Saturday, November 18, 2017

Variations on a Tango Girl

I am working on revisions of my latest novel at the moment, which means I haven't written any new short fiction. Instead, I offer you a excerpt from Variations on a Tango Girl, my work in progress. This story is set in a high school of the arts.

I am so nervous during mods that I fall out of pirouette, as if I haven’t done a million of them before, as if my feet don’t sometimes do them in my sleep. After two days of whispers, staring, and even one blatant pointer in the cafeteria, today is judgment day. Well, I’ve already been judged, I guess. Today is just my sentencing, the day I find out my fate.

Desiree has been in different mods over the last couple of days, so I haven’t been able to ask her if she’s heard anything, good, bad, or otherwise. I don’t know her well enough to park myself next to her at lunch, or find her between classes. I don’t know anyone well enough to ask. I would feel like I’m fishing for compliments.

When mods are done for the day, I know the list is up. I can almost feel it down there in the green room, a swarm of bodies crowded around it, eyes eagerly searching for the names of their owners.

I hide. I linger in the locker room. I take a ridiculously long shower. I blow dry my hair. I pluck my eyebrows. Eventually, I run out of procrasti-hygiene.

I leave my bag in the locker room, an excuse to retreat to the safety of a bathroom stall if my name isn’t on the list. An escape route if I have made a complete fool of myself.

There are roughly seven times as many bodies as I expect when I get to the green room. I thought everyone would have come and gone by now, leaving only a few lingerers. Instead, there are more than a dozen people left.

I’m not sure what to make of this space. It’s called the green room, but it’s not really a room. More of a lobby, an opening, an atrium, maybe. And it is definitely not green. The walls are a particularly boring shade of off-white. Dark gray carpet covers the floor. And the benches. They’re really just large blocks, maybe built out of plywood and then covered by an odd shade of blue carpet.

When I step into the not-really-green-room, silence falls. The guy from auditions with the spiky black hair and the wolf whistle is the only one brave enough to make eye contact. Everyone else is actively not looking directly at my face. Spiky guy smiles at me, then stands and walks away from the guy he had been talking to in the corner.

“Congratulations. You’re Mavis, right?”

The words are all in the wrong order. Congratulations before he even knows for sure I am who he thinks I am. But the congratulations mean I am on the list, I am part of the cast. I haven’t made a fool of myself, ruined my chances of having enough stuff to list on my application. I can list Chicago as another extracurricular activity.

I move my head in what might be a tiny nod. “Thanks? I haven’t seen the list yet.”

I step past him, headed for the single sheet of paper posted on the bulletin board. I feel his body trail behind mine, close enough that his body heat brushes my bare arm.

Before I am close enough to read the words on the page, I see the tall blond that took the lead in auditions. Trina? She is leaning on the wall across from the bulletin board, her eyes focused on me. She looks furious. Her eyes are red, as if she’s been crying. The door next to her swings open, and Dr. Rott sticks her head out.

“Come on in, Trina.”

Trina pushes off from the wall and pulls her eyes from me, letting them skate over spiky-haired guy as she follows Dr. Rott into her office and closes the door. I feel like a massive weight has been peeled off of my shoulders. Her gaze was heavy.

“Don’t worry, she’ll get over it.” Spiky guy is still hovering at my shoulder, still putting words together in ways that don’t quite make sense.

I turn toward him, about to ask what he means, but bail halfway and pivot my head back to the sheet of paper. I think it can explain what is happening here.

My name is at the top of the list. I read it three times, thinking there must be another Mavis. But there’s no way there’s another Mavis Ostreicher at this school. Me. At the top of the list. Next to the name Velma Kelly.

Dr. Rott put my name in the spot where Trina’s belongs. No wonder she looked angry.

I scan down the list, my eyes skimming over a list of names I don’t know. Desiree is down toward the bottom, just below Trina’s. Where mine belongs.

Maybe Dr. Rott made a mistake, switched our names. But if she had, she would have realized it already, fixed it. Or at least taken down the messed up list.

This must be what Dr. Rott meant. I don’t know why. This isn’t how this is supposed to be. I want to be a dancer. I want to be able to check another item off my list of things to include in my application.

This is more than an item to check off. This is more than I can do. I can’t sing. I can’t act. I’m just a dancer.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mr. Dickens and Other October Reads

I finished 8 books in October:

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (audiobook)
Testimony by Scott Turow
A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J Maas
The Reader by Traci Chee
The Heir by Kiera Cass
Mr Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva
11/22/63 by Stephen King (audiobook)
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

I received an Advance Reading Copy of Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva from the publisher (Flatiron Books) in exchange for an honest review.

This is the type of book I am a sucker for. A re-imagining of a person or story from the past that we all think we know. I love seeing the familiar, the expected parts of a story shoved up against details that I would never have thought of. What I realized while reading this book is that I am not as familiar with A Christmas Carol as I thought.

Mr. Dickens is the imagined story of Charles Dickens in the months leading up to the publication of A Christmas Carol. Mr Dickens is in a bit of a bind. His stories are not selling as well as they should. His wife, children, and other family are demanding more time, more money, more everything. And his publishers are, too. Mr. Dickens is given an ultimatum. Write a Christmas tale in a few short weeks, or we will take away promised money.

Charles rebels, refusing to write the story he has no interest in writing. But he finds himself backed into a corner, in desperate need of the money the Christmas tale promises. So he caves, and begins to write. The only trouble is, Mr. Dickens has lost his Christmas spirit.

This novel is the story of Charles finding his Christmas spirit and writing the story we know and love.

Samantha does a great job of plunking us into London and Mr. Dickens’ mind as his personal story mirrors the tale he is beginning to weave. We get to know Charles and several of the people he interacts with, most notably Eleanor Lovejoy, who serves as his muse and guide on his journey. The story is peppered with references to both Dickens’ personal life and the details of A Christmas Carol.

This is actually the part that gave me trouble. I have not read A Christmas Carol in a very long time. While I remember the general story line, and many of the key characters, the details are far from fresh. Reading Mr. Dickens, I often felt like I was missing a smart reference, or an inside joke that I should have gotten. I began to wish that I had re-read the original tale before diving into this novel.

Overall, this is a lovely, refreshing holiday read that lovers of A Christmas Carol will enjoy. But I do recommend re-reading the original story before you start!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Your Heart in my Hands

I held your heart once. It was a wild, pulsing thing. Vibrant. Vital. Alive. That was before I broke it.

I imagine it now. Shivering, trembling in your chest. Fluttering like a frightened baby bird. I did that. I broke it. I broke you.

You were that guy. The one who slouched in the corner of the cafeteria, his eyes scanning the room. Always looking for something. Never eating. Too cool for mere food.

I was the girl in the center of the cafeteria. The center of everything. Everyone’s eyes on me. Watching what I did, what I laughed at, what I wore. What I ate. So I ate almost nothing. Just enough to give them a tease, a taste, of what they should do. I showed them how to be.

I didn’t let them see how much I watched you. How much I wanted to cross hat crowded room and settle next to you on the edge of everything. I couldn’t let them know that I wanted. I was supposed to be the girl who had it all.

So I watched you. I watched you sit alone, the dark brooding guy in the corner. The guy we all knew kept secrets. Like everyone else, I wondered what your secrets were. I wondered if they matched mine.

Eventually I moved closer. I snuck in when I was sure no one would notice. Not even you.

You didn’t realize how close I had gotten, how close we had gotten, until I was part of your world. I knew you wouldn’t let me in if you saw me coming. My attachment was so smooth that the world around us thought it was how we had always been. James and Lina.

Once I was were, you weren’t what I thought. You weren’t what I thought I wanted at all. You were more.

I expected shadows. You were made of sunlight. I expected cold distance. You were a warm hug.

I expected you to be the thing I would have to destroy so that you didn’t destroy me.

I expected you to be a vampire.

All of those expectations. And I feel in love with you anyway.

That wasn’t the complication. I wasn’t torn about what to do with you. Loving you didn’t change my goal. I wanted your heart, wanted to pierce it, mark it. Own it.

Then I realized you weren’t a vampire after all. Your dodge of food at lunchtime was a lack of lunch money. Your shadowed gaze was fatigue. Your stoic silence was pathological shyness.

You were mortal. Normal. On the edge of boring.

And I was still in love with you.

I still wanted your heart.

So I took it.

A kiss. A suggestion of sleep. A dagger-sharp nail drawn across your chest. A spill of blood.

Your heart in my hands.

I wanted to hold it forever. Hold you forever. I couldn’t do both. I had to choose.

I chose you.

A bite. A slick of my saliva across the surface of the still beating muscle. A bit of me tucked inside you when I returned your heart to your chest.

I watched it struggle on, stutter, stop and restart. Stop again.

The temptation to hold it again was strong, so I closed my eyes. Closed your chest.

Now I wait.

I hear the flutters getting stronger. The baby bird is struggling, preparing to fly. Your heart is almost ready to soar.

And it is mine.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

All the Crooked Saints (and other September reads)

I finished 10 books in September:

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (reread)
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (audiobook)
The One by Kiera Cass
The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder (audiobook)
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Ripper by Isabel Allende (audiobook)
The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando (audiobook)
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (audiobook)
All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Steifvater (ARC)


I received an advance reader’s copy of All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater from Scholastic Press in exchange for my honest review.

All the Crooked Saints is the story of a miraculous family. Literally. The Soria family lives in the community of Bicho Raro in southwest Colorado in 1962. Everyone in the family has the ability to perform miracles, though there is one person in each generation who serves as the primary miracle worker in their small community of pilgrims. This generation’s miracle worker is Daniel.

The pilgrims are not Sorias. They are individuals who have been drawn here by their need for a miracle. It is Daniel’s job to perform the first miracle, to draw the darkness out of the pilgrim so that they can see what they are fighting. It is the pilgrim’s job to perform the second miracle, to defeat their own darkness. The Sorias cannot help the pilgrims with the second miracle, or the will be cursed.

This is what gets Daniel into trouble. He can’t resist the urge to help Marisita, a girl trapped in a butterfly covered wedding dress. A girl stuck inside her own continual rainstorm. When Daniel tries to help Marisita, his own darkness surges forward, sending him into the desert, perhaps to die alone.

Beatriz and Joaquin are more than family to Daniel. They are friends. They are conspirators (in their construction of an illegal pirate radio station in a rusty box truck). They are determined to save Daniel. The difficulty is helping Daniel perform his own second miracle without being cursed themselves.

As always, the writing in this novel is lovely. Stiefvater has a way of taking words and putting them together in combinations that are awkwardly beautiful. The unexpected phrasings and juxtapositions of thought and image are perfect, sometimes lingering with me long after I put the book down.

But there was something different in the tone of this book, the syntax that pervaded this story. There was a sense of distance from the characters. It might just have been that the cast of this book was large. Stiefvater has the entire (large) Soria clan to keep track of. Plus the menagerie of pilgrims that have set up camp around them. Stiefvater gives us a glimpse into each of them, and they each have their own fascinating story. But with so many, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with any of them.

Overall, I didn’t feel as connected to any of the characters in this story as I usually do with Stiefvater’s books. I felt like I watching the story unfold from a distance, or hearing the story told years later (which I guess is actually true in this case), instead of living through the story with them.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Silvers

No, this is not polished. No, this is not finished. No, I have no idea what happens next. But it is the start of a story. It is built of words that I laced together, one skinny sentence at a time over the course of a week. It is writing. A thing I have not done much of lately. Take it as you will.
 
“Here. Take this.”

A glint of silver catches my eyes, draws my attention to a small foil packet. My eyes move to the hand pushing across the table. Thin fingers. A dusting of golden hair.

My gaze keeps moving, up o the person attached to the hand. He looks like an elf. Delicate features, a slight point to the tops of his ears. A glaze of blond spiky hair.

But he’s human. The number etched on the side of his neck starts with the same first three digits as my number. He’s from my zone.

I look closer, convinced I must know him. Or his family. But nothing in his features is familiar. I don’t know him. He can’t know me.

He nudges the packet closer.

“What is that?” I ask.

“Roast beef. Baked potato.”

My hand slips out, drawn by the promise of real meat.

I grip the foil, rip the package open.

“This is a saltine.” I don’t try to contain my disappointment. I let it wash out into my words.

“Yeah. But it’s fortified. Nutritionally the same.”

I lock my gaze with his. “Nutrition is not the same as taste.”

“True.” His acknowledgment is quick, as if we’ve had this debate before.

I study him again, sure I must know him. Still nothing clicks.

“What?” he asks. “You’re staring.”

“I know.” I don’t blink, don’t let my gaze waver. I kind of like staring at him. It makes me feel warm.

“Stop it,” he says. His tone carries a laugh, his eyes shining bright. He’s enjoying my stare, my edge of anger, the undercurrent of confusion. Maybe even the warmth.

I open my mouth and then close it. I am at a disadvantage- he knows what is happening here. I am lost.

I pick up the saltine and break it neatly into fourths. I settle one piece onto my tongue, let it dissolve, spill across my taste buds. Starch. Salt. A medicinal aftertaste.

No beef.

“Well?” he asks.

I lift a brow and pop another quarter into my mouth. I chew deliberately, my eyes still locked on his.

He blinks first, then tips his head back, releasing a rich laugh into the air. He doesn’t care about the attention he’s drawing. But I do.

I quickly pop the last two pieces into my mouth, crumple the slip of silver, and tuck it into my shoe. I want to yell at him, slap him into silence. Instead I mumble “shut up,” under my breath.

His hand is faster than I could imagine, shooting across the space between us, shoving another small foil packet into the hand I have resting at the table’s edge. This packet is different than the first. Not cool foil. Warm paper. Fabric, maybe.

I don’t dare look at it. I shake my head, continuing my appearance of irritation, and slip the packet into my shoe beside the ball of foil. I am itching to rip it open, see what he has given me.

I shove my chair back and give the not-elf-boy one last glare as I turn and leave the cantina.

Every step I take pushes the tiny gift into the arch of my foot. God, I hope it’s a gift. It could be a curse. My undoing, how does he know me? Why did he seek me out? Who am I to him? The questions pulse through me, matching the rhythm of my steps.

The bunk door slides open in front of me and I step inside, immediately closing the heavy wood panel and dropping onto my thin mattress. Within seconds, the shoe is off, the wad of useless foil rolling away across the stone floor.

I brush my fingers across the packet. Cloth. Linen. The palest soft ivory. Wrapped around something hard.

I peel away the fabric as my heart skitters in my chest. There it is. My ring.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere (and not a word written...)

I finished thirteen books in the month of August:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (reread, audiobook)
The Norton Book of Ghost Stories by Brad Leithauser
The Rule Book by Jennifer Blackwood (audiobook)
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (audiobook, reread)
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (audiobook)
Conjure by Lea Nolan
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig (audiobook)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (ARC)
The Mystery Woman by Amanda Quick (audiobook)
The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh
Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick (audiobook)

Notice that more than half of these are audiobooks.

If you read my blog on a regular-ish basis, you may have also noticed that I did not post a short piece of fiction this month.

These two things are related.

I started a new job on July 31. I am back in the classroom teaching science to high school students (and middle school students). While this is great, it has meant a major shift in my time. As in, I really don’t have any. The school I am working at is a ninety minute drive from my house. That means a total of fifteen hours a week in my car. Listening to books instead of writing one.

In August, I wrote just over 600 words. Total. In the whole month. And those words were a book review (for Little Fires Everywhere, the review can be found below).

Zero new words written for the novel swirling in my head. Zero revision done on the novel that is crying out to be polished and sent out into the world.

I know that things well settle, that I will regain some bits of time. I will write again. But right now, I miss it a lot.

With any luck, I will have a new bit of fiction for you in mid-September. Just a fragment, a glimmer of the words inside my head, waiting to be set to paper.

But regarding the words of others, here is my review of Little Fires Everywhere:

I received an advance reading copy of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng from the publisher (Penguin Random House) in exchange for an honest review. The release date for this book is September 12, 2017.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about family. The family you are born into, the family you pull around you from the people you meet in your life, the family you run away from. This is a story about secrets. Secrets we keep for ourselves, secrets we keep for others.

This story follows one spark that ignites a series of small fires in the lives of people near the event. Bebe, a Chinese American woman with minimal English and fewer resources leaves her baby at a fire station. A childless couple takes in the baby, and begins the long process of formally adopting the child.

Mia is a single mother and artist who works with Bebe. She is also the tenant and part-time housekeeper for the Richardson family. In turn, the Richardson parents are close to the couple looking to adopt the abandoned baby. When Mia realizes the baby being adopted is the same baby that Bebe left behind, Bebe changes her mind. She wants her daughter back.

Bebe’s quest to regain her daughter shifts the relationships between the Richardson parents, their four teenage children, Mia, and her own teenage daughter.

The plot of the story focuses on Mrs. Richardson and her quest to dig up anything she can that will help her friends gain custody of the baby they have grown to love. While that quest moves the story forward, it is far from the only force in the book. Each of the characters has a secret (or four). Each of the characters encounters the secrets of others. Each of the characters is changed forever, even though they don’t interact directly with the baby in question.

Celeste Ng has drawn a cast of well-rounded characters in this story. Each of them appears to be one thing on the surface (in some cases, appearing to be a stock, stereotypical character), but a hundred other things beneath the surface. Celeste gives us the history that has made them who they are in a series of flashbacks. These flashbacks are fully fleshed stories in their own right, that bring the characters into clear focus and reveal the secrets that give them depth.

The setting of this story really serves as another character. Shaker Heights, Ohio is a real place. A city that was carefully designed to be the ideal place to live. Like the characters, this city is one thing on the surface, with under-layers that are revealed to us as the story progresses.

Overall, this story was a very engaging read. I left Shaker Heights feeling like I knew these characters. I found myself wondering what happened after the story, as the story ends with things a bit unsettled. The characters stories are not completed, instead they are scattered like ash on the wind.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Emma in the Night and Other July Reads

I finished 10 books in July:

Shadow Girl by Gerry Schmitt (ARC For my review, click here.)
The Selection by Kiera Cass
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (audiobook, reread)
Emma in the Night (ARC)
Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith
The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
The Elite by Kiera Cass
Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf

I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker from St. Martin’s Press as part of a giveaway.

This is the story of two teenage sisters who went missing in the night three years ago. Emma (the older sister) left some clues behind. Her car, parked near the beach. Her shoes, sitting in the sand. Cass (the younger sister) left no trace. The case has gone cold, but has not stopped haunting Dr. Abby Winter, the FBI forensic psychologist who worked the case.

Now Cass is back. She has appeared much as she disappeared. Quickly, with no explanation, and few clues. Her story is jumbled, incoherent. A tale of being held by an odd couple on an isolated island. But she insists that Emma is still out there, that they have to find her. This novel is the quest to find Emma.

It should be straightforward. Find the island. Find Emma. Rescue her from the couple.

Here’s the trouble. As a reader, there’s something off in Cass’s story. Dr. Winter senses it, just like we do. There’s something riding under the surface, something that Cass wants, or wants to keep hidden. Like Dr. Winter, you as the reader feels like you’re not getting the full, true story. And it’s not just Cass that you doubt.

I didn’t fully trust anyone in the novel. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has an agenda. These secrets and agendas contradict each other, muddying the investigation by the FBI and challenging the reader to sort through to find the truth.

Even at the end of the novel, when the secrets have been unveiled, I still questioned if I really had the true story. I had the feeling that there might be more that the characters just weren’t willing to share.

The one thing that make this book a bit of a challenge was that large portions of the story are a character telling us about something that happened in the past. As this novel is about the ripples and echoes caused by events in the past, this makes sense. But I found myself occasionally jerked to awareness that the events described were not happening now. It took away a bit of my investment in the story, the urgency of the story. These things already happened. There was no changing them. What really mattered was what happened next. Tightening up some of these passages might have kept me in the story a bit more.

Overall, this was a great read. While I could see lots of possibilities for “the truth,” Wendy Walker kept me questioning everything I thought I knew until the end of the story and beyond.





Monday, July 17, 2017

Luminary

The lighter snaps to life as the last
of the sun drains from the sky
It is naked, bare,
Harshly bright compared to the muted
flicker of the candles that line the path
A host of hands reach up, prop the ribs,
the flesh, as the fire kindles
Air warmed, the white orb lifts away,
a ghost drifting up into the sky
Eyes lift, follow the glow until
the distance is too great
The flame fades from sight
leaving its heat behind in our hearts

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Prophecy (The Lightning Thief and Other June Reads)

Persuasion by Martina Boone
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
Mad Richard by Lesley Krueger (digital ARE) Click here for full review
‘Round Midnight by Laura McBride (ARE) Click here for full review
Just After Sunset by Stephen King (reread)
Illusion by Martina Boone
Fairest by Marissa Meyer
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (reread)
The Land of Darkness by C.S. Lakin
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (audiobook, reread)

So, I wanna talk about prophecies. This is partly coming from my reread of The Lightning Thief, and partly from other life stuff. You’re about to get a mish-mash of the two.

Prophecies are a common trope in fiction. They sit on the edge of the land of cliche, tempting writers to use them as a tool in their plots. This can be an easy way to send your hero on an adventure (hey, the prophecy says you have to), or a complication tossed into an already happening adventure (ha, ha, you only think you’re making your own choices). Whenever they appear, we tend to say, oh, fantasy, that just doesn’t happen in real life. Prophecies aren’t real, and we maybe shouldn’t use them for the sake of making our fiction more believable.

I would like to argue that prophecies happen every day. Maybe not like we see them in Harry Potter, or the Percy Jackson series. Smaller. Sneakier. But no less powerful. No less able to change the course of our stories.

Prophecy is the teacher who says “I know you can do this,” or “You’re going to fail, so why even try?” Prophecy is the parent who says “You can be whatever you want,” or “You’ll never amount to anything.” Prophecy is the doctor who says “You’ll be in a wheelchair by the time you’re twenty.”

Any of these prophecies can have a huge impact on the course of your life. The student/child either lives up to what is expected of them (or isn’t), or sees the comment as a challenge, something to prove wrong.

In medicine, prophecy is called prognosis. You get a diagnosis, the what of your condition. And then a prognosis, a prediction of the outcome of your condition. You makes choices for your future based on your projected lifespan and level of function. The option to fight, to prove the prognosis wrong, is a lot trickier. How much control do you really have over the progression of a condition? Sometimes none.

Sometimes prophecies do not play out the way anyone expected.

When I was thirteen, I had a year of suckitude. I had intense pain in my left ankle and leg. A slew of doctors had no idea what the problem was. I ended up in a cast for eight weeks. (Super fun during rainy springtime in Florida) Finally, the right doctor ordered the right blood work. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. The cast was removed, and massive anti-inflammatories were consumed.

The wrong doctor (seen for something else) informed me that with my diagnosis, I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was twenty and dead by thirty.

As a thirteen-year-old, I had no idea what to do with that. I held it tightly to me, though. I carried it through every moment of my life.

I was lucky. Within a year of starting medication, I was in remission.

On my twentieth birthday, I went for my daily morning run up a mountain in New Mexico and yelled from the top “F— you, Dr. _______!”

But prophecies are tricksy. As my thirtieth birthday approached, the prophecy reared its head, reminding me that it still lurked. A few months before my birthday, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had my thyroid removed, and had the fun of dealing with a string of complications. I was convinced that the prophecy was partly true. Right expiration date, wrong cause.

Again, I was lucky. My birthday passed, and I was still alive. A year past diagnosis, no sign of the cancer. (Still no sign to date, FYI)

The prophecy was squashed again.

And now I am less than a month from forty. Another decade. Those seem to be key moments in my personal prophecy. Again, the prophecy is being tricksy.

Last week, I spent a day in a wheelchair. I could not stand on or move my right hip. An ultrasound showed fluid in my hip joint. Inflammation markers are elevated in my blood work. I have been off and on crutches since. My immediate thought: this is the return of the arthritis that brought the initial prophecy. Perhaps the cause was right, but the expiration date was wrong.

We will see how this pans out. We will see what new turns the prophecy takes.

But my point: the idea of prophecies in fiction is not far-fetched. I do not cringe when I see them in stories. The challenge is to find the twists and turns, the ways the prophecy can be true and not true at the same time, the ways the prophecy changes the course of events just by existing. And of course, how your hero deals with the words in the first place.

Personally, I like to see the prophecy that seems crystal clear on the surface. It isn’t a riddle or a mystery. Everyone knows what it means, they just aren’t sure how to deal with it, or change it. Then a turn of events forces everyone to change their perspective, makes everyone reconsider the meaning of the prophecy.

This, to me, is what life is. Taking what you are given (including prophecies) and building meaning around it.

Have you used prophecy in your writing? How did you make it twist and turn?

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Year of Bodies

I didn’t realize salt had a smell until I moved inland. Maybe my smell sensors were always full, clogged, and couldn’t register the salt. Maybe it was just pleasant, a lovely thing that blended into the background. Unlike the air here. Here I am full of the absence of salt. I miss it.

I knew that I would miss the water. I planned for that. I found a cute little house sitting at the bend of a long skinny lake. The water lies twenty feet, maybe thirty, from my front door. But it’s fresh water. Fresh. That’s not what the smell says. The smell says full of living things and the things they make. Poop. Pee. Previously dead things that are slowly decomposing below the depths. The smell is earthier than the sea I loved. More minerally. Less salty.

I can’t describe the salt smell. It’s just there. A note of fresh laced through the smells of life. A whiff of movement in the stagnant air.

I moved here to protect myself. I was lucky that I could. I try not to think about all the other women, the women who look like me but couldn’t afford to flee the city the killer used as his hunting ground. I’d like to think I would have saved them all if I could, but the reality is, he wants us. He’s going to take some of us. I can only make sure it’s not me.

The Pin-up Man.

That’s what the newspapers call him. That’s the name I heard every time I turned on the TV or radio. The name splattered across billboards next to the picture of the current month’s girl.

It is supposed to be a warning. Watch out. Protect yourselves. I think he likes it. The fame. The fact that everyone knows what he likes, what he’s looking for now. The fact that the police still can’t find him. It’s October. This is the tenth month of his reign.

This is the month that the pin-up girl looks likes me.

The first body was found in January. A tall, leggy, sliver of a girl. A fountain of blond hair dripping to her waist. She was posed on a park bench, her legs tucked neatly together, her back arched, hands tucked behind her head. Next to her on the bench was a page from a wall calendar. January. The picture was a near match to the scene on the bench.

February brought a short redhead, March a muscular brunette, April a stunning black woman with a massive afro.

Every month brought fresh girls posed to match the calendar photo they were paired with.

In May, someone finally figured out which calendar the killer was using. American Beauties, it’s called. Pretty, fresh-faced girls to represent the ideal of America.

People went crazy, tracking down places to buy the calendar. Physical stores were out in a matter of hours. Online wasn’t much better. Bidding on BuyItHere had the price jacked up to over a thousand dollars. Everyone wanted to know who was next, who should go into hiding in June.

I know the price on BuyItHere because I had the winning bid. One thousand, two hundred, fifty-three dollars. It was worth every penny.

The second the calendar landed on my doorstep, I tore off the plastic sheeting and flipped through the months. I stopped cold at October. Raven dark hair in tight curls to the shoulder, green eyes, a scatter of freckles over the bridge of the nose. A tattoo on the exposed right shoulder. An octopus with a pencil clenched tight in one arm.

I dropped the calendar and turned my head to catch the mirror on the wall behind me. I could see my octopus reflected there, stretched under my raven curls.

There was no question, I had to leave the city. How much of a catch would I be for the Pin-up Man? Not just a near match to the photos he clearly had a fetish for, but the real deal, the actual girl who posed for the shot. If he found me, if he somehow knew I was in the city, I doubted he would be able to resist.

So here I am. In the place with no salt. No sea. Wrapped in the stagnant, ripely rotten smell of the lake. Safety is worth the smell.

There’s just this one thing.

An hour ago, I was in the little shop down at the base of the lake, the only place within a thirty minute drive of my little safe nest. It’s a bait shop, really, a place to rent a boat and stock your beer cooler before setting out in your boat. I found milk, bread, sliced processed cheese stuff, peanut butter.

And the calendar. Hanging behind the register.

I left the things I had chosen helter-skelter on the closest shelf and managed to not run to my car. As I turned to pull open the door, I saw his face. The man behind the counter. A grin split his face in response to what must have been panicked terror on mine.

I should have never left the city.

I am the October girl.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Blonde and Other May Reads

I finished eleven books in May:

Shadow Man by Alan Drew (ARC)
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Productivity for Creative People by Mark McGuinness
Heartthrobs by Carol Dyhouse (ARC)
The Civil War Love Letter Quilt by Rosemary Youngs
The Map That Leads to You by J.P. Monninger (ARC)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (audiobook, reread)
The Map Across Time by C.S. Lakin
The Blonde by Anna Godbersen
Collapse by R.J. Infantino

Three of these books were advance reader copies (ARCs) that I received from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. If you want to see those, you can find them below:

Shadow Man: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1986559451
Heartthrobs: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1994311546
The Map That Leads to You: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1999791030

My favorite read this month was probably The Blonde by Anna Godbersen. This book is adult historical fiction about Marilyn Monroe. The book takes the moments of her life that were witnessed by the public and imagine a story that occurred behind the scenes.

The imagined story is that Marilyn was recruited by the Soviets as a spy of sorts, to get information on JFK. To convince Marilyn to work with them, her handler dangles the promise that Marilyn will finally get to meet the father she has never known.

I won’t lie. I have been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe since I was a teenager. It may have come from the ridiculous number of times I was asked if I was related to her. (My maiden name is Monroe). I don’t know how many times I had to remind people that Marilyn Monroe was a stage name, that her real name was Norma Jean Baker. It didn’t help my fascination that there was a connection (of unknown strength) between Marilyn and JFK. I have also been a bit obsessed with his story.

So I was a prime target for this imagined history. The main focus of the story was Marilyn’s intentional effort to get close to JFK, and the unintentional side effect of falling in love with him. This was where the story was strongest.

There were a couple of things that worked less well for me, though. Jackie Kennedy was portrayed as a cold and distant woman, a marriage of convenience. She was pushed aside and dismissed as insignificant to the plot. I would have preferred to see her more engaged in the story, or see her with a bit more depth and dimension.

I also had some trouble with the last part of the book. The ending felt a bit forced, as if  Anna knew she had to give the couple some closure. Given that both JFK and Marilyn die at a young age, this is incredibly tricky. I won’t tell you what Anna does to close the story, but it was probably the weakest part of the book, in my opinion.

What I loved most about this book was the idea of taking snippets of a story, the moments that everyone sees, and building a whole world of story behind it. This is what historical fiction always does, but this one started with moments that were so iconic, so part of the memory of our society (Marilyn’s version of Happy Birthday for JFK, for example), that it felt closer to me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Tango Girls

I finally finished the rough draft of my latest novel. This is the fourth novel I've finished in the last two years. I'm still not entirely sure how this happened....

The novel is part of what I think will be a set of four novels, each focusing on a different main character. I have no idea what the title of this novel is, but the series of books is title Tango Girls.

Here is a snippet from the novel. Please be kind, this is a completely unrevised rough draft!

I am lurking in the candy aisle at 6:55 Friday morning. I’m not sure that I really made a decision to do this, to take up Tate on his offer of a ride. It was just the idea of not having to sit on the bus. I did the thing that didn’t involve a bus. It won’t hurt to take the ride once, I can always change my mind later and go back to the bus. Even if the thought makes me cringe a bit.

The rattle-tinkle of the strip of bells hanging on the front door pulls my eyes from the gummy chipmunks. Why are those a thing? A guy with a tower of black kinky curls walks through the doors. His hair reaches the 5’11” mark beside the door. I estimate his head reaches to 5’9”. It’s a lot of hair.

He makes a beeline straight for the coffee island. I watch him grab a cup and dump in four packets of sugar and three cups of hazelnut creamer before pouring coffee over the top. He is humming something and shifting on his feet, almost dancing, as he does this. I can’t make out what the music is, but he is definitely putting on a coffee show.

“You’re here.” I turn to the voice on my right. Tate.

“Yeah. Good morning. And thanks.” If Tate is beside me, I think the coffee dancer must be his friend. “Is that Malcolm?” I send my gaze back to the island where the show has progressed to stirring while his feet patter out a bit of soft-shoe.

“Yes.”

“Does he do this every morning?”

“Yes.”

“What is he like after he adds all that sugar and caffeine to his already overflowing energy?”

“You’ll see.”

My eyes widen. I’m going to be trapped in a car with him when all of that hits his system. Maybe this is an awful idea. But I’m stuck. The bus is long gone. If I wait for  the next one, I’ll miss English.

“You’ll survive. He hasn’t exploded yet.”

This is my real concern. Tate pulled it right out of my head. I look up at him, and he is smiling down at me.

I sigh. “Okay. Let’s go.”

I have so many reservations. Deep, deep reservations. But I climb into the car with these two unknowns anyway. Malcolm insists that I take the front seat, because I’m “a lady.” I’d much rather sit in the back where I can hide, stay out of their conversation and the path of Malcolm’s potentially frantic, explosive energy.

The first few minutes are relatively calm, silent even. I pull my script out of my bag and flip it open, intent on memorizing the lines to my first two songs. I want to be able to focus on the notes, the music during rehearsal, not juggling a sheet of paper to help me with the words.

Malcolm has other ideas. He has a lot of ideas and a ton of random facts. He is determined to share them all with me in the next forty-five minutes.

“Did you know there are two skulls in Hayden’s tomb?”

This one stops me cold. “Hayden, as in, the guy in the show?” I pivot my head to look over my shoulder so that I can see Malcolm out of the corner of my eye.

His look of confusion mirrors mine. “Hayden is dead.”

“What?”

Malcolm and I sit staring at each other in puzzled silence for a moment. Tate breaks it. “I think Malcolm is talking about Haydn, with no e. Not the guy that goes to our school.”

Malcolm’s brows relax. “Why would I talk about a guy at our school? Haydn. No e. Austrian composer.”

That makes much more sense, and yet none at all.

Now that his confusion has passed, Malcolm resumes bouncing slightly in his seat, vibrating, really. I can feel it pass through the hand he is using to grip the headrest of my seat as he leans his head forward into the space between the two front seats.

At this point, I decide it will be easier just to play along. “No. I did not know there are two skulls in Haydn’s tomb. No e.”

I hear a tiny snort from the driver’s seat. I glance over. Tate is smiling and shaking his head ever so slightly. I feel like he’s heard this version of the Malcolm show before.

Malcolm continues as if I asked for more information. “His real skull was stolen. By those science-ish people who study the shapes of people’s skulls, the bumps and stuff. So someone, like his relatives, or something, put a fake skull in his tomb, so he wouldn’t be headless. But they got the real skull back eventually. And just added it to the tomb. They didn’t take the fake one out. I think it’s because they weren’t sure at that point which one was the real one, and didn’t want to through away Haydn’s actual head.”

There might have been breaths in there somewhere, but I didn’t hear them.

“Death is weird. And people dodge it all the time. Like the London orchestra. They were booked to travel on the Titanic. But something happened at the last minute, and they changed boats. So they lived. Like, the whole orchestra should be in the bottom of the ocean somewhere, but they’re not.”

“That was lucky.” It’s the best I can do. I feel obligated to say something, but I’m clearly not as obsessed with music-related death as Malcolm is.

Again, Tate seems to pull my thoughts from my head. “Maybe enough with the death facts, Malcolm. What else you got?”

Or, not quite what’s in my head. I was more interested in a general stop in fact-lets, not just the death specific ones.

“There are more than seventy pieces of wood in my violin.”

I turn my head to look into the back seat. I missed his case when I climbed into the car. There is a black hourglass settled in the seat behind Tate, sitting upright like a little human. The seatbelt is crossed over it and latched into place. I smile.

“Is that your violin?” I know it’s an obvious question, but I ask anyway. “Can I see it?”

“Not in the car. Tatiana stays safely buckled until the car is no longer in motion.”

“You named your violin.” There is zero question in my voice. Of course Malcolm named his violin. Maybe she knows the name of Tate’s car. I don’t suggest this out loud.

“I didn’t name her. It’s just who she is. The beautiful and elegant Tatiana de Corleon.”

I smile at Malcolm and turn back to look out the windshield so that he can’t see what happens on my face. I can’t control the raise of my eyebrows, the twitching of my lips as I struggle to keep in the giggle.

“She is beautiful,” Tate says. Somehow he manages to keep his voice straight, I don’t hear a trace of a laugh in there.

Malcolm is silent for long enough that I am able to focus on my script. I’m not sure if he’s lost in reverie, or dreams of dancing with Tatiana, or just passed out from caffeine and sugar overload.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Motivation (April 2017 Reads)

I finished twelve books in April:

The Midnight Star by Marie Lu
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Macbeth by William Shakespeare (reread)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney
Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater
Heartless by Marissa Meyer
The Lucky Ones by Anna Godbersen
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig
Touch by Courtney Maum (digital ARC)
Identical by Scott Turow

“What’s your motivation?”

I’m not sure how many times I heard that question in high school and college. When you are a theatre major, you hear it almost daily. Acting is really just figuring out what the character wants and showing the audience how much they want it.

This month, the same question has been swirling in my mind. Two of the books I read this month stirred it up, both because I had issues with the characters motivation. In one case, because they didn’t seem to have a motivation, in the other because their actions didn’t match their motive.

The first book I want to mention is Touch by Courtney Maum. This was a digital ARC I received in exchange for an honest review. If you are interested in my review, click here.

The short version is I didn’t really like the book. What it boiled down to for me was that I had no idea what the main character wanted. I couldn’t even figure out what I should want for her. So I didn’t care what was happening to her. I didn’t care about the few choices she made. Eventually, this changed, the character developed a goal, and started moving toward it. But it was too late for me to become invested in the story.

The second book I actually really liked. The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig is the sequel to The Girl From Everywhere. This is a duology (I think there are only two books, but I would absolutely read a third) about a girl who has the ability to navigate through time and space as long as she has a map.

Warning: If you haven’t read the book, and plan on it, there are some mild spoilers ahead.

Nix (the main character) starts the story with a very clear goal. She has learned that Kash, the man she loves, will drown at some point in time (though she does not know when/ where it will occur). Her goal is to save him, to not lose the man she loves. This is a crystal clear goal, and one that I firmly support. Kash is my favorite character in the books.

The trouble I ran into was in the how. Nix learns that a man named Crowhurst has figured out how to change the past. He has figured out how to double back in time and revisit a map that he has previously visited to change what happened there. Nix latches onto this as the way to save Kash and sets out to make Crowhurst tell her how it works.

What was missing for me was how the ability to change the past would keep Kash from drowning. There was nothing (that I know of) that occurred earlier in Nix’s story that she could change to alter Kash’s future.

So instead of riding along with the story, I kept drifting out, into my own head to try to figure out how what Nix was trying to do was going to get her what she wanted. The best I managed to come up with was that Nix had already accepted that she would watch Kash drown. She just wanted to be able to go back and fix it after it happened. If that’s what Nix was thinking, it would have helped me stay in the story to have Nix lay it out there. Honestly, a conversation between Nix and Kash along the lines of “You’re going to die. But don’t worry, I’ll save you later” would have done the trick.

These motivational issues have gotten me thinking about my own writing. I am looking at every scene in my stories to see if the character has a clear goal, and if that goal is clear enough to carry the reader through the scene and story.

It has also got me thinking about why knowing what a character wants is so important for a reader. Knowing what a character wants tells us so much about them. It gives us something to root for. It makes us wonder how far they are willing to go for that thing they want. Where is the line they won’t cross? Who will they recruit (or squash) on the way to get it? Want characters (and people) want is the core of who they are. We are all defined by our dreams.

Friday, April 14, 2017

From the Way Back

Again, the middle of the month has snuck up on me. Typically, I post a new bit of short fiction around the fifteenth. But I am deep in the dark and spooky drafting cave where the bright flash of short fiction cannot reach. (Translation: All of my writing has been on my current novel in progress, I ain’t been writin’ any shorts.)

The current novel in progress is set in a school of the arts, which has sent me into the land of remembery. Even though I was in the theatre department at my high school, the editors of our literary journal were kind (or pitied me) enough to publish bits of my writing.

I have resisted the urge to edit myself, so here are the bits as originally published in Elan (Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Literary Journal).

Shears and Stripes


We sit in the small stick-shift truck
bumping towards the barbershop
with the candy-striped pole

inside we walk across the soft down of
the newly cropped hair to sit in
the old red chairs lining the wall
with their dull, worn leather
peeling off the seats

we never get our hair cut,
just chatter and jabber for hours
while we nibble on
the chocolate frosted donuts
that only taste good in the
small little shop with
the red and white pole out front.

Note- This poem is about five-year-old me visiting the barbershop with my grandpa. I miss you, Valter Vance.

Falling

He talks to me, and it becomes difficult to keep from jumping off the cliff. Even though I hate to fall, I think that eventually someone will catch me at the bottom and make it all worthwhile. But, that someone may not catch me and I’ll fall to the ground. Then I’ll have to pick myself up, wounded though I may be, and come face to face with the person who let me fall. If he let me fall to catch another, I’ll have to face her too. Sitting snugly in his arms, where I know it’s very comfortable to be. We’ll have one last long look and he’ll turn to walk away, carrying the princess in his arms. Then I’ll stand at the bottom of the cliff, watching him go. He might look back, or throw a word over his shoulder that will give me the motivation to turn to the cliff and begin the struggle to climb back to the top.

As I climb I think of the fall, the not knowing if he’ll catch me, or let me drop as he’s done before. I near the top and I swear I’ll never fall for him again. But in my heart I know that all he has to do is say my name, wrap his arms around my waist as he likes to do, or flat-out ask and I’ll gladly jump again. I’m a lemming, only a whole lot worse because I know what I’m doing and what it means when I step off the edge.

I’ve reached the top, and I look down. There he is. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him, yet it feels like only yesterday. I step closer to the edge to get a better look, thinking all the while, “You’re too close, step away from the edge!” Do I listen? No. I waver there on the edge watching him looking up at me. He holds out his hand. I start to cry as I take the final step over the edge, and I’m falling again, again, again……..

Note- This one is about sixteen-year-old me and that’s all I have to say about that.

What writings do you have tucked away that you might rather forget you ever wrote?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bad Blood and Other March Reads

I finished twelve books in March:

Feversong by Karen Marie Moning
Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber
Bad Blood by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (reread, audiobook)
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Forever by Maggie Stiefvater
Green-Light Your Book by Brooke Warner
Duma Key by Stephen King
Beautiful Days by Anna Godbersen
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (reread, audiobook)
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

I had some thoughts while reading (and after I finished) Bad Blood:

This is the fourth (and final, I believe) book in The Naturals series. Once you let yourself fall into the premise (a group of teenagers who are profilers for the FBI) the series is very good. It’s pitched as a young adult version of Criminal Minds.

Most of the series focuses on the crimes surrounding this group of teens, both the crimes that gave them the skills they use as profilers and the crimes that continue to swirl around them. It features an interesting cast of characters, who are very well developed (the teens more than the adults around them, which is appropriate).

There was one exception to the general rule of well developed plot and character for me, though. The relationship between Cassie (the main character of the series) and Dean (who she is finally calling her boyfriend by the end of book four). We hear Cassie’s thoughts about Dean, and we see his actions toward Cassie. But the extent of their relationship is a bit fuzzy. There are a few moments where hints are given, scenes fade to a close without reaching their end.

Some of the same hints and fuzziness surround another couple in the story.

There are a lot of reasons not to give specifics regarding a physical relationship on the page. Especially if you are writing YA. While the “acceptable content” for a YA book has changed a lot over the years, there are still people who have strong feelings about what can and can’t be in a YA book. Swear words, violence, and sex are usually the focus of these proposed restrictions.

As an author of YA, your goal is to present the world in a realistic way, which means cussing, sex, and violence happen. The sticky bit is knowing when are you representing reality, and when it isn’t necessary to the story.

It may come down to an author’s personal choice in the end. It may be the publisher’s choice in the end. I have no idea which was the case in Bad Blood. Maybe Jennifer just wanted to leave some things up to her reader’s imagination.

Maybe the more interesting piece of this, to me, is what is included in the series. There is violence. A lot of it. The ending of book four had a moment that actually made me gasp. It was horrific, it was violent, it was not what I expected. But it was exactly what had to happen.

So tons of violence. But no sex.

Then I realized that this is really a cultural thing. Across the board, I think we are more comfortable with kids being exposed to violence in TV, games, movies, books, etc. than we are with them being exposed to sex or other displays of love. This is often true in real life as well. Many of us would be more comfortable with our kids witnessing a fight on the street than a passionate kiss at a bus stop.

This is disturbing. Essentially we are saying that violence and hate are acceptable but love is not. It is okay to display your anger, but don’t show anyone your heart.

Given that this seems to be spread throughout our society, I’m not sure how we change it. Maybe instead of encouraging acts of defiance, we should start encouraging acts of love.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jenny

I should be working on the first draft of my next book, but a character asked a question I can’t answer. While the back of my brain chews on that problem, I did some productive procrastination and wrote this short, inspired by a song, and having nothing at all to do with the song at the same time.

“Okay. You’re all set. Want me to give it a ring to test it?”

Finally. The Internet has caught up with me.

I don’t care at all about the phone. It’s a useless land line. But I nod at George. I think that’s his name. It’s what is sewn above the pocket of his shirt.

George whips out his cell phone and dials. The huge new phone sitting on my kitchen counter rings. It works. Which means the Internet and wifi work. Hallelujah.

“Are you gonna answer that?” George asks.

“No.” I give him an eye roll.

His smile falls off his face. “Oh. Well. Everything works.” He holds out a sheet of paper for me to sign. “This has your phone number and instructions for connecting to the wifi. Give us a call if you have any problems.”

“Thanks.”

I watch as George packs up his tools and heads out the door.

Ten seconds elapse before I am on my cell phone, setting up my connection to the wifi. I pull over the information sheet George left behind.

Then I see my new phone number. No way. I didn’t think that was a real number. Why would they do this to anyone? Why would they do this to me?

The phone rings.

“Hello?”

“Is this Jenny?”

Weird. No one has my number. Except George. “Yes?”

“I saw your number on the wall.”

“What?”

A string of giggles and a click. I hang up and drop the phone onto the counter.

Fantastic. I have a phone number guaranteed to draw prank calls.

The phone rings again while I am sliding a pizza into the oven. I glance at the caller ID. UNKNOWN. I ignore it.

Two hours later I am putting my office together. Hanging bulletin boards, arranging books on the shelves, untangling the miles of cable that make my computer work and connect it to the rest of the world.

The land line rings. I answer without checking the caller ID. Honestly, I’ve already forgotten about the morning’s events, about my unfortunate phone number.

“Hello,” I hold the phone between my shoulder and chin as I reach up to add another book to the top shelf.

“Jenny. You ignored my call earlier.” The voice on the other end is rich, rolling, masculine.

“Who is this?”

“Hmm. I don’t think I’m ready to give you my name. Let’s just say I’m someone whose calls you should take.” The words sound like an order, a command, but they feel more like a seduction. His voice is so smooth.

I feel my brows furrow, dig down deep into the flesh between my eyes. I turn from the bookcase and sit down in my rolly- chair. This may be a prank call, but so far it is entertaining, and a lovely break from work. I settle in for a bit of fun.

“Why is that?”

A chuckle. “It’s in your best interests. And mine. We have a lot to offer each other.”

“Okay…”

“You’re curious.”

“You’re vague.”

“Tell me what you want. Right now.”

The first thought that comes to mind isn’t one I’m willing to share with him, this man who is only a mysterious voice on my phone. It involves him no longer being on the phone. It involves him being here, with me.

“An idea,” I finally say. I hope he missed the pause.

He chuckles again. A chuckle that says he didn’t miss the pause, that he knows what I’m really thinking, what I really want right now. “Hopscotch,” he says.

The word knocks everything out of my head. It is so random, so not part of any thoughts that had come before. So innocent.

And exactly perfect.

“Oh,” I say, the word little more than a breath.

“You’re welcome,” he says.

“I gotta go.” I hang up the phone without saying thank you, without saying goodbye. I have work to do.

Thirty minutes later I have a complete story board ready to send to my boss. It is probably the best work I have ever done. It is lovely. It is sweet. It is inspired. Inspired by my faceless voice of a man.

I have one tiny flicker of guilt as I press send on the email, sending the story board to New York. I didn’t give any credit to the voice in my ear. No acknowledgment that the idea was not one hundred percent my own.

I sit in front of the computer, tapping my fingers on the light wood surface of my work table. I hope they like it. But it’s not really hope. I know they’ll love it. That’s not what has me nervous. I’m not sure what does.

The phone rings. Not my cell. The land line. Again.

I pick up the phone and don’t say hello. I know who it is. Well, not really who it is. But I know it is the voice that said hopscotch.

“Jenny,” he says as my email pings with a new message. I click it open without answering the voice. A message from my boss. Gushing. Squeeing. Praise for my brilliance.

“It’s my turn,” the voice says.

“What do you mean?” I ask, pretending that I am as innocent as the storyboard I just created.

“I gave you what you wanted, what you needed, really. Now it’s time for you to give me what I want, what I need.”

“And what might that be?” A few fascinating, filthy images flicker through my mind. I’m not sure I would say no to any of them. I’m not sure I would say no to him. I wish I knew what he looked like, if the face matched the voice. I wish I knew if he looked like I was imagining him.

“You underestimate me,” the voice whispers, a rough caress in my ear. It is a promise. It is a threat.

“You can hang up now,” he says.

The line goes dead. I pull the phone from my ear and look at it, as if it can tell me what just happened. He says it’s my turn to give him what he wants, then hangs up without asking for anything. Weird.

My pondering is interrupted by the doorbell.

Every muscle in my body tenses, freezes. No way. It can’t be my mysterious phone man. It could be George, or a neighbor welcoming me to the building. Or a Girl Scout selling cookies.

But I know. I know it’s him.

My heart jumps into action, pounding blood through my body. I can’t get to the door fast enough. Then I pause, one hand on the doorknob, the other on the deadbolt.

Maybe I shouldn’t let him in. This whole thing is too bizarre to end well.

I turn the bolt.

I open the door and there he is. He is more glorious than I imagined. Tall. Dark. Handsome. Yes, I know it’s the cliche, but all those words fit him. They don’t even begin to describe him. They can’t capture the power, the force, that stood outside my door.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, as if he hadn’t just hung up on me thirty seconds ago.

“I’ve got a thing for Jennys.” His mouth tips, turns, curls into a grin. “And you answered my call.”

There is a sudden flare in his eye, a fire bursting into life. It is not desire. It is not lust. It is nothing human.

I shouldn’t have answered the phone.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Compulsion and Other February Reads

I finished twelve books in February:

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
The Wolf of Tebron by C.S. Lakin
The Dirt on Ninth Grave by Darynda Jones (audiobook)
The Ruins by Scott Smith
Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquirel
Compulsion by Martina Boone
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
End of Days by Susan Ee
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (reread, audiobook)
No Easy Target by Iris Johansen (Digital ARC)
Innocent by Scott Turow
Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen

An impressive count for a month that only had 28 days, if I do say so myself.

Here’s the part where I say something profound about my favorite book, or one that made me think about something important, or feel something deep.

This is awkward. I am looking over this list, and I really just don’t have much to say.

Yes, there were books that I really liked (Compulsion might have been my favorite read of the month).

Yes, there were books that I didn’t like so much (names withheld to protect the innocent).

But there is nothing here that I feel I want to rave about. There is nothing here that made me have deep thoughts.

I just read. I’m okay with that. That is a large part of the purpose of stories, right? Entertainment. Escape.

In other news, I started writing a new novel this week. This is my fourth novel. Which is terrifying. And exciting. And feels completely unbelievable.

This novel is set in a school of the arts. Which makes the story both easier and harder to write. It’s easy because that was my high school experience. It feels like coming home and having everything be exactly the way I left it.

It is harder because I feel obligated to do it right. I am the voice of the world I loved in this story. (Not to mention everyone I went to school with may read the story, looking for themselves in it.) I have to create a fictional world that is every bit as rich as the real one I came from.

Now that I have made myself sound like an alien from another planet, I think I’ll stop.

What did you read this month?

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Gallows Girls

In today’s episode of Chuck Wendig made me write it, I was given a choice of ten titles and told to go forth and write a story to match one. Go here to see the list of titles and what other writers have created. Here’s my story.

Sometimes we leave bits behind. Pennies. Stubs of pencil. Bites of bread. Things we tuck into our pockets to save for later. Things we forget about, at least on the surface.

The things are shaken loose when the rope snaps tight, our weight heavy on the noose. The rebound bounce of our bodies frees the prizes. Or the rustling of the boys as they swing our bodies, cut the rope, drag us away.

Sometimes we leave. But our bits are there, lying on the ground. In the pit.

It’s disgusting. The waste. Worse, the attitude. Helena and her boys have so much that they can’t be bothered with the bis we leave behind.

We bother.

We pick up after ourselves.

Today I watch. Like always. Yes, our presence is mandatory. But most of us avert our eyes, or just turn our gaze inward.

Most of us can’t bear to watch.

There is no way to avoid the sounds. The smack of wood on wood. The rush of skirts falling through air. The sharp crack of spine.

I find it easier to take if I can see the drop. I can blot the sounds a bit if my eyes are full.

Plus I can see the bits. See what falls, where it lands.

I am careful to keep my eyes away from her face as she stands waiting for the floor to drop. Meeting Sarah’s eyes would only speed the cycle. So I watch her hands. Sarah’s fingers twitch, memories of the signs and symbols that put her in he noose dancing through them.

My hands echo hers. I clamp the damp fabric of my skirt to silence them.

The floor finally falls.

Sarah falls.

I watch the hem of her skirt. A bounce. A continued sway.

Two objects fall from her to the pit below. Two bits of Sarah. Two bits of us.

I stand silent and staring as the crowd filters away, the sea of skirts retreating home. The boys come then, joking and jostling as they pull Sarah down, cut her free, drag her away. They don’t notice the single skirt still standing in the square.

Once they are gone, I slip forward, slide down into the pit. A glint of silver catches my eye. I let my fingers graze the surface of the the soil, the water, the fluids and lift the shiny.

I polish it on a fold of my skirt and turn it on my palm. A small mirror. Twice the size of a penny. Infinitely more valuable. I lift it to my lips and press a kiss to the glass. Into my pocket it goes.

Two bits fell.

I scan the muck, looking for the missing piece of Sarah. I don’t see anything. No sparkles. No shines. Not even a nub of brown bread.

Just mud. Endless mud.

I shuffle forward, sifting with my naked toes. Grit. Slime. Nothing with any sort of form. Nothing of substance. Nothing of Sarah.

Where is it?

I lift my hem and drop to my knees, plunge my hands deep. I close my eyes, let my fingers do their work. They dance, sing, call through the soil until the bit is in my hand.

I have Sarah back.

I open my eyes and smile, lift my face to the straggling rays of the sun.

“Oh, looky. Another one.”

My smile drops away. Two of Helena’s boys stand at the edge of the pit.

They watch as I scramble out of the pit, slip the bit into my pocket, smear the slop from my hands onto my skirt.

Then their hands are on me, wrapped tight around my arms as they pull me away.

I wonder which of us will come to retrieve my bits.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Book Thief (and other January Reads)

I finished 12 books in January:

Reversible Errors by Scott Turow
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Dark Tower by Stephen King (reread)
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour
Behold the Bones by Natalie C Parker
Limitations by Scott Turow
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman
The Ketogenic Diet by Kristen Mancinelli
The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston
Winter by Marissa Meyer
The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

Two of these books were monsters- giant books that wrapped up a series (The Dark Tower and Winter), so I am surprised that I managed to read this many books this month. Two of these were audiobooks (The Book Thief and The Grimm Legacy), so that did help.

Overall, the month was full of great reads. But I’m going to talk about just one.

The Book Thief. If you have not read this book, it is set in World War II Germany. It focuses on one girl who has been sent to live with an older couple. This couple also takes in a Jewish man, hides him, protects him, saves him.

While the story focuses on young Liesel, it is told by a narrator who stands just outside her story. He does not clearly identify himself, but we know his job. His job is to gather the souls of those who have died. His job brings him near Liesel at the start of the story, where she catches his attention. Intrigued by her, he keeps an eye on her over many years and tells us her tale.

Like every book I have read set in World War II, there were parts of this story that horrified me, parts that made me cry, parts that made me angry, furious. What was different with this book was that it planted a little niggling nugget of confusion. A worm has lingered and wandered through me, growing and changing as time  has passed.

All because of when I listened to this story. I started listening in late December and finished in early January. Unlike previous WWII stories I have encountered, this time I lived in a world where I could see the potential for the events of this story to happen in my world, my country, in my lifetime. This time, I wasn’t reading a story that showed me a piece of history, that gave me an opportunity to learn from past horrors. This time, I was presented with a past that could be repeated. I saw how it could happen.

Since I finished this book, our country has changed dramatically. The thing that maybe, might could happen has started to happen. I feel like I am at the scene of train wreck. I am watching the slow-motion slide into disaster. I want to be rid of this worm.

None of my lingering response to The Book Thief is what Markus Zusak intended. There is no way he could have, no way he could have seen the world shifting in the way it has.

Had I read this book in 2006 when it was released, my response would have been completely different.

Which has me thinking a lot about storytelling and what it can do. Stories have the ability to change people, change the way they view themselves and the world around them. That’s huge.

It’s a huge responsibility as a writer. The words that you write have power.

This responsibility has made me question what I am writing. My stories are not political statements, they are not morality lessons. I worry that the stories I tell don’t say enough.

I considered changing what I plan to write next. I considered writing a story with an agenda. A story that had a clear point, a clear moral. A call to action, perhaps.

I hesitated. Those aren’t the stories I am driven to write.

And that is okay.

My stories still have something to say. Their message is smaller, quieter. But no less valuable.

Some stories give us a message of hope. A promise that we can have the lightness, the joy, the happy that we want. They remind us what we are fighting for.

My point is, write your story, no matter what it is. We need them all. Make us laugh. Make us cry. Make us smile. Make us frown. Make us love. Make us rage. Make us dream.

“Stories make your heart grow.” — Winnie the Pooh

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dry

This bit was written in response to a Chuck Wendig blog post asking people to write about something that scares them. This snippet is fiction, but feel free to pull tendrils of my broken psyche out of it.

I forgot my water bottle.

Not a big deal, really. I can pick up a bottle of water in the lobby of my building. I won’t even have to pay for it. Courtesy water for guests and employees. That’s me. An employee. Definitely not a guest.

I still need to drink.

I’m pretty sure I can make it through this fifteen minute bus ride. Fifteen minutes to a bottle of water.

My throat is parched. There is a tickle of a cough lurking there, threatening to burst free. A single swallow of water would wash it away, send it swirling down to my stomach.

I swallow. The trickle of saliva in my mouth is nowhere near enough. I cough. A single sharp bark.

Four heads turn to look at me. The eyes are nervous.

I meet the eyes of the man next to me. His eyes are a soft brown, they should be comforting. The skin around them is pulled tight, pinched at the corners into a frown. There is no welcome there.

I let my gaze drift down to his hands, to the stoppered blue glass held in them. His fingers tighten, curl around the cool surface.

I swallow again. I am not the only one to hear the click in my throat.

The man stands and moves away, taking his water to the safety of a seat further away from the thirsty girl.

A quick glance around shows all the bottles are guarded, held close. They are not for me.

A second quick glance to my arm shows that I have twelve minutes to go.

I close my eyes and try not to think about water. All I see on the inside of my lids is a vast ocean. Clouds overhead drip down, adding to the already swollen sea.

I want to wade in and dip my head, drop my jaw and take it all in.

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Imaginary water, anyway.

I open my eyes and check my watch again. Nine minutes.

I lift my hand, intending to wipe sweat from my brow. My hand shakes, trembles and tumbles against my skin. There is not a single bead of moisture there. The skin on my forehead feels thin, fragile, stretched tight.

My hand falls, the tremors accelerating as it sinks to my lap.

I feel that same tremor inside. My cells quivering, quaking as they shrink ever so slightly.

I slump in my seat, my head tipping back against the unforgiving glass of the window. The heat from outside seeps through, scorching my skin. It steals more of my moisture. I have none to spare. I am dry.

My eyes drift closed. The lids scratch and scrape, sand blowing across the Sahara.

I was wrong. Fifteen minutes is too long.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Year of Words

I finished twelve books in December:

Cress by Marissa Meyer
90 Days to Your Novel by Sarah Domet
Company Confessions by Christopher Moran
Bossypants by Tina Fey
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
George by Alex Gino
Isolation Ward by Joshua Spanogle
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Splendor by Anna Godbersen
Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

This puts my total for 2016 at 123 books! I made it to my GoodReads goal, with a little room to spare. Of those books, twenty-two books earned a five-star rating from me (the list of five-star reads is at the end of this post).

Choosing a favorite read of the year is tough. I read a lot of books that I loved. But if you are mean enough to make me choose a favorite, I would have to go with The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. Close behind is the The Winner’s series by Marie Rutkoski.

Both of these series have unique stories set in slightly odd worlds that have enough in common with the world we live in to pull you deeply into the story. Both of these series have characters riddled with flaws and issues. Both of these series have a lovely use of language, though Maggie wins my heart here for her unexpected and exactly perfect turn of a phrase.

These two series have colored how I see the world around me. And who I am as a writer. They have become the point of comparison for my own work.

Which brings me to the other number news of 2016. I wrote over 230,000 words this year. That includes the rough draft for a novel that I am pretty sure will never leave the virtual shelf it sits on as well as two? three? eight hundred? revisions of the novel I am currently querying. Tossed in there are a few shorts as well.

That seems like a huge number, but it was not far over half of my word count goal for the year (420,000). That goal was a little huge, considering I work full time, and have a house full of humans and cats that like my attention now and then.

The goals for 2017:

Read 120 books.
Draft the contemporary YA story that has been swirling in my brain for the last year or so.
Revise said draft.
I would love to put sign with an agent on this goal list, but that involves too many things that are outside of my control to qualify as a goal. Instead I will list continuing to query.

What are your goals for the year?

Twenty-two 5 star reads in 2016 (not in order of favoritism, in order by authors last name for fairness!):
The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs
Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati
X by Sue Grafton
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
The Birth House by Ami McKay
Cinder and Cress by Marissa Meyer
Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater (all four books in the series)
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein