The Privilege Index: Addressing Diversity in Fantasy Novels

Every once in a while, amidst the pictures of restaurant food and the inspirational memes and the promotional posts for TV shows I’m never going to watch, I come across a statement on social media that just gets right under my fingernails.  Whether it’s an article in the New York Times or a retweet from someone I follow, sometimes I just have to speak out.

Normally, I get a little adversarial when that happens, but I want to say right off the bat that this is not one of those times.  This is a time for a civil conversation about a very important topic – and, I sincerely hope, an opportunity for me to learn something from people who have different views than I do.

I saw bunch of tweets the other day that basically boiled down to an argument that goes something like this:

Books with mostly/all white characters – or books assumed to have mostly/all white characters when not explicitly identified as non-white – are pushing a white agenda.  We can’t all relate to white characters, so mostly/all white books are not really valuable to a modern audience. 

But if you’re a white author trying to include non-white characters in your stories, you’re probably engaging in cultural appropriation or misinterpretation.  You’re probably just doing it because diversity is trendy right now, anyway, and that’s wrong.  Don’t try to write books about cultures/gender identities/sexual orientations that aren’t part of your own authentic experience, because that’s insulting to people who have experienced negativity, violence, or other pain related to their various identities. 

But books about mostly/all white characters are bad…

…and around we go in a vicious circle.

Now, hold on a minute with whatever you’re thinking.  First, I am not defending this argument.  Second, I am not attacking this argument.  I am merely recording an argument I have seen.

The counter-argument seems to go something like this:

This logic maligns the rights of white people toscreeeech.

Let’s just put the brakes on that one for the moment.  It doesn’t lead anywhere worth going.

I usually check the “white” option on my demographic forms, and I agree with the notion that white people are not really in a position to claim that they are being maligned about pretty much anything.  In the literary world, we still probably get most of the exposure and the dollars out there (I mean, I don’t, but that’s not the point) and straight white male voices still dominate the history and present of the fantasy genre.

But I’m not a straight white male.  I’m a woman, which gives me an inherent disadvantage and a stake in this conversation.  But…I’m a privately-educated woman with full-time employment, a small amount of disposable income, and a broadly accepted gender/sexuality identity.  But I struggle with depression and other mental illness.  But I’ve never experienced physical violence due to my gender/sexuality/ethic/racial/religious identities.  But I have certainly been verbally harassed and made to feel shame for some of my identity attributes.

But I’ve this, and I’ve that, and I’ve the other thing, et cetera, et cetera.  Pluses and minuses – the list goes on.  You can tally up your own privilege points with things like this hideously reductive Buzzfeed quiz, but I don’t think that adds much to anyone’s “right” to contribute their perspective.

So instead of spouting out a whole bunch of nonsense that falls prey to the flaws of the Privilege Index point of view, I just want to gather information from people who have all different takes on the world.  To that end, I’ve created a short survey.

It’s just ten questions, some of which are open-ended, to collect some data about how you guys (readers and authors) feel about the thorny problem of diversity in a genre that is clearly undergoing one heck of a major revolution that is long overdue.

The survey is anonymous.  I will not be collecting names or email addresses.  I do not know any of you well enough to guess who you are based on your responses to the demographic questions.  Feel free to say what’s on your mind, but remember to be kind, thoughtful, and honest.

Please note that for the purposes of this survey, I am using the word “diverse” to mean “non-white/straight/cisgender” characters.  I’m aware that it’s a silly definition, because it assumes a whitewashed world is the standard and everything else is the “other,” but it’s a commonly accepted way of framing the issue, and SurveyMonkey will only let my questions be so long.

Click here to take the survey!

I would like to share your thoughts in a follow-up post, but please do be aware that malicious sentiments or hate speech will never see the light of day.  This is an opportunity for discussion, not for being an awful person.

Please share the survey with your friends and fellow readers.  The more responses I get, the better the conversation.  I’m looking forward to your feedback!

The Call of NaNoWriMo: November Approaches


I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble with the fact that it’s already well into October.  My summer has been filled with activity – and inactivity, unfortunately – and it seems like the warm days passed me by before I was even aware.

I think that happens every summer, but I never stop being surprised by it.  One moment it’s all flowers and oceans and walks in the park, and the next I’m tripping over decorative gourds and dodging Christmas tree displays at Kmart.

Autumn isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite things.  Massachusetts is the best place on earth to get your fill of orange leaves and apple orchards, cider and hay bales and cool, misty mornings rolling in over the hills.  There’s something in the air that makes you want to invest in some oversized, locally-spun wool garments and take a hike somewhere.

Whatever it is that makes me hoard sweaters and try to find where I put my Crock Pot also flips the switch in my creative brain that starts the wheels turning again.  It takes a little while to get the gears going, but as soon as the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) site boots up again and the tweets start pouring in from friends brainstorming their next novels, I can’t help but get excited.

I didn’t know if I was going to participate this year, actually, because I’m in the middle of trying to edit and finish the last two books of The Paderborn Chronicles.  Book 3, Dark the Chains of Treason, is in relatively decent shape for the moment, but the last volume, Dark the Wayward Dawn, is suffering from some structural issues (not the mention the fact that I need to write the last 20,000 words).

While I’m not morally opposed to patchwork NaNoWriMo participation, I didn’t want to write the ending to Wayward Dawn and then have to launch into 30,000 make-up words on a new project without a breather.  It’s not really how I work, and I want to do a thorough overhaul and edit of the first part of the book before I sketch out the climax.

So, seeing as how I just released Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow two months ago and almost no one has actually read it, I’ve decided to give myself a short break from the world of Arran Swinn, and take this November to indulge in creating a new fantasy.  I think it’ll freshen me up to come back to the editing process over the winter, and it won’t seriously delay my (tentative) release schedule.

What am I going to be working on, then?  Well, I don’t have all the details fleshed out just yet, but it’s going to be a standalone novel preliminarily titled The Night Heron’s War.

As I mentioned on Facebook a few days ago, I’m thinking about taking elements of the American Revolution (colonies in fractious rebellion; underfunded guerilla combat; a middle/upper class torn in both directions) and approaching them from the viewpoint of an Abigail Adams type character: a smart, shrewd woman who ends up being much more than a good housewife and hostess for a well-connected husband drawn into dangerous circumstances more or less against his will.

First stab at a cover (no pun intended)

First stab at a cover (no pun intended)

She’s one of my favorite historical figures, and while I don’t envision that the story will be an alternate history of the Revolution or anything like that (it’s not set in the real world, for starters), I think she’d make a great fantasy character.  Her relationship with John and her steadying hand had such a huge impact on major events – it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if you throw a little sorcery at someone like that.

So that’s the plan for now.  I’ve done some very basic hands-free plotting (i.e. using my phone to record myself talking in the car on the way to work), and I’ll probably be working on a more solid outline over the next few weeks, before the fun really begins.

As usual, if you’d like to join me on the creative rollercoaster, please feel free to add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo website.  If you’re not sure you want to take the plunge, but want to follow along as I gripe and grimace and grin my way through the month of November, consider a Twitter follow instead.  You can have all the cat pictures for free.

Who’s going to be jumping in this year?  What ideas do you have swirling in your heads?  Let me know in the comments!

Home is Behind; the World Ahead

IS5eqngy07rd5k0000000000I visited New York this weekend, for a short but multi-purpose trip back to my ancestral homeland.  As many of you know, I spent the first 17 years of my life on Long Island, in a bustling yet somewhat brutal suburb of the great City itself.

New Yorkers are generally very proud of where they live, and remain proud of where they come from if they happen to move away.  They retain their stereotypical attitude (which is, if anything, underplayed in the media) and their propensity for tailgating on the highway.

They can never eat a bagel or slice of pizza without loudly proclaiming its inferiority to the cuisine of their youth (it’s the water, don’t you know), and they will forever be shocked that businesses, restaurants, and public transportation options close before midnight in towns that approach life at a slower pace.

While I’m certainly guilty of maintaining some of these traits, despite my eight years as a Massachusetts resident, I’ve never been as enamored with New York as many of my compatriots.  It’s a fascinating place, and there is something to be said for growing up in such a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with world-class museums and attractions and beaches being such a routine part of my childhood.

There’s something to be said for leaving it behind, too.  I was never a very good New Yorker.  I didn’t really like the city; I didn’t care for our sports teams, or take pride in being mouthy and brash.  I didn’t frequent the salons and the tanning parlors, or the bars and the clubs.  I don’t like stucco on houses.  I don’t flat-iron my hair and I’ve never been to the Jersey Shore.  I don’t wear yoga pants or velour sweat suits, and I prefer not to have rhinestone logos associated with my rear end.

As a teenager, I felt this disconnect very strongly, and I fled to Massachusetts almost as soon as I had the choice.  As a college student, I fell in love with its expansive woodlands and winding roads and 18th century villages.  I don’t mind that everything closes at 8:00 at night, because I like to be in bed just an hour or so later.  I like the quiet, and the comparative friendliness (yes, even in Boston proper), and the progressively liberal bent to our politics.

I chose to live in Massachusetts, to settle here and make a life for myself.  It has become home, but no matter how many years I end up living here, I don’t know that it will ever be where I’m from.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that distinction, because my family is facing a big change in the coming months.  We are selling the house I grew up in.

That might not seem like a momentous thing for people who have moved around a lot during their lives, but it’s the only house I have ever lived in.  It was the place I ran to when I was feeling overwhelmed by people I didn’t understand; it’s where I could shut myself away with a book and a cat (or two or three) and pretend like I was in control of my world.  Its old-fashioned character shaped my aesthetic senses with rich cherry wood moldings and glass knobs on the rickety doors.

In contrast to the open floor plans and master suites of my friends’ houses, our 1923 American four-square organized its living spaces in smaller, more dedicated ways.  Having only one full bathroom for three kids and two parents required everyone to invest in some serious negotiating tactics in the mornings.  The bedrooms are small and the kitchen never had enough counter space, but high ceilings made everything feel bigger.  There’s a basement my dad finished himself.  A screened-in back room gave us a little more space to spread out, and let us spend leisurely summer dinners as a family overlooking a grassy yard large enough to be the envy of our carefully subdivided neighbors.

I spent a lot of time in the house as a child – I was homeschooled for several years, and even when I returned to public school, I did not waste a lot of my scarce energy on after-school activities or late evenings with friends.  I just went home.

I went home to my books, which never made me feel anxious or out of place.  I went home to my cats, who would listen to my secrets without judgement or comment.  I went home to the internet, and the ability to interact with the world from the safety of my own private castle.  When my parents divorced, I went home to the only place that seemed solid in a foreign and confusing new reality.

My room now...a little different than it was when I still lived there.

My room now…a little different (cleaner) than it was when I still lived there.

I went home and cried myself into exhaustion after I failed my first driver’s test, too embarrassed to tell any of my friends.  I went home while putting college on hold after a truly heinous semester at Boston University, and stared at the ceiling all night as I lay sleepless in my familiar bed, convinced I had ruined my life.

I stayed home when I was too sick or just too tired to go to high school; I came home almost every weekend for months as my cat Solomon started to come to the end of his days, just to spend as much time with him as I could.

Home has always been there for me, and home has always been that house.  I know that makes me lucky.  That sense of permanence has been a gift that kept me going through a tumultuous youth that left me feeling isolated, frustrated, and poorly understood more often than not.

When I visit these days, I feel those negative memories first.  I feel the pain of my slowly splintering family, and the resonating anger of so many heated disagreements over our fundamental differences.  I feel like a lost child again, rooting around helplessly in my overwhelming sadness, searching for some sense of self I could hardly define, let alone capture.

I feel all the missteps I made when I didn’t know better, and all the mistakes that other people didn’t even know they were making with me.  I feel the heartbreak of wishing so hard that things could be different, and the defeat of recognizing how many things are still the same, no matter how much older I get.

It’s in my nature, perhaps, to think about the bad things first, but they certainly don’t reflect the sum total of my life there.  There are so many good memories that made that house the sanctuary it will always remain in my mind.

There were sunlit mornings in the kitchen, eating breakfast while my mother washed the dishes, and winter afternoons charting new trails through the unbroken snow of the backyard grass.  There was my dogwood tree to climb, and a pool for a while, and the chaise in the screen room where I would fall asleep in the dappled shade.

There was the grill on the deck for steaks and chicken, and the terror of discovering a hornet’s nest under the eaves.  There was the ill-fated garden behind the garage, where we planted sickly tomatoes next to the sandy pit where I pretended to be an archaeologist.

There was the crawl space in the basement, where the original builders had left mysterious bottles and jugs, and the swing set, and the basketball hoop that was too tall for me, and the wooden playhouse that had more spiders than I quite liked.

There was chocolate milk on Sunday, and visits from my grandmother, and running to the corner to meet my dad when he came home on the train.  There were bike rides up and down the driveway along chalk-drawn streets, and camping in a pop-up tent we never really put together properly.

There were bedtime stories and silly dances and the day my mom spilled half her yogurt down the sink.  The ritual recital of Passover seders; the smells of Thanksgiving and latkes and snuffed out Hanukkah candles so the cats wouldn’t burn their whiskers.

Every corner has a story for me.  Every creak of the stairs is as familiar as my own name.  So much of my life has happened there, and even though I know it’s time to let that house become home for some other family with their future ahead of them, my heart aches when I think about never being in those rooms again.

We still have a month or two before we have to be out of there completely, and we’ve all planned to come down again for another weekend – the last time we will all be in the house together.  The finality of that is frightening.  So is the inevitability.  The sense of detachment may, in time, become liberating, but right now it just feels like I’m losing something very important to the way I have always seen myself.

Change is good, and this change is necessary on many levels, but it is hard to leave behind so much of myself in a place that is so strongly ingrained in my consciousness.

I don’t know how this is going to affect my family and the independent lives we are now living.  I don’t know where we’ll have our Thanksgivings and Passovers – or if those will be a thing of the past, as well.  I don’t know how the world will feel without a home like that to go back to.

I’m hoping that finally making the break from an idea that has slowly been fading over time anyway will just help me feel more settled and comfortable in the life I’ve built for myself.  I hope to have my own permanent house someday, with a yard and brick steps and dogwood trees for my theoretical children to climb.

I don’t know if I will ever feel as secure as I used to when I was a child in my fortress of books and bedding, before I became old enough and jaded enough to think about the bad things first.  But I hope I can build upon my treasured memories of happy times, and let the other ones drift away.

Home may be behind, but the world is ahead, and that will have to be the thought that sustains me as I watch one long chapter of my life come to a close and another begins.

On the Sidelines


Dear readers, it quite literally pains me to say this, but I have fallen down the stairs.  It may have happened almost a month ago, but the lingering after effects are still with me: though my scaphoid bone is intact, my ligaments are uninjured, and my bruises have dissipated, I’ve had such a hard time using my hand and wrist that typing for work – let alone for pleasure – has been a real burden.

This has been problematic, considering typing is actually my job.  I’ve been taking it easy for a while, as I slowly work my way through a deeply unhelpful healthcare system only to be told that there’s nothing actually wrong with me and I shouldn’t be in any discomfort.  The fact that I am in quite a bit of discomfort seemed of little concern to my orthopedist, but that’s between me and him.

All this ruckus has kept me from pursuing my two favorite hobbies.  I haven’t touched Book Three (AKA Dark the Chains of Treason) for several weeks, and I haven’t been to the archery range in what seems like an eternity.

I am slowly going mad.

Well, maybe not so slowly.

I am anticipating only a few more weeks until my wrist gets well enough for me to start returning to normal levels of activity, but in the meantime, I’m mostly just moping around, watching a lot of BBC costume dramas, and frantically trying to catch up with work-related tasks as I fail to keep my mounting frustration at bay.

I say this not so you should pity me (although if you are so inclined, please feel free), but because writing something down and opening it up to other people quantifies and contains things.  Sharing these facts makes it easier for me to view a fallow period for what it is: a temporary happenstance that will eventually pass, even when a storm of circumstances makes that feel impossible.

For someone who’s more than optimally prone to seeing the end of all things in every little thing, pinning down the chaos on a page is a very helpful form of therapy.

It’s why I write anything at all, I think.  Writing shapes our ideas for communication with others, and to do that, we must have order in our own minds.  We must understand ourselves, and have control over ourselves, and have the patience to comb through the noise and pull out what makes sense.

For any of you who have experienced the anxiety and depression that can consume the soul when something hurts – when many things hurt – and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it, you’ll know this isn’t always easy.  Life so often seems like a series of terrible, hurtful things punctuated by stretches of crushing boredom, and its sheer relentlessness can make you feel so very alone.

But it will eventually pass.  I’ll get back to writing.  I’ll get back to archery.  I’ll do everything I need to do at work.  I might even reorganize my closet one day, if I am feeling particularly bold.  My stupid hand will heal up, my blog posts will get cheery again (sort of), and there will be a period of blessed calm before everything starts all over again.  Hopefully, another fall down the stairs won’t be part of my future, and I can focus on getting  to work again soon on the things that keep me going.

Hey, Traditional Authors: Self-Publishing Isn’t the Easy Way Out

NB: In case you’re interested in winning a copy of Dark the Night Descending, even though it’s self-published, I’m giving away five books on Goodreads right now!

Twitter is great for many things.  It helps you share and communicate.  It provides an endless stream of adorable cat pictures.  It delivers breaking news in bite-sized nuggets, and it can satisfy your occasional need to get outraged about something a complete stranger says.  I think you can guess which one this blog post is going to be about.


No, not that one.

Myke Cole, a military fantasy author, retweeted this comment and image by the magician behind Fantasy Faction, one of the biggest genre communities out there.


And I was not happy.

First of all, despite the assertion that there are exceptions to what he obviously believes is a rule, the flow of this chart is insultingly reductive.  Let’s establish one thing as the basis for all the arguments to follow: Self-publishing does not equal giving up. 

Self-publishing is a conscious choice, not a reactive one, and it does not mean you don’t care about the quality or ongoing improvement of your work.  Self-publishing does not mean you don’t seek the help of professional editors and artists.  Self-publishing requires knowledge, talent, marketing savvy, and perseverance – all without the cozy validation of having been one of the “chosen ones” of traditional publishing.

Self-publishing is not the easy way out.

In response to the chart, I scribbled out one of my own, and it immediately sparked a flurry of responses from Fantasy Faction and others:


Now, if you can get past the poor handwriting (and the fact that maybe it implies the use of readers as guinea pigs, which was not what I meant), you can see that a) the path that leads an author into self-publishing can be a little more complex than a single rage-inducing rejection, and b) the path that develops after self-publishing can lead to any number of amazing things.

You can kind of follow the Twitter conversation here, but I’m just going to go through and make some points that came out of that discussion and my own experiences with the perceived conflict between traditional publishing and the broad spectrum of indie options out there.

Self-publishers aren’t all hopeless, disgruntled rejects

There is a pervasive assumption among traditionally published writers that self-publishing is a secondary choice, and one that is only made when something goes wrong in the traditional publishing world.

If an agent won’t take you to the prom, you’re likely to run with tears streaming down your face into the loving arms of Amazon KDP, that perfect fairytale boyfriend who will accept you for who you are with all your flaws, not just how you sell yourself to the rest of the world.

That isn’t always true.  Yes, KDP takes anyone, because KDP makes a lot of money off of doing what they do.  Yes, a lot of self-publishers have experienced frustration and rejection from the traditional publishing world.  Yes, it is possible to upload a complete mess of a manuscript with a hand-drawn cover and a cringe-inducing storyline.

But a lot of people don’t.  Self-publishing is a gold mine for many authors.  It offers more control over content.  It offers a quicker turnaround time.  It offers opportunities for higher royalties and higher revenues.  It offers an enormous potential readership – and the number of traditionally published authors turning to self-publishing as a better alternative is growing by the day.

Sometimes they are authors who have secured an agent but not a book deal.  Sometimes their traditional contracts have lapsed with mediocre sales, and they choose not to renew their arrangements because they can get higher royalties and quality products from CreateSpace or Smashwords.  Sometimes they are traditionally published authors who know they can pursue both paths to make the most profit.

There are as many reasons for self-publishing as there are self-publishers.  To persist in the belief that we are all losers who don’t know any better is both narrow minded and ill-informed.

Quality is incredibly important to serious self-publishers

Even though Amazon and the other self-pub giants try to pitch the process as being easy as 1-2-3, it isn’t.  Let’s assume for a second that you actually care about how your product you present to the world.  Let’s assume you have some of the skills to create a quality book, but maybe not quite as many as you need.

Sure, there are people who will publish a sub-par product without editing or cover art.  But serious self-publishers who want to turn a profit will enlist the help of professional editors, talented cover artists, savvy formatters, and web design experts to make sure that they aren’t wasting their time.

Self-publishing doesn’t mean doing everything by yourself, and few people do.  Few self-publishing advice websites recommend going it alone.  Most will advise you to set up a budget for necessary services like editing and cover art – 90 percent of the discussions I had at Pi-Con this weekend were about how important it is to pay fair prices for good work from professionals in the self-publishing world.

A 2014 survey of nearly 2000 authors from Digital Book World found that more than a third of self-publishers hired a cover artist, a quarter sought formatting help, nearly 20 percent enlisted a content editor, and ten percent paid for marketing and promotion.

Source: Digital Book World

Source: Digital Book World

Crappy books don’t sell, and self-publishers know this as well as anyone.  They are willing to take money out of their own pockets to improve their products – and they don’t get advances.

There are terrible self-published books out there.  I can’t deny that.  But there are terrible traditionally published books, too.  You can’t deny that, either.

Self-publishing something does not mean you have no interest in improving your craft

One of the worst things about Fantasy Faction’s comments was the notion that self-publishers don’t care about becoming better writers.  Rejection by the gods is the only way to get better at your craft.  If you can self-publish, you’re not going to have any motivation to write books that are good enough to make it past the gatekeepers (a term, by the way, that agents absolutely hate).

Wrong.  I don’t know any writer – traditionally published, self-published, or with no interest in being published at all – who doesn’t strive to improve.  I don’t know anyone who ignores thoughtful critiques, or thinks they’re already at the top of their game, or who doesn’t try to write a better book every time they sit down to the computer.  You wouldn’t be a writer, and you certainly wouldn’t be an author, if you didn’t know that there was lots of hard work to do until you drop dead.

We are not slackers.  We are not complacent.  We are just like traditional authors – but we’ve got the balls to do it all ourselves.  Which brings me to my overall point…

There’s nothing easy about going it alone

Writers are creatures of self-doubt, and there’s nothing easy about overcoming the anxiety and uncertainty of putting time, money, and effort into publishing a book with no safety net.  Self-publishing is a risk, both financially and emotionally, and it requires just as much (if not more) courage, fortitude, and sheer bloody-minded determination as sending out queries to traditional agents.

As Myke Cole said in one of his tweets, writing is hard enough.  He couldn’t imagine how self-publishers could manage to do the rest themselves.  But surprise!  One way or another, we get it done.

Personally, I have devoted many hours to squinting at cover images while I edit my art, or screaming at Microsoft Word when my formatting is off.  I’ve stayed up late nights during the work week to finish editing a chapter or perfecting some tiny part of the publishing process.  I have spent days nervously waiting for things to get approved or shipped – only to have to go back and make changes and do it all over again.

It is hard work.  And most of the time, there are few rewards.  It’s discouraging to see my stats flatline for weeks at a time.  It’s not fun to try to urge my friends to leave reviews.  It’s not easy for me to market myself and take on all the self-promotion required to maybe, possibly get one user to add my book on Goodreads.  I have felt like a failure so many more times than I have ever felt like a success.

Self-publishing sucks…but I’ve been doing it for three years with absolutely no intention of stopping, because I love it.

I love holding a finished book in my hand and knowing that I made this.  I love having an Amazon page.  I love writing my blog.  I love those rare occasions when I get to talk to my readers and they smile and get excited and tell me what they think about my characters.  I love seeing my name in other publications, and striving every day to open up those opportunities for myself.  Even if I don’t sell very many books, I love feeling proud of what I do.

Self-publishing taught me that I can do so much more than I ever thought I could.  It taught me that it wasn’t too scary to put myself out in the world.  That I didn’t need approval from some big bad agent in the sky to express my ideas and my points of view.  That there are opportunities for everything if you’re willing to work for them.

Self-publishing is not a cop-out, and it doesn’t have to exist solely in opposition to the traditional route.  Readers want to read good stories, and I think it’s a great thing that there are now so many more ways for them to do that.  Traditional publishing will have to adjust, as all industries do when a disruptive force enters the marketplace, and holding on to damaging notions of the past will only make it harder for everyone involved.

Self-publishers want respect because we do enough to earn it.  I hope the traditional world will be able to see that someday, as the wheat separates from the chaff and it becomes easier to identify and read good self-published work.  There are wonderful, talented, amazing independent authors out there, and they don’t deserve the stigma placed upon them by the traditional publishing juggernaut.  It would be a shame to dismiss them all without taking a really hard look at what they do.

Hello, Goodbye: A Recap of My First and Last Pi-Con

so-long-9pi-smallerAs many of you know, this past weekend I attended my first fantasy/sci-fi/fandom convention in over a decade.  Yes, it has been that long since a bunch of my high school friends piled into someone’s car and drove out to Stony Book University for I-CON, a much bigger event with a much different flavor.

Despite sharing most of the same letters in their names, Pi-Con was a very different experience for me, mostly because I got take on a dual role as both attendee and panelist.

I spent the weekend running back and forth between meeting rooms, listening to fellow authors and experts talk about magic and marketing, fighting and food, publishing and perseverance when everything seems to be heading down the tubes.

I spoke about my enduring love of Tolkien and the importance of developing robust cultures and economies while constructing the details of one’s own worlds.  I moderated a lively roundtable discussion about what a book is really worth to a reader, and took turns telling silly, improvised stories with a group of smart and funny colleagues.

I suffered through this ignoble defeat during my scheduled reading from Dark the Night Descending:


And this while attending the afternoon Steampunk Tea:


And I even won a couple of costuming prizes for this (shown during a previous outing last year because I didn’t take that many selfies over the weekend):


And I only sold one book.

It was a long and kind of exhausting event, if only because I had to do so much talking that my throat was getting raw by the end of it, but I’m very glad I went.  I met a lot of new people (some of whom, I have to confess, operated somewhat outside of my comfort zone), and heard any number of vigorously defended opinions, both popular and otherwise.

Everyone was friendly and engaging and willing to talk.  Everyone listened when I had something to say (usually).  Everyone wanted to be there, and everyone saw the opportunity to indulge in their passions during a safe and communal celebration of the fact that we’re all kind of really weird.

That’s the main reason people go to conventions and fandom events and whatnot, and I think that’s great.  Even for someone with a relatively significant degree of social anxiety, which definitely started to drag on me by the third day, I never really felt out of place, unwelcome, or not geeky enough to take part in something.  The atmosphere was very comfortable, and while I’m not sure how much con-going I’ll be doing in the future, I’m glad I got to experience this one.

ribbonI’m doubly glad to have been invited this year because this was the last Pi-Con.  After nine years, the event’s organizers have decided to go their separate ways, and the sense of finality and nostalgia was everywhere.  Even though I only attended this one event, it made me keenly aware of just how much effort goes into planning and executing these local gatherings, and I’m very pleased to have been able to help fill out the impressive program in whatever small way I could.

So thank you, 9Pi-Con, for giving me an invaluable experience to remember.  It was a great weekend, and you should all be proud of yourselves for a poignant send off to what was clearly a very successful near-decade in bringing people together.

And because I came back with a whole big box of unsold novels, I’m going to be doing a few Goodreads giveaways over the next couple of weeks leading up to the launch of Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow.  Stay tuned for more details!


A happy Oliver welcomes me home

The Lightbulb Moment


Stop pulling.  It was a striking thought, and one that sounded simple enough, though maybe it was a bit of a strange epiphany when it comes to archery.  After all, that’s the basic notion, isn’t it?  Pull back and let go.  To stop doing that seemed like it might be counterproductive.

But archery, like writing, is about taking the “basic notion” and turning it into something entirely different.  Archery is an art that requires a very fine balance between pushing and pulling and not doing anything at all, and sometimes you’re not entirely sure when to do what in order to achieve the optimal effect.

When I told myself to stop pulling, I wasn’t saying that it was time to pack up and go home after an hour and a half of sending arrows into the corners of the target.  It wasn’t.  It was just time to stop moving the string past my anchor point as I tried to bring my elbow around in line with my shoulder (an action that would actually be sort of necessary if I was using a clicker, but I’m not).

The pull made me shoot wild, varying my draw length and causing my fingers to roll sideways off the string as I tried to control the extra bit of unreliable power I was inadvertently giving my arrows.  I wasn’t relaxed.  I wasn’t consistent.

It wasn’t my grip, or my stance, or my fletchings; it wasn’t my aiming or my shoulders or a smudge on my glasses or any of the other thousands of things I tried to change and perfect for that first deeply frustrating hour and a half.  I was tinkering with everything other than the real problem, making it all worse for myself, and I could not for the life of me figure out what was going wrong.

Then I told myself to stop pulling.  I don’t know why it suddenly came to me, but it did.  And while I was immensely relieved to see my arrows heading back into the gold, I also felt like a total idiot for not realizing what I was doing wrong a little bit sooner.

I never know whether to laugh with joy or blush with shame when the lightbulb goes off, but I think I usually do both.  I treasure those moments very dearly, whether they appear during archery practice or when I’m plotting a new novel, and I feel lucky to be able to experience them.  But they also make me feel like a fool.  I should have seen the impossible, I tell myself.  It all seems so easy now.  Why wasn’t it easy before?

Because it couldn’t be, of course.  Lightbulb moments are like optical illusions.  It’s not a failing of character or intelligence if you can’t see the hidden picture until you do.  It’s just a trick of the brain: a strangely synchronized firing of synapses that happens when you least expect it, and the outline of the old woman’s face becomes clear.

Sometimes you have to tilt the paper or step back a little bit, but other times there’s no discernable reason why your eyes decided to refocus at just such a moment in just such a way, creating some nebulous, imperceptible change that illuminates something new in your world.

It’s one of those wonderful mysteries of life and learning, and it’s one of the reasons I keep doing what I do.  I think it’s rare to be able to pinpoint the exact moment when “can’t” turns into “can.”

I wish I could remember the first instant during my childhood that squiggly lines on a page became letters that conveyed meaning.  I wish I could quantify what happens when a plot device clicks into place and a new path of possibility swings into view, opening the gate to a long road of adventure.  I wish I could bottle it and share it with people whose ideas sidle up to them more gradually, so that everyone knows how great it feels.

If you’ve ever had a lightbulb moment, I hope you treasure it, especially when you’re running up against the wall of impossibility again and again.  Remember how it feels the instant after you’ve solved a problem.  Be patient and be persistent as you work towards the answer, because it’s going to come, eventually, in a flash of brightness that’s going to make you feel silly and amazing and brilliant and dumb.  I honestly can’t think of a better sensation.

Are you a lightbulb person, or do you get your answers in a different way?  I’m interested to hear if this is a more or less universal experience, or if none of you have any idea what I’m actually talking about.  Let me know in the comments!