The circle of inspiration: The work of others inspires creators to make work of their own, which in turn inspires another set of creators. David D. Levine is here to talk about a work that inspired his latest, The Kuiper Belt Job, and how it came to make a difference in his own creation.
DAVID D. LEVINE:
My new novel The Kuiper Belt Job began at the Chicago Worldcon in 2012, where I participated in a panel in which we brainstormed a sequel to Serenity, the Firefly movie. I don’t recall who was on the panel, or who contributed which ideas, but I do remember the basic premise: ten years after the events of Serenity, Mal’s son (of course Mal had a son) shows up out of nowhere to say: dad’s in jail, and I’m putting the gang back together to break him out.
It was only a tossed-off idea at a science fiction convention panel, but for some reason that premise stuck in my head and would not let go. I kept thinking that I should file the serial numbers off and make a novel of it. So in 2017, after handing in the final edits for Arabella the Traitor of Mars, that was one of three new projects I pitched to my agent and editor. And that was the one they both liked the best.
I knew from the beginning that this project would be all about found family, and specifically about putting a broken found family back together again. But I’d never written an ensemble cast before — all of my previous projects had focused on one or two viewpoint characters. So I started by thinking about what made the characters in Firefly work as an ensemble, and also the characters in Leverage (TV series, 2008-2012, in which a crew of con artists work together to help those who have been hurt by powerful people) which I also wanted to use as a model. And the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that the two ensembles are both implementations of the same basic design.
- Mal, the leader, corresponds with Nate, the Mastermind.
- Zoe, the second in command is Parker, the Thief.
- Kaylee, the engineer, is Alec, the Hacker.
- Jayne, the muscle, is Eliot, the Hitter.
- Inara, the Companion, is Sophie, the Grifter.
The correspondences aren’t exact, of course. Zoe is much more self-confident than Parker, and Kaylee is more innocent than Alec (though Alec is a bit of a naïf in his way). But looking at the two sets of characters I began to get a sense of how their strengths and weaknesses combine to make a group that can’t help but become tightly-knit and independent.
So I came up with my main cast: Strange the mastermind, Alicia the thief, Tai the hacker, Kane the muscle, and Shweta the negotiator. Now, to be sure, Strange isn’t just Mal or Nate with the serial numbers filed off; he is his own person. But thinking about the existing characters helped me to make my own characters richer and more plausible, and especially to shape the relationships between them.
As I began drafting, my characters began to evolve beyond their origins, to become more themselves. I spotted places where they could conflict and places where they could support each other — often those were two sides of the same coin. And I realized that there were other models I could call on to help flesh out the gang.
There’s a concept in anime known as the “five-man band.” (You could look it up in TV Tropes, but I warn you, if you go in there it’ll be a long time before you come out.) The basic idea is that the main characters form a group of five:
- The Leader: the main character, the one in charge
- The Lancer: the leader’s second in command and foil
- The Brain: the smart one, often also the weird one
- The Brawn: the strong one, often also the dumb one
- The Heart: the emotional core of the group
(The Heart used to be called The Chick, obeying the Smurfette Principle that no group can contain more than one female, but we’re better than that now, right?)
The Five-Man Band concept underlies a lot of anime teams, a lot of superhero teams, and a lot of other fictional teams as well. The concept can certainly be overlaid on — or force-fit onto — an existing team, but I’m sure that some more recent teams were created with this model in mind. And why not me? So I decided to apply this idea to my own characters. Strange was obviously the Leader, Alicia the Lancer, Tai the Brain, Kane the Brawn, and Shweta the Heart.
Looking at my characters from the perspective of this model helped me to understand that Alicia, my Zoe character, was not only the Thief (Parker from Leverage) but also the Lancer — the emotional complement and foil to Strange, my Mal character. And Shweta, my Inara character, was not only the Grifter (Sophie from Leverage) but also the one who was everyone’s auntie, the one who helped everyone through the gang’s darkest places. And there were some dark places indeed.
There was one more place where my study of existing teams affected the structure of my novel, and that is that I decided to give each of my five main characters a single long stretch of point-of-view rather than repeatedly switching from one POV to another as is typical in ensemble novels. This permitted me to give each character a good long turn in the spotlight and also to showcase how the characters and their relationships change as the broken gang reassembles itself over the course of the novel. It’s a bit of a risk in terms of writing craft, but I believe it works.
Then I decided to put an interstitial between those five point-of-view sections: a four-part flashback to the moment the gang broke up, ten years in the past. And, because the gang was closer than family back then, basically one mind in five bodies, I put it in the first person plural. Yes, it’s told from the perspective of “we.” Is it a stunt? Maybe. Does it work?
Well, I’ll leave that up to you.
It’s election day in the US, and if you are registered to vote, and have not already availed yourself of early voting, guess what? Today’s the day to do it!
All three Scalzis voted early because we believe in taking care of that business as early as possible, but if for some reason you had to wait until today, cool, just make sure that the polls don’t close without you having been in them.
Leave a comment in the thread after you’ve voted. It does my heart good to see people who read this site exercising their franchise. Thanks!
Today I Nearly Made Myself Insane Trying to Remember the Name of the Singer Who Had an Album Cover With Her Wielding a Sword on the Hood of Car and Who Wasn’t Jenny Lewis
Turns out it was Neko Case. Here’s a song from that album.
The reason that my brain insisted it was Jenny Lewis is that both musicians are redhead solo performers who also performed in bands (The New Pornographers for Case; Rilo Kiley for Lewis). It took me hours of extremely imprecise Google searching to finally figure it out. I am… relieved. My brain is full of nonsense sometimes.
How was your day?
The clouds were especially pretty tonight.
Also, it’s the first night of Daylight Savings Time, so this picture was taken at (checks metadata) 5:49 pm. Which is awful. But this is our lives for the next few months: Early sunsets and the temptation to go to sleep at 7pm. I’m not a huge fan of it. I would rather have it darker in the morning, but then again, I don’t have to leave my house to go to work, so I might not be the best judge of that. Be that as it may, I got a nice photo out it, so there’s that, at least.
It’s been a stretch since I’ve posted a picture of her here, which is, frankly, unlike me. Part of the reason is that I was away on book tour, but now I’ve been home for a whole two weeks, so I can only blame touring so much. Whatever the reason, it’s time to rectify this issue. Here she is. And, of course, she continues to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Which most of you knew. But it doesn’t hurt to say it again every once in a while.
As I noted on Bluesky just after it debuted: It’s a sketch. But a lovely sketch.
There’s some discussion of how much this song should be considered an actual Beatles tune, inasmuch as John Lennon and George Harrison are no longer with us, and the originating document of this is a tape recording of Lennon playing about at piano, framing out a song, well after the breakup of the Beatles, rather than anything that was created within the rubric of the band while it was an ongoing concern. On one hand, anyone’s opinion on this but Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and the Lennon and Harrison estates’ is irrelevant; if they say it’s a Beatles tune, it’s a Beatles tune. All four of the Beatles are here on the track (in addition to Lennon’s vocals, there’s a Harrison guitar track on it, from a shelved attempt at recording the song in the 1990s), which is more than some Beatles tracks from their actual tenure can say.
With that said, the way I think of it, as with “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” the two latter-day tracks released in with the Beatles Anthology project in the 1990s: It’s not a song by the Beatles, but a song from the members of the Beatles: outside of the purview of the official canon and a melancholic coda to it instead. These three songs aren’t the members of the Beatles in a creative ferment, it’s the (then) remaining members making do with what they have to work with, which in this case were the songs, or fragments of songs, Lennon had recorded onto tapes in the 70s. None of these three songs will ever be considered top shelf Beatles, either in composition or performance. But they’re sure nice to have, and certainly no worse than some of the songs the Beatles recorded while they were an ongoing concern. As a three-song coda to arguably the most remarkable decade in pop songwriting, they’re lovely. Essential? Not really. But lovely.
And wistful. Much of the wistfulness of “Now and Then” comes from the knowledge that Lennon and Harrison are gone and that McCartney and Starr are, whether we all want to acknowledge it or not, nearing the end of their own journeys on this planet. McCartney, singing harmony here, sounds older and more weathered than Lennon, because, well, he is – McCartney has now lived more years on this planet without Lennon than he did with him here. We are truly in the twilight of this moment of musical history, and if nothing else, this song matches that moment.
The last “new” Beatles song we’re likely ever to get has the weight of time on it. It’s okay to be wistful about that fact.
Author Ryk Spoor is back on the blog for the debut of his new novel, and first book of The Spirit Warriors trilogy, Choosing the Player. How does this trilogy fit in with and intersect with his other works? Read on to find out.
The publication of Choosing the Players – the first volume in The Spirit Warriors trilogy – signals the completion of something begun with Phoenix Rising (the Balanced Sword trilogy) back in 2012: three separate, simultaneous adventures by three groups of heroes that might intersect with each other, but who had different missions to accomplish, each of them saving the world in a completely different way. Thus the Balanced Sword trilogy, the Godswar dualogy, and the Spirit Warriors trilogy all take place at the same time, but face completely separate adventures that nonetheless crossed each other at various points.
In addition, each one was to have certain similarities – dictated by the fact that they were in the same universe, and involved in worldshaking events that would inevitably interact in some fashion – while being quite different in their essential nature. The Balanced Sword was intended to be a mostly-standard epic fantasy adventure that would showcase the world of Zarathan at the same time that it showed one of the most crucial sets of events in that world’s modern era. Godswar was a salute to a specific subgenre (what I call the God-Warrior anime subgenre) and a plot hinging on a single prophecy’s misdirection – since what’s a fantasy world without a little prophecy?
The Spirit Warriors is what I have always called “crossover fantasy” and which is these days often called “isekai”, with the heroes coming from a version of our world and finding themselves stuck in a fantasy universe that seems to somehow echo our own books, games, or movies. It also gives us the best look at the manipulative mage Konstantin Khoros, the prologue showing us his origin and motivation. People have often commented on Khoros’ actions, and in Choosing the Players we get his own view of his work:
Xavier snorted. “You know, if you’re supposed to be the good wizard, you’re really doing a sucky job of it.”
“I am most certainly not ‘the good wizard’, though I am a very skillful wizard – and other things as well,” Khoros said emphatically. “Understand this, my young friends: I intend for you to do good. My ultimate goals will achieve good. I am an enemy of all that is evil and dark. I have spent centuries upon centuries fighting the darkness. But I am in no other sense a good man, and Aurora’s anger and mistrust of me is fully justified.”
This is part of the challenge that the five – Xavier Ross, Nike Engelshand, Toshi Hashima, Aurora Vanderdecken, and Gabriel Dante – must face. Khoros has set them an apparently-impossible task – one that even he cannot accomplish – and given them hardly a lick of instruction.
Yet it is vital that he do it this way, and another point of The Spirit Warriors is to show that the operation of an epic universe such as this is a matter of multiple layers and balances that make it, paradoxically, much wiser to start your heroes out with as little knowledge and power as feasible than it is to try to train them up and throw them directly at the adversary.
Because the adversaries that will most concern a given force are the ones on their own level. The beings threatening the world, or large pieces of it, must focus their operations on the relatively few others on their level that might oppose them. Sure, there may be a new group of heroes out there who will eventually come to be a threat – but there’s a lot of potential heroes. How to know which group’s potentially your nemesis? In a world with a thousand gods, everyone’s got a protector – and a manipulator – that can obfuscate the truth. Perhaps you even have access to a true prophecy… but do you really properly understand what it’s telling you?
The readers of course know who the heroes du jour are, but fortunately their opposition don’t have the ability to break the fourth wall and read the book.
This means that the layer that confronts the protagonists is almost always something at, or near, their current level of capability, unless a more powerful being is already involved for other reasons. Kyri’s true enemy made use of this approach, because he actually wanted Kyri to become stronger, become the actual focus of the faith Kyri fought for.
Khoros makes use of it in the other direction, putting his Earthly pawns on the board and ensuring that they will develop their own capabilities out of sight of the other major players until it’s too late to prevent the Five from reaching their true levels of power – in fact, he manipulates events and people that the Five will reach those levels at the precise locations that the sudden appearance of a powerful and unknown adversary will utterly disrupt the plans of the hostile forces.
But all this rests on the Five being very, very specific people, and it is the people that truly matter here. Xavier Ross, nearly killed by his own stupidity, his personal quest for justice interrupted by Khoros. Nike Engelshand, a competent and rational girl fleeing from bulletproof monsters to find herself … elsewhere. Gabriel Dante, a cheerful player and son of a swordmaster, steps from cherry blossoms into a cold and dark otherworld; Toshi Hashima, his coldly determined suicide averted by impossibility; and Aurora Vanderdecken, who finds her parents’ long-held delusions were nothing of the kind when three steps take her from her home streets to the doors of a towering castle.
Each of these five has their own issues to address, and by being thrown together, they are forced to rely on each other in a totally alien world. This builds a connection, a trust, between five teenagers who would otherwise never have met, and never have seen the strength waiting to be summoned from their unlikely association. For the readers, they also provide a new view of Zarathan, one drawn from the outside rather than from people who have grown up immersed in the magic until it has become commonplace, and one with, perhaps, unique insights that those born here would never have seen.
Join the Five, then, as they first encounter the World of Magic, and begin their journey to truly become the Spirit Warriors.
Choosing the Players: Amazon
Read an excerpt.
For the second month in a row, Starter Villain is on the New York Times Audio Fiction Best Seller list. Last month it arrived at number eleven, which was pretty cool when you note that it had only eleven days to rack up sales to make it onto a monthly chart; this month it’s at number twelve, which is a solid hold from the month before.
I have been a New York Times bestseller before, of course, but this is the first time a book of mine has appeared on the list over more than a single appearance. I tend to benefit from pre-orders and reader enthusiasm at the outset, plus touring the book to get people excited to get the book early (it’s not just me, mind you; many if not most authors who pop onto the NYT list get a “one and done” appearance, for the same reason). But Starter Villain has some legs on it, and not just in audio; the hardcover version stayed on the USA Today bestseller list (which lists all currently selling print books, regardless of format and genre) for three weeks, which is also a record for me. Starter Villain feels like a “level up” for me, basically, which is a nice thing to have at this point in my career.
Additional credit where additional credit is due: To Wil Wheaton, who narrates the audiobook and has been vocal in his enthusiasm for the book; to Tristan Elwell, who did the art for cover, which is drawing people in even if they have no idea who I am as a writer; and to the Audible publicity folks, who did a really tremendous job putting out the word on the book (Tor’s PR folks, too, of course; those three USA Today chart placements did not happen out of thin air. They’ve been consistently great). Starter Villain has a lot of hands on it, and all those hands helped it succeed.
While we’re on the subject of marketing, look which book showed up on the Today Show yesterday morning, as Jeff Kinney, author of the massively-popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, was on the show to promote his own latest book and share thoughts on his favorite recent reads:
Yeah, this was a lovely shoutout, and I’m delighted and grateful. Here’s the list of all the books he recommended, and the full video. I’m in good company here.
So, in short, a really nice November so far. Let’s hope it continues.
I am lucky enough to have two very kind friends in California that send me the most amazing things, and this week they sent me some seriously awesome stickers and goodies that I simply must share with you! You might have seen my other post from earlier this year where one of them sent me this fantastic spread of stationery.
First off, the packaging, as always, was adorable:
Do you see that giant Pocky truck?! That is so cool. Not to mention the kitty bag, and the tiny suitcase (it had candy in it). Totes adorbs.
One of them recently went on a trip to Japan and got these sticker sheets for me while there:
These are so cute that I’m torn between using them for letters for friends and just keeping them all to myself. I particularly love the one with the bears and the food. As if the sheets weren’t cool enough, she also sent Japanese candy:
I certainly have been known to love Japanese candy.
Sweet treats aside, look at these derpy stickers:
I happen to adore stickers with that exact facial expression. (I cut out the handwritten note from the photo so please excuse the white sliver on the right side.)
And check these bad boys out:
My goodness I love these so much. These are so whimsical and pretty, it’s hard to choose a favorite! I am partial to the moon and ocean lightbulb, as well as the moon in the bottle in the bottom right corner. But also the moon popsicle is so cool, too. I guess I just really like moons.
They also sent along some washi tapes, but it’s hard to get photos of those when the wrapping is still on. But trust me, they’re super cute.
Funny enough, one of these sticker buddies is also my favorite artist that I did a Small Business Saturday on a while back!
As you can see, my pals are super cool and generous, and I appreciate them so much. Thanks for looking at these new additions to my sticker collection!
Do you have a favorite sticker in particular? Or a sticker sheet you thought was extra cute? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
And it’s looking rather more clement than October went out as. So far, anyway. We’ll see if it holds. In the meantime, please enjoy this visual slice of rural America. I don’t imagine the corn will be standing for much longer in any event, so enjoy it while you can. And welcome to the last sixth of the year. Should be interesting.
Is death truly the end? Not for the kids in The Ghost Job! Author Greg van Eekhout is bringing you a tale from beyond the grave(s) of his main characters who aren’t letting a little death stop them. Follow along in his Big Idea to see just how this “haunting” idea formed.
GREG VAN EEKHOUT:
The elevator pitch for The Ghost Job goes something like this: Four young ghosts pull heists in hopes of finding a supernatural artifact that can restore them to life. The most promising of these is a device called the Redeemer, owned and operated by a rich necromancer who holds souls hostage for ransom. But a book isn’t always about a big idea. Sometimes a book is more like a rolling katamari gathering up a bunch of small-to-medium ideas. Then you identify the biggest or best of those ideas and declare it the Big Idea.
I’m pretty sure that’s how I came up with The Ghost Job, my latest middle-grade novel. (Middle grade is a marketing term referring books pitched to readers aged 8 to 12, which is confusing because here in the US we have middle school, which is generally for kids 11-14, so I usually refer to my books as all ages.)
Ghosts are perfect thieves. Maybe that’s the big idea. Think about it. Ghosts move silently. They don’t need doors or windows because they can pass through walls. They don’t show up on cameras (really, they don’t, I don’t care what Discovery Channel tells you) and even if they did, what are the cops going to do, arrest them at a séance?
They only moved the headstones. Eerie old houses and cemeteries with creeping ivy and grasping leafless trees are fun, but hauntings can happen anywhere, even in warm, sunny places. Maybe that’s the big idea. Here in San Diego, we’ve got Pioneer Park, a pleasant community patch in an affluent neighborhood that was a graveyard until the city pulled up the headstones, chucked them into a ravine, left the bodies under the green grass, and installed a playground. For real, this happened. In The Ghost Job, the 19th and early 20th-century ghosts of Pioneer Park remain with their graves and serve to demonstrate the strength of community ties, even among the dead.
(We’ve got another desecrated cemetery in town upon which now sits a Hunter Steakhouse, but I didn’t put it in my book because I think all Hunter Steakhouses are weird for one reason or another.)
Everybody hurts, take comfort in your friends. Maybe this is biggest idea in The Ghost Job, but it doesn’t sound as fun as “ghosts pull off heists.” Still, I think it’s an important truth. Laughter in the company of friends is one of the most powerful balms I know for just about any difficult emotion. Almost immediately after an explosion propels my characters into the afterlife, one of them cracks a joke. It’s not even a good joke, but it signals to my newly minted ghosts that things are going to be okay. They’re not alone. They have each other. And as long as that’s so, they have hope.
The book also features ghostly superpowers, cars that drive themselves into the sea, roller coaster enthusiasts who continue to enjoy the ride that killed them, and a good dog who doesn’t care if you’re alive or dead as long as he gets tummy rubs. (The dog doesn’t die.)
For me, the real idea was to write a fun book with occasional moments of emotional heft, one with a premise both grim and hopeful, and one that leaves young people feeling that, with the right kind of help, they can handle anything. It may not be the biggest idea, and it’s certainly not the most original, but it’s the driving engine at the core of the katamari.
There are moments in life that define us. Moments in life that imprint on our hearts. But what happens when those moments are defined by others. When those moments are echoed in cultural norms and across middle school cafeterias everywhere. What then? Are we able to take back the power and define our own destinies? Are we able to tell the world exactly who we are.
I wanted to find out. Explore this idea in my middle grade novel, Hidden Truths. And it felt like an organic exploration. Because I started this story in 2001! Yep, that’s 22 years of writing, revising, reimagining.
22 years of rejection.
Some asked why I kept writing? It was a good question. It’s not like I’ve gotten better at being rejected – spoiler, I haven’t. And statistically, it didn’t seem likely that this book was ever going to find its way into the world. Or that I was going to find my way to becoming a published author – that was its own 15 year journey. But I realized somewhere along this long winding path that I was a writer because I wrote. Not because somebody said I was good enough. The world didn’t define me.
That power was mine if I was willing and courageous enough to own it.
I loved this idea. So I dove into it as I wrote Hidden Truths. Were my two main characters—Dani and Eric—willing to color outside the lines? Own their own narrative? Defy the labels and assumptions that were put upon them?
The answer was yes.
This story is told from alternating points of view, so the reader hears from both Eric and Dani—their struggles, their doubts, and their discoveries. Eric has ADHD and, at times, is bullied – physically and verbally by his nemesis Leo, and on social media by his bff’s new friend Meadow—which is complicated for a whole host of other reasons.
But as the story moves forward, Eric learns that he’s much more than the way the world defines him. He is not a loser because Leo called him one. He is not his ADHD. He is a loyal friend, a curious thinker, an innovative problem solver, a kind heart, and a good person. He is not one thing. He is a blend of all the traits he’s proud of and all the ones he’s working on.
After all, we’re all working on something. Right?
We also see that labels don’t just impact Eric, but Dani, too. She’s been told her whole life that she’ll never make the all-boys baseball team—because she’s a good player, but good for a girl. And that’s somehow different. Unqualifying. But Dani doesn’t listen to the haters. She rises above and defies the gender stereotype. She is later reminded that, “Life is not happening to you….[Y]ou get to choose who you are.” (194)
Choice. It’s an empowering thing.
Dani and Eric are more than the bully’s taunts and societal labels.
I want all kids to see that they, too, are so much more than the way the world defines them.
I want all kids to own their own narrative. Color outside the lines.
So what did I learn along my 22 year winding path to publication?
You hold the power to tell the world exactly who you are.
Own it! Embrace it! And never give it away!
I went on book tour last month, and along the way I was inspired to make a little music to approximate some of the experience of it, and of some of the places I went. And thus, Travelogue, a collection of five (mostly) ambient electronic pieces, recording my state of mind on the road. Let me walk you through the tracks.
Where Am I Now? – This one’s about getting up early to catch a plane, and then being whisked away, over and over, to another airport, another flight connection, another city, another hotel.
Lake Monona – Actually recorded in Madison, Wisconsin, which sits on the titular lake’s shore. It’s meant to evoke a cool autumn day, with the wind making tiny waves in the water.
Bridge Over the Danube – Walking over the Margit Bridge in Budapest, with bridge traffic racing along while the Danube flows below.
Wichita Sunrise – the experience of a slow dawn brightening up the long wide horizon of Kansas.
Where Am I Now (I’m Home) – Coming back to where you belong after too much time away. This track uses elements of the first track of the EP, but in a different key, with a different tempo, some new instrumentation, and a different arrangement. Familiar, but different.
Travelogue is as of this writing available on YouTube/YouTube Music, Apple Music and TIDAL, with Spotify and Amazon Music (and other services) coming probably in the next couple of days. I’m not sure why it always takes Spotify a tiny bit longer to get stuff on its service, but it does. It’s not on Bandcamp, but I’m (probably) going to be updating my Bandcamp site in the next month or so, so please be patient if that’s your thing.
Also, as a minor technical note, I’m calling this an EP but on some services it’s listed as an LP. I think the reason for this is that it clocks in at 34 minutes long, and it seems that on some services, anything over 30 minutes gets classified as an LP. Does this matter? Since I’m not planning a physical release where I have to worry about how to split things up into sides, not really. But if these little details bug you like they bug me, now you have an explanation. I should probably just call them all “albums” and have done with it (several services just do this for any collection larger than a single already). But I like the feel of “EP” better.
With Travelogue out, I have recorded and released to streaming services four separate collections of original music this year, nineteen tracks clocking in at just cover two hours (this is not counting an EP of remastered tracks from my 2003 collection, and the various cover songs I’ve posted here). I feel pretty good about this. I am not yet where I want to be as a musician, but I also don’t feel like I’m just fumbling around with my musical equipment any more, and that feels pretty good. I know some of what I’m doing! Hooray for slowly getting more competent with hobbies!
In any event, please enjoy this memento of my time on the road this year. It’s good to be home now.
Author Annie Carl is on a mission to bring the disabled writing community into the spotlight with her newest anthology, Soul Jar, written entirely by disabled authors. Come along in her Big Idea as she tells us how she came up with the idea for this anthology, and what led to her desire to make it happen.
I’ve been disabled my whole life. And a reader for the better part of my life. And a nerd since before I knew what that word meant.
Society likes to ignore the disabled community until a story comes along about a person “overcoming the odds” or some other such inspiration porn bullshit. Once that news cycle blurs into obscurity, it’s back to being the invisible minority again.
I was invisible over and over growing up. Occasionally my peers would pay attention, but it was usually just after another surgery. They’d come visit while I was in the hospital or at home. Then I would be out of their lives until the next surgery.
It was traumatic being the sad, pathetic disabled child, dropped as soon as I wasn’t interesting. For a long time, I did my best to ignore my disabilities. I didn’t want to be identified by them; I wanted to be appreciated for being me, not someone impacted by medical trauma. Then, in 2017 during a bookseller trade show in a panel for diversity, the panelists discussed authors and books from and about people of color, different religious backgrounds, and the LBTQIA+ community. I kept hoping the panelists would pull disabilities out of their proverbial back pocket. They never did. So I threw my hand up the moment the audience Q&A arrived. I demanded, rather timidly to be honest, if the panelists had any information about disabled representation. Surprise, surprise, they did not. It was suddenly important to me to bring the conversation back to disabilities. I even cornered one of the panelists after the event.
The lack of information and hollow promises of “more information next time” still echo in my mind. That was the moment I accepted my disabilities and became an advocate. I decided when there was a next time, I wanted to speak as a panelist, to share my story instead of just listening to others tell theirs.
Over the next four years, I presented about disability and my own journey on multiple panels with other authors and booksellers. I curated a Disability in Fiction section in my bookstore. I wrote My Tropey Life, a chapbook about disabled representation in pop culture. But I still wasn’t seeing myself in the genres I love—specifically science fiction and fantasy.
When I did come across disabled characters, they were often the villains: a tactic society has had in place for centuries of storytelling. Either that, or they were dismissed as unimportant side characters, cured, or killed. Death of a disabled characters seems to be popular plot device.
During summer of 2021, I decided I wanted to produce an anthology of science fiction and fantasy with positive disabled representation. Written by disabled authors, not able-bodied authors trying to imagine characters with differences. That was very important to me. The publishing and bookselling worlds are ridiculous gatekeepers when it comes to certain kinds of authors and the positive representation of specific people. I decided to pitch my book idea to Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press, who introduced herself to me after that 2017 panel. I remember being super nervous, even though Laura and I were good friends by that point. But she would be answering as a professional, not as my friend. Laura was about to publish Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin, and I wasn’t sure if she wanted to do another sci-fi/fantasy anthology so soon.
But Laura, being disabled herself, was absolutely on board and excited!
The work on Soul Jar: 31 Fantastical Tales by Disabled Authors began soon after. We needed authors! We needed someone to write the foreword! We needed the disabled writing community.
Laura and I hit the jackpot in fall 2021 while at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s yearly trade show. Nicola Griffith just happened to be presenting her latest novel, Spear, to the booksellers in attendance. Laura and I thought she would be perfect to write the foreword, and Nicola said yes! We had our first story and a promise for a foreword.
Story submissions opened at the end of January 2022 and they poured in. We caught the attention of disabled authors across the nation. People like me who worked hard to come out of the invisibility shrouding the disabled community. Writers who also witnessed the disparity between the attention for other marginalized authors and the disabled writing and publishing community.
These writers were given a unique opportunity to tell magical, otherworldly, and terrifying stories about themselves and others like them. A moment like this one does not happen often for the disabled writing community. Rarely are we given any sort of chance to shine outside of the bootstrapping, inspiration porn narratives. Astronauts have to be in the best possible physical and psychological shape to get to space. Questing through magical lands usually does not involve a wheelchair, and often does involve massive sensory overload. It’s not easy, trying to exist in alternative realities with Deafness or mobility aids.
So where do we, disabled people, land in the narrative?
Right in the middle of it. Because disabled people are just that, people on quests and flying through space and having adventures, just like everyone else.
I’m at that age where when people my age die it’s not entirely unexpected — Welcome to being No Longer Young, y’all — but it doesn’t make it less of a shock. It’s compounded in my case by the fact that of all the Friends characters, Perry’s Chandler Bing was the one closest to my own personality, i.e., the quipster, so in a weird way I felt invested in Perry’s life and struggles. Parasocial relationships are strange things, folks. I’m sorry he’s gone.
I got the Pixel 8 Pro a couple of weeks ago; it arrived at my house just before I came back from one leg of my book tour. I upgraded and updated everything the one day I was home so I could take it out with me on the last leg of the tour, and have used it in the days since I’ve been home, mostly to take pictures of fall foliage. What follows are thoughts on the phone, which are not exhaustive, since I haven’t used every single one of the updated features. But my daily use of it has been enough for me to say: I like this phone a lot and can recommend it to folks.
* First off, I moved over from a Pixel 7 Pro (I update every year; this is one of my tech buyer indulgences). The transfer process was pretty seamless, both in terms of the actual transfer of data, and in terms of how I use the phone. If it weren’t for the fact my phone is now a cheerful powder blue rather than the vaguely olive green of last year’s model, from a physical standpoint I wouldn’t know I changed phones at all. Google has made the back of the Pro more of a matte finish than last’s glossy finish, which I am told makes it slightly easier to grip, but inasmuch as immediately slapped a case on it (clear, so the color comes through), I wouldn’t know. I put on cases because I have fumble fingers, and dropped the phone within ten minutes of having it. The only major physical change to the Pro this year that I notice is that the (really very nice and bright) screen is flat rather than curved, which it was with the other Pro models. It’s a small detail and one I like.
* The big change (for me, anyway): Upgraded sensors in the cameras, which in my anecdotal experience has resulted in noticeably better pictures. They are sharper, have better details and the cameras are more responsive, whichever camera you use and in various circumstances. I’ve taken landscapes, portraits, pet pictures and lots of foliage shots, and all of them really pop — not in an oversaturated way (Google still tends to grade its shots cooler and more naturally than, say, Samsung), but in a way where even a quick shot just plain looks good. That patented Google “crispiness” of shots is still there, so if that’s not something you like then you won’t like it here, either. But I like it, so there’s that.
A number of years ago, with an earlier iteration of the Pixel, I noted that Google’s computational photography had gotten to a point where the camera on the phone was more than “good enough” to ptovide generally excellent pictures. The camera, both with its sensors and its computational backend, has only improved since then. What have noticed recently is that I am using my dSLR less, because a lot of the time it is simply not necessary for the sort of photography I do on a day-to-day basis, and also because in many circumstances, the Pixel is simply better for the use case: “Macro” photography (i.e., getting up really really close) is one example. I’m not going to abandon dedicated cameras with large sensors and lenses (I am in fact thinking of upgrading soon), but in many ways the Pixel is now my “main” camera and the dSLR is the supplemental camera, not the other way around.
Which reminds me: The Pixel phones typically use their 48 and 50 megapixel sensors to “pixel bin” and make 12 megapixel final photos, but now there’s an option on the Pro to take the full-resolution photos. My own experience with this has not been great; ironically the detail is less because the pictures take longer to shoot and my hands are not terribly steady. Save this for when you have a lot of light available. Also, the Pro now has a “pro” tab in the camera software so photographers can have more granularity with settings. This will be welcome to some, but even on my dSLR I tend to shoot on auto and then edit in Photoshop, so it has limited utility for me. Finally, like in previous Pixels, you can shoot in RAW, but these take up a lot of space. Again, for my daily use, 12 megapixel JPEG on auto is usually more than enough out of the Pro.
* Some big new features of the Pixel 8 Pro are the “AI” tricks that allow you to edit photos on your phones in ways that alter reality even more than you could before: The Pro now will let you move objects around in a photo and then uses a “generative fill” process to compensate for the fiddling; it also has a setting which, if you have taken several quick shots in a row of posing people, allows you to pick the best poses for each of the people out of the photos and amalgamate them into a single shot, theoretically banishing forever the shots where someone has their eyes closed.
There’s been some mild handwringing about these new features because they take photography further from being an accurate portrayal of reality and into something else. Personally I’m more sanguine about this than other people, particularly regarding the “Best Take” feature. If we’re using computational photography to alter reality, and we are, then swapping out a face in a picture with one taken within five seconds of the one being swapped, and in the same context, so that for once you can get a shot of your kid not pulling a ridiculous face, seems to me one of the more innocuous ways to do that. And also, this is me reminding all and sundry that photography has since its inception been about editing and choices. People have been lying through photography, in ways big and small, almost since the first time a lens was uncapped.
There’s also, at the moment, the practical matter that these new tricks the Pro can play are still mostly tricks. The face swapping thing works well enough in my limited use of it, but the thing where you move people around and then Google generatively fills around it is… not great. I took a picture of Charlie and Smudge and moved Smudge around, and it was clear that, well, there was some photo manipulation going on:
Could I have continued to edit the photo to make it look more realistic? Sure: I could have erased the free-floating shadow where Smudge used to be, for one. But other stuff (like moving/creating the the shadow under Smudge’s new position, for example), would take actual time and effort on a photo editing suite that is not Google’s. Google’s own in-phone* photo editing tools seem to me to be of the “good enough for social media, where no one’s looking too hard” variety, and outside of some very basic stuff — like removing that ball, for example — I would save any real photo manipulation for Photoshop or some other more robust photo editing software.
(* This asterisk comes from the fact that it looks like at least some of the new photo editing is not done on the phone at all, but on Google’s servers; for the face-swapping function, for example, you have to have uploaded the images into Google Photos. As a long-time inhabitant of the Google ecosystem, this doesn’t bother me too much, but it’s not a trivial thing that one’s picture tweaks are being crunched in the Google cloud and not on the privacy of one’s own phone. Be aware, is what I’m saying.)
The new “generative fill” tech and face-swapping stuff is fine, but like so many of the Pixel’s previous more fringe photo editing innovations, I suspect I personally will end up using them very rarely if at all. I tend to export my photos into Photoshop to tweak them beyond the most basic color/contrast/structure sort of stuff.
* I haven’t used the audio/video stuff at all so I can’t talk about any of that, although I am looking forward to seeing if the new noise reduction tools for on video recordings work as well as other people have suggested they do. I’m a fan of being able to cut out background noise as much as possible. But I’ve never been much of a video guy.
Phone calls — remember them? — sound good!
* As noted earlier, camera upgrades notwithstanding, my day-to-day use experience of the Pixel 8 Pro is… just like it was with the Pixel 7 Pro, which is very good! I noted last year that I felt like Google was really hitting its stride with the user experience of the 7, and the 8 is more of the same. It has a few tweaks here and there but not so many that I really notice them in daily use. Some of Google’s more showoffy bits I’m not going to use, like “AI”-generated wallpaper, which I won’t be using because I have pictures of Krissy and Athena instead and also, I don’t know which artists Google’s AI has scraped for those autogenerated wallpapers, but I suspect they haven’t been paid. So, pass. The Google 8 Phones have Android 14 preinstalled. Android 14 feels like an incremental improvement from 13: some tweaks but not enough that it makes using the phones a markedly different experience. It’s fine.
I am deep within the Google ecosystem and I’ve generally been very happy from a daily, “Okay Faceless Tech Company, Here Is Everything About Me, Help Me Get Through My Life” sort of way, and the Pixel 8 Pro continues that practice. I especially value the Pixel line’s spam blocking abilities. Rare is the spam phone call or text that makes it through the defenses, and even when one does, I have call screening and easy text filtering so I don’t have to think about it ever again. Everything else works as expected. At this point in the game, I am happy enough with the Pixel Phone experience that I don’t need it to do something flashy and new with every single iteration. It works for me and I like it.
I will say that the first couple of days I had the Pixel 8 Pro, it felt like the battery was draining more quickly than it had on other iterations of the phone. Now, a couple weeks in, the “adaptive battery” setting seems to have figured out who I am and how I do things, and the battery life is… fine. Pixel battery life has always been… fine. I carry chargers and an external battery with me when I travel in any event (I have many things to charge), so this is not too much an issue for me.
* So yes, I’m quite happy with the Pixel 8 Pro, and especially the new cameras. If you are in the market for a new phone, I would recommend it both as a camera and as a phone. If you’re not as much of a camera nerd as I am, you’ll probably be happy with the smaller and cheaper Pixel 8, which has pretty much all the software features of the Pro. If you have a Pixel 6 or 7, either of the standard or the Pro variety, I don’t think you need to make the jump to this one; those phones are probably going to do you just fine for another year or so. Pixel 5 or earlier owners who are thinking of taking the leap? Yes, do. Likewise anyone who is good with the Android phone life and is looking for a new phone. In my experience, the Pixel line is as good as Android gets, and the Pixel 8 Pro is at the top of that heap.
Well-worn phrases can still have life in them, as author Greta Kelly discovered in the writing of her latest, The Queen of Days. What maxim has her attention, and will it have yours? Read on to find out.
Blood is thicker than water.
It’s an idiom so well worn we barely even have to think to understand it. And yet stories about families—whether through birth or the happenstance of fate, are ones that I find myself drawn to like the proverbial moth. So it may not be a huge surprise to find out that the Talion Gang—the crime family at the heart of The Queen of Days—act more like a chaotic group of unruly siblings than a band of criminals looking to go pro.
Capturing their interactions was some of most joyous writing I’ve ever done, in part because their quirks and turns of phrase were so deeply inspired by my own siblings. (I suppose there is something to be said about writing what you know—another adage so well-worn its fraying at the edges.) Their arguments and inside jokes and easy affection almost seemed to write themselves. And for all their charm and endless banter, they were also supremely practical in assessing their own shortcomings. And they are manifold.
In broad strokes The Queen of Days is about a crew of thieves setting out to stop their city’s governor from resurrecting a fallen god. Nothing about that sentence accurately conveys how out of their depth they are. And they know it. They’re thieves in the most 1920’s sense of the word; they’re the kind to toss a bomb into a bank and clear out the vault in the chaos. But stick around to clean up the mess they made? Hard pass. To say these gremlins are a grudging band of heroes is an understatement. Hell, I had to take their city and chuck it out to sea just to make it harder for them to run away.
If they had any chance of surviving this story, let alone come out on top, they’d need help. A weapon of last resort. They’d need The Queen of Days. They’d need Tassiel.
But the Talion Gang was already bound together so deeply by blood that the idea of bringing a stranger into the mix was a daunting one. It was clear what the Talion were getting from the deal—Tassiel was vastly more powerful than the motley group of humans. She was very clearly their best chance of survival. But she was more mysterious too. Alien in a slightly off-putting kind of way. And in early drafts of the book, I found myself wondering what she got out of all this mess.
I wrote in circles trying to untangle her reasons for agreeing to join the gang in this fool’s venture. Revising and refining. Draft after draft, I finally threw my hands in the air and gave her her own point of view chapters…and they just didn’t work. The majority of the book was written in first person perspective from the leader of the Talion, Bal—which suited him to the hilt and helped me illustrate his brazenness and impulsivity, his fears and vulnerabilities. But that wasn’t working for Tass.
And then it hit me. For all her strength and magic and power, Bal and his crew had the one thing she didn’t: each other. Tass’s family cast her out, left her for dead and never looked back. And so seeing the Talion, working among them, must have been torturous for her. But Tass would never acknowledge that pain, nor the desire behind it. She was an unreliable narrator, not out of malice, but for the simple fact that there are things she couldn’t admit. Not to herself. Not out loud.
And so I took a chance and rewrote her chapters in third person. Mind you, it was still a close third person, but the change made all the difference. It allowed me to pull back the lens just enough to let her wounds see the light of day. To reveal where she’d lied—to herself more than anyone else.
What she wanted, more than money or vengeance or redemption, was a home. A family. All it took was a slight shift in perspective for me to see it. For Bal to see it too. And suddenly the way forward became clear. If Tass was going to join the crew, she’d have to join the family too.
Blood may be thicker than water.
But the strongest bonds come from time served.
I have a strange new interest, and if you couldn’t tell from the title, it’s tinned fish. Trust me when I say I had zero interest in tinned fish until recently, when I somehow stumbled upon TinnedFishTok, which is just like a section of TikTok in which enthusiastic tinned fish enjoyers post about their new finds and experiences trying stuff. They influenced me into trying some for myself. Namely, this one girl I follow named @daywithmei. Her “Tinned Fish Talk” series inspired me to get some tinned fish and give them a whirl.
I wasn’t sure where to start, or rather with what type of fish. Should I just go to Walmart and buy sardines in a can? I felt like I wanted something more curated than that. I thought maybe I should try one of the subscription boxes daywithmei posted about, especially since she had a discount code for them, but what if I hated them and forgot to cancel and then got more fish? It seemed like that was jumping too far into the deep end for a first-timer.
Thankfully, I found a variety box curated by Bespoke Post. It came with six tins to try, which seemed like a good amount.
Lightly Smoked Sardines in Spanish Olive Oil by Matiz
Mackerel in Olive Oil by Siesta Co.
Wild White Albacore Tuna in Garden Herb Pesto by Scout Canning
Chorizo Spiced Mussels by Tiny Fish Co.
Enoki Mushroom Snow Crab by Seed to Surf
Sardines with Preserved Lemon by Fishwife
Quite the lineup! Two types of sardines, mackerel, tuna, mussels, and plant-based crab. Definitely some interesting ones in there.
I enlisted the help of my dad, who suggested we start with one type of sardine and end with the other type since there were two. I thought that was a great idea, and picked Matiz’s lightly smoked sardines first.
The box says these sardines were wild caught in the eastern Atlantic and hand packed in Galicia. The box also claimed that they’re considered one of the finest sardines available. When we tried to get a filet out of the tin, it fell apart, so it was clearly pretty tender. I put a small amount on a Saltine.
I felt kind of strange eating fish with the skin still on, but it ended up being very mild in flavor. It mostly just tasted like white fish, which I like, so it was pretty good. An inoffensive start to our tinned fish trials.
Stepping it up a notch, I picked the Chorizo Spiced Mussels:
The box for the mussels said they were farm raised in the waters of the Pacific Coast. The first thing I noticed, other than the pack-a-punch flavor, was that these mussels weren’t rubbery at all. They had a really good texture for a mussel, and I actually love mussels so I was excited to try these. They were really interesting!
Switching back to fish, the mackerel was next:
I can’t say I’ve ever had mackerel before this, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The filets were quite large, and made for a substantial bite. It was flavorful without being overwhelming, and basically just tasted like a better version of tuna. Like this would make an awesome tuna salad if you replaced the tuna with it. It was good!
Finally we tried the one I was most curious about. The mushroom crab:
These definitely did not look super appetizing, but much to my surprise they smelled exactly like crab. Plant based seafood is a really interesting concept, so I was excited to give it a go. These mushrooms were seriously flavorful, but it’s hard to describe what exactly they tasted like. They had a strange sweetness to them, which actually reminded me of how crab meat tends to have a sweet flavor. They were kind of slimy. I kept going back for more, unlike with everything else we’d tried so far.
We ended up finishing off this entire tin once we started putting heaps of it on Saltines. It was so strange and weirdly good. I would definitely try this company’s other plant based seafood, which is their Celery Root Whitefish.
Another one I was excited for was the albacore tuna in the pesto sauce, because I love pesto:
This looked SO icky to me. For some reason it was one big chunk, so it was kind of hard to get apart for a bite. The tuna was dry, which was like, how do you manage that when it’s literally in liquid. The pesto was fine, overall it was adequate but definitely the biggest disappointment of the tinned fish. I found this particularly unfortunate because the company, Scout Canning, is part of 1% For the Planet, which means that they donate 1% of their annual revenue to environmental protection causes. Also, this tuna was line and pole caught, rather than caught with fishing nets, so like that’s awesome too! It was caught in the strait of Juan de Fuca, which is off the Northwest Pacific coast. I really like their business practices so it’s unfortunate to me that this fish was just kind of meh, and the least liked in the box.
Finally, the other sardines by Fishwife:
I guess I always assumed that sardines were tiny, but these were really big sardine filets! The box says they’re packed in Spanish olive oil with preserved lemon, and they were in fact pretty lemony, so no lie there. Again, the sardines were good, but nothing mind blowing. Of course, this is all just based on us eating them straight out of the tin, or putting them on a Saltine. I’m sure these could be really good if you did something with them rather than just eat them plain.
So, overall thoughts on the variety box: Pretty positive! It was fun to try new things, and most everything was rather satisfactory. It was nice to try a variety of things without trying anything too wild. One thing I was interested in when it came to this endeavor was cost. How expensive is tinned fish? Was I getting a good price for this variety box?
The variety box was $49, and after taxes and shipping came out to $57.86 total. So I decided to look up the cost of the individual tins they included. One thing I noticed with these tinned fish companies is that some of them sell their tins only in three packs, and you aren’t really able to buy just one tin from them. So right off the bat I do think that this box is beneficial for that reason.
Anyways, here’s what I’ve discovered!
Matiz Lightly Smoked Sardines– $4.19 a tin
Siesta Co. Mackerel– $24.95 for a 3 pack, so about $8.32 per tin
Seed to Surf Enoki Mushroom Snow Crab– $30 for a 3 pack, so $10 a tin
Scout Canning Wild White Albacore Tuna– Sadly, I couldn’t find this one on their website, but here’s their other tinned fish, which varies in cost based on the type of fish. I would imagine the cost of the tuna would be close to the cost of the rainbow trout, which is $23.99 for a 3 pack, so we’ll guess-timate that the tuna was probably about $8 a tin
Fishwife Sardines with Preserved Lemon– $32 for a 3 pack, so almost $11 a tin
So if you add up the cost of each tin individually, which again some of them aren’t available individually, you get $55.51. Then I probably would’ve had to get individual shipping and taxes on each. So I actually think this box was a good idea! I’m glad I went with this box, and I would definitely recommend it if you are also interested in trying some interesting tinned fish for no real reason.
Anyways, thanks for coming along on this tinned fish adventure with me! I think I’ll explore this further.
Which one looked the best to you? Would you try plant based seafood? Do you absolutely hate seafood? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
Apparently thinking on my recent book tour is giving me feelings, because I’ve made another musical composition, this one relating to my time in Budapest. At one point and I and my Hungarian publisher, with a little bit of time to kill, hiked over the Margit Bridge, just chatting about writing, publishing, the state of the world and other such things, as traffic zoomed by and the Danube flowed underneath us. This piece attempts to encompass the counterpoint between traffic and river, and the bustle of a modern city which nevertheless has stately bones. Beauty and chaos and a wide body of water, basically. Enjoy.