Monthly Archives: February 2014

Tyler, Texas, USA

BK and I were in Texas last week. It wasn’t a vacation, but the climate was a nice change from what we were used to. Here are some pictures, to give you an idea of the differences.

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Our house, before we left
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Wow. Green shrubbery!

Went for a walk the next day, along Mud Creek.

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Juniper

Juniper grows in Illinois, too, but not like this. Made me want to find a bathtub and start making gin.

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Pansies

I grow pansies in cool weather, too. These Texas pansies look just like the ones in front of my house, only they aren’t covered by 2 feet of snow.

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Daffodil

My daffodils will look like this in 6 weeks. If I’m lucky.

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Chicago, viewed from the plane as we returned
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Home again

Supposedly while we were gone, temperatures rose to the 40s, with torrential rain. We thought we’d come back to less snow than this. Still, it was nice to sleep in our own bed again.

Goodbye, Harold

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Harold Ramis photo by Justin Hoch

I will miss Harold Ramis. I’ve been interested in his career ever since I found out we went to the same university—though years apart. In addition, I spent many of my formative years in the Chicago area, just like Harold.

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Some of my favorite Harold Ramis movies

This was a man who knew how to do the hard work of comedy and make it look easy. Not only was he funny, but his work was never mean-spirited. It was character-driven comedy, which is my favorite kind. What I appreciate most about it is that it wasn’t the comedy of awkwardness. I’ve laughed at Steve Carell’s character in The Office, but I always felt guilty about it. I seldom (if ever) that way about the characters in Harold Ramis’s comedies. Malcolm Jones wrote a thoughtful celebration of Groundhog Day in The Daily Beast. I invite you to take a look.

If I could even begin to figure out how he managed to do what he did, I’d take a shot at it myself. For now, all I can do is admire him and be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy his work as a writer, director and actor. Thanks for the laughs, Harold. Thanks for Groundhog Day.

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A true classic

Rest in peace.

Um…Little Help Here?

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Okay, sometimes it’s not easy

I’ve written a few posts talking about what I do to keep writing. After fielding a few responses, I realized that what I’ve posted up to now were pretty much along the lines of “Just do it.”

People wrote or grabbed me to say, “Hey! I’ve tried to write (or exercise) on a regular schedule and I just can’t keep it up. It’s all very well for you to say, “Just do it.” What if that doesn’t work for me?”

Fair question. Developing good habits is hard. Getting rid of bad habits is hard. Anyone who pretends otherwise is an annoying prig, like this girl I knew in high school, Angel McPrissyface. Here’s the background: I experimented my junior and senior years with smoking a cigarette while walking into a liquor store, hoping that smoking made me look old enough to buy alcohol. Since beer-and-wine age in Illinois at that time was something like 19, it worked better than it probably would nowadays. Ah, my halcyon youth! But the point isn’t that I was a degenerate who bought alcohol before I was old enough to drink legally. The point is, I was a degenerate who learned to smoke.

If you have never smoked, I cannot possibly convey how addictive nicotine is. By the time I was halfway into my freshman year of college, I was definitely a smoker. So: I smoked for maybe a year, maybe a year and a half. It took nearly as long to quit as it did to get hooked. I might still be smoking if BK, who I was dating at the time, refused to kiss me as long as I smoked. No question, kissing beats smoking.

Anyway, while I was home from college that summer, kissing was not an available smoking substitute. I was in Illinois, and BK was in Tennessee. I mentioned to someone I knew, who was still in high school, that I was having a hell of a time quitting. She put this prissy look on her face and said, “Well I never started!” as if I ought to give her a medal, or at least a cookie. Good thing I had a friend who heard the exchange and said Angel McPrissyface was an annoying little prig. Which she was.

I would like not to be like Angel; definitely not the kind of person who says things like, “Just do it.” (Sorry, Nike, but seriously). In the service of that ideal, I am coming clean. I didn’t always write every day, or exercise 5-6 days a week. I started the exercise habit first, and eventually got around to the writing habit.

And here’s something else I hate to admit. Unlike Stephen King, I don’t write 2000 words of usable fiction every day. I write at least 750 words of something. Sometimes it is dreck: just a mind dump. That’s certainly how I started. Or sometimes what I write is a blog post, like this one. I hope this isn’t dreck, but I’m not in a position to judge.

Finally, after well over two years of using 750words.com faithfully, the proportion of fiction to dreck is slooowly inching in the direction of more fiction, less dreck. Usually that happens best in November, or any other time when I’m able to write 2000 (or so) words daily, rather than just 750. Even so, much of that fiction might be a later draft, and much of what I’m doing in a later draft is actually cutting words I’ve written earlier. Transforming myself into a prolific fiction writer is definitely a work in progress.

So…I belatedly realized that when I posted (in my 3-Legged Stool entries) some of the reading I’ve found helpful , I left one really important book out:

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The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit may or may not help you, but it was a relatively quick read, and it got me back on track when I hit a rough patch.

But let’s say you don’t want to buy the book or you’re too busy (or cold, if you live by me)  to go to the library. Here are a couple of interesting posts on using the peculiarities of your brain to trick yourself into good habits:

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Graphic from Robbie Blair’s site

I liked this post by Robbie Blair. He offers 14 ways to make it easier to start a writing habit. He mentions Charles Duhigg’s book, too, so maybe it’s not just me.

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Graphic from Wait But Why site

And this post by Tim Urban (maybe with help from Andrew Finn?) was entertaining and seemed to have more than a kernel of truth about procrastination.

Whatever Happened to Sharyn McCrumb?

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Sharyn McCrumb photograph by Jerry Bauer

I started thinking about Sharyn McCrumb after reading this post from Medusa’s Library. While talking about a section of The Hunger Games, she mentions a book called The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. It’s set in East Tennessee. I was immediately filled with a desire to read this book, partly because it sounds cool, and partly because I’m always looking for books set in East Tennessee. In a pinch western North Carolina or southwest Virginia will also do.

I married into a love for that region.  My husband BK is from East Tennessee, and he still misses it, years after moving away. We go back pretty often, but usually it’s to help take care of an aging relative, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to really get out and appreciate the beauties of the area. But that’s what books are for, right?

Anyway, now I can’t wait to read The Hum and the Shiver, just as soon as I can get to the library. Just the fact that it exists made me nostalgic for Sharyn McCrumb’s books, and I that’s what got me wondering whatever happened to her.  Full disclosure: I don’t know her personally, and haven’t kept up with her writing as well as I ought.

BK & I first started reading Sharyn McCrumb when she wrote a couple of novels – the Jay Omega series – for TSR. This would have been back in the very early 90s.  Her first novel was Bimbos of the Death Sun, published in 1988. The next novel of hers that I read was Zombies of the Gene Pool. It’s a mark of both BK’s and my geekiness that we first became aware of her work through what she wrote for TSR. They’re set in the world of  role-play gamers and science fiction/fantasy fans, which is irretrievably what we were back in those days. It’s interesting to me that we didn’t become aware of her Elizabeth McPherson novels until we started reading a lot more mysteries.

We kind of lost track of Sharyn McCrumb after we ran out of Elizabeth McPherson novels. Part of that is because her Ballad Novels, for which she is arguably best known, are more difficult to read than some of her lighter works. In addition, I think our library was slow to acquire her later books (post ~1998), possibly because she was more on people’s radar around 1995, when she won just about every mystery award there is for She Walks These Hills.

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When we did start reading the Ballad Novels, they were gorgeous, the kind of book that made BK think longingly of home. They were also a welcome antidote to the kind of portrayal one usually sees of mountain people, wherein they might be called hillbillies. These portrayals are wearisome and irksome in the extreme. Sharyn McCrumb knows and loves these people. You can hear the voices of mountain people in her work. Yet she never does a caricature; her characters seem real and wonderful.

So the answer to the question of “Whatever happened to Sharyn McCrumb?” is answered. Thank you, Internet! She hasn’t gone anywhere. I haven’t read her for a while, but I want to go back and pick up some of her novels I’ve missed. Whenever I need to revisit East Tennessee, she’ll be there.

I’m looking forward to reading Alex Bledsoe, too. I can only hope The Hum and the Shiver takes me back to East Tennessee they way Sharyn McCrumb’s books do.

Write A Random Story With Cheryl!

When we were at Capricon, Cheryl and I went to a panel called The Short Story As Art Form, with Donald J. Bingle, Clifford Royal Johns, Kelly Swails, and Joy Ward. Afterwards, Cheryl said she might be interested in trying her hand at short stories, but it would be easier if she were writing them to order. That is, if her friends assigned her stories to write within certain parameters, she’d find it easier to get started.

No problem. I love telling other people what to do. I could have gone to the internet for ideas. There are plenty o’ writing prompt generators out there, like Language is a Virus and Adam Maxwell’s. However, I created this story randomizer for her, just because it’s fun to come up with lists and categories.

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Happy Valentine’s Day, Cheryl!

Here are the rules:

Pick at least 2 (and up to 5) of the following categories:

  • Genre
  • Character
  • Attribute
  • Problem
  • Setting

Once you’ve decided how many categories you want constraining you, pull out your gaming dice, if you have them. If you don’t have many-sided dice, you can use an online random number generator, like this one. Roll whichever kind of dice the category calls for, and note the result.

Genre (roll a 10-sided dice)

  1. western
  2. traditional fantasy
  3. urban fantasy
  4. magic realism
  5. science fiction
  6. steam punk
  7. mystery
  8. thriller
  9. paranormal
  10. romance

Character (roll a 20-sided dice)

  1. orphan
  2. wizard
  3. soldier
  4. peasant
  5. king or queen
  6. prince or princess
  7. charlatan
  8. rogue
  9. priest
  10. teacher
  11. lawyer
  12. accountant
  13. witch
  14. vampire
  15. giant
  16. engineer
  17. sociopath
  18. doctor
  19. artist
  20. crime boss

Attribute (roll a 20-sided dice)

  1. beautiful
  2. brave
  3. cowardly
  4. blind
  5. deaf
  6. mute
  7. wise
  8. selfish
  9. intelligent
  10. stupid
  11. greedy
  12. generous
  13. meek
  14. arrogant
  15. vain
  16. humble
  17. officious
  18. helpful
  19. curious
  20. blasé

Problem (roll a 10-sided dice)

  1. theft
  2. natural disaster (e.g., hurricane, earthquake, flood)
  3. killing
  4. unrequited love
  5. a lie
  6. betrayal
  7. illness
  8. old age
  9. separation from (a) loved one(s)
  10. the apocalypse

Setting (roll a 20-sided dice)

  1. city or village
  2. forest or jungle
  3. farm or ranch
  4. temple or church
  5. battlefield
  6. hospital
  7. office
  8. coffee shop
  9. mountain
  10. shore
  11. space station
  12. abandoned ruins
  13. haunted house
  14. locked room
  15. laboratory
  16. cemetery
  17. ship
  18. polar wilderness
  19. castle
  20. school

I’d hate for Cheryl to get bored, so I rolled for every last freaking category. My results were 9, 15, 17, 2, and 9, in that order.

So: I am suggesting she write a paranormal story about an officious giant who’s dealing with a natural disaster on a mountain.

Here’s what I’d do if I were Cheryl: I’d ask me who I thought I was kidding. However, I might roll my own results and see if I could live with the story the dice suggested. Or…I might just look at the lists and pick my favorite answer for each category, or otherwise come up with a combination I found interesting. If I ever find out what Cheryl did with this little exercise, I’ll let you know.

A Squee for Capricon

I was angst-y all last week leading up to Capricon. One reason I write is because it’s good work for an introvert and (I keep having to explain this to people!) I’m pretty introverted. Despite this tendency, I’m trying to get out and meet other writers. I worked on getting people from The Writing Journey to come with me; I also whinged at my husband BK, and my BFF, Cookie. It was no go, from everybody. *Sighs*

When I registered, I had no idea who’d appear besides the Guests of Honor. It wasn’t expensive, as these things go, so I figured, what the hell. My sister lives ten minutes from the con site, so I could crash with her for free, and spend a little time with her and my puppy nephew, Seamus.

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Me, petting my sister’s dog

I also don’t get to see enough of Bill and Cheryl Cavalier. They go every year, so this was my chance to remedy that.

So here’s what happened. I ended up seeing Gene Wolfe from a safe distance. I didn’t get his autograph on An Evil Guest, as I had hoped. Lord willing, he’ll be at the next Capricon and I can corner him then. Maybe I’ll even remember to bring some of his other books, and he can sign those, too.

I actually got to talk to Mary Anne Mohanraj and Wesley Chu for a few minutes. They couldn’t have been nicer. Mary Anne actually invited me to a pot luck for local writers. I’d give an ovary to attend, except that I’ll be out of town taking care of somebody, and I won’t be back in time to go. *Pouts*

And now we approach the Super-Squee part. I found out some time after registering that Mary Robinette Kowal would be there. I first learned about Mary in 2012 around the time I decided to get serious about writing. Again. That’s a long story.

Anyway, Mary’s novella, “Kiss Me Twice”, was on the Hugo ballot,  so I read it. I’ve read more of her work since then, of course, including several of her Glamourist Histories novels,  her Hugo-winning short story, “For Want of a Nail”, and Hugo-nominated short story, “Evil Robot Monkey”. Around that time I also started listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts, which I recommend unreservedly to anyone who’s interested in writing, irrespective of their preferred genres.

Anyway, you know what people say about Mary? They say, “Everyone loves Mary.”

After taking an online short story workshop with her in November and seeing her at Capricon, I totally get it. The online workshop was so good I registered to take an in-person workshop she’s offering this June.

So I accosted her at Capricon and said hi, and she recognized me from the tiny image of me that showed up in Google Hangouts. She signed my copy of Glamour in Glass. So far, pleasant but not unexpected, right? However, Saturday was Mary’s 45th birthday. In addition to just talking with her – if you haven ‘t done that, you have no notion how pleasant that can be – she offered cake and party favors to those who stopped by. I indulged in both. The cake was a lemon pound cake her mother baked and shipped to her. It was fragrant and delicious. The party favors were elegant, Jane-Austen-themed temporary tattoos.

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My elegant tattoo

And then…Mary invited me to her birthday party! Squee!

I got to stop by her room later that evening for scotch and nibbles. Her husband Rob was charming, as were the other guests. We talked about City Winery (where Rob works), travel, other conventions, and writing. It was all extremely classy. You want to know how classy? If we ever start offering knighthoods and dameships (is that a thing?) in the United States, Mary would be a prime candidate.

Oh, there was programming and stuff. I went to some. I liked a lot of it.

Bill tied for first place in the Artist Showdown, and celebrated by doing some kickass harp playing at Live Band Karaoke. Cheryl and I talked writing and generally gossiped.

So that was my Capricon.

Um, did I say “Squee!”?

Woo-Hoo! Free Story!

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An anthology of dreams

Getting ready for Capricon, and I have miles to go before I sleep. So, huzzah! Today is free fiction day on CB’s Mojo. I’m sharing a story that previously appeared in an anthology produced by The Journey.

The anthology, Drops of Midnight, was edited by Steven White. About a dozen of us (including such luminaries as Tim Yao and Katherine Lato) contributed. Here’s the teaser from the back cover:

In the dark alleys and gaslit pubs of lower London you can buy almost anything—including dreams.

Here you can purchase small glass bottles offering tales stolen from the subconscious. Taste the longing and regret of a woman escaping her father’s fate and trying to live up to his memory. Experience the dreams of a child trapped in a coma, needing to fly. Feel the pain and nobility of a dreamer living through the Holocaust, or a general on the eve of battle. Some dreams are surreal encounters, like meeting a faded celebrity; others are dark nightmares, like a demon torturing a man for his past. One woman daydreams of a lost loved one; another man makes a bargain that may cost him his dreams.

Sample a bottle of stolen dreams—twelve stories spanning time and place from writers exploring daydreams and nightmares.

Be careful which one you open…

This is how my story begins:

Belarus Lost
In honor of the Belarus Free Theatre

This isn’t my room.

Every morning it takes me awhile to remember that I’m not home. Only it isn’t morning yet. The only light in the room comes from a tiny amber LED on my cell phone as it charges.

My roommate and fellow actor, Elizaveta, snores softly in the next bed, undisturbed by whatever roused me. Of course, I wasn’t fully asleep. I haven’t slept well since we escaped.

We barely got out of Minsk with our skins intact. I’m still waiting for my body to release all the fear and tension of those last miserable days, when we didn’t know how many of us would get away, and how many would spend the next fifteen years—maybe more—in prison. Assuming we lived through the interrogations, that is.

Mercifully, all nine of us made it to New York. The play that we risked everything to perform was well received. Our American hosts praised our bravery and provided a house for us to stay in. They’ve also been trying to help us figure out what to do when the month-long theatre festival for which we were booked is over. One after another, they present solutions for us to consider. Aleksey and Natalya, our leaders, enthusiastically examine every idea they offer.

Our situation has begun to exhaust me. When I am away from the others, I wonder why I didn’t just seek work as an office clerk or a waitress. At least waitresses aren’t imprisoned for doing their jobs. But no, I had to have the magical electricity of the theatre, the thrill of passionate discussions late into the night, the certainty that our plays, which dramatize Lukashenko’s worst abuses, would save our country from his dictatorship. And finally, as it turned out, the necessity to flee if we wanted to reveal the truth about Lukashenko’s regime to a wider audience.

I don’t mean to make a sound, but something like a moan escapes my lips. Elizaveta stirs. If she finds me awake, she’ll ask what’s wrong and try to comfort me. I don’t think I can take that again. I’m tired of being the only one in our group who can’t seem to cope. I creep out of our room and close the door.

Now I don’t know what to do. I’m too jumpy to even consider sleeping. I thought a noise must have awakened me, but though I strain my ears, I hear nothing but the night traffic outside. I can’t just cower in the hallway. Of course no one is downstairs, but I won’t be able to relax until I’ve made sure.

I steal down the stairs in thick socks, wearing the old bathrobe that still smells of my mother’s potato babka. This house, lent to us by one of the rich New York theatre people, smells of a strong, scented cleaning product covering up mold, or old dust.

I look first into the dark kitchen. Nothing moves. I could turn on a light, but the street lamps outside, reflecting off a recent snowfall, provide enough light for me to be sure no one is in there.

Through a swinging door, I see no one in the deserted dining room. The living room, filled with mismatched, sagging furniture, lies across the central hall. I’m almost done making certain I’m the only one down here, but I won’t be able to let my breath out until I’ve checked the last room. I move back into the hall and approach the last door, which opens onto the library. And then I see.

The door is ajar. I push it open and go in. The room is so cold my breath comes in sharply. Immediately I see the reason, but the shock makes me unable to speak or scream. A window is fully open and a light-haired man helps a dark-haired, bearded companion over the sill and into the room.

To continue reading, click here.

If you’re interested in the rest of the anthology, here it is on Amazon.