Category: Writing

A November Pledge

It’s the first of November. It’ll be one of busiest months I’ve had in as long as I can remember, and I’m sitting on the bus to work, typing this blog post instead of getting to work on any of the many things that will fill every minute of these next thirty days.

Because I just sat for about fifteen minutes and meditated. Specifically, I followed a guided meditation from the 10% Happier app, which has become a staple of my daily life over the last month or so. In this series, about developing emotional agility, meditators are asked to examine their feelings from a neutral perspective; to learn to identify the feelings, then identify how those feelings affect us. It’s a bit meta, to say “how do I feel about being angry?” or “am I okay with this frustration?” but I’ve also found it to be informative.

This morning, I identified anxiety in myself, a common thing, as I’m medicated for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The difference this morning’s meditation was that I knew what I’m feeling anxious about, and how I feel about that anxiety.

I feel resigned to it. The anxiety sparked by my fervent desire to “win” NaNoWriMo (by writing a 50,000 word novel this month), something I’ve never done despite years of trying. I have already resigned myself to the failure that will no doubt announce itself on November 29, as my 5000-word attempt at a new novel joins its companions in my growing trunk of unfinished stories, and I take my traditional two-to-three month sabbatical from writing at all, sparked by the feelings of failure and disappointment that NaNo brought, compounded by seeing so many people I respect succeeding. Shame at their kind words, confusion that they respect me as a writer when I can’t sit down and do the damn thing.

But then, something else happened, which hasn’t happened before. I thought about the prep work that I put into this year’s NaNo effort. I thought about the experiences I had only a few months ago, on the Writing Excuses Cruise and at Worldcon, where my status as a writer never came into question. I was a writer there. I am a writer here.

I thought about the new friends I made on that journey, and the things I learned from them, About my instructors, whose candid acknowledgement of the same anxieties that I experience around my writing was both a shock and a comfort. About my writing-world friends from before those experiences, in whom I’ve found inspiration and camaraderie. But before I delve into a cheesier realm than is necessary for this exercise, I’ll stop myself and say this: I recognized that the anxiety is there, I recognized why it’s there, and I recognized how I can circumvent its effects on me…hell, maybe even use them to my advantage.

I’ve got my outline, my tools, and my community. And I’ve got my anxiety to keep me honest.

And for now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to start writing.

On Travels and Withdrawal

Is it possible to experience withdrawal from a trip?

It must be, since I’ve been feeling symptoms that I’d label withdrawal since returning from Europe about four weeks ago. It’s likely a combination of things: my partner, her brother, and most of our friends were away at a Certain Desert Shenanigans festival, leaving me plenty of time with my thoughts; and I just started a new job, so even though I’ve got plenty of time to myself, most of it has been consumed with adjusting to the implications of that new role.

But that isn’t an explanation of why I’m feeling the way I feel. It’s the setting in which those feelings have the opportunity to metastasize. To grow tentacles and explore the boundaries of their cage, to prod and test the limits of their power over my day to day.

It might seem strange to bestow agency and cancerous identity to these feelings. After all, you may find yourself asking, didn’t I have an amazing time?

I did. An overwhelming, immensely educational, mind-altering, perception-shifting, notion-rewriting time on my trip. And I came back to my life in the “default world”—as the Burners like to call it—and didn’t have the space I didn’t think I’d need to integrate those new pieces of me into this life.

How can I take the part of me that drank in the community like fuel, that ate up every spark of inspiration, that stoked the furnace that grew in me with reckless vigor, and fit it into the rest of this me, the one with the new commute and the past-due veterinary appointment?

Maybe one of the reasons it’s been more difficult than I’d anticipated is because the farther away I get from that space, both physically and emotionally, the more I think of it as the time I pretended to be a writer. I fooled so many of you, my new friends. Here you thought I was one of you, but I can’t hold a candle to y’all.

Part of me knows that’s absurd, and that I’m breaking one of the more important rules I learned on the journey, but I don’t have you with me to slap my wrist, crew! I’m here with my cats and my thoughts and there’s nobody who can stop this imposter train from barreling through.

So in an effort to stem the bleeding I am going to write about the trip, finally. Maybe it’ll remind me that I am one of you, after all.

###

Up until the minute Krystal dropped me off at the airport, I was terrified. I’d already spent the money—lots of it—on this trip, and I didn’t know anyone who would be there, at least personally. I’d be going to places I had never been, on a cruise for the first time (which I’d had reservations about anyway), to be a Writer in Public for what felt like the first time. (This isn’t entirely sensible, since I had been to a convention and had been working as a writer in the corporate space for nearly nine years. But feelings aren’t supposed to make sense, are they?)

But something changed when the car door closed and Krystal pulled away. I remembered what it felt like to travel, and to travel alone. I remembered that I love it. I was energized and ready to go.

On the first flight, to Copenhagen, I sat next to a young woman who was traveling out of the country for the first time, for a five-month study abroad program in Denmark. Her whole family was with her, but she wasn’t able to sit with them. We chatted a bit, mostly about her studies. When she asked what I was doing I kept it brief. A writing retreat. No, I didn’t know anyone else who was going on the trip. She said the idea terrified her. I told her I’d felt the same way until about two hours before we started chatting, and we laughed. I can’t remember her name.

After about seventeen hours of travel, I was in Kiel, a port city in northern Germany, standing on front of the hotel and deliriously recalling my reservations about the whole trip from the departures curb at SFO. All these new people, and what if my writing is garbage compared to all of them, it definitely is garbage, oh no, what have I done, now I’m Germany with all these people who will take turns telling me I should quit and they’re probably all very tall and this was all a mistake and maybe it isn’t too late to turn around and…

And I walked into the hotel, somewhat unhinged from the journey, and wholly unprepared for what lay in store for me.

I met my roommate, Travis (about whom I’ll share more, later), and went down to the opening event—a welcome and brief tutorial on how we’d go about boarding the ship. I saw people I recognized, but didn’t know personally. Authors I admire greatly, but hadn’t met personally. It was strange, to feel like I knew these people, but to know that because of our our long, asynchronous, one-way conversation, I was a stranger to them. Not for long, though.

That first evening was about meet-and-greets and learning to write through (and despite) fear. To understand that the fears that keep our fingers from putting words to paper can be looked at and analyzed (somewhat) objectively, and that we can develop techniques that allow us to either ignore those fears, or compartmentalize them, appreciate their strange value, and continue doing the work. It was an excellent way to start the trip.

The following day we made our way to the ship, the boarding of which could be called an ordeal, which in turn was overshadowed by the absurdity of walking onto what was, essentially, SpaceVegas.

Let me explain. The cruise ship’s ostentation was more than a little tacky, to the point where I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud when I finally made it through the various stages of boarding and saw the interior for the first time. It was like this Italian cruise ship line took their idea of what Vegas is, mashed it together with a single viewing of a Star Trek episode (for their signage and some of the decor) and said “yeah, that’s a good motif for our vessel, let’s go with that.”

I’ve made no secret of my newfound distaste for cruising (as you might recall from a certain poem published on this very blog), but that’s more a “me” thing than a “cruise” thing, I imagine. See, I used to have chronic vertigo as a result of stress-induced vestibular migraines, and a week on a cruise ship felt like being on the verge of a vertigo episode for nearly 24 hours a day. Not terribly fun. That being said, I will absolutely be going on a cruise again, next year, to attend the 2018 Writing Excuses Retreat. Because it was just that good.

Rather than go into the details of every day on the cruise, and our various stops along the way, I’ll go into what I’ve taken away from the retreat—which I recently did orally on that there podcast I have.

The retreat was unlike anything I’d done before. To be surrounded by a group of peers who’ve all signed up to take part in this creative growth, together, was motivating in a way I could never have anticipated. To hear their stories, both fictional and personal, to see them at work, to understand each other on a fundamental level, was overwhelming. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I was really part of a community. Sure, I have love, friendship, and community here and in other spaces in my life, but there was something different about this one. Writing is a personal, vulnerable, deeply strange thing, and to share it wordlessly (ironic?) with this group was like having a boulder lifted from my shoulders. I never knew I carried it until it wasn’t there. Instead of hedging my nerdiness in regards to writing, as I often do in the real world, here I was free to be me, and my own aforementioned nerdiness could barely hold a candle compared to the group at large. I had so much to learn from these people, and the only tragedy is that I had but one week to work with.

The instructors were fantastic. Caring, careful, intelligent, sensitive, available people who had no reason to be, other than that we share something outside of our relative levels of success. I got to finally talk to these people—these people—and they treated me like one of their own, no questions asked.

I got to pester John Berlyne with questions I never knew I had about agents, and rather than brush me aside he came and found me after his session so that I could ask the rest of the questions bouncing around in my head. I got to see Wesley Chu, delighted at finding his own books on the shelves of one of the best SFF bookstores I’ve been to in the world (in Old Town Stockholm), and I shared in that excitement with him—with a frikkin’ Campbell winner! I got to ask Tempest Bradford about my story, and she gave me such amazing feedback that I doubt I’ll ever forget our conversation. I got to know Thomas Olde Heuvelt and David Samwel, terrific people who shepherded me into meeting some of my idols at Worldcon. I got to sit down for an amicable lunch with Aliette de Bodard, who asked about my work with genuine interest, which lead to a long conversation about the nature of mortality and grief. I got to laugh with Dan Wells and his daughter, Audrey, about the boat-related shenanigans.

And that’s saying nothing of my classmates, who were every bit as stimulating and helpful as the instructors. I especially want to give a hat-tip to Travis Sullivan, my roommate on the ship, whose no-nonsense approach to solving story problems helped me break through on more than one idea that had been plaguing me prior to the trip. Also he somehow got me to go to the gym at 6am, which is a thing nobody has ever been able to make me do. Go figure.

Even if I went through the retreat moment by moment, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I think I’ve done a good enough job at showing how meaningful it was for me, though, so I’ll move on to Helsinki and Worldcon.

###

Arriving back in Kiel was surreal. The week on the ship had been both an eternity and a blip, and I was glad to be rid of the boat part of the ordeal. A week is a long time to spend thinking about writing all day, and while I felt ready for a breather, I wished that after a weekend of exploring I could go back to another week of retreat. But I had a flight to catch the following morning, to Finland.

That evening I went for a walk through Kiel with Yvette Keller and Mark Bessey, a wonderful couple from Santa Barbara with whom I felt immediately at home. We had an excellent (non-vegan, sorry) dinner, after which we returned to the hotel for the night. They were heading on the Castle Tour (epic, right?) with others from the WXR group, while I was heading directly to Finland to pretend I lived there for a week.

Helsinki is a wonderful city. It’s like a cross between Manhattan and San Francisco, but with a fraction of the population. Amazing food, beautiful architecture, water, parks, excellent public transit—Helsinki’s got it all. Not to mention that it was substantially more diverse than I’d anticipated. I saw mixed-race and interfaith families happily strolling about, like it was no big deal (because it is no big deal) and was refreshed. Granted, it’s more than likely that I’m applying a certain rose-colored lens to the place, but I was happily surprised by the positive commingling of cultures and backgrounds that surrounded me. I mean, I’m in a mixed-race relationship in Oakland, and I’ve gotten dirty looks walking down the street with Krystal, my partner. Go figure.

During the week leading up to Worldcon I explored Helsinki, eating delicious food and taking long walks, getting a bit lost and finding my way home—the kind of solo travel I prefer. I connected with folks from the cruise as they trickled into Helsinki, hitting up an Irish bar for a bluegrass band (that played R&B covers), or eating literally the best meal of my life (shoutout to Nina and Dan for sharing that with me). Suffice it to say that I had a love affair with Heksinki, and while I would love to return, I have no idea when the next opportunity will present itself.

Worldcon was huge, overwhelming, and as different as possible from the retreat, but valuable for a completely different set of reasons. I had an overfull itinerary planned out, with sessions overlapping each other throughout every day of the convention. But I didn’t account for the volume of attendees, the difficulty of getting into the rooms, and the general anxiety that comes from being squeezed through a fire hazard of a hallway while trying to beat the rush so that you’re not greeted by a “Room Full” sign on the door.

After the first panel I attended—in which every seat was taken, as was the standing room along the walls, and the floor space in front of the standers—I decided to forgo rushing to any other panels. I moseyed down toward the cafe, which turned out to be where I’d spend the bulk of my time over the next four days.

I was immediately greeted by one of the instructors from the cruise, who introduced me casually to the gentleman he was standing with, who turned out to be a Hugo-winning author of an excellent novella. From there, I was walked to a table full of kind folks who were more than happy to have me join them to chat. Only once we’d already been laughing did I learn that they, too, were quite successful authors, all with deals for forthcoming or in-progress series with major publishers.

And so Worldcon passed, with me bouncing from group to group, always feeling welcomed and treated as a contemporary, to the point where Charlie Jane Anders, who must have recognized me from a reading a few weeks earlier in Berkeley, asked where I’ve been published, why I looked so familiar, and if she’d read my work. It was surreal. I met so many authors and editors I admire and schmoozed with celebrities of my world, and it was the most normal thing in the world.

Worldcon had its ups and downs—downs being the somewhat broken mechanism of the event, ups being the incredible networking opportunities it provided—but I credit the success of that event entirely to having attended the Writing Excuses cruise. I felt like I was a member of a secret cabal of writers. Everywhere I turned I saw a familiar face, and was comforted. An environment that normally would have terrified me—an overcrowded convention full of tall people and lines and whatnot—became thrilling. Who would I see next? Who would I meet through them?

Worldcon came and went quickly, and I left with a huge list of books to buy, authors to catch up on, and friends to add to my various social media channels. By the time I was getting ready to fly back to the states, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I felt like I’d gotten a taste of the life I’ve been wanting to live for so long; a Writer among Writers, engaging with the creative content that means the world to me.

On the other hand, I was heading back home, to see my love, our cats, and to start a new job with one of the most exciting companies in the history of technology. A true win-win.

###

I look back on a particularly dark stretch of time, in my early 20s, wherein I didn’t have a clue where I was headed creatively or professionally, living paycheck-to-paycheck despite having a corporate job in entertainment.

I was terrified of settling for a life that amounted to a creative void, an endless chase of the illusion of success that would always move just out of reach. Of defining myself by my paychecks, and not by the substance of my interests. Of seeking the same kind of lobotomy that only substance abuse or self-help cults can provide. I worried that I was stuck on a path that led in a spiral, ever downward and ending somewhere too dark to contemplate.

One day, driving home and talking to my dad on the phone, crying and trembling with this overwhelming fear—as I did on far too many days back then—I set myself an ultimatum. I told my dad that I did not want to be having the same conversation when I turned 30. That I wanted to know what I wanted to do and how I would get there, that I would feel comfortable with who I became, with the plans I’ll have set for myself, that I would be proud of myself, and that my family would be proud of me.

I turn 30 in January. I’ve grown my book review blog into a “thing” that has fostered opportunities I’d never have anticipated. I have a new job, working for one of the biggest and most successful companies of all time. My title there is Writer. And I attended the Writing Excuses retreat, which left me feeling like I’d been strapped to a rocket and shot into the sun. And instead of bursting into flame, the great ball of pulsating energy reached out, collected me, and brought me into itself, all warmth and belonging and light.

I can see where I was then and where I am now, but if you asked me how I achieved the goal I set myself those years ago, I couldn’t answer. I don’t know.

But I’m glad I’m here.

2k to 10k – Rachel Aaron

Given that the podcast I’m on recommended this book almost a half-dozen times, I decided it would be prudent to read Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. 

So I did. And I’m glad we’ve been recommending it so heartily. The book is short and to the point, focusing on the author’s experience raising her own writing efficiency to (some might say) inhuman levels. 10,000 words a day is massive. It’s more than I write in a good week. And it’s what Rachel Aaron manages daily.

Her techniques for achieving that daily feat are not opaque magical rituals, nor do they require ritual sacrifice—much to the possible chagrin of folks hoping for a “secret sauce” to writing lots and lots of words. Rather, she has a three-part plan that she claims can double word counts.

I won’t dig into the details here, because the book can be read in an afternoon, but suffice it to say that the tips come down to time, enthusiasm, and knowledge. Not rocket science, necessarily, but when you have a strong sense of what you’re going to write, why you want to write it, and you make the time for it, you are guaranteed to get more work done than if you sit down to work without a game plan.

The most helpful thing in the book ties into something that’s been on my mind for a few months, since a particular episode of Writing Excuses aired. Specifically, it has to do with treating writing more like a fine art practice. Rachel Aaron’a take on this topic is simple: take the concept of a thumbnail sketch—wherein artists make a very small, abbreviated sketch of what they intend to work on prior to beginning—and translate it to your writing. Before you sit down with your draft, take five minutes to briefly write out what you’re going to write; get yourself from point A to B in brief, and discover if there are any hangups before you’re deep in word-selection mode.

2k to 10k is loaded with tips, most of which may seem like common sense, but the benefits of reading the effects of a carefully considered writing strategy cannot be minimized. If you’re a writer who is looking to improve your productivity at the page, you need to read this book.

2k to 10k is available on Amazon.

A Pivotal Moment, a Wobbly Boat, and Adventure

I’m sitting in a cafe-slash-brewery-slash-eatery on the corner of Frederikinkatu and another long-named street. It’s just about 6pm, and the sun is beaming on a diverse, alive, beautiful city I’m visiting for the first time. Helsinki is breathtaking and relatable. It is ancient and new. Also, it has pulled moose sandwiches, which…like…I mean, moose. To eat.

They’ve also got some fantastic vegan options, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Writing Excuses Retreat ended on…was that Saturday? It’s hard to say, because time has blurred on this trip, but I’ve been in Helsinki a couple days now, and though I’m not even halfway through processing the wonder that was the writing retreat, I do have something I thought would be fun to share with you. As we were preparing to disembark from our ship—and summarily delayed in that, of course—I began writing a poem, inspired by Dr. Seuss, about my experience. While it might be a “you had to be there” situation, it might still make you smile.

Enjoy.

#

“I do not like this boat,” I said.

“I do not like this boat,” I said,

“This shaking goes straight to my head.”

The golden-vested staffer nodded,

Then carried on, ‘till poked and prodded,

I gave to him my cruise ship card

And purchased water, how bizarre!

 

Photographers go to and fro,

Refusing every plea to “go!”

See, they insist on shutter-bugging

Despite our efforts at mean-mugging,

Making dinner time a chore,

But with our company, not a bore.

 

For Writers, we, have a strange power,

To take all moments, sweet and sour,

Transform them into story fodder,

All our darlings, which we slaughter.

Which we learned to do, with glee,

From Cleaver’s sociopathy.

 

The elevators, quelle horreur!

No semblance of any ordeur,

Though push the button, you did try,

The elevators pass you by.

And when they did decide to stay,

Inaccessible were they.

 

See, other patrons were quite different,

From the world over, wide and distant.

With several customs, strange and new:

An inability to queue,

And smoke in every nook and cranny,

Be they near a child or granny.

 

Excursions to fantastic cities,

Copenhagen’s castle, pretty!

Stockholm’s old town, with it’s bookstore,

Tallin’s KGB enclosure,

St. Petersburg was not so droll,

Because of the passport control.

 

Within the ship, we writers learned,

New concepts in our minds were burned,

And challenges came on the daily,

To write—or not, so cockamamie!

Some writers’ fingers were too restive

Those final word-counts were impressive!

 

But let’s go back, friends, to the shaking,

That oh-so-ever-present quaking!

Fantasia bucked and leaned and wobbled,

My brains inside my skull were boggled,

So if I left an odd impression,

Please forgive me. Did I mention?

 

This was my first, my only cruise,

And while the ship, that cursed un-muse,

Did its best to turn me dour,

I was impervious, ripe with power!

Because of you, my tribe, my crew,

My stable point in world askew.

 

You welcomed me, and took me in,

A stranger, one not free from sin,

Unkempt a tad, unbathéd, too,

You forged me into something new!

For I, like you, do not “aspire,”

I’m proud to call myself a “Writer.”

#

 

What a magnificent experience. I still can’t believe some of it actually happened.

New Video: Author Tag!

My friend Elayna tagged me in a YouTube game/challenge/greeting called “Author Tag,” wherein writers answer ten questions about themselves. A sort of “get to know me” video. My submission, for your viewing pleasure, can be found below.

My First Con! FOGcon 2017

Last year, I made a decision to commit fully to the “being a writer” thing. So, toward the end of last year, I asked some Bay Area-based writers on Twitter about local conventions. A number got back to me and enthusiastically recommended FOGcon.

The Friends Of Genre convention, which I attended this past weekend (March 10–12) in Walnut Creek, brands itself as a literary-themed Science Fiction and Fantasy convention which focuses on bringing together the speculative fiction community for the exchange of ideas and a mutual love for the literature of imagination. An inspiring and smile-inducing description, if you ask me.

So here’s my summary of the con experience, day-by-day:

Day 1:

I took Friday off work and drove to Walnut Creek about an hour-and-a-half before the con started. It took fifteen minutes to get there. I was excited, but nervous about waltzing into the convention space too far in advance,  so I milled about, listening to The Divine Comedy audiobook before deciding to bite the proverbial bullet, park, and make my way into the hotel.

Shortly after I got settled in the convention space, badge around my neck, the first session started: a seventy-five minute writing session hosted by the con’s founder, Vylar Kaftan. The session was fantastic. I had a great time working on the exercises, and even managed to break some blocks I’d been facing on two long-form pieces I’d been working on in an on-again-off-again capacity over the last year. I was electrified. Sitting in a room full of people with similar interests, typing or scribbling away at ideas—there’s nothing quite like it.

The first panel I attended, Living Between, was ambitious in its scope. The intent behind the panel was to examine the huge array of non-binary existences that encompass the human experience—not just along gender lines, but all planes of our lives. While the panel itself was inspiring and somewhat difficult, my disappointment in it stemmed not from the conversation’s direction, but from the lack of connection about these real, lived experiences to authentic representation in fiction. I do not begrudge anyone the opportunity to share their emotional hurts; there’s catharsis in open expression, but I would have loved to tie it back to craft, to look at how I can do my part in telling non-binary stories of all kinds in a more effective way. But while the panel didn’t directly address craft, there was lots to unpack that can be applied to my writing going forward. For what it’s worth, a good panel.

The next panel was Medieval POC—inspired by the Tumblr blog of the same name—which focused on reframing our generally mistaken historical perspective on the homogeneity of Europe in the middle ages. Evidently, there was quite a bit more diversity at the time than most of us have been taught to believe. (No surprise there.) I took a few things away from that panel: a desire to read Remy Nakamura’s fiction, a curiosity for the wider world in the middle ages, and a one-liner that left me grinning: “Your idea of history is historically inaccurate.”

The final panel I attended that evening was Alternative Moral Perspectives, which spent a bit more time talking about sympathetic villains than really alternative morality that subverts or challenges every aspect of our moral framework. Nonetheless, another very interesting panel that cooked up a lot of philosophical questions that will only serve me as a writer in the future.

Day 2:

I missed the first panel, which I’d really been looking forward to, called My Driveway’s Underwater, So Now I Swim to Work—Climate Change and the Geography of Daily Life. Ah, well. Perhaps next time I’ll paddle out to the con early enough in the morning to make it on time.

The Gaze was a great panel, focusing on the way privileged, dominant groups view members of the groups they dominate—or anyone that doesn’t fit within that group’s purview. Again, there was less of a direct connection to either subverting the gaze or illustrating it effectively in craft, but the conversation was vital.

The Writer as Resistor was a panel that really kicked the conversation into high gear, for me. The same sense of unity and purpose that filled my every pore during the women’s march suffused the room, people genuinely wanting to put pen to paper and push for a better future.

But something new occurred to me during the panel, which I brought up (and was subsequently answered effectively). But I want to ask this of the ether, because I think the conversation is worth having again: We often write words for our peers, preaching to the choir and shoring up the walls of our own echo chambers. (Enough catchphrases/metaphors for ya?) How do we go about writing the fiction that today’s conservatives might want to read, and impress upon them, say, the benefits of collectivism and social democracy? Is that kind of subversion right? Is it what we want to do at all? How do we even get people to read in the first place?

The final panel for me on day 2 was on pitching, presentations, and proposals, and was supremely helpful across the board. The panel delved into the differences between the three, and the components of each. I don’t intend to go into the details here, but suffice it to say the panel was excellent.

I missed out on the evening’s festivities because I had to finish up some homework, but if photos are any indication, it was a fun-filled evening that I missed.

Day 3:

The day started with a panel on outlining, another craft-focused avalanche of information that was both informative and entertaining. It gave me new motivation to improve my outlook on—and skills in—outlining. ‘Nuff said.

The final panel of the con (for me, as I had to get back to that homework) was Speculative Fiction in the Age of Post-Truth. A provocative title indeed. As we careen out of control in the sociopolitical sphere, we are confronted with a question that would be funny, if it wasn’t so depressing: how do we create compelling fiction when reality has become so absurd?

The panel was interesting, but not hopeful—I doubt that was it’s intent. It raised intriguing points about psychology, technology, and sociology, and inspired introspection, especially in regards to personal, preconceived notions of the opinions and intelligence of those on the opposing end of the political spectrum.

Because nearly all of public dialogue has been infected with divisiveness and spin, because the notion of “fact” has been poisoned by a deliberate campaign to discredit Empirical Observation, because someone can say “the people are tired of experts” and not ruin his career—we find ourselves in a seemingly intractable conflict. On the one side, we have the ghost of fascism rearing its vile head—this isn’t hyperbole; the “alt right” movement is following the same steps as the fascists and Nazis did. On the other side, a utopian vision that of collectivism that, I worry, cannot come to pass until many economic issues are solved.

But I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to talk about my experience at the con.

The con was wonderful. I met like-minded writerly folks that made me feel like I belonged. Not that I don’t generally feel a sense of belonging, though. The feeling was different at the con. When I looked around, I saw people typing or writing away, chatting excitedly about this-or-that book, and connecting with one another through a love of the written word. It was tremendous. I loved it.

I felt like asking questions. Like learning from this group of people who have pondered the questions I’ve pondered, engaged in the fantastical futures that I love, and get as excited about books with dragons on them as I do.

So, my first con experience was a success. Thanks, FOGcon, for showing me how wonderful it is to be part of the SpecFic community.

2015 Year in Review

yearinreview

This year has been terrific for the Warbler. I decided—I believe in November of last year—to read and review one book every week. While I haven’t kept to that weekly cadence, I’m proud of what I accomplished as a reviewer and as a reader.

I read forty-three books this year. I published thirty-four posts on the blog, and am a couple books behind in my review schedule. 2,197 different people from around the world viewed the Warbler 3,525 times in 2015. It’s marvelous to see how the site has grown—turns out that regular posts bring more viewers.

Stats aside, some wonderful things have happened this year:

  • The Warbler is now on Twitter, FacebookTumblr, and Medium.
  • I’ve developed a working relationship with two publishers, Tachyon and Inkshares
  • Audible.com contacted me and began sending audiobooks for review
  • I’ve begun receiving review galleys from several publishers through NetGalley, including Tor/Forge, Oxford University Press, Random House, and others
  • I attempted to publish my own work through Inkshares! Your support was invaluable—I’m immensely grateful to you all
  • Through that effort, I met a group of fantastically talented independent authors, which has lead to:
  1. I have been brought on as an apprentice editor at Story Perfect Editing Services (see the site for your fiction-editing needs)
  2. I’ve joined forces with the Epic Fantasy Writer Blog, where I’ll be a monthly contributor! My first post, a short Sci-Fi tale went up today!

Okay, that covers the business updates. Let’s go over the best books of the year:

Non-Fiction

MyStruggle_cvrforwebMy Struggle Volume 1 – Karl Ove Knausgaard
(Runner-Up: Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Fantasy

Shadows of SelfShadows of Self – Brandon Sanderson
(Runner-Up: Updraft – Fran Wilde)

Science Fiction

AncillaryJAncillary Justice – Ann Leckie
(Runner-Up: Ready Player One – Earnest Cline)

 

For what it’s worth, I loved almost everything I read this year, and these choices were actually difficult to make. I’m going to try to get two more reviews published before January first, so keep an eye on the blog over the next few days.

Thank you for visiting the blog and taking part in this experiment with me. I’m excited for the future, and I’ve got plans in the hopper for the Warbler that will lead to more reading, reviewing, and general writerly activity. I hope you’ll join me next year, too.

Resonance

Resonance Three creatures of average height, each a different shade of blue, smile with kind faces as they walk me down a brightly lit hallway with grey floors. It is a maze branching off in different directions, and from what I can tell, every branch is identical. Bright, flickering lights wash the grey floor and white walls with a uniform sheen, with the walls marked at even intervals by brown rectangles. I assume each is a portal to another path of the maze. We arrive at a portal that is nondescript, save for the triangular symbol on its front with a strange design in its center. The image looks dangerous. The door swings open silently, and the room beyond is full of machines that beep and whirr, screens that flicker with an ominous light, and large windows on either wall showing two rooms with enormous devices within them. There are more blue creatures in the room, and when I enter, they smile and nod their approval like the others.

One of the creatures breaks off and examines the screens and whirring things that fill the room with a low buzz, while the other two escort me into one of the side rooms, where the toroidal  behemoth sticks out its tongue in waiting. They lie me down on the spongy surface, and there is a depression at the base of the protrusion, roughly sized for a human head. It is not comfortable, but it is bearable. My ears are plugged, and a cage is lowered over my head. Large rectangular pads are placed on either side of my head and I am trapped, unable to move from the neck up. A final smile from the creatures as they turn to leave the room, and the beast returns its tongue, with me on it, into its maw.

With a muffled thump, the door to the room closes and the lights outside the behemoth’s mouth dim. Above me are lines of light, about two inches wide, roughly eight inches apart from one another. A device above my eyes mirrors the outside, showing me the silhouettes of the blue creatures as they fiddle with the buzzing and whirring things in the room beyond.

A sound begins, and it is the sound of a descending spaceship in the movies. Or it is the sound of enormous rocks, coated in steel, grating against each other. Perhaps it is the sound of destruction. I imagine the battles in the Bhagavad Gita must have sounded like this. Vimanas, spewing flames during their roaring descent, with Krishna, blue and regal atop them, shooting arrows of light across the plain toward the enemy forces.

But it is the sound of my entrapment, and it fills me with a cold dread. I try to slow my breathing and appreciate the peculiar rhythms the beast generates with its cries, but its voice’s power is such that I vibrate with the different frequencies as they come. The low tones rumble me violently, and the higher squeaks make my teeth chatter. My head is in its vice, and a dull throb forms behind my eyes and in a band across my head. Through the mirrored device, I can see a display reflected against the window, counting down the remaining time of the probing beast’s screams, and I count down with it, learning to read the strange glyphs backwards. I recognize zero, and it is a long way off.

The screams die away as the beast prepares for a second round, inhaling deeply. The earsplitting bellows begin anew, a new rhythm painting their edges with a curious, albeit terrifying song. I count the pulses, which seem to come every second, matching the reflected glyphs as they descend towards zero once again. I focus intently on the glyphs to keep from crying out at the confinement. There is little more than inches separating me from the roof of the beast’s mouth. I count seven hundred and sixty five seconds before the silence comes again. A shallow, mechanical whirr begins near my feet, and the tongue ejects me smoothly. One of the blue creatures is back, but not to release me. A syringe is plunged into my arm, from which a cold liquid flows, directly into my veins, which I can imagine stiffening with the introduction of the foreign substance. The creature’s smile remains plastered on her face, but doesn’t reach her eyes, as she removes the needle and the platform recedes back into the beast, pulling me, unwillingly, back.

The clanging song begins again, and I count, eight hundred and forty seconds this time, before the platform is once again in motion, and the three creatures who placed me in this torturous chamber await me at it’s mouth all smiles once more. My head is removed from its pen and I’m helped to the ground. I smile in return and exchange pleasantries, but a part of me feels violated by the experience, and though my body is once again my own I still feel the chill of the injection as it pumps through my body, into my heart, and back out to my extremities. One of the blue creatures shows me the door and tells me, at long last, the secret of the maze of hallways. I exit the building and look at the afternoon sun. It warms my skin, but the fluid underneath remains cold, for the time being. It needs to work its way through me.

Berkeley Tuolumne Camp / There’s no spot that I would rather be…

The Kitchen, Opening Camp 2010

The Kitchen, Opening Camp 2010

I’ve been privileged to call many places home in my life. I’ve lived in Israel and in Northern and Southern California, but chief among my many homes is Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp. No matter where on the planet I lived during the off-season, every year of my life–without fail, and including one year in utero–we would make the trip to Groveland, a stone’s throw away from the West Entrance to Yosemite Valley, down to the South Fork of the Tuolumne river, where families from all over the world have a chance for a quasi-rustic week away from it all.

Some 70ish tent-cabins adorn the hillside and straddle the river, with wooden bases painted a forestry-mandated café noir and canvas tarps acting as roofs. A dining-hall-slash-kitchen sits right about in the middle, where the 250-300 campers would sit together (family style) for meals thrice daily, served tasty eats by a cheerful dining hall staff. During the day, campers were free to do as they wish, but the recreation, nature center, and kiddie camp staff offered a variety of activities, ranging from hikes to lanyards to block printing.

Camp is more than it’s activities and buildings. People have talked about how their camp is the special one, about how you simply don’t understand the difference–but how could you? This is camp we’re talking about. Not some “camp.” The camp. The best one. I won’t bother trying to explain it, because my attempts will ultimately be inadequate.

There’s even a This American Life episode about camps. Ironically, the episode talks about how “camp people” feel like their camp truly is the exception: the only place on earth that offers the wholly unique experience of being a member of this special type of community. When I listened to the episode for the first time, my response was something along the lines of “Yeah, well…they definitely seem to grasp that people like camps, but they don’t know BTC. They’ve never been there. They’ve never seen us (the staff) in action.” I guess I fit in perfectly with the “my camp is the best” crowd. For the record, our camp actually is the best.

My family has been connected to Camp Tuolumne for 5 generations, which is not uncommon with BTC. My extended family used to attend together, but over time it was just our immediate family, and ultimately, when I volunteered for the first time in 2002, my family stopped their tradition of annual attendance. From then through 2010, I worked at camp, and the value camp holds for me grew exponentially. Family still visited, but the context changed entirely.

Camp provided a safe place for me to grow and learn,  to discover myself, and to take pride in who I am. Camp was a place for first loves, for a support system that will pick you up when you fall. It was a place where a tech-obsessed guy like me can truly get away and take a deep breath, smelling the dust and the pines and the dogwoods, sit in the river and just be. It was a vital part of every year and, towards the end of my tenure there, became a place I’d work for 5-6 months, augmenting the rest of my year with a part-time stint at the City Office, assisting with preparations for the next camp season.

There are a million thoughts, memories, and emotions buzzing through my head about camp. It’s as though the fire that decimated my home-away-from-home stirred a bed of coals that lingered in the back of my mind, and a fire has been kindled in my brain. Not the awful, awesome and destructive force of the Rim Fire that is currently charring a path across a natural wonder of the world. It’s the warm glow of the fire in the dining hall in the evening; it’s the roar of campfire being drowned out by a chorus of voices singing about being stuck in a tree while a bear gives chase. It’s the warmth of bundling up during opening camp, and waking up to a pile of snow and slush cascading through the tin roof and directly onto your bed. It’s the warmth of the connections I made with the people I worked with and the campers we served. It’s the warmth of a shouted “AY-YO” being greeted with a hundred voices shouting in return. It’s the warm air that streams into the open window of the car as we roll it down when we make the right-hand turn onto Hardin Flat at the end of a drive that will always, always put a smile on our faces. It’s that fire that’s making me tear up when I think about losing camp, I swear. All that smoke, you know?

The people are some of the best I know on earth. I live with friends from camp. I socialize with friends from camp. I’m dating a wonderful woman I met at camp some 10 years ago. The pain of losing the place is only dulled by their presence and our shared memory. Seeing the posts on facebook, hearing from friends I haven’t spoken to in years, seeing pictures from the 80s and 90s of all of us, kids who loved camp and whose only dream was to become a staff member; it’s hard, but puts a smile on my face despite the difficulty.

Many of us dreamt of taking our own children there. It was a given, just as camp’s everlasting presence was a given. That it has been reduced to ash is a tragedy that puts a deep and heavy despair in many of our hearts. The footage of the smoldering wreckage is painful to watch, but I keep playing the video, unable to turn away. It’s like seeing the ruins of the house I was born in. In contrast, the overwhelming response of the community has given me hope. Every post on the web has been about rebuilding and looking to the future. I know that, the moment a rebuild effort is announced I’ll be at the front of the line, champing at the bit for an opportunity to help bring about a rebirth of the place I love more than any other.

I’ve rambled enough. Tomorrow I get together with friends, to share in stories over beverages served in stolen or bought camp mugs. Laughs and tears are to be expected. But we have each other and that’s what counts.

There are so many possible quotes from camp we can call upon as we absorb the ramifications of the tragedy, and they’re all good. I was talking to my dad this morning on the phone about it, and what he said rang particularly true, especially as we look to rebuild.

“From where you are, with what you’ve got.”

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These are just some random photos I dug up. There are tons more hitting the web on Facebook.

A Footstool / In Memoriam

Grandma

A boy bounced up a pebbled path between a wall and hedge as tall as he was. During the day, he enjoyed skipping up the path, but at night it scared him. He always ran through it at night.
Skipping joyfully, he turned sharply to the left and ran to the door of the bottom-rear apartment in the multi-unit–but homely–building at 47 Sokolov in Nahariya, grabbing the brushed metal handle that always left his hand feeling a little gritty, and turning it until the bolt clicked in a satisfying way and the door swung open.
The hallway–it could hardly be called that, he recalls–was tight, with doors on the left and right leading to the bathroom and bedroom respectively. A few feet in front, a large wooden armoire of sorts served as an all-purpose desk, holding the phone, pens and paper, and all manner of knick knacks that may have been important but remain obfuscated, being memories from a child’s mind. The wood was dark and heavy, and it shone with a polish that must have come from many years of meticulous maintenance. To the right was the kitchen, and a table often used for unstructured meals and light snacking. Above the table on the wall hung a wicker board, whereupon many photos, notes, small crafts, and memories hung.
She sat at the table, her wrinkled face breaking into a smile as the blond boy bounced through the hall, his bowl-cut hair following his bounds in a slight delay. Her bright blue eyes sparkled, and she dipped her fork into the cottage cheese and sliced apples on the plate before her as the boy went to his favorite spot in the house.
A footstool with rubber black feet capping chrome legs and a grayish veneer top, the middle of which housed a black rubber pad, sat in its designated spot in the kitchen. The boy went to it and sat as he had every summer since his birth, when the family visited Grandma and Israel. PVC jellies encased his feet, a pair of blue shorts his legs, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt his chest. His blue eyes stared back at hers intently.
“Grandma,” I asked in a lilting child’s cadence, “when you die, can I have this chair?”
“What, the footstool?” She asked, with her head cocked slightly to one side, the oddity of the request confusing her.
“Well, I use it as a chair,” I said. “And I love it. It is my favorite thing in your house.”
“I don’t see why not,” she replied, finishing her cottage cheese and standing to take the plate to the sink. “You must be hungry. Naknik?”
I was hungry, so I accepted the offer for a hot dog. She put a pot of water on the stove and set it to boil. Retrieving a hot dog from a package in the refrigerator, she unceremoniously dropped it onto a plate as we waited for the water to boil.
“Why do you like it so much?” She asked.
“The chair?” I replied, “it’s comfortable and it reminds me of you, Grandma.”
She came over and pinched my cheek–slightly harder than gently, as usual–and with a trademark “schnooks,” the conversation ended.

My Grandmother, Lisa Samuel, had many of these “trademarks”; little idiosyncratic behaviors that were so her that as I recall them now, in the middle seat in the rear of a Southwest flight to Seattle, I’m welling up and trying to maintain control. It was her time, without a doubt, but I’ve discovered that it doesn’t make it any easier. Every early morning phone call from my parents for the last few years I’ve been expecting the news I received this morning, yet it still shocked me. I stayed in bed, unable to process the news and unable to talk. Spaced out as I was, I began browsing ticketing sites for flight prices, just out of curiosity, to see the price of making it to the funeral. I was already running late for work when I got in the shower, but I just stood there, letting the water run, as more and more memories of Grandma poured over me like the water, soaking me in their humor, their vividness, their love.
After I got dressed, my phone rang. My brother and I sat on opposite ends of the west coast, silent on each end of the line, incapable of expressing the raw emotion that pumped through us. I had returned from a trip in Europe to make it to Grandpa’s funeral, he knew, and wanted to know if it was worth it to be there. It was.

Grandma was a very particular woman; her German genetics punctuated with English propriety made for a fascinating set of childhood experiences. Those summer visits to Israel, staying at her place in Nahariya, were some of the best memories of my early childhood. We weren’t allowed to touch much of the stuff in the house, and I was reminded constantly of that fact. If there was a stack of newspapers or books on the scratchy couch, it couldn’t be moved or modified in any way. A magnificent wooden table in the shape of an elephant just begging to be the object of my youthful imagination had to remain untapped, in glory taunting me, beckoning me to at least see if it was as smooth as the armoire–which also couldn’t be touched unless necessary. It wasn’t all about staying in line with Grandma, though. She had many wonderful trademarks, as well. Every morning, she would come to my bed (or the couch) and sing a little song to wake me up:

“Good morning, good morning, a happy good morning, a happy good morning to you. Fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, a happy good morning to you, bum, bum.”

That bum, bum is very important, mind. Grandma hummed like you’d imagine someone in a black-and-white film would, all in ta tums and ba dums and bum de dums. When she would have classical music playing on the radio at her little kitchen table, she would close her eyes, wrinkle her forehead slightly and begin to conduct and hum, her thumb and forefinger tracing time in the air, while behind her eyelids a full symphony would follow her movements as she guided them through Bach or Mozart. She loved classical music, and met with a group of friends–all of of whom found one another in Israel after leaving Germany in the 1920s and 30s–regularly for listening parties. I was invited to one of these events by her, as they were planning to watch Disney’s Fantasia, and she thought I would enjoy it. As part of the event, she taught me (what at the time felt like) a monologue in German, thanking the kind hostess for the food, music, and company. I am ashamed to admit I hardly remember it. I think it started with felin danke fur die einladung, or something like that. She had me practice for almost a week before she felt confident that I would satisfactorily repeat the words to her friends. They loved it, and when I finished the performance they actually clapped, and Grandma graced me with one of her slightly-harder-than-you-expected slaps of affection, almost indistinguishable from an actual slap but for the context and intention with which it was given.

When we moved to Israel in 1994 we stayed with her at 47 Sokolov while we looked for our first place to live. I slept on the scratchy couch under the window, from which you could see a part of the yard, Sokolov street, and the mediterranean ocean. She would stay with us during the subsequent years when Mom would head back to the states to visit Dad, and once over a month-or-so period of time during which she stayed with us in Shavei Zion, I started calling her “mom” out of habit. She told me in no uncertain terms to cut it out and remember the rules about no TV in the evenings. She cared deeply for us, and we for her.

As the years went by, she continued referring to the little footstool as “your favorite chair,” or “your footstool,” and I remember sitting on it even when my size made it ridiculous to do so. After we returned to the US, she would visit and I would ask her about my favorite chair. She would smile and tell me it was right where it belonged, in its designated spot by the door to the dining room, between the jamb and cabinetry. After this exchange a pinched cheek or slapped shoulder would follow, and I would know that all was right in our little world in the moment.

Some years ago her health began to waver, but she clung to living, not life, and continued volunteering at the hospital until she absolutely could not. After she could no longer care for herself, she moved to a “founder’s home” in Shavei Zion, where she lived among friends and was well taken care of, partaking in whatever activities the home had planned for her.

I visited her twice in the home. The first time she was still relatively lucid, but the reality was that the woman that was my grandmother was in many ways gone. We sat together, ate together, and read Winnie The Pooh together. She told me about Llanharan, the Welsh village where she and Grandpa Ben lived. She told me of their risqué relationship as doctor and nurse, and how improper it was for them to steal kisses whenever possible. It was a side of her I had never seen, and it was a beautifully moving experience. The last time I saw her was bittersweet. She couldn’t speak because it exhausted her, and she only stayed awake for a few hours during the day, but during those hours we would sit together in silence, her gnarled hand in mine, and she would breathe gently, occasionally making tiny noises or asking for my Dad or his siblings. The three days I spent with her, holding her hand, were incredibly powerful and emotionally draining. I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. She only said one thing to me over the course of those three days:

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

My brother and I leave for Israel tomorrow to attend the funeral, and between tearful and laughter-filled conversations with my sister and the spaciness that has consumed us all in the face of this monumental moment, the first memory that came to me was that footstool. It has stayed with me this long, the promise of that footstool, but now it comes to it, I would take another too-hard slap or pinch on the cheek over that footstool, even if it was a great place to sit.