Things You Should Read

I read a lot and am both a tremendously picky reader and also easily romanced by a good book of any sort. Here are my best reads of late.

First and awesomely, Nisi Shawl’s book, Everfair, which I recently picked up from the University Bookstore. You should be able to find it everywhere.


Nisi is a personal friend and I have long admired her deep thinking on prose, story, and perspective in story. She has this term for thinking about characters and how they interact with the world called parallax, which is a physics term that applies to how you can tell where something is based on how it is viewed differently from two different points. The parallax of characters means something like you learn a lot more about yourself/the world/the story when you let in room for showing things from different perspectives. Brilliant and important, and while I am only at the beginning of this steampunk in the Congo (during the terror of Leopold the second) I am so enjoying the sentence, the characters, and the story.

Next, a cookbook I borrowed from the library that is called VB6, which is a mysterious title unless you are part of the flexitarian/vegan before six faithful. In short, it’s this cookbook by Mark Bitman, former NYT columnist that is full of great vegan recipes. I am a lifelong vegetarian that is always look for new recipes with appropriate amounts of protein in them. This cookbook is brilliant at putting beans and tofu in everything, everything, and so far I have enjoyed sweet refried beans with apple slice for breakfast, a brilliant lentil soup, and this weirdo tofu jerky that is utterly addictive. Yum. I find this cookbook full of super easy recipes and highly recommend it for anyone tired of the boring boring same old cooking.


And last, the book I found at the lovely free library a block away. I don’t know if most cities these days have tiny free libraries, but Seattle is full of them and I love the adventure of opening them and seeing what’s there, as well as filling them up with books I love but don’t need any more. This book, Dinotopia, by James Gurney turns out to be such a great read if you happen to have a three and six year old to get to bad at night and don’t personally want to be bored to tears. It’s written from the point of view of a (fictional) biologist and naturalist from the Victorian era getting shipwrecked on an island full of… you guessed it: DINOSAURS! The illustrations are astounding and the story is great and intriguing. I think (via a sticker on the cover) it was a big hit a while back, so maybe everyone has already read it, but it is a gem.


What I Didn’t Do

Things I didn’t do today because I sat in front of my computer and worked on boring book revisions (and made awesome progress).

1. I didn’t make hot fudge sundaes with caramel and hot fudge sauce and think about my Grandpa, because hot fudge sundaes always remind me of him.

2. I didn’t go to the overcast and windy beach and get sand in all the wrong places.

3. I didn’t read books to my kids and see how the latest Lumberjanes turns out. Man, I love that series.

4. I didn’t fool around on the internet and feel fascinated but then emerge hours later from a fugue state vaguely recalling that there had been a cute dancing baby rhino, maybe.

5. I didn’t watch videos of people making fun of Trump and Hillary since this election year is my Olympics.

6. I didn’t go to that secret hammock down the street and eat all the half-moldy and forgotten strawberries and then take a nap.

7. I didn’t stare at my kids and be absolutely perplexed by how perfect they are in being themselves and how absolutely lucky I am to get to be one of their creators.

But, I got to make my own weird world where strange and cool things happened, so there’s that.

Where the Ideas Come From

One of the ephemeral pieces of creating oneself as a writer is noticing and finding the stories you want and need to tell. Eventually, if you write enough, you start to notice that story is all around you, seeping into your coffee and stabbing you in your sleep. But it takes a while to notice it. So, here are some places I go to look for story when I need it.

1. Misheard randomness at the coffee shop.

This is from some notes I took at a cafe once, and I have no idea what this person was talking about, but I love it: I am never looking back. I am so glad I’m never looking back. I cheated and am on the moon now.

2. Bad news that is enraging.

Flint Michigan poisoning all its children with lead because their unelected city manager changed their water source to the Flint River and didn’t treat it properly. This makes me so mad and my mind starts to spin off into ways those kids might someday enact revenge on the city manager, or more positively how this could be the root for some kind of big grassroot’s campaign for justice.

3. Deranged listicles and the bananas culture of the clickbait world.

I mean, really. That edge of pop culture is so surreal. You could just take the headlines and write something near future and rad.

4. Mythologizing your own past.

Have you read Among Others, by Jo Walton? It’s her autobiography. It’s also the story about a twin girl who battled her evil mother and teamed up with faeries and what her life is like after saving the world.

5. Walking through the world quietly and observantly and seeing what happens.

If it’s good enough for my friend Walt Whitman….

Writing Shortcuts

True Fact #1 : I’m the administrator for the Clarion West One-day Workshops that take place nine Sundays a year at the University of Washington Book Store.

True Fact #2: I’m the administrator for these workshops because I think they are damn brilliant at giving writers shortcuts in their writing. By shortcuts, I mean cutting down some of those 10,000 hours to writing mastery.

True Fact #3: They do that by focusing on a specific part of writing: plot, character, visceral details, the spark of creativity, etc. When we write, we try to do all the things at once, ie tell a great story, and it is really hard, for most writers, to slow it down and practice one thing for a full day. That’s what these workshops do,  and I highly recommend them.

Check them out at:

Obligatory adorable picture from when I went to Clarion West:



The Ages of my Protagonists

It occurred to me as I was working on my WIP (work in progress) this last week that there is a way in which I am rewriting the same stories with the same central stories that I wrote when I was a teenager: who am I going to be in the world and how am I going to help the world change?
Back then, a quarter century ago, I was just starting to get glimpses of the injustice in the world, contextualizing my own wounds within the power structures  of my society, and raging about why the world wasn’t a better place.
Truth? I’m still screaming and asking that in everything I write, and most my protags are teenagers, because that’s the moment, I think, when you choose to spend your life trying to change the world or not. Oddly, I’ve also been writing some adult main characters lately, and they are all super-old immortals. I have a guess this is because I find myself at this moment in life of feeling both really old and really young, but not, you know, my actual own middle age.

Six Things for when You are Stuck in the Murky Middle

Did  you have the most fantastic idea for a book and now you are 30,000 words in and staring longingly at the ending and wondering how the heck you are going to get there? Here are some things that might help.

  1. Go on a walk without a phone or any device except a pen and paper. State to yourself, in as simple terms as possible, the problem of what you are stuck on. Example: Casey and Allison need to get back into the city and get caught. How do they get into the city and how do they get caught? Think about your questions hard for the first five minutes of your walk, and then let it go and enjoy the great outdoors, smell flowers, and stop for some coffee. Drink coffee and scribble out some notes. I almost always get the answer to my questions at some time on these walks.
  2. Tell someone about the place in the story you are stuck. Tell them they have to listen to all your ranting and then, when you are done, they are only allowed to ask questions.
  3. Write down six different things that could solve your problem. Don’t worry if they would all be terrible. Write down a seventh one. Stare at it. Now doodle all over your paper. It’s fine if it’s phallic: that happens. Then crumple up and the paper and throw it in the trash and then take it out again, if you want.
  4. Think of the most complex way to solve the problem of your story. This may include guns. Think of the easiest. This may include people being way kinder than they would ever be in real life. Think of the weirdest way you could solve the problem.
  5. Draw the picture of this part of the story. Map that shit out. It can be a really ugly map. It can be any definition of map you have. It can be the worst map in the world.
  6. Write a love letter to this part of your book about all the things you’d like it to do and if this letter ends up looking like a serial killer wrote it that is totally not a problem for the book but it might be a problem for you but let’s not worry about that right now.

Good luck!

Things you should Read

Or I mean, two books I’ve read recently and loved.

Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak.
Isn’t that a beautiful title. My 5 y.o. asked me what I was reading and when I told her, she repeated the title all day long as she twirled around. The book lives up to the great title, and is magical, interesting, and strange. Thoroughly enjoyed this young adult book.

Shadowshifter by Daniel Jose Older
Daniel, are you a secret super spy who invaded my subconscious and plucked all the tropes that I love and crammed them into one lovely book? Probably not, but this book has magical murals, a cast of vivid characters not drawn from the white middle class, the real New York, and so much more. Loved it.

Heroes and the Rest of Us

A friend of mine, who I have never met in real space/time but a friend nonetheless who has done whip-smart editing for me and is generally a great person in the writerly sphere, has written a book I am wild to read. It’s called “Stay Crazy,” and it’s out now from Apex Press. Why am I so excited? First, this blurb:

“Had Philip K. Dick lived through riot grrrl and the collapse of the America’s industrial economy, STAY CRAZY would be his memoir. Erica Satifka is a prophet.”
—Nick Mamatas, author of SENSATION and I AM PROVIDENCE

Nick, another friend, never ever says a word he doesn’t mean, and if he likes a book, I’m generally in. And did you notice the PKD and Riot Grrl reference? Those are two things I will always want to read. Aside from this book being wildly well suited to some things I specifically love, there is another huge reason I can’t wait to read it.

There is am issue in books and the narratives we tell each other in who gets to be the hero? The prince? Or maybe the princess, or if we are being really wild maybe the commoner girl with a plucky heart of gold. For those of us who tell stories, we know heroes are tricky business because you want the reader to identify with the main character, and so the fall out of that is that heroes and protagonist often only come in a very narrow band of race, class, culture, country, gender, and disability. People are working on that, of course. Lots of amazing writers are working on that.  “Stay Crazy” is working on that, too.

See, the protagonist in Stay Crazy is Emmeline Kalberg, who was institutionalized after having a breakdown. She has the kind of mental illness that is hard to understand with hallucinations and a lifelong illness in front of her. Our society stigmatizes Schizophrenia in a huge way, and often imagines if someone hear’s voices they are one step away from axe murdering someone. Trust me on this one, as someone who has worked in community mental health for over fifteen years. Being psychotic makes people suspicious of you at best, and imagine you are villainous and need to be locked up at worst. But in this book? Emmeline Kalberg gets to be an awesome, complex, and worthy hero driving this story that is not centered around the fact that she is mentally ill, but is about her being human, working at a mall, and having troubles with aliens.

I can’t wait to read it. You can buy it here.


Working on Clifi in the Unseasonable Heat

I have been delving into this young adult climate fiction first draft which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. It’s a book that’s been brewing like the dankest coffee in the percolator at the back of my mind for a long time. I love it so much and really want to do it justice. I’ve tried to write it a couple of times and failed because I have had all the ideas but none of the plot. I have the plot now. I have the characters who are delicious hot messes one and all, I even have the setting (though I have yet to pick which small Alaskan town it takes place in.) Ready, set, go!


Only… the weather has been so delicious lately. Mid 70’s with the wild fecundity that only a rainy city in Spring can pull off. There are literally flower petals swirling through the air that look like snow when it is windy, and beauty holding  her nature pageant in every square inch of this town. The kids, whose event horizon of memory is way shorter than mine, are utterly marvelling in the sunshine and the growing world, because for them, it’s their first spring, really, because the other ones were so long ago. And even though this isn’t my first rodeo, it feels like the sun on my skin is a new things. Which it is. April in the Pacific Northwest should be mucky, wet, and still gray. Whatever this weather is, it isn’t normal. We broke the record for the warmest day in April in 122 years. We break records, like everywhere else, every year and humans, we really need to be doing something, a lot of things about this. Maybe I should write a book about it….


A Great Writing Workshop

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop taught by Jack Skillingsted and Nancy Kress over the weekend about “Writing in Scenes”. Nancy is renowned in SFF-land as being a gifted teacher, and Jack should be as well (as far as I know, he has done less of it). It was the excellent kind of workshop that balanced advice, concrete craft knowledge, great exercises, and lots of insightful asides that I doubt made it into their workshop notes but really enriched the day. The Clarion West One-day class (which, full disclosure, I am the administrator for), had a range of writers in different parts of their writing lives, and that got me thinking about how writing, in this deep way, never reaches a point where you stop learning. I think that is one of the intangible rewards of writing or doing any art: it is something you can sink into, give your all to, and never get bored of. It is also, of course, something that drives me bananas about writing. In any case, here were some things from the workshop that I found super useful:

1. The tension spine: Jack had this brilliant way of describing plot as this spine of tension that runs through the skeleton of your book, ever rising until the climax. As someone who can get really hung up the nine step method and the three acts and the heroes journey (etcetera to infinity) this was a more useful metaphor for me. Also, I am working (so hard!) on having more tightly plotted stories, so this was an excellent tool for evaluating my works in progress.

2. How important beginnings are: I know this, you know this, your mom knows this, but also it’s really good to remember that for a short story editor, you have maybe three paragraphs to catch their attention. For a book editor, maybe three pages. Polish and rework and polish and is it amazing yet? Make it even more amazing.

3. Sharpen your sentences: One of the delicious parts of reading is coming across fresh metaphors that crystallize some hidden meaning you’ve never been able to talk about. The job of the writer is to delight and engage the reader, and this can and should happen on the sentence level.

4. Sharpen your paragraphs and scenes: A scene works best when it has a good combination of dialogue, exposition, thoughts, and action. Get all that in there and make it awesome. Easy? No. Good idea? Yes.

And for any writers who are reading this and wondering if writing workshops, either short or long, are worth the cost, from my experience they can really shorten some of the time you spend bumbling through the woods on your writer’s journey, but at the same time if you don’t have the funds or time or convenience of geography, they are not fundamental to writing.