Friday, June 14, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Transgender Heroine in a Dystopic World

The Book of Flora (The Road to Nowhere, Book 3), by Meg Elison (47North)

I loved the first book in this trilogy (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife), the “origin” story of the collapse of civilization when most women die in a plague, and the heroism of the unnamed protagonist, who records her survival – and transmits her midwifery skills to ensure the next generation. Although I was uneasy about the portrayal of men as either bullies/gangleaders/rapists or gay, I went along with it for the sake of the story, which was as gripping (it won the Philip K. Dick Award) as it was grim. The second installment, The Book of Etta, was also grim, for many of the same reasons, but intrigued me with its treatment of LGBTQ folks in a world where controlling women’s bodies and maximizing their fertility are the keys to humanity’s survival.

Flora, a transwoman and silk weaver from Etta, is the central character in the third book. The story is just as dramatic, with a cast of intriguing characters, strong narrative prose, and a nice balance of pacing. Yet I found myself with increasing resistance to the portrayal of men and of relations between the sexes (however many sexes there are). Some of this may have been due to recently reading several of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies Detective Agency novels, set in Uganda, which include some of the most genuinely good, kind men in contemporary literature. Maybe America goes the way of savagery, but it was hard for me to imagine someone like Obed Ramotswe or Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni behaving that way. Afrofuturism may point the way to a compassionate path through dystopia. At any rate, The Book of Flora kept me turning the pages, but it isn’t a world I’d ever want to live in, which is not the purpose of literature, anyway. I’m glad to have ventured into Elison’s dark, terrifying future, and see this trilogy as an important contribution to the examination of power, sex, gender, and culture.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Jean-Léon Gérôme, "Carpet Merchant in Cairo" (1887)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

New story up on Curious Fictions, one of my favorites. Read the whole thing here.

Dragon's Beak and Wings of Bronze, or Something Unusual Happens to Allis

Eagle's beak cover 1

One summer afternoon, Lady Caroline hitched up her skirts, rolled two vinegar barrels into the corner of the cool, stone-floored herbarium and sat down for a private chat with her daughter, Allis. “You’re almost a woman, my dear, and it’s time you learned the family secret. The truth is, we’re were.”

Allis’s soft hazel eyes wandered to the hanging bundles of rosemary and feverfew. “Where?”

“Not ‘where.’ ‘Were’.” Lady Caroline sighed. Her sons were small and lean, as black-eyed and quick-tongued as she, while her only daughter . . .

“Were,” she repeated, speaking slowly so Allis could understand, “as in were-wolves. But not until your woman’s cycles come, and almost certainly not a wolf. I’m not, and neither is your aunt Jessie. Our family tradition has always been far more imaginative.”

Allis heard the sigh and the patience in her mother’s voice. Drifting on the patter of words, she guessed that something was going to happen to her, something that involved turning into an animal. Not a wolf, for she wasn’t nearly clever enough to be a wolf. Something slow and sleepy, like she felt right now. A lizard dozing in the sun? A turtle on a log?

Oh, dear. Suppose she became a were-turtle and nibbled on ants’ eggs? When she turned back into a girl, would the eggs still be inside her stomach?

A Rose to Sweeten Your Day

Sarah (adult daughter living with us) is in charge of flower arrangement. Our roses have been very happy! This blossom is about 6 inches in diameter.

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Moderator's Questionnaire

I've moderated many panels over my 35 years as a pro writer, including WorldCon, World Fantasy Con, and SFWA's Nebula Awards Weekend. I've participated both as a panelist and audience member in those that were beautifully handled and those that were disasters. 

Skill as a writer does not qualify a person to moderate a panel, even though big names may draw an audience. Therefore, I think it's a good thing to consider what actually makes a good moderator and look for that, not just name recognition or fannish or literary credentials.

Convention programming might consider a follow-up questionnaire for anyone checking the box that they'd like to moderate a panel. Questions might include:
  • Have you moderated a panel before? What was your experience? What went right? What challenges did you face?
  • If this will be your first experience as a moderator, what background or leadership skills do you have?
  • What's the worst thing that can happen on a panel? How would you as moderator handle it?
  • How should a moderator express her or his own opinions on the panel?
  • What is the responsibility of the moderator to make sure every panelist has the chance to speak? How is this best accomplished? 
  • How do you as moderator handle a panelist who is disruptive, loud, rude, or insulting to co-panelists or audience?

Spring 2019 Newsletter

Spring 2019 Newsletter

Spring 2019 Newsletter

We made it through the winter! My life has been abuzz with writing projects, convention appearances, and -- kittens! Read about The Great Ringworm Wars below.
You'll also find the Introduction and Table of Contents from Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life, now available in a print edition with blank pages for personal notes, so you can use it as a workbook.
Here’s what’s new:

I sold a novelette to Sword and Sorceress 34. "Many Teeth" involves swordswomen, annoying mothers, and dinosaurs. My beloved spouse is already campaigning for a novel-length version.

I turned in The Laran Gambit to DAW last fall, but don’t have a release date yet. However, my editor has let me know the title will almost certainly change, so let’s call it a working title, a placeholder until inspiration strikes!

I'm hard at work on Arilinn, a Darkover novel to be published by DAW, about the founding of that prestigious Tower. 
For your reading pleasure, get 25% off my ebooks (mobi or epub) at Book View Cafe. On checkout, use this one-time coupon: Ross2019

Friday, June 7, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Heroine of the Martian Revolution

Arabella The Traitor of Mars, by David D. Levine (Tor)

First I must offer an explanation of why it took me so long to review this book, which entails a bit of background. I was introduced to the work of David D. Levine through his science fiction short stories, which by the way are awesome and utterly award-worthy. I loved the concept of the first “Arabella” book, Arabella of Mars. Intrepid heroine/coming of age! Steampunk airships travel between planets! Adventures on Mars! What more could I want? Oh yes, a bit of stowawaying and a touch of romance. I loved that first book.

Alas, when I picked up Arabella the Traitor of Mars, I did not realize there was a middle book (Arabella and the Battle of Venus). I started reading Traitor but quickly (as on the first page) realized that much, too much had happened. Who are these other people and why does Arabella have a prosthetic foot? I set it aside, thinking to pick up the middle book at some vaguely future time and then return. In the way of things, that future time kept stretching further and further away.

Then, as fate would have it, I heard Levine read the opening chapter at a convention, FogCon to be exact. First of all, Levine is an amazing reader, expressive and elegant, perfectly conveying the mildly Victorian steampunk flavor of the narrative. Two sentences in, I was captivated. Ignorance of the middle book evaporated into insignificance. So I returned to Traitor, now perfectly willing to let the story carry me along in trust that all would be made clear from context. And it was.

The Victorian sensibilities of steampunk play out in a parallel to English imperialism, with striking echoes of the occupation of India and the Opium Wars in China. Arabella remains true to her Martian roots, loyal to her principles and her alien friends, and courageous enough to leave her dearly loved husband to warn Mars of the impending assault. The chase sequence is one of the best, most dramatically perfect, I’ve ever read, worthy of the best of Patrick O’Brien or C.S. Forester. And the rest of the book is just as good. The series is highly recommended.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything in particular about it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Monday, June 3, 2019

May Was Convention Month for Deborah

I don’t attend many conventions, and most of the ones I do appear at are local. The last
Mass autographing, Nebula weekend
couple of years have presented me with more opportunities. Some have involved a bit of driving and staying either with a friend or in the convention hotel. This year began with one such, FogCon in March. I’d enjoyed last year’s so much, I found a friend to share the hotel room with.

Usually it takes me a while to settle back into my usual schedule after a convention. For one thing, I normally move more slowly through my days, and conversations with family and close friends, while often rich in ideas, are more slowly paced, with lots of pauses to listen deeply and reflect on what has just been said. So I need to “revv up” the pace for conventions and then “spin down” afterward.

This year was not going to cooperate with that principle. I got a good long rest after FogCon, but then back to back conventions in May.

The first was the SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend, which is held in different parts of the country. I try to attend whenever it’s on my coast. Unlike other conventions, where I put on my “pro writer speaking to fans” hat, the Nebs are for professional writers and editors. Not a costume in sight, unless you count the elegant garb worn at the awards banquet itself. The panels are uniformly excellent, plus it’s a chance to see friends and colleagues from far away. This year, the Nebs involved a day-long drive. Originally I wasn’t going to attend, but inspiration struck — in the form of the same friend I shared the room with at FogCon, Juliette Wade. I already knew we got along really well, so it seemed reasonable to drive down together.

Juliette had been scheduled to moderate a panel on “The Gentle Art of Cursing,” but the time was late on the last day, which would have meant either staying an extra night (and she has school aged children) or driving all night. Fortunately, the programming folks were able to not only reschedule it (to the night we arrived) but add me. So, a few notes on cursing in world-building:

“Cursing” can mean use of an intensifier (“not f--ing likely”), an expression of dismay (“#$%^&*(!!!”), an insult (“you m--f--er!”), or a ritual to invoke harm upon another. In English, we tend to use the same words for the first three, and frown upon the fourth as dark magic. Obscenities typically involve reference to bodily functions or religion. Certain words sound like “cuss words.” We tried out some invented words and found that some worked better than others. I sang “frell” as if it were operatic Italian.

I made it to the last half of the panel on Managing a Creative Career with a Mental Illness, and wish I’d gotten there sooner. Here are my notes, wonderfully insightful concepts we can all use, whether we have a diagnosis or not:

  • “I have brain measles.”
  • “I am having symptoms.”
  • Practicing saying, “Thank you, I appreciate that,” when receiving praise. Give more compliments to others.
  • Get support from others who’ve been there. Strive for good brain health. Get enough rest.
  • Allow yourself to have down/off/rest days/times.
  • Remember that you have been through an episode like this before. You have written, and you will write again. This too shall pass.
  • Crazy VR (virtual reality) doesn’t resolve just because you recognize it for what it is. You still have to live with it.
  • If you’re having a down day, let people know, especially if it involves deadlines and other commitments.

Another of the “money shot” quotes came from David D. Levine, when describing how to make an effective pitch: don’t impose a cognitive burden on your listener; make it easy to grasp the concept.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Greek Gods Teach the Classics

By Jove, by Marissa Doyle (Entangled Pub. and Book View Café)

I picked up this romance set in a university Classics (Greek, Latin) department, hoping for a light-hearted love story, probably involving one or more Greek gods in disguise, and found much more. At first, it read like standard fare, romantic, occasionally humorous with a game of figuring out which professor was which god (and wondering why our heroine, Theodora Fairchild, who is supposedly well versed in the Classics, didn’t have a clue). But the story took a turn into satisfying depths as Theo and Grant Proctor begin courting, and she steps into the role of teacher – not just about romance but about the rich panoply of emotions that make up being human. He grows, but so does she, in the very process of verbalizing and practicing the dance of relationships. I won’t tell you which mythological character he is, since half the fun was figuring it out. Suffice it to say that he is very far from the all-powerful, perfect lover one might expect.

All is not sweetness and light at Waldrop University, for the charismatic, autocratic chair of the Classics Languages department, Julian d’Amboise, has his own agenda, and his own aeons-long grudge against Grant. When he sets his manipulative, coercive sights on Theo, it’s as much to cause Grant anguish as to win Theo herself.

I loved how Theo battles her way out of Julian’s clutches, rescuing not only herself but Grant. She makes mistakes, but she owns up to them and takes responsibility for making things right. The emphasis on the importance of mutual, respectful consent added to the emotional depth and maturity to the story. Julian uses magical potions to strip Theo of her will, while both Theo and Grant check in with one another. Too often, romance tropes involve force overcoming resistance, and we need better role models. Verdict: A fast, enjoyable read that rises about clichés about damsels in distress.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

[ARCHIVES] Guest blog: Chaz Brenchley Steampunks Mars (With Added Hockey Sticks)

Chaz Brenchley is an amazing writer -- I've been an unabashed fan ever since I read Bridge of Dreams, which led me to write to him, begging for a story for my editorial debut, Lace and Blade. (That story, "In the Night Street Baths," was reprinted in Wild Stories 2009.) Now, many literary adventures later, Chaz sets his sights on Mars, complete with steampunk and a girl's boarding school placed in a failed hotel that was once a Norman castle. Read on for the delicious details...

One of the joys of living in the heart of Silicon Valley is that NASA Ames is just over there, and SETI HQ is even Chaz Brenchleycloser. We live among the cool kids - and the cool kids like to share. I went to NASA for the recent transit of Venus; and ever since I moved here, I’ve been going to SETI’s weekly colloquium where planetary scientists and cosmologists talk about the latest discoveries, or the specific projects they have on a new mission, or the latest weird theory that’s almost a guaranteed Nobel prize if it should ever prove true (“but right now there are only two people who believe it, and they’re both in this room”), and like that.
So there I was with planetary scientists at my fingers’ ends for the asking, and lots of Mars talk going on around the time of Curiosity’s landing, so it’s really no wonder that I started thinking about Mars fiction. Real Mars, not so much, for it is dry and inhospitable and I have written my desert books already - but old Mars, Mars with canals and an atmosphere and aliens? Oh, yes. Very much yes.
And very much within that spirit, I wanted to steampunk it up a bit; and there was a lot of talk at that time in my social media about how steampunk tended to assume British Empire overtones, as though that were the only choice, and how it so very much was not. So I thought somewhat about that - but I did keep coming back to the British Empire, because I am far from home and the more time I spend in California the more inveterately Brit I become, and because I am the son of an Empire brat (Grandad was a major in the Scots Guards; Mum was born in Rangoon and grew up in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, speaking Malay more readily than English), and because above all I was really curious. If Mars were a province of the British Empire, how would that actually work? How could it happen, and what would it mean - to the Empire, and to European and world history? And to Mars, and to the presumptive Martians? How do you impose colonial rule on a race that has no concept of empire, or statehood, or governance? And does it make a difference if you’re there by their courtesy, via their aetherships, for reasons you still don’t understand? And how do you negotiate even the broadest heads of agreement where you can barely communicate at all? 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Alien Abduction Falls Short

Glow : Book I, Potency, by Aubrey Hadley (Ruby & Topaz Publishing)

This book began auspiciously with a homeschooled teenager who loves soccer and rebels against her mother’s demands for a curfew as a mysterious “sleeping syndrome” reaches epidemic scale. Not only that, but she starts seeing mysterious glowing creatures, invisible to everyone else. Before we can catch our collective breath, she’s kidnapped by an alien race bent of cleansing the Earth of human evil. What a great set-up!

Unfortunately, that’s where the story began to sag. The suspense dissipated into long, long, long stretches of characters explaining the obvious to one another. Action submerged under the weight of description and dialog that didn’t advance the plot, reveal character, or heighten conflict. Even when something important was happening, it felt distant and flat, without emotional engagement.

On a prose level, the many scientific impossibilities or rather extreme implausibilities are dismissed with “unknown reason,” or “somehow this happens.” I was able to ignore most of the medical errors, until “Unless he’s bipolar and can change his mind without a trace of his old emotions” just threw me out of the story, since my husband has bipolar disorder and that’s not how it works. Awkward prose includes bits like, “My ears comb the silence,” and “The seconds of silence that followed lingered in the air like a pungent smell.”

I want to say something about first person, present tense, when handled by an inexperienced writer. Both choices give the illusion of dramatic intensity and emotional immediacy but are actually hurdles to achieving them. Just because action happens inside the protagonist’s head and “in the now” does not automatically engage the reader more deeply. First person is commonly used in Young Adult fiction today (although this was not always true and might fall into disfavor in the future) because the focus is so often the personal growth of the central character. This creates difficulties in conveying information that’s necessary for the reader to understand but that the narrator herself does not know or that there is no logical reason for her to think about. You end up with dialog whose only purpose is the edification of the reader, or in which two characters tell each other what they already know, or ask idiotic questions at inappropriate times, which happens entirely too frequently in this book. Present tense in particular requires skill in order to not be flat and passive. You end up with passages of verbal flab like:

We go through the net, the garden, and then come to the base of the structure. There is no visible divide between the inside and outside. We enter the building by walking through an invisible force field. We enter a massive lobby with towering white walls that elegantly slope down from the ceiling and rise up from the floor like white sand dunes. We go to the wall straight ahead.

If you’re in need for a cure for insomnia, look no further. (Snarky aside: three out of four sentences begin with “we,” and two of those “we enter” — what editor let this slip through?)

I think in the end the length and tedious pace bothered me so much because I didn’t connect with the central character. She kept asking annoying rhetorical questions, and the choice of present tense conferred an unfortunate emotional flatness. Another reader might love the book. For me, though, the fact that this is only the first book in a series made it ¾ of a book too long. The story is imaginative and should have been compelling. I don’t know whether the author or the editor bears the greater share of blame for the result.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

BayCon 2019 Schedule

Here's my schedule for BayCon 2019

Besides these events, I'll be around on Saturday the 25th, so please say hello!

How To Write A Heroine

26 May 2019, Sunday 14:30 - 16:00, Connect 5 (San Mateo Marriott)
Tips for writing strong female protagonists in sci fi/fantasy (or YA sci fi/fantasy).
Marjory Kaptanoglu (M), Ms. Jennifer L. Carson (Freelance), Deborah J. Ross

Urban Legends in Science

27 May 2019, Monday 11:30 - 13:00, Connect 3 (San Mateo Marriott)
Salt causes high blood pressure. We only use 10% of our brains. Vaccines cause autism. Where does this stuff come from, and why do these fallacies persist? Scientists and science-knowledgeable fans dissect some of the crazy things we hear.
J.L. Doty (M), Deborah J. Ross, Kathleen Bartholomew (Self-employed)

By Any Other Name

27 May 2019, Monday 13:00 - 14:30, Synergy 5 (San Mateo Marriott)
Are character and place names important to a reader's response to your story? What about titles?
Ms. Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff (Book View Cafe) (M), Heather Rose Jones, Deborah J. Ross

Today's Moment of Art

Still life with a squirrel by Edouard Vandenbosch, 1874

Monday, May 20, 2019

Memories of Vonda

My friend and fellow writer, Vonda N. McIntyre, died last month. There were a bunch of obituaries, including mainstream papers like The New York Times and The Guardian, and many genre publications. Her friends have been gathering memories of her as well. It took me a while to pull together my thoughts, but here they are:

I have been thinking what I could add to the wonderful stories about Vonda. She was one of the many amazing women writers who inspired my early career, but I didn't meet her in person until 1994, when she came to Los Angeles (where I lived then) for a fellowship to the Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project workshop. How could I resist the chance to meet her? I wrote to her, introduced myself, and received a warm reply. I picked her up and brought her home to my family. I remember her relaxing, being treated as a normal but quite fascinating person, away from the artificial, competitive environment of Hollywood. We got together a number of times during her sojourn, talking a little about writing but mostly life and food and the weather, just enjoying each other's company. I remember her returning the favor when I was in Seattle for a convention and she took me out to the best salmon dinner I've had in my life. We found a lot to laugh about. Then when I joined Book View Cafe she was my mentor as well, endlessly patient and encouraging. (Plus I got to brag that she formatted my ebooks, how amazing!)

One particular discussion stands out from her time in LA. The topic had gotten on to media tie-ins and shared worlds (she'd written Star Trek and Star Wars novels, and I had a story in a SW anthology and Darkover anthologies -- and I have since gone on to novel-length works in that world). I asked her if she regretted taking time from her original writing and she said that the tie-ins made it financially possible to work on other, less commercial projects. The way she discussed her work made it clear that she did her best, no matter what the story, how her imagination and sensibilities and values enriched everything she produced. That has stayed with me over the years as I've wrestled with my insane expectations of myself and my work: Write the best you can with whatever life gives you. The rest will take care of itself.

Ironically, the last book Vonda was going to format for me was a collection of my Darkover short fiction. Here's the last email she sent me, typically generous, loving Vonda:
Hi Deborah, 
Body is sort of setting the boundaries.
I sure wish I could finish the book for you.
So of course the book is dedicated to her.

Miss you much, my dear friend.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Great World-Building Shows Promise

For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones (St. Martin’s)

The best thing about this book is the world-building, which the author has clearly put a great deal of care and thought into, at least for the central realm and its main characters. Especially in the beginning, it reminded me of Sherwood Smith’s wonderful Inda books with the sense of long-established institutions, complex relationships, and history.  The opening sequence, with the discovery that a legendary sword is missing and a well-constructed forgery substituted in its place of honor, engaged me right away.

Gradually I became less enchanted with the story. Too many characters, especially the antagonists, did and said things that were ill-thought-out or downright incompetent. Denevan, who has risen to a position of power and authority as chief of the ultra-elite Alternen, has the emotional maturity of an adolescent, still nursing old petty jealousies. I much prefer villains on a more majestic scale, capable of greatness. Neither Denevan nor Mazakan, king of the invading Naor, fits the bill.

My favorite character was the brilliant, if somewhat distracted mage, Varama, who’s always a step ahead of everyone else but gets lost as other, less intelligent characters end up bashing their way through the violent climax. For me this was a major disappointment. Varama was akin to this world’s Sherlock Holmes, putting together otherwise-overlooked details to perceive patterns. I’m sure she would have come up with an elegant solution to Denevan’s power play and the invasion of the Naor. Speaking of the Naor, their only purpose in life seems to be to invade, pillage, and so forth, in order to make the central characters look noble. I never discerned any reason for their belligerence.  In fact, it seemed at the opening that a mutually beneficial peace might lead to some interesting politics, jockeying for trade advantages and so forth. The only explanation seems to be because evil invaders (hint: “piles of skulls” = seriously nasty folks) are required for a big battle or three.

I wish the author had put as much thought into the causes of war and its creative resolution, and valuing science/intelligence over military prowess, as he did into the rest of the world-building. Such a rich world and array of characters might have served up a truly memorable story, but this one is only pretty good.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Story Sale!

I've sold a novelette, "Many Teeth," to Sword and Sorceress 34. Since this will be the final volume in that series, I considered what I've always wanted to put into a story involving swordswomen and/or sorceresses. So many elements and permutations have already been done many times, but I've always wanted to stick a dinosaur into a sword and sorcery story. (Maybe that's been done many times, but not by me.) I remembered an image that came to me while watching the first Jurassic Park movie, as the humans are menaced from several directions by velociraptors (never mind that the real velociraptors were turkey-sized). I thought, "I wonder what a skilled swordswoman wielding a katana could do in that situation."

I jokingly called this story, "Red Sonja in The Land That Time Forgot." Its real title during  writing was, "The Rescue of One-Eyed Wanda, or Many Teeth." That got shortened.

I should add that when my husband, who is often my first reader, finished, he wanted more-more-more. So perhaps, in my copious spare time, I will enlarge it into a novel...

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

New Story on Curious Fictions

"Storm God," a short, fun story from Sword and Sorceress is now available free on Curious Fictions.

This was one of my first professional short story sales and a delight to write. Ideas for horrible things that might lay in wait for anyone foolish enough to cross a swamp just kept popping into my head. And of course, who could resist putting an iconic tale into a new setting?

A tidbit:

Dov made good time through the morning, keeping to the threadwork of game trails that laced the Marshes. She had no difficulty avoiding the patches of quicksand with their coats of light earth and certain, sucking death. The sun rose higher, pale through thickening clouds. Desolate though the swamp might appear, it teemed with subtle, carnivorous life, no place for the unwary.
She glimpsed a werefox curled near some brierbushes. Its whimpering, pitched to lure a predator to its end, aroused her pity at first. It looked exactly like a small wounded animal as it regarded her with bright, pleading eyes, its poison sucker-pads carefully hidden beneath furry sides. She laughed at its pretentious vulnerability and went on her way.
The whip-plants were another matter. She had just finished eating her midday meal, sitting on a patch of salt-grass and congratulating herself on the excellent time she had made. Descending from the hummock, her ankle turned on the slippery grass, and she stumbled into a tangle of branches. It took her a moment to realize the grip on her arms and hair was not accidental. By then she was firmly held.
Dov lashed out at the bramble with a booted food.
“You idiot plant, let go of me!” The pliant vines curled around her, tough and resilient, well beyond her strength to break. She felt a slight, irresistible pull toward the central trunk.
“Of all the stupid –” she gasped. Just when things were going so well, to be eaten by a plant!

Monday, May 13, 2019

Print Release: Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life

Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life

A cup of inspiration, a dash of understanding, a bouquet of wisdom for writers new and old. From the desk of writer and editor Deborah J. Ross comes a collection of warm, insightful essays on “the writing life” – from getting started, negotiating with the Idea Fairy and creating memorable characters, to writing queries, surviving bad reviews, dealing with life’s interruptions and creative jealousy, to nourishing yourself and your creative muse. With space for personal notes.

This collection of my blog posts over a number of years ranges in topic from writing craft to daily rhythms and self-care to staying motivated over the long haul of a career. A number of readers asked for a print version so they could jot down their own notes. It's available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookstore through Ingram (ISBN 978-1-61138-757-5)

To whet your appetite, here's an excerpt from the introduction by Mary Rosenblum, and table of contents:

This collection of essays guides you through the craft and career of writing with all the useful information of a shelf full of ‘how to’ books, but offered with the warm personal energy of a conversation across the kitchen table.  
From her advice on how to actually get started,  her craft and career tips, to her really excellent counsel on how to survive writing in real life and still nourish yourself and your spirit, this collection offers an in depth look at what it means to be a writer.  
 Every day. All the time.  
While Deborah’s career has been New York oriented, most of what she has to say works for today’s author going the small press or Indie route as well. She speaks of the things that helped her succeed or got in her way with a refreshing personal honesty that invites us to examine our own behaviors.  There’s a lot here for any aspiring writer who takes his or her craft seriously. No matter what you write or how you publish.  
Read it, learn, and enjoy! You’ll come away nourished. 

Just You and a Blank Page
Getting Started in Writing
Negotiating with the Idea Fairy
Warm Ups
Open Here
More On Story Beginnings
Structure, Shape, and Interest
Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?
Dream A Little Dream
It’s Only Fiction
Not Just Another Funny Forehead: Creating Alien Characters
Villains, Evil, and Otherness
Revenge and Retaliation
First Person Perils

Friday, May 10, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Jewish Homeland in Kenya

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon)

I never quite settled into this highly praised novel. I really wanted to like it, but found myself reaching for something else to read. The review in Publisher’s Weekly said, “Fantasy Award winner Tidhar (Central Station) will leave readers’ heads spinning with this disorienting and gripping alternate history,” and I think that’s an accurate description of my experience. I could never tell which of many connected alternate worlds I was in, or sometimes which character’s point of view I was in.

On the positive side, I loved the premise: in another world, the Jewish people find a homeland in the early part of the 20th Century, not following the horror of the Holocaust. And not in the Middle East but in Africa, in Kenya. As in modern Israel, where Palestinians are exiled from the lands they have lived in for millennia, Africans are relegated to the other side of the (literal) wall and systematically disenfranchised. I appreciated the evocative parallels between this African Palestina and the modern American immigration debate or Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our guide to this world is pulp fiction writer Lior Tirosh, returning home (to Kenyan Palestina) from Germany. At first the story reads like a murder mystery, alternating Lior’s discovery of a body (and so forth) with the first-person narrative of a police officer. However, the initial mystery is quickly superseded by others, eventually centering on the breakdown of the barriers between alternate worlds. That’s a pretty tall order for one book, and I found the switching of worlds and viewpoints (third, first, and even second, which just knocked me out of the story every time) to be confusing rather than intriguing.

Others may find Unholy Land to be a brilliant tour de force, but for me it was frustrating to be repeatedly baffled and to be thrown out of the story line just when things were beginning to make sense.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything about it. Although chocolates might be nice.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Citadels of Darkover - Print Edition!

Citadels of Darkover has been officially released, which means the print edition is available here.

Reviews most welcome.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Auntie Deborah’s Advice Column for Aspiring Writers

Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I find a real publisher for my YA novel, instead of one of the many vanity or scam presses?
-- Tearful Wannabee

Dear Tearful: Do your research about publishers. Find out which accept unagented submissions. Check them out on Writer Beware or Predators & Editors!!
Get an agent. Again, do your research on which agents are legitimate and represent your genre. (See above resources.) A decent agent will do the submissions for you, using their professional contacts, plus access to publishers that require an agent (which, today, is most of them).
Hang out online with other YA authors and pick their brains, see who publishes them, so you can hear about newer publishers and agents who might be open to your type of material.
Get support. Hobnob with other writers, particularly those at or a little beyond your career stage. Writing is such a lonely business at best, and we need to glomp together — even seasoned pros with decades of sales — for mutual encouragement. And gossip.
Good luck!

Dear Auntie Deborah: I don’t think my book will ever be published. Was it all a waste of time?
-- Loves2Write

Dear Loves2Write: Another way to look at it is this: if you knew for certain that no one would ever read your stories, would you still write them? Do you ever write something just for yourself? If you could stop writing, would you do something else?
Most of the professional writers I know faced these questions and concluded that, all told, their lives are richer and more satisfying when they put down in words the stories unfolding in their minds. Many will write something for their own amusement (without any goal of publication) alongside their projects under contract.
Of course, you can always pretend that after you’re gone, someone will discover a trove of brilliant, compelling manuscripts that will remain in print for decades.

Dear Auntie Deborah: I keep wanting to revise as I write my first draft. I’ve been told this a terrible thing to do. I keep second-guessing myself when I do, and I’m afraid I’ll end up creatively paralyzed. Help!
-- Second Thoughts

Dear Second, I think you’re halfway there in understanding why many find it important to plough through that draft so you can look at the whole thing when it’s time to revise. It’s tempting but (for many of us) deadly to halt forward progress and nitpick. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me:
·         Beginning each session with reading the last page or so but not making any changes to it.
·         Reminding myself that the only draft that counts is the one on my editor’s desk. And that what looks like an error may point me in the direction of a deeper, richer story, so I need to preserve all that drek the first time through.
·         Reminding myself about author B, whose work I greatly admire, who told me that no one, not even her most trusted reader, sees anything before her third draft.
·         Giving myself permission to be really, really awful.
·         Falling in love with the revision process. I can hardly wait to get that first draft down so I have something to play with.
·         Writing when I’m tired. Believe it or not, this helps because it’s all I can do then to keep putting down one word after another.
All that said, sometimes editing is the right thing, like when it feels as if I’m pushing the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, or I’ve written myself into a hole I can’t dig out of. Usually that means I’ve made a misstep earlier, not thought carefully about where I want to go. Or whatever I thought the story was about, I was wrong, and the true story keeps wanting to emerge. How do I tell when this is the case? Mostly experience, plus willingness to rip it all to shreds and start over.

Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I prevent myself from making all my characters versions of myself?
-- Mirror Image

Dear Mirror: Do your work in creative well-rounded, idiosyncratic characters. Give them warts, particularly those you really, really don’t want to have, yourself.
  1. Don’t worry about it. You will always put something of yourself into your characters, even if it’s your imagination.

Dear Auntie Deborah: I’ve been told to introduce the conflict in my novel on the first page. Should I?
-- Slowly Developing

Dear Slowly: Like so much in fiction, it all depends. Some stories call for context before external conflict. For sure, your opening has to do two things: tell the reader what kind of story this is (cozy mystery, obscure literary, dark fantasy, etc.); and arouse the reader’s curiosity (the “hook”). That doesn’t have to be the central conflict, but it does have to create momentum.

Dear Auntie Deborah: What do you do with deleted scenes and unused ideas?
-- Holdsonto Everything

Dear Holdsonto: I stick them in an idea file. Sometimes they build stories-that-fit around themselves, like a grain of sand creating a pearl in an oyster. Other times, I chalk the time and energy as another %^&* learning experience. Sometimes it seems that just the fact I wrote it, that I put those words together, is enough.
After 30+ years as a pro writer, I truly believe that nothing creative is ever wasted.

Dear Auntie Deborah: I’m pretty good at writing dialog, but my narrative skills are terrible. What should I do?
-- Script Writer

Dear Script: I’d bet you are not so much terrible at narration as unpracticed. Dialog comes more easily to some of us because (a) it’s what we speak in; (b) we compose scenes as scripts, as characters talking.
When I was a young writer, I overused dialog, often to the utter bafflement of my readers. One critiquer suggested I eliminate dialog and tell the entire story in narrative. The first scene was agony. The next one was worse, but then it gradually got easier. The exercise forced me to see what dialog was good for and when it was a lazy way out. I also learned — by necessity of practice — how to write serviceable narrative.
That’s my third point. You may be setting the bar too high on a skill you’re still clumsy at. Forget gorgeous language and brilliance. Aim for simple, translucent prose. Keep your sentences uncomplicated, your verbs direct and unfussy, and your modifiers and qualifiers to a minimum. If you don’t know what those are, take a step back and learn about the basic tools of language.
And take every opportunity to read the finest prose you can lay your hands on.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Today's Kittens

Freya and Sonja hanging out on the cat shelf overlooking the garden.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Short Book Reviews: D B Jackson Ventures into Time-Traveling Fantasy

Time's Children, by D B Jackson (Angry Robot)

I loved D B Jackson’s “Thieftaker” Chronicles, set in pre-Revolutionary Boston, with an appealingly flawed hero and a system of magic that extorts a dreadful toll. The plots moved right along, part police procedural, part magical battle, part romance. My interest never wavered, and at the end, I counted many of the characters as friends or at least recognizable enemies I must never trust. So I dove happily into this fantasy with its intriguing premise of magic wielders who can not only cross distances but time itself. I assumed the setting would be vivid, the characters compelling, and the magic itself carefully thought through and integral to the world and the plot.

The description was promising: Fifteen year-old Tobias Doljan, a Walker trained to travel through time, is called to serve at the court of Daerjen. The sovereign, Mearlan IV, wants him to Walk back fourteen years, to prevent a devastating war which will destroy all of Islevale. Even though the journey will double Tobias' age, he agrees. But he arrives to discover Mearlan has already been assassinated, and his court destroyed. The only survivor is the infant princess, Sofya. Still a boy inside his newly adult body, Tobias must find a way to protect the princess from assassins, and build himself a future... in the past.

As I read, I found my expectations were not amiss: the world was complex and interesting, and the characters, particularly the demons, got me curious. I loved the system of magic. An auspicious beginning, I thought. But as page after page went by, each one piling up more secondary characters that seemed to serve no purpose but to be left behind in an unending prequel to the plot promised by the description, I found myself looking around for something else to read. Add to that, the descriptions went on and on…and on, Robert Jordan style. As I’m not a fan of Jordan except as a cure for insomnia, this didn’t work for me.

Monday, April 29, 2019

[personal rant] Why I Am Adamant About Vaccination

I remember a time when there was no question about vaccination. It was a modern miracle, a triumph of science over disease. I grew up reading Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, thrilling to the discoveries first of microbes, then of the microbial causes of contagious diseases, and most importantly, the development of vaccines that used the body’s natural immune systems to confer resistance. Terrible diseases like smallpox and polio would soon become a thing of the past, museum relics.

In the years of my childhood, everyone expected kids to get round after round of communicable diseases, most of them viral. This happened to me, too. Before I hit adolescence, I’d had measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella (German measles – more about that below). I have vivid memories of losing weeks of school but also of my mother nursing me through each round. I never got diphtheria or pertussis (whooping cough), although the kids down the street got it, or polio. I did know kids who got polio, and everyone knew someone who knew someone who’d died of it. So when the Salk (injected/inactivated) vaccine came along, I got it, and then later the Sabin (oral/live). I was in high school when the Sabin vaccine was made widely available, and my service club helped to administer it on sugar cubes.

I’m diligent about tetanus (TDap, with diphtheria) boosters, and received the shingles and pneumonia vaccines on schedule. I also get a yearly flu vaccine, although the one year I didn’t try hard enough in the face of limited supply for my age group, I came down with it: a month-long bout of H1N1 was no fun at all. So in terms of understanding how vaccination contributes to my personal health, I practice what I preach.

But there’s more to the story than just whether I as an individual am protecting myself. Those who scoff at the value of herd immunity receive its benefits while opening the door to exposing not just themselves but those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons (babies too young, people of any age who are immunocompromised, etc.) One of the consequences is that when adults contract “childhood” diseases, they are often much sicker and at much greater risk of complications. I saw this when my first husband came down with measles at age 24. His fever spiked above 105o F, leaving him delirious. I spent a night coaxing him into and out of a lukewarm bath, which effectively brought down his temperature to a safer level, over and over again. He was much, much sicker than I’d been at age 10 with the same illness. It took him weeks to fully recover, and thankfully he did not suffer pneumonia or encephalitis, which are more likely in adults over 20 (and children under 5), according to the CDC.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Rescuing a Vampire on a Transatlantic Voyage

Prisoner of Midnight, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

I fell in love with Don Simon Ysidro, Spanish Renaissance vampire, and James and Lydia Asher, sometimes friends and allies, consummate vampire hunters, with their first encounter in Those Who Hunt the Night, one of the best vampire stories ever. Hambly’s vampires are not nice. They are not sparkly. They are very definitely not safe. But they are compelling, and when, in 1917 and the heat of the first World War, Dr. Lydia Asher receives a coded distress call from Don Simon, she does not turn away. Theirs is a long and complicated history, and more is at stake than their friendship. If Don Simon has been taken captive by an agent of one of the Great Powers, his terrible powers could turn the tide of the war.

The story unfolds aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic, complete with revolutionaries riding belowdecks, an insanely ambitious American industrialist, Jewish refugees, and the unexpected inclusion of Lydia’s young daughter, whom she believed safe at home in the custody of one of her aunts. Oh yes, there are German submarines in these waters, and no ship is safe from their torpedoes.

One mysterious death after another stokes superstitious fears of a vampire aboard – and where is Don Simon? What hold does the industrialist, Cochrane, have over him, and how can Lydia break it? And what will Lydia have to do to prevent the introduction of a vampire to the fertile feeding grounds of America?

I finished the story, with its breathless climax, wanting to go back and read all the adventures back-to-back.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book but no one bribed me -- quite unnecessarily -- to praise it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Today's Kittens

For some reason, Today's Moment of Art didn't load properly, so here are three of our four cats, peacefully enjoying their view of the garden.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Citadels of Darkover Author Interview: Barb Caffrey

Coming in May 2019
Strongholds of rock . . . fortresses of the spirit . . . a planet set apart . . .

Citadels can be psychic, emotional, and cultural as well as military, and the wonderfully imaginative contributors to this volume have taken the basic idea and spun out stories in different and often unexpected directions.

Pre-order it at:

Here I chat with contributor Barb Caffrey:

Deborah J. Ross: How did you become a writer?
Barb Caffrey: When I was very young, I started writing. I don't remember exactly when, either; I do remember that my first try at a really elaborate story was when I was eleven years old. I wrote about the first ball girl at Milwaukee County Stadium (then the home of the Milwaukee Brewers); at the time, there were no ball girls, just ball boys, and that annoyed me. But because I felt, even at eleven, that the boys wouldn't like it if the girls got to play along with 'em, my female character pretended to be a young boy. And was found out...but another of the boys liked her, and kept her secrets.
I wish I still had that story...ahem.
Anyway, I also wrote poetry, a few SF stories, and some Star Trek pastiches when I was in high school. I enjoyed it, but at the time my focus was on music; I never thought this would end up my career, and the music a sidelight, but life is what it is. (And I'd not have it any other way.)

DJR: What authors inspired you?
BC: There were so many, growing up. Probably the first writer I read a lot from was Poul Anderson; our junior high library had a lot of his books, and I found them amusing. (I did not take Dominic Flandry seriously, but I enjoyed his adventures. Had I been a bit older, I might've been alarmed by Flandry's misogyny, or at least by his cynicism. But I've always had a soft spot for him.) Then I read Andre Norton, and was so pleased to find out Andre was a woman...then, when I was in high school, I remember reading several of Marion Zimmer Bradley's books, mostly the juveniles (we'd definitely now call 'em YA), including the romance between Andrew Carr and his eventual wife, Callista.
I returned to Darkover again and again, because I found it to be such an interesting world. 
Then I found The Shattered Chain, and I was riveted. The structure. The style. The story!
Best of all, I got to meet three strong women in Lady Rohana, Terran Magda Lorne, and Jaelle n'ha Melora. And I loved 'em all, and could see at least a little of myself reflected in matter what choices they made, they knew they had to make them consciously, as best they could. And the idea of conscious choice was new to me, so I wanted to know more.
Anyway, more contemporary writers who've definitely made an impact include Rosemary Edghill, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, and of course my late husband, writer Michael B. Caffrey. Without all three of them, I would not be the writer I am today.