Whatever News: The Return of Athena

Athena Scalzi! Picture taken today.

A housekeeping note that makes me pretty happy: Athena is coming returning to the regular rotation here at Whatever, for the summer at least. You can expect more of her particular brand of writing, with reviews of products and entertainment, personal essays and various other things she’s thinking about and wants to share. You know, whatever’s on her mind.

I’m happy about this because aside from making sure there’s new and interesting writing here, as a reader I enjoy her writing. Yes, I’m biased. Also, it’s good stuff independent of my bias. I know many of you were also wondering if she’d pop up again here; now you know. As noted, right now it’s for the summer, and after that we’ll see where things take us.

Seeing that Athena is returning on a regular basis, we’ll once again be posting our byline photos for our individual posts, just to be clear who is writing what. The exceptions to this will be Big Idea and New Books/ARCs posts, and very brief posts (one paragraph or less) where it doesn’t make sense to add those pictures in. With the super-short posts, we’ll add our initials at the bottom (and as always our actual names will populate up at top).

Welcome back, Athena! It’s good to have you back.

— JS

This Cat Represents Where My Brain Is At This Friday Afternoon

Seriously, I could so totally take a nap right now. Maybe I will!

But before I do, a reminder to people in and around Chicago that I am taking part in the American Writer’s Festival this this weekend, specifically on Sunday, where I will be interviewed by my friend and noted SF/F editor Michi Trota. We’ll talk about The Kaiju Preservation Society, writing, and other cool stuff. The festival is free, so make time in your schedule for it.

Yup, that’s it. Enjoy the rest of your Friday, folks, and the weekend as well.

— JS

The Big Idea: David Towsey

There are times when you feel not quite yourself, and David Towsey gets what you mean. In fact, in Equinox, you could say he’s written a book in which not being quite yourself — just like everybody else — is a remarkably common occurrence.

DAVID TOWSEY:

Most of us have experienced moments when we’re in two minds about something. A situation where part of you thinks it should take one direction, while another part of you suggests a different direction entirely. Sometimes this is characterised as an angel and a devil sitting on your shoulder. Your virtue and your vice, exerting a push and pull on your decision making. And this can be for the small stuff, like: should I have an extra scoop of ice cream? (One of my vices, so the answer is always yes on this one.) But big life decisions split our feelings too. Should I take a new job, even though it would mean a big move and uprooting the family? Should I spend money on a holiday, or save it? Should I tell my father/mother/sibling what I really think of them? This kind of push-pull pressure can often make us feel like we’re at war with ourselves.

That’s the feeling I wanted to explore, in the extreme, in my new novel Equinox. The book has a quasi-secondary world fantasy setting – I say ‘quasi’ because there are some very clear carryovers from our world, such as the presence of Christianity. But the big change, the ‘big idea’, if you will, is that in this world, two people live in every single body – one personality which lives during the day, and a completely different personality in control at night. And this is true for everyone. From the moment they are born until they reach their deathbed, they are sharing life with a sibling.

I imagine, having just read this world’s core concept, you’ve already got a few questions. It’s a real headscratcher, and one that gets people’s imaginations going. Let’s take, as an example, the deathbed experience I mentioned above. If I were to write a character in the world of Equinox who was terminally ill and bed-bound, that character would be facing some very chilling questions: will I die on my side of the split? Or will I just never wake up again, and instead it’s my sibling who will have to experience those final, potentially excruciatingly painful moments? Which then raises the question: which would be better?

To give an example directly from the novel, Equinox kicks off in a prison. The protagonist, Special Inspector Christophor Morden, is called to the cell of a man who has been the victim of some dark sorcery. But prisons are a bit different in this world. When Christophor arrives, he sees a stream of people walking out of the main gates, free as you like. These are night-releases: it’s only their other selves who are incarcerated during the day. Strange as it may seem, they come right back when dawn approaches. This is because the punishment for not returning is being hunted down and summarily executed and, as Christophor notes, he can’t hang just one sibling…

With all this and so much more called into question by my central premise, it’s fair to say this was the most technically challenging story I’ve ever chosen to write. Every character is in fact two characters, who have their own agendas and are all hiding things from each other and/or themselves; it was a lot to keep track of and shape into a coherent narrative. This challenge was, of course, part of the story’s allure. I enjoy the process of taking a concept that would be more manageable if it applied just to the protagonist, and choosing instead to explode it across an entire world. I did this for my Walkin’ Trilogy, with characters coming back from the dead as ‘the thinking man’s’ zombies, able to talk and feel and remember their lives. When I was first starting to write novels, I figured I was just exploring some fun ideas. But as I reflect on that process now, the draw of this world-wide approach is something I’ve come to understand is more fundamental to how I write.

For many readers, Equinox will feel reminiscent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, when the split is spread across a huge range of people and life experiences, it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to take such a binary approach. Early readers of my draft chapters wondered if the night siblings should all be meaner, or more depressed, or something equally as totalising. I understood their point; such a decision would make the concept less challenging for a reader, especially early on in the text. And this is another thing I’ve learned during the process of writing Equinox: all the demands I make of myself as a writer transfer right onto the page for a reader. But as long as I enjoy writing the complexities of the story, I anticipate my readers will enjoy exploring that same puzzle – just from the other side of the equation.

So, folks who are up for a story-setting which raises a lot of questions – some intended, some not – and which might only provide a few key answers, will, I hope, enjoy this more demanding reading experience. But it’s OK if you’re in two minds about it. There were times when the little devil sitting on my shoulder told me to write a more straightforward story. Take an easier path, it said – that way we can finish this chapter and go get some ice cream. Tempting as that was, another part of me knew my writing energy comes from the challenge. The push-pull pressure of the strange worlds that a fantasy writer can create.

The fact I wouldn’t want it any other way is perhaps the only thing I’m not in two minds about.


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

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

An Observation on Audiobooks

Over on MetaFilter, there’s a conversation thread about this opinion piece on audiobooks in Vulture, where the author has a personal preference about how audiobooks should be performed, and wishes to suggest their preference is actually the best way, which it isn’t really (as with many things in life, the answer is not clear cut, and the best way to narrate an audiobook is heavily dependent on both the text and the performer). I wrote a comment in the thread which I am transplanting here for archival purposes, and because I think it might be interesting to the readership here, many of which also listen to my books in audio.


Unless the book is read by the author — which is very often not a great idea, as authors are not professional narrators or performers — then inevitably the recording is going to be an interpretation, one, because the narrator is not the author and can’t/won’t know the precise intent behind every single sentence, and two, because the narrator is a human with their own inclinations, preferences and opinions about the text (and three, because there’s also usually an audio director/producer involved, who again is usually not the author and has their own opinions, so there’s another layer involved there). An additional factor can be the nature of the audio production process itself — narrators who get booked a lot don’t necessarily have time to read the book before the recording, which means another set of choices about how the book gets read.

As an author, I was not initially in love with audiobook versions of my books because it was an interpretation, and because the narration was not the way I heard the book in my own head — the narrative beats would sometime be different; a word would be given a different emphasis; a character who I heard one way in my head would sound different (and sometimes would feel like they had a different personality entirely).

Two things got me over this. The first was that audio increased my annual income from writing by about a third, which smoothed over quite a lot. The second thing was that I realized that audiobook narration is a performance and that, like one can appreciate the myriad of ways that actors have approached the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy in Hamlet, one can equally look at the choices the narrator makes in their performance and see how they are in conversation with the text, often in ways that are a surprise to me, the author. So the necessary fact of the interpretation stopped being an annoyance and became a thing of interest.

Which is not to say that I like every narration of my work (although I do like most of them just fine). It does mean I don’t get especially annoyed if the way the book is narrated is not precisely the way it was in my head, or how I would do it if I were the one narrating my book (which I am not especially tempted to do, unless I write a memoir). Even the narrator who I think is closest to my own personal voice — Wil Wheaton, who is within a few years of my age, grew up where I did, has the same vocal tics and intonations that I do, and is an actual friend of mine and so can text me when he has a question when recording — makes choices I wouldn’t, or didn’t, with the words.

It offers a certain level of surprise to the text, which means that, oddly, the audiobook version of my novels are the ones I can appreciate most in the role of a reader — filtering the words through someone else gives them a remove that helps me appreciate the words in themselves, and not dwell on the fact of how I set them in their form, and how I was feeling the day I wrote that particular bit, or whatever.

— JS

RIP, Pixelbook

I regret to say that after four and a quarter years, my Google Pixelbook has up and stopped working. I suspect it might have something to do with the battery, but it’s difficult to tell without cracking it open to have a look, and even if I did that I would have no idea specifically what I’m looking at. What I do know is that after opening it up to do a little work on it, it refused to boot up. I plugged it in and that didn’t help; I left it to charge and still nothing. I know that making note of how it is not working will inevitably inspire some of you to try to diagnose it from your own keyboards; let me save you the diagnosis. I may take it in to a repair shop to see if it can be fixed, or, you know, I may just accept it’s dead and move on with my life. Don’t feel you need to give me advice on it.

If it is indeed well and truly dead, I am sad to see it go. It’s probably my favorite laptop computer ever, both for its form factor and its general functionality, and it was the first Chromebook I’ve had where I didn’t feel I was having to compromise the user experience for simplicity. My only real complaint about it was because of the Chrome OS security, it wouldn’t easily fire up the pop-up pages that nearly every hotel uses to allow people to access the Internet. I suppose I could have found a solution for that, but inasmuch as I have a hotspot with me at all times anyway, it was usually not a problem.

Also, don’t cry for me, as I still have a Windows laptop (a Dell XPS 13) and otherwise don’t mind looking around to see what’s new and exciting in the Chromebook world. There are a lot of very excellent Chromebooks these days, and at the moment the only hard line I have for one is that it needs to have a 3:2 screen, which I find easier to write on than a 16:9 screen (The Pixelbook Go has a 16:9 screen, for everyone about to suggest one of those to me). I’m not in a rush to replace the Pixelbook, but I do like Chromebooks enough that I will nevertheless eventually get around to it.

So: Farewell, Pixelbook, you were a pretty great little laptop. Off you go to computer Valhalla.

— JS

53

Not the birthday portrait I intended to post, but thanks to American Airlines, I’m still stuck in transit instead of at home with family and pets. It’s not actually the first time I’ve spent at least part of a birthday at an airport, but those other times were not because a plane had an engine that wouldn’t turn on. Such are the vicissitudes of life. Let’s see if I actually manage to get home today.

In the meantime, I hope you have a delightful my birthday. In lieu of gifts, donate a sum to a cause that’s important to you. I’ll be doing that later today myself, once I’m home.

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 5/8/22: Berkeley

I’m here in town for the Bay Area Book Festival, and as always happy to be back in my original home state of California, if only for a day or two. Berkeley is lovely, and it’s a lovely day. My event, with Charlie Jane Anders and Mike Chen, will be a 2pm at the San Francisco Chronicle stage at the MLK Jr. Civic Center Park. Easy to find! Then I’ll be doing a signing nearby at 3pm.

Today is also Mother’s Day in the US, so if that’s a day you celebrate in one way or another, I hope you have a good one.

— JS

Hello From Cincinnati

I am here to be in conversation with author Holly Black tonight at the Joseph-Beth bookstore, which is great, because Holly Black is a genuine delight. And then tomorrow I am off to Berkeley, California, where I will be part of the Bay Area Book Festival, on a panel with Charlie Jane Anders and Mike Chen, both of whom are also delights. Honestly, this promises to be a delightful weekend all around, save possibly for the plane travel, but, well. That’s how one gets about.

Any plans for the weekend?

— JS

In Which I Try the Latest Coca-Cola Creations Flavor

It is the Byte Limited Edition Pixel Flavored Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, which you cannot get in the stores; you have to order it off the Coca-Cola Web site, where it comes in a specialty boxed package (which you can see in the background) featuring two cans, a sticker and a QR card for a video game, all for $15 or thereabouts. Apparently only 25,000 of the boxes will be made. Well, okay; I bought two boxes, just in case I fell so in love with whatever “pixel flavored” tastes like that I needed to have a couple extra to string it out.

And what does “pixel flavor” taste like? An energy drink, basically. It comes across like a beverage that brags about how its taurine and b-complex vitamins to give you a boost, but what it really has is an excessive amount of caffeine (note: Byte does not have an excessive amount of caffeine in it; from what I can find online it has about 34 milligrams per can, or basically what the regular Coke Zero has). And since energy drinks always reminded me a bit of cough syrup, you might think it tastes like that, too: carbonated Robitussin, if you like. Or don’t like; Krissy tried a swig and made a solid “why did I put this in my mouth” grimace.

For my part I’m not in love with it, either, although I think I have slightly more tolerance for it than Krissy does. I liked the previous “Starlight” limited edition Coke Zero, which you may recall I said tasted like a carbonated Oreo waved over a raspberry. I bought several while they were available. For this flavor I think I may have overbought at four cans; I think I’ll keep the second box sealed up and put it in the archives to sell on eBay in ten years or something.

(Weirdly, the actual Coke Zero energy drink, which is now off the market in North America, tasted rather better than this.)

So, yeah, the “Byte” pixel flavor is not a success. But I appreciate Coca-Cola for playing with the formula a bit. They’re 1 for 2 so far in these limited editions, which is good enough for me to take a chance on the next one.

— JS

The Big Idea: Liz Michalski

A dream about a well-loved fantasy world brings attention to what’s not being paid attention to… and from there, Liz Michalski tells a story in Darling Girl from a point of view long left underappreciated.

LIZ MICHALSKI:

My first draft of my book Darling Girl came from a dream, in which boys in Peter Pan-green were flying in and out of the windows of a stone turret, where a girl in Wendy-blue lay hooked to many machines. The boys were whispering, wondering to each other who would sacrifice for them now if this Wendy died. I woke up and thought, “That’s creepy, but kind of interesting,” and promptly dug out my tattered copy of the original Peter Pan.

I’d enjoyed the book as a child, enjoyed the Disney movie and those that came after even more. But on rereading it, I was struck by how beautifully J. M. Barrie described Mrs. Darling, yet how little of her there actually was in the story.

He wrote “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more.” The line felt as if he were alluding to Mrs. Darling’s rich inner life, and then promptly ignoring it.

Barrie ignored Wendy as well — as a character she never develops beyond the role of mother, and when she grows too old to be a pretend mother to Peter, he has no more use for her. By the end of the book, even Tinker Bell has disappeared and Peter has forgotten her. From there, I read about Barrie’s troubled childhood, his failed marriage, and his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, mother of the real-life boys on whom Barrie based Peter Pan.

So what began as a dream developed into a fascination, and then a desire to write a book about Peter Pan from the perspective of the largely unexplored female characters. I finished a draft and gave it to my beta reader. A few weeks later she gave it back, told me she loved it, but that it definitely wasn’t about Peter Pan, and that I needed to figure out what I was writing about.

Hrummph, I said to myself, as well as some unkind things about people who shouldn’t be beta reading. And then I thanked her and put the manuscript away for a few weeks, and when I had some distance I opened it up and reread it.

And of course she was right.

Darling Girl isn’t really about Peter Pan at all, or about the Darling women, although all of those people figure heavily in it. It’s about motherhood, and the secret inner life most mothers maintain. Because motherhood (and fatherhood, to some degree), requires us to package up our selves to provide the level of care and attention children demand. We need to be fully present, and when we aren’t, our kids know it and drag us back into the world. So we bury those selves deep, opening up the boxes only at night when our children are sleeping, on rare weekends away, or early mornings before the household awakens. And we’re so busy we may never feel the loss.

But the twist is, those selves we hide away are often who we really are at our core. We protect them in our innermost boxes because, as much as having children can be a blessing and a privilege, it is demanding and hard, and can strip away whatever previous identities we’ve built up, sacrificing them the way the Peters of my dream sacrificed Wendy. Parenting can strip us down to our core and that last, innermost box.

But it can also create room for a rebirth.

My oldest was getting ready to leave for college when I started Darling Girl, and it was a hard, painful time. Painful, because I adored them, and because I couldn’t imagine what my role in life was if not their mother 24 hours a day. And hard, because they’d started the process of pulling away, of having their own secret life and self, one it was impossible for them to share with someone who hadn’t transitioned yet to seeing them as an adult, not a child.

I felt empty to my very core, packing them up for school for the first time.

But in the silence that filled the house after they left, something rattled. The last, innermost box was waiting for me, and inside was my secret self. Familiar, but changed, honed to something strong, sharp and durable. Something that could spread its wings in the empty space. That could hold space for others and their secret selves. Something that could grow.

I reached into the box. I pulled it out.

And I began to write.


Darling Girl: Amazon|Barnes & NobleIndiebound |Bookshop

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow Liz on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Notes on the Ohio Primary Election Results

Because we had a primary election yesterday (here are a link to the results, from the Columbus Dispatch), and I have notes:

1. The big news, such as it is, is that Trump-supported JD Vance won the GOP primary for US Senate, beating Josh Mandel and Matt Dolan, who were his immediate runners-up, and a field of four other candidates. JD Vance has revealed himself to be a craven sycophantic remora enthusiastically attached to Trump’s sphincter, and is apparently happy to toss democracy aside for his own personal advancement, so you might be surprised when I tell you that his winning was only the second worst option in the GOP primary, since Josh Mandel is all those things and more, and has been at it longer than Vance, of whom it can be said that at least he is an arriviste when it comes ambitious culture war neo-fascism, whereas Mandel has been there for a while.

What would have been interesting is what would have happened had Trump not opened his yap and endorsed Vance (well, sort of; it’s pretty clear that Trump has only the vaguest idea of who he endorsed and why, even when that candidate is on the same stage). I suspect that Josh Mandel might have squeaked out the nomination, which is appalling, but well, that’s where the Ohio GOP is today.

The one mild surprise is that Matt Dolan, whose brand was “Trump ain’t all that” nearly edged out Mandel for second place. Dolan actually won three counties in Ohio, the ones Columbus and Cleveland are in, and the county next to Cleveland filled with well-off liberals and Democrats, which suggests a non-trivial number of people voting for him were, in fact, actual liberals/Democrats — Ohio allows you to choose at the polling station which primary ballot you wish to fill out (Democratic, Republican or non-partisan, the latter of which is usually for local initiatives or tax levies). Again, would have been interesting to see where he might have landed had Trump not inserted himself. But then, Trump was never not going to insert himself.

2. On the topic of “Liberals/Democrats strategically voting in the Republican primary,” it be at least some of the reason that the Democratic senatorial primary vote was only 48% of the GOP senate primary vote, with a very similar percentage for the gubernatorial primaries. It was also because there was far less drama involved; everyone expected Tim Ryan to win it, which he did, handily, with nearly 70% of the primary vote — Ryan in fact received more primary votes (nearly 356k) than Vance, the Republican primary winner (nearly 341k).

Is there something to be readily gleaned from these numbers, when it comes to the senatorial race in November? Maybe but possibly not. Ohio has more registered Democrats (947k) than Republicans (836k) and both of these numbers are easily swallowed by the number of unaffiliated voters (6.2m), and across the state only 18.8% of eligible voters turned out. Which means that our senatorial candidates were decided by roughly 4.4% of our electorate in both cases. So that’s great, and also leaves lots of room for things to happen in the general, in which possibly 36% of our electorate will vote.

I would not hazard a guess as to whether Ryan or Vance will win in November, because a lot will depend on the economy, whether Trump is actually arraigned on something (probably not, but one never knows), and whether the Supreme Court will follow that draft opinion and decide people with uteruses need fewer rights than those who don’t. But I can tell you that Ryan will run a campaign largely focused on the economic and and day-to-day issues that affect average Ohioans, and Vance will run a screaming, hate-filled campaign based on racism, identity politics and authoritarianism, because this is where we are in Ohio in 2022.

3. On the gubernatorial front, it’s Mike DeWine, the current governor, against Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, and while I expect the senatorial race to be close (indeed, closer than I would like it to be given who is running and their expected platforms), I’m pretty sure DeWine is going to win this one in a walk. DeWine is generally popular (60% approval rating) and he’s old school GOP, which means he doesn’t automatically despise science or go out of his way to punish people who don’t lick his shoes. He’s not great (he happily signed punitive antiabortion laws), but he’s not actively hateful. That’ll probably work for most Ohioans. Again, anything could happen (and I won’t be voting for DeWine, personally), but unless shit gets real bad in Ohio and it can be directly traced to what DeWine’s doing, he’s probably safe.

4. Also safe: my US representative Warren Davidson, who won his primary by 40 percentage points and who faces a Democratic opponent he’s faced twice before, beating her by an at least 2:1 margin both times. OH-8 has not gone Democratic since the Depression, and 2022 is not the year that’s going to change, no matter how bad things get for Trump sycophants in the coming months. The GOP could run a wet sock in OH-8 and it would win.

5. What didn’t get voted on yesterday: Ohio House and Senate seats, since the Ohio GOP keeps trying to gerrymander the election maps despite an actual voter-approved directive not to do so, and the Ohio Supreme Court keeps calling the Ohio GOP on their shit. We’ll have to do a second primary election now, probably in August, at a cost of several millions of dollars, and it will likely have even fewer voters than yesterday’s. Hooray for democracy!

Yes, I will be voting in that one, too. I always vote. So should you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Mark Matthews

Editor Mark Matthews has experience with the world of horror, and the terrors of addiction. In the anthology, Orphans of Bliss, both are explored, with the help of a host of authors who craft stories with both in mind. Here’s Matthews to get under the skin of the anthology.

MARK MATTHEWS:

Orphans of Bliss: Tales of Addiction Horror, the follow up to theShirley Jackson Award nominated, Lullabies for Suffering, is now out of the womb and breathing on its own. This is the third and final fix of ‘addiction horror’ anthologies, and as editor and a contributing writer, it’s been an exhausting, amazing, and cathartic experience.

What’s the Big Idea—Why addiction horror?

I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict, and spent years waking up needing a fix.

Now, as a substance abuse therapist, I’ve seen addiction on a daily basis.

Writing about addiction for me came natural. It’s perpetually part of my fiber. When I bleed on the page, it’s in the color of my blood. I didn’t set out to write horror, I set out to write, and as the addiction element was tapped from my veins, what came out was horror.

Horror felt the only fit, and horror tropes are apt analogies.

Imagine, someone just shot up heroin for the first time, and soon their body will be aching for more the way a vampire thirsts for blood. Someone right now is buying a half pint of vodka with shaky hands at the liquor store, trembling with terror. Parents live with children who seem as if possessed, and soon enough, identify their overdosed body at the hospital.

Truth is actually darker than fiction, and horror shines a revealing light onto the demons, the dark truths of addiction, in a manner no other genre can.

After writing my own addiction horror novels such as Milk-Blood and All Smoke Rises, the Big Idea was—What might other horror writers do with this topic?

And the addiction horror anthologies were born.

One requirement I had for inclusion in the anthologies is empathy and understanding for those who have lived with addiction. Last thing I wanted to do was stigmatize the condition, but rather, illuminate its impact and increase awareness. I wanted a deeper understanding of, and even compassion for, the sick and suffering addict. “Horror is not about extreme sadism, it’s about extreme empathy,” Joe Hill so aptly noted. Until you’ve had your mind and soul hijacked by addiction, it is difficult to comprehend. In the throes of a craving, the desire to obtain and use substances equals the life force for survival itself. Imagine yourself drowning and being told not to swim to the surface for air. Obsessions should be so mild.

Horror is a uniquely powerful genre to reveal larger truths about the world we live in. To hear about the nature of addiction in a story, putting the reader into the addict’s body, brain, and spirit as it morphs into something horrific, makes the larger crisis much more personal than simply citing a statistic. The stories inside these works, some of which include the supernatural, are true, even if they didn’t happen. More people will die of an opioid overdose in the time it takes to read the three anthologies, than actually die in the books.

While the works offer an unflinching portrayal of addiction and those it impacts, the goal is not to condemn those who use substances. God knows I wish I could join you, but I’m one of those who can’t. It’s impossible for me to drink or drug without leading to disaster. I’ve learned to live with the cravings, as so many in recovery have, and how to not feed the beast. It’s statement of the perseverance and power of the human spirit that people continue to fight, and recovery from addiction is something to celebrate.  

Horror as a genre is a testimony to this ferocity of the human spirit that faces our demons. We love Jamie Curtis from the Halloween franchise because, like her, we all have to constantly fight monsters, often from our childhood. And even if the battle is won, the war’s not over. Michael Myers gets up from the spot on the lawn, after that cathartic moment when you were sure he was dead, and he runs back to the darkness from whence he came. Like addiction, the monster is not conquered, but only in remission.

In all, there are 15 different writers spread out over the three analogies. A few writers are in all three, most are only in one.  Feels only right to name them, so pardon me this list, alphabetical by first name: Caroline Kepnes, Cassandra Khaw, Christa Carmen, Gabino Iglesias, Glen Krisch, Jack Ketchum,  Jessica McHugh, Johan Thorson,  John FD Taff, Josh Malerman, Kealan Patrick Burke, Max Booth III, Mercedes M Yardley, S.A Cosby, and Samantha Kolesnik.

Many stories are told from the perspective of family and loved ones who are impacted by addiction, rather than the substance user themselves. (and in fact, the addiction is not always just to substances.) Settings range from treatment centers, to deep space, to the rural woods, to dystopian landscapes. Many tales are as much speculative science fiction as horror.

This is my Big Idea and I hope these books bring people together through increased understanding and awareness, since there’s no better way to tell a dark truth than through a dark work of horror. Horror has the capacity to speak to this trauma in a unique fashion, and when readers journey through tales of trauma, it binds us together as if we’re part of a family, no longer living alone with our fears.


Orphans of Bliss: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the editor’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Spice Watches You From Above

She’s totally not judging you, though (spoiler: She absolutely is).

Also, yes, I intend to write about the draft decision from Alito, but I have a lot of thoughts about it and I will need a little bit of time to organize them into something more than venting. Soon. In the meantime, you have Twitter for my unexpurgated thoughts on the matter. I don’t imagine they will surprise any of you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt

When I decided to write science fiction, one of the things I thought was, well, I won’t have to do a lot of research because I can just make things up! I was, shall we say, quickly disabused of that notion. In fantasy, it’s a very much a similar situation, as Dan Koboldt, the editor of Putting the Fact in Fantasy, is here to tell us.

DAN KOBOLDT:

As fantasy writers, we get to make things up. It’s a great gig, really. We can write a story in a secondary world with elves riding dragons to a desperate battle against the nefarious serpent warriors, and no one bats an eye. It’s fantasy. We’re expected to tell lies.

And yet.

Even fantasy stories have some grounding in the real world. Characters in fantastical worlds still need to eat, travel around, talk to each other, and fight the occasional battle. It makes sense to give them food, horses, languages, and swords to meet such needs. Writers can get into trouble because these things exist in the real world, and they have their quirks. Without a basic understanding of the topic, it’s easy to make mistakes that will throw a knowledgeable reader right out of the story.

A classic example is the most common food in epic fantasy, the bowl of stew. Countless heroes seem to encounter this hearty meal during long, cold journeys to far-off lands. It’s worth pointing out – especially for writers who may not do a lot of cooking – that making stew in a hearth or campfire takes at least two or three hours. It’s therefore a realistic food for the proprietor of an inn to serve. However, an army on the march would probably not devote three hours to food preparation, so stew would not be the most realistic meal.

We’ve all read fantasy tales with unrealistic elements. There are soldiers eating stew, horses galloping for hours at a time, and teenagers who master sword fighting in a week. In fairness, most fantasy writers are not horse-owning historians who minored in fencing. I’m certainly not. However, I am a bowhunter who spends a lot of time in the woods. And for some reason, the forests of fantasy literature are nothing like the places I know in the real world. A few years ago, I even wrote a blog post, 10 Things Writers Don’t Know About the Woods, in which I griped about some books and movies that featured woefully inaccurate woodland scenes. Soon after that, I wrote an essay contrasting medieval and modern archery, again drawing on my experience as a lifelong archer.

With those two posts I exhausted the limited expertise I could share with other fantasy writers. Yet there were so many aspects of fantasy worldbuilding about which I knew very little. So, I began inviting historians, linguists, martial artists, and other experts to my blog to discuss various topics relevant to fantasy writing. It was enormously educational for me. For example, I learned from equestrian Amy Perkins-McKenna that the joint between the upper and lower bones of a horse’s hind legs is called the hock. I found out from martial artist Eric Primm that in a knife-fight between two highly skilled opponents, everyone gets cut and they might both end up dead. And I was horrified to be told by Dr. Jen Finelli that to save someone with a stab wound in the chest, you might have to stab them in the chest a second time.

No writer can be a legitimate expert in anything. There are too many subjects you’d need to master and not nearly enough time. Nor is it necessary to have deep expertise in military strategy, economics, or political theory to write compelling stories. All you really need is advice from an expert. The purpose of my blog series (and the book that developed from it) is to provide writers with just enough information to be dangerous across a variety of fantasy-adjacent topics. This seems like a good time to mention that I’m always looking for new contributors who have relevant expertise.

Most chapters take a two-prong approach. First, the expert debunks common misconceptions that they see in books, television, and movies. For me, in the archery chapter, it concerns the amount of upper body strength required to even draw a bow that has killing power. Modern bows have a draw weight of fifty or sixty pounds (equivalent to lifting that weight with one arm). Historical weapons had even higher draw weights. Thus, I take issue when I read about a ninety-pound teenager using a longbow.

In the second part of the chapter, experts share some advice for getting the details right. Essentially, this part answers the question, how can I write about this and sound like I know what I’m doing? Most of my book’s contributors are writers themselves; they understand the need very well. They provide the basic facts and terminology to convince a discerning reader. In my discussion of archery, for example, I mention that one of the most difficult skills required for accurate shooting is judging the distance to a target. A character who gauged distance before shooting a bow would come across as realistic to me.

It’s surprising – and perhaps a little bit frightening – how competent you can make yourself appear with just a little guidance from a real-world expert. The best part about it? Once you’ve convinced discerning readers that you’re really an expert, it frees you up to tell even more lies.


Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

I Haven’t Checked the News Today and Frankly May Not For the Rest of the Day, So Here, Have a Couple of Dogs Hanging Out in the Shade

After, of course, they ran around like puppies. That’s Charlie, obviously, on the left, and Buckley, the neighbor dog, on the right. They enjoy each other’s company, until one of them inevitably annoys the other. Then they get a time out until they’re happy to see each other again. This is also how people work a lot of the time, I’ve noticed.

— JS

May Flowers and Plans

To begin, first of May magnolias. Because they’re pretty, and that’s really the only excuse they need.

Second, I have plans for May! Like:

1. Appearances in Berkeley, Chicago and Gaithersburg, MD, which you can catch up with here. If you’re in any of those places, come see me. After May, I have no public events scheduled until Worldcon in September (save a couple of virtual events), and honestly, after giving over the last couple of months to promote Kaiju, I’m okay with that.

2. I’m meant to have a book done at the end of the month(ish), so guess where the focus of my attention will be this month?

(Shut up, it will be the book, seriously.)

To accentuate this point, I will be turning on my nanny software which will block news and social media sites in the morning, because I regret to say I am the sort of person who needs nanny software to block news and social media sites so that I can focus. This won’t mean much to you if you’re solely a Whatever reader (because these days I tend to update here in the afternoons anyway), but if you follow me on Twitter you may notice less of me there, particularly in the east coast AM hours. As the tradeoff is an actual novel in 2023 from me, I think you (and I) will survive.

3. Also in a more general sense I plan to ratchet down my social media use a bit in May (and hopefully beyond) because now 2022 is one-third gone and I have plans for the remaining two-thirds, and the place for me to best recoup that time for those plans comes from the time I spend mindlessly scrolling on social media. I’m not cutting it out entirely, because I live in a rural area and also on the Internet, and both of those facts means social media is where I hang out with friends. But I plan on better managing the time I am on it. A couple of years ago I made a guideline for myself of, if I spend more than five minutes an hour on social media scrolling mindlessly, to ask myself if there’s something else I wanted to do with my time instead. Usually the answer was “yes,” in which case I went and did that for the rest of the hour. I think I’ll get back to that.

(Mind you, sometimes the answer is “nope, social media is all I have planned for now,” which is fine, too. But I usually do have other things I want to do with my time, I have to say.)

4. Also, I’m feeling a bit sludgy these days, and the weather is finally nice, so I’m going to get back to exercising most days, which is a thing I’ve gotten a bit away from in the last several months because, well, I’m lazy and I default to not exercising pretty easily. This is not great, because I’m in my 50s now, and the eventual consequences of Not Actually Moving A Lot are going to be visited on me a lot sooner than I expect. Boo! Aging! Boo!

So: May! Events! Writing! Exercise! Non-Doomscrolling Activites! That’s the plan, and hopefully the last three will stick beyond the month of May as well.

— JS

A Housekeeping Note re: Book Blurbing

I have had to turn down five(!) book blurb requests this week, so it’s worth making an official public announcement so people know it’s not personal. That announcement is:

I have a book due in about a month and I have a large number of works that I’ve already promised to look at with an eye toward blurbing. Because I both need to get my own work done, and need to work through my current potential book blurbing commitments, I cannot take on any more book blurb requests through the end of July 2022 at least. It’s neither fair nor ethical on my part to agree to look at something for blurbing purposes if I don’t know when I will be able to get to it, or whether I can give it a full and considered reading.

If this changes in either direction I’ll let folks know asap. For the moment, however: Blurbing hiatus until August. Thanks for understanding.

— JS

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