Ghosts, editing, and bookmarks!

Hello again! It’s your weekly blogpost!

This week I want to chat about what I’m working on currently, including my Patreon project.

Patreon4

I’ve had two goals for the past few months that I’ve been working on. One is to be on submission. This takes a lot more work than you probably think it does, and requires dusting up all the stories I’ve finished in the past few months, researching markets, and sending them out into the world. I have, tentatively, four or five short stories that I would like to find homes and have been finished in the past six months, which is a lot for me. I blame my new proclivity on a recent fascination with the form. Short stories are easier to read when I need a quick break during a busy day than novels, so I’ve been reading a lot more of them. I still don’t know if I’m a great short story writer, but I like to think that I’ve become a lot better in the past year if for no other reason than because my love for short stories has grown.

So anyway, that means I’ve spent a lot of time grooming stories, which can take several passes, and sending missives out into the metaphorical ether.

The other thing I’ve been doing, of course, is writing. Specifically, I’ve been working on the Patreon horror story I’ve wanted to do for some time now under the Black Roses header.

Patreon Bookmark

(Did I mention I made bookmarks? Possibly jumping the gun a bit but I love them so much I don’t care.)

For those unfamiliar, Patreon is a subscription service whereby you can support your favorite creators for as little as $1/month. You can even set up your payments through Paypal. At the moment, my Patreon is sort of fledgling and operates primarily to support my blog posts. I also post excerpts from things I’ve been working on, including the aforementioned short stories, with some explanation of what the story is about or why I particularly liked the excerpt in question. I’ve promised everyone dark poems at $20/month but we’re not quite there yet. If you’re interested, we’ve only got $8 to go to get there. You could be the lucky soul that unlocks this joy! (For a sample poem, click here.)

Anyway, the thing I’ve been writing the most on recently has been a draft of a serial horror story about a woman, her ghosts, and the man she thinks to bury them in. A writer I admire said to write ahead so I’ve been working on doing just that, but I can’t wait to share this story. We have to get to $30/month first, but as I get further in the draft I plan to post some fun bits to sweeten the pot. More on those to come!

I hope that you’ll forgive this shameless self-plugging and consider supporting this blog if it’s something that gives you joy. Thank you in advance if you choose to do so! Tune in next week for more Avatar discussions and a soccer reference.


 

 

 

Where are their parents?

The S.O. and I are watching Avatar: The Last Airbender together. It’s a rewatch for me, first time through for him, and we love it a lot. I preface this post with that love, because I’m about to wade into a wide-scale critique of a flaw I find sort of annoying with a lot of YA books using Avatar as our lens. Admittedly Avatar is not a book, but I think it will serve in this instance.

The question that I end up asking myself a lot in young adult books is a pretty straightforward one: where are these children’s parents? And I don’t just mean where physically. The where of a character in a work of fiction, especially one told from the closed perspective of the main character as young adult novels often are, can be metaphysical as well. Specifically, I’m curious about the space that parental figures take up in the psyche of your main character, not just the space they take up in the setting or plot.

Often, writers choose to bypass parental figures in YA because it’s difficult to give a character agency when they have a more dominant figure making choices for them. Perhaps this is why we see so many orphans in young adult and, often, middle grade fiction. But orphaning a character is a lazy way of dealing with the complexity of familial relationships (says a writer who has done it) so I think it’s important to think critically about how it can be approached in a better way. This is one of the things that Avatar is good for looking at in particular. Each of the characters has very unique ways of relating with older relatives in their familial or kin units. There’s such a wide variety of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds that we get a lot of perspective on the different ways that a writer of young adult fiction can tackle this question.

Now let’s look at some of those relationships. Spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

There are five main characters worth exploring here. The first is the titular character, Aang. Aang provides a unique take on the parenthood approach – we never meet his parents at all. Instead, we learn that Aang’s people sent him to study as a monk (there are apparently no lady monks?) at the Eastern Air Temple. He’s never known a mother or father, but the lead monks serve as his roll models, most specifically Monk Gyatso. We see a very good relationship between these two, before time and circumstance lead to Monk Gyatso’s loss. The grief of that loss, however, continues to drive Aang, and his memories of Gyatso remain an important guide for him as his development continues.

Katara and Sokka, Aang’s closest companions, also have absent parents. In their case, however, they knew both of their parents. Katara witnessed her mother killed by the Fire Nation. Their father went off to war. They were then raised by the grandmother – a person that Katara speaks of often as a source of wisdom and guidance. However, when Aang is found, Katara and Sokka make the choice to go with him without any help from any of the remaining adults of their tribe. They do this with the permission of their tribe members. Later, Katara and Sokka encounter other members of the Southern Water Tribe, including their father, during their quest to defeat the Fire Nation. At these points in time, Katara and Sokka’s father is protective, but expects them to contribute as they are able to the fight. One can infer that the Southern Water Tribe has a strong culture of independence for its teens. Mutual love exists, but does not prohibit Katara, Sokka, or their father from each pursuing their own destinies.

Toph’s parents are controlling assholes. Toph has so much strength – she’s come into her own – but her parents refuse to see that so she runs away. In this way, her storyline mirrors what Aang’s might have been, but without a comforting Monk Gyatso to protect her. Her mother is a non-character, and her father is antagonistic at best, and most of the other adults she has interacted with, including her earthbending instructor, have only their own interests at heart. Accordingly, Toph is a somewhat jaded and conflicted character, and often picks up on the ulterior motives of others well before Aang, Katara and Sokka.

zuko ozai

Zuko has a dad but that father is Ozai, a monster. His mother, Ursa, is absent, and though her absence bought his life that doesn’t replace the hole she left. Iroh is a stand-in parental figure. He’s the main source of parental guidance in the whole show, and serves as a parental figure to several of the characters at different points. Iroh, however, has a pretty hands-off approach to parenting Zuko, perhaps because he understands that Zuko can’t afford to be coddled. His father has marked him clearly as an adult and a target, despite his young age.

A pattern clearly emerges from studying these stories. There can be three types of parental figures: the dead or vanished, the antagonistic, and those who choose to offer only gentle guidance. What is missing here is a more normative parental structure. Iroh comes the closest to fitting into what we would consider a normal parental role, and his relationship with Zuko is still fraught. Avatar therefore becomes a microcosm of the common tropes that repeat in the YA genre.

Perhaps the only way that we can see for kids to have agency in a story is to eliminate the adults that could make the hard choices for them. It is always difficult to capture the complexities of life and the diverse relationships we find in fiction. I personally think Avatar does fairly well in answering the question of where their parents are in ways that feel satisfactory within the world and the narrative. That said, these answers work contextually – that is to say, so many dead or absent mothers and antagonistic or absent fathers would not impress me in a different setting. War has the benefit of destabilizing familial structures, and so the answers that Avatar gives us work.

That said, I admonish every writer of children, in whatever genre or work, to think critically about how to give a child believable agency without entirely destroying their parental relationships – or their parents – especially in ways that are not believable to the story you are telling.

And if someone could give me a good, healthy mother-and-child story, I’m always looking.


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The only way out is through

This past weekend was Labor Day, and therefore I got a long weekend. The S.O. and some friends had planned to go on a hike sometime in late summer or fall, and they invited me along. I was slightly skeptical, but I went. I’m glad I did. But that was a humdinger of a hike, friends.

For those unfamiliar with hiking, there’s a couple of different breeds. You have your dayhikers, which I usually count myself among, casual hikers who go for a particular destination and take their time doing it. They rarely sleep outdoors and often take little in the way of gear, hiking in tennis shoes and leggings, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal and shower is waiting at the end of the day.

Then there are thru-hikers, the hardcore hiking aficionados, sometimes soul-searching, sometimes just walking for the fun of it. If you live off of a major trail like the Appalachian Trail of the Pacific Crest Trail, you have met them, or at least seen them on the side of the road. These are the guys and gals with huge packs the size of their torso, infamous appetites, and a general sun-burned and bug-bitten appearance.

In between these two extremes, you get overnighters.

There’s obviously a lot of variability between going on a hike for a day with a bottle of water and some snacks or your packed lunch and hiking a trail for three months, but a common overnight lives up to its name – one to three nights on the trail. At first glance, a backpacker on an overnight may look a bit like a thru-hiker. The packs are large, for example, and there’s a lot of sweating involved. However, an overnighter is better fed and cleaner, as a rule. That’s not saying a lot at the end of summer, with mud everywhere and sweat pouring from every inch of your skin, but it’s saying something.

This weekend, I spent three nights and three days on the trail. By the end I had over twenty bugbites on my exposed arms, ankles, and throat. I had sweated all the way through my clothes, continually, for three days, and the smell could have literally knocked someone over. My feet were blistered, my joints were aching. When I stood up I had to lean on a stick and waddle until the pain could work its way out enough that I could take a step again. There was a point on that trail where I seriously contemplated lying down and not getting back up. That was about 20 miles in. We went 45 miles, all told, over three days.

I didn’t lie down. I didn’t give up. I did this because there was no other choice. I was 20+ miles by foot from any quick or easy fix. There were no ways out except to hitch up the pack on my back and keep moving. The only way out was through.

When I got home, I got a rejection on a story. There are rejections, and there are rejections – I’m sure, if you write, that you know what I mean. Writing means rejection, and some of them are almost expected. There comes a point when, despite all the work you’ve put in, you know you’re just tossing darts blind. Spinning the wheel of fate. Whatever metaphor you want to use, there’s no control there.

Sometimes, however, you get your hopes up. You’re so damn sure that this story, this one, it’s meant to be with this market. They will love this. This will be your sale, guaranteed. And it isn’t. And they don’t love it. And the form letter comes in the mail. The trail is still stretching on forever. You have not reached the shelter. You have not found a summit. There’s only forward, forward, forward, up the mountain.

I do have a choice about giving up on submissions. In some ways, that makes it harder than being on the trail. But I don’t think I can ever stop writing, whether I want to or not. So perhaps it’s not so different in the end.

Hitch up the pack. Keep moving.


Want to support this blog? Buy books, make a Paypal donation, or subscribe to my Patreon.

Fall is come! Sort of.

We’ve had some lovely pre-fall days recently and I am feeling it. My heart keeps fantasizing about apple picking. There is nothing like the smell of cooked apples on a brisk day with the windows open. Luckily the apples are beginning to come into season, so I imagine I’ll get my wish once this latest heat wave dissipates.

In honor of the upcoming smorgasbord, I wanted to share my favorite apple recipes and couple of delicious fall stories, visual and legible. Fall for me is about creepy, atmospheric thrills and dying leaves, sweaters and spicy honeyed chai. So my fall stories hold a similarly special place in my heart.

Practical MagicSpiced Apple Cider

You can’t have fall without this most traditional of drinks, and in my house you can’t have fall without the movie Practical Magic. It is my favorite witch movie, which is saying something, and my favorite fall watch despite the fact most of it takes place in the summer. I hope you get to snuggle on the couch with sweater and a warm drink and enjoy your favorite movie soon. I know I’m looking forward to trying this lovely recipe from bon appétit.

 

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or DayStuffed Pumpkins

This novella is, for me, a comforting Thanksgiving ghost tale. It’s about family, found and otherwise, and mirrors and dastardly deeds. I think it goes great with a stuffed pumpkin. Apples are a key to this dish, which is appropriate because the root of the jack-o-lantern tradition lies in apple carvings, pumpkin being a thing that wasn’t really around in Europe until recently. I’m a vegetarian, so my modifier to this recipe from Local Milk is to sub out the gruyere and bacon and replace them with smoked gouda. It goes over swimmingly as my Thanksgiving centerpiece every year.

The Graveyard BookApple Pie

You can’t talk about apples without talking about apple pie, and you can’t talk about fall without talking about graveyards and spirits. Happily, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman takes place almost entirely in a graveyard. This book contains a lot of endings, so I think it’s a good place to talk about dessert. Accordingly, I provide this basic apple pie recipe from Smitten Kitchen. I myself usually end up making Rosemary Apple Pie, which might be more appropriate, but unfortunately that recipe is not available online to share. Also not everyone likes rosemary as much as I do.

It’s the holiday season! Ghosts and crunchy leaves and loveliness await!


Want to support this blog? Buy books, make a Paypal donation, or subscribe to my Patreon.

A work-life balance, also trees

Authors are human, and most of us are barely chipping away at things. I know that’s what it has felt like for me for a long time – that no matter how fast I write, I can’t write fast enough.

Last week, I took the week off of the dayjob and off of writing. It’s the first time I’ve had a full vacation for…..you know, I really don’t know the last time I wasn’t doing one of those things. In April, I went on “vacation” but that meant flying across the country for a writing workshop. In November, once more, “vacation” meant flying myself to Texas for a conference. There were some delightful moments and experiences packed in there, but none of those substitute for rest.

And rest is definitely something we need. Without it, we start losing focus.

Ironically, I’m not good at resting. Even though I didn’t have any writing or working planned, I still spent a good chunk of my week off doing chores. When we bought the house last September – another vacation that doesn’t quite count, where I took three days off of the dayjob to paint walls and move – the lot featured large swathes of invasive volunteer trees. They were quick-growing elms that have come over from China or somewhere. The trees are beautiful when they get big, but boy do they get big. The biggest one I’ve seen was at least 50 feet tall – a large canopy tree for sure. It took several days for our neighbors to have that one taken out after a storm split it down the middle, luckily missing their house.

So these are not the trees we wanted growing in the yard, obviously. Don’t get me wrong, I love trees. But most of our backyard is already taken up with a large, established maple, an ailing scarlet oak, and a lovely black walnut. There is no room for invasive elms in that picture.

While there are still a few volunteers that were too big for me to take out with the tools I had, I’m happy to say I have mostly cleared the small forest that had popped up. You may be surprised to hear that I’m happy about that. I did mourn the trees, who were doing the best they could. But I have plans. Specifically, plans for shorter bushes and medium sized trees that can produce buckets of delicious fruit. I’ve already procured elderberry and haskap starters. My goal was to plant those last week, but unfortunately the only things I got into the ground were two dwarf peach trees. I’m hopeful they survive the winter.

As you can see, I’m not good at resting. But sometimes rest just looks like doing something different – changing things up. For the first time in a long time, I got a lovely idea for a story last week and felt excited. So I must have done something right. I scribbled down the outlines of that story in a notebook and spent most of a day tasting it on my tongue. Then I went back to digging.

There’s never enough time to write all the stories. There’s never enough time to rest, either. Sometimes, you have to simply decide to make the time you need.


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Photo by Markus Spiske (temporausch.com) from Pexels.

Eek! I missed a week!

Sorry for my silence last week, friends. It was my birthday, and I was off gallivanting. I ate a bunch of good food, planted peach trees and moved iris bulbs, killed a bunch of invasive elms (hopefully) and poison ivy, destroyed some boxwoods because boxwoods don’t DO anything, and climbed a mountain. Overall it was excellent. I alternated between being incredibly sore and being so full of food you could roll me home. An ideal week.

Random cool announcement: This Saturday I will be participating in the downtown Roanoke Sidewalk Sale with Book No Further, visible to the public in full author regalia at 1 pm. Come see me!

Back to regular programming on Friday!


 

Escaping the Matrix: On “Nanette”

I spend a lot of time referring to movies and analyzing them in part because they are so accessible. Movies take a much shorter amount of time to consume than books or television shows, and often are more widely viewed. And in the science fiction community, there are few movies more widely viewed than The Matrix.

But the story of the Matrix is a story of speaking truth to power, and it’s a sort of insidious one. The morals of the first movie are very different from the morals of the series when taken as a whole. Most people are only familiar with the first of the films, but very few stuck through the mess that was the second film to find out the ending. Despite this it is, arguably, one of the greatest metaphors for systems of hegemony in our world that exists.

I began to compose this blogpost in my head after watching Nanette late one weeknight. The Netflix original begins as a comedy routine and becomes something more. It is a clear example of speaking truth to power, of the raw perseverance and loss that such a path requires. Hannah Gadsby thoroughly examines the illusion of choice in one memorable moment in this show, when she says: “There’s only been two options for a little girl to grow up into, a virgin or a whore. We’re always given a choice.”

nanette.jpg

At what point does a choice within a system that allows only two outcomes cease to become a choice?

In the Matrix, Neo is given two options. The blue pill allows him to live compliantly in the system set up to contain him. The red pill, however, requires awareness, requires the loss of safety for freedom.

(If I speak nicely, if I am quiet and soft and sweet, then I can stay safely in this role that society has created for me and never need question. But if I become aware, if I speak out, if I take up space, if I am myself, I give up my safety.)

The safety of the blue pill is an illusion. We know that, in the Matrix, the blue pill means that our bodies are being farmed for energy, for meat, for whatever our overlords require. The things that ruin us happen at a whim, and it’s not ours. We have no control over them.

But there is no safety in freedom, either. Less of it. Now the machines target you. Now they fight against you. We know, because the Matrix tells us, that we are a danger to the system. Our existence, once we have swallowed this red pill, becomes a threat. That’s a good thing, though, right? If we are a threat, we can change, we can resist.

The reason the Matrix is so insidious as a narrative, however, is that if you watch that third movie, there was never any hope at all.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. Neo was nearly all-powerful in the first movie. How could he lose? But he does, he loses everything. He was a product of the Matrix all along. All of the red pill society is wiped out, to start again at some predetermined time, when the Matrix decides it needs to release the pressure of those rebellious members of its population. The Chosen One was an illusion. He could never lead those like him to a new life. The only path for those taking the red pill was to die.

There is a disturbing trend, amongst holders of power, to point to freedom and say that it looks a certain way. There have been many writers who discussed the nature of power and the many flavors it can take, but there is only one narrative where certain kinds of power are concerned. Absolutist systems construct choice on their terms. The dichotomy is a loaded one. As in the Matrix, there is no safety in it even when you are being told otherwise.

In Nanette, we learn the truth of that choice for those who cannot fit into either option is violence, but if you’ve been paying attention you should realize that the truth of that choice is always violence, no matter who you are. Whether it’s the violence against the “pure” woman who submits entirely to her partner, who is quiet and demure and voiceless even if he beats her, or the violence of the “sullied” woman whose rape and abuse are justified by her choices, the choice is merely how you want to negotiate your own subjugation. Whether it’s the option of living life as a withered shell addicted to dreams of possibility or as a starving, dirty refugee in the bowels of the world, your options aren’t glorious. As long as the Matrix exists, you have to live with its power over you.

And that’s a lie.

Oh it may be true for individuals. It may be true for Neo. But one day, the Matrix crumbles. One day, the machines fail. It may not be forever. It may not be soon. But all things end. As Ursula Le Guin said so memorably:

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Those who hold power would like for you to believe that there are only two options: to submit, and to be ostracized. But we can change the options on the table. Indeed, change is the only constant. Until you believe that, there is no hope.

Once you believe that, there is no chance of failure.


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Three stories about dogs

I recently read “Mother, Watch Over Me,” over on Mythic Delirium’s website and I enjoyed it immensely. It made me realize that I have a special spot in my heart for dog stories, so here are three free stories sourced on the internet with main characters who are dogs. They are heartbreaking, as might be imagined, so enjoy!

Mothers, Watch Over Me – Maria Haskins

“Even in the dream, Maya knows her pup is dying.”

A dog who weaves baskets and a race against time across a post-apocalyptic landscape. This story is hopeful and tragic all at once.

Sun Dogs – Brooke Bolander

Witness the final moments of Laika, the first dog in space. Be prepared to weep. This story is a bitter indictment of the cruelty of mankind and a loving epitaph for a brave soul.

“In the real world, the catch-men had taken everything. In dreams, they are fooled as easily as rabbits.”

This Chance Planet – Elizabeth Bear

I was early for my train. As I waited, my friend the ovcharka trotted up and sat down beside me. Her black-tipped, amber coat was shedding out in huge wooly chunks, leaving her sleek guard hairs lying close side by side. She looked up at me and dog-laughed, tongue lolling.

If you need something uplifting after that read, consider this lovely tale about a woman and an unlikely alliance. This, my friends, is how women become witches.

I hope you enjoy these three stories, because they’re some of my favorites! If you’re looking for more dog stories, I would recommend Kij Johnson’s “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” and the rest of that eponymous collection. It’s not free, but it’s worth the download.

Until next week!


Want to support this blog? Buy books, make a Paypal donation, or subscribe to my Patreon.

The Lady Astronaut and an expert class in writing

Friends, I have just finished The Calculating Stars, and it blew me away. I would compare this book most closely in voice and style to A Natural History of Dragons, but with a depth of urgency that, for all my love of Brennan’s work, exceeds that series. Buckle up, my friends. This is going to be a long ride.

[Spoilers for The Lady Astronaut of Mars and for The Calculating Stars]

Continue reading “The Lady Astronaut and an expert class in writing”

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