The Long Story of a Short Story

I’m chagrined to admit I started writing The Bear Box in 2017. As I put the final polish on it this spring and designed the print edition, I imagined I began a few years ago. Yet, when I opened up the “old versions” folder, the evidence was there. Damn, I’m slow. Didn’t the author of Twilight write the whole book in three months? It somehow took me five years to get 69 pages in good shape.

Cover of the book The Bear Box

I don’t know if this will be a pep talk or discouraging to aspiring writers, but if you have a full and busy life, getting a story from vague idea to reader-worthy text takes time. I never knew this side job would require so much patience and persistence. I’m not that kind of person. I’m a creative problem solver who doesn’t overthink and gets things done with whatever is at hand. I love the satisfaction of building a bookshelf in a few hours with leftover lumber from the garage. Done! Problem solved!

I created the first outline of this story on June 17th, 2017, in Lawrence, Kansas, at a speculative fiction workshop. I did a development session–something I’d never done before. You get to pitch a wild idea and workshop attendees comment. I’d illustrated key scenes with a black sharpie and taped the papers to the wall. Pat Cadigan, our amazing guest author, led the session.

Writers at dinner

I’ve got the notes. I didn’t take 90% of the advice (some of which was oddly specific given the story hadn’t been written yet) but what I did take away was the group’s excitement. They liked the premise and the setting and the characters and one person said if I didn’t write it he would.

Over the next few months I finished a complete draft. After that, I revised it nine times, doing a “save as” any time I made a big change. I submitted the story to my writer’s group and got helpful feedback, most of which I did take seriously and made changes.

After a few more drafts I sent the story to a member of the speculative fiction workshop who’d participated in the development session. She gave me good feedback. I revised and sent it back to her a few months later and incorporated her additional feedback.

In February 2018 I started submitting the story to magazines. I was already fighting an uphill battle because the piece is over 10,000 words. That’s way above what most places will accept so my options were limited.

The submission history is:

It’s hard to read much into a rejection other than the piece didn’t work for them for whatever reason, and I was buoyed by the positive rejections. By this point I’d put a lot of effort into polishing Bear Box and it had reached the stage where, when I read it after not reading it for a few months, it didn’t feel like I’d written it. It existed apart from me. Also, the last line gave me a shiver. That’s how I knew it was done.

You can see from the submission history what happened. I started out full of eagerness and then lost steam. Searching for places to submit is time consuming. I subscribe to Duotrope, a website that allows you to search and filter publications that publish fiction, but it can take an hour plus to find one suitable publication. My minimum requirement is that they pay something. Less than one cent per word – fine. I just want a professional relationship with a publisher and that means at least a token payment. I spend hours and hours on a story. I hope that’s worth $15.

Duotrope screenshot

When I did find a promising publication, I would visit their website to learn more. Then I’d discover they only take work from Australians, or that the theme for the next issue is ghosts, or that Duotrope thinks they take stories up to 10k words but it’s actually capped at 5k, or the submission window is closed, or they now charge for submissions.

When I finally, miraculously, found a place that was a good fit, I’d then have to strictly follow their submission guidelines. They may take files via an online submission system or may have you email the story with a particular subject line. They may or may not want a cover letter. You might have to submit “blind,” meaning you remove your name from all the pages which means having to create a whole new draft of the manuscript.

The whole thing is a pain in the ass and starts to feel like procrastinating. I’m working on a novel and that’s my priority. I’ve got two hours tops to devote to writing each night so combing through publications that might be open and submitting and knowing I won’t hear back for six months starts to feel like a bad use of my time.

I neglected poor Bear Box for a few years.

engravings of moons

A year or so ago I ordered a book a friend of mine had written and it turned out to be a tiny book. I read and enjoyed it, and it lay on our coffee table for many months. Why I didn’t immediately put two and two together is beyond me. We were in pandemic lockdown and I wasn’t feeling super creative and that’s as good a reason as any.

Finally, one day up here in the attic I had that little book in hand, probably to put it away on the bookshelf, and the light bulb finally turned on. How many words is this? I wondered, and then, Is The Bear Box the right length for this format? Then, excitedly, OMG it is the right length! I can do this! I can publish this myself and do whatever I want with the layout. I can design my own cover and have illustrations. I have an ISBN number. I can get a blurb for the back. I can get this out into the world.

There’s a stigma against self-publishing that is cultivated by publishers and internalized by writers and I understand why. Traditional publishers are gatekeepers who weed out unpolished and unfinished manuscripts that readers wouldn’t enjoy. I know this because I read submissions for The Shoreline of Infinity and 98% of the material was not ready for consumption. It wasn’t crappy junk, it just wasn’t done.

The Bear Box was extremely polished after countless revisions and reviews. I suspect I put it through more gates than many pubs would have.

In July 2021, I sent the manuscript to an author/editor friend for a final, professional review (that means I paid for it) and revised based on her feedback.

Early in 2022 I began work on the layout. I’m a graphic designer, so I was able to do this step myself. Having to pay people to do this might be cost prohibitive for many authors because a little book like this isn’t going to make a ton of money.

Book layout in InDesign

I hadn’t uploaded a book to IngramSpark (a service that offers global distribution for print on demand books) in quite a while, so I had to reread the how-to manual. The process is both straightforward and confusing…like everything online. Given the theme of the book is about real life vs. virtual life–this book would be print only. I submitted PDF files and waited a few days for them to be accepted, then approved the proof. I had to wait more days for the title to be available…then I could order a copy to see how it looked in real life!

It turned out great. I was in love with the little object I’d created. It was real. It existed. I did it.

Final step was to order a case and have a book launch. I asked Borderlands Books if they could host, but they aren’t doing any instore events due to covid. I visited another local bookstore with book and proposal in hand and was primly informed by the cashier–who would not take my book–that they were a cooperative and no one was in charge. I could email the address on the website and ask. I did and waited weeks and got no response. I checked in with a local café with a nice outdoor space. The owner wrote down the info on a coffee filter and big surprise–I never heard back.

Frustrated and eager to get the book out into the world I decided to launch the book in Precita Park. Why stop the DIY now?

Book launch in Precita park

I like to imagine that someday I’ll be a famous author and someone will ask me, what was one of your favorite moments? And I’d answer that this was one of them. The day was chilly and the wind so strong the books blew off the table I’d set up. Still – my friends came. They bought books. They had me sign them which was super strange. (I’ve got to work on my signature.) We had a really nice time. A friend of mine waved her hands up and down on either side of me and said, “There’s so much talent in this,” and that nearly made me cry. After 5+ years of work by myself in an attic that meant a lot to me.

That’s the long story of a short story and there will be an epilogue as I figure out how to promote the book. The journey continues and the path could lead…anywhere.

Green lines leading everywhere

BUY THE BOOK! (and then give it a review). Love, Merin.

The sound of my voice

I just had an amazing experience reading at Borderlands Books during LitCrawl to a crowd so large people in the back yelled for everyone to move forward so everyone could fit into the store. My friends showed up, I signed a copy of my novella for a perfect stranger…it was a night of so many firsts–but to backtrack.

It’s been a struggle to make progress on my writing this year. My day job is the best kind of challenge. I work with smart people that I respect and I get to do creative work, but it’s a big, complicated place and it’s always go go go and I never get to take a breath. In order not to sink under the load and be able to continue to bring creativity to my design and my writing I’ve been throwing things out of my ship to keep myself above water. I’m neglecting the yard. It’s now a jungle–albeit a pretty jungle–and I’m not cooking as much as I used to. My husband is dealing with home repairs–a job I used to handle.

Every time I go to a talk by writers and the question arises as to how they find time to write, the answer is either, “I get up at 4am,” which is NOT going to happen for me, or that you have to let other things go. I’m trying that route and trying not to feel guilty that I can’t do it all. Some things I won’t let go include friends/family, exercise, and chill time. I need to relax, have a drink, chit chat with my husband and watch some silly TV. I know that highly successful people probably don’t do that last bit but I can’t get up and face the day cheerfully without knowing I get a few hours of fun at the end of it.

That said, all my must-haves leave only a few hours for writing. I get home from work and try to settle in. Sometimes I can get right to it, other times I’m distracted. I’m tackling a tough project and that is to edit my too-long novel, which means I spent the last year in the attic with nothing much to show for it. Yes I’ve made good progress and my novel is in so much better shape than it used to be, but there won’t be any WOO moments until this draft is finished.

That said, I did get some WOO!! moments thanks to writing I did before this year. The Shoreline of Infinity, the first magazine to publish one of my stories, won the British Fantasy Society award for the best periodical of 2018, and subsequently released an anthology of the best of the first 10 issues, which included my story “See You Later.” That anthology was reviewed by The Guardian, and my story got a mention. My first review!!!

In April, “The Obscurists,” a story I wrote in 2018, was published as a podcast on The Overcast. I love this story and J.S. Arquin really brought it to life.

While all this was great news, I felt like I was getting by on things I’d written in the past and that I wouldn’t have much new to show for 2019, which bummed me out. But I did the best I could this year, including continuing to help record and produce the SF in SF podcast.

Thanks to this, I had the idea to pull together a group of women writers to read at LitCrawl.

“One of the most anticipated literary nights of the year, San Francisco’s Lit Crawl is a massive, one-night literary pub crawl throughout the city’s Mission District. Lit Crawl SF brings together 500+ authors and close to 10,000 fans for the world’s largest free pop-up literary event. Started in 2004, Lit Crawl cultivates a unique, resonant brand: smart and silly, worldly and wacky events presented in venues usual (bars, cafes, galleries, and bookstores) and unusual (police stations, tattoo parlors, barbershops, and laundromats).”

My writer’s group read at LitCrawl twice, but got rejected last year. I’m not sure why. The acceptance process is a bit of a black box. Because of the rejection, I decided to try something new and recruited women who’d read at SF in SF, with the theme, “Women Imagine Different Worlds.” We were accepted! I’d invited women much more famous and accomplished than myself and was so happy to be in a group that was completely out of my league! I was also really excited we would read at Borderlands Books – the best science fiction and fantasy bookstore in San Francisco, and that Richard Kadrey and Annalee Newitz were going on right after us!

I needed to up my game. I asked my writer’s group which of two stories to read, and it was unanimous that I should read “The Internet of Things That Care.” I worried it would be too techie but everyone is so much more tech-savvy then they were a few years ago, they were sure no one would have a problem.

Next, I had to practice reading. I know this is a common problem, but I don’t like the sound of my own voice. I had to record an afterward for “The Obscurists” and all I could think was who is this nasal-y annoying woman who can’t enunciate? BLAH. When I started reading the IoT story aloud, I tried to come to terms with the fact that many people hear my voice every day and live. Then I started to feel annoyed that something that is so much a part of me is so strange to me. I wasn’t comfortable with the sound of MY OWN VOICE. That is nuts. Honestly – it felt unkind. I am working to get over it. I read to plants. I read to the neighbors cat. I whispered the story as I ate breakfast. I warned my husband that I was practicing and not going insane. I started to get used to me being me.

Also, and this is a WOO moment, Borderlands wanted print copies of my book to sell the night of the event. I love that they expected I had a book and thank god I did. Unfortunately I’d just about run out of the short run I’d done at Powell’s in Portland. They no longer had the print on demand book machine, so I had to start over–and sent my files to Ingram Spark. Thankfully, there were zero problems and I got a box of lovely books back. The cost of self-publishing seems to be going down and somehow, magically, my print book is now on sale along side my ebook on Amazon, with the reviews linked and everything!

Friday night my friend invited me to dinner and I read the story to her. I stressed that I was a bit over 10 minutes and she told me not to worry about it. She said the story was great and I shouldn’t cut anything. At this point I was so sick of it I had to agree.

Saturday I did little other than pace around waiting for the event. Despite that I was nearly late thanks to Lyft (cough, I’m usually late). When I arrived, friends of mine were already there and more arrived and I was so touched and happy to hug and greet everyone. Writing is a solitary endeavor and to have real people show up is a big deal. My friends have done so much to nudge me along, including being beta readers and leaving glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

Madeleine, one of authors reading with me, bought my book and asked me to sign it and I was happy/embarrassed as this was only the second time I’d been asked to sign, and the first time was kind of a joke – my friend asked me to sign a manuscript I’d given him to beta read and I was so flustered I signed my real name and not my author name. I was so embarrassed this time as well she said, “I’ll turn away,” so I could do it.

Suddenly, it was 6:30. Jude from Borderlands got up and introduced the event and bookstore, then someone from LitCrawl introduced LitCrawl, then Rina got up and introduced SF in SF and all the readers for the night. Then it was my turn!

I stood there with a wash of color in front of me. Happy faces, books on shelves, cars passing on the street. I began to read and tried to do all the things. Annunciate. Put in emotion. Make eye contact. Not lose my place. And people laughed – right away at the title and every few sentences throughout. Loud laughs that made me take a pause. Really, I thought the story is dryly amusing but the crowd was ready to have a good time, and I guess there is a crowd thing that happens. I don’t know. I’m not an actor or comedian. At a certain point in the story a sad thing happens and everyone in the room said “AWWW” all together and I was amazed.

Yeah I messed up a few times and had to backtrack, but it was an amazing collaboration with a room full of people willing to work with me and bring the story to life. I didn’t have to be perfect; they filled in half the energy.

When I finished everyone applauded enthusiastically and I ran to the back of the room. My friends were back there and congratulated me in whispers as the next reader started.

And – people bought my books (mostly my friends). Borderlands sold out what I’d brought earlier in the week and so I handed over the four copies I’d brought to give away (in some fictional scenario where a famous author loved my reading). In addition to my friends, a complete stranger bought my book and had me sign it! Another first!

When the readings finished, people filed out (many stayed for the next reading) and everyone had kind words. In a very satisfying turn of events, Ransom Stephens, an author I’d heard speak at the San Francisco Writer’s conference way back in the day (2013) and reported on here in my blog, was in attendance, and his friend said she’d really enjoyed my reading and wanted to keep track of me. I gave her my author card. It’s been a long slow turn of the wheel, but 2013 me would have been pretty freaking happy that roles had been reversed and 2019 me was the one “on stage,” albeit not a stage but there was a mic! Progress. Glacially slow but progress!

The after party at The Chapel was just okay, but I did run into friends from my writer’s group who’d also read and everyone seemed pretty jazzed

The evening was so buoying. As I started this post lamenting the things I’d had to throw overboard to continue my writing career, this wonderful evening has put me far enough above water to continue this voyage for many months. Love and thanks to everyone who made this such a great night! (I guess I’ll keep writing.)

2017 Year in Review – Perserverance, Progress, Panic!

This was a good year for me as a writer. For a non-writer it might be hard to understand the glacially-slow pace at which I seem to proceed, and how I can receive so many rejections and still feel like I’m making progress when, a small percentage of the time, something I throw out into the void sticks with a reader, even if that only manifests as a higher-level rejection.

Not to say that I was optimistic month after month. Many times I felt crazy and/or self indulgent for pursuing this secondary career. Most of the time, truthfully.

Still, in 2017 I took a few more steps on the road towards true professionalism. While I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I’ve progressed thanks to the help and support of many readers and writers. We can’t do this alone and it is ridiculous to pretend we can, or that the stories we write are “ours” – they are always partnerships.

My husband (my literal partner) is usually my first reader and always “gets it.” We read the same books, watch the same TV shows, share common tastes, so it isn’t a big surprise that he can read and enjoy any story I write. That said, we have similar blind spots and he can mentally fill in things I’ve forgotten to put on the page. I gain courage from his praise but take it with a grain of salt as well.

My walk to work

My San Francisco critique group has been a solid foundation for me for years now. We meet every week, which is a big deal! Much commitment from everyone. I’ve been the host for the past year or so, and now that I’ve gotten the new job I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not always the first one to arrive–at my own house. What I appreciate about our group is that while we spend some time saying, “You are an awesome writer and I loved this paragraph,” no one seems to mind us getting right to the problematic bits. I figure it’s like going to the dentist. You don’t want him to spend an hour telling you how 90% of your teeth are pretty, just fix the screwed up one please! We’ve all proven to each other we are serious writers and pages without marks are good pages.

I attended a two-week speculative fiction writing workshop this summer at the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. IT WAS GREAT. I wrote about my time in Lawrence, then edited, re-edited, saved, went back to previous versions…argh. It’s hard to summarize intense experiences.

I’ll post the play by play sometime, but what I took away from this was a newfound respect for myself and other sci fi writers, as well as good nuts and bolts craft information. The “Repeat Offenders” workshop is for those of us who’ve attended the workshop previously, and because of this everyone in attendance knew the drill and had more to offer, critique-wise.

Chris McKitterick leads the workshop and he is a treasure chest of craft info. Pat Cadigan, the week one guest author, is amazing. I’m not being objective because I like her so much–and she held up one of my stories as an example of how to world-build in 25 words or less (one of the highlights of my writer year). All the attendees were smart and kind and devoted to this crazy path we’ve all chosen. Plus there were lightning storms, fireflies, movie nights and so much other fun stuff.

I also worked as a submissions reader for Shoreline of Infinity. They published my story, “See You Later” (my first professional pub!) and are up to issue 10 – in print no less! 99% of what we get is not ready for publication, but reading bad stories has been a good experience. Being able to articulate why is sometimes hard work, sometimes not so hard. THIS IS NOT SCIENCE FICTION – I scream after slogging through 15 pages of a present day character doing present day things.

I’ve learned so much and put in many hours…but I have to take a break. The Job is taking so much of my brain and eyeball time. I thought I could read submissions during lunch but I don’t always take lunch and the subs began to pile up, leading me to become a bad partner in the evenings as I holed up in the attic reading instead of socializing. Plus, it was cutting into my writing time. With sadness and relief I realized I couldn’t do it all. I’m reading the last batch of stories now and that’s it…at least until I’m not working full time.

Finally, I produced a podcast for SFinSF, science fiction in San Francisco. Once a month, authors read and discuss their work at The American Bookbinder’s Museum. I’ve met so many amazing authors thanks to this event: Kim Stanley Robinson, Daryl Gregory, Annalee Newitz, Robin Sloane, Rudy Rucker, Peter S. Beagle, Pat Murphy…(and more. You can listen to the podcasts here on SomaFM). It’s the same combo of work/love as the rest of this writing stuff. Being part of a community means working as well as playing.

Thanks to reading submissions to Shoreline, work-shopping, writing, revising, critiquing…I’m finally starting to understand how a short story is supposed to function. How the engine of it works. I’ve gotten it right by accident in the past, now I hope to get it right on purpose and I did manage that a few times this year!

Resolution,” sold in 2016, was published in January in Perihelion.

My short story, “See You Later,” was adapted and produced as a play/audio drama at the Edinburgh Book Festival by Shoreline of Infinity–with live actors. I loved that they presented this as a fait accompli, oh hey we are doing this, here is the script. I’m so happy they picked my story. I’d have loved to go see it performed, but I’m really trying to not LOSE money in my writing career, so no last minute flights to Scotland. : )

My short story, “At First Sight,” was accepted by The Overcast to be made into a podcast. I’m in good company there. Tina Connolly, Cat Rambo, and one of my friends from the workshop this summer, J.N. Powell. The producer and reader, J.S. Arquin, has such a great voice. I’m scheduled for April.

“First Contact,” a story I love that kept getting rejected, has been accepted by New Reader magazine, a fledgling online publication. I hope this happens. New pubs are iffy. Doesn’t this first line give you a shiver?  Maybe it’s just me but I feel like I got it right.

By the way – I’ve been paid for all my stories. Not a lot, but I’ve set the bar at semi-pro rates. Non-writers might be surprised to learn that not all publications pay, and some actually charge authors to submit. I’d like to join SFWA (they require a certain number of paid pubs) and not all my venues qualify, but I do get paid! : D

“The Affair” was shortlisted at Freeze Frame Fiction in October, and though it was ultimately rejected they sent me reader comments, and invited me to submit a rewrite when they are next open. The comments were all over the place (more so than the readers at Shoreline) and I struggled to get to the heart of reader’s complaints–but I appreciated the glimpse behind the curtain. At some point it is a question of taste. We forgive flaws when we are enjoying ourselves, so if I’m failing to give the reader a good time that might be my fault, or it might be my story is a bad fit for that reader. When someone dings my 600-word story because none of the three characters is gay…I throw up my hands.

Not quite writing news but related–I did an illustration for a short story I read and liked for Shoreline and was paid for that as well. : )

So: 2017. 40 rejections. 2 acceptances. One story made into a play without me doing anything. Hundreds of hours spent writing, critiquing, workshopping, recording other authors.

My advice to other writers? Keep writing and build partnerships. Get your work read by a critique group. Attend a workshop if you can. Read submissions for a magazine. Get involved in the sci fi community.

My challenge for 2018 is to keep it up. I’m not sure how to do what I did last year now that I’m working full time. I feel very lucky to have a good job, to live in a great city with a partner that supports my goals, amazing friends, and access to so many resources, but our creative spirit is a strange and delicate part of ourselves. We can’t “logic” it in to being.

This picture has nothing to do with writing but much to do with
looking both ways when you cross the street. !!!!

 I’ve not written much since I started my job, but I’m trying not to be hard on myself. I will figure this out. I love my job. It is very sci fi. I work for a software security firm with amazing, smart people who are doing good, ethical work, and it’s pretty close to the ideal job I’d design for myself–though my fictional job might have a lab with robots and 3D printers and laser cutters. I’m three months in and my head is still spinning, in a good way.

I hope 2018 is a creative and successful year for all of us!


Defcon 2017 – The Year of the Magic Tinfoil Hat

I had trouble connecting to Defcon until I made the hat.

The convention moved to Caesar’s this year, and the place is so big there was no way Defcon people could take it over. There were no pockets of public areas inundated with badge wearers, ordinary people looking at us nervously and scuttling away. We were diluted by the masses of tourists.

I’ve been to Defcon all of five times and I’m already bitching about the old days? Ridiculous! They have done an amazing job of growing this thing. There were no endless lines to buy badges, I got into all the panels I wanted to attend, and I saw more women then ever.

That said, the chillroom setup was odd. (SomaFM, one of my day jobs, provides music for this area.) It wasn’t even a room per se, more a huge hallway. One of the largest session room’s 20 or so exit doors opened into the space. We were at one end, a temporary cafeteria at the other, and an alcove far off to the right held tables and the chill space.

Every hour or so 1000 people poured out of the session room. Not very chill! Granted, this was great exposure for SomaFM and we got to meet a lot of listeners who might not have found us otherwise. Many smiles and head nods as the crowds passed by. Oh, and they played our music all over the convention center! One of my favorite moments was putting on a seven-minute song, running to the bathroom, and hearing that song playing in there. Heh!

It was fine, just different. All the regular events thrown into the air and landing all over the place in an unfamiliar hotel. I had a hard time finding the tinfoil hat making booth. Everything is so spread out in Vegas. Someone suggested a short cut outside through the pool area and there I was, all in black, dying in the heat, wandering confused as sexy women danced on platforms and big guys in American flag bathing suits played blackjack in the pool.

Eventually I found the booth–right across from the badge making tables–and also found my happy place. Something I understood and could actually do!

Seriously, as I wandered through car hacking village few minutes earlier a nice guy asked if I’d like to try hacking <insert some part of a car here> I was so flattered and happy he assumed I could and flustered and embarrassed that I couldn’t. But foil? That I can do!

The tinfoil hats were not meant to be merely fashionable, but to actually block signals. The organizers had a mannequin head which could test each hat’s effectiveness. I cleared my schedule for the rest of the afternoon and got to work. The guy making a hat next to me gave me helpful tips about the best way to block signals and also promoted his wife’s paranormal romance novel in a really sweet and sincere way. He asked if it was “okay” to give me a postcard. So cute!

I carefully planned my hat to be sturdy, signal-blocking, and also very wearable. I started with heavy-duty foil for the main structure and used the thinner stuff for the decorations. Now, you might not think my hat looks that great but keep in mind that most people were grabbing foil and smashing it onto their heads like swim caps. Mine has my initial on the front!

I stopped working reluctantly. There were so many more embellishments I could have added. I brought it to the mannequin for testing…and…he said I was in the top five!!

I marched from the room in triumph, foil-hatted head held high and my entire experience of the convention changed. It was like I’d transformed into an adorable puppy or a famous actress. People cheered. I got high-fives (which is a challenge because I’m bad at them.) People yelled, “That’s my favorite hat!” and “You should win!”

Giddy with my newfound fame, I stopped for a drink at the bar near the elevator to my room–50% Defcon people, half regular tourists.

“You wearing that to protect your brain from the hackers?” a tanned, older woman in a bright green tank top asked.

“Actually, yes,” I answered.

She nodded. “Well, good thing. They just hacked that sign over there.” She waved her beer towards the casino.

The rest of the night was freaking magical. Hosts of parties wanted to meet me. I gathered a posse. We danced. My hat stayed on my head perfectly. Bartenders remembered what I was drinking. I got access to back rooms. I brought one of my new friends to the front of a hundred-person line waiting to get into a party and just looked at the doorman and he let us in. WTF!?! Keep in mind: a few years ago I was so meanly denied entry to a Defcon party I cried. Another time, we tried to get into a pool party with our artist badges and the security guy just laughed. Sans hat, I got nothing.

At some point I began to get uncomfortable. My new friend was staring at me like I was a reality TV star. She asked me who I was. I started to feel bad for real TV stars and pretty people who get stared at all the time. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the power my magic hat had given me. Could I walk to the front of any line for the rest of my life if I had the confidence I had right then? Definitely not. It was all about the hat.

I ditched my new friends and slunk back to the room. The next morning I lay in bed and regarded the hat–suspiciously undamaged despite the long, wild night–with distrust. The whole evening–amazing as it was–felt like an elaborate and slightly confusing metaphor or life lesson. Though <headsmack> I’m a writer and try to smash every experience into a narrative. Heh. So here I go.

I create things. Sometimes these things amuse other people. That’s good–and kind of the point. I’m not a create-then-stick-in-a-drawer kind of person. However, the things and me are separate entities. I’ve got to have the confidence to promote and support my things, but they aren’t me–whether they succeed or fail to amuse and delight. Because frankly, most of my things fail in the same confusing way my hat succeeded. Right place/wrong place. Right audience/wrong audience. It isn’t really up to us creators how people react to what we do. We’ve got to like doing it, keep doing it, and hope that sometimes everything aligns.

I had a good night with my hat, and while I need a mild amount of WOO to keep going, I need to have a core confidence that can withstand failure and success.

It was proved that, without hat, I had no special powers when I went to the general store a few hours later (to get Gatorade for my “dehydration”) and Cory Doctorow was in line ahead of me. We made eye contact. I’ve met him a few times. I don’t expect him to remember me because he is either blessed or cursed with his own tin foil hat, and meets hundreds of people at Defcon and SXSW and EFF events.

I said hi. He was polite enough to say I looked familiar.

I’m glad the universe and Defcon gave me the chance to make people (including me) smile for one night, and tons of material for my fiction. Now, back to work! : )

SXSW Interactive 2017 – Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Every new technology is launched amidst cries that it will be the downfall of civilization, yet civilization keeps on keeping on. Things shift, the technology is assimilated, and in aggregate, life gets better.

I never thought I’d be the type to put a tin foil hat on my laptop and yell at the bots to get off my lawn, but I left SXSW Interactive intending to do just that.

A few years ago I had few complaints about the technology that had become part of my everyday life. My job as a designer would be tedious without computers and software and the internet. Does anyone else remember rub-on letters? Paper books full of “clip art?” Life got better and easier. I self-published my own book. I used laser cutters and 3D printers at tech shop. I navigated foreign cities with the ease of a local thanks to my phone.

I love technology. I don’t want to go back. I like all the stuff we have.

I’ve ranted quite a bit here but it was more theoretical than personal. “Privacy” in danger, but only for those poor schmucks who didn’t keep an eye the updated terms of service. Wireless devices can open garage doors, but ours is physically locked. Yahoo accounts were hacked, but I don’t have one.

I thought I could keep ahead of this. I now realize I can’t and I really don’t like that.

Granted, I picked a pretty paranoiac track of panels at SXSW. I could have gone for uplifting talks on design and entertainment but I went right for the gloom and doom. Panels like; “Intelligent Machines will eat their young and us too,” “The future of jobs is dark and full of terror,” “Bugs in the system: Mapping the vulns market,” “Dark Days: AI and the rise of fascism,” “The internet of things you don’t own,” and “Biotechnology needs a security update.”

It isn’t just that I write sci fi and need to imagine the future. If there is a bogeyman in my house I’m not the type to hide under the covers; I go through the entire place cupboard by cupboard with a steak knife, terrifying as that is. Now I find the bogeyman is in my house, all my friend’s houses, in our cars and appliances. It’s a bit overwhelming.

I saw four trends at SXSW that, especially when combined, disturbed me. One: the proliferation of AI and automation, two: the lessening of property and privacy rights, three: the lack of regulation of new technologies, and four: the distraction of virtual and augmented reality.

Prototype haptic suit combined with VR goggles

“The Future of jobs is dark and full of terror” was a lively panel. France has formed a digital council to investigate the effect of automation on employment. The head of it was on the panel, as well AI researchers and the CEO of a social media monitoring company. The fear is that, in the case of a company like Foxcon (which employs tens of thousands of Chinese workers) automation could be sudden and catastrophic. The speed at which automation can change things is frightening.

I’m optimistic about this in the long term. After all, in 1850 64% of the workforce were farmers, and this number was down to 2% in 1987.

An audience member brought up that his friend, a radiologist, might soon lose his job because AIs are better at spotting tumors than humans are. I smiled because the job of radiologist didn’t even exist in 1850. You’d be hard put to even explain this job to the farmer. We didn’t even know what germs were back then!

This robot isn’t taking my job, it is amusing and delighting us by creating portraits using Einstein’s handwriting and formulas

I posit that we can’t even imagine the jobs we will have 100 years from now but we will have jobs. That said, I’m pessimistic about the near-term if we don’t stay on top of this. Our lives are short and I don’t want to live during the mid-century riots. One thing I notice in every fiery-eyed and enthusiastic developer is an absolute lack of concern of how their invention will affect society at large. They face a technological challenge and they want to figure it out. As they should. A builder bot that can make cheap, sturdy houses in a day out of whatever is laying around would change the world for the better, especially in developing countries. However, we need to slow this down a bit if it means 1.5 million people lose their jobs – tomorrow.

Loss of privacy always concerns me and is compounded by loss of ownership…both of the data we generate and the products we thought we bought.

Cory Doctorow asks a question during the panel, “Bugs in the system: Mapping the vulns market”

At present it is open season on our personal data, and given the current political climate “Senate votes to allow ISPs to collect personal data without permission,” (which they are already doing now) privacy advocates are in for an uphill battle. I’m not sure why everyone isn’t freaking out about this. We are in our homes, in our room, typing on a computer we own, using a web service we pay for to do a search on perhaps something related to a medical condition…maybe insulin pumps…and the ISP can harvest and sell this information? Yes they can.

“The internet of things you don’t own” explored the strange new world of things we supposedly own but don’t – like books and movies and other digital assets that can be pulled from our devices if the license changes. I used to “own” a copy of Photoshop, but I’m now forced to rent it from Adobe. I literally do not own the means of production in my design business. This scares me.

There are other things we “own” but can’t legally tinker with. (I just bought one of the panelist’s books – “The end of ownership: Personal property in the digital economy.”) That we aren’t allowed to repair or alter our own property is bizarre. A multi-million dollar piece of farm equipment wasn’t distributing larger seeds properly because of software…and the company didn’t offer a fix for a year. The farmer was screwed, and couldn’t hire a third party to help him even if he wanted to. A 10-ton piece of equipment can be rendered useless because of crappy, proprietary software. Is that okay? That’s the status quo right now. Software is creeping into our hardware. Manufacturers hand us potentially dangerous or insecure products and then quietly back away, with no legal responsibility to update buggy software, or offer updates to older software. WTF?

Which leads me to my next concern. Lack of regulation. Technological development is racing ahead of regulation, and seems to be gaining a greater lead. So even though organizations like Underwriter’s Laboratories (aiming to make products safer) publishes white papers like “Cybersecurity Considerations for Connected Smart Home Systems and Devices” I’m not seeing this affect what I see on the shelves of Best Buy, which is piles of insecure crap that will probably join a bot army the moment I hook it to my wifi.

I understand that regulation is hard. But no regulation is hard on us, the consumers, who end up with physically intact devices that no longer work because a company has no obligation to keep software up to date. I also understand how hard it is to keep software up to date…so ?????? Seriously, all the people that give TED talks need to figure this out. I mean, how hard would it be to at least require all devices to prompt users to set up a password when they first turn the things on? That this hasn’t happened yet is a bad sign.

The lack of regulation gets even scarier when you consider biotech. The panel, “Biotechnology needs a security update,” really nailed the ambiguity of our situation. We can’t not innovate in this area. As one panelist rightly called out, biology is already doing its best to kill us (disease, aging), however, biotech can be used for good or evil. As one panelist, an FBI agent in the Weapons of Mass Destruction unit, noted, they can’t investigate and prosecute crimes if no one understands what happened or if it is even illegal. Ai yi yi.

Here’s where we are: uncertain about the future of our jobs. Wary of products we don’t quite own that still manage to collect and sell information about us when they aren’t being used by hackers. Dismayed that the government seems to be throwing up its hands and backing away from regulating devices that can literally explode–because they don’t want to stifle innovation.

How to deal with all this? Escape!

Is this the future of human interaction? The cute girl next to you, dating some other guy, virtually.

AR and VR was everywhere. Last year there were a few booths in one room and this year every vendor had a headset. I find the combination of complex problems we don’t fully understand and a new type of immersive entertainment that removes us from the world around us to be very worrisome. Because–AR and VR are amazing! (If a bit head-achy at the moment.) People lined up around the block to try the newest things. They laughed and carried on and threw fake rocks and zapped things with fake lasers.

Basic income is an idea being bandied about now to deal with job loss due to automation (and poverty in general) however, I don’t see how this would do anything but cement the unequal distribution of wealth and power we have now. I’m worried basic income is a 10×10 room, crappy food, and some VR goggles so you can keep quiet and live in a fantasy world someone else created.

Bruce Sterling talked about a post-work future and all the things we might do with our time, (travel, do creative things) but in real life, about half the people I know that don’t have to earn a living (teens, retirees, people with trust funds, internet millionaires) don’t do much of anything but settle into a slump, or worse.

Bruce Sterling returns from Italy to give the “closing” talk, aka throwing a few rocks then leaving the country.

My fears could just be a failure of my own imagination. I’ve been born and raised to consider my job an important part of who I am and a measure of my worth, but perhaps if I was born 100 years from now, I’d happily become the custodian of the park down the hill and learn all about plants and soil and work with the volunteer architects and builderbots to build a band shell where local bands would play and actors perform each night. Maybe it will be awesome. ??

I’m hopeful that everything will work out. That robots handle the tedious jobs and humans find meaningful new employment. That we will be able to do what we want with things we own, including our personal data. That regulations will keep us safe when the mandate to return a profit to shareholders doesn’t. That AR and VR provide opportunities for engagement as well as disengagement.

For now though, I’m keeping the tinfoil hat on my computer and kicking those bots off my lawn.

The humbling process of learning to write

Sometimes I have a hard time writing a post because I fight with what I want to say vs. what is truly going on in my head and heart.

I wanted to write about how mortified I was by my old blog posts when, years ago, I declared my novel done, or that I was ready to find an agent, or that rules were stupid and stifled my creativity.

Honestly, though, I can’t find the energy to be embarrassed. I might not even be embarrassed. Doesn’t everyone think the first draft of their first novel is perfect? I remember the day I wrote the last line of “Six” in Sugar Lump coffee shop on 24th street in the Mission district. I wanted to stand up and announce it and have everyone cheer. I almost did, and they might have, because people are nice.

Why not enjoy that feeling of triumph? It is a big deal to actually write the first draft. Some people never get that far. I remember chatting with a woman at a literary event and after about half an hour of listening to her blab on and on about her book, I discovered she hadn’t written one freaking word. She didn’t even have the plot figured out. A good friend of mine talks wistfully of wanting to write but being too afraid. He said he’d never show the work to anyone.

So, good for me for being ignorant and optimistic and actually putting way too many words on paper and thinking the thing was done.

The next step was to force my friends to read it. And the thing was HUGE. I later broke it into two books, but this was all of it. My friends are amazing and they did read it and I learned another very important lesson. I’m a pretty self-sufficient person and asking for help at first made me feel uncomfortable, but I knew I absolutely needed it, and what I was asking for would take hours and hours.

Asking for help and getting it…“owing” a debt, all this made me feel unexpectedly more connected and bonded with my friends. We’re in this for the long haul, and we’ll give and get help as we need it.

It also clarified my goal as a writer: to amuse and delight OTHER PEOPLE. Which meant I had to take their critiques seriously. I’m trying to communicate ideas and if they don’t get it, it’s on me, not them. Though my skin isn’t as thick as I’d like it to be, I’m pretty open to honest responses to what I write. The trick is to decipher the root cause of, “I didn’t like the ending,” which might be a problem with the beginning.

Of course the next step was confusion and frustration. The novel started to look like it might have a few loose ends. Someone pointed out that my main character cries a few times every chapter. In fact, everything was too dramatic. Everyone yelling and leaping around and casting sly glances and adverb-ing.

I started to revise, and also write and submit short stories. The rejection letters trickled in. I got annoyed, sure there was some conspiracy. Whoever read the story was too _______ to get it! I was so annoyed about one of my stories being rejected I googled the guy that read it and, because we can learn way too much about people with zero effort, (which I find scary) I had it all figured out. He was young, and unmarried, and lived in Brooklyn so of course he wouldn’t like a story about an unhappy marriage.

Heh, I’m starting to feel some of that embarrassment I couldn’t muster at the beginning of this. The drafts of stories I submitted at this stage did deserve to be rejected. I forgive myself for this phase, but it does seem crazy now.

The problem with some of the conferences and talks I attended was that, in an attempt to encourage writers not to give up, the speakers outlined the many reasons why a story might be rejected even though it is a perfectly great story. As a beginning writer, I grabbed on to those reasons and held tight, and they prevented me from fixing broken stories. I’d get a rejection and think, “I guess they just accepted another story about telepresence tourism.”

When my friend recently won an award, he thanked his parents for telling him there were things he didn’t know that he didn’t know. That’s what we all struggle with when we start something new, and it’s probably a protective shield that allows us to move forward undaunted. Though, at some point, exuberance isn’t enough and ignorance isn’t a shield, it’s a ball and chain.

Then, thank god, I was accepted into the Gunn Center Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop last summer. A slap in the face just when I needed it–as well as a helping hand. As I detailed in another post, it was very straightforward information about how to write from Famous Authors.

What I hadn’t realized was that there is a difference between developing the thick skin we all need to have to handle rejection–and a deaf ear.

I heard critiques by peers (the same kind of all-over-the-place critiques I give!) and learned time-tested “rules” developed by the masters–given to me by actual masters and not “the internet.” I heard, over and over again (to paraphrase), you have to know the rules before you break them. This time, the rules were curated and given to me by people I trusted.

I understand why I was afraid to open the fire hose of rules when it was just me in the attic with the internet. It’s too much. I’m so thankful for patient, real-life teachers, including my weekly writer’s group.

I’m becoming a better writer and hope to continue to improve. In a few years I’ll laugh at this post, and that’s okay. I’ve got a couple of lame analogies about writing I’ll share. It’s like juggling. I was only doing one ball at first. Now I might be up to three on a good day. Pretty soon I’ll be doing five without even thinking about it. Also, and I’m thinking of this because we’ve been watching the California reservoirs overflow, it’s like water. When I first started writing the story was a raging river and I was a leaf. It carried me and I typed and typed and tried to keep up with no idea where I was going. Now I think of the story as water, and me as a hydrologist. I’ve got the water and I’ve got to control it and decide where it will go, how fast, how deep, how wide, and where it will end up. That’s my job.

Litcrawl 2016

or, A Kind of Graduation

My writer’s group gave a reading at Litcrawl. This is a huge deal for me. I probably said it before but I will say it again, a few years ago I stood outside an overcrowded venue wondering how those lucky authors got to read at this event. I didn’t know any authors. None of my friends wrote. I went to a couple writer’s conferences and learned some good stuff but didn’t meet anyone who was a good fit for a critique partner.


Then my husband saw a posting in Bernalwood (local blog) about a writer’s group looking for members. A group that met two blocks from my house. What are the odds?

I went, it worked out, and I’ve been in the group a couple years now. I feel so very lucky. The group is great. None of us are English professors but we muddle along, helping each other out. Everyone is kind, thoughtful, and I gotta say, pretty resilient and willing to take criticism. I’ve learned so much from the critiques I’ve gotten as well as from reading other people’s work and trying to articulate why a passage isn’t working for me.

Doing a public reading at Litcrawl is the culmination of our “writer year” to me. This year especially, it felt like I’d graduated from wanna be writer to actual writer. The event went so well. City Art is a great venue–floor to ceiling windows and plenty of room. We had a big crowd despite the rain (thanks to my friends that showed up!). Everyone from the group read interesting passages, I wasn’t too nervous, I made eye contact and tried to move around a bit, and since no one read after us we got to have a reception.


Something about the evening really clicked with me. We weren’t faking it, we were really doing it!  We had a book table, our group name was in the program, I was drinking wine and eating cheese with friends after doing a reading in San Francisco…at Litcrawl. WOO!


Finding my niche at Defcon 24

I had a really good time at Defcon. I’ve spent the last week trying to find a theme or overarching takeaway I could use sum up the event, but there was so much going on and so many different things to do. Each of the 22,000 attendees likely had a very unique experience and for me to declare “This is Defcon” would be ridiculous.

I ran around like a crazy person trying to take it all in and of course failed, but had a good time trying.

Here’s what I did experience:

DJing in the chill room

SomaFM was invited back (4th year now) to provide music for the chill room…which initially wasn’t very chill thanks to a machine gun arcade game. Once we got that sorted (thanks to the guys that rolled it out of the room) and turned down the lights, it was semi-chill. How chill can anything really be in Las Vegas?

viewfromdeckI’m a reluctant DJ but I’m really glad I got pushed into doing this. I’m finally getting comfortable with the hardware and was able to get my songs queued up and played all while answering questions about SomaFM and, oh, Defcon in general. It was as if someone taped an “Information Booth” sign on our table. No, there are no sessions in this room. Yes there will be a movie later. The vendor room isn’t open yet. I don’t know. Yes. Tomorrow.

So many nice people came up to say they’ve been listening to SomaFM for years and thanked us. It was a really great experience. Also when I walked around the hotel, random people came up to me and said, “You were DJing earlier, weren’t you?” which made me really happy. Yes, that was me! It’s funny how merely being seen and remembered in such a huge crowd feels so good.

The Sessions

I didn’t get to as many sessions as I’d have liked to. Between DJing and trying to eat from time to time (huge lines!) I only managed one or two a day. I did see DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge. As much as you could see given it was seven computers trying to defend themselves from attacks launched by the referees. I can’t figure out if the computers were connected to each or simply had copies of the competitors software and tried to prove the competitors were vulnerable to the attack. You can read more about the challenge in this article.

I was amazed by the scale and production values of this event. The disco lighting on the computers. The “famous” astrophysicist commentator who had no idea what was going on and read everything on the teleprompter…which caused some of the biggest laughs of the convention. He’d sometimes pop out a, “That was amazing!” exclamation when nothing happened. I mean, my god, the stage was filled with seven computers doing nothing visible. Why were we all staring at them? Granted DARPA prepared some great infographics and I understood more about running a program than I ever have. If computer programming was every purely visual I might be able to do it.


My favorite part of this all was that the computers were air-gapped to the extreme, so that results of each match were written to DVD and dropped by a robot arm off the platform.

Still, I felt foolish sitting there after an hour or so and wandered off.

I went to “Feds and O days” which speculated on how many zero day exploits the FBI and NSA might be holding onto (vs. informing the vendors so they could patch them). The speaker, Jay Healey, researched this and concluded the number is probably under 20. The audience was skeptical.

What is crazy is that this is now happening…a hacker/group claims to have gotten zero day exploits from a group associated with the NSA and is auctioning them off!

Jennifer Granick’s talk, “Slouching Towards Utopia, The State of the Internet Dream,” was pretty much bad news all around, and she said something like, the future of the internet is the dark web, the only place that will be anything like what the web was imagined to be when it started.


I saw other panels including one on picking Bluetooth low-energy locks from a quarter mile away, bypassing Little Snitch, Ask the EFF, and getting into penetration testing.

One of best talks was the Mr. Robot panel, with writers and technical consultants tasked with keeping the hacks on the show “real.” One problem being they can’t do the same thing twice, nor can they always do the most obvious hack if it is too easy and undramatic. One of the consultants formerly worked at the FBI and he said how he’s getting uncomfortable now that the plot involves hacking  the FBI…he’s not sure what to say or not say when asked for advice from the writers.

I never thought I’d say this in any context, but I had a great time waiting in lines. I met so many interesting people.

The Villages

Not far from the chill room in Ballys were all the “villages.” Hardware hacking, Car hacking, Biohacking, Tamper evident, Privacy, Capture the flag and more.


Some of these villages confused me. I wasn’t sure whether the equipment was public or private. I stood and watched and that was about it. The Capture the Flag area…wow. Those people camped out. From what I could tell from the empty food and beverage containers they spent all four days there trying to hack each other. Pretty intense.

ctfI’m not sure if the vendor room counts as a village (not) but I’ll mention that here. Bizarre to see a big, bright  room full of stuff that can be used for testing, or for no good, for sale out in the open, not in a dark alley from a guy in a trench coat.

I’m curious to know how much malicious hacking goes on at Defcon. I’m afraid I underestimate it because the friendly white-hat hackers were eager to talk about what they were working on, while the bad guys didn’t advertise. I was quite surprised to find that the SomaFM booth had been inadvertently hosting a wifi sniffer, hidden under the black tablecloth. The guy that retrieved the small black suitcase said he’d put it under there because it “bothered” the police to see an unattended box. Um, yeah?


The Parties!

I had to rely on the official program for these since I wasn’t plugged in enough to learn about any super secret events. I like to imagine there was a bacchanalia happening somewhere but with so many introverts, maybe not?

Friday night I went to the Queercon pool party. I asked as many people as I could if it was okay that I go if I wasn’t queer and everyone said it was. It was a really fun, massive party and being from San Francisco, swimming at night in 90 degree weather was a dream come true. The music was SUPER LOUD though and overwhelmed me after a day in the craziness of Vegas and the conference.

Saturday night I had the best time at the Whiskey Pirates party. They design an amazing unofficial badge. I arrived at 8 on the dot because I knew the suites filled up and I had trouble getting in last year. I’ve been wanting to learn more about lock picking since a guy gave me a very brief tutorial in a bar last year, and what luck! There was table at the party dedicated to this and one empty chair! I got a bourbon and coke and settled in and I could stayed there all night. The others at the table were so generous helping us newbies and lending us tools.


I was surprised by my own attention span. I struck up a conversation with a DJ from Oklahoma (who was also picking locks) who collects vintage arcade games and showed me the inside of the PacMan machine he brought.

packmanI was really excited to successfully pick handcuffs! They were the easiest, granted I didn’t do it while I was wearing them. A guy at the table demonstrated this feat, even pulling the pick from some secret area in the back of his belt. Everyone was impressed.

handcuffsI lost my seat when I went to get a drink, so went to check out the other room where they were assembling the very cool badges. I felt as if I’d walked into a church or secret lair! A crowd of about 15 listened, silent and rapt, as a member of the group talked about ideas for the badge next year. Anytime the door entered and a person came in from the “wild” side of the party everyone shushed them.

When I left the party the line was huge and unmoving and my friends couldn’t get in.

I waited in a LONG line (not a fun line this time) for another pool party after that but I think I was running out of steam. A fellow SomaFM DJ and I got in and were kind of like, eh. Possibly I wasn’t blown away because I’d done this the night before as well.

After that I managed to catch most of Terri Nunn and Berlin’s set because they were running so late.

terrinun1Terri Nunn was great, performing in front of the DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge computers. So Defcon!

In the middle of the show she said something like, So you are all hackers. You’re all men. I’d like to be hacker to hang out with the guys. I’m badly paraphrasing but you get the point.

The conference is still 90% men. The first year I attended I was shocked and dismayed. I hoped that in four years, the number would grow. I think it has a bit. However, there are still very few women in the field of computer/network security, so it makes sense they’d be represented in that same percentage at the conference.

Is Defcon welcoming to women? In my experience, absolutely. Defcon sounds like it was a boys club back in the day and women attendees were hit on or bothered, (I’ve heard some anecdotal history), however I’ve not seen or experienced any of this in the four years I’ve gone, and Defcon seems to be trying hard to attract more women. I went to a webcast last year (out of curiosity) where board members and members of the community brainstormed about how the get more women speakers, and it is tough because women don’t apply. I have no way of verifying that but everyone on the webcast seemed sincere. They worried that part of the problem might be that the women in the field don’t feel qualified to speak because they haven’t spoken at a conference before, and a couple of men on the call confessed that they too dealt with imposter syndrome and not feeling qualified for their titles and had to fight to get over it.

I’m pretty confident the number of women in tech is going to rise sharply in the next 10 years as people that were raised with home computers make it through school and begin to work their way up the career ladder. This is a new field and I’m optimistic. There is just so much dialog around this. It will get fixed.

seaofmen2I’m doing my part by showing up, going to talks I don’t feel qualified to attend because I’m a designer and a writer and not a programmer, and meeting people and asking questions. All I’ve learned has given me some great inspiration for science fiction stories and I’m so glad I went.


Out of the Comfort Zone

I got back home from Lawrence, Kansas, last night, badly hungover from a raucous evening of a group reading of “The Eye of Argon” (Thank you Andrea.) This included drinking whenever we heard the word “wench,” which turned out to be way too often. It was one of the most “writer’s group” moments of the two weeks and a great note to end on. We were just getting to know each other, so I suppose the next step would have been disagreeing and forming cliques and we simply didn’t have the time for that. “Leave the party while you’re still having fun,” my grandmother said, and she was absolutely right!


Two workshops were held during the two weeks, one for short speculative fiction and one for novel writing, so we all got to hang out which was great

The workshop well-run, well-thought-out, and exactly what I needed right now to get my writing to the next level–and it was physically and emotionally tiring in ways I didn’t expect.


Critique with guest instructor Andy Duncan

I’ve not spent two weeks surrounded by strangers since…I don’t even know when. I suppose when I did study abroad right after college. The effort of being congenial 16+ hours day wore on all of us, I imagine. More than a few participants admitted being introverts (though I’d not have known it). I’m somewhere in the middle, but I do need a good amount time alone in places where I can recharge–such as my house or the SomaFM office, or on long walks.


My home for the workshop was a stripped-down, linoleum-floored, twin-bedded dorm room (and this was the nice dorm I later learned). Not a place to relax. The air conditioner startled me awake at night when it kicked on–though apparently I was lucky as in some rooms it didn’t run at all. The bathroom was down the hall and the shower a claustrophobic plastic coffin that was home to a giant, friendly cockroach.


The town of Lawrence is really cute (aside from some run-down student housing). I love to walk and use that time to mentally unwind, but long walks were more pore-cleansing than soul-cleansing in Kansas in the summer. I’d get out in the morning and walk to the library to read (we critiqued five people a day and though I’d read everything in advance I needed to refresh my memory). By noon the temperatures would be in the 90’s with high humidity and the walk back to the dorm was hell. I returned to my room soaked through and had to actually change clothes before our critiques started at 1pm.

The only real recharge time I got was when I rented a bike and rattled my way up and down the brick streets of Lawrence last Saturday. I got to be a pure tourist for a few hours.

The critique sessions wouldn’t have been so exhausting if I hadn’t been trying so hard pay attention and take notes. This was my first ever workshop and I invested a lot into it–both time and money and lost wages–and I was determined to get everything from it I could.


Jim Gunn giving a critique – possibly calling a story “crudely charming”

The toughest thing was splitting myself into many different personas so that I could give critiques, get critiques, empathize with others, respect others, take things personally, not take things personally, intellectually agree or disagree, emotionally agree or disagree. Sometimes all at once. All while keeping calm and remaining open. Everyone in the group was so polite and even-keel, it made me suspect they were dealing with the same issues. Or maybe they are just better at it. It was my first time after all.

Midway through week one I thought I’d mastered it. I was upbeat. I’d been through a critique of one of my stories and pretty much agreed with people. I was inspired.


Andy Duncan & Jim Gunn (and us workshoppers) at lunch at the Student Union

I hit a snag with my next story. We like to think we have thick skins but innocuous words can slip through and hit us where it hurts. Not only that, but even if a story is 90% there (none of mine were), the point of a critique group is to zero in on the bits that need improvement. It is disheartening to hear person after person not “get it,” and to realize the fault is mine, not theirs.

Chris, the workshop leader, had a top 10 list for every one of our mistakes. “Here,” he’d say, pointing to the printout, “Why I hate your main character. Number seven.”


Chris posted the answers to our writing problems

The point being, fledgling writers all make common mistakes. We need to recognize them and learn the “rules” that will help us avoid making them again. All the writers we admire know these rules by heart–and so do the editors reading our submissions. Opens with a dream? No. Passive voice? No.

The rules are to a game, and the game is getting published professionally. We’d best respect them if we want to play. This simple fact was finally made perfectly clear to me, but only after I dropped my ego and stopped arguing. The workshop served me well in that it stripped away all my conceits. My creative work fell short of the mark. Am I going to go away crying (only for a short time) or pick myself up and fix this?

I will fix it. I like to think that’s why Chris picked us for the workshop, even if it was subconsciously. We don’t give up. We will succeed. In his day job he actually does pick winners – for the Campbell awards.

The short days of workshopping were long. After five hours instruction and giving and getting critiques, my brain was totally fried. With less than a ten-minute break most nights, we gathered and walked to dinner together, usually seeing some fireflies along the way (YAY!!). I struck up a conversation with whoever was by my side, often someone from the novelist workshop that was taking place at the same time.


Kij and Chris leading us to dinner

Once I got some food and drink in me I was ready to go again but that mile walk to the restaurant in the heat each night was tough.

After dinner we’d chat, write, or watch a movie together. Sharing space during the day sometimes overwhelmed me, but communal living at night was a treat. I could drift from room to room, floor to floor (the dorm was three stories) and settle in on the periphery of an interesting conversation, catch the tail end of a movie, play a quick game of Russian roulette with a nerf gun…we relaxed at night and I got to know and like my peers.

My peers. It’s a big step for me to say that but I’m going to go ahead because fuck it, I was accepted into the workshop like everyone else. People who’ve been to Clarion and Odyssey and have more pubs than I have fingers. When will this feeling that I’m faking it end? I was paid for a story. It’s in a print magazine. I’m a writer. Not a great writer yet but working towards it.

Thanks to everyone who spent two weeks giving me sharp pokes in the right direction.

Leaving on a jet plane…

…to Kansas City

I’m in terminal 3 at SFO waiting to take off. I applied for a two-week speculative fiction writer’s workshop about a month and a half ago. I never thought I’d get accepted. They only take 10 people max and it was the last day to apply. What the hell, I figured. No harm in trying.

When I got the acceptance email a week or so later, I almost couldn’t decipher it. Chris, the workshop leader, wrote a long, newsy letter with comments on the story I’d submitted as part of my application, gave me some tips on how to improve it, and somewhere in the midst of that said if I was still interested, I was in.

I’ve gotten so used to rejection letters I almost missed that sentence, especially since it was buried under the story critique. When I finally spotted it and believed it, I whooped! I jumped up and down. I ran around the house.

I’ve never done anything like this. I felt like Lena Dunham in Girls when she went off to the Iowa workshop. This is the right time for this for me. I’ve been in the Alabama Street writers group for almost two years now and I’m getting the hang of giving and getting critiques. I’m freelancing so I can get away. I have a couple stories ready to go. It worked out perfectly.


Now I’m at the airport feeling a bit melancholy about leaving home and maybe a bit nervous as well, which is a surprise, because I am so stoked for this. I’ll be corny and honest and say I’ll miss my husband. I love crawling into bed with him every night. I’ll miss my yard. It is spring and everything is in crazy bloom and hanging out there reading and writing is heaven. I’ll miss my friends & family. I’m also bummed that I’m missing most of the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend. I got tickets to a bunch of talks before I knew I was going away.

I got up early today and managed to see one talk, “Subversive Speculative Fiction” with panelists Jewelle Gomez, Ayize Jama-Everett, Carter Scholz, and Johanna Sinisalo, and moderated by Charlie Jane Anders. It was a great panel and I said hi to Carter Scholz–an author I’d met before at SF in SF.

A member of my writer’s group, Jennifer Ng, rented a booth space in “Literary Lane” to promote her book Ice Cream Travel Guide. I stopped by and bought a copy. Another friend was volunteering at The Center for the Book booth – where they had two small presses set up so people could print a small notebook.


I hated to leave. The festival was just gearing up and it seemed like everything was geared towards me. Information about writing and editing classes, conferences, editing and coaching services. I had tickets to six other talks, including one by Jonathen Lethem, that I had to give away.

I walked back to the BART station, accompanied, literally, by sad violin music.

Now I’m in terminal three. I’ve got time to kill because there was no line at security. No line at all. I’ve never seen anything like it! The man scanning tickets was almost asleep he was so bored. I walked to the far end of the terminal to a secluded area with a great view north. I couldn’t quite see Bernal Hill–but almost. I stress ate a chocolate chip cookie and began to write.

Then the flight attendants arrived. I’d stumbled upon their secret hangout. A group of eight men and women sat down to my right and began to gossip as if I wasn’t there. “They aren’t going to put me on disability due to mental issues.” “I said you want to evict me? Go ahead!” “They put everyone in first class but me, and she said it was based on seniority and I said I KNOW that girl started after me and she said I’ve worked here for twenty years and I said girl you old. Super old.”

I forgot to be sad as I listened to tales of layovers and lipstick that matched nail polish and being raised in Kingstown, Jamaica.

We are all made of stories. I’m going to learn to write mine better!