Friday, September 23, 2016

Supporting A New Writer 4: Where We Go from Here

Each of us has a tale to tell about struggling to start or re-start a writing career. Here's the background on this project, and two responses below.

Recently, I received this letter from a fan with whom I’d been corresponding. It spoke deeply to me, and rather than answer it alone, I asked some of my writer friends to join in a series of round table blogs on the issues raised. If you’ve been there, too, I hope you’ll follow along and offer your own wisdom.

I’ve been trying to reconnect with writing friends after a hiatus from the creative life. I’ve spent the past year or so taking care of my mom and working to pay the bills. Mom passed away in October. When your last parent passes away, it changes you in many ways. That foundation you always relied on — even as an adult — is gone for good. Whether you’re ready or not, you are truly on your own in the world and must somehow carry on without their nurturing presence. One of the most difficult aspects of my mother’s final days was the fact that she had so many regrets about life. She once had goals and dreams, but left them behind out of fear and a belief that these dreams were just not possible. I’m 54 years old. More than half of my life is over. Writing has been a dream/goal of mine since childhood. My mom was the only one who believed in me. I don’t want to leave this world regretting the fact that I never pursued this dream to the fullest. To be honest, my writing “career” never took off. I let fear, doubt and the negativity of others keep me from my dreams. I want so much to be brave, to take risks with my creative life. I truly wish for a group of fellow writers who are willing to give me the encouragement and support I need to write with my heart and soul, to grow as a writer and a human being. And I want to be a support for others as well. How do I get back into the writing life after leaving it on the back burner for so long?
Doranna Durgin:  I turned 56 on the very day my mom died just over a month ago.  Meanwhile my writing has floundered for years—damaged by experiences in traditional publishing, never quite reaching fruition in the first place because I was in a financially vulnerable situation where I didn’t dare take risks.  So I played nice.  Too nice.  Too much fear, too much doubt, and way too much negativity from outside sources.  Familiar, right? I was trying to please everyone else before I pleased the muse, knowing it and hoping for some sort of break that would allow me to return to the muse.  But instead of reaching a break, I hit a breaking point, and then…broke.  Now I’m looking at the journey back and not certain how to take it.

So where do we all go from here?

In this case, I hope knowing you’re not alone is of some solace.  Boy, you’re definitely not!  And to some extent, I think we all wish we were bigger, bolder, better when it comes to our writing.  To that same extent, I think having that desire is the critical part of writing.  How do we do anything but stagnate without it?  And just maybe the fact that we do have that ongoing need doesn’t mean we haven’t already been successful in many ways.  Don’t discount those successes!

More practically speaking, I’m finding that I need to give myself space while at the same time setting reachable goals.  For me, that means noodling on development in the background while working on production stuff and writing-related stuff in the foreground.  For you, those first steps might include finding community online and in person, but I have some hesitation about focusing on these as a starting place.  Writing comes from within, not without—and in my experience, outside influence is often about diluting, not enhancing, those pieces from within.

To that point, I’ve found a good book discussion group comprised of savvy readers and other writers to be an excellent place to practice critical thinking and to see how different writing is absorbed by different people…well, differently.  I see it as a way to immerse in the thought process without subjecting the muse to the push and pull of others’ thinking.

I think one key, as we seek growth, is to recognize the successes we have in fact had, and then to keep our specific goals in mind while making decisions about the future—which means taking the time to truly understand our goals in the first place.  So are the support groups and community part of the goal, or a way to reach the goal?  And what other ways can you reach the specific goal?

Either way, good luck—hope to see you there on the other side!

Doranna Durgin is an award-winning (Compton Crook--best first SF/F/H of the year) whose quirky spirit has led to an extensive and eclectic publishing journey across genres, across publishers, and across publishing lines.  Beyond that, she hangs around outside her Southwest mountain home with horse and highly accomplished competition dogs. She doesn't believe in mastering the beast within, but in channeling its power. For good or bad has yet to be decided...

Meg Mac Donald: On Starting Over:
Just write.

I know, I know.  That’s obvious.  I realize that it may be oversimplifying things, but it is true that the only way to begin again is to (simply) start doing it.  Anything.  Write that story idea, or outline—or even that one scene—that has been playing in your mind for years.  You know, the one about That Character when That Thing happened?  Yeah.  That one.  Jot it down.  Follow it as it begins to grow—give yourself permission to change it.  Keep writing.  If you write something, you have something to edit—or rewrite—later.  Worst case scenario?  You line the cat box with it and start something else.  Put aside any notion about it being perfect, or publishable, or even making the remote bit of sense.  It doesn’t have to.  What it has to do is give you something to work with.  Most of writing is rewriting and editing anyway.  Give yourself permission to make a literary mess if that’s what it takes to break the cycle of doubt that is keeping you from writing at all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Con-Volution 2016 Schedule

I'll be a guest panelist at Con-Volution: The Age of Monsters, Sept. 30 - Oct. 2, 2016, Hyatt Regency SFO. If you're going, please do stop by and say hello. Here's my panel schedule:

Authors: Going to That Dark Place (Saturday 15:00 - 16:30, SandPebble C)
If you want the monstrous element to be truly horrifying, you sometimes have to dig to a dark place to write it believably....
Loren Rhoads, Melissa Snark, Deborah J. Ross, Margaret McGaffey Fisk, Fred Wiehe, Horror Author (M)

How Cthulu Became Cuddly? (Saturday 17:00 - 18:30, SandPebble B)
How did the most terrifying beings of our imagination become cuddly plushies, love interests, and punchlines? We'll look at the intersection of horror and humor, and whether they enhance or deface the genre.
Deborah J. Ross, Ms. Jennifer Carson, Laurel Anne Hill, Lee Moyer (M)

Writing in Someone Else's Universe (Sunday 10:00 - 11:30, Board Room I)
How you deal with taking on the world already build by another author when it's now your professional duty to carry on their legacy, but still create new and involving stories.
Deborah J. Ross (M), Sarah Stegall, M. Todd Gallowglas

Monday, September 19, 2016

September Treats: New and Forthcoming Books

Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins 

Fantasy literature seems to have entered an age of multi-volume series that either demand the reader be familiar with all the previous books or else inundate the reader with backstory. It requires skill and subtlety to create a sequel that works just as well as a stand-alone book. Kim Wilkins is such an author and Sisters of the Fire is such a book.

Australian Kim Wilkins is one of the best writers of fantasy today. I adored her The Autumn Castle for its rich, complex characters and a setting that was familiar enough so I was never confused and startlingly innovative enough to hold my interest at every turn. So it was no accident that even without reading Daughters of the Storm, I found Sisters of the Fire every bit as entrancing, dramatic, and rewarding.

Almost immediately I found myself immersed in a world reminiscent of Arthurian England. An island is divided into small kingdoms, some of them so marginal but it is not worth the trouble to conquer them. Of course, there are stronger kingdoms, and one of these is ruled by an aging monarch whose grown daughters have made their own ways through the world. Ash has followed her dream to become a magician by apprenticing herself to a strange, ultimately villainous man. Lovely Rose has fled an unhappy marriage at the cost of exile from her young daughter and her beloved. Ambitious Ivy, married to a man she does not love for the sake of a political alliance, plays a dangerous game that threatens the safety of not only her kingdom, but her father’s as well. Willow’s hatred of the old religion leads her to a perilous alliance with the head of the Viking-like northern raiders. And my favorite: Bluebell who despite the whimsy of her name is a fierce warrior and intrepid leader, more than capable of taking over for her aging father.

This story moves from moments of tenderness to passion to intrigue to breathtaking action. Never did I feel at a loss because I had not read the first book. Nevertheless, I was delighted to learn that that this will not be the end of the sisters’ adventures. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing where Wilkins will take the story, and while I am waiting I will go in search of the first volume.

Murder with Majesty, by Amy Myers (Auguste Didier), Endeavor Press. This charming, quirky
historical mystery was my introduction to the work of British author Amy Myers. First released in 1999, one of ten adventures of intrepid chef and not-so-intrepid detective, Auguste Didier, it’s now available as an ebook from Endeavor Press.  The year is 1905, and already rumblings of war have reached even the placid English countryside. Didier, a distant relation-by-marriage to Edward VII, has been summoned to an ancient manor house to cook for a wedding. Only the groom posing as the lord of the manor in order to impress his American heiress bride no longer owns the estate and the man who does bears an uncanny resemblance to Didier’s sworn enemy, a ruthless Russian spy. What could have been a sedate whodunit confined to a single household quickly spins into a much broader tale that eventually leads to the Paris catacombs (I’ve been there – they’re just like that!) and back to England. Action and character are handled with a delightful wit and wonderful use of language that left me wanting to run out and find all the other volumes.

The Tale of the Dancing Slaughter Horse, by Victoria Shade (Oct 2016) 
When adolescent Victoria meets Moonshine, an ex-racehorse saved from the slaughterhouse and abuse, she despairs at having to ride such a difficult horse. She trains him in dressage, a sport that tests the unity of horse and rider as they engage in what can only be called dancing.  As she comes of age, Victoria teaches Moonshine to trust her, and Moony teaches Victoria the importance of heart and perseverance. Together, they master many trials and compete in the Junior Nationals in this inspiring and compelling true story of how a girl and her horse changed each other’s lives forever.

This is a lovely book, not only for horse fanciers (and anyone who has ever been one) but as a simply told, heart-felt memoir of an extraordinary young woman and the healing power of horses. Like many other teenaged girls, I fell in love with horses, and although my own mare was nowhere near the stature of Victoria Shade's Moonshine, her tale of how dressage helped her to grow, and learn patience, diligence, and honesty, had me nodding in agreement every step of the way. The simplicity and directness of her prose transforms what could have been a melodrama into an inspiring, utterly truthful story. Well done!

The Dream Protocol: Descent, by Adara Quick 
This book offers intriguing twists on the usual dystopic YA novel, with its economy based on the creation, sale, and control of dreams. I particularly liked the use of dreams as work incentives, and nightmares as punishment, plus the addictive nature of dreams to the point that people cannot sleep normally. However, the work is marred by heavy-handed exposition, telling repeatedly instead of showing, the lack of world-building beyond the dream economy, and simplistic characters. I do not believe this novel would have been publishable by any major house, as it certainly has not been professionally edited. I hope that with more attention to craft, the writer will become better able to justice to her ideas.

Shadowbahn, by Steve Erickson, Blue Rider Press (Feb. 2017)
Premise: the Twin Towers mysteriously appear on the Badlands of South Dakota, from them comes a stream of music, and everyone hears a different song. Isn’t that a cool idea? I thought so when I requested a review copy. I imagined something of the order of a Tim Powers novel, with flights of wacky imagination resolving into a story that moves me, with characters I care about. Alas, it turned out that I was exactly the wrong reader for this book. Reviews, even “not my cup of tea” style, can help readers pick books they will love, so I offer the following:

At first, the story drew me in but midway through I grew frustrated. The music, as it were the uniting theme of all the various characters and adventures, turned out to be exactly the kind I have almost no knowledge of (I have heard of a few of the songs and recording artists but could not recognize them) or interest in (not even a passing nod to Chopin!), and the text was laced with long stream-of-consciousness diatribes that became ever more tedious. I found the characters unbelievable and pretentious. I kept hoping to find some saving point of sense, but it never appeared.

If you like Jonathan Lethem’s work (he praised this one highly), this might be the book for you. I imagine that if you love rock music, jazz, and blues, you will find special delights here. But if you, like me, prefer sympathetic characters and clear plot, logic, and emotional arcs, then you might want to pass on this one.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Surviving A Murder: A #HoldOnToTheLight Post

In 1986, my 70-year-old mother was asleep in her own bed when a teenaged neighbor broke into her home, raped her, and then beat her to near death and left her face down in a partially filled bathtub. It was a spectacularly brutal, banner headline crime, called by the District Attorney one of the most heinous in the history of the county. On hearing this story, many people ask me, “How did you survive?”

I don't think survival is the question. Although numb with shock and drenched in grief, we get up in the morning. We brush our teeth. In my case, I had two daughters, one almost seven and the other 3 months old, to care for. We cry. We scream. We comfort one another. We go back to work. We take on the trappings of an ordinary life, carrying on in the blind faith that our insides will someday match the artificial normality of our outsides. Or we find our days transformed by what we have lost, not only our loved ones but our belief in the decency of our fellow humans and our sense of safety in the world. Some families dedicate themselves to finding the killer or to participating in punishment. Others become radicalized in other ways.

In other words, we do what seems best to us in order to survive. We do everything except tend to the grievously wounded parts of ourselves.

We know today that post-traumatic illness is not limited to soldiers in battle or the surviving loved ones of murder victims. We know that for most of us, it does not go away simply because we ignore it. Some people live reasonably functional lives by walling off their pain like an abscess, refusing to talk about it and “acting as if” everything is fine. I make no judgment about them; I am the last person to advise anyone else about how to live with something only they can understand. I know only that I was not among them.

I tried my hardest to be strong. Instead, I broke.

The man who killed my mother had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, thus sparing my family the ordeal of a trial but leaving many questions unanswered. In 1995, he became eligible for his first parole hearing. There was no question in my mind about attending and speaking against his release. I poured myself into writing a speech, I marched into San Quentin Prison, I stood up in the presence of the perpetrator, I addressed the Parole Commissioners in the strongest possible language, and then I went home.

I thought it was over when parole was denied. I was wrong.

A year later, I went into a psychological and spiritual crisis. A series of increasingly troubling symptoms should have alerted me to my own emotional deterioration, but I clung too tightly to the appearance of normality to pay attention. When the break came, I folded like a house of cards: I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't stop crying. I would look in the mirror and not recognize the person who looked back at me. It seemed to me that nobody was home behind those glassy, deer-in-the-headlight eyes. I've heard almost those same words from other murder victim family members. I call us “murder survivors.” This time, there was no question of “carrying on.” Slowly and painful, with many missteps and amazing, often unexpected, kindness from those around me, I began to heal from the inside out.

Because I am a writer, much of what I experienced — not the external circumstances but the emotions and insights — made its way into my stories. Why fiction? Stories keep our intellects busy while the deeper parts of our psyches grapple with things that are not easily put into words. 

I am not a psychotherapist or an expert on recovery from trauma. Nor am I a military veteran or law enforcement officer, or war refugee, or family member of someone who has been executed, so I cannot speak from my own experience about the horrendous stresses those people face. However, I have found that I have much in common with folks who suffer from post-traumatic illness from other causes. I have exchanged support and become an ally of family members of offenders, as well. Their grief and pain is no less overwhelming than my own.

We are all survivors, and all of us are wounded in ways we sometimes cannot name. And there is hope for all of us. One of the most powerful ways we can help one another is by telling stories and listening to each other with open hearts.

You are not what happened to you, and you are not alone.

About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Trio of Amazing Reptiles

Tortoises rule! Diego, 100, is a rare breed of tortoise called Chelonoidis hoodensis. These animals are so rare that they only exist on one of the oldest islands in the Galápagos. In 1976, when Diego was living at the San Diego Zoo, scientists realized that this handsome hero in a half shell was actually one of the last remaining tortoises of the Chelonoidis hoodensisas species. Diego then became the dominant male in a captive breeding program in the Galápagos.

Modern rattlesnakes have pared down their weaponry stockpile from their ancestor’s massive arsenal. Today’s rattlers have irreversibly lost entire toxin-producing genes over the course of evolution, narrowing the range of toxins in their venom, scientists report September 15 in Current Biology.
“After going through all the work of evolving powerful toxins, over time, some snakes have dispensed with them,” says study coauthor Sean B. Carroll, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who is at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. These modern rattlesnakes produce smaller sets of toxins that might be more specialized to their prey.

A study of a well-preserved Chinese Psittacosaurus fossil shows it had a light underside and was darker on top - an arrangement called counter-shading. This suggests the species lived in an environment with diffuse light, such as a forest.