangled pillows on the sofa after I squeeze them while I watch something scary. When I was a kid and teenager, I used to read my Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and horror comics sitting at the top of the stairs with my back against the wall, so I could see anything that might be coming for me. 

But, the things is: the story ends. 

I close the book, or leave the cinema, or turn off the TV. And I am safe. I got that heart-racing excitement, but at no actual risk, other than perhaps the risk of being disappointed by a story that doesn't do it for me. Vicarious experience of the highest order.

And the stories, at least the ones I like best, are stories of resilience and hope. The heroes are not passively watching their lives go by them and wishing things would change--they take action to try to save themselves and others. 

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They *try something.* 

They take steps. Stupid ones sometimes. Foolhardy maybe. But life is risk and that's the heart of horror for me. 

There's something comforting in active characters trying something, especially if I really connected with the characters. 

It's still comforting even when they lose, falling into the zombie hoard after a heroic attempt. They died "with their boots on" so to speak, didn't they? They didn't just melt away on the sofa cushions hoping someone would save them. Those are characters worth admiring! 

What about you? Do you read/watch horror? What are your favorites? 

Wanna check out my horror writing? I had TWO horror stories published this month. 

"The Cleaning Lady" in Stories We Tell After Midnight, Volume 2 grew from a story prompt for the Nightmare Fuel Project and dares to ask who is going to clean up this mess. Dark humor can be so much fun to write!

"His Destroyer" in Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire revisits the Passover story from another perspective, wondering who exactly served G-d's justice on the first-born sons of Egypt during the time of the Ten Plagues. This one gave me chills to write and I hope it will do the same for you when you read it. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Scary Movie Time: October Movie Watching

If I could spare the time, I'd probably watch a movie a day in October, using Halloween as my excuse to cuddle up on the sofa with Sweetman and my daughters, re-watching old favorites and discovering new ones, while I stuff my face with popcorn. 

Alas, I must keep us in house and home, so a movie a day is not a reasonable thing. 

Still, I do tend to stuff in as many scary stories as I can in October. My daughter, age 13, is a budding horror aficionado, so I have a willing playmate when I decide to try and scare myself silly . . . and I get the bonus of sharing old favorites with my girl. So, here's what I've managed to watch so far this October: 

We kicked off our spooky season watching with The Ring, 2002. It was three of us on the sofa for this one. My husband and I had both seen it, but I don't think we'd watched it together before. The teenager knew quite a bit about the film from seeing it referenced in other social media, but hadn't seen it herself. 

What I remembered was the imagery--who could forget all that horrible hair? And the moment when the evil just crawls out of a television set and into the living room with its victim? When I saw it the first time, I'd hadn't seen much Asian or Asian-influenced horror, so the style was all new to me. This time, that imagery and style felt more familiar, but it was still quite spooky and I still think Naomi Watts is brilliant as the skeptic who becomes a believer and young David Dorfman and Daveigh Chase rocked the eerie child vibe in two very different but equally effective ways. 

The special effects held up pretty decently on re-watch, especially since that feeling of images not quite fitting in the world they are in actually worked for the story. After the movie, we watched the extras, and I have to say that all the cut scenes belonged cut. The story is all the more frightening for NOT explaining things too thoroughly. 

The Others, 2001, is one of those movies with a big twist, and I wondered if it would have good re-play value since I already knew the twist. (No spoilers: I won't reveal the twist here, in case you haven't yet seen this one). 

I'm happy to report that even when you know what's coming, there's still excellent tension. I watched for clues throughout leading to the ending and I found them, but I also found plenty of red herrings that lead the viewer to consider several interpretations of the events they are seeing. My daughter, watching for the first time, gave me no fewer than ten theories about what was happening before we got to the big reveal (none of them correct, BTW). 

Nicole Kidman's portrayal of the fragile-yet-powerful Grace Stewart is the lynchpin on which the movie rotates, but all the performances are strong. I especially loved Alakina Mann as Anne, the elder child, full of big sister bullying, boundary pushing, and a wonderful stubbornness. 

And Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills stole nearly every scene she was in with her quiet, mysterious manner. Chris Eccleston broke my heart as Charles Stewart, who meeting his wife in a foggy wood tells her in a painfully haunted voice, "Sometimes I bleed." (shiver)

Wonderfully atmospheric and still riveting on rewatch for sure. 

Then, my husband and I watched The Haunting, 1963, together. It's a telling of Shirley Jackson's famous book, The Haunting of Hill House . . .which is not be confused with The House on Haunted Hill, another fabulous old movie featuring Vincent Price, despite the similarity in title (maybe I'll see if I can squeeze that one in this month, too!).  

It's a bit slow as a movie, maybe because it's so exceedingly faithful to the novel, including lots of voiceovers for Julie Harris as Eleanor to show us her fragile and excitable mental state. While I enjoyed the recent Haunting of Hill House television series, 2018, that wasn't a direct telling of the book, but more an update and homage to original work. This older film is for the most part extremely true to the novel--so if you love the novel like I do, you'll appreciate it for that. 

The set was AMAZING, really making use of weird angles and shadows to up the spook factor at every turn. Well worth it just for some of the imagery and creative camera work. 

Finally, the girl and I had a mini movie marathon, watching Poltergeist, 1982, and Hush, 2016 back to back. It's been forever since I watched two movies in a row, and that, in itself, felt decadent. 

My daughter didn't find Poltergeist nearly as frightening as I did when I was a child. Ah, jaded youth.

She hated the "false ending" and I had to agree with her that it wasn't as justified as it had been in The Ring, where the investigator thought she'd gotten to the bottom of the mystery and found there was more to discover. In Poltergeist, we get Carole Ann back and things are calm long enough for the family to pack up a moving truck and then Boom! We're back in the thick of things with no indication of what caused the escalation. You could argue, I suppose, that paranormal happenings don't have to follow logic, but it still made for less satisfying story-telling.

As for me, I'm like, WTF parents? They let their bloodied and traumatized son who had just been swallowed by a monster tree wander the house alone while the parents and teenaged daughter ALL THREE ran around panicking over the missing baby? No wonder he had middle child syndrome. He *really* was invisible, poor boy. 

Hush caught our eye as we scanned movie choices on Netflix with its interesting premise: a deaf/mute woman is being hunted by a killer. The fact that she is deaf is both what helps her survive and what puts her more at risk. She isn't unnerved by some of the killer's attempts to rattle her because they rely on her hearing the creepy sounds, which of course, she doesn't. It was kind of neat, the way the film let the audience hear the sounds, then toggled to a muted version to give the impression of NOT hearing the same thing. 

Both of us felt the film was longer than it needed to be though. It was hard to hold tension for a full movie length when all you basically had happening was a man with a crossbow circling a house and woman cowering within. Maybe it would have packed more tension in a short-film version. We also were both disappointed to never get any kind of motivation explanation for the rando killer who showed up, though we thought he was interestingly chill for a character of his sort. 

I'm hoping to work in some classic monster and a couple of scary films I haven't seen yet. Are you a scary movie fan? What kind do you like? I'd love to see your suggestions in the comments!