Friday, June 28, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Death Stalks a Killer


Cruel Fate, by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean)

I loved Kelley Armstrong’s previous “Cainsville” novella, Rough Justice, which was my introduction to her work. In the small town of Cainsville, outside Chicago, fae have made a home, as secure as any in the modern world. The central characters, Olivia, her boyfriend, attorney Gabriel, and her former boyfriend and biker, Ricky, are incarnations of characters from Welsh legend, most notably in their participation in the Wild Hunt, that infallible instrument of fatal justice against the guilty. Both novellas combine mystery, drama, and evolving relationships in a highly satisfying way.

In Cruel Fate, Olivia’s father has just been released from prison, exonerated as a serial killer. He’s not entirely innocent, however, having murdered the real serial killer. Now someone’s after him, and it’s up to Olivia and Gabriel to find out who and why before her father becomes a victim, himself.

One problem I had with the previous book was the slowly evolution of the relationships, but reading a second novella gave me perspective and pacing. While both can be read as stand-alones, I found a deeper enjoyment in seeing self-discovery and progressive mutual understanding while a dramatic mystery unfolds. The good news is that there are a whole bunch of these stories. Now I want to go back to the beginning and read them all.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Today's Moment of Art



Lev Lagorio - Night on the Neva, St. Petersburg; 1881

Monday, June 24, 2019

How I Wrote A Star Wars Story (and got paid for it)

One of the most fun writing projects I ever participated in was the second Star Wars anthology, Tales From Jabba's Palace. At the time I was invited, my first novel, Jaydium, had recently been released and I had a handful of professional-market short story sales to my credit; I was writing then as Deborah Wheeler. I met the editor, Kevin J. Anderson, at a convention.

Kevin had just started reading Jaydium and was impressed enough to think, "Aha! This is just the writer I'm looking for to fill one of the remaining anthology slots." Once he explained that this would be work-for-hire and subject to the approval of Paramount Studios and I'd signed a bunch of forms, we got to work.

Kevin wanted a "braided" anthology, with stories intersecting and overlapping as much as possible. Each author got a different minor character who worked or lurked in Jabba's Palace. Some were described in "the bible" from the movie, but a few were original (like Barbara Hambly's cook, for every gangster needs his own chef). Every story had to include a scene from the movie, as well. We were each asked to circulate an outline of our story to all the other authors and then to correspond with one another on details.

Since I joined the anthology team late, I didn't have much choice of character. I got "Ree-Yees," the three-eyed, goat-headed fellow hovering around the opening scenes. The reference materials said he was not very bright and usually drunk. Okay, I thought, I can have fun with that. Kevin suggested that, in addition to the usual scheming and rivalry among Jabba's underlings, the Empire itself might have reason to get rid of Ree-Yees.

Here's what I sent to the other writers:

Friday, June 21, 2019

Short Book Reviews: HP Lovecraft Meets Shirley Jackson's Hill House


In the Shadow of Spindrift House, by Mira Grant (Subterranean) 


I made my acquaintance of the works of Seanan McGuire through Rosemary and Rue, then the “Incryptid” and “Ghost Roads” series. Mira Grant is Seanan’s horror-writing alias, and I’ve only recently dabbled in her work. Even though horror is not usually my cuppa I’m so glad I did! In the Shadow of Spindrift House is a strange little tale, novella-length if I’m not mistaken, a sort of demented love-child of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the work of H. P. Lovecraft. And a gang of kid ghost-busters, now adults adrift in their own lives.

Spindrift House is haunted; that’s the only thing the denizens of “the half-ruined town of Port Mercy, Maine” can agree on. The land itself is valuable, but the title is clouded, and the documents that would establish claim lie within the strange Victorian edifice. The contesting families have offered a huge reward for the documents, but anyone searching for them must remain for the entire search. So our ghost-busters-now-grown embark upon this treasure hunt.

But the house isn’t safe, and neither is the ocean it overlooks (of course – this is Lovecraft territory, isn’t it?) The imagery shifts from “the sweet, beguiling whisper of the sea” to “the sound of the sea . . . like the beating of some huge, horrible heart” The house, too, is described in spine-chilling terms from “like it’s rotting from the inside out . . . the banister was slick under my fingers, damp with some scentless, unspeakable fluid . . .” “the house was moving in my veins, burrowing into my bones . . .”

The language, with its frequent references to rot and decay, the sense of creeping, nameless horror, are all evocative of Lovecraft’s work, but also Jackson’s psychological thriller, with its slow peeling-away of the veneer of normality and civilization to reveal most uncivilized secrets.

This is a quick read, full of shivery moments. Familiarity with either Lovecraft or Jackson isn’t necessary to enjoy it, although fans of either work will relish the references.

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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Free Story on Book View Cafe!

My novelette, "The Price of Silence," is free this month from Book View Cafe. If you've never ordered from them before, the process is simple. You download the file and then side-load it to your reading device. The story is yours permanently that way.

Written as the opening to an unpublished novel and later reworked as a stand-alone with a different emotional and moral axis, it appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and won Honorable Mention, Year’s Best SF, 2009.




The crew of the spaceship Juno expect to find a fertile planet ready for colonization. Instead, they discover a fiery grave and a space station filled with corpses. What happened here? A natural disaster… or an alien weapon capable of destroying an entire world?

It's also available as an audio book from Audible.

Monday, June 17, 2019

[Archives] Deborah Responds to Ads Aimed at Men

Still relevant, although this blog post dates from 2015.

For various reasons, mostly having to do with the fact that my husband never flies anywhere, he now has a free subscription to a magazine aimed primarily at a male readership. Out of curiosity, I flipped through it. And was suitably amused and horrified. Come with me on an adventure in befuddlement…

Cover: Hmmm, interesting. Think I’ll check it out.

Inside cover. This cloud turns gamers into Titans. I’m anti-interested in “massive universe” games.

This ad for an airline offers drinks on the house (image of man’s hand holding airline-plastic cup of beer). Drinking at altitude is such a colossally bad thing for your hydration, this airline is evil.

Table of contents: Ooh, a person I want to read about.

Ad for men’s eyeglass frames. What were you smoking to think these might make a man look even remotely attractive?

A cancer hospital’s goal is…wait for it…curing cancer.

This ultra-modern watch is ahead of its time. And its face is also unreadable, especially at a quick glance. It’s analog but has no second hand. Why bother?

I think this ad is for a tablet, but I’m not sure. It could be the thing that holds a tablet. The company is marketing to folks who already want their product.

Guest Blog: Barb Caffrey on Writing After Widowhood


"Writing After Widowhood"
By Barb Caffrey

A while back, Deborah J. Ross asked me to talk about the differences between writing while my beloved husband Michael was still alive, and writing now. As I've had many years since my husband's unexpected death in 2004 to contemplate this, I agreed to talk about it. Just know in advance that it's not easy, but it is possible. (Spoiler alert!)

Anyway, when Michael was alive, we wrote some short stories together despite having very different writing styles. We could do this because we'd heard Eric Flint, in 2002, discuss how he collaborated with other authors. It was all about communication, Flint said, “Also, if you could check your ego at the door, that would help immensely.”

That wasn't all Michael did, mind you. He edited for me, as I edited for him. He and I talked about our stories for many hours a day, every day of the week, a great gift…and he made sure to do all the things a good husband does for his wife without prompting—and without fanfare.

It was because of all of this that I was able to write 230,000 good words in thirteen months back in 2002 and 2003. And into mid-September of 2004, I believe I wrote around 100,000 words, which isn't bad at all when you consider we had a big move across-country and had to find work and lodgings in the process.

Then, disaster struck. Michael died in September of 2004 of four massive heart attacks. He was awake after the first, but before the rescue squad could get to him, he had his second heart attack. He was clinically dead for eighteen minutes, and then was revived at the hospital. He later had heart attacks three and four…within eleven hours of the first heart attack, my beloved husband was gone.

There was absolutely no warning of this.

Not long after my husband died, I moved back to Wisconsin to be closer to my family. I wasn't much good for anyone for several years; I admit this freely. I was in deep shock, and in some ways I never completely came out of mourning. But I was able to write again within a few years, partly because my husband had left behind stories of his own that were unfinished.

To my mind, it was bad enough that my husband was dead. It would be even worse if the stories he'd worked so hard on died with him.

So even though I wrote in a completely different way, and had never written any space opera or military science fiction before (Michael's work mostly straddled those two lines), I decided I was going to finish at least some of his work and put it up for sale on my own. It would allow me to keep at least part of my husband alive, and doing that—even though most of the people around me, including several professional authors, did not believe I should be wasting my effort this way—was my salvation.

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

[Archives] Sexuality in Fantasy

by Gustave Courtois
A version of this post appeared on my blog in 2012

A few years ago, I had the privilege of editing a new anthology series, Lace and Blade, from Norilana Books. The concept was a certain flavor of elegant, romantic sword and sorcery, witty and stylized, sensual yet with plenty of swashbuckling action (think The Scarlet Pimpernel with magic). Because we wanted to release the first volume for Valentine’s Day, I contacted a group of seasoned professional authors, people I could depend on to understand what I was looking for and to deliver top quality stories to deadline. For various reasons, the publisher wanted the second volume to be open submissions. If I'd had any idea what I was getting myself into, I would have refused. Insulated in the world of competent fantasy writers and readers who are versed in the grandeur of writers from J.R.R. Tolkien to Tanith Lee, I was ill-prepared for what mundanes think of when they hear “fantasy.”

Needless to say, when I talk about sexuality or eroticism or sensuality or gender issues in fantasy, I do not mean pornography. It seems that for far too many people, sexuality is such an emotionally difficult subject that instead of facing it honestly, discussing it openly, they shroud it in prurience and embarrassment, or else turn it into something salacious or forbidden. Yet just about every human being over the age of puberty has had sexual feelings (notice my delicate use of qualifiers). So if sexuality in fantasy does not mean “your most lascivious and pornographic imaginings, regardless of whether you’d really like to do these things, because how would you know what you enjoy if you’ve never been permitted to experiment,” what is the role of sexuality in fantasy? Does it even have one? Should we keep sex out of fantasy literature, restrict the love stories to a chaste kiss now and again, and keep the hero/ine’s mind firmly fixed on nobler causes?

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.

Where’d You Get That Idea? Story Inspirations from Lace and Blade 4 Authors



Reposting a favorite round-table blog.

Carol Berg: One of my aims when I create new heroes or heroines is to make them real people. I want readers to believe they had a life before walking onto the canvas of my story and will (if the story permits!) have a life when they walk off again. But of course, after the traumas/losses/victories of the story, the nature of that life is often irrevocably changed. 
Ever since my novel Song of the Beast was published, I’ve had readers asking what became of Aidan McAllister--a scarred, broken singer of visions, who saved his world from the scourge of dragon warfare. At the end of the story, he abandons his friends and his hope of a normal life to lead the beasts into the wild. I decided that it would be fun to satisfy the readers’ curiosity and mine, and so I wrote “The Heart’s Coda.”


Marie Brennan: Some years ago I bought a pair of black-and-red beaded earrings from the jeweler Elise Matthesen, who habitually gives titles to all the pieces she makes. The earrings are called "At the Sign of the Crow and Quill," and like many authors, I pledged to Elise that I would try to write something by that title someday. The mood that evoked in my mind was very much a Lace and Blade mood, so when I received an invitation to submit to the anthology, that turned out to be the spark I needed to transform the phrase into characters and plot.

Heather Rose Jones:  “Gifts Tell Truth” is set in the same world as my Alpennia series: a 
mildly alternate Ruritanian early 19th century with magic. One of the things I love to do when exploring characters it to make offhand references to events in their past. Events where I may not know all the details of what happened, just that it shaped them in some way. One thing that is very clear about Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, one of the protagonists of The Mystic Marriage and a continuing character throughout the series, is that she is a “Woman With A Past.” The more I write about her, the more fascinated I am by how she came to be the person she is in the novels.

The events in “Gifts Tell Truth” haven’t been specifically referenced in the books, other than a passing comment about how the stories of her youth aren’t appropriate for innocent ears. But I knew in a general way that during the French occupation of Alpennia, just after Jeanne’s unexpected marriage to a much older French aristocratic émigré, she led a wild and scandalous life, spurred on by a tragic event in her coming-out season (which will be told in a later story). The current story grew out of wanting to explore the origins of some of her later attitudes and reflexes, with the added bonus of showing the start of an odd but enduring friendship that features in the novels.