Friday, December 21, 2012

The Road Goes Ever On

I am reading a phenomenal book called Meditations on Middle Earth, edited by Karen Haber (and given to me by my fabulous friendly postman, the single smartest person I've ever known). It's really inspired a lot of thoughts from me, and I hope to discuss it intelligently next week.

Next week.

Because today I am still overwhelmed by the state of the world and the country where I live. This morning four people died in Pennsylvania while the NRA announced a program to train armed guards for the nation's schools. Last week the mall by my house was closed by a madman bent on terror, and twenty-six people were gunned down in their own classrooms.

It's hard to think rationally at these times. It's hard to read an essay on fantasy fiction and write about why it matters. It's hard not to just wish you were a hobbit, living in a snug little hole in the ground.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Brain clearing

I've been thinking a lot on this topic, and this morning the delightful Elizabeth Spann Craig posted on it: The Importance of Doing Nothing. I was so glad to hear her nothing-positive blog, because I am a firm believer in unscheduled time for everyone (and especially kids!). I think time with nothing to do is what inspires creativity and builds a person's character. When you're sitting around mulling over nothing in particular, you sort out a lot of your values and dreams and best ideas!

When I was a kid, we lived too far from anything for lessons or camps or sports. I spent most of my time reading or wandering aimlessly. Sometimes I played in the creek, but mostly I rode my bike in circles and daydreamed. Most of those daydreams turned into stories, about a third of which I started writing down in my early attempts at novels. I never made it more than a thirty pages into a project, but that might have been due to handwriting that even at age ten was pretty abysmal (and that was when my handwriting was at its zenith!). When you work without an outline and your notes are on random scraps of school work, it really helps if you can read them.

In that tradition, my daughter has very few scheduled activities. She's taken a few classes from Parks and Rec, but she's not terribly interested in team sports or music. She wants to be a writer more than anything in the world. Needless to say, yesterday she spent about an hour rolling around on an exercise ball in our living room, doing nothing. I hope its teaching her something important.

Friday, December 07, 2012

2012: A great year of reading!

This year has a been a great year for reading. I have read some really wonderful books! When I read, I typically only read books that I get from the library (both because I have access to a terrific library and because I live on a tight budget), and if I don't like a book, I don't usually bother finishing it. Needless to say, my Goodreads account is populated by a lot of 4- and 5-star book ratings.

Here are some books that really stood out from the rest:

The Pilgrim Hawk, by Glenway Wescott

Amusingly enough, a couple months ago, I got an email from Michael Cunningham via some organization (I pay such good attention to things, don't I?) encouraging everyone to read this book. He wrote the introduction to the edition I read, and I must say, I agree with him--or at least, I think that every writer should read this book. It is one of the most careful character studies I've ever read. Not much happens in this book, but it bristles with a sense of humanity. I would never want to hang out with any of these characters, but Glenway Wescott was probably a cool guy.

The Pushcart Book of Poetry: The Best Poems from Three Decades of the Pushcart Prize, edited by Joan Murray

I'm pretty sure the subtitle tells you everything you need to know about this book. Basically every poem inside it is miraculous. I need to buy a copy so I can read and re-read them.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum

I think everybody and their dog read this one when it came out, but it's still terrific. It's a wonderful study of the conflict between science and bureaucracy, with plenty of chemistry and gruesome details thrown in.

Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence, by Rory Miller

A riveting discussion of violence and criminal behavior by a corrections officer/search and rescue worker. It will change the way you think about both evil and self defense.

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

The poignant story of a young woman's fall from naive but hard-working oyster seller to spoiled, pampered mistress--and ultimate redemption. It also happens to be a wonderfully researched examination of life in 1890's England, and the steamy story of a lesbian learning to live with her sexuality. Hawt!

I did read genre fiction this year, of course! You know me: I can't go more than two weeks without checking out a good mystery or speculative fiction. Here are a few standouts:

The Terror, by Dan Simmons--based on the true story of the lost Franklin expedition, a wonderfully researched story of the terrors of Arctic exploration in the 1840s.

City of the Lost, by Stephen Blackmoore--the noir zombie novel you've been waiting for.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett--the conflict between racism and law enforcement in Discworld. Possibly the most touching Discworld story so far.

This Dark Earth, by John Horner Jacobs--zombie apocalypse survivor story done right.

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill--rock and roll, fast cars, and one horrible ghost. A horror classic!

And of course, I'm always looking for book recommendations. If you've noticed, my tastes tend to run to historical and horror (or, in the case of The Terror, both combined), so if you know a good example of those genres, please share!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Working through the blues

Now I know it's not easy or cool to admit, but sometimes even cowgirls get the blues. And sometimes even writers get them. Maybe it's something minor, like that down feeling you get when you've had a cold for a long time. Maybe you've had some lousy times at work. Or maybe you just struggle when winter hits. We all have those down times*, and that low energy feeling can make it really hard to put in the time for our writing. What can you do about it?

First, let yourself off the hook a little. If you sprained your ankle, you wouldn't expect to win a sprinting competition, would you? Well, when your brain is out of balance or feeling low energy, it's the mental equivalent of a strained muscle or sprained joint. It needs rest. Take care of your mind! Get some extra rest and try to relax.

You also want to take a little extra care of your physical health. A lot of the time we feel down because we're not feeling well and haven't really noticed any symptoms of sickness. If your body's running out of juice, it can't provide a lot of energy for creative endeavors. Try to get some exercise into your day, even if you feel tired and cranky. And avoid sugar, booze and excess caffeine. I've tried drinking extra coffee to get my engine revving when I feel down, and it rarely helps for long. In a pinch, I've found that extra Vitamin C (from juices or EmergenC or just ascorbic acid added to honey and hot water) can give me a bit of extra energy, but that can wreak havoc on your gut. (Just saying.)

After lecturing you about health and rest, it seems the next step is counter-intuitive: work. When my husband was diagnosed with tennis elbow, his doctor gave him an armband to help the muscles rest. But the doctor also gave him some exercises that would strengthen the muscles so they could do a better job supporting the joint. When you're down, you need extra sleep and relaxation. You don't need to sit on your butt watching tv. Give yourself time to work on your writing projects, but give yourself permission to produce less. You want to keep flexing your writing muscles without overtaxing yourself.

The best thing about giving yourself that permission to write less is that you'll probably surprise yourself with how much you can produce! This week, I've been feeling a bit gloomy (I always feel gloomy after I take a trip to visit my parents--I just wish I could live closer to them!) and I haven't written very much. But I have written a little every day, and yesterday, I wrote a lot more than I expected. It felt great! And today I don't feel nearly so gloomy, because I have my writing to cheer me up.

One last thing: if you can find an extra scrap of energy, take a moment to do something nice for someone. Write a positive review of a book you liked. Send a friend a note. Catch up with your Christmas shopping. While you do it, imagine how the recipient will feel when they get that nice experience (and if you think a review can't touch an author's heart, read this one at Doubleshot Reviews and check out the nice note from the author!). Making human connections can be a great reminder that you're not alone and that you've got lots of great gifts to offer the world. And isn't that what life is really about?

Good luck writing through your down time. I can't wait to find out what you produce!

*Note: my advice is for short term downturns in mood. If your dark feelings last longer than two weeks, you may have a more serious condition and might consider getting help. All I've got is hugs and puppy pictures, which I am more than happy to share.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Give Thanks!

It's Thanksgiving week! Hooray! Soon I will be eating pie and drinking coffee, which are two of my favorite things. I also plan to make a nice long list of things I'm grateful for this year, which will definitely be topped by getting a house, getting kitties, and working with James Sutter (myclever and delightful editor over at Pathfinder Tales) on the novel that I'm writing. I feel like I've learned so much about stories this year!

What are you most grateful about this year? Have you learned anything that's helped fill your writing toolbox?

Monday, November 05, 2012

Wonderful Weekend

Orycon 34 was fantastic. Getting to be with new friends, make new friends, and show off Portland to some of my favorite out-of-town visitors was a blast. And unlike Orycon 33, I did not get stuck in the elevator and need to be rescued by hunky firemen (although I'm not totally certain that's a win. ;)  ).

Here are a few thoughts from the con:

I've heard a lot about self-publishing and Kickstarter over the last few years, but M.K. Hobson is a lady who is doing an amazing job making it work for her. After a tremendous first novel and very good second novel that were both released by a traditional publisher, she ran a successful Kickstarter campaign and produced her third book herself. The book is beautiful--I can't say enough about the back cover of The Warlock's Curse, because it looks so damn cool, and even the typesetting is terrific. It's a great approach for an author with production skills and a passion for her large, immersive world. Plus, she throws a truly fun launch party!

This convention had some terrific panels, and I'm glad I went to them. I think it's all too easy to get sucked into parties and networking (hey, I love that stuff!) and never get a chance to attend a panel, so I feel really lucky my schedule let me sit in on some good ones. This year I made a point to seek out more information about martial arts and warfare, and I feel incredibly inspired to keep exploring those topics. I am still mulling over some of the information Rory Miller (corrections officer and writer) shared at our panel (the other brainy panelists were the fantastic Kamila Miller and the delightful Jason V. Brock) on "Smut, Gore, and More." I came to talk about body fluids--yay, smut!--and left humbled by this man's experiences facing real violence and true horror.

Everything about the convention kept circling back to the truth about writing: that it's for people. Even when you're writing science fiction and fantasy--heck, maybe especially when you're writing science fiction and fantasy--your writing needs to tap into something true and human. It's critical to use your time not-writing to expand yourself as a human being.

Oh! And one last thing: I came back from the con to discover that my weird tale "American Farmhouse Style" is up at Phantasmagorium's website. It's an oddball and the first piece I ever wrote that spooked me out!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Orycon 34

Hi, friends! If any of you will be in the Portland area this weekend and plan to catch Orycon, I'll be there, too. Here's my schedule:

Friday (11/2):
2 pm, Ross Island Room
Theme: What is theme and how do you develop it in your writing?

8:30 pm, Grant Room
Reading: a dramatic performance of Lovecraftian Madness ... and more.
Don't miss this one, because it's going to be blast!

Saturday (11/3):
11 am, Lincoln
Franchise Writing: writing in other people's worlds.
The other guys on the panel are writers for Star Wars, Star Trek and other big franchises--I can't wait to hear what they have to say!

2 pm, Lincoln
Stalking the Wild Anthology: tips for success in anthology sales

10 pm, Roosevelt
Smut, Gore and More: the challenges of writing sex and violence

Sunday (11/4):

10 am, Broadway
Fantasy Storytime: knights, dragons and princess stories for kiddos
This one's for your little munchkins.

I'm looking forward to this convention so much! My panels sound like a blast and I know the bar at the Doubletree Hotel is a great one for hanging. I'm sure you'll find me there throughout the con!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Influence webs

In 1997, both the book Reliquary and the movie Mimic were released. By coincidence, I read Reliquary just two weeks after I saw Mimic. Both stories involve murderous creatures living far beneath the New York city streets. Now this isn't the first time the New York subterranean world made a splash in pop culture. I was first introduced to that realm in Diane Duane's So You Want to Be A Wizard (1982), and I loved the original Beauty and the Beast tv show. Plus, I know I'll never forget the abandoned subway scenes in 1989's Ghostbusters 2. The old City Hall station was amazing!

But something struck me while I was reading Reliquary. There were two phrases in the book that I'd just heard in Mimic: "mole people" and "track bunny." Mole people meant people who live underground, homeless people taking advantage of New York's many underground structures. Track bunnies meant rats. I thought it was funny that two works could use these exact phrases, and I have a hunch that Reliquary's authors (Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child) might have explained a lot when in the acknowledgements of Reliquary they mentioned the book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, by Jennifer Toth.

There's a lot of doubt about the veracity of this book, but it came out in 1993 and was a huge splash. Did it influence the people working on Mimic? I bet it did. Does it matter that the book might be more fictional than the author claimed? Not really. The things Toth said inflamed the imagination.

I love to see the way literature weaves its way into popular culture, leaving ripple effects across our mental landscapes. There are lots of famous books we can think of that transformed our culture with great ideas: The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin; The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud; The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx. But smaller texts (and movies count as a kind of text) still change our culture. People skipped out on their beach vacations because of Jaws. Wizards became normalized after Harry Potter. And of course, none of these works actually stand on their own. They were spun from thousands upon thousands of texts that created their authors' frames of reference. Some influences just stand out more than others.

The story of the mole people continues threading its way through our culture. You might recognize it if you pick up Guillermo del Toro's The Strain series.

PS: If you are interested in the New York underground, subway enthusiast Joseph Brennan has a fantastic site packed with diagrams and photos, as does

Monday, October 08, 2012

Memento Mori

I'd say one of the great influences on my writing, and heck, world view, is the Gothic. The very notion of The Gothic begins with Gothic architecture, that delicious, overwrought style of construction emerging in the late medieval period. Think of Notre Dame, and you think of the very roots of "goth." The term itself wasn't applied to the style until a renewed interest Greco-Roman Classicism triggered a sneering criticism of these medieval works--the word itself comes from the Goths, a bunch of Scandinavian tough guys who kicked a lot of Roman ass.

Here are some words I draw from that summary of Gothicism: ornate, dark, medieval, anti-classical, bloodthirsty, Catholic Church, afterlife, death, demons, hell, saints, fasting, holidays, law-abiding, punishment, superstitious, supernatural, Inquisition, torture, confession, gargoyle.

For me, those are the flavors of The Gothic. Damn, but they are delicious! Those spices have mixed and remixed over the years to give us some of the lasting wonders of art, literature, and other cultural artifacts. But some of the most delightful creations emerged in the 1800s, when a blossoming scientific scene, a muscle-flexing British empire, and a sudden amoral explosion of industry collided to create the wonderful Victorian period.

If Victoriana makes you think primarily of Steampunk, I'm sorry. It should make you think of ornate houses and cushions dripping with fringe. The Victorian period used wood trim and fringe to achieve the same lacy, overblown wonders that the medieval builders created from stone. And with Queen Victoria's long mourning for Prince Albert setting a sort of standard, the popular culture of the time was focused tightly on the morbid--carrying locks of lost loved ones' hair was pretty much de rigueur, and collecting items associated with death was fashionable. This means Victorian home decorating was a fascinating marriage of your grandmother's doily collection and your deranged uncle's taxidermy collection. I love it. Luckily for my husband, I also enjoy Mid-Century Modern and am allergic to dust, which limits my willingness to collect Victoriana. Nonetheless, someday I will shop Madame Talbot's Victorian Low Brow to my heart's content.

The Victorian obsession with death makes a lot of sense. Medicine hadn't quite vanquished the common ailments, so most people had a much more intimate experience with death. If you made it to adulthood, you were not only  lucky, you had also probably already attended a great deal of funerals. But new developments in science offered up plenty of hope to not just fight death, but actually overcome it. The ground was ripe for greedy pseudoscientists with an interest in the afterlife. Victorians paid good money to attend seances. They adored ectoplasm. And since they collected lots of dead body parts (I don't think it's a coincidence that Egyptology was really taking off during that time period--what good Victorian wouldn't adore owning their own mummy? Or at least visiting one at the British Museum ...), it made sense that the two hobbies might collide. One of the most delightful examinations of Victorian interest in collecting the dead is Colin Dickey's book Cranioklepty. Run, go read it.

All about science. And creepy stuff. Read it.

Part of the beauty of Victorian decor is the memento mori, the small arrangements focused on death that remind us that we, too, will die. Sure, reminding yourself that you will die sounds depressing, but I find that when I think on my mortality, I am more inspired to live well, to spend my short time on Earth as wonderfully as I can. I'm also inspired to do my best to extend that mortal coil as much as possible. That's why I'm going to leave you to go do some writing and to make one of these delicious, healthy kale salads. Because if there's anything that can help you live forever, it's kale. And that's no pseudoscience!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

October is for reading

I'm sitting in my office wearing a fleece jacket and wondering if I need a third cup of hot tea. Yep, it's fall! And the best thing about fall is layering up and reading outside in the last sunshine of the year (if you live in Oregon, that is. Those of you in Minnesota are already enjoying your first blizzard!).

I decided that this October, I'd be exploring my influences and sharing them with you--fiction, nonfiction, films and places.

I just finished re-reading a book that I believe is still working its way through my psyche. A remarkable study of family life, The Minotaur, by Barbara Vine (a pen name for Ruth Rendell), is a Gothic novel transported to the 1960s. Like all Gothic novels, the action spins on sex, betrayal, and madness, but the dusty Britishness of the characters reins it all in.

What makes this book work so well for me is the engagement between the characters and the setting. The family lives in an unloved and underfunded mansion, entirely covered with ivy. Far enough from town to require a long hike or a drive, the characters are removed from reality and forced to stew in their own company. In fact, as the book progresses and winter closes its grip on a house with very limited heating, a very gripping sense of claustrophobia settles over the story.

I deeply enjoy novels where the majority of characters are intensely unlikable. Indeed, there are only two really sympathetic characters in the entire book--the others are so pathetic that I found myself feeling sorry for them even as I wanted to kick them in their butts. The ending is really enjoyable.

In case you don't remember, I grew up in a house buried in the woods, a dark and gloomy sort of place. I loved almost everything about it and still pine for it. (Our house was destroyed in a house fire when I was a young teen.) The majority of our community and the communities around it were supported by the timber industry. Needless to say, much of the show Twin Peaks deeply resonates for me--the countryside even looks a lot like home.

I'll be quoting and referencing Twin Peaks all month, leading up to re-watching my favorite episodes in November. To kick it off, here are the opening credits. On the soundtrack, this sounds perfect, but every episode I've ever seen on a television sounds under pitch, just like this copy of the intro does. For some reason, it makes it feel more real!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nostalgia requires assistance

When I was eight years old, my family decided it was time for me to begin learning to cook. I'm really surprised they waited that long, but the general consensus in the Wagner household was that I was dangerous klutz, more liable to blow up the kitchen than function safely within it. This conviction was supported by my absolute terror of the stove.

But one magical day, one of my sisters convinced me to make some very easy cookies. The cookies requires a top and bottom layer of graham crackers and a gooey caramel filling made from butter, brown sugar, possibly nuts, and maybe graham cracker crumbs. They sounded a bit like these, but with slightly different execution. They were easy and fun to make--and they were the best cookies in the history of man, because I made them.

I still dream about those cookies, but I don't have the recipe for them. I could probably call my mother for the recipe, but since my folks still have dial-up Internet that hogs their phone line, it might be years before I get it. If you have a recipe for them, please direct me to it--or if you have any other super-easy cookie recipes (no-bake, perhaps?), please share. My daughter is learning how to cook. ;)

Friday, September 07, 2012

Three for Greatness

Hello, friends! I hope you are all well--I myself am recovering from a surfeit of summer vacation. Guests and reading and sloth and eating and ... whew. I might need a nap just to get over remembering it. But in truth, it feels good to be back to work.

The other day someone was talking about good writing, and I started musing it over. When you're actually writing, it's often difficult to pin down just what good writing means, but it's easy to see when you're reading a good (or hey, even bad) book. Good writing is a balance between three components:

Appealing prose. Yes, knowing how to write a readable sentence is important. To be reasonably readable as a writer, you need to string together words in an appealing way. To be a good writer, your words need an element of beauty. Ray Bradbury, for example, wrote sentences that read like poetry. They took your breath away when you read them. He was a great writer.

Well-constructed story. It's hard to pin down what makes for a good story, but I think most people would agree that story is all about trouble and the characters' responses to that trouble. For most writers, they learn about piecing together bits of trouble and human behavior while they're learning to read, with a heavy dose of cinema thrown in. It seems instinctual, and a lot of people think this part of writing should be a piece of cake. I know--I was one of those people nine years ago, when I wrote my first novel. But for some of us, managing all that trouble and making it believable is like juggling kittens. Wiggly, wiggly kittens with very sharp claws.

Insight. It's hard to believe, but insight is the key to wrangling those kittens. Even the crappiest novel needs a certain level of insight into human behavior or it simply isn't believable. Great novels are great because the author has managed to probe deep into human affairs and used their work to shed light on some kind of human truth. For example, Twilight is a successful book, because the author uses her knowledge of teenagers' quirks to make the plot stick together. The Pilgrim Hawk, by Glenway Scott, is a great book because it plumbs the secret depths of marriage and class and alcoholism. (Neither book may be to your taste, but I'll confess to enjoying them both!)

So far I know that I am a functional writer. I've always been able to write a neat sentence and the occasionally pretty poem, and I'm finally beginning to develop the skills needed to juggle those cats (thick gloves help, as do lots of kitty treats). It's insight that really holds me back. It's hard to plumb the depths of human existence when your personal philosophy is primarily spun out of fart jokes, but I keep hoping I'll grow up. ;)

But what about you? What are your strengths as a writer? And what have you been doing to strengthen your weak points?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The 2nd biggest day of the year

Monday is the second* biggest non-holiday holiday of my year:  H. P. Lovecraft's birthday! Woo-hooo! Rock on, Lovecraft!

I'm hoping to make a big fuss about the big guy and I might have something fun for you guys that day. But I'm just wondering--what do you all think I should do to celebrate? Drink coffee milk, the state drink of Rhode Island (Lovecraft's home state)? Read three H.P. short stories that I haven't read before? Watch Lovecraft-inspired short films on Youtube? Rock out all day to my H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society CD collection?

Or do it all???

*The first biggest is Charles Darwin's birthday on February 12th.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Every year, I go to Orycon, Portland's local sf convention, and on their writing track, they always include a panel called "Are Editors Human?" And every year, it's terrific. It's a time for the attending editors to talk about the work they do and what their lives are like. I always learn something--even though I spent a year as Assistant Editor at Fantasy Magazine and have plenty of friends in the business. Different editors have very different approaches, and there are many different kinds of editors, as well.

There are people out there who complain about editors or have stories about bad experiences. I'm not one of them. So far, I've worked with really professional people with a lot of skills. Some of the editors I've worked with have inspired me to do better work than I ever expected to create, editors with great vision and the ability to bring out the best in their writers (Scott Andrews, John Joseph Adams, and James L. Sutter, I am looking at you!)

A great way to learn more about writing is to pay attention to who edited the books and stories that you enjoyed reading. Then read more work from those editors. Read a book from Pyr Books and loved it? Maybe you should check out Lou Anders' short story anthologies. Most companies list their editorial staff's information right on their webpage--you can read their blogs and find out about their sideprojects.

Because that's the best thing about editors--they're always working on something cool. Editors exist to bring out the best writing in their writers and to cheer for the best projects for their companies. They're full of verve and energy and excitement.

In fact, when I go to that panel at Orycon and hear editors talk about their work, I'm always pretty sure the answer to the question "Are Editors Human?" is actually a resounding no.

They're super-human!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Never do anything again, ever

Well, this week has been pretty much a bust for accomplishments. But I have a good reason. Well, two. I brought them home on Saturday:

Oh my stars, but they're cute. The whole family adores them. The Kid keeps putting them in baskets and carting them around, singing to them. (And being patient, kind kittens, they let her.) My husband dotes upon them, even forgetting to make coffee because he was playing with the kittens. And of course, I'm the most star-struck of all. I can barely utter a sentence that doesn't contain the word "kitty." We're absolutely ridiculous!

Yep, so unless you count playing with kittens as an accomplishment, I really haven't done anything since they came home. And I'm okay with that!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Hello from my new office!


I'm typing a bit exhaustedly--this whole moving business has worn me out. But I am typing from my new desk in my new office in my new house, so I can't complain too much. We are almost done with this crazy process, and I couldn't be more delighted about that. Mess and disaster are not my friends.

If you were sitting with me right now, you'd be looking at this picture. My good friend Galen gave it to me (it's a copy of an illustration from Rigor Amortis) and my husband framed it for me. Some people like to keep photographs of their family on their desk. I'm one of them. ;)

There's not much to update--almost every day has been crammed full of packing and schlepping and scrubbing. Honestly, you're lucky you missed it. But I am happy to say that my story about hinkypunks and swamp magic (a story I was inspired to write by my dear Inkpunks!) has been reprinted in Beneath Ceaseless Skies' new e-anthology, Ceaseless Steam. I can't wait to read this one. You know how much I love anything with a historical flavoring!

Monday, June 25, 2012


Today I went to my new home library, which is a convenient one mile from our  new house. It's adorable--there's a cute park with a duck pond attached to the library--but best of all, the entire basement is a children's library. The books there are separated out into genres and ages in a way that I think it is really accessible. My daughter hasn't really learned how to browse for books yet, and I think this library gives that perfect quiet coziness that you need to really dig through the shelves.

How's the adult section? I don't know. I got sucked into the mid-grade fantasy section and didn't come up until my daughter was ready to check out! I love all genres of books, but mid-grade fantasy is what made me fall in love with reading, and I still love it best of all. I'm finally going to start reading Garth Nix's Keys to Kingdom series--I've never seen book one on the shelf before, and I've been forgetting to put it on hold.

Three cheers for the new library!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ghost Collies

I don't believe in ghosts. I mean, not in any rational way--I can't think of any logical, substantiated reason to believe in them. But I still get weirded out sometimes, and our house has been acting a little spooky lately. First, the toaster began growling and screaming. Then the radio, which doesn't even have working speakers, turned on at full volume and could not be turned off except by unplugging it. And today a light blew out, but when I returned from the coffee shop, it was turned on and fully operational.

None of this would really be that weird except it began the day we met our realtor.

That's right--we've never had any strange electrical phenomena happen during the six years of our tenancy at this duplex, not until we decided to bid the place adieu. The strangeness of the experience compounds all the feelings I have about moving to make me feel more melancholic and nostalgic about the move. It's easy to look at these strange occurrences and say "Hey! Even the house doesn't want us to move!"

Luckily, I spent yesterday painting at our new house. Despite being all alone, I kept feeling something bump into my leg, the way a dog or a cat will bump its head against your leg to get your attention and say hi. I can't help but think of the two beautiful collies that once lived in the house. Are their spirits letting me know that I'm welcome in their house?

I know there are no real ghost dogs in my new house, although there is certainly plenty of dog hair and a phantom dog aroma rising up out of the thirty-year-old carpet. I also know that light bulbs have troubles in their lives and old appliances are sometimes just weird. I am hoping that there are no serious electrical problems that are going to burn down the duplex any time too soon, since I still have all my stuff in it!

Yep, I know all of this stuff. But the part of me that still gets scared at movies or cry during the sad parts of books--the part of me that makes and loves stories--that part of me wants to go play with the ghost dogs.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Skeletons in the trunk

The other day I was walking downtown and had a sudden insight about a character. Ah-ha! I thought. That's how Winston finds out about that guy! I have insights about characters all the time, but what was special about this insight was the fact that I'm not actually working on that project right now--I put it aside about a year ago. That is to say, I put the files and notes aside. Apparently my brain has continued working on that novel while I wasn't paying any attention.

Today on Alexandra Sokoloff's blog, she talks about how a successful writer has had ideas simmering away their entire lives, and how those ideas boil down until they're needed. Some story ideas might go back to early childhood. Some might only be a few years old. Some ideas or images are so meaningful to a writer that they can inform multiple works!

I don't know when I'll get back to that project about Winston, but it's good to know that I know a bit more about him for the day I do!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Thank you, Ray Bradbury

I really wanted to meet Ray Bradbury. To say that he was an inspiration is putting it mildly--Dandelion Wine changed my entire relationship with words when I read it at age eleven, and I've lived in awe of Mr. Bradbury ever since then.

This is a silly song, but I know it will be going through my head all day.

He was the greatest sci-fi writer in history. I know he will live on in my heart forever.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Strawberries & angel food cake

This weekend I was reminded just how wonderful the simple things can taste. While hanging out with my fantastic siblings, my sister served store-bought angel food cake with strawberries and whipped cream. And you know, I've probably eaten that combination at least two hundred times in my life, but it just tastes so delicious and summery that it fills me with happiness!

On a similar note, last week I read Snuff, by Terry Pratchett (which I think just won a Wodehouse award for best comic novel from the UK). I've read so many Terry Pratchett books that I can't even keep them straight, but they are always enjoyable, and this one was no exception. In fact, it was remarkable! I highly recommend it. It's classic Terry Pratchett with a hint of humanism. I think it might be a new favorite.

I think that summer is a great time to enjoy simple, classic favorites. It's the time when you break out the blue jeans and white tee-shirt. When you set aside the latest style of shoes to put on your flip-flops. It's the time to pick up books by your favorite authors, drink an IPA, and just hang out.

Any great summer plans or favorite summer treats awaiting you?

Friday, June 01, 2012

Short leads

Last year I helped out at the Orycon Writers Workshop, filling in for Mary Kowal (gulp! Talk about filling big shoes!) for her short story critiques. The other professional in the session was Claude Lalumiere, anthologist and short story writer extraordinaire.

It was wonderful to just sit back and let him work his magic. While Claude and I both had insights into plot and character issues, what stuck with me was his advice on beginnings. Both pieces we read in the workshop had interesting openings, but Claude recommending paring them down quite significantly. I could see his logic and I've been using it a lot on stories of mine. Many of my beginnings have had evocative, intriguing openings ... that hold back the action of the piece

Today, my story "Barnstormers" goes up at Ideomancer. It originally began with the protagonist readying herself to fly in an airshow, and it was packed with gorgeous language and delightful imagery. I loved it! But I realized that lovely beginning was a page that kept us away from the trouble lying at the heart of the story, so I chopped it off.

Now, I'm pretty sure there's nothing as lovely in the story as the bit I cut off, but the piece is now lean and muscular--which, as any Daniel Craig fan will agree, is gorgeous in its own right.

Also, speaking of lovelies, I just received a scrumptious-looking short story collection from the extremely gentlemanly J.R. Hamantaschen: You Shall Never Know Security. The cover, I think you'll agree, is creey & pretty!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Research rocks!

I'm tearing through the last third of my current writing project and I just wrapped up a short story, both of which required a great deal of research. Since I adore research, this was no hardship--what's better than reading up on exotic locales and interesting sports?

My next big project will also require some research; I mostly need to capture the flavor of life in Viking times, without digging too deeply into any historical details. This gives me the opportunity to re-read Beowulf and watch The Thirteenth Warrior as many times as I'd like!

Ooooh, Antonio Banderas ... life as a writer is so hard!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An achievement

You're probably thinking, "Ooh, an award!" or "She signed with an agent!" But no, this is one of those minor milestones in life: surviving a trip to the post office. Honestly, I think every time you get in and out of a government facility, you have immediately earned yourself a cocktail.

I know it's silly to celebrate something as easy as making a trip to the post office, but it's special to me. You see, at least 95% of the submissions I make are done electronically. I just click a few buttons and zip, off my story or book goes. But when you have to actually print out your work and find an envelope and figure out the postage, it makes you sit back and reflect upon what you're doing. I mean, there was a time two years ago where I would catch myself chanting as I walked, "I wish I was a writer, I wish I was a writer." It was kind of a mantra for me.

And then sometime last summer it just hit me: I am a writer. I am living my dream. I create things and I share them with amazing people. Sometimes people even like my stuff enough to tell me about it or contact me on Facebook and let me know. If that's not what I dreamed about when I was eight years old and had just decided that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, then I don't know what is.

Oh, and I just saw the rough draft of Dark Depths' cover. Galen Dara and Carrie Cuinn are absolutely amazing. I can't wait to hold this book in my hands.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


This weekend, at the inaugural meeting of my new writing group, a friend pointed out that the main character in my story was hard to connect with. She was just too cold, too unemotional. I jotted down a note to fix that.

Jotting down a note doesn't seem like a major milestone, but for me, it was. You see, characters in my first drafts are always unemotional. I just don't write characters that emote. At least, not in a first draft. This has tormented me for about three years. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with me. Was I a cold, heartless monster with no feelings in my heart? Was I completely clueless when it came to human relationships? Was I doomed to never write anything good in my entire life?

(If you're not reading that last statement as a prolonged wail, you have clearly never spent time around me while I was unhappy.)

But something happened a few months ago. Either I grew up (fat chance), or I learned a thing or two about the way I write. I am motivated to write stories by wondering what happens next. And when I sit down to write a story, I already feel very strongly attached to my characters; I usually can't put down a first paragraph unless I've already gotten a good sense of the character's voice. So as I write, I'm usually focused on the puzzle of what happens next and am overwhelmed by the emotional experience of the characters, which are so close to me that they feel like my very own experiences. I'm so into the moment that I sometimes forget to fill in the blanks for my readers.

The good news is that all of that is fixable in the revision process. I'm not broken; I'm just forgetting to share everything I know about my world and my characters. This is something entirely obvious to anyone but me. I've made myself extremely miserable worrying about this stuff.

Yeah. I'm that level of dumb.

But I do have a fun new story coming out in the Lovecraft eZine this week, and I have an AWESOME new Lovecraft eZine tee shirt!

Plus this weekend is the HP Lovecraft Film Festival! I can't wait to see my fellow Lovecraftian creators!

Thursday, May 03, 2012


I just came back from the eye doctor's, which is always a fun experience. It's weird to actually pay attention to what my eyes are doing and to try to challenge them, and it definitely makes me appreciate the normal, comfortable sight I enjoy every day (with the help of my glasses!). Life is a lot more rewarding when it's easy to  focus.

The same can be said about writing. When life gets busy, it's hard to give your writing projects the focus that they need. Sometimes, life doesn't even have to be the distractor--depending on your working style, problems within the project can also make you lose your focus. I've definitely had times when I just couldn't pay attention to my project, couldn't make myself push forward. I used to chew myself out for being lazy. But recently, I realized that the way I write, my brain doesn't allow me to move forward if there are big gaps or problems with the material behind me. I haven't added more than about 100 words to the current scene of my novel in over two weeks: I've been stuck because the two chapters before didn't work and I'd added some new characters that were shallow and boring. I went back and added a bunch of new material, learning a lot about the characters. The book is still growing, and I'm happy.

You see, right now, my life is being particularly distracting. But because I'm still engaging with my work, I'm still getting words down on the page. Last year, when I was working through wedding planning, I failed to identify the real problems within my work, and wound up disengaged from the project. I let myself get sidetracked with life issues, and I also got mad at myself for not working harder on the book. All that accomplished was making me feel really badly about myself.

Don't give up on your writing when you find yourself stalling or struggling. And don't blame your busy life, either. A busy life makes it difficult to concentrate on your writing, but your problems probably stem from your relationship to your characters and the story line. Clearly, the secret is focus!

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Now turn off your computer, go sit in the grass, and write something brilliant.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Got bears?

If you like action and adventure, then buzz on over and catch my new piece "Mother Bears"--it's a 3-part serial, and the grand finale goes up on Wednesday.

Working on this piece was a remarkable challenge. When I approached James Sutter, editor extraordinaire for Paizo, to talk about writing tie-in fiction, I had to admit with some embarrassment that I have never played a single RPG. (My friends are now probably looking at me with dismay.) You'd think that would disqualify me from writing in the field, but when I also admitted I had a tie-in fiction addiction, it seemed to ease our conversation a little. (That's right--if it says "Forgotten Realms" on the cover, I've probably read it.) But still: I had a lot to learn.

My first step in writing this piece was to catch up with the Pathfinder universe. No sweat, right? How big can one world be?

Astonishment, lithograph by Thomas Fairland after W. H. Hunt, c. 1870s


I can't even figure out how many books Pathfinder has. There are three bestiaries, a core rulebook, advanced player guides, creature guides, multiple wikis, web fiction, almost a dozen novels, and probably a lot of other material I've managed to overlook, let alone read. I spent about three weeks plowing through the basic information before I even knew enough to get ideas for a story. And then once I sent a list of story ideas to James, I learned how little I really knew, because a lot of my ideas didn't actually work in the world! I had to go back and revisit the historical timeline and bestiaries and sort out a few things. Then I worked up a solid story idea and drafted it.

I sent the story to James, who kindly helped me learn more about the monsters -- goblins -- that I'd chosen to write about. It turns out that goblins are really interesting characters in the Pathfinder world. In fact, if I was going to play a campaign, I'd definitely want to stumble into a pack of goblins. I mean, if I had quality weapons and some badass friends to back me up. These little guys are vicious and scary! I had to rethink "small" and turn it into "terrifying." Then I had to rewrite my piece. My original story made the goblins out to be trouble, but now I wanted to make them the kind of big trouble that could make a bunch of Viking-like guys crap their pants. (Errr ... breeches?)

To find out if it works, you'll have to read the story. Let's just say that the first draft of the story took a week to write. The second draft didn't get turned in until three months later. (Well, there was a lot of life going on in there, including going to World Fantasy and actually meeting James!) I'm pretty pleased with the results, and I hope to write more fiction in the Pathfinder universe. Why? Because it's such a cool place!

Now if only there were a Pathfinder board game for me to play...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My feet do NOT show it

As you may know if you read the Inkpunks blog, I went to a wonderful poetry class yesterday, full of great insight into poetry revision. The teacher, David Biespiel, proved excellent--easy-going, insightful, interesting--and I look forward to taking more classes with him in the future (money willing!). And I have to say, I am now even more excited about poetry than I was before walking in the door!

It's weird and wonderful to be returning to poetry. The first words that I ever wrote and fell in love with were poems--well, lyrics, actually, to a song/ode to our cat that my kind family members interpreted as a wonderful poem. I was eight, and I loved the way I could fall into the words and feel the world drift away from me. I'd always loved to make up little stories in my mind, but when I wrote poems, the actual words themselves held power. I loved feeling them come together on the page.

It wasn't until college that I began to feel more interested in prose than poetry, and I've really neglected the poetic realm since then. As a kid, I devoured all the poetry in the house, nearly memorizing our collected works of Robert Service and chewing my way through great swathes of Shakespeare's sonnets. (And of course, I'll never forget the poem "Mice," by Rose Fyleman--one of the few pieces I have completely memorized!) It's been wonderful to fall back into reading poetry, which is such a blissful, enchanting experience.

Speaking of enchanting experiences, I'll leave you with a poem that we read in our class. It is easily one of the most amazing things I've ever read, and I thought about it the whole two mile walk home.

by William Meredith

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

Monday, March 19, 2012


My super-terrific friend Katie gave me a blogging award last week! It's the Horseshoe Crab Award for a long-lasting blog. Aww! Thanks, Kt! Here's hoping I keep trundling along, posting every now and then, for a good long time.

If you don't know her, Kt is a talented artist, writer-type, AND classics student. I'm a bit disappointed that my award's title wasn't written in Latin!

Today I am celebrating have 12 pieces of short fiction and poetry out on submission. I feel like I've been doing a lot of hard work and reaching this magical dozen makes me feel great. I've also been making some headway on my novel! Last year I spent most of my time learning and absorbing; this year, I feel like I have the brain space to actually write!

I have also been reading lots of challenging works (Duras, anyone?) and just re-read American Gods. I was re-reading in a more critical fashion than the first time I read it, but I'm considering going back through and charting out the plot points to build my skills. Never hurts to think more about books you like!

Oh--here's a delight: in just a few days, Armored, John Joseph Adams's anthology of power armor and mecha stories, will be released. I can't wait to see the story that Jak Wagner (my adorable brother) and I wrote together. If you're hungry for a sneak peek, there are a few stories on the webpage that you can read in full!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Eating & reading amazing

Ahh, blissful weekend of delicious food for belly and brain. Here's an overview of the chow:
-- Onion Cheese-Swirl Rolls: these tasted like onion rings. I made a batch of bread dough and rolled the dough out into a rectangle. I spread the dough with mayonnaise (trust me) and sprinkled on grated cheddar cheese and lightly salted chopped onion. Then I rolled it all up into a log, sliced the logs into lovely rolls (like a cinnamon roll) and baked until golden brown and delicious.
-- BLT wraps: the best wraps I've made in a really long time! We prepped a mashed-garbanzo bean salad (just a little bit of mayo with lots of pickle relish), added lots of salad mix, chopped tomatoes, tempeh bacon and feta. Could have used some onions, but I was too lazy to chop.

The brain food came mostly from a wonderful newsletter I've been getting from Brain Pickings. It's a wonderfully curated assortment of bits from some of the finest contemporary writers and thinkers--you never know what you'll get to read about, but you will be smarter when you get done.

Feeling smart is a special treat for me these days. I've had the horrible realization that 6 years in a job that does not challenge my intellect is making me stupid. Writing genre fiction has made me a much better word user and more careful reader, but my analytical mind is shriveling. My ability to make successful arguments is wasting away. I worry about what I'll be like in a few more years.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pompom shaker

"Literature must be an axe to smash the frozen sea of the heart." -- Kafka

I think this quote perfectly captures why we read and write, especially in our time, when technology and crowded lives and too much information seems to be deactivating our more tender feelings. (Thinking back on the late 1800s, I am reminded that these things seem to run in cycles. All that poverty and pollution and government corruption!) Literature is a safe place for feelings. You can cuddle up with a book and allow your heart to defrost a bit and nothing terrible will happen.

One of the nice things about spec fic is the gentle way it opens up our hearts. The secondary world aspects of these genres helps us distance ourselves from any overwhelming emotion. And many of the great SF/F books work by crafting characters we love and admire, characters we don't mind sharing our lives with. Genre lit gives more of a tender defrosting than Kafka's steely ax--and I think that's okay. Much of literary fiction seems crafted out of pure cruel truth, bound and determined to show us honest, painful life in a way that resonates in a very strong manner. There are times when I can't take that kind of treatment and would prefer the administrations of a noble, furry-toed hobbit.

But whatever the genre we write, I think we're all on the same team, standing next to the race track and cheering for the runners to feel, FEEL, goddamnit! I can handle being a pompom shaker.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nose. Grindstone. Stuff.

Dang! I've been really boring this month! Mostly, I've been trying to keep up with a few projects that have had me running tired, but I am really excited today. Why? Because I finally started reading A Wizard Abroad, the fourth book in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. The first book in the series, So I Want To Be A Wizard, is one of my very favorite books, and I've been meaning to catch up with the series for a while now.

I'm feeling a real yen to read great mid-grade/young adult books right now. Any recommendations?

Monday, January 30, 2012


Growing up, I knew instinctually that there were two kinds of people in this world: normal people and vegetarians. I also knew without asking that the vegetarian existed in an unholy realm no Wagner should ever dare enter. Just as children of strict Catholic parents know they risk disinheritance if they leave the church, I knew that becoming a vegetarian might create an insurmountable schism between myself and my father.

And yet, I felt pulled to it. Like a theater-loving boy in small-town Texas checking out Sondheim scores at the library, I used my library card to access the stuff of temptation. I found secret treasures in the cookbook section. An illicit thrill prickled up my spine the day I brought home my first vegetarian cookbook, but I was able to hide the titillating vegetarian nature of the recipes from my family, for I had found an ethnic cookbook, charming all of us with exotic ingredients from faraway places. I'd found Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, and it proved to be a gateway drug. It took me a while, but I found my way to become an herbivore.

Now, almost twenty years later, I've been revisiting the Moosewood collection of cookbooks. I've made something out of almost every cookbook they've written, and Sundays remains a favorite. The past three weeks, I've made almost nothing that wasn't a Moosewood recipe (or at least, Moosewood-inspired. If you've read this blog before, you know I can't stick to a recipe for love or money). I'm happy to say that we've eaten like kings.

Vegetarian kings. My dad would laugh his butt off at the thought.

Monday, January 02, 2012


A couple of weeks ago, I was walking with my eight year-old daughter downtown. We passed a store window full of fancy shoes and talked about the different styles. Then as we crossed the street to continue on our way to our library, a man began shouting at me. "Lady," he bellowed, "when I have kids I'm going to protect them from the sick culture you're inflicting on that girl. Bad! Bad! Bad!" He kept shouting until we were out of earshot.

My natural instinct was to push the guy out into on-coming traffic, but I just ignored him. I sort of wish I could have taken him out to coffee and told him just how dumb he was being--not just because he was wrong about me (or I think he's wrong; the reason we were downtown that day were to pick up a pair of shoes from the cobbler, thus instilling the value of repairing over replacing, and to visit the library and the history museum, which I think are pretty worthwhile cultural endeavors), but because he clearly doesn't understand what good parenting is all about.

A good parent knows that we can't protect our kids from our sick culture forever. We live in a country that bombards kids with messages about how to look and how to shop. If I simply kept my daughter under house arrest, or raised her in the wilderness without exposure to store fronts and advertising, I could expect her to enter the world as a very confused young adult. Or a very rebellious one.

Instead, we looked at those fancy-pants shoes together, and I pointed out the fur-lined heeled boots that I wouldn't wear because I can't stand the thought of adorable animals like foxes killed just for fashion. Even though I swooned over the gorgeous stiletto spectators, I had to explain that I'd never wear them because they'd hurt my back and worsen my foot problems, and that looking good isn't worth that kind of price to me. It was a worthwhile conversation about some of the real costs of fashion.

But that guy only saw two females talking about shoes. He didn't see the second-hand clothes or much-repaired clogs or bags full of library books. He didn't hear that thoughtful discussion about shopping or any of our later conversations about Oregon history or banned books. He let himself jump to conclusions.

Of course, if he knew more about us, he would have probably been horrified to know that we headed home to finish playing Resident Evil: Code Veronica.

Because a really good parent wants their kid to be ready for a zombie outbreak.