Writing: The Life Illiterate


Writing: The Life Illiterate

Hello. My name is Emily. Occasionally, I do things other than write.

Shocking, I know! Even when I don’t have to do these things. Even when they’re not particularly tempting things.

Sometimes, I would rather play Piano Keys than write. Sometimes, I would rather stare at my Facebook news feed with my eyes unfocused than write. Sometimes, I would rather look at long lists of vapid celebrity gossip (27 Ways You’ve Never Seen Taylor Swift’s Hair Look Before! 19 Glorious Golden-Skinned Teenaged Actresses to Judge Yourself Against!) than write. And I hate celebrity gossip. Unless it’s about me. Which it never is.

Sometimes I come home from work–a day that, plus travel time, often runs twelve hours–and I am so brain-numb, so skull-fucked, so thought-fried, that the only thing I want to do is lie down in bed, pick out constellations in the popcorn ceiling, and never think about anything ever again. I frequently get less than five hours of sleep at night. Do you know what it’s like to be away from the house for twelve hours, come home at eight, clean up last night’s mess AND cook tonight’s dinner, with the full knowledge you’re going to lather/rinse/repeat this cycle five days this week, and fit some other stuff in there too?

You probably do know. You probably do it too. My story isn’t self-pity sob-sob, it’s classic Americana at this point in the economy.

Why am I telling you this?

Because it happens to everybody. And, while I am firmly of the sit your ass down and write school of literary craftsmanship, the fact remains–sometimes, you just don’t feel like it.

And I think we need to talk about this, too. Because, if you believed every blog you read, it would look like most of us were writing automatons, able to ignore the pressures of day to day life and ART CONSTANTLY, dammit.

And it isn’t true. It just isn’t. Sometimes, you don’t want to write. You don’t want to read. You don’t want to do something particularly literary and constructive with your time, even though you usually enjoy literary and constructive things. I’ve had entire days–days–where I did nothing, accomplished nothing, wrote nothing, talked to no one, ordered pizza for dinner.

They were awesome. Fucking. Days.

My point is: everyone needs some time off. Not just from work, but from writing. From being the upper-class literary butterfly we all know you are. And on those days, cutesily though you might protest, you’re glad you didn’t get anything done. You might tweet about it the next day with dramatic sadness (‘totes unproductive today!!! #frownyface #writerslife’), but deep down inside, you know you needed that time and you’re fucking glad. You enjoyed yourself.

I’m a fairly prolific writer. I usually write two to three thousand words a day, though this number is hard to judge, as I never look at my word count. I flatter myself I’m fairly good. I’ve read all the right literary books and hold with all the proper literary opinions.

But fuck that. Because, sometimes, you need a break.

Does my 2-3 K wordcount make me any more of a writer than someone who gets down eighty words a day? No, it doesn’t. Hell no. Let’s face it, ain’t none of us doing this for a living.

Does it make me more of a writer than someone who hasn’t picked up a pen in two years?

This is where people get shirty. Because I say yes, it does.

I’ve made it a priority. It’s slightly more groundshaking on the Richter scale of my existence than getting eight hours of sleep, but less than getting six hours (we fight for those six hours, baby). I squeeze it in. I’ve made sacrifices for it. It’s part of me, and a part that matters enough to make time for.

But even I, like I said, need a break every once in a while.

Enough with this fabricated pre-packaged pablum that is ‘the literary life’. Enough with trying to sell ourselves the story of our own greatness, our own literary involvement, our own Byronic wit. Enough with the self-branding, the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman bullshit, the idea that anybody, anybody, takes a writer without a six-figure book deal seriously as a literary fountainhead.

You’re a person who likes to write sometimes. You do it well, or poorly, or some combination of both.

And then, sometimes, you go out to a club, drink something pink called a Fuck It Bucket, and shake your ass to some Pitbull. Sometimes you buy groceries with coupons and haggle with the cashier over clearance gravy mix, prefer James Patterson to James Joyce, pick up a glossy magazine, paint your toenails. Sometimes your anniversary dinner disagrees with you and you spend what should have been a love-filled night in the bathroom, your husband holding your hair while you vomit whole kernels of corn into the toilet bowl. Sometimes you get fired, and it’s totally because you did something stupid. And you never learn your lesson. In fact, you never even figure out it was your fault.

You do, in short, unliterary things. ‘Unworthy’ things. You do things which are unwriteable, things which just don’t jive with your view of yourself as a coffee-drinking, hardcover book loving, mahogany-desk owning character in the story you’ve carefully composed about your author-self.

Keep doing them.

Keep doing them because they’re you, and you need a break from the Hemingwayesque hell you’ve made for yourself.

Keep doing them because you’re a person, not a writer-character in a story.

Should you write, devote time and care to writing and getting better at writing?

God. Yes. If you haven’t gotten that by now, the answer is YES. And you should enjoy doing it. Otherwise, why are you?

But you have to do other things too, to remain sane. And, if you’re wise, you won’t be ashamed of them, because they’re a part of who you are, and a part of your writing.


WRITING: Why I Curse


Writing: A Brief But Most Impassioned Missive on the Subject of Vulgarity

A NOTE: If you have a problem with strong language in novels, that’s just fine. It’s your right to feel the way you feel, just like it’s my right to say fuck a lot in my story. My anger here isn’t directed at you. Unless, of course, you’ve felt the need to get all up in arms with me about it. In which case: fudge off.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I hope this epistolary concoction of mine, now commonly called a ‘weblog’ or ‘blog’, finds you and your spouse exceedingly well. I hope weather in the place you currently reside is good, and your friends and family have suffered no misfortune since we last had one of these strangely public private chats.

My health is good, and my family is very well, and the weather is delightful, thank you for wondering.

You may have begun to wonder, with suspicion I fear is common to all my readers, what fantastic and whimsical Turn this missive is about to take. Why, you may ask, eyes round, is this sovereign Person, previous empress of the word F-, writing in a fashion which suggests longhand, fountain pens and inkwells, and swirling my own farts in a vintage brandy glass before inhaling deeply?

Because I’m making a point, sweethearts. Life without vulgarity–it sounds different to me. It sounds like a Victorian novel, without the occasional ‘damn’ thrown in there. The lengths a writer can go to to avoid vulgarity can ruin a novel–nothing pulls you out of a world quite as fast, after all, as a group of tough soldiers standing on a battlefield around their recently dismembered comrade, whispering ‘oh sugar’ in shocked tones.

I see this question asked a lot around the Interwebs: ‘should I use cursing/vulgarity in my book’? And my answer is, and always will be:

I don’t know. Why don’t you want to?

If the answer to that question is ‘because I’m not sure it belongs in this story/coming out of this character’s mouth’, then no. No, you probably shouldn’t. Because it doesn’t belong in the story.

If the answer is ‘because Aunt Mabel would unfriend me on Facebook/I’m worried I’d lose readers/it’s not appropriate to the age group I’m trying to reach/someone might be offended if I say ‘damn’ in it/etc.’, pull your head out of your ass and do it.

I curse. A lot. I’m not proud of this fact or ashamed of it, it’s just part of who I am. The curse words in my linguistic flow are like the exfoliating beads in my morning cleanser. A brief, momentary brightness. A typographical em-dash. Mix metaphors as you will.

As I’m the sort of person who cusses, a lot of my characters are also the sort of people who cuss. They’re ordinary people, common people, people of small means and low circumstances. Soldiers, innkeepers, convenience store clerks, fifteen year old kids (who cuss more than the rest of us. Sorry, moms.). Prostitutes. Magicians.

People who don’t, by and large, say ‘sugar’.

Of course, when one of my characters is the type of person who says sugar, or doesn’t curse at all, then they’re portrayed that way. Because story.

My language is, when in novel form, not uniformly bad. I drop an f bomb or two and, okay, sling more shits than a plumber’s supersoaker. But my vulgarity is fairly limited, and, outside of language, there’s little that keeps my book from being pretty clean. Here are some comments I’ve gotten (always in private, tch tch!) on my usage of the mother tongue:

1) ‘Vulgarity just makes you look less intelligent.’

Did you not bother to read the rest of the words? ‘Cause I have a pretty big vocabulary. And I use those words too. When they’re the right word. (I’m sitting on a post about archaic words I’ve learned from my recent dive into Dickens. I am excited as fuck and you should be too. You’ll learn what a pettifogger is, and more on the best word ever: megrims.)

2) ‘It makes you look so common.’
So what. Nice attempt at shifting the blame onto ‘society’, that elusive bugbear, however.

This is the unisex companion to one girls used to get a lot: ‘it makes you look like less of a lady’. Hang on, let me check something–yep, vagina still there. However, oh my goody gumdrops goober goodness. You mean I’ll never be presented into society?

You couldn’t figure that one out earlier, like when I was born?

3) ‘People won’t like you as much if you’re vulgar.’
And there it is again! Not you, the commenter, but people. All of them out there. You know, them. The same people who, I assume, shot JFK, and rigged 9/11.

Here’s the thing, person who certainly isn’t people. As far as my novel goes, I don’t care. If someone’s shallow enough to like or dislike me based on my language choices in a novel, let ’em. It’s not like they were close friends of mine to begin with.

You read the book. You either like it or you don’t. Don’t get me wrong: I love my fans, and I respect all my readers. If someone reads my book, sees the f word, gets offended, and puts it down, well, I’m sorry we didn’t get along better. This person is making a choice for themselves and not complaining to me about a choice I made for myself, and I can respect that.

But for the person who whinges about my language to me, as though I’m a customer service department fielding complaints: I don’t take requests. You get what I give you.

4) ‘People won’t trust/respect you as much if you’re vulgar.’
Again with the people. These people. So judging, so limiting. Especially when expressing an opinion you don’t want to tell me you also hold.

And, again, the same reply: if you don’t trust or respect me, a person you barely know, because of my language choices, and you feel the need to tell me this out of some misguided sense of earthly duty, you’re a few steps higher on the ladder of pseudo-literary shame than the Grammar Nazi. You’re like the Goebbels of the English Language. And that’s your right. No one’s saying you can’t make your choice that way. Yep indeedy. Jawohl.

Also, when you’re in jail and you need to make that one phone call to someone who you absolutely know will bail you out, I’m willing to bet your first worry isn’t whether or not he says fuck a lot.

5) ‘You’re damaging your career options by being vulgar in public.’
This is the one I’ll give some credence to, because it’s true. You won’t ever be able to work somewhere superconservative if you, like I, have a filth-smearing online presence that, in addition to expressing intelligence and good communication skills through a written medium, says fuck sometimes. (And how nice of you, person who isn’t in any way people, to be so concerned).

However–how much money is it worth to you to substitute ‘sugar’ every time someone says ‘shit’ in your novel?

Answer carefully. Your sellout point is a good thing to know, just like your safeword.

I’m mentioning all this because, yes, I get a little tired of fielding it, but also as a word of wisdom for you kids who aren’t sure if ‘sugar’ is the word you’re looking for.

These people who’re telling you it’s ‘disgraceful’ to use a naughty word. These people who’re telling you it’s not what ‘well bred’ people do. These people who, in the least vulgar way possible, are implying that you’re a vulgar piece of shit, and certainly don’t deserve induction into whatever passes for proper society these days:

These people are censors, bigots, and bullies, just the same as the dickhole who cut you off in traffic and called you a cunt. They’re just keeping a G-rating on it, which doesn’t mean it’s any less bullying or censorious. It’s the same ugly thing in a prettier and more self-righteous wrapper. And, again–perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be in such a shiny wrapper when, you know, out and out telling somebody they’re worth less because of their language choices is such an ugly fucking thing.

The choice as to whether you should use shit or sugar is up to you. It is your choice, and yours alone. And it has nothing to do with you, or the Neighbors for a Purer Tomorrow who’re lurking out there, waiting for something new to be outraged by.  You’re not shouting it out to the rooftops, where everyone can hear it–you’re writing it down in a book, where people can choose whether or not they’re exposed.

No. This choice has to do with your story.

Does your long haul trucker say fuck, or fudge? If he says fudge, why? Because, let’s be honest–we all kind of expect a long distance trucker to say fuck. The opposite for a grade school teacher, a pastor, Aunt Agnes with her knitting needles and coke bottle glasses. And again, if they do say fuck: why?

If there isn’t a reason for it, it pulls us out of your story. It reminds us that there’s some little person at the typewriter, plugging away, praying like hell she isn’t (or is!) going to offend anybody. It reminds us that those pious braggarts, those constant offendees, those people whose quavering constitutions are so delicate they can’t even bear the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is saying fuck, are out there.

And they call enough attention to themselves without your help.

So cuss at will, soldiers. Cuss laissez-faire. Because if it’s the right word for your story, it’s the right word, and fuck everybody else. Anything else–any adaption, modification–would make it a lesser story.

And that’s a bigger sin than saying damn every once in a while.

EXCERPT: All These Things Just Keep On Going Bump in the Night.


Next little bit for you. In chapter two, our story shifts from John Fowler, Convenience Store Clerk Vampire Extrordinaire, to the Day Brothers, Shit Psychics. Have fun. If you’ve missed the first two parts, here they are:



“DAY,” the barista bellowed, over the ambient industrial noise throbbing from the speakers. “DAY, DEREK. DAY, DEACON. SMALL ICED AMERICANO, RED EYE CHAI WITH SOYMILK. DAY, DEREK. DAY, DEA–”

“That’s enough, thank you,” said Day, Deacon. “I’ll take those.”

But it had already begun. The coffee shop denizens, previously hunched over their laptops and smart devices, were peering at him disbelievingly. And, worse still, their eyes drifted immediately over to Derek, who, after all, looked exactly like him, and was therefore impossible to mistake for anything but his identical twin brother.

“Wow,” the barista said. “Are your names really–?”

“Yes,” Deacon said, preemptively striking. “Our mother was crazy. Thanks.”

He didn’t tip.

When he approached their table, Derek was already engaged in the standard conversation, with the standard petite and awed-looking college girl.

“A psychic,” she was breathing, right on cue. “Wow! Like, a real psychic? Like, she could actually see the future?”

Under his breath, Deacon repeated the next line in the conversation, matching his brother syllable for syllable.

“Yeah, she could. She even saw my future wife, can you believe it? Blue eyes, brown hair. She said…oh, wow. What a coincidence. She said she’d look exactly like you!”

And, in spite of the lameness of the line, the girl laughed. She was twenty, maybe. Far too pretty, and far too young, for the likes of the Brothers Day.

And she laughed.

Deacon puttered around by the coffee bar, examining the condiments and packs of sugar while his brother worked his magic. When he saw the number change hands–and Derek, ever the organizer, snapped the obligatory selfie of himself with his arm around the girl’s shoulders, for later identification purposes–he sidled back over.

“Ah,” Derek said, attaching the girl’s picture to her contact information in his phone. “Thank you, Gerard Manley Hopkins College. Your fount of wisdom is ever-flowing, and such beautiful flowers grow on your grounds.”

“Are you done?” Deacon said. “If I hear you wax rhapsodical one more time today, I’m going to be sick.”

“She was a lovely creature,” Derek purred, closing his eyes and steepling his fingers. “A woodland sprite from the pastoral lands of Aycock Dormitory. A veritable nymph of the liberal collegian Hesperides. An–ow!”

The ow was because Deacon had plunked his red eye chai down in front of him, and managed to spill most of it in his lap.

“How do you do it?” Deacon asked. “I mean, we have the same face. Pretty much the same hairstyle. But I haven’t gotten laid since we graduated.”

Derek smiled. “Simple, dear brother,” he said. “I work with what I’ve got.”

Deacon rolled his eyes. “Anyway,” he said. “I put the fliers up on the bulletin board. Hopefully, someone’s seen Beelzebot. He’s pretty hard to mistake.”

“It’s the eyes. How many wall-eyed cats do you know?”


There was a faint cough from beside the table. Deacon looked over to find the barista standing there.

“So you’re the Day brothers?” she said.

Deacon steeled himself. Derek, who would hit on anything with legs, performed a comical seated half-bow.

“We stand accused, madam,” he said.

But the barista didn’t proceed with any of the normal remarks about their stupid names. She didn’t ask if they were teased as children, or if they had any sisters named Diane or Danielle.

“There’s a letter for you guys here,” she said instead, proffering a much-crumpled envelope. “A lady dropped it off about seven years ago. We kept it around more as a gag than anything else, but, well–I guess if you actually exist, we should give it to you. Have a nice day.”

The envelope, in Mama Day’s spindly hand, read: Derek and Deacon Day, care of Cafe Colossus. Derek, wipe that grin off your face!

Derek’s grin disappeared.

“Not another one,” he said.

Madame Dorothea Day–the mother, as it happened, of Derek and Deacon Day–had indeed been a real psychic. She had achieved moderate fame in the sixties following supernaturally inclined rock bands, telling them which shows would sell out and which drugs would result in overdose. She was, some said, the sole reason all the Stones were still alive.

She had dropped off the face of the celebrity map in the mid seventies. She had married a plumber from Portsmouth, bought a ramshackle old house, started her own little family. The house had undergone constant and mostly ineffective renovations. She’d had some money, and it had lasted.

Sort of. The twins got a monthly pension. It was, combined, just enough to pay the electric bill.

Dorothea Day had been the bane of her sons’ combined existences for twenty-five long and prescient years. She’d been dead for three of them. Somehow–even beyond the grave–she managed to nag.

“Just open it,” Derek said, sighing.

Deacon popped the familiar blue waxen seal and unfolded the letter, which had obviously been composed on Mama Day’s ever-present and painfully anachronistic typewriter, and which was now yellowed with age.


The man who is about to talk to you is not to be trusted. Take his proposition anyway.


PS–Derek. The girl you were just flirting with has chlamydia. Your Mama raised a smarter boy than that.
PPs–Deacon. Those glasses make your face look fat. Why don’t you go get a nice set of contacts, like your brother?

Both brothers, in unison, groaned.

“These do not,” Deacon said, removing the trendy tortoiseshell frames he’d bought two weeks ago and glaring at them, “make my face look fat.”

“Chlamydia,” Derek moaned. “My sweet collegic flower has chlamydia?”

“I wonder,” Deacon said, “what it’s like to have a mother who wasn’t a fucking psychic, and who doesn’t nag you from beyond the grave. It must be so fucking nice. It must be so nice to be cooking an omelette, and not find a note next to the red pepper flakes telling you it’s going to burn–”

He trailed off. His sixth sense, carefully cultivated, was beginning to tingle. Bad things happened when his sixth sense tingled, not the least of them being, as this sense was attached to no visible organ, that he had nothing to scratch.

He scratched his nose anyway, in hopes, just this once, it would do the trick.

It didn’t.

“Excuse me,” said a deep voice to their left. “Are you the Day Brothers, of Day Brothers Exorcisms and Psychic Investigations?”

Deacon sighed. They had just wanted some coffee. Why did every tiny outing turn into a full-blown excursion?
“Whatever it is,” he said, “we’ll do it. But we don’t trust you.”

The man blinked at them. It was only then, craning his neck to meet their visitor’s eyes, that Deacon noticed: he was about seven feet tall, and three hundred pounds if he was an ounce. His arms and hands were covered in snaking black and red tattoos, and a similar design was blazoned proudly on his cheeks and forehead. His head, from which every hair had been carefully shaved, was about the same size and shape as a bowling ball, and was polished to the same high sheen.

He was wearing, to make matters worse, a suit. It must have been custom-sewn for him–they didn’t sell XXXXXL suits off the rack–and his red silk tie was held in place by a silver tie pin that looked antique.

It was a rooster, Deacon realized, after staring at it for as long as he thought he could without getting the shit kicked out of him. The silver likeness of a rooster, with two tiny red jewels for eyes.

“…sir,” Deacon added. Reluctantly.

The man pulled up a chair and sat down across from him. The chair, one of those spindly things popular in trendy coffee shops everywhere, groaned audibly under his weight.

“Don’t you want to know what I’m asking you to do, first? Or what I’ll pay you?”

“Yes,” Derek said smoothly, shooting Deacon an exasperated look. “Of course we do. We’ll discuss payment after hearing our task, and we’ll send you an invoice as soon as possible. But we will do it. Just so you know.”

The man smiled. His teeth, Deacon noticed, were filed to blunt points.

“That’s wonderful,” he said. “My organization is very glad of the help.” He stuck out a hand larger than Deacon’s forearm, and both brothers shook it. Had they wanted to, both brothers could have shaken it at the same time without touching.

“Is there some place more quiet we could go to discuss this?” The man continued. “There is information of a…graphic. Nature. That I must show you.”

The Brothers Day were pretty used to graphic. It came with the exorcism business–Deacon reckoned that, in his lifetime, he’d been covered in more types of slime than the props department had manufactured for Ghostbusters.

But it was true, college kids studying for exams in a coffee shop weren’t used to it. And, worse still–they might get curious. What Derek and Deacon did wasn’t illegal, but it certainly wasn’t normal.

And they both knew it.

And Deacon, at least, clung to what shreds of normalcy remained to him with the tenacity of a drowning man.

“Come back to the house with us,” he said at last. “We can discuss it there.”

Excerpt: Things That Go Bump in the Night


Did I tell you guys I was fiddling around with a vampire story? No?

Well, I am. It’s, erm. It’s not exactly Twilight. It’s more one of my gross goddamn stories with a vampire in it. I think–and I know a lot of you guys’ll disagree with me, but you know–I think that, as overplayed as the vampire thing is, there’s a lot to recommend it, especially in our modern age.

If you haven;t figured it out yet, I play with a lot of stories all the time. Not all of them get finished, or even get very far. But I like y’all’s input. Helps me know when I’m doing something right. Write. Whatever.

This is the story of John Fowler, ordinary dude and night clerk at a local corner store, at the close of his first hundred years as a vampire. He’s been, thus far, in a sort of vampire larval stage, possessing neither the Full Thirst nor the full powers of his older brethren. The question later in the story becomes, does John really want to be a fullblown vampire? And if he doesn’t, what the hell are his alternatives?

There’s also fun stuff about a vampire coven without cable, lesbian marital disputes, twin vampire hunters who call a poltergeist ‘Dad’, and a lockbox that may or may not contain the morning take.

May set records for the oldest coming-of-age MC ever written. Take that, frat pack bro comedies about men who can’t grow up.



As John fingered the bullet hole in his chest, Marlene the day manager lit a cigarette.

“Jesus,” she said weakly. “You gonna make it through your shift?”

John prodded the hole experimentally. The edges of the wound were crusty already, hardening. He withdrew the finger, blew away the dusty black blood that clung to it. He resisted the urge–a grossout kid urge, unworthy of a member of the eternal undead–to stick his finger in it, wiggle it around a little, and make a face.

“I should be all right,” he said. “It’s just a little uncomfortable. Do we have duct tape in the back? I think I need to make a patch.”

Marlene, a thin stream of smoke curling through her carefully painted lips, stared at him.

“On my desk,” she said. “It’s either on my desk, or it’s on top of the 7-UP crates. John.”


“What does–” she gestured with her cigarette to his chest, to the neat black hole, still smoking, in his work polo. “What does it feel like?”

“It hurts.” He shrugged. “What d’you think getting shot feels like? Just because I’m a vampire doesn’t mean I can’t feel pain, you know. I’ve just felt a lot more of it.” He poked at the hole again. “I’m used to it. Do we still have some of the old aprons back there? I should cover this.”

“Hm? Yeah. Oh. Of course.” She opened the back door, leaned in and reached around with the cigaretted hand still held outside. She returned with a work apron and tossed it to him, watching as he tied it around his waist and adjusted the front to cover his wound. “You’re sure you’ll be okay, though.”

“I’ll be fine, Mar. I’ve got spare shirts at home. Go on your damn date with Astrid and be happy you’re alive.” He winked at her. “Don’t waste all that makeup on me.”

“If you need me, I’ve got my cell.”

“I know.”

They stood for a few moments, looking at each other. The back alley was silent, a silence punctuated only by the shouts and music of the Pizza Palace kitchen pulsating dimly across the way. There was no sign anything untoward had just taken place here, let alone an attempted robbery. The small pile of dust which had once been Marlene’s assailant was already blowing away in the breeze.

No sign, of course, except for the blood. And the lockbox, tipped on its side against the dumpster. John could handle this much. He could mop up the blood, carry the lockbox inside. Eating humans was such a waste, always–way more blood than you could handle. You left evidence.

This one, though. This one had deserved it.

John wouldn’t particularly say he enjoyed looks of ultimate terror being flashed in his direction. He was a benign sort of guy. He didn’t particularly enjoy killing, either–the vampire bloodlust was a myth, or at least was a myth in his particular chrysalis-like stage of vampire evolution.

But this guy.

You didn’t point a gun at an innocent middleaged lady coming back from the bank. You just didn’t. John was a vampire–if anyone was supposed to enjoy separating innocent women from their lives, it was him–and even he thought it was monstrously bad form.

He liked Marlene. She was nice.

The peeling door across the way cracked open, and the sounds of a remixed Katy Perry song translated into Spanish saturated the alley. Javier, one of the chefs from Pizza Palace, poked his head around.

“You guys okay?” he asked. “Thought I might’ve heard a gunshot a while back.”

“Slow on the uptake, ain’t you?” Marlene snapped.

“Well, shit, lady. I didn’t wanna get shot or anything.” He peered around. “Is that–”

“Lockbox,” John said. And, because it was the only thing he could think of at the moment: “it landed on a cat.”

A man, John reflected, was a remarkable thing. When provided by a trusted person with an explanation–no matter how strange–for an unlikely event, he stopped asking questions. If the explanation wasn’t reasonable enough, he started providing details of his own.

Javier, case in point, chuckled. “You and Mar so bored you’re throwin’ the lockbox around? All right. That’s fuckin’ crazy. Let me know next time and I’ll bring the guys out.” His moving eyes plotted out the lockbox’s trajectory. “You got it pretty damn far, man. You got an arm on you. Were you guys aiming for the cat, or–”

“JAVIER.” Mr. Palace’s voice boomed from the kitchen. “JAVIER. I’M NOT PAYING YOU TO CHITCHAT.”

“Motherfucker,” Javier mumbled. “See you guys later.” The door slammed shut, Katy Perry reduced once more to a tolerable volume.

Marlene, whose fingers were gripping the cigarette so tightly she’d almost broken it in two, gave John a look. “It landed on the cat,” she repeated. “Christ. You’re a genius.”

“Just experienced, thank you,” John said. He took her, gently, by the shoulders, stubbornly refusing to inhale against the olofactory orchestra that was Marlene’s use of drug store body spray. Of course, since he hadn’t drawn a breath that wasn’t for show or for the sole purpose of sighing in a hundred years, this was easier for him than it was for some people.

He wondered, briefly, how Astrid dealt with it. Of course, Astrid smoked a pack a day, so there was plenty Astrid couldn’t smell. Maybe it was a sultry hint of warm vanilla to her, as opposed to the entire birthday cake.

John sighed, his breath whistling from the hole in his lung. He turned Marlene, as gently as he could, back towards her Accura. “Go, Marlene. Enjoy your date. Make her buy you some lobster. You’ve been talking about wanting lobster for like a month.”

“It is lobster night at Crabby Chic,” Marlene said, thoughtful.

“And you’ve been wanting a night off with Astrid since she started working the new shift.”

“Well, yeah. But–”

“No buts. I’m a vampire, Marlene. I can handle a little blood and a hole in my lung. You go and have fun.” He patted her shoulder. “Just try check out the alley before you get out of the car next time, okay? You known thieves like to wait out here much past sunset.” He picked up the lockbox, gingerly, so none of the blood that now painted it got on his shirt. “And maybe it’s time to just start using a deposit bag. Toting this lockbox makes you look less safe, not more, okay? They can see the lockbox. They can’t see a deposit bag. And your life is worth more than the morning shift’s take.”

Marlene smiled a little. John smiled in return–he was worried, at first, he had traumatized her a little. He would’ve hated to do it. Marlene was a nice lady.

Of course, she’d also been working with him for four years. She was used to his shit. Had, in fact, long since passed the point where ‘they were delicious’ wasn’t an acceptable answer to the question ‘what happened to our rat problem in the back room?’.

And even now–even after witnessing firsthand her employee feeding on a human being–Marlene was still a nice lady. And the feeding–that could be a disturbing sight, John knew. The Jackson Polluck effect of the blood spatter sent most people running permanently in the other direction.

Of course, he’d also taken a bullet for her. Little bastard had been packing, which he hadn’t been expecting when he came to Marlene’s aid. Then again: that was another thing easier for him to deal with than it was for most people. And no one–no one–should have to die or fear for their lives because of the morning’s take from a shitty convenience store.

John wasn’t so ancient he had forgotten what fearing for his life felt like. In fact, it was a condition so hardwired into the human brain that he still did it occasionally. He felt silly when he remembered, of course, but it was still a default reaction.

“Go,” John repeated. “Have some fun.”

Nothing a little duct tape couldn’t patch up.

How to Cure Writer’s Block


How to Cure Writer’s Block

You guys know all about Emily Dickinson, right? Of course you do, you’re writers and you read stuff. You know Emily Dickinson was a total shut-in. You probably spent those fifteen minutes of your middle-grade English classes where she was introduced totally, and I mean totally, pitying Emily Dickinson. I mean, she was a shut-in. There were flies and poems about death and stuff.

Then you got older. You got a job, got a car, got a family maybe. And at some point in all this–some day where you sat back and realized you got a grand total of five minutes alone today, and you spent most of those five minutes trying to pay your electric bill by phone with your husband’s credit card, which you may or may not know the security code for–you realized.

Emily Dickinson’s life of shut-innery was starting to sound pretty goddamn good to you.

Not all of us get to just sit around the house and write whenever the mood strikes us. If you do, bully for you, but there’s even less of an excuse for you not to write. Most of us, if we don’t have jobs, have house duties, payment duties, cooking duties, kid duties. Real life, whether we want it to or not, has this irritating way of filling up our time. And when you finally do get to your typewriter/word processor/fancy journal, you realize you’re so damn tired, and you have no idea what to write.

Before you know it, you’ve been doing that for a week (even on your day off), and oh my goody gumdrops goober goodness, aren’t you just so delicate, and soooo creatively blocked, boo hoo hoo.

Here’s the trick, and where my post title starts getting involved: you are not a unique elegant snowflake. Your life duties are not so special they exempt you from writing. If you want to be a writer, you have to do one thing, and one thing only, to earn that title, and that is, unsurprisingly:

You gotta write.

Mind you, I don’t think writer’s block exists. At least, not in the way it’s frequently portrayed as existing: there’s not a lot of sitting around on your bum imploring the Muse, grasping a stylus in your ink-spattered hand, cursing the gods who have stolen your own particular herbal infusion of talent. If there were, I’d be doing it. It’s good theater.

Writer’s block is what happens (and note my italics on this) when you don’t write enough to keep going.

Writing, like any other task, has momentum. Yes, your own story-time isn’t the same as time in real life. However, when you’re writing something long, there are parts that are easy and hard to write, and you’ve got to write both of them, because who the fuck else is going to do it? And here’s the thing–

–if you stop for a while. If you put off writing that hard part for too long. You, like a bike wheel in a pothole. Are going. To get. Stuck.

On the other hand: if you keep chipping away at it, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. If you keep slogging away, even though you got three hours of sleep last night and your boyfriend expects dinner simply because he gets home later. If you devote your coffee break at work to writing a few sentences here and there. If you, in short, ignore every possible rule telling you to wait for inspiration to strike, and fit in as many minute wordgasms per day as possible:

You’ll get to a point, eventually, where inspiration does strike, and it all gets easy again. For a little while. Until it isn’t any more.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no muse. There’s no divine voice of inspiration, no ‘right moment’ to write, no special place or music you need to produce a few lines of type on a blank page. Writing gets romanticized, demonized, portrayed as an art form of capricious difficulty, and it is none of these things. All it is, in its basest form, is stringing characters together until they form words and sentences on a piece of paper. A child can do it. Somewhere, a child does do it, probably better than you or me.

There are moments you’ll be able to do it better than others. (I do believe in inspiration, as long as you don’t sit around on your ass waiting for it). There are moments where you write something you think is pure fucking genius, and these are the moments you write for.

But these moments aren’t every moment (and I want you to think for a minute about other aspects of your life, and, really, when was the last time you expected those to all be heartbreaking works of staggering blah blah blah?) And the only way you’ll reach these moments–the only way you’ll ever ‘un-block’ yourself–is to keep writing, even though you’re blocked.

Do the sandwich guys as Subway stop making sandwiches whenever they feel they aren’t creatively sandwichwardly motivated?

No. Fuck no, they’ve gotta get paid. Why the hell do you think it’s so different for you?

Long story short: if you want to get over your writer’s block, force yourself to write something. If you want to get over a ‘hurdle’ in a particular story, force yourself to crawl over it, one irritating inch at a time. Who cares if you’re producing literary geenyus every moment of tappity-tapping? That’s what editing is for. If you want, you can come back and write the whole damn scene over later, when you have your Best of Bjork limited edition vinyl and your Bedazzled typewriter to hand and the yarrow stalks predict a good writing day.

For now, just get it done. And once it’s done, you can go on.

This is how you get anything, anything in the world, done.

Happy tough love motivational post Friday. I’m here to answer any questions you might have, field any invective you might throw, etc.


Writing: My Process



WARNING: This post is more fun process-related ramble than educational, or even really about outlining. But I never tell you guys stuff about me, so here goes.

I would like to take this moment, random internet viewers, and lie to you.

I would like to tell you I wake up at five in the morning, so I have a few hours to drink coffee and let my day begin before work. I’d like to tell you I’m typing this in some super-fancy writing room (we’ll call it ‘The Solar’,) in a lovely Frank Lloyd Wrightesque split-level somewhere picturesquely deep in the woods.

I’d like to lie and tell you I’m wearing a smoking jacket and a fez, I have my life in order, and most of all, I would like to lie and tell you I use outlines.

However, none of this is true. I’m wearing a work dress and shoes that are, even by my approximation, shitty (and they’ve been broken down and shitty for two years). I am literally typing this up with tablet on knee during an hour-long inter-city bus ride into Raleigh. And I have never–never in my LIFE–seen any point to a fucking outline. Outlines are the devil. Outlines are a plague worse than diphtheria, malaria, and typhoid combined into one Victorian heart-of-darkness-style masterfuck.

Some people disagree. Some people–probably people who make dinner at night instead of throwing up their hands and going ‘eat whatever we have’–like them, even need them, to write a good story. And that’s all well and good. Different strokes and whatnot. I’m not saying everybody functions like I do.

However, in high school, I was that kid who groaned whenever I saw I needed to write an outline for a paper. I would do it–for the graaades, honey–not even save it, and never look at it again. Because it was a useless piece of paper.

Because I pants harder than Wrangler Jeans. (More on this subject can be found here).

I wanted to take a moment and discuss why it is this works for me, and why I believe in pantsing as opposed to the traditional outline-and-elaborate method. There are, as best as I’ve been able to figure out, two main reasons this works for me. And they are:

1) I am Pygmalion, and my characters are like hideous Galateas..

I approach writing more as a sort of sculpting than a linear a to b style undertaking. I slosh down my first draft with all the abandon of a frat boy at an end of year kegger. I get it done, more or less. I get the plot hashed out as best I can. And then, when I have the tangle of words that serves in this extended Pygmalion metaphor as rough rock, I start chipping away.

Because a story, I feel, is a thing best approached from both ends. When I’ve already written my ending, I have an idea of where I want the beginning to go, and how to flesh it out so it goes there better. I’ve a rough idea of all the little things that are going to make my Galatea lovely, and once I have the whole body of work to move over I can pay them proper attention.

When you employ this method, there are reasons for you to stop and think, even in the creation of your rough draft roughage. And outline, on the other hand, lulls you into the mistaken idea that you’ve already figured it out pretty well (you haven’t) and you know exactly what needs to happen (you don’t). It gives your characters a little room to take on life–I’ve had moments where my characters, instead of doing what I’d like them to do, what would make the plot turn out how I want it to turn out, decide to go do something completely crazy.

If you think this is pointless romanticizing of the writing process, you’ve not been writing for very long. It doesn’t happen because omg mysterious creative juices or anything: it happens because, whether you realize it or not, something you have planned for your plot doesn’t jibe with the way you’re writing your characters. I had this problem in Aurian and Jin, when Jin’s leaving Dern Darien for the last battle with the Bonemaker–in my first draft (and in my head) she let Aurian go along with her, and it just never worked, because Jin’s high-powered controlling ass wouldn’t do that.

It took me about three weeks to realize exactly what was wrong, and I was glad I did. Because it’s an important developmental moment for both Jin and Aurian (spoiler warning!)–Jin needs to learn that needing people doesn’t involve yeast and a floured surface, and Aurian’s passive ass needs to learn that he can be needed, and that Jin can be wrong. Without that developmental milestone, both characters would be flatter, and the climactic scene, where Jin and Aurian kill the Bonemaker together, would lack the emotional resonance of two people, one entirely too independent and one entirely too dependent, creating an equalized unified front.

Had I used an outline, I might never have caught that. Because, instead of writing the story to fit the characters, I would have written the characters to fit the story–which, if you want great characters, is a cardinal sin.

To generalize: pantsing lets your creation magnifique take on a life of its own. And that’s what you want in a story, isn’t it? Life.

2) I spend a lot of time thinking about this shit anyway.

When I say I don’t do an outline, that may not be entirely true. No, I never write it down. No, it isn’t color coded and appended like my grocery lists (I’ll say this for me, I write a helluva grocery list).

But when I’m doing something mentally non-taxing, like cooking dinner or cleaning the house or taking a nice long walk, I let my mind wander. And it wanders, invariably, to whatever I’m writing (a sign, probably, that I don’t have a very interesting life). And I think through these things. I picture my characters, picture what they’d be doing right now, what they wear, who would play Jin in the move (I’m feeling Tilda Swinton, but I think she’s too pretty). I visualize my scenes in living color, pick out scene music.

This might sound a little woo woo New Age write-and-do-yoga to you, and it probably is. But I’ve found light motion helps me think–even restless pacing, if I’m stuck in the house. This might be because I’m tie-me-to-a-jungle-gym levels of ADD. Or it might be because I’m overall a visual sort of person, and seeing the words on the page actually blocks me up a little bit.

In fact, the only thing that helps me with a big block is time to sit back and mull it over. Some people call this writer’s block–unfairly, I think (I’ll do a blog soon on why, precisely, I think the idea of writer’s block is stupid). You’re still performing the writing process, you just aren’t writing any words down. And, just like ninety percent of what you know about your world never makes it to your manuscript, ninety percent of your writing-thoughts never get written down.

This doesn’t make them any less important or useful. It just means they weren’t the best ideas.

If you have the sort of shaggy, visually-focused thought processes I have, an outline quickly starts looking more like a football play would look if Wilkie Collins vomited laudanum all over it. Not a terribly useful document for anybody, even the person who wrotedrew it. So you might as well cut that step out, right? Because The Moonstone, that’s why.

Anyway. This isn’t one of those posts where I give you good advice, or try and tell you what to do. This is just a little glimpse into my process, if there is indeed a process. I don’t need a lot of prewriting, fancy writing tools, etc., and I certainly don’t need Scrivener. What I need, for the most part, is a little bit of time and a repetitive task. And then, at some point, word processing.

Happy Wednesday.


In a brief and hurriedly-typed blog post, I am happy to announce that The Antidote, my Aurian and Jin side novelette is live. You should totally check it out if you like mobs of angry villagers, mobs of relatively collected villagers, sticking branches through cows, or, of course, drunks. Woo! Celebrate with me for a very affordable .99, which is less than the cost of pretty much everything except a pack of ramen noodles.



EXCERPT: Balancer, Pt. II


Soooo hey, you guys. The Antidote comes out tomorrow, and I am, of course, losing my shit trying to get stuff ready. As a result, I’m here telling you to fricking buy it if you liked Aurian and Jin. I’d say something more entertaining, but I’m a little tired. So: buy my book.

Also, to distract you from how tired and boring I am today, here’s more Balancer. Poor Habbi. It’s tough when the High Mother of the village is actually your mother. You get held to a higher standard.

Here’s the first part of Habbi’s story, if you didn’t catch it. The Balancer, Pt I.


Habbi spent as many days as he could in his wada on the foremost peak of Mount Farsight, fiddling with the arrangement of his dreamstones and trimming the goat. The goat proved rather resistant to the concept of trimming: every time Habbi got near him with the shears he would bleat piteously, lower his horns, and threaten a last-stand charge. Habbi was not a herder–was, in fact, one of only four boys in the village whom the Mother had decreed unfit for a future with livestock.

Chasing Stew from one end of the yard to the other with the shears and a horsehair brush, Habbi reflected that the Mother, as in all things, had been entirely correct.

But try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the goat. Yes, it would mean stew for weeks–and, at the end of those weeks, another trip to the ur-village, another sight of Mikki and her clever red beads. But he rather liked the goat, cursed though it was. He’d been destined for a life of Balancing from his tenth birthday, cut off from the day-to-day activities of the Stone Nation. This goat was the only goat he’d ever really gotten to know. He liked its ugly chipped horns and its monotone bleat.

He liked its company.

The life of a Balancer, he reflected, was a life of loneliness. It was the life of the fulcrum point, lived in this little stone shack on a mountain peak not so different in appearance from a fulcrum point itself. But there were different types of loneliness, and just because this path had been chosen for him did not mean he had to live its most extreme manifestation.

He could keep a goat. Even Ostil, the Balancer Before, had kept his hawks.

He just couldn’t keep a woman.

He couldn’t keep Mikki.

“No,” Habbi told himself, scowling. “Stop that.”

The goat, who had been watching him trim up his cooking herbs from the pen, baaaed at him.

Habbit made a new path through the herbs, laying smooth stones from the village stream in between their rows. He scrubbed the soot from his wada walls and hung bunches of herb trimmings from the rafters to sweeten the place’s smell. He rearranged his dream stones around the shallow hole by the campfire in which he slept, wrapped some of them up in the curly yak skin under which he slept at night. He consulted the stars at night, Balanced his mind and listened to their singing. He placed the dreamstones around himself, chose locations analagous to those stars that spoke to him most sweetly in the sky. It did not increase his harvest particularly, and most mornings he woke with only one stone filled, two if he was lucky. He weighed each one, decanted it carefully into a crystal storage vial of proper warding strength.

His was an important job, he reminded himself. If it were not for the Balancer–if it were not for The One Whose Dreams Are Communal, whose nightly wanderings were the best currency in the Nations–the stones would not hold the dreams of his people. The dreams would wander the world and cause mischief, as they had in the beginning of things. And the Stone Nations would have nothing of value to trade with at the Great Gathering–only tough mountain goats and yak’s milk, shards of obsidian found deep in the mountain caves. Like they had, indeed, before the First Balancer. Before the dreams had been captured, and the world had been righted.

Habbi had not forgotten the anger dream, its mewling and its distended little belly. And there were worse things. There were much, much worse.

Unfortunately, he had also not forgotten Mikki.

Habbi lasted, in the contemplative solitude prescribed for him, for precisely three days. After three days, he was out of corn–and that, he told himself, was a perfectly logical reason to go to the ur-village. Without corn, he couldn’t make his morning mush. And it was coincidental–entirely coincidental–that Algar Farmer’s booth at market was only three booths away from Wolef Herdsman’s.

He wouldn’t even look to see if she was there.

That was the proper way of things.


Habbi had, with the force of will that came only to the truly Balanced, managed to entirely forget about the half-sack of corn he kept in the loft.

On the third day, he took up his staff and his traveling sack, tied on his warm fur boots and the cloak of skins his mother had sewed him before his going-away. He selected three crystal vials, full of the green glow of harmless laughing-dreams. He told the goat he was going away for the day: the goat, being a goat and therefore unconcerned, threw up its cud and ate some of it.

Habbi took the sloping twisted path down the mountainside to the ur-village. He nodded, with proper ceremonial sternness, to the guards at the wooden gate.

He wound his way through the market, which was small but lively. He basked in the sound of other human voices, the sight of maidens almost as pretty as Mikki on stone benches in the Great School for Women, dutifully repeating the lessons of their teachers. He waved hello to the folk who waved at him.

He was displeased, but not entirely surprised, to find the Mother standing in front of the Farmer’s booth, arms crossed, face severe under the tattoos of leadership that covered it. She was carrying her carved ivory staff, which she only carried when she was out to teach someone a lesson. Habbi had the rather unfortunate idea this lesson might be taught to him.

“Hello, High Mother,” he said, covering his eyes and bowing in the traditional greeting for a High Mother of the Nations.

“Hello yourself,” the Mother said, scowling most untraditionally. “Habbi. You and I need to talk.”

Habbi had thought of this situation, back in his wada while he decanted the dreams. He had debated what he would say, what he would do, if caught by the Mother.

Of course, he reflected wryly. The very fact that he considered it being caught said something about his state of mind. The phrase he had prepared: “hello, High Mother, I was just picking up some corn for my morning mush”–died on his lips as he looked at her.

It made a child out of you, being caught with your hand in the honey-pot by the Mother. It was even worse when Habbi’s particular set of circumstances applied: when you were the Balancer of your ur-village, responsible for the flow of its dreams. Longing was an imbalance, lust and love more specific than a warm detached glow were imbalances. It led you to do things like leave dreams in dreamstones.

And, of course, it didn’t help when the High Mother was your mother.

“Habbi,” Mother said. “I’ve let this go on long enough. I’ve let you cast eyes on Mikki for long enough. I’ve let Mikki cast eyes on you for long enough. It ends now.”

“I was, um,” said the Balancer. “Corn.”

“You’ve half a sack left in your wada,” Mother said, scowling. “You think I don’t keep track of what you buy? Onegod, it’s not like you’ve been eating anything but goat stew lately anyways.”

“Erm,” said the Balancer. The Mother whacked her ivory staff against poor Algar Farmer’s  booth in a manner that suggested, very plainly, that she would rather be whacking Habbi.

“This is difficult for me,” the Mother said. “I hope you know that, Habbi. The Rule of the Nations says I should treat you one way, my heart as your mother says something entirely different. You’re lucky: nothing’s come of it so far. The Balance hasn’t been upset, no laws have been broken. But should there be one sign–one single physical sign–that all is not right with you, and your little fastness up on Mount Farsight is less than perfectly Balanced, I’ll be forced to take measures. And that’ll hurt me, Habbi. That’ll hurt me very much.”

And Habbi, who never had known when enough was enough, said: “hurt you? Imagine how I’ll feel about it.”

And his reward for this statement was a single admonitory whack from the ivory staff. Which wasn’t too bad–the punishment for his crime was, by strictest interpretation of the painted caves, ten whacks and one night in the wilderness. And a man of Habbi’s slight build and poor wilderness skills would last precisely thirty minutes in the wilderness after ten whacks from that staff.

So it was a kindness the Mother did him. He tried very hard to remind himself of this as the stinging of his cheek turned into a steady burn. As he explored the bruised flesh with his fingers, touched the impressions the staff carvings had made on his face, he told himself: you had this coming. You are lucky it wasn’t anything more.

“I blame myself, really,” the Mother said. She sighed. “It was foolish, maybe, to put you up on the mountain so young. Onegod knows, I’ve coddled you and let you get away with far too much for far too long. But what were we to do? Ostil died so quickly, and you were the only one in the village who showed proper talent for Balancing. Great talent, shining in the depths of your mind like a white lamp. And please believe me, my son. I felt sorry for you. Few Balancers ascend Farsight before their fiftieth year is out–they have lived among people, had women and sired children. They have been prepared for the contemplative life for years.” She touched his cheek, tears brimming in her kohl-painted eyes.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” Habbi said uncomfortably. For a moment, tattoos and war paint and ivory staff and all, she was just his mother again, just the squat plump woman who had herded goats and hunted yaks and cooked stew for her brood in the family wada before Onegod had called her to the position of leadership she now inhabited.

Mother was young, too, he realized suddenly. Young, for the High Mother position. He was her eldest, and he was only nineteen–though it was forbidden for a male to know his mother’s precise age, she couldn’t have been more than forty. There was no white in her hair, and only recently had he begun to notice wrinkles under the circular tattoos that covered her face.

They would have to help each other. Their positions, after all, were related–a young Balancer balanced by a young Mother. Habbi kissed his mother’s cheek, surprised, as he always was when he saw her these days, by how far down he had to bend to do so.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. “You’re right, of course. You always are. I’ll stay away from Mikki–I’ll try and come to market when the women are all at the Great School. I’ll try not to come so often.”

He pressed one of his crystal vials into his mother’s palm. “For you,” he said. “I was going to spend them on corn, but I suppose that’s immaterial now. Laughing dreams. Good ones. May they help you find a little laughter.”

His mother smiled, tucked the vial into her kirtle. “A balanced gift,” she said. “Perhaps all isn’t lost with you yet, my son. I’ll use them tonight. I’ll think of you laughing.”

As he climbed the twisting path back to his own wada, he tried not to think about the fact that, from here on out, there would be very little laughter left in the world for him.

It was not so bad. He enjoyed the Balancing, didn’t he? Enjoyed the sense of floating it gave him, the sense of suspension. He enjoyed looking up to the pinprick quilt of the stars, enjoyed mining them for answers.

He just wished he could experience his own dreams, sometimes. Even that–even the turnings of his subconscious mind–would be company of a sort. Better company than a stupid goat. Better company than the dreams he had to destroy, their twisting shapes making a sickness in his heart.

He knew what the Mother would say he could almost hear it: you are young, Habbi. Your training was incomplete. These longings will pass.

But it was not the High Mother’s face he saw when he imagined this, that visage made impersonal and mythical with tattoos and paint, but his own mother’s, her eyes worried and her lips turned down at the corners.

This train of thought was why, upon returning to his quiet wada on top of Mount Farsight, he did not immediately notice the cloaked figure hunched by the goat pen, petting the goat. He only became aware, in fact, because Stew let out a particularly pleased bleat–the cloaked figure had apparently found the spot behind his left ear which, Habbi had found through trial and error, it liked to have scratched best.

“I’m glad to see you’ve kept at least one of them,” the cloaked figure said, straightening. “I mean, I suppose even you would get tired of stewed goat after a while. You and I need to talk, Habbi. It’s urgent.”

The figure pushed back its hood.

“Stones and nightmares,” Habbi swore. “Black dreams and a turned knife, I can’t catch a break today, can I?”

It was Mikki.

WRITING: Why I Read One Star Reviews


WRITING: Why I Read One Star Reviews

A note: this is me talking to y’all as a reader and not a writer. I’ve had some awakenings lately as to what actually DOES make me buy a book on Amazon.

A second note: I’m probably not a good example of the majority. I have, for a while now, stubbornly bought indies with low review-numbers because their samples and blurbs are well written, and I don’t give six fucks and a half dozen dry humps whether the rest of the world liked it or not. But I’m not the only person more or less like me I know, so. There you go. Encouragement onward!

I was paging through Goodreads yesterday, looking through books for something new to spend my time on. I’ve been stuck in this fantasy/sci-fi loop for like a month, and it’s time for something different.

I found a book, mentioned several times in my feeds, called Slammerkin. Don’t ask me how it is; I haven’t read it yet. But I sure as hell bought it.

No, I’m not just telling you how my day went. What made this blogworthy–what made it worthy of discussion–is the reason why I bought it.

It wasn’t the numerous high reviews, the critical ratings, the sample (though that did help persuade me–the lady can write). It certainly wasn’t some bookspamming yahoo on Twitter. No, no. It was the numerous negative reviews.

Did you read me right there? It was the negative reviews.

Some people–not all, but some–passionately hated every character in there. They hated the premise. They hated the vapid and superficial main character. They hated the raunchiness, the depressing view of the world, attributed misandry, greed, and formless ambition to the author (!!) as well as her main character.

The negative reviews were eloquent, glowing in their expressive contempt for this novel, its characters, and even its author. Which would make you think this is a book to avoid, right?


Hell no. Hell to the no. What those reviews tell me is that a lot of people read it through–and apparently cared enough to remember quite a bit in the way of detail–and formed some very passionate opinions. If they hated it, holy shit, they had fun on the way. This book made them think. It made them care enough to hate.

And that–that caring–is more important to me in choosing a book than whether or not some assistant football coach in Choochaneechee, Iowa liked it.

These negative reviews, I have to admit, said things I liked about this book. Grungy? Count me in. Not a sentimental, gibbering bunch of pastoral holier-than-thou garbage? Sweet. Unlikeable main character? Big deal, I don’t like people anyway. And even the negative reviews admitted, the book is well written and well researched. And those two matter a lot more to me than this liking the main character garbage.

A note–if a book has several one-star reviews complaining about writing quality, plot continuity, or editing, it’s a little different. Even I’m not going to revenge-buy a bad book. But when it’s personal–oh buddy. I don’t care what some random person thought of the book, when I’m debating whether or not to buy. I care whether or not they cared. And if they passionately disliked several things that sound like things I’d like, well, one star be damned.

I’d say, as a reader, I actually look for groupings of one and five star reviews. If there are a lot of those, and few three and four star reviews, I’m happy. If, on the other hand, there are a lot of three and four stars–if, in essence, people didn’t feel strongly about it, but didn’t super duper love it, either–I avoid. Like everybody, I’ll read a book with a large percentage of five star reviews. At least, unless those reviews are badly spelled or obviously fake. Or something.

I’ll be honest, I don’t put too much stock in a negative review that cites its main reason for negativity as dislike of the main character. I mean, this is a novel, not a tea party. Nobody said you had to like everyone in it. And, to be honest again–I don’t much trust the truth of one-star reviews anyway. If you hated it that much, you probably liked it a little, deep down inside.

You liked it enough to devote about thirty minutes to ranting over it. Anyway.

I wanted to share this for you sad-face indie folks who just got your first nasty review on Amazon. Some of us DO check the one-stars, and we check them to buy, not to avoid. So, when that crazy mouth-foamer posts a one-star review with MY CATS ALL HATED IT in all caps as the title, don’t despair. It might destroy your average a little bit, but most sensible people aren’t going to let a bunch of personal (purrsonal) opinions they may or may not share shadow their view of how good something might be.

When I want to know what a book is about, what it says to people, I check the one-star reviews. When I want to know if it’s well-written, I check the sample. People give different star-values to things they like–a book with one bad typo which a reviewer otherwise considers perfect might get three stars, where another person might take pity on an author and give a steaming pile of garbage five. However, the stuff you hate only gets one rating, and that’s one star. MAYBE two. Usually one. And me, I want to know what you felt strongly enough about to hate.

Hopefully this cheers somebody up. I know it certainly did me, when I realized what I’d been doing. Like I said, no one star reviews yet, but I know that day is coming. I hope somebody one day hates my book as dramatically as these folks hated Slammerkin. That would tickle me almost as pink as someone loving it–I mean, at least they noticed, right?

Excerpt: Balancer


I’ve been experimenting with storystuff lately, as you’ve probably noticed. Nothing too serious. Just a couple of spring flings.

This might be the one, though. Cue songs about summer love. I need a new fantasy, since I’m getting pretty close to buttoning up Aurian and Jin, and I want to do something out of the norm for me–out, that is, of that comfortable high middle ages ladies n’ lords norm. I need to get better at worldbuilding, honestly–much as I hate even saying that, because it implies worldbuilding is somehow a separate thing from writing a good story, and it’s not. Frankly, the most fabulous thing about this so far is that first line, but I can roll with it. Paying for things with dreams? Yes, awesome. Goats? Always awesome. Paying for goats with dreams? Fucking perfect. Right. Yes.

I’ll be coherent tomorrow, when I’ve gotten some sleep and I’m not feeling quite as sick. Until then, here’s some Balancer for you. What d’you guys think, could this be The One? And if it is–where should I propose? Should there be a moonlit garden, those floating lantern thingies? Or is this just another cheap beginning, and it’s bound to break my heart somewhere along the line with its loose ways and shallow disposition? In which case, I can at least glean a country song from it.


Stew Before The Week’s Out

It was market-day in the ur-village of Sivit, and Habbi the Balancer bought a goat with his last vial of daydreams.

It was a fabulous price. Habbi had been expecting to spend the vial, two vials of nightmares, and at least one of his hoarded flying dreams, but the goats had produced plentifully last season, and the ur-village was filled with more of them than herders could possibly market.

This goat was old, also. His fur was matted and rank, turned by a season’s foraging into a mass of brown dreadlocks almost as long as Habbi’s own. His horns were yellowed, chipped from rummaging on the mountain peaks for grass. He regarded Habbi now from the stone pen in back where Habbi had put him, his sideways goat-eyes unblinking.

Habbi did not care that the goat was old, was male, that his mating days were long past. He didn’t need to produce more goats or milk. He hadn’t, in fact, really needed a goat at all.

He regarded the goat for a while with both arms crossed.

“All right, Goat,” he said at last. “You’ll be stew before the week’s out. I shan’t get attached.”

The goat bleated mournfully, shaking his bearded chin.

“Nope,” Habbi said. “Not going to happen.”

He stepped back into his wada and tacked the skins that served as a door closed. He laid out his dreamstones and began polishing them with an old hide, buffing the stones until they shone. One of them glowed sullenly, its belly churning as though there were a war inside of it.

It was not a war, of course. Not yet. It was a dream.

Surprised, Habbi held the stone up to the sunlight filtering in from the wada smokehole–had he been so careless, truly? The dream inside the stone pulsed faintly, sensing the touch of its maker. It was deep red, fringed with oranges and livid pinks. Probably an anger dream, judging by the color and the faint sulphur stench of the stone.

Not good for much, unless he wanted to get into the darker aspects of his trade. Dangerous to leave untended.

Outside, the goat bleated again.

“Hold on, Goat,” Habbi murmured. He turned the stone around in his hands. A bad business for a cursed day–leaving dreams trapped for this long was careless. He’d been in too great a hurry to get to market, too focused on the acquisition of the goat. Dreams tended to feed on themselves, and the bigger they got, the more likely they were to break the dreamstone’s wards. This one was hungry and big, and its stony prison shook with the effort of retaining it.

The last runaway dream he’d heard of had been in Starek, on the other side of Sivit. It had been a flying dream–some amateur Balancer had doubtless been trying to save it up and stored it in a stone with inadequate warding. The whole village had floated a foot from the ground for a month, and the Stareki had resorted to tying rocks to their ankles for simple acts such as walking and bathing.

It had been bad business. Yes. But this business could have been much worse. Habbi cursed himself for an idiot as he readied the dreamstone for discharge, readied his bone blade for the kill that would follow: such carelessness was for the elderly, folks whose dreams were weak and almost used up. A young man’s anger dream–especially a Balancer’s anger dream–Onegod, that could start chaos.

No more, Habbi told himself firmly. No more getting so excited about market. You would’ve wrecked the Stone Nations, and for what? For a mangy old goat? For a few moments chatting about the weather with Wolef the Herdsman? For a taste of Mikka Wolef-Daughter’s cinnamon tea?

(Or, he reflected, for a sight of Mikka Wolef-Daughter? Her hair had been braided and the braids had looked new. There were red clay beads in them, clever clay beads. Her kirtle had been perfectly clean, the skins fragrant and rubbed with fresh oil, gleaming the same rich brown as her almond eyes. And there had been something in the way she had delivered the ritual greeting. She had almost met his eyes. It had been bold and familiar. It had thrilled him, a little–)

“No,” Habbi said, shaking his head. Even this–even Mikka Wolef-Daughter, with her bold eyes–was not worth the forgetting of a dream. He wiped down the blade of his bone knife one last time and dropped the stone onto the ground he crouched over.

“Come out,” he snapped, forgoing the singsong tone proper to the ritual for expediency. “Come out, dream thing. Your maker is calling.”

In the oval belly of the stone, the dream trembled. Habbi glanced down, ascertaining its condition with practiced ease: the dream boiled and flexed, making the stone shake and the entire sleeping section of his wada smell like a rotten egg. He raised his knife.

The stone was listing to the left. Its dream was nearly full-grown. It would move left when it escaped the stone, and quickly. His knife arm might not be fast enough on its own.

He would need to be Balanced. He would need to be prepared.

He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to blossom, to expand in the familiar spiral of the Balancing. He let the cold of the mountain air wash over him, the faint peaty smell of the bog some four hundred feet below. He filed these things, along with the rotten-egg smell of the dream and the faint warmth of his cookfire, into their proper places across from each other in his consciousness.

Outside, the goat was bleating.

He Balanced it with a soft hum.

The fire cracked and popped.

He Balanced it with the back and forth scraping of his boot against the ground.

When it was all Balanced–when each thing had its opposite, when, as his old teacher would have said, each hand had its foot, he spoke the final words of the ceremony, soft and low so as not to disturb the world he had righted.

“I release you, dream thing.”

And it was fast, as he knew it would be. As he knew it would, it moved left. It blurred for a few seconds, red and orange and plasmic and formless, before it took on a form he’d seen them take too often: a humanoid fetus, limbs still echoing the curve of the womb, lashless and hairless, huge head crowned in blood and afterbirth.

“Mama,” the thing burbled. “Mamama. Ma. Mama.”

They tried to appeal to their makers, did the dreams.

A less powerful Balancer might have even hesitated.

Habbi’s knife flew true, and his arm was strong. The thing cried out once, disappeared in a flash of red light.

Its blood on his knife did not.

He wiped it off with his polishing cloth, keeping his movements slow and calm as the world around him returned to its usual state of Unbalance. This was the part he hated–the blood on the blade. He had made the thing, in a way–it had been his dream. A part of him.

No more Mikka, he told himself firmly. No more goats. It was getting foolish, these market trips.

Outside, the goat bleated mournfully. Habbi ripped the skins from the doorway and shouted at it:


And the goat, he saw, had escaped its pen, as goats were wont to do. It was standing right outside the wada, chewing patiently on a handful of Habbi’s hard-grown cooking herbs. Its sideways eyes regarded him clinically.

“Gah,” said Habbi. “Goat! I’ll turn you into stew!”

He snatched the axe from its hook by the wada door and advanced a few threatening steps, hefting it above his head and scowling.

The goat continued to chew. With a liquid hrrukhkk, it spat up its herbs.

Habbi shook the axe.

The goat began to eat what it had regurgitated.

Sighing, Habbi returned the axe to its hook. “Onegod,” he groaned. “Even you can see I’m hopeless. How can I just sit up here on this peak all day? What do they expect me to do, commune with the wind? I need company, Goat. I’ll go mad without it. But when I get it, I can’t concentrate.”

“Baaa,” said the goat.

“Fine,” said Habbi. “If that’s how you want it to be, I suppose I’ll have to keep you. Your name is Stew. And stew, mind you, is precisely what you’ll become if you prove too much trouble.”

“Baaa,” Stew said, and headbutted him gently.

“None of that,” said Habbi. “Not until we get you cleaned up.”