Operation Keep Busy

I fell off the face of the earth this year. My social media grew sporadic, my blog and newsletter were bare, my real-life relationships neglected. My older sister was dying, and I didn’t want to talk about it, but it was such a huge thing that not talking about it felt like a lie–an omission so glaring it couldn’t even be called an omission. Making jokes online or giving life updates without the largest thing happening in my life? A liar, a fake.

It was easier to just slink away and live that hospital visitation life in secret.

And now it’s done. Or, not really done, because the ripple effect is huge and my life is changing in some big ways, but they are the kind of ripples I will keep to myself, because privacy.

I will say: I had a dream the night before last. In the dream, we knocked a hole in our living room wall, and on the other side I discovered a ghost kitchen, where my sister was hanging out, baking ghost goodies. We built a little window to the other side, and brought her kids to visit–but it was only a window. No touches, no hugs. I woke up crying and wished, for once, that I didn’t have an active imagination.

Not exactly the cheerful kind of update I like for the blog.

So instead I present: OPERATION KEEP BUSY.

I’m feeling very motivated these days, in a “you could die any second so best embrace the To Do List while you can” manner. (Healthy!) To this end, I have spent the past couple of weeks on the following projects:

Holiday planning! Thanksgiving and Christmas are back, baby–albeit in a smaller, more cautious form. With kiddos getting vaccinated at long last, I am thrilled to be pulling out the board games and buffet platters once again. There will be sangria and fancy hats (and ok, probably tears).

Crochet Christmas! I cannot share more of these top secret plans until after the holidays, but rest assured: practically everyone is getting a crocheted present from me, because I have been obsessively crafting every night before bed in order to keep my hands busy and away from the doom scroll. (Again: healthy!)

Digitization Project X! This one isn’t top secret, I just wanted it to have a cool name. I’m digitizing our old family home movies from VHS tape, and boy howdy, there’s some great and there’s some cringe, and bits of both will definitely make the sizzle reel.

The Long-Awaited Garage Conversion! We began converting our garage into additional living space waaay back in spring of 2019. We managed to close up the walls and build some cabinets before our (lack of) budget and then pandemic intervened. After a very long hiatus, we are one carpet installation away from having a new room, woooooooo!

The 2022 CMMRVW Family Vacation! My siblings direly need a getaway after ::waves hands:: all this, so that is exactly what we are doing. The dates are picked, the place booked, the hideous group t-shirts commissioned: next spring, we are getting the hell away.

And, of course: OPERATION WRITE ALL THE THINGS! As you can tell from my writing page, this year wasn’t exactly my most productive. My brain malfunctioned under the stress and–oh well. But my brain is on the mend! I have nearly completed a new novel draft, soon to be sent to my agent! I have 50K worth of another book which I will complete next! I have a novella just awaiting a little more revision! And there are so, so many outlines brewing in my notes.

2021, you fucking sucked! I’m pulling the plug on this year early, and declaring us all now in Pre-2022. Let the Year of Keep Busy commence.


P.S. This helpy cat is HELPING:

the problem with knowing the end

I’m an outliner.

Mostly. Pretty much.

Anyway, I start with an outline! And then about halfway through drafting a new book, I come up with all sorts of better ideas, and I retool my outline, and I slap a big notice in yellow highlighter on page 180 or wherever I am: “FROM HERE ON OUT, FOLLOWING OUTLINE #2.”

Cuz who cares? Making the first half match the second half is Future Sam’s problem!!

Let’s just say it: Past Sam is a reckless monster. A heartless villain. SHORT SIGHTED.

Here is my blessing and my curse: I’m an outliner, and my outline is stronger in the second half. I know the ending, so I backtrack through a series of complications that need to happen in order to land that ending. And then somehow I (by which I mean: my hapless mark, Future Sam) need to stitch these intro chapters to that row of endgame dominoes without it seeming super obvious that they never fit together naturally in the first place.

It’s the beginning that’s the real end, the last thing I need to make work in order to set up this grand finale I’ve supposedly nailed with all that seamless action in the second half. But here’s the trouble with endings: they don’t land on their own, not without expectations raised and backstory planted, not without the tone well-tuned and the atmosphere maximally atmospheric.

Oh my god, it’s torturous.

I’m doing it right now (revisions, hiss, spit, etc) and I’m kicking my feet and wailing on pretty much a daily basis. “Please,” I’m begging these characters that I made up, “please, don’t just wander around learning the things you need to know by the end! Make the decisions that will lead us there! In retrospect!!”

Melodrama aside, there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and it is called self-awareness. (That’s right, there is a beam of light which embodies the conscious knowledge of one’s own behaviors, and it is located at the end of a tunnel, keep up.) I’ve become intimately aware of this problem, and I am now giving my future outlines a very stern look.

Moving forward, I am trying to–get this–fix the outline before I rough draft. A shockingly novel approach, I know! But I can no longer rush through my beginnings under the assumption that I always rewrite them aaaanywaaaay, because Future Sam is actually really busy these days and doesn’t want to write the book three times to make it work, she just wants to write the damn book.

And that means, well, kind of pantsing my outlines. I have to resist the impulse to leap to the ending first and then backfill the setup. I have to get better at carefully laying interesting pieces on the board, and then following through on the ramifications of what my characters initially want and probably won’t get–and if I do this tinkering and stream-of-conscious writing at the synopsis level, I’ll get the best of both worlds: the natural progression of pantsing + the steady guiding hand of an outline. Right?? Oh lord I hope so.

But first I need to finish this (last?) torturous revision.

The Year That Wouldn’t End

A Story Told in Selfies

January 26, 2020: My last outing with the kids, though I didn’t realize it at the time. We had a really lovely day at the Air & Space Museum.

“I have no idea what’s coming! 🙂 🙂 🙂 “

February 29, 2020: Decided this would be the year of getting crafty again, and made myself a necklace!

Sam smiling, wearing a green and black beaded necklace
“I’ve got a bit of a clue what’s coming, but it still seems very far away…”

March, 18, 2020: Preschool was closed, our meager version of a lockdown had begun, and the news was saying it would just be a few weeks (did anyone actually believe this would only be a few weeks?)

“This will be enough to see me through… right??”

April 7, 2020: We were suddenly advised to start wearing masks, but oops, there aren’t enough medical grade ones to go around, give it your best shot with old pillowcases, good luck!!

“I have no idea what I’m doing!”

May 1, 2020: I was about to lose my cat. May sucked.

RIP 😦

June 11, 2020: 3 months in and starting to unravel.

“Haircut? What’s a haircut?”

July 9, 2020: Overcome by a combination of cabin fever and kitten fever, I caved much earlier than expected and acquired two more cats: Cherno and Belo. *_*

Kittens don’t care about the growing bags under one’s eyes.

August 26, 2020: By this time it’s pretty clear nothing is changing for a long time, and the show must go on and all that, so I buckle down trying to edit a book with toddlers at my elbow and the world figuratively (and literally) on fire all around us.

“I’ve been wearing tank tops and pajama shorts for 5 months now!!! :D”

September 20, 2020: Apparently I took no selfies in September! Just lots and lots of pictures of cats.

Cats, cats, cats, cats, cats

October 2, 2020: Move over, sourdough starters! Forget it, yarn crafts! The new household pandemic hobby is making alcohol, lots of alcohol, and I sure did zest this mountain of lemons and turn it into 2 gallons of limoncello!

Life, lemons, etc

November 7, 2020: A light at the end of the tunnel??

Puffy fatigue face is constant by this point, but at least I was smiling.

December 9, 2020: I finally left behind my daily pajama shorts and embraced my daily wizard robe. Still trying to work. Still being climbed on 24 hours a day.

There is no peace in forever home.

January 16, 2021: It’s a new year, a new insurrection, we are still at home, we are having so many covid scares, coffee is life.

“Please, I’m so tired.”

February 26, 2021: I spend a lot of time laying down and staring at the ceiling but at least I have cats.

“I’m glad somebody is happy.”

March 6, 2021: I tentatively start seeing my friends again!!!! Outdoors, masked, and distanced, but baby, book club is BACK.

And I met a new cat!!

April 21, 2021: Well it’s been over a year since my last haircut at this point, and the floof contains an entire civilization within.

I embrace my new master, The Hair

May 9, 2021: It is at this point I realize just how much gray this year has caused. I’m only 35!! 😡

“Seriously?”

June 13, 2021: We hit the second set of birthdays of the pandemic (a bit…depressing), but in year 2 we managed to bubble up with one other family to give each of our kids a mini party. At some point, you start rolling with the chaos.

“This is my life now.”

There you go, 16 months of my life. I really hope that my next update is, “hooray, my kids are vaccinated!!” Till then… I’ll be here.

Kiki’s on the Locus list! :D

In very exciting news:

Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil,” originally in Translunar Travelers Lounge, has been included on the 2020 Locus Recommended Reading List! I am in amazing company with a whole lot of my favorite stories of the year. 😀

Anyone is welcome to vote in the Locus Awards, and the poll is now live. Subscription to the magazine is not required, though subscribers’ votes count double. The poll even has a write-in option if you don’t see your favorites on the list. And if nothing else, it’s a great list of recommendations if you are looking for new novels, stories, anthologies, and short fiction to read!

2020 Eligibility Post!

Oh sweet mercy, it’s that time of year again!

This was, um, not the greatest year for me producing new work, but thanks to a little buildup from the before times, it was a really satisfying one for publication!

I have three short stories I’d like to highlight for consideration. They have three drastically different vibes–something for every mood! ;D

Without further ado…


If you’re looking for cathartic rage and fierce triumph:

The Limits of Magic
–In which you have run away from an oppressive regime, only to realize that saving yourself isn’t enough–you have to fight for those who cannot save themselves.

Originally published in Apparition Literary Magazine, Issue 11: Redemption, July 15, 2020 [available online]


If you’re looking for rip-roaring rock and the power of giving a shit:

Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil
In which Kiki Hernández, rock legend of the Southwest, finally bites off more than she can chew. Come for the devil-fighting guitar, stay for the chonky hellhound.

Originally published in Translunar Travelers Lounge, Issue 2, February 15, 2020 [available online]

And reprinted in text and audio in PodCastle, Episode #639, August 11, 2020 [available online]


And if you’re looking for something weirder and gentler and deeply heartfelt:

Anchorage
In which a very messy space family visits a floating library and the anchoress walled up within it (with bonus! narrator who doesn’t understand how metaphors work).

Originally published in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 36, September/October 2020 [available online]


I will now commence a much-needed reading retreat, because I already have SO MANY great recs piling up for my forthcoming 2020 awards recommendation post, and there are still SO MANY MORE amazing-looking reads piling up between my bookshelves, browser tabs, and twitter bookmarks, so farewell, I am now sinking beneath the waves of awesome, tell my family I love themmmmmm–

hello to cherno and belo

Well, I thought I was going to wait longer than this, but after two months with only a single cat in the house, I began to get…. the itch. We have been lavishing attention on our 11yo tabby cat, Professor Stormfury, but he can only sit in one lap at a time!

And I haven’t had kittens in over 18 years. The last kitten was Hades, in fact, when I was in high school.

And, you see, it’s kitten season.

And somebody found a litter behind a fast food place and brought them in to the Humane Society.

And I’ve loved every garbage can cat I have ever known.

And

And

Meet Chernobog and Belobog (Cherno and Belo for short)

They’re….. BABIES!!! ;_;

Stormy is being surprisingly tolerant. After a couple days of growling and running away (he is a 20 pound wimp), he now sits in long-suffering silence and tries to ignore the interlopers.

“What is this nonsense”

SUFFERING.

“mother…..why……”

The interlopers, meanwhile, have made themselves right at home.

Strange. I desire to eat this cat. NOM NOM CUTIE

Our household is now four humans, three cats. A right and noble proportion! :’)

farewell to the king of cats

My elderly cat passed away this week. He didn’t have any illness we could treat. He’d just begun to rapidly unwind after a few years of gradually slowing down, and I couldn’t put off the decision any longer. It’s been a sad week for my entire household, and it’s going to be a long time before I stop looking for him out of the corner of my eye. I wrote up a little thing on Twitter, which I’m now posting here.

LOVE YOU FOREVER, SWEET BOY.


Hades, Lord of the Underworld, was a garbage kitten found by my dad at a construction site with his sister (long departed), when I was 16. They were so tiny they still had to be bottle fed. My mom agreed to nurse them during the day, and I nursed them at night. For weeeeks.

Very tiny ball of black kitten

My sister took care of him while I was at college, but as soon as I got back he glommed back onto me. He’s a belly-rub-loving shoulder-goblin with no shame and a squinty pirate eye acquired in a possum fight. His best friend is a 20lb tabby cat slob named Professor Stormfury.

Hades splayed on his back next to my leg

Hades in a perfectly round void ball

Hades looking very tiny snuggled against an enormous gray tabby cat

He’s been with me for over 18 years, six homes, a marriage, two children, thousands of nights sleeping at my side (or practically on my face), and I am going to miss him. He is the greatest void that ever took cat form and stalked the kitchens of the land, begging for treats. 

Hades tucked onto an open kitchen shelf, peeking around the oven, presumably waiting for treats

Bye, baby.

 

staying connected while self-isolating

2020 sure isn’t pulling any punches, is it?

A lot of people are suddenly home who aren’t used to being home all the time. And while this situation is exceptional and scary and farther-reaching than anything I’ve experienced before–I realized this morning that I have already made 90% of the self-isolation transition, and maybe it’s worth describing how I’ve coped.

Everyone is going to have a different experience and set of circumstances, so here’s the context for me, personally, because this is all me, personally, and YMMV, and maybe some of this will help or all or none, etc etc, caveat, caveat:

I have always been a really outgoing introvert. There are fabulous people everywhere and I like to make friends!! But I also get overwhelmed from too much group activity, and I recharge best with long periods of quiet and introspection. So: lots of socializing followed by lots of recuperative quiet.

Wellllllll, then I had kids. And after Baby #2, I left my day job. Staying home with small children = constant vigilance and minimal adult conversation. Hoo boy. No socializing OR alone time! The perfect storm!!

I sharply whittled my VERY MANY activities down to a biweekly grocery trip, a monthly book club, and the occasional sibling hangout.

And now those are gone, too. But I got most of the way here 2 years ago, and I have dealt with these feelings before.

I’m not going to lie: isolation hit me with a pretty bad wave of depression. It’s rough! It’s disorienting! It’s literally isolating! And it is normal to go through some rollercoaster emotions. It is normal to feel a total disconnect from routine, because it’s kind of like the weekend? But the weekend never ends? And you still have responsibilities, whether work-from-home or the aforementioned children, or BOTH? And you never have to put your bra on or change out of those pajama pants, so you don’t, but that only increases the malaise? And you’re hungry at weird times and there are no external cues to shape your behavior and it’s hard to get started working on things but there’s also nobody telling you when it’s okay to stop, and and and…

And you realize you have lost your grip on the linear flow of time, much like the makers of this amazing poster I spotted in freshman year of college:

poster that says "stop the linear keeping of time!" with subheadings like "burn your calendars! smash your clocks! dechronologize yourself!" and more

It feels like life is simultaneously standing still and never pausing for breath. The weeks slip by too quickly and you feel like you’re not getting enough done for somebody who’s home all the time–but also the individual days can feel so slow when they’re not broken up into commute/work/break chunks. It’s just you and a couple of toddlers and 14 hours to fill before having that glass of wine and heading to bed.

It’s a whole mess.

So. My tips for coping, if you are an outgoing introvert suddenly stuck at home, lonely and yet never alone:

1) GET THEE TO SOME GROUP CHATS. I mean it. This is my #1 piece of advice and my friends do not even know the degree to which they have saved my sanity over the past two years. All day, every day, I message my book club, my sisters, and my writer friends. My phone’s got FB Messenger, Google Hangouts, Snapchat, and Slack, because everyone’s on something different, dammit. And in the more private chats I talk about personal things, sure, but I’m mostly there for company, for laughs, for daily water cooler talk. For memes!! Nothing like a good laugh to break you out of a funk.

2) Learn to love phone calls again. It’s really easy to go hours and hours without speaking, and then realize your voice is a croak. Also, my constant written chat does NOT keep my conversation skills sharp! I open my mouth and feel like I have forgotten what a normal volume is or what my cue is to respond. I get giddy and interrupt too much. I’m a disaster, is what I’m saying!! So I call my mom or my brother or a friend and I chatter a bit. Now that my book club can’t meet in person for a while, we’re gonna move to a group video chat so we can love on each other’s drunk, bored-ass faces.

3) Don’t be silent all the time. I love some calm, soothing silence, as I mentioned, but too much silence for too long and I sink very far into my thoughts. Time starts slipping by at a weird pace and I’m completely zoned out, susceptible to negative thought spirals. With the kids, there are cartoons and video games breaking up the monotony, but otherwise I use music. I pop on Pandora and jam.

4) Related item: dance party!!! I rope the kids into dance parties when they’ve been zonking on the games too long, but honestly these are just as much for my benefit as theirs. I have to stand up! And move my body! And it’s silly and we look ridiculous and I laugh.

5) Genuine alone time. Yup, this is the opposite of everything else on the list and it’s because of the introvert bit. I’m isolating with roommates here–the kids 24/7, my spouse evenings and weekends. I need that little bit of unwind every week to center myself, and so I schedule it in. Once a week I go lock myself away in a separate room, and for a few hours I write, and listen to soothing music, or stare dreamily out of a window–anything I feel like really, I’m just alone and quiet and nobody wants anything from me.

So, those are usually enough for me to manage, but the current situation is aaaaall of that plus an unending stream of personal and international stress, so here are a few more:

6) For the love of god, take breaks from social media!! It is really tempting to stay plugged in all day, especially since you are stuck at home and hardly seeing anyone, and it feels like conversation, doesn’t it? A steady, never-ending conversation, whether you’re actually leaving comments or just endlessly scrolling the feed. If it’s funny memes you’re checking, it’s good times. But if it’s an endless spiral of bad news, it’ll get in your head, amp your anxiety, make everything feel worse and more immediate. Not to mention the excessive screen time messing with your eyeballs. Take! Breaks!!

7) Like, try to exercise? If that’s your thing? I didn’t realize how much I moved around until I left my day job and atrophied up. I’ve got a combo exercise bike/elliptical at home, and a couple pairs of weights. For small spaces, there are portable mini-ellipticals for sale for about a hundred bucks, or I know folks who pull up yoga videos, youtube step aerobics routines, things like that. Or, you know…. dance parties!!!!

And…

8) Cry when you need to. Really. Take a moment by yourself or take turns with a loved one. My feelings build up and they don’t subside unless I get a good cathartic cry out. The weirdest things set me off. I’m good all day and then I read a tweet about somebody doing something very nice, or I hear some song lyrics out of context, or I let my thoughts wander too far into the future (when will my children get to play with other children again?) and I’m a faucet. Just let it out.

Signing off with some happy cats who are loving the extra lap time. ❤ ❤

black and gray cats sitting on sam's lap

2019 reading roundup!

It is nearly the end of January 2020 and I am still frantically catching up on my 2019 reading! Here is my (still growing) list of favorites, grouped by length in case you’re the award-nominating sort.

Novels:

Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney. Beautiful and strange, in the way I always want faerie stories to be beautiful and strange. I wish it had been longer.

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley. A timey-wimey military scifi. The end comes together so satisfyingly I literally did a finger kiss.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. It’s on everyone’s list AND WITH REASON. Come for the skeleton memes, stay for the surprisingly emotional character arcs and well-fleshed cast (pun intended).

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow. A late nineteenth century portal fantasy, and story about stories, and story about family, and colonialism!

Novellas:

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather. It’s about an order of nuns in space and it holds SO much heart, just read it, all right??

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Another one that’s everywhere with good reason. Two agents on opposing sides of a time war…fall in loooorve.

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh. Very quiet and sweet. The Wild Man of Greenhollow has to reckon with his past when the land’s new owner arrives.

Novelettes:

“Blood, Bone, Seed, Spark” by Aimee Ogden. A scientist in a fantasy world intent on eradicating death goes to extreme lengths for her next discovery. In Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Short Stories:

“We Are Here to Be Held” by Eugenia Triantafyllou. All I have to say is: “The first time your mother swallows you whole you don’t really see it coming.” In Strange Horizons.

“Boiled Bones and Black Eggs” by Nghi Vo. In which the owner of an inn that serves the living and the dead is trying to get rid of a difficult customer. In Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

“Due By the End of the Week” by Brandon O’Brien. A super cute superhero story AND ALSO an entertaining unreliable narrator story. In Fireside Magazine.

“The Lie Misses You” by John Wiswell. A story about a family secret, told from the point-of-view of the Lie itself. YEAH I CRIED. In Cast of Wonders.

“The Horrible Deaths of Helga Hrafnsdóttir” by Christine Tyler. In a village where every girl chooses her own death from the blossoms of an Ævilok tree, Helga finds nothing but horrible options. In PodCastle.

the 2019 christmas card!

It’s that time again!! Every year I photoshop my family’s heads onto some ridiculous bodies, print out 30-40 copies at CostCo, and make Christmas cards.

Previous years:
2012-2013
2014
2015-2016
2017
2018

Much of my December was taken up with the recently-mentioned toothpocalypse. I scaled back my usual holiday activities (no mountain of cookies this year, alas), but I was determined not to miss the annual Christmas card!

It took me a solid week to make and ship these things. I’d have a good hour in which two kinds of pain meds overlapped, during which I worked some photoshop. Then bedridden. Then another good stretch where I’d cut things out. Then bedridden.

ANYWAY. I DID IT. IT’S DONE.

The plot this year? Well, Rudolph is leading his team back through another storm, intent on reaching the Island of Misfit Toys, but… alas. They go astray.

Photo of Santa and reindeer with text: Another year, another snowy squall. But Rudolph insisted he knew the way. "There!" he cried. "The Island of Misfit Toys!" The clouds parted. The reindeer gasped--

Text: Alas. Wrong Island. Photo: Skull Island with Sam's kids as King Kong and T-Rex, Sam tied to sacrificial post, husband running away, and cats as boat captains.

I know, I know, my pics of the cards are lacking. Here is the photo insert in all its glory:

Skull Island, with Sam's kids as King Kong and T-Rex, Sam tied to sacrificial post, husband running away, and cats as boat captains.

And that’s it for Samtastic Books in 2019! I’ll be back next month trying to finish some short stories, start edits on a book for my agent (yep!! still love saying that!!!), and post some recommended reading, because the toothpocalypse definitely put me behind schedule in that arena.

Till next year! Enjoy these Christmas cats.