Making Half Baked Harvest’s Soft Gingerbread Latte Cookies

Well, the title really says it all! If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw me tweet about these cookies a couple days ago. A few people ended up asking me for the recipe (which I will always give because they’re never mine anyways), so I figured I’d do a post over them, give you all the recipe, and talk about how they turned out! So without further ado, here is Half Baked Harvest’s “Soft Gingerbread Latte Cookies“.

As usual, we’ll start with the ingredients:

Ingredients laid out on a counter. There's flour, dark brown sugar, vanilla extract, espresso powder, molasses, an egg, unsalted butter, baking soda, cinnamon, and ginger.

Athena ScalziHonestly, this recipe doesn’t call for anything too unusual. I happened to have everything on hand, but I will say espresso powder is definitely not a pantry staple for most people (the recipe says you can also use instant coffee powder, though). The same can be said about molasses; you’ll probably have to go buy that. Other than those two things, and maybe the ginger, I’d say the ingredients required are pretty standard.

Personally, I can never find espresso powder in the store. I always have to order it online. This one came from Amazon, and I would definitely recommend it, as I’m partial towards King Arthur (it’s also what flour I use).

Also, the recipe says to use salted butter, but I was fresh out so I just used unsalted and threw a big pinch of salt in the batter. Blasphemous, I know.

Moving on, the first step was to mix together the brown sugar, butter, espresso powder, and vanilla. Which looked like this:

A dark brown mixture of sugar and butter in the bottom of a white mixing bowl.

After everything was mixed together, I noticed the recipe said to mix it until it was light and fluffy, which this minimally combined mixture was not. So I busted out my handheld electric mixer and beat it much more thoroughly until it looked more along the lines of light and fluffy:

A slightly lighter colored and more fluffy looking version of the batter.

It’s definitely hard to tell from the picture, but I can assure you it had been beaten to adequate fluffiness.

After that, I added the egg and molasses, and continued to use my electric mixer because why not:

A homogenous mixture of the wet ingredients, dark brown in color from the molasses, espresso powder, and brown sugar.

Okay, that batter definitely looks a little less appetizing and a little more dog poopy, but let’s trust the process.

Dry ingredients added:

The final form of the cookie dough.

As you can see, even after adding all the dry ingredients, this is a pretty sticky batter. The recipe says that if it is too sticky to roll into balls, you can add an extra two or so tablespoons of flour. While the dough was definitely sticky, it wasn’t enough of a hassle rolling it into balls for me to add the flour, so I did not add any extra. Feel free to, though, working with sticky dough is annoying.

So, I used a cookie dough scooper to measure, and then rolled them in my hands into (imperfect) balls, tossed them in a bowl of granulated sugar, and put them on baking sheets lined with parchment paper:

Six balls of cookie dough, covered in granulated sugar, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Nine minutes later:

A plate full of fully baked gingerbread cookies!


And look at that cross section:

One of the cookies broken in half, the middle being shown to the camera so y'all can see that moist, delicious inside.

Oh yeah, I killed that shit.

This recipe was very simple! Just mix everything together in a bowl, and bake! Nothin’ to it. These cookies were quick, easy, and very spiced and gingerbread-y tasting. And it didn’t use that many dishes, either, which is always a plus.

And yes, the recipe does call for icing on these cookies, but after tasting them, I decided they didn’t need any, so I didn’t make it. If you end up making it with the icing, be sure to let me know how it is!

Do you like gingerbread? Do you make cookies around the holidays? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


The Big Idea: Nathan Tavares

We all want to be a big success — in life, in our careers, in everything. But what if that’s not actually our best path through the universe? Nathan Tavares is here to consider alternate paths in this Big Idea for A Fractured Infinity.


The multiverse seems pretty big right now, huh? 

I’m thoroughly enjoying the big boom of multiverse stories that have popped up over the last few years, from Marvel (shout-out to Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) to Everything Everywhere All at Once. Especially that last one, I remember sitting in my seat in the theater alternatively laughing and crying—just so completely moved. What struck me, too, was feeling some kinship with these movies and the book I had coming out, A Fractured Infinity, which is about a failed filmmaker on the run through the multiverse with the man he loves. I get such a kick out of thinking about so many artists working on these multiverse stories independently, years ago, for them to all be coming out around the same time. 

Everything Everywhere and A Fractured Infinity echo with a similar big idea. Out of the whole universe, what if you’re the absolute worst version of yourself? What do you do when you’re a big giant failure—or at least think you are? 

My main character, Hayes, can’t seem to catch a break. He’s a film-school dropout turned odd job-working documentarian who celebrates the big breaks of his friends, wondering if that’ll ever be him. He’s fresh off a breakup with a jerk and the death of his best friend, and still reeling from the death of his mom. He’s trying to finish up a documentary that means a lot to him when he learns he’s somehow connected to a predictive device from another universe. And here: A spark! Maybe he’s not a big nobody after all? Still, the self-doubt seems to all pile on once he realizes the version of him in the alternate universe is this genius, maybe all-powerful (and certainly megalomaniac-y) scientist and inventor. Who seems to seep into Hayes’s head and mock him for being a dud.   

Heckled by self-doubt. Maybe you can relate? 

I sure as heck can. 

I never really went for the “write what you know” thing before. In my writing—short stories and unpublished novels up until this debut—I liked to do the opposite. Create characters who were definitely not me, because I’m private and mostly because I’m pretty boring. But when I started writing this book, I had pegged myself as a failure with this big annoying internal voice that liked to heckle me. Often. I’d just lost my job at a magazine because it went out of business. I had a novel on submission for five years that didn’t end up getting picked up. Everything I’d seemingly been working for my entire life was just not happening, and I was staring mid-thirties down the barrel and wondering just what the hell I was going to do. Change careers? Give up trying to get a novel published, since I’d already bit it so hard? Everyone has that self-doubt voice in their head. Mind was reminding me, often, “You’re a failure.”   

When I was ready, I started working on a story about a man heckled by a seemingly perfect version of himself, and what he had to do to pick up the pieces. I forgot about that tenuous dream of getting published and just set my sight on creating something I really loved, influenced by some of my favorite things like scifi movies, which I was re-watching as a comfort during a rough patch. The story quickly became, “What happens when a guy who thinks he’s a failure finds himself desperate to protect the man he loves?” He starts making a bunch of brash, selfish, and (hopefully) entertaining decisions. 

Hayes needed to fail to get where he did. So did I. From all the ideas this book has—deepfakes and a disunited America and theoretical physics—the biggest to me was always this: Sometimes you have to fail to get where you’re going. 

A Fractured Infinity: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s 

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Find a book trailer here. Read the first chapter here

Do You Want A Box For That?

Athena ScalziHey, everyone! I know I’ve been scarce here on the blog lately, what with the holidays and occasionally working once a week (and spending hours watching Tik Toks), I have just been swamped (and lazy)!

But I’m here today to talk about being healthy, or rather one of my attempts to become a healthier person through building new habits and changing old habits. Of course, the term healthy is subjective and looks different for everyone, but what I’m going to be addressing is just what I feel is healthiest for me, both physically and mentally.

I’m sure every one of us was taught from a young age to finish all the food on your plate, and not to waste food. Even if you were full and didn’t want anymore, don’t you know there’s starving kids out there? Obviously I don’t blame my grandma or great aunts for these kinds of things, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect my mentality today.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt like I have to eat everything in front of me. I don’t want anything to go to waste, so even if I’m full I just have to push through and finish it. This has led to me constantly overeating for years, and now I am actively trying to unlearn that behavior.

I kind of hit a breaking point a few months ago where I realized that every time I ate a meal, I was painfully full afterwards. Like so stuffed that I was afraid my stomach would quite literally burst. And it was happening every day. I was doing it to myself, and I wasn’t sure why.

It was partially because I went out to eat at restaurants so often. The portions would be so big, and it was so delicious that I didn’t want to stop, and it cost money so obviously I didn’t want to leave any.

I was talking to my therapist about this problem of mine when she told me that when she has a meal like that, where it’s so delicious that you don’t want to stop eating it, she likes to get a box for it, and then she can have it again later. Not only does she not get overly full, but she gets to enjoy that same delicious meal, a second time.

Getting a box is such an obvious solution, I know, and I’m sure it’s something that almost everyone does without even thinking about it. But in my mind, getting a box felt pointless, because I wanted it all right this minute. It’s delicious food, why would I stop eating it and get a box, when I could just eat it all in one sitting (even if it was too much).

But when my therapist reframed it as “you get to eat it AGAIN”, it changed my view. And yes, that is a very “fat girl” viewpoint to have, but it works.

For the past couple months, I have been stopping before I overstuff myself, and I’ve been getting boxes practically everywhere I go. I haven’t been in pain from overeating in weeks! And let me tell you, those midnight leftovers hit different.

Getting my food in a box is only one step of many that I need to take to overcome my disordered eating habits, but one thing that goes hand in hand with getting boxes is not over-serving yourself in the first place.

Getting a box is a great solution for when you’re at a restaurant since you don’t control their portion sizes, but when you’re at home, the control can come from how much you put on your plate to begin with. So that’s another thing I’ve been working on. Why give yourself more than you can (comfortably) finish in the first place? There can be many answers to that question, and for me I think it was always just that my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I just love food, and I want to eat as much of it as I can.

The holidays are a hard time of year for anyone with food-related issues. Between the Christmas cookie parties, the festive and fun seasonal drinks and flavors, and of course Thanksgiving, the holiday dedicated to literally just food and eating. For basically a month straight, there is constantly food in front of your face, and you are expected to eat that food. Make sure you get a slice of your aunt’s homemade pumpkin pie, be sure you try the ham your mother spent all day cooking, don’t forget to have a bite of your grandpa’s famous jalapeno poppers.

It’s just… a lot. And I know everyone over-eats on Thanksgiving, it’s just what we’re supposed to do. But it feels like relapsing. It feels too familiar to how I felt every day not that long ago. And I don’t like feeling that way.

This whole post is really just to say, “hey look at me! I’m making progress on not overeating 24/7!” Have I lost any weight from doing this? No. Do I feel better anyways? Yes. I feel better about myself, and my choices. I am starting to feel like I really do have control over what I eat, and how much I eat, which is not how I’ve ever really felt before.

There’s so much good food to be had, especially around the holidays, but maybe I don’t have to hurt myself in an attempt to try it all.


The Big Idea: Denise Crittendon

Author Denise Crittendon was forever changed by her trip to Africa, and she brought inspiration back with her. This led to her writing her newest novel, Where it Rains in Color.


In northern Namibia where clean water is scarce, Himba women cleanse their bodies by bathing in billowing streams of smoke. 

In South Africa, a tribe known as the Xhosa, speak a language that’s almost magical — filled with musical-sounding clicks, alliterations and ancient proverbs.  

On the rugged cliffs of Mali, West Africa, Dogon villagers live undisturbed in tiny huts located high above a remote expanse of rain forest. Yet they continue to shock Western astronomers with their advanced knowledge of the stars. 

Growing up, I knew nothing about these enchanting ethnic groups and had no idea Africa was so mystical. But in the 1980s, I made my first sojourn to The Motherland and when I returned, I was not the same.  Dogon mythology simmered in my mind. Ancestral rituals clung to my memory. I couldn’t stop thinking about the profound wisdom of the elders and the intrinsic beauty of my people.

For decades, this was the center of many of my conversations. Since I was a journalist, I even wrote articles praising Africans and African Americans, extolling virtues that most of the world had overlooked.  A few years ago, I took that passion a step further and began infusing it in the pages of my first novel, Where it Rains in Color.

A sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, Where it Rains in Color represents my leap from the rough-and-tumble arena of newspapers into a more supernatural realm. Here, I could let my mind penetrate a new thought barrier and usher people of African descent into a better tomorrow.  Here, was an opportunity to catapult an entire race far into the future, an opportunity to see black captains commandeering vessels streaking through space.  

More importantly, it was a chance to focus the spotlight on one of the most riveting realities I witnessed overseas — the graceful strut and inexplicable strength of the women of the savannah. I can still see them, their eyes distant, their rhythms subtle, gliding like gazelles across vast stretches of terrain, oblivious to the enormous bundles perched on the crowns of their heads.

These are the women the world will never understand. How can they tote bundles three times their body weight? How do they move with such ease without tipping their heavy cargo? Scholars from around the globe have studied their technique. A number of cultures have tried to perfect it. But no one’s been able to figure out the hands-free form of transport that is the domain of African women. Is it a special spiritual awareness? A rare alignment with the heavens? Is it the hue of melanin-saturated skin downloading the UV rays of the sun? Is it wooly tufts of tightly coiled hair, standing erect, defiantly saluting the sky? Are these coils electromagnetic antennae?

While writing Where it Rains in Color, I answered these questions and more. I explored the anti-aging properties of the pigment, melanin, and I presented it as a miraculous healing agent that promotes the regeneration of human limbs. On Swazembi, the planet I conjured up, health and happiness prevail and everyone takes pride in the black aesthetic. Eurocentric beauty standards are nonexistent and there are no negative connotations for the word, dark, (ie.dark ages dark forces, dark comedy). On the contrary, the terms dark, black and indigo are the loftiest expressions one can use.  My protagonist is not revered despite her black skin but because of it. The inhabitants are not accepted by a galaxy that simply tolerates their presence but by a coalition of worlds that embrace and admire them.

Yes, problems do arise in this utopic society. But the mishaps are not based on race and not rooted in misogynoir. Coined in 2010, the label, misogynoir, describes a particularly heinous form of misogyny that targets black women by bashing, demeaning and stereotyping.  Because of my burning desire to right wrongs, I used Where it Rains in Color to counteract racist perspectives and offer a different point of view. I imagined a technicolor world so captivating it commands respect. I plucked it out of the creative dreams I had at night and I searched for just the right insights to support it. 

When taking walks through parks, I made note of both flowers and weeds. Flowers require tending, but weeds, so noxious and despised, are independent. The wind disperses their seeds and they have no need for bees, or horticulturists. They are sufficient in their own right. 

Not so with Homo sapiens. In the garden of humanity, we all need one another and we share a collective yearning to be appreciated. So, in my sci-fi/fantasy I elevated Black women by planting us in an exotic new milieu that flaunts our allure and shouts out loud: We are here. We are mahogany. We are golden. We are bronze. We are suede. We are Black as the night.

And We Belong! 

Where it Rains in Color: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

Notice of Head Down

I have been reliably informed by my editor that Starter Villain, my next novel, has to be done in the next two weeks or otherwise DOOM DOOM DOOOOOOOOOM (actually my editor was far more mellow about it than that, but it still needs to be in).

So, I, John Scalzi, will be scarce here until I have written “the end” on this novel. The good news is there is another writer on this site and she will be posting, plus we will have some Big Ideas and other stuff. And I may, you know, post a cat picture or sunset or whatnot.

Anyway, wish me luck, because if I don’t finish this novel I don’t get paid, and you all know how much I love to get paid.

— JS

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, Day Five: Charities

For the last four days, the Whatever Gift Guide 2022 has been about helping you find the perfect gifts for friends and loved ones. But today I’d like to remind folks that the season is also about helping those in need. So this final day is for charities. If you’re looking for a place to make a donation — or know of a charitable organization that would gladly accept a donation — this is the place for it.

How to contribute to this thread:

1. Anyone can contribute. If you are associated with or work for a charity, tell us about the charity. If there’s a charity you regularly contribute to or like for philosophical reasons, share with the crowd. This is open to everyone.

2. Focus on non-political charities, please. Which is to say, charities whose primary mission is not political — so, for example, an advocacy group whose primary thrust is education but who also lobbies lawmakers would be fine, but a candidate or political party or political action committee is not. The idea here is charities that exist to help people and/or make the world a better place for all of us.

3. It’s okay to note personal fundraising (Indiegogo and GoFundMe campaigns, etc) for people in need. Also, other informal charities and fundraisers are fine, but please do your part to make sure you’re pointing people to a legitimate fundraiser and not a scam. I would suggest only suggesting campaigns that you can vouch for personally.

3. One post per person. In that post, you can list whatever charities you like, and more than one charity. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on charities available in North America.

4. Keep your description of the charity brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about the charity and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a charity site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. Comment posts that are not about people promoting charities they like will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find charities to contribute to.

All right, then: It’s the season of giving. Tell us where to give to make this a better place.

The Big Idea: Leah Vernon

Author Leah Vernon knows something about persistence, as this Big Idea about the years-long struggle to publish the story that would become The Union tells you. What is the story that motivated her through all this time? Read on to discover.


What would you do with boundless privilege?

The kind of privilege that allows one to pack bodies on a sweltering ship like human sardines as the top row defecates on the ones chained beneath. The kind of privilege that would allow one to place a church above a dungeon full of enslaved people who stood in feces, blood, and sweat up to their shins in the darkness awaiting their passage into a new world, a stolen world. Or perhaps a privilege that would allow a man in blue to kneel on the neck of a man for almost ten minutes as he cries out for his mama.

“What lengths would you go to keep that privilege?” This question is the big theme for my novel: The Union. And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it is floating all around us.

I grew up in Detroit. We were the only Black Muslim family on the block. People used to think I was a nun because of my head scarf. Mom was a single parent to five children by five different men. I had an interesting upbringing and that is putting it very, very mildly.

I was home-schooled. Awkward. No father. Looking for something to latch onto. I discovered stories. The library became my escape. Sci-Fi and dystopian were my prescriptions of choice. In these stories I became the hero; I had control that I never experienced in my real life.

Harry Potter. Goosebumps Series. Fahrenheit 451. The Chronicles of Narnia. All written by white authors. And presumably written for white readers. They included magical people and aliens and the impossible. But they forgot one thing: Black people. Somehow in their quests for new worlds, they had erased a whole populace. Did Black people not exist in the future? I pondered.

Although these stories saved me, they hurt me, too. You can imagine what identity issues come into play when white people always win, and we always lose.

As I got older, I started to notice the differences between me and them. I had no family support in college. They got to vacation in Europe. I worked and took a full load of summer classes. They bragged about shopping sprees with trust funds. I became bitter about the fact that I would never, ever win because the system wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t that they were better than me or smarter than me. It was that they carried a privilege that I would never have access to.

When I exited my mother as a Black girl, my fate was set. The narrator says, “And she will have a difficult life…”

The anger and resentment I felt for having been dealt such a difficult  hand turned into stories. But of course, I am a writer and that’s what we do. We turn pain into entertainment…

I concocted a story in which we ruled. A world where slavery had indeed happened but now the tables had turned. I wanted to see, to feel how it would be to eat and not be eaten. To exploit the ones who colonized us. To make them suffer as my ancestors had. I wanted a reverse telling of history but in the future.

Two girls—one Black, one mixed-race, an “Impure” slave girl. What were their stories? I wanted action, sex exploitation, drugs, and harsh laws against procreating more than one white baby, purity laws against mixing races punishable by death—a scary reality.

I wanted white people in this novel to feel the discomfort and pain that I felt, that we felt, that my ancestors felt when they were tossed overboard into the sea with no justice, no peace.

Would they then care?

I pitched The Union to white agents and white publishers who rejected me by the dozens… I tried for years. Then I just gave up… Who had I thought I was? I was just a Black, Muslim girl born into the system.

No one wanted to hear my stories…

Years later, I resurrected the novel  in my MFA program. I remember having to pitch my story about enslaving white people to a panel of—well, white people—in the industry. I stumbled over the words and twiddled my fingers and cleared my throat as I watched them squirm in their chairs trying to give “objective” feedback.

I stormed out. Upset. Unsure. I went to my mentor for support, who sat with his chihuahua, Clovis, resting in his lap.

“I think this story is too…disrespectful.” I said as I slumped into the lobby’s chair. “I think white people will be mad at me if I keep pushing.”

“A writer’s job is to tell the story. And, sometimes telling the story makes people, readers, uncomfortable,” he explained.

I sat up a little more. “But I just don’t want—”

“Is it the story you want to tell?”

“Well, uh, yes.”

“Then tell it.”  

And I vowed to tell it.

Unfortunately, the other editors in New York and LA  did not share my mentor’s sentiment and I was rejected again for the third round.

Life went on.  I got divorced. I went bankrupt in the mind, the soul, and financially. I wrote a memoir about all of it and it’s that angst that got me my first book deal.

“What’s the next project?” my agent asked.

Out of fear of rejection, it took me two years of toying with the idea of revisiting my problem child of a novel. I tried again, maybe the time was right now.

My problem child landed in the hands of a biracial editor working at Amazon Publishing. She got me. She got it. She got the story! I was offered a two-book deal.

I wrote something that I wanted to read as a child whose library was filled to the brim with books by white authors. I wrote something that would challenge the ways that we as humans engage in privilege. Something that would make any reader excitingly uncomfortable.

The Union: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Astoria Bookshop

Visit the author’s website. Follow her on instagram.

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, Day Four: Fan Favorites!

For the first three days of the Whatever Gift Guide 2022, I’ve let authors and creators tell you about their work. Today is different: Today is Fan Favorites day, in which fans, admirers and satisfied customers share with you a few of their favorite things — and you can share some of your favorite things as well. This is a way to discover some cool stuff from folks like you, and to spread the word about some of the things you love.

Fans: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Fans only: That means that authors and creators may not post about their own work in this thread (they may post about other people’s work, if they are fans). There are already existing threads for traditionally-published authorsnon-traditionally published authors, and for other creators. Those are the places to post about your own work, not here.

2. Individually created and completed works only, please. Which is to say, don’t promote things like a piece of hardware you can find at Home Depot, shoes from Foot Locker, or a TV you got at Wal-Mart. Focus on things created by one person or a small group: Music, books, crafts and such. Things that you’ve discovered and think other people should know about, basically. Do not post about works in progress, even if they’re posted publicly elsewhere. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. So focus on things that are completed and able to be sold of shared.

3. One post per fan. In that post, you can list whatever creations you like, from more than one person if you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on newer stuff. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on things available in North America. If they are from or available in other countries, please note that!

4. Keep your description of the work brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about the work and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a sales site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. Comment posts that are not about fans promoting work they like will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting gifts.

Got it? Excellent. Now: Geek out and tell us about cool stuff you love — and where we can get it too.

Tomorrow: Charities!

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, Day Three: Arts, Crafts, Music and More

The Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022 continues, and today we move away from books and focus on other gifts and crafts — which you can take to mean just about any other sort of thing a creative person might make: Music, art, knitting, jewelry, artisan foodstuffs and so on. These can be great, unique gifts for special folks in your life, and things you can’t just get down at the mall. I hope you see some cool stuff here.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for creators to post about their gifts for sale; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Creators: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Creators (of things other than books) only. This is an intentionally expansive category, so if you’ve made something and have it available for the public to try or buy, you can probably post about in this thread. The exception to this is books (including comics and graphic novels), which have two previously existing threads, one for traditionally-published works and one for non-traditionally published works (Note: if you are an author and also create other stuff, you may promote that other stuff today). Don’t post if you are not the creator of the thing you want to promote, please.

2. Personally-created and completed works only. This thread is specifically for artists and creators who are making their own unique works. Mass-producible things like CDs, buttons or T-shirts are acceptable if you’ve personally created what’s on it. But please don’t use this thread for things that were created by others, which you happen to sell. Likewise, do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly elsewhere. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Also, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per creator. In that post, you can list whatever creations of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent creation. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on things available in North America. If you are elsewhere and your work is available there, please note it.

4. Keep your description of your work brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your work and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a sales site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from creators promoting their work as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting work.

Now: Tell us about your stuff!

Tomorrow: Fan Favorites!

What’s the Ethical Use of AI-Generated Art?

John Scalzi

First: The above bit of whimsy, generated by Midjourney from the prompt “A peppermint kaiju in a gingerbread city.”

Second, some thoughts about AI-generated art I’ve had recently, which I posted on my personal Facebook account but am reposting here to open up the discussion a bit. I wrote:

I have fun playing with AI-generated art, and also, as someone who has numerous artist friends, I have qualms and concerns about how their pre-existing art is used for “training” in a way that is both qualitatively and quantitively different from human learning, and how that use impacts artist livelihoods. More specifically with regard to the latter, the question is how does what I do with AI art have an impact on real live artists.

It’s easy to say here “there are no easy answers” but for me there are in fact a couple of easy-ish answers in how I might approach and use AI-generated art in my personal and professional life. They are:

1. I feel it’s all right to use AI-generated art for personal enjoyment and visual inspiration, or to use it in a place where I might use my own art/photos or Creative Commons-licensed art/photos, and where there is no intent to make money from the art, or from what it accompanies (like social media or blog posts).

2. In all other circumstances, and especially when there’s a commercial intent or application, or when I would otherwise hire an artist, I will seek out artists and commission art from them. Likewise, tell art directors/others that my work for them needs to be illustrated/marketed by art from artists, not AI generation (I don’t think I will have to tell them this, not the least because of copyright issues surround AI-generated art, but still).

As a small example: Although I’ve been having a ball generating holiday-related pictures with AI, when it comes to holiday cards, I’ll be commissioning art (or using my own photos) because that’s a time when I would hire an artist or use my own photos. As a larger example, it’s possible in the nearish future I’ll need to collaborate with artists for projects, and there’s no question, for legal, practical and ethical reasons, that AI-generated art is not the way to go for that.

The short version is: Hire artists, and make an intentional, affirmative choice to hire artists (also, pay artists fairly for their work, not just because I can afford it but because also that should just be the baseline assumption).

I think AI art generation is fun. I also think it requires recognition on my part that these images don’t come from nowhere. Sooner or later, they come from artists. I don’t want my fun to hurt the artists I know, or the ones I don’t.


— JS

The Big Idea: Kayleigh Nicol

It’s no surprise that today’s generation of authors might also be gamers… but the influence of gaming on their writing may be more substantial that you might suspect. Kayleigh Nicol, who co-wrote Crystal Awakening with Andrew Rowe, speaks to this integration of writing and gaming, and how the latter informed the former with this novel.


Before I introduce the Big Idea behind my latest novel Crystal Awakening, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce myself. Up until now, I’ve been an indie author, writing and publishing my own fantasy novels on Amazon. I’ve been an avid reader from the day I could first hold a book, I’m an animal lover, I’ve lived in more than six states across the U.S., and in my free time I love to play video games.

From side-scrolling Mario games on the NES to Pokemon Red, Blue, and Beyond on the handheld Gameboys, and from competitive party games to massive online RPGs, I have always considered myself a gamer. Some games are purely relaxing and help me unwind, some games include social components that make me feel connected to a community, and other games require intense concentration, which helps get me out of my own head for a little while. I even use rhythm games as motivation for exercise and a gamified website as motivation to write every day. For me, video games aren’t just a hobby, they’re a tool I use in my daily life.

So when Andrew Rowe asked if I would be interested in contributing to his fantasy series Arcane Ascension — a series that I so easily envisioned as a video game from the first time I read it — I jumped at the opportunity. Here was an opportunity to combine two of my favorite passions: writing and video games. The soaring spires described in Arcane Ascension are remarkably similar to video game dungeons, not just by way of fighting monsters, but also with the types of puzzles and challenges found in almost any classic RPG.

Andrew’s six-person climber teams reminded me of dungeon raiding parties, with each team member specializing in a unique and necessary role, most commonly tied to the magic marks called “attunements” which are granted after successfully completing a trial called a Judgment. As soon as I received the invitation to join Andrew Rowe’s expanded universe, I knew exactly the type of series I wanted to write: a dungeon-crawling adventure featuring unique magic and a dynamic cast of climbers.

What I struggled with was coming up with believable reasons why six individually intelligent and talented people would willingly subject themselves to the dangers known to exist within Kaldwyn’s soaring spires.

In video games, players hardly need a reason to venture into dark and dangerous places. “Oh, I’m the chosen hero and some princess I’ve never heard of is in danger? Alright, I’m all in!” It’s only a video game, after all. What’s the worst that could happen?

But as I started writing, I realized it wasn’t quite that simple when the dangers were real. What kind of person really wants to go head-to-head against a horde of monsters? Is earning a bit of treasure really worth risking life and limb? What could be worth risking life and limb? When it comes down to it, why does anyone do anything?

Asking myself these questions helped me develop my Big Idea: There is no one “right” or “only” reason for anything. Even if the goal is the same for the whole team, each team member might have different and valid reasons for striving to achieve it.

This may seem obvious to some, but lately I’ve been noticing a disappointing trend in online video game communities that really takes issue with an individual’s “reason” for playing specific games. There’s an elitist mindset that chooses to define “real gamers” as the people who choose to play games on the highest difficulty setting, who play every single storyline through to completion, or who rank consistently among the best on community scoreboards.

Anyone who plays a game just for the story, or doesn’t dedicate tens to hundreds of hours to one game is considered a “casual” player, and can sometimes face online ridicule. I usually see this on Twitter, or other social media platforms, where someone makes an innocent comment like “I’m really enjoying this new game!” and suddenly internet strangers are commenting on the original post that “real” gamers already finished that game ages ago, or that a different game is more challenging and therefore “better,” or that somehow this player isn’t enjoying the game the right way. This elitist mentality makes it difficult to interact with online game communities and, for me, takes away some of my enjoyment of certain games.

And isn’t that the point of video games? To enjoy them? If someone just wants to play a game just to find out the ending to the story, that’s a valid reason to play. If someone finds enjoyment in seeking out every single side quest, every piece of gear, every last Easter egg, then that’s also a valid reason to play. Many games have different elements of enjoyment, attracting different people for different reasons. One person might revel in the player versus player challenges, while another might prefer completing quests in solitary ventures. Another person might play that same game for exciting endgame content and someone else could just be interested in collecting items, completing achievements, or socializing with friends. Some people even play to enjoy a game’s aesthetics, such as graphics, music, and voice-acting. To me, there are no “wrong” reasons to play a video game, so long as the experience is an enjoyable one.

In Crystal Awakening, the team of adventuring spire climbers has one goal: complete the challenges ahead of them and ascend to the next floor. Along the way, they will collect treasures, defeat monsters, and become stronger and more competent in their areas of expertise. But each of these adventurers possess a deeper reason for why they choose to challenge the dangerous and often deadly soaring spires. One climber seeks to repair their family’s reputation while another seeks only the thrill of risk and reward. One adventurer desires to have an ardent wish fulfilled by the continent’s goddess, while another uses the spire to remain hidden from those who would seek them. One team member only wants to remain alongside friends while another sees climbing as little more than an occupation. While their reasons vary, the team’s goal is singularly aligned: Keep climbing, and stay alive.

The spires of Kaldwyn present challenges meant to be surmounted and overcome through magic, strength, preparation, and most importantly, teamwork. But what happens when team members become insistent on what makes a “right” reason to climb? The slightest distraction could mean the death of a teammate, or worse. The Big Idea is looking past their individual reasons for climbing, and instead implement patience, acceptance, and compassion in order to survive the rigorous demands of the spire.

But sometimes even that isn’t quite enough.

In the end, everyone who ascends a soaring spire is a climber, no matter their underlying reason. Just like everyone who plays a game can consider themselves a gamer, regardless of their reason for playing.

Crystal Awakening: AmazonBarnes and Noble,  Indiebound

Visit the author’s website. Follow Kayleigh on Twitter.

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, Day Two: Non-Traditionally Published Books

Today is Day Two of the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, and today the focus is on Non-Traditionally Published Books: Self-published works, electronically-exclusive books, books from micro presses, books released outside the usual environs of the publishing world, and so on. Hey, I put my first novel up on this very Web site years ago and told people to send me a dollar if they liked it. Look where it got me. I hope you find some good stuff today.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for non-traditional authors and editors to post about their books; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Authors/editors: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Authors and editors of non-traditionally published books only. This includes comics and graphic novels, as well as non-fiction books and audiobooks. If your book has been traditionally published — available in bookstores on a returnable basis — post about your book in the thread that went up yesterday (if you are in doubt, assume you are non-traditionally published and post here). If you are a creator in another form or medium, your thread is coming tomorrow. Don’t post if you are not the author or editor, please.

2. Completed works only. Do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Likewise, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per author. In that post, you can list whatever books of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent book. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on books available in North America. If your book is only available in the UK or some other country, please let people know!

4. Keep your description of your book brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your book and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a bookseller if you like by using standard HTML link scripting or URL. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from authors/editors promoting their books as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting books.

Now: Tell us about your book!

Tomorrow (11/30): Other creators (musicians, artists, crafters, etc!)

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, Day One: Traditionally Published Books

Welcome to the first day of the Whatever Shopping Guide 2022 — Our way of helping you folks learn about cool creative gifts for the holidays, straight from the folks who have created them.

Today’s featured products are traditionally published books (including graphic novels and audiobooks); that is, books put out by publishers who ship books to stores on a returnable basis. In the comment thread below, authors and editors of these books will tell you a little bit about their latest and/or greatest books so that you will be enticed to get that book for yourself or loved ones this holiday season. Because, hey: Books are spectacular gifts. Enjoy your browsing, and we hope you find the perfect book!

Please note that the comment thread today is only for authors and editors to post about their books; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Authors/editors: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Authors and editors only, books only (including audiobooks). There will be other threads for other stuff, later in the week. Any type of book is fine: Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, etc. If you are not the author/editor of the book you’re posting about, don’t post. This is for authors and editors only.

2. For printed books, they must be currently in print (i.e., published before 12/31/2022) and available on a returnable basis at bookstores and at least one of the following three online bookstores: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s. This is so people can find your book when they go looking for it. For audiobooks, they must be professionally published (no self-produced, self-published audiobooks) and at least available through Amazon/Audible. If your book isn’t available as described, or if you’re not sure, wait for the shopping guide for non-traditional books, which will go up tomorrow. 

3. One post per author. In that post, you can list whatever books of yours you like (as long as it meets the criteria in point 2), but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent book. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on books currently available in North America (if your book is available only in the UK or elsewhere, please note that).

4. Keep your description of your book brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your book and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a bookseller if you like by using standard HTML link scripting or a URL. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from authors/editors promoting their books as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting books.

Got it? Excellent. Then tell the folks about your book! And tell your author friends about this thread so they can come around as well.

Tomorrow (11/29/22): Non-traditional books!

How to Weave the Artisan Web

I wrote on Twitter yesterday:

John Scalzi

“But Scalzi,” I hear you say, “How do we bring back that artisan, hand-crafted Web?” Well, it’s simple, really, and if you’re a writer/artist/musician/other sort of creator, it’s actually kind of essential:

1. Create/reactivate your own site, owned by you, to hold your own work.

2. When you create that site, write or otherwise present work on your site at least once a week, every week.

3. Regularly visit the sites of other creators to read/see/experience the work they present there.

4. Promote/link the work of others, on your own site and also on your other social media channels where you have followers. Encourage your followers to explore more widely, beyond the algorithmic borders of “social media.”

Now, why should we bring back that artisan, hand-crafted Web? Oh, I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a site that’s not run by an amoral billionaire chaos engine, or algorithmically designed to keep you doomscrolling in a state of fear and anger, or is essentially spyware for governments and/or corporations? Wouldn’t it be nice not to have ads shoved in your face every time you open an app to see what your friends are up to? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that when your friends post something, you’ll actually see it without a social media platform deciding whether to shove it down your feed and pump that feed full of stuff you didn’t ask for?

Wouldn’t that be great?

“But Scalzi,” I hear you say, for a second time, “I spent all this time on social media and all my people are there! You’re asking me to start from scratch!” Well, see: You don’t have to leave Twitter or Facebook or TikTok or wherever. Stay as long as you like, and post whatever you like there. Just carve out some of that doomscrolling/toiletscrolling time for your own space, that you control, too. And when you do, then link to your own site from that other social media, and invite your followers on those services to visit you in your own place. And link to other people’s personal sites, so your followers can visit them, too. Make social media work for you, and not just for the amoral billionaires.

That said, yes, it will take some work. Setting up a site, or reactivating it, takes a bit of time. Writing or presenting work exclusive to your own site takes some work. Getting your followers on social media used to the idea of leaving those walled gardens of content takes some work. It’s an actual project. But look at this way: You have just spent years building an audience on a platform someone else owns. Why not take a little time to do it for yourself? And to help others build their own platforms, too. No rush! Let it build over time. But put in the time.

Your platform, one post a week. It’s not too hard, and the upside is less reliance on other people’s platforms, and a healthier, more varied Web. Stay on social media! Make it work for you, not you work for it.

Build a better Web. An artisan Web. A handcrafted Web. Take the time to get people used to it. We’ll all benefit from it. We just have to decide to do it.

— JS

Whatever 2022 Holiday Gift Guide Starts Monday!

John Scalzi

Every year as the holiday season begins I run a gift guide for the holidays, and over the years it’s been quite successful: Lots of people have found out about excellent books and crafts and charities and what have you, making for excellent gift-giving opportunities during the holiday season. I’ve decided to do it again this year.

So: Starting Monday, November 28, the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide returns! If you’re a writer or other creator, this will be an excellent time to promote your work on a site which gets tens of thousands of viewers daily, almost all of whom will be interested in stuff for the holidays. If you’re someone looking to give gifts, you’ll see lots of excellent ideas. And you’ll also have a day to suggest stuff from other folks too. Everybody wins!

To give you all time to prepare, here’s the schedule of what will be promoted on which days:

Monday, November 28: Traditionally Published Authors — If your work is being published by a publisher a) who is not you and b) gets your books into actual, physical bookstores on a returnable basis, this is your day to tell people about your books. This includes comics/graphic novels and audiobooks.

Tuesday, November 29: Non-Traditionally Published Authors — Self-published? Electronically published? Or other? This is your day. This also includes comics/graphic novels and audiobooks.

Wednesday, November 30: Other Creators — Artists, knitters, jewelers, musicians, and anyone who has cool stuff to sell this holiday season, this will be the day to show off your creations.

Thursday, December 1: Fan Favorite Day — Not an author/artist/musician/other creator but know about some really cool stuff you think people will want to know about for the holidays? Share! Share with the crowd!

Friday, December 2: Charities — If you are involved in a charity, or have a favorite charity you’d like to let people know about, this is the day to do it.

If you have questions about how all of this will work, go ahead and ask them in the comment thread (Don’t start promoting your stuff today — it’s not time yet), although I will note that specific instructions for each day will appear on that day. Don’t worry, it’ll be pretty easy. Thanks and feel free to share this post with creative folks who will have things to sell this holiday season.

— JS

The Big Idea: David Sandner & Jacob Weisman

When two writers join forces… how does the work actually get done? David Sandner and Jacob Weisman get real on this topic, and how it was their collaboration on Hellhounds got done.


“90% of the work, 50% of the profits.” 

I remember seeing that on t-shirts worn by two collaborating sf writers circulating at a con back in the day. It’s a joke, of course, but also a warning. Writers like to keep control over their work and collaboration can seem like trying to change drivers while the car is still on the road—likely to end in a spectacular crack up. Or maybe it’s just some atavistic memory of doing group work in school where the kind of perfectionism that makes a good writer meant they did it all, performing all tasks for just one grade. But I’m writing this to talk about my successful collaboration with my old friend Jacob Weisman on the publication of our novelette Hellhounds now available as an elegant albeit tiny book from Fairwood press.

Fairwood put out an earlier booklet, Mingus Fingers, which was well reviewed. (Our current work is a sequel, tracking the growth and trials of a figure whose magic comes from the music he plays; but each story functions as a standalone work, too, so you can start with either.) Paul Di Filippo at Locus Online kindly wrote: “The team behind this charming, low-key but powerful tale…blend their voices beautifully into an organic whole….” That made me think maybe we had something to say about collaboration. And we have a method I haven’t heard described anywhere else, so there’s that.

Mostly, in collaborations, one person writes one section and the other another. Trying not to get in each other’s way, I suppose, and avoiding the bruising of writerly egos. But then one can tell the difference between parts. The seams show. I have seen this issue handled by having different POV characters or a similar trick to “explain” the difference in style by embedding difference into the structure of the work. But that’s not how we do it.

For us, one of us sets to work. The other person gets to do nothing (and I enjoy twiddling my thumbs and still getting credit for “writing a story.”) When we send the work to the other person, they can do whatever they want. The writing can be pared, changed, or even scenes tossed. This only works because of trust. We trust that each of us is working to make the story work. When it comes back, the original writer can do whatever to the new material and the old. They might even bring something back from a previous version. These back-and-forths work themselves out. If someone brings something back, you think hard before cutting it again. And the reverse: if they cut your work again, how can you revise to keep what you wanted from what they cut? In the end, while certain things (like subject) tip me off, I often can’t tell who wrote what—because we both did everything!

The joke here is that we decided not to write this column collaboratively. Because it’s funnier that way. Still, after all this time, let me guess where he will begin: “50% of the work, 90% of the profits,” because, you know, someone must be getting all those profits. J?


Hellhounds is a sequel to Mingus Fingers, but both stories are prequels to an earlier story that we published in Realms of Fantasy back when Shawna McCarthy was still editing the magazine.  David had started “Egyptian Motherlode” about an aging, obscure funk band on their final farewell tour and was either not sure about where it was headed or was looking for an excuse to rope me in – I doubt even he remembers which.  

I added a much younger band of rap singers that joined the Motherlode on their ill-fated tour, at least that’s how I remember it.  And the stories of both bands, through the push and pull of two authors taking the stories in several different directions before finally finding the way forward, plotted themselves extremely neatly.  

Years later, when David suggested we write a novel together, I wanted to come back to this story since I thought there was a lot more to it hiding beneath the surface.  To do so, though, we needed to create a backstory for the main character first, which is what we’ve done in these two stories.  They can be read independently or as a duology, and maybe someday as part of a novel.

When we started on these stories we knew that the main character, Kenny here but later referred to as The Prophet, has a brother.  We’d written very briefly about him in “Egyptian Motherload.” He’s written out of Mingus Fingers, but he’s the main character in Hellhounds.  Lamond is one of our favorite characters in the book.  He becomes the defacto leader of the band, but will never be its creative inspiration.  He holds everything together for his brother and is Aaron to his Moses.  

David and I, in writing this story, alternately get to play the role of the two brothers.  For a time we each get to be the creative source and alternately we are also the one who provides support for the other.  So, yes, 90% of the effort and 50% of the profit seem about right.  But the entire process is 100% rewarding.

Hellhounds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Visit David’s website. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Jacob on Instagram.

The Big Idea: Sharon Shinn

Everyone wants to be authentically themselves, but sometimes it can be dangerous to show your true colors. In author Sharon Shinn’s newest novel, The Shuddering City, everyone can express themselves as they truly are. Read on to see how they go about doing so.


A few years ago, I was at REI buying a stack of chemical foot warmers when the cashier said, “I didn’t know star captains got cold toes.” I stared at him uncomprehendingly a moment before I remembered that I was wearing my gray sweatshirt embroidered with the Starfleet Academy logo. Then I laughed and explained that I’d bought it at the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas many years ago. Wearing the shirt had marked me as a bit of an sf/f nerd, and the cashier had happily recognized a kindred spirit.

I think a lot about the sides of ourselves that we choose to show in public. In my new book, I had fun creating a system in which everyone uses bracelets as a way to introduce themselves to other people. On their left hands, they wear bands stamped with patterns that show their occupations—for instance, crossed swords if they’re soldiers, quatrefoils if they’re part of the temple. For their right hands, they design bracelets that supply more personal information. People who identify as men wear gold, people who identify as women wear silver, and they use the same metals to indicate the type of partners they’re attracted to.  

So for instance, Pietro is a gay man who wears a bracelet made of woven strips of hammered gold. Madeleine, a straight woman, has commissioned a silver band inset with gold flowers. Whenever characters meet someone new, they try to surreptitiously check out the other person’s bracelets. Or sometimes not so surreptitiously. If it’s someone they might be interested in, they try to make sure their own jewelry is visible. Sometimes they even hold their arms out for inspection. It becomes a way of flirting. 

One of my beta readers said, “I want a bracelet!” But of course, in the real world, we all have ways of showing off the sides of our personalities we want others to see. 

Sometimes we do it through jewelry. Among the people I know are a Catholic who wears a crucifix, a Wiccan who wears a pentacle, and a pro-choice activist who wears a necklace with a charm shaped like a coat hanger. 

Sometimes we do it through clothing. I figure I know at least something about a stranger if that other person is wearing a MAGA hat, a Black Girls Code T-shirt, a Harley-Davidson jacket, or a Cardinals baseball jersey. (Well, in St. Louis where I live, about half the population is dressed in Cardinals red, so maybe that doesn’t tell me too much.) I had a friend whose daughter had to switch high schools in the middle of the school year, and she was despondent because she hadn’t made any friends in her first two weeks. Then one day she wore a manga T-shirt to class, and suddenly she met all the cool people in the anime club. We display our passions in part because they help define us, and in part because they might help us connect with like-minded souls.

Most of the accouterments I’ve collected over the years show off an affection for certain kinds of pop culture. My T-shirts feature the Blue Sun logo, the Soft Kitty lyrics, and a Dunder Mifflin nametag. I still have an old feminist “Eve Chose Consciousness” shirt from my college days. (It no longer fits.) My Cardinals paraphernalia ranges from clothing to jewelry to kitchenware. My first car sported an “I’ve Escaped with Blake’s 7” bumper sticker; the current bumper sticker says “COEXIST.” 

None of these are likely to earn me any particular animosity. (Well, maybe the Cardinals gear. If I’m in Chicago.) But I know that displaying certain affiliations might rouse hatred or anger. In 2003, I put an anti-war sign in my front yard. It was torn down, so I put up another one. It was also torn down. I considered setting a third one behind my living room window, but decided I didn’t want to risk having a rock thrown through my window. Or worse. In a world where a woman runs over a teenager with her car because she “thought the girl looked Mexican,” where Wikipedia maintains a list of people who were attacked for being LGBT, you have to be careful about what how much of yourself you’re willing to show. 

So I think many of us only display our true selves when we feel safe to do so. In the world I’ve created for my book, nobody cares about gender identity or sexual preference. I mean, they care insofar as they want to know where they might have a chance to develop a romantic relationship. But they’re not going to hunt somebody down or torture and kill someone just because that person is gay. They’ll just sigh over the sexy brown eyes that will never look their way. 

I know that these outward symbols only tell us so much. People are way more complex than their love languages, their political parties, and their favorite TV shows. But I like the idea that—at least in an imaginary world—you can be free to be honest about who you are. There’s plenty of mystery left, if you’re safe enough to explore it.

The Shuddering City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Facebook.

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