Called? To what?

Is writing a vocation or just something we like to do?

By Sandra Hutchison

Religious people are used to the concept of someone being “called” to vocation — priests and ministers are supposed to be answering a call, as are deacons, monks, nuns, and so on. The call, one hopes, comes from God.

I’ve often wondered how that feels. Personally, I have never heard a divine voice literally calling out, “Hey! Sandra! Yes, you! DO THIS THING.”

Maybe some folks have. Certainly it gets reported that way in scripture. But I am always highly suspicious of anyone who claims to have received specific, detailed messages from the Almighty. My first thought is “schizophrenia,” my second thought is “con man,” and my third — say, if it’s scripture being quoted by someone — is “okay, let’s hear it, but you can assume I may question its provenance or your interpretation of it.”

On the other hand, Rumi tells us to listen to “the voice that doesn’t use words.” And I have heard that voice.

Once, during my junior year of college, in England, I was spending the holidays with cousins in Scotland. Sometime after midnight I was walking back to a party in Edinburgh where my cousins were supposed to still be after I’d gone off to the young people’s celebration of Hogmanay — New Year’s Eve under the clock of the Tron (I kissed a bobby and drank from a passing bottle of whisky and felt authentically Scottish for a moment).

As I was walking along I suddenly felt a very hard tug from somewhere to stop walking and instead pound down the sidewalk as fast as I could. Which I did. I arrived breathlessly just as my cousins were pulling away from the curb, just in time to stop them and get a ride back to their home for the night.

I’m not sure this mattered — I could have walked the rest of the way to my cousins’ house if I had to. The streets were quite safe. But it felt as if it mattered a lot. It felt as if I had been saved from something.

Was that God? A “guardian angel”? Some funky extra-sensory perception? My subconscious calculating times and probabilities better than my conscious? I have no idea. But it was a voice without words, and that’s not the only time I’ve listened to something like that (though that was probably the time that felt most consequential).

Still, my religious faith didn’t arrive until a couple of years later, after quite a lot of reading and some meditation (outside of the Christian tradition) and some physics and some church. My conversion moment essentially consisted of me saying, in meditative prayer, “Give me a sign,” and promptly getting something I interpreted as one.

However, in hindsight, I don’t feel that sign was a genuine weird mystical event. I was, at that point, completely primed to have something, anything, give me permission to go where I had already decided I wanted to go. Anything in the room would have done. A cricket chirping, a nod of my own neck, a puff of wind from the window. I don’t even remember what it actually was anymore. Because that wasn’t really the point. I chose.

And yes, everyone who is called has to choose whether to answer. But I think you can easily choose things you haven’t really been called to, also, and then tell yourself you were called to them. You can easily confabulate a desire with a calling.

For example, I often feel a little tug during the Eucharistic prayer. I want to lift my hand and sanctify that bread and wine right along with the priest, which I’m obviously not authorized to do.  But I suspect that’s a BS thing on my part, because I’m also quite sure I don’t want to do the actual hard work of becoming and being a priest. It’s the religious equivalent of those people who come up to me at book signings to tell me that they have amazing stories to tell and they would be an amazing writer if only they had the time.

It could be worse. Imagine the pedophile priest who thinks, “I answered the call. I’ve sacrificed much to serve God and His people. Now God has provided for me. This child has been called by God to serve me.”

This is why I sometimes think a calling is better thought of as something more prosaic. Something as simple as somebody else in the church saying, “So, hey, our nominating committee thinks you should run for vestry.”

(Of course, when it gets this literal the whole idea of “being called” reminds me of a story my father likes to tell of a time he and his cousin were exploring the north of England and had been instructed by my great aunt to call Cousin Joan, who lived there. They had no desire to do this, so they stopped the car next to a field and yelled, “Cousin Joan!” Later, when Auntie Nan asked them if they had called Cousin Joan, they replied that they had, but she hadn’t answered.)

Authors often talk about being called to writing as if it is a vocation. I can remember sitting in the audience at a discussion with about eight writers at The Book House one afternoon when one of them said something along the lines of, “You write because you have to. If you don’t have to, you shouldn’t even do it.” And there was much nodding.

And yes, I agree that writing can feel like a vocation, in that you are giving up your time on earth to engage both conscious and unconscious parts of yourself in calling out a truth of some kind. It can feel like being touched with the spirit. It can feel like prophecy. But it can also be delusion, or ego, or hacking away, or a combination of all of the above.

Maybe I think this because I’ve written a lot of advertising. Enjoyed it, too. There’s plenty of creativity involved. Even a kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is not entirely unlike religious faith. By the time I’m done writing about that, say, inflation-protected variable annuity, I’ve usually also convinced myself that it’s A Most Excellent Product That Everyone Needs. But obviously I was really just hacking away at that to make a living. And the charges and fees are a killer.

I’ve also read plenty of published fiction that reads to me like someone just hacking away to make a living. (The later volumes of successful series are particularly prone to that, though thankfully not every author succumbs.)

But although we’d probably all prefer to read stuff that feels absolutely incandescent with the fire of truth, to the idea that no one should bother writing unless they are literally driven to do it, I say: Oh, come on.

Yes, it’s true that damaged, depressed people may feel compelled to write to try to fill an emotional hole that can’t be filled, or to establish a connection with some idealized other they can’t find in real life, or to process some traumatizing event in their lives. And yes, it’s true these folks are often brilliant and original, at least until they tragically destroy themselves. Extreme focus and need can do that.

The rest of us mostly write because we want to. Our productivity depends on our habits, the time we have available, and how preoccupied we may be by more fundamental needs like food and housing and child care.

Sometimes I think writers suggest that it’s a kind of calling or compulsion because they don’t want any more competition than they already have.

Sometimes I think they say it because they know the rewards are so long in coming and so uncertain that they feel they are doing you a real favor by scaring you off.

And sometimes I think writers believe that if it’s a sacred vocation that means it’s okay to not get a regular job, to continue working on our art despite the poor or non-existent compensation we are likely to receive. It’s okay to expect our spouses to support us. It’s okay to demand that quiet little writer’s nook where the kids won’t bother us, or escape to  that lovely writer’s retreat in the mountains. It’s okay to sign terrible contracts. It’s okay to passively await the reading public’s verdict instead of getting out there and flogging our stuff. It’s art! We’ve been called!

Adapted from an engraving by The Brothers Dalziel in "Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance" by Thomas Moore. In the public domain, courtesy of

Adapted from an engraving by The Brothers Dalziel in “Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance” by Thomas Moore. In the public domain, courtesy of

Suggesting that writing is a calling, a vocation, is also convenient for readers and publishers. It’s arguably an excuse for not paying writers and artists (and the people who work most closely with them) a living wage. Sure, a few writers are wildly successful and a few more make a living at it, especially in the more workaday genres. But the great bulk of writers must have other means of support. (If you’ve ever wondered why literary fiction is so white and so dominated by the wealthy classes, there’s your answer.)

Teaching can be like this, too. I know so many adjunct professors who feel called to teach. I’m one of them. I love teaching. But if the job won’t really support us, it’s kind of crazy to keep doing it. Pathological, even. I do it because I can afford to (which is not because of my writing income, believe me). And I’m not sure this is the most moral decision I’ve ever made. By accepting the lousy terms of adjunct work, I’m arguably enabling a shamefully exploitative system.

I think we often need to clarify our thinking about being called to a vocation, any vocation. Yes, we may feel called to it. Yes, it may be satisfying some deep hunger in us. It may feel like a religious experience. It may even be a religious experience. But although Jesus expected to die on the cross, he still expected his disciples to eat. If people weren’t willing to put them up or feed them, they were to shake their sandals free of that town’s dirt and move on to a place that would.

I think what I’m trying to say is that being called to a vocation is complicated at best. It’s full of potential pitfalls. It’s worth taking the time to carefully examine and re-examine our  motives. And if we ever see it as special permission to behave badly, then maybe it’s less a calling than a rationalization.

If you write, do you feel called to it? Do you see it as a vocation? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

If you #write, do you feel called to it? Do you see it as a vocation? Click To Tweet

Awesome Indies founder Tahlia Newland on challenges and opportunities for indie authors

Tahlia Newland

Author Tahlia Newland

I first met Tahlia Newland months after I had submitted my first novel to Awesome Indies. This organization seeks to curate the best indie works — not just for quality of writing, but for editing and production values, too. I remember that when I first stumbled across it, I was impressed that it evaluated submissions based on a book I think is terrific — Renni Browne and Dave King’s SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. It also demanded literary qualifications from reviewers. Perhaps best of all, it offered ways to submit that didn’t require payment — so it clearly wasn’t just another sketchy prize mill. Eventually, I became a volunteer myself. But I never really asked Tahlia how Awesome Indies got its start. So…

Tahlia, what prompted you to begin Awesome Indies?

ai_square-300x300When I first got an e-reader back in 2009 or so, I discovered cheap books and read them voraciously. They were all self-published, of course, and I soon discovered that even books with high star ratings on review sites like Amazon and Goodreads could be really badly written, even some that were selling thousands of copies.

Though I picked up many terrible books, I also discovered some real gems, and I really wanted to tell the world about these great books where self-publishing authors had beaten the odds and produced something excellent. I began writing reviews so I could tell readers which self-published books were well enough done that readers could be sure they were getting a good product.

Next I came up with the idea of listing them all on one website so interested readers could have a one-stop quality shop for indie books. I created that first Awesome Indies site on a free blog, and it grew from there. At the point I decided I needed to create a submission system and get some helpers, I made the decision that if a group of people were to set themselves up as determiners of quality, then they had better be people with the kind of qualifications that no one could argue with, so it had to be people with formal qualifications in writing, English literature, or editing.

What would you say are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing
Awesome Indies? What would your dream be?

The biggest challenges are getting the website’s existence and value widely known, finding sufficient assessors and volunteers to keep it running smoothly, and dealing with author egos, in particular those who refuse to accept our assessors’ opinions as valid and like to spread their opinions on the matter.

My dream for the Awesome Indies is that it becomes the first place readers go to find indie books, that in people’s minds Awesome Indies Approval equals the kudos of getting a mainstream deal, that it changes the perception of the world as regards to the quality of indie books (as least as far as books listed on the site goes), and that it becomes really popular with the kind of people who usually would only read mainstream books.

 How can readers and writers who value quality indie work support Awesome Indies?

By submitting their book with an administration fee, or by volunteering to help. We have a very good admin team at the moment, but I am always short of qualified assessors and people willing to help spread the word about our existence. What we need more than anything is people who can write blog posts about the Awesome Indies and get them published on influential blogs and newspapers. (I should note that I am a volunteer for Awesome Indies myself — primarily by writing occasional web copy and notification emails to authors.)

As an indie author yourself, what are some of the greatest challenges and opportunities you see facing such authors today?

The biggest challenge is selling your book. A good book does not equal a best-selling book (and vice versa), and great authors are often not natural salespeople. The very nature of indie books is that many of them are so not mainstream that they only have a small niche market — at least at present. Finding the readers for unusual books is not easy, and selling few books can be soul-destroying for authors of truly great works with enormous literary merit. But so long as a book has some kind of independent professional assessment like Awesome Indies Approval, then the author can at least know that the problem is not with the book. Without that, the indie author can never be sure.

The biggest challenge is selling your book - Tahlia Newland. #amwriting #indie Click To Tweet

The greatest opportunity indie authors have is that we can publish what we want, when and how we want. There is nothing to stop our creativity going in whatever direction we want it to — so long as we aren’t concerned about making a living. But with that freedom comes a great responsibility: to do it in a professional way. If the majority of us can do that, then eventually the stigma attached to indie publishing will fade.

Tell us about your new release, THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET, including what inspired it.

THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET is a multi-narrative-strand novel about a woman who finds that her boyfriend is not who she thought he was, and she finds herself having to choose between him and her beloved property in the Australian rain forest — a situation that challenges her ability to live up to her Buddhist ideals. The story looks at sexual abuse, women’s rights, and the various aspects of a person that make up their sense of self, including dreams, memories, past lives, creative expression and metaphysical experiences. The themes are explored from these different angles, one of which is a steampunk murder mystery that the protagonist Ella, an author, is writing.

What inspired it? My stories just appear vividly in my mind, playing out like movies. I can’t pinpoint any particular inspiration, though the image of a locksmith creating keys for inter-dimensional doors in an otherwise deserted ethereal city of transparent buildings floating in space was the image that drove me to fill in the story around it.

01The_Locksmiths_SecretwebAbout THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET

Ella’s locksmith boyfriend Jamie seems to be her perfect match, at least until a death in the family calls him back to England. While he’s gone, Ella discovers he’s hiding something so astounding that it completely changes her perception of him and his place in her world.

While Jamie struggles with family responsibilities, Ella’s steampunk murder mystery develops a life of its own, raising disturbing memories of her time as a striptease artist and a past life as a sexually abused Italian nun. She also dreams of an ephemeral city, where she seeks to unravel the locksmith’s secret and find the key that opens a door to other realities.

All these, together with a lost brother, a desperate mother, a demanding cat, and a struggle to live up to Buddhist ideals, weave together in a rich tapestry that creates an extraordinary work of magical realism.

Intrigued? Learn more about THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET at:

kindle store    smashwords     kobo     barnes & noble     apple

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers

For someone who doesn’t have a honey at the moment — this includes me — this holiday can be just a little demoralizing. But I do have some young folks doing a complicated dance of love in my work in progress, so it’s not as if I’m not immersed in romance in my own way. And that has its own pleasures.

Which brings me to this public service announcement. Hope you have a lovely day!

Reading a good book is like giving yourself flowers

A Lenten practice for writers?

The sermon at church this week has had me wondering what I could choose to give up or take on for Lent. Which further made me wonder about what would be especially applicable to me to do as a writer.
I don’t think I am unique among writers in experiencing my life as a constant tug of war between creative energy and laziness, ego and embarrassment, reverence and irreverence.
Given that, I am wondering what temporary practice would be most useful for my writer soul? (Especially if, as our priest suggested, Lenten sacrifices or practices are designed less for self-improvement than for self-knowledge?)
So, I tried to come up with some ideas.
Stuff I could give up…
  • Some of the excessive time I spend on social media and digital distractions in general. The Freedom App looks very intriguing for that.
  • Checking sales reports or author rank. Surely once a week should be sufficient. But tell that to my fingers. They sometimes click on the KDP Report when I’m not even trying to go there.
  • Checking for reviews. This is especially pointless this far between books.
  • TV news. I get two newspapers and the Internet. I certainly don’t need as much TV news as I habitually watch (local news plus two national broadcasts each night, plus the Daily Show from the night before).
  • Eating while working. This is how my plans for a full healthy meal so often degenerate into little bits of this and that. Maybe I could find a way to play National Public Radio while cooking and address these last two bullet items at once.
 Stuff I could take on…
  • Daily exercise. I’m actually already working on that (and my daily word counts along with many fine writers in the Women Fiction Writer’s Association), so maybe it wouldn’t count for Lent.
  • More disciplined reading of fiction and professional books. I am drowning in excellent books I have not read, or have started and not finished. Less TV or social media would allow more time for that.

    This is just the pile under my bedside table. Let's not even mention the Kindle.

    This is just the pile under my bedside table. Let’s not even mention the Kindle.

  • Meditation on a more regular basis. Maybe. I am skeptical. I honestly suspect I get the same benefits during long walks, gardening, photography, and sitting around with a cat on my lap.
  • Not putting off all my business accounting until the last minute. Yeah, let’s not even pretend I’m going to do that.
  • More visiting with actual live human beings in the same room as me. Eh. I might just focus on one neighbor who needs this and not worry about my overall sociability. I am an introvert, after all.
  • Prayer. Bwa ha ha ha. The weakest link in my spiritual life by far. I have almost zero faith in prayer. But maybe, since that is my reaction, I should give it a try. A short prayer ideal for writers sitting down to draft? Hmm.
What about you, writers or non-writers? Do you have Lenten plans?
— Sandra Hutchison

The “Sunshine State” is not always sunny

Florida is not all Disney World and beaches. It’s not all tropical, either. It can get cold — and even freeze — in a good part of the state. And it’s bigger than you realize. I re-learned that old lesson again during a visit to my parents this January, when I decided I wanted to take a field trip to abandoned Ellaville as well as the Haile Homestead, a former plantation.

That was a very long drive from my parents’ home in Citrus County on a chilly winter’s day. Mom and I really needed our polyester fleece and jackets.

I wanted to see Ellaville, because I needed a Florida locale within fairly easy reach of Georgia, as well as a river in which someone could drown. And if it could be the Suwannee River, all the better. When we were kids my family always sang our state song when we crossed the Suwannee during our long-distance travels. Ironically, I hadn’t realized that this was actually a minstrel song until I looked it up for this post — the lyrics I grew up with didn’t speak of plantations and didn’t use an offensive pseudo-black dialect. Blackface and minstrel shows are going to play a small but key role in “Bardwell’s Folly.”

Ellaville was better for my purposes than I could have dreamed. The highway bridge I saw on Google is nothing special, but there’s a parking area close to it for abandoned Ellaville … complete with an abandoned bridge that’s much better for throwing someone off of than the highway bridge. My mother and I were both pretty spooked by how isolated it was. Mom wasn’t thrilled that I insisted on getting out of the car.

(If a photo interests you, click on it for a larger image.)

It took a long time to drive up there, longer than I had imagined (stopping to eat lunch didn’t help). We ran out of time to go any further along Florida 90 if we still wanted to see any of the Haile Homestead in Gainesville before it closed. So we turned back, and just managed to get to that old “Kanapaha Plantation” site in time for a quick tour before it closed (it’s only open on the weekends).

The Haile Homestead may look fairly modest from the outside — it’s no Tara — but inside it has tremendously high ceilings and gigantic rooms with lots of glass windows. In other words, the Hailes had money, at least until the cotton crop failed a couple of years in a row. They also owned over 60 “enslaved laborers,” as the guides and literature insist on putting it. I’m sure there’s a reason for this terminology, but I can’t find it. I should have asked.

The family never painted or wallpapered. They DID write all over the walls, no doubt a lot more in the later years when it became a bit of a party hang-out for later generations. Thus, the house is referred to as having “talking walls.” It’s an interesting place to visit, and I’d like to have more time (and less chilly weather — it’s not heated) the next time I go.

Now, none of this was strictly necessary. I don’t have to hew too religiously to actual geography — fiction is fiction, and I make up my place names and any details I need. And I could, if I were patient enough, virtually click my way up and down state highways using Google Maps. But I wanted to get a better feel for the area and how my characters might perceive it.

Cover concept for BARDWELL'S FOLLY

Cover concept for BARDWELL’S FOLLY

As many of you know, I gave myself an unpaid sabbatical from teaching this spring, and used the time to finish my first draft of “Bardwell’s Folly: A Love Story” (cover concept at left). This is a temporary version of “going pro” that I can’t recommend to anybody who doesn’t have other sources of income, but I’m enjoying it.

If you’re a writer and you travel to do any of your research, I’d love to hear your own experiences, and whether you find you use a lot of it when you actually sit down to write.

#Florida is not all Disney World and beaches. Check out spooky Ellaville! Click To Tweet

Do your fight scenes have enough punch? An interview with A.C. Spahn

Sandra Hutchison interviews author A.C. Spahn, a martial artist, about writing good fight scenes.

A.C. Spahn with sword

Science fiction/fantasy author A.C. Spahn

Amy C. Spahn has been giving useful feedback on fight scenes to a number of fellow Awesome Indies authors recently, including me. While I used to write plenty of fights and the occasional battle in my fanfic days, I was a little surprised to realize there are also fights in my women’s fiction novels. But since conflict drives any plot forward, it makes sense that a good fight scene can be important to your success in almost any genre.

I’m also fascinated by what Amy says about the critical reception to just about any female character who fights.

Amy, why are fight scenes an important part of reading and writing?

Fight scenes are peerless tools for putting a character under pressure. When someone’s punching you, your reactions are completely real, completely unfiltered. You see the real character during a fight.

The circumstances leading up to a fight are also excellent character-building tools. What motivates a character to turn to physical violence tells you a lot about who they are as a person. I believe you don’t really know a character until you know what would provoke them to throw a punch, draw a weapon, and/or end a fight by lethal action.

What drew you to martial arts originally?

I’m not the sort of person who can just go to a gym and work out. I start looking out the window, counting ceiling tiles, etc. I need mental stimulation with my exercise. Martial arts training provides it.

When you throw a punch, you’ve got to think about a dozen little details: how high to aim, the shape and tightness of the fist, the torque in your hips, exhaling at the right time, etc. It’s a very mental game, especially when you string dozens of moves together in forms.

It’s also good for the soul. Since I started training, I’ve discovered a greater sense of inner peace. Even rejection letters on my writing have become easier to handle, because I’m used to pushing myself past my limits. This has been especially true since I passed my black belt test last February – a grueling four-hour ordeal where the final half was as much about psyching up for more punishment as it was the actual physical fitness. Once you’ve handled that, submitting a story to a magazine seems a lot less dangerous in contrast.

What’s your biggest pet peeve when reading fight scenes?

Fights that expect the reader to be invested, but give no thought to the details of the action. This generally takes the form of “Hero and Villain traded punches/sword strikes until one of them lost.” In these cases, the author wanted the reader to worry for the hero’s safety, but didn’t have anything particular in mind for how to make that occur. You might as well replace these scenes with the Shakespearean stage direction: “They fight.” This type of scene expects the reader to invent the drama for themselves, and it almost never works.

These scenes also annoy me because, while real fights only last seconds or minutes, particularly if weapons are involved, in perceived time they seem to last hours. When a fight happens in a book and is over in two sentences, it leaves no impression. It blows past like a light breeze, where it should have hit you like a dump truck. A good fight uses visceral words and well-placed sensory details to leave the reader as adrenaline-high as the characters. I want to smell the sweat and feel the blows, not assume they happened and move on.

How is fighting different for women than it is for men? What advantages does being female bring?

Like it or not, there’s a psychological difference between men and women in combat. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but in general men have an easier time being aggressive than women. Go to a first-time sparring class and you’ll see the men shrug and start hitting each other without much hesitation. In contrast, the women will apologize after every good shot they land. (Five years after starting to train, I still do this. My instructor says I’m allowed to say sorry as long as I hit the opponent again immediately afterward.) So we have a larger psychological barrier to overcome in order to get in the right head space for violence.

However, once that’s happened, I think the psychological power balance shifts. Most men feel a little funny about hitting a woman. It takes some time for them to decide it’s okay to strike back with their full power. That time is a perfect opportunity for the female combatant to deal some serious damage.

Physically, women tend to be smaller and suffer from height and weight disadvantages. I’m on the short side, so I have to get inside a taller person’s range in order to land any strikes. This is tough to do, but once I get there, they have a harder time landing power strikes, while I can still make full use of my range.

In short, the same things that are initial disadvantages can turn into advantages if you know how to use them.

What’s the hardest thing about writing female characters who can fight?

The same thing that’s hard about writing female characters in general. People will judge a female character as a representation of all women, everywhere, forever.

You write a fight where a woman loses, and you get one side going, “What, are you saying women can’t fight? That’s sexist!” You write a fight where she wins, and you get another side going, “Where’s her femininity? That’s sexist!” You have her win with no difficulty and people scream “Mary Sue!” You have her struggle and take a lot of good hits on the road to victory, and the same people howl about how you’re depicting violence against women.

At some point, you just have to accept that somebody will be offended by your female character in a fight scene and write her there anyway.

What do you think of the “warrior woman” character trope? Is this a step forward for women?

It really depends on how the trope is used. While I’m all for female characters who kick butt and save the men, sometimes writers use a woman with a gun or a sword as a substitute for a woman with a personality. She needs both.

There’s also a weird backlash against “warrior woman” characters who show their emotions. People act as if allowing a strong woman to break down is a disgrace to her inner strength and an attempt to weaken her for the audience.

I see it as evidence of the character having enough emotional fortitude to accept her feelings, or as a way to show the difficulty of the situation. When something makes the warrior break down, you know it’s serious. I think until we can treat male and female characters equally in this respect, the warrior woman trope will be a bit incomplete.

We first met when you volunteered to analyze other writers’ fight scenes and I offered one of mine — what inspired that initiative, and how’s it working out for you?

I love fight scenes – reading them, writing them, choreographing them. I’ve noticed that writers often struggle with fight scenes and default to the “hit each other over and over” trope I described above, so I thought other authors might appreciate having somewhere to go to ask questions when creating scenes of violence.

The reception so far has been positive. I received a bunch of submissions right up front, and while that has now tapered off, I’m leaving a submission form open on my site so people can submit more in the future:

Tell us about your latest work, “Preferred Dead,” and how fight scenes play a key role in it.

Endurance thumbnailThe book features a “warrior woman” in the character of Areva Praphasat. She’s the security chief of the UELE Endurance and has a background in undercover operations. However, she’s decided she doesn’t want to be the last thing someone sees before they die, so now she’ll only shoot at people who can’t see her coming. The other characters all have odd traits like that, and so United Earth Law Enforcement put them on the same ship to try to keep them out of the way, but their inadvertent brilliance keeps landing them in the middle of things.

“Preferred Dead” is the fourth novella in the series, though readers should be able to jump right in and follow what’s going on. The Endurance finds a planet that has been completely overrun by zombies, and the crew has to determine what caused the infection while simultaneously struggling to pass a performance evaluation.

The fights carry the story forward and illustrate various aspects of the zombies’ capabilities, which in turn help the crew figure out what happened to them. A fight late in the story also serves as a catalyst for conversation between Areva and her love interest, the trigger-happy first officer. While Areva isn’t a point-of-view character in this installment, there should be plenty of fun action for fight scene aficionados.

Many thanks to A.C. Spahn for sharing her insights with us! Learn more about her at her website, and find her books at Amazon or at Awesome Indies.

What gets a writer happy dancing?


Being a writer isn’t easy. Sometimes I feel as if I’m boldly seeking out new ways to experience humiliation.

That’s why we really need our good excuses for a happy dance.

Julia Spencer-Fleming tweeting about my book!
So: Woo hoo! And I’m going to say that counts as a blurb, right?

But there are, of course, other occasions that make authors want to dance:

  • The first good review by someone you don’t know in the slightest.
  • Any meaty review that suggests someone “got” exactly what you were going after.
  • The first positive review that arrives after a nasty one that sat up there at the top of the “most recent” reviews.
  • When someone highlights a section of your work that you particularly love, too.
  • Watching on Kindle Unlimited or Goodreads as someone swallows your book whole.
  • The first time you sell more than a hundred copies in a single day.
  • A single sale anywhere when they’re not coming steadily anymore.
  • When a librarian says not only do they want to have you talk, they want to buy ten copies of your paperback.
  • When a librarian posts a great review of your book on her library’s site.
  • When colleagues or friends make references to you as a “famous author” and aren’t being sarcastic. (Wrong, yes, but at least not sarcastic.)
  • When you finally find a good way to write yourself out of a plot corner in your current draft.
  • When you find out your book got clicked on or downloaded far above a promoter’s usual range.
  • When you discover a new way to promote that looks as if it might actually allow you to make some money.
  • When a blog post or tweet goes viral.
  • When you get whatever yes you’ve been driving toward … publication somewhere, a full, an agent, a contract, a second contract … even if you know it’s just one milestone on a long, long road.

How about you? Have you had any good reasons to happy dance recently?

Tricks of memory and a beautiful New England autumn

I went away this weekend to visit one of my brothers and his family in Western Massachusetts and deliver some books for appearances I’ll be doing there December 5 at the Greenfield Public Library and in January at World Eye Bookshop. (Greenfield inspired the setting of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.) Along the way I stopped in at an old haunt I’m using in my next novel to see if I was capturing it more or less correctly.


I got the ledges themselves right. Here’s how I describe the place. This book is still in rough draft, so I might still change it to be more fictional, since the town it overlooks is going to be a mish-mash of Shelburne Falls, Buckland, Charlemont, and whatever I feel like.

The High Ledges was an Audubon bird sanctuary on a mountainside overlooking Jasper and the Deerfield River. It was notable for Lady Slipper orchids along shady woodland paths and for the rocky ledges with the great view of the valley below. For birds, too, but Dori was no bird watcher. She was not surprised when she drove up to find only one other car in the visitors’ parking lot; it was a place that was tricky to find if you didn’t already know where it was, and the gates would be closing in less than an hour.

The last time I was there I was in my twenties. I remember parking the car and the ledges being a brief stroll away. My first clue was when a gentleman coming down the trail said, “Doing a bit of mountain climbing today?”

“Not any serious mountain climbing,” I said, adding, “I hope.” And no, it was not serious mountain climbing. But it was chilly, damp, and took a good twenty minutes — mostly up hill.

No doubt I’m less fit. (I’m sometimes amazed to contemplate distances I used to cover on an old three-speed bicycle.) I suppose the car parking area might have changed in the interim, too. And I suppose it was still a fairly short walk by hiking standards — not to mention beautiful, with plenty of foliage left to enjoy even if it was a bit past peak.

Thankfully, the view at the ledges was as stunning as I had remembered. This is looking down toward Shelburne Falls and Buckland.

Here’s the view towards Charlemont:


When I visited Peterborough, New Hampshire a couple of years ago I had a similar moment of puzzlement and confusion. I had remembered much of the town correctly, especially the diner, when I was writing The Awful Mess. But the bridge and river running through the center of town were not at all what I remembered.

It was the warmest day since she’d arrived in Lawson, New Hampshire, a sunny day in March of 2003, and the Took River was swollen with melted snow. For the first time since Mary had begun these daily walks, there were other people clustered on the Main Street Bridge to watch the river. Uncomfortably conscious that she knew none of them, she considered hurrying past, but told herself that it would be ridiculous and stopped at her usual spot at the bridge railing.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” a man said, and settled in next to her at the railing.

Here’s the actual Main Street bridge in Peterborough. It doesn’t even have a railing! The river was quite sedate, too, though that could be a seasonal issue.

Contoocook River for FBI like my version a little better, frankly. Good thing I write fiction instead of memoir. Has your memory of a favorite place ever turned out to be unreliable?

Foraging for food — and for good reading

Last week I read a delightful book called “Eating Wildly.” EatingWildlyCoverAva Chin, who used to write a column called “Urban Forager” for the New York Times, tells us about her foraging for wild edibles in Brooklyn. Her adventures in the field are entwined with tales of her Chinese American family and her love life. She not only shares the joy of discovering wild food sources (and love), she shows us how she turns it into yummy meals (and family). The result is a memoir that is charming and instructional at the same time.

One of the issues she runs into: Some Times readers (and the occasional bureaucrat) inform her that foraging in local parks is not cool and/or not allowed (though the National Park Service does allow it). They say this even though the people foraging are usually careful to harvest in a sustainable way — after all, most hope to return and forage again in the future.

applesIt struck a chord with me because for the last few weeks I’ve been foraging off my neighborhood’s bounty. There’s an apparently abandoned apple tree one block over with apples that are just falling and getting piled up with the fallen leaves. They have a few tiny sooty blotches on them, but they taste wonderful. So I’ve often paused in my walks to pick apples from the branches overhanging the road and stuff my pockets.

I also recently stopped and asked another neighbor about her tree full of pears. Was she going to pick them before the freeze this weekend? She invited me to help myself, and we had a conversation about the variety, which I’d never heard of. I was just as excited to make a new gardening friend as to get free pears. (I took her some of my tomatoes and zucchini in return.)

Saturday morning I woke up thinking of apples and pears, then went off to my urban church to help offer free day-old Panera bread to our needy neighbors. (Panera gives all its leftover baked goods to charity at the end of each day.) I suppose that’s a form of urban foraging, too. I probably should have tracked down the owner of the apple tree, and asked if I could do some serious picking for my church’s food ministry. Maybe next year.

This reminds me that at a “community conversation” on hunger I attended recently, a fellow told a full auditorium that he never bought food because he could get everything he needed dumpster diving. I’m not sure anyone saw that as a particularly helpful suggestion, but I don’t doubt that it’s true. An enterprising soul probably could survive pretty well eating out of our city’s dumpsters. Ideally, of course, more could be done with good food before it ends up in dumpsters.

Hunting food in parks and roadsides and yards isn’t necessarily more dignified than staking out dumpsters — or seeking out charity — but what you find actually growing is often really great to eat — fresh and full of flavor, and healthy, too.

Why not forage widely for ideas as well?

We all consume food, but many of us also consume books. We could stick to bookstores or chain stores or the local public library for our book reading, and do quite well. But readers who are especially adventurous also forage out there in the wild — among the indie authors and publishers.

And yes, some of what we find out there might be the equivalent of spoiled food, or poisonous  mushrooms (best not to guess with them — Chin makes that clear), so it pays to examine every new find carefully. But some of it may be great. Some of it may be tarter, sharper, more incisive, or just more our thing than the committee-chosen, market-driven products of traditional publishing.

Of course, whether you forage for food or ideas, you’re going to get some other folks giving you grief about how you’re going to ruin everything for everyone. What if a dog peed on that? The park will be destroyed! There won’t be any day lilies left! Bookstores are dying! You’re ruining literature! And, of course: Ewwww!

But just as some of the weeds we once overlooked have a way of becoming haute cuisine (think ramps, dandelions, lambsquarters), indie publishing gives authors who don’t fit into the conventional mode a chance to find a foothold. A few will “take” and flourish. And yes, a lot of people will survey the landscape and think, “Are you kidding? This is a wasteland!”

But I suggest you look more carefully. There might just be a great meal out there.

Blooming furiously before the frost: the usefulness of deadlines

She climbed into the middle of the front garden and took a deep breath, trying to calm down amid the flowers and the fat, droning bees. The annuals were at their full height and blooming furiously, as if they knew this was their last chance to set seed before the frost — just like her, really.

cosmos bouquet plus living room 003I thought of this passage from “The Awful Mess” this week as I was cutting cosmos to bring inside before what was supposed to be a cold night — though we were spared a frost. I always cut a lot more flowers as frost approaches. It’s because I know they will soon be gone.

The passage from “The Awful Mess” is a reference to infertility, but it applies equally well to writing. I always write more when I am feeling mortal, conscious of a final deadline for saying what I want to say, rather than focused on the more immediate day-to-day responsibilities I have as an author, teacher, homeowner, mother, stepmother, grandmother, daughter, sister, friend, pet owner, parishioner, neighbor, colleague, gardener, taxpayer, or citizen.

The novel in progress just keeps taking second priority, though part of that is me dithering over a key plot point. So I’m taking a risk (at least by my own you’d-think-I-grew-up-in-the-Great-Depression standards) this spring. I’m trying a form of “going pro” by taking next semester off from teaching to get the draft finished and revised. And since I’m buying  myself that time, I have a clear deadline to meet.

It’s a bit of a risk, and it may not ever pay off. But that’s okay. As she sits among the flowers, Mary reassures herself that there will be social services to keep her and the baby she’s bearing from starving. As I contemplate 16 weeks fully devoted to writing, I can reassure myself that writing is, at least, its own reward.

Once in a while I get to see students suddenly “get” that their writing can be a way to make meaning out of their lives — that it can be an act of profound discovery, and not just a chore to be gotten through. It becomes something they take genuine delight in and not just a hurdle they must overcome in order to get a grade, or a paycheck. (And in this publishing climate, it’s probably just as well to think of any given writing project that way.)

Autumn is a good time to put the garden to bed, stock the larder, and buckle down to a long winter of writing (or perhaps an earlier NaNoRiMo for some of you). Whether you expect it to pay off or not, I hope you will enjoy it. May you make many happy discoveries!