31 Days of Art Day 2: Winchester

So, as mentioned, I’m currently using Lynne Hansen’s #31DaysofArt2020 as a series of flash fiction writing prompts. Yesterday’s was a bit of a long piece of flash fiction. This was an image that came to me as I was falling asleep last night (albeit after binge-watching half of Season Four of Van Helsing.) It’s not as in depth as yesterday’s, but it was a fun chance to play around with words.

I can’t remember which writer I was reading, but they had posted a blog article about submitting to themed anthologies. One of the main takeaways was, let your first idea settle, and then put it aside and keep thinking. Chances are, the first thing you think about will be the same thing that everyone else reading the submission call is thinking about. That stuck with me, and when my brain was mulling over what “Winchester” meant as a prompt, I thought, of course, of Winchester house, and Mary Winchester, and Sam and Dean Winchester (oh yes, I thought quite a bit about them, and Charlie, and Sheriff Jody… Ahem! Where was I?)

Anyway, I thought a lot about all the Winchester references out there, and decided to go old school. Winchester is also a brand–of rifles, of really sturdy gun safes. How sturdy? Good question.

Day 2: Winchester

“Are they coming?”

Kayleigh and Mackenzie’s parents didn’t know they knew how to get into the gun safe. Kayleigh had cautioned her little sister against giving away the secret. They liked playing safecrackers, slowly turning the shiny metal spokes until the tumblers clicked, and the door with the embossed picture of the cowboy opened for them.

They were less concerned with the contents. There was Grandpa’s old rifle that no one ever used, the one with the fancy etching on the metal, and their mom had a pistol that was never loaded. At ten years old, Kayleigh knew you didn’t play with firearms, and she made sure her sister didn’t touch them. And she didn’t know how many times she’d cautioned her sister against even pretending to close the door while they were inside.

“Can you hear them?” Mackenzie whispered again, the tears on her cheeks wet on Kayleigh’s arm.

Kayleigh mutely shook her head. Her sister was only two years younger, but Kayleigh suddenly felt much older than her.

“Lee-lee?”

“No.” Kayleigh whispered the word harshly. Of course, Mackenzie couldn’t see her in the total dark. She softened her tone, still whispering. “No, Kenz. I can’t hear anything. Shh.”

Mackenzie whimpered and clung to Kayleigh, who felt a wet warmth soak the bottom of her shorts. The pungent smell of Kenz’s pee stunk up the inside of the safe.

“They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming,” Kenz whispered to herself.

Kayleigh clenched her teeth so hard her braces hurt. The door had locked behind them, at least she thought it did. She couldn’t open it from inside. She’d never been in darkness so complete.

“They’re coming, I know they’re coming.”

Her sister wasn’t getting louder. In fact, she whispered softer and softer, rocking back and forth, lowering her voice until Kayleigh could barely hear her.

Something in the room outside fell with the a thump and a smash. Kenz jumped and screamed, but it was only a half-choked squeal as she buried her face in Kayleigh’s shirt.

In. Out. In. Out. Kayleigh panted as if she’d been running the two-hundred-meter dash in P.E. with Mrs. Dodds. The Winchester gun safe was solidly built, and heavy, and she thought it would keep them safe.

But she’d seen those teeth and their claws and what they’d done to Mom and to Dad, and she closed her eyes tightly and hoped the wheel with its shiny metal spokes would not start to turn.

* * *

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31 Days of Art Day 1: Scar

So, I’ve decided to take on a 31 Day Art Challenge. Why? Well, because between releasing a new horror anthology, moving to a new house, trying to re-organize my writing space, taking a look at the work that I am doing to move towards my goals as an author and writing coach, and of course, finishing Winter Run so I can start a new project during NaNoWriMo, I just don’t have enough to fill my day! Ha… actually, I’m trying an experiment. Lynne Hansen, a terrific artist and cover designer, posted a #31DaysofArt2020 challenge, which basically lists a word a day as a prompt for either art, or design, or writing, whatever.

I’ve decided to go ahead and use it as a writing prompt. At the end of October, I may end up with 31 flash fiction stories. I may end up with some flash fiction and some scenes from Winter Run. I may end up giving up tomorrow. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m going to be posting what I come up with over here. I can’t promise it will be good (it’s a writing exercise more than publishing final projects) but if you’re doing the challenge feel free to follow along and share what you come up with!

October 1: Scars

The ground shook under my feet. Not a violent upheaval that threw me to the ground—more like the sensation of the packed-dirt-and-leaf debris sliding in opposite directions simultaneously. A harsh shiver rattled the branches around us, the last dry leaves and seedpods rattling an ominous death knell.

My aging mutt cowered behind me, wedging her graying body tight against the back of my calves. When I’d first adopted her, she’d been abused and displayed a similar stance every time one of our walks brought us within a few feet of a male passerby. She’d outgrown this behavior years ago, but now, she hid her face against me and shook uncontrollably.

An uncanny silence settled around us, broken only by my dog’s plaintive whining. She backed up, pulling against the leash. Distracted, I kept my gaze ahead on the woods, not noticing until she had slipped her collar and taken off back the way we came, her arthritic hips giving her a limp as she picked her slowly frantic way over the roots and rocks that littered the trail.

I didn’t worry—the few times she’d gotten away from the leash, I’d found her waiting for me at home, sometimes covered with muck and cuts from the brambles, but always panting at the back door, waiting to be let in.

A crashing sound from up ahead startled me. It sounded as if a tree had fallen and then just… kept falling. The crash stretched out and kept going, joined by another, then another. I looked over my shoulder. My dog was long gone. Briefly, I contemplated following her back.

On the other hand, whatever was going on ahead couldn’t have been planned or legal. Developers had been after this section of the trail for the longest time, attempting to clear and build right up to the edges of the national park property that barely protected the greenway. I had my phone—never hiked without it. I didn’t need to get too close. Just enough to snap photos of the construction equipment and bring it to the authorities. Maybe the Mayor and the town council. Some of them didn’t mind the fat gifts they got from time to time, but surely someone wouldn’t be able to ignore what was happening.

I held my phone out, camera screen at the ready, my thumb hovering over the screen so it wouldn’t automatically shut off at the wrong time and make me have to wait the couple of seconds for the camera to come back to life.

There was more light up ahead, filtering through the trees, than there should have been as I navigated down the short ravine and around the bend in the trail. Had they already started clear cutting? My hands behind to shake, sweat fogging up the phone screen. Some of these trees were over a century old, cleared by the original colonists in this area of north Jersey, then growing back steadily over the years of revolution, civil war, and then the desertion of agriculture for more lucrative industries in the area.

And then, the woods ended. What had been a dark tunnel of reaching tree branches across the trail yesterday afternoon was now an open clearing under a bright fall sky.

The first thing I saw was the large scar that ran the length of the clearing. It was about a half mile long, with about a third of that distance off to my right and the rest extending out to my left in a long, jagged hole. The edges were raw and bare and glinted with moisture that reminded me of blood. I lifted my cameraphone, scanning it back and forth, looking for the large construction equipment it would take to create this big of a trench in the middle of the woods.

A scratching sound came from the inside. Not a thin little scritch-scritch like a dog digging for fleas, but a massive, overlapping chorus of nails and teeth against dirt and roots and fur. I stood mere feet from the edge, the sound slicing at my nerves, my pulse a dull, heaving pounding through my nerveless fingers. Had it slipped through my grasp? No. I still clenched it, now raised it before me, stepping forward to peer into the chasm.

Sweat smeared the phone screen, but it had already gone blank and dead. I tucked it into my back pocket, safe. I did not know what I would find when I looked into the gash in the ground, but I knew it would not be anything so mundane as construction vehicles and men in hard hats.

A wave of vertigo hit me as I inched closer to the opening, and I slowly got down on my knees, crawling. When I reached the edge, I realized that it was not so deep, but the sight before more worsened the dizzy nausea that clawed at my stomach and my scalp.

Ten feet below, a pile of dirt and leaves. No. Now I could see it. Fur and dirt. But the glistening—that was blood. Claws. Eyes opened wide. Claw marks. Canines bared. The bottom of the trench was lined with animals, mostly raccoons and opposums and skunks, but the occasional rabbit and deer and large bear and snake interspersed broke up the gray monotony. They had been digging down, their front paws or hooves, whether designed for the task or not, breaking into the soil and throwing it up behind them.

The exertion had killed them all, dropping them in their tracks, paws splayed out for one, last scoop.

I couldn’t make any sense of it. The nausea overcame me as my vision struggled to take in the macabre corpseyard below, and I vomited everything I had until I could heave no more. I sat back on my heels, wiping my mouth with the shoulder of my T-shirt, when the ground began to move once more.

This time, I served as silent witness as the earth stretched, ripped, then parted in a similar long rip in the ground, parallel, just as long, if not as wide and deep. With the shaking came the sounds of feet and paws, more of the same small animals. At the same time, a curious compulsion gripped me.

I stood.

I followed the path of the flood of fur and teeth that led me to the new trench. Without stopping, I walked into it, losing my footing and landing on my knees beside the wildlife that teemed into the pit. As I reached out, sinking my hands into the dirt, ripping the soil as my fingers clawed and my nails tore from the task, I heard a sobbing.

A deep, heartfelt cry. It echoed through us and we shuddered with it as one.

Make it stop. Let me feel something again. Make it stop.

And I didn’t recognize the voice that filtered through the dirt, but I recognized the pain that broke through the numbness, as we clawed and scratched and cut at the scar on the skin of the earth.

Brandy, the inspiration for the beginning of the story. She’s smarter than my narrator…

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On the Shelf: A Misnomer

Or is it? This week, I am sad to report, I read exactly one-quarter of one book. This was not intentional–in fact I had plans. BIG plans. Lots of reading and writing plans.

What does God do when we make plans?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that somewhere up there, the universal deity is having a good chuckle at my expense.

Anyway, the book I started reading is Autumn Bleeds Into Winter by Jeff Strand, with cover art by Lynne Hansen, who is one of my favorite artists around. When I fantasize of affording fine art illustrations for my books, she is the artist I dream of hiring. Usually, I know, I post a whole review thing, but since I’m only a short way in, I’ll hold off. I will say, the beginning hooked me, and I didn’t want to stop reading, but I’ve been having a hard time waking up with my alarm clock and so I’ve been trying to be very good about putting the electronics down and going to bed.

One of the reasons I’ve been having major insomnia is that we STILL ARE NOT SETTLED IN. Our stuff arrives tomorrow, and then I’ll be able to spend the weekend organizing and unpacking and organizing to my heart’s content, at which point, I will start to feel a little more normal. In the meantime though, there is unrest in my mind, fed by the incredible news that pops up in my news alerts and social media feeds.

And yeah, I know that doomscrolling is a thing, and that it’s not a good thing to just stay immersed in all the bad things happening … but on the other hand, how can you ignore this? The ICE whistleblower complaints, the climate change that has caused the extreme weather effects in the West and the Gulf, the reports of continued roadblocks thrown up in front of people trying to exercise their basing civic duty of voting… I do not want to, nor am I going to, ignore all of this. My Senator’s office got a phone call from me yesterday, and they will get a nice letter sometime this week when I finally sit down and write it.

In the meantime, I am waiting for my printer to arrive so I can make sure I am registered to vote at our new address. I am waiting to purchase a vehicle so I can have freedom of movement to do things like go to in-person drill or volunteer as a poll worker. And I am waiting until November to see if we are going to collectively come to our senses and address the root causes of the systemic issues we face. And yes, it’s “we.”

I’ve also decided to start an indoor garden in order to have access to fresh vegetables and medicinal herbs just in case civilization does take a tumble.

So yeah, I’ll get more reading done this coming week. And more writing down this weekend. Just need to find that place where my mind settles down and my inner organizer has a chance to put things where they belong.

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On the Shelf: Books to Read in the New House

It finally happened–I missed a week of posting On the Shelf. But at least I had a good excuse! Exactly one week ago, we moved out of our camper and into our new house. There were some back and forths with the closing, which meant that we had to re-schedule our household goods dropoff (and then couldn’t get our original date back when the shenanigans were resolved). So, we’ve been camping out in the house using the mattresses and dishes from the RV, making the best of it.

We did manage to get internet and utilities set up, and I’ve been able to make long strides on catching up all the things I should have been doing the past month or so. I also called the mosquito and pest control people because this property had been vacant for a while, and some of the local creepy crawlies were getting just a little too comfortable for this entomophobic writer. In fact, as we speak, I have a stack of horror novels on the bookcase (and two on my desk), and the thing that’s icking me out is the cockroach doing the kickin’ chicken as it slowly succumbs not two feet away from my desk.

Yes. I could put it outside. No, I’m not touching it while its icky little cockroach feet are all waving in the air and stuff.

A little classic horror–and the proof of our next anthology!

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, what have I been reading or looking forward to reading? Let’s talk TBR piles. When we left California, I put a stack of paperbacks and my Kindle into the RV. I read about half the paperbacks and a bunch off my Kindle, and still managed to forget a whole bunch of the paperbacks (we were storing them under one of the bunks, and out of sight, out of mind. So I’ve got a number of titles waiting for me.

I read a bunch of pro reading the past few weeks and am currently meandering my way through a book on writing business plans, but this past week of reading consisted of books for pleasure crammed in between setting up promotions for Stories We Tell After Midnight 2, and making progress on Winter Run. Slow progress. Very slow. Anyway, here are some of the books I enjoyed the past few days. As always, if you’ve read one, let me know what you think. And if you have any book suggestions, drop me a line!

Zombie Cosmetologist Novellas 1 & 2 by JD Blackrose
This two-novella series (which I’ve just listed as the series page because do yourself a favor and just pick up both at once, it will save time when you get to the end of the first one and need to go on to the next) has as its premise that a former Union Soldier gets turned into a zombie after he dies as the Battle of Shiloh, and then decides that the way to make money in the modern world is to turn to the world of makeup artistry. And not just makeup–hair, nails, special FX, anything that a modern celebrity might need. But, since he IS a zombie, he ends up getting wrapped up in some clandestine shenanigans involving shady research, zombie Marine experiments, and a whole host of other hijinks. I enjoyed the novellas–they were funny and fast-paced, without neglecting character development or avoiding hard character choices. I’m looking forward to the next book club where we talk about the books. There was one tiny nitpick, and if you are not military affiliated, you likely won’t even notice. And that was, there were some inconsistencies with the military characters that now and then pulled me out of the story. Not super terrible, just be prepared to roll your eyes and keep going, because the stories are awesome and funny, and Waylon Jenkins is a hoot.

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
I picked this book up because it was (still is of today) on sale on Kindle for $1.99, and it was set in an apocalypse where climate change had terraformed most of the world, and magic and Gods had started to reappear. The main character, Maggie Hoskie, is a Navajo woman who has been apprenticed to a demigod, and who is nicknamed Monsterslayer. The demigod is the sort of guy who goes around killing monsters and then telling Maggie that there’s too much darkness within her before disappearing in the middle of the night. So of course, when the book opens, she’s a giant mess. Plus, it’s the apocalypse. There are things I loved about this book–the characters, the setting, the urban fantasy outside of the normal modern city setting. It reminded me a little of sharing Tony Hillerman books back and forth with my roommate on my second deployment who was Diné. While I was reading, and immersed in the world of the book, I really enjoyed it. I think I even posted on FB how much I did. But when I went back and started thinking about it, I’m not sure if I’m invested in reading the next one. For me, the fact that she has so internalized the whole “evil has tainted me” line that it leads her to do what she does in the first chapter (trying to avoid spoilers)… something about the character was irretrievably lost in that moment, and even the end couldn’t resolve it in a satisfying way for me. But, YMMV, and I know a bunch of people who love this book, so put it on the qualified recommend list.

Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit and Personal Power by Laila Ali
I picked up this book on Kindle right around the time I picked up the memoir by Donivan Blair. Like that book, this one had the distinct voice of an author who is coming to writing after accomplishing a number of other things. Written when she was 24, this memoir takes us from Ali’s earliest memories of growing up the daughter of Muhammad Ali and Veronica Porche to her adolescence, fights with her family and authority, even time spent in trouble with the authorities, to her decision to open her own business and go to school, and then to step into the boxing ring. All along the way, she muses on what it was like to grow up with her father’s fame always there, to see her mother, after she divorced Muhammad Ali, get trapped in an abusive relationship, to go through a similar situation herself, and still keep striving to the goals she set for herself and accept nothing less. I’m a fan of boxing fiction, and enjoy watching women’s boxing and MMA (men’s too, but I’d rather watch the former), and so I found this to be a fun, fast read. I would have really liked to see more of what it was like in the ring, what was going through her head, etc., but as a whole, I’d pick this up and read it.

Anyway, it looks like Charlie (yes, I’ve named him) is still kicking, and my kids are getting suspiciously silent, so I’m going to hope that I don’t have a bunch of typos, post this, and get back to today’s super long to-do list. Enjoy!

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On the Shelf: Reading For (More) Professional Development

When we headed out from California, I packed a stack of books and my Kindle. I brought probably too many for the small space we have, and even then, the selection I ended up with was a small portion of my physical TBR shelf. My thought process was, I would read the fiction I had on my Kindle (such a long list…), and I would read all the physical professional books I really needed to: books on publishing, books on editing, books on writing.

This mostly worked out. I’ve plowed through a good number of reference books on the crafts of writing, editing, and publishing. I’ve also devoured a number of fiction books. And I have, in the interest of full disclosure, bought a number of books from visits to the bookstore and by picking up $0.99 deals that I see on my FB or Twitter news feed and that look vaguely interesting.

One note about these deals–it turns out that if I pay a buck for a book (which I am very willing to do, in fact, it’s almost a reflex at this point) I am WAY more likely to read it than a book I picked up for free. Hm.

Anyway, the point of this is that while I have made some progress on my TBR pile, I think at this point, I’ve replenished each title as I’ve read it. Heh. So, this week, I’ve been tackling a number of professional titles. The material I’ve read has given me some good ideas for my plans for the next couple of anthologies, as well as the Rick Keller Project (more on that later.) There is also one title that was a total break in routine because OMG I NEEDED TO READ IT RIGHT NOW.

I’ve got a session with an editing client in a little bit, so before it gets TOO much later in the day, here is the round up of what was on my reading shelf this week.

Amazon Decoded: A Marketing Guide to the Amazon Store by David Gaughran

I forget how I got to this book. I think it was that John Hartness of Falstaff Books recommended Gaughran’s book on newsletters and then I signed up for Gaughran’s own newsletter, and then maybe this was the free book? Or he offered it for a 99-cent deal? I forget. Anyway. I think that if you can get a chance to pick this book up for a buck, then it would be worth it. But for the full price of it, you’re better off heading over to the 20Booksto50K Facebook group and reading through the information that they’ve organized and put together on indie publishing. It’s not that the information in the book isn’t helpful or important, it’s that I didn’t find much that was new. I did take some notes as I went through, and one of the helpful features is that Gaughran lists various resources (some of which, like Robert Ryan’s Amazon ad book, I did go and buy) for the indie publisher that may be of interest. It also organizes a bunch of info about Amazon and how their algorithms work, and that organization would be very helpful to a new publisher. Full disclosure: I am using this specific info tidbit, namely that the first five days of the launch are the time to make the most of the alg0rithm, to inform the next two anthology launches. So, we’ll see what happens. I do recommend that indie authors and publishers (and really any authors and publishers) go ahead and sign up for his newsletter. There’s a lot of good info there, and hey, you never know when you’re going to spot a sale.

Release Strategies: Plan Your Self-Publishing Schedule for Maximum Benefit by Craig Martelle

With one full-length and one mini anthology on the way, along with my own Rick Keller Project relaunch efforts, release strategies have been on my mind. There is some really good info in the aforementioned 20Books group. But if you’re looking for something that condenses it all and gives examples of how someone who is pretty successful at releasing books has put it (the information) together, then this is a pretty good resource. Martelle covers the various options available from releasing one or two books a year, to doing a full rapid release and all the attendant planning. It’s in KU, so if you have a chance to pick it up there, it’s definitely worth it. I think I picked this one up when it was another 99-cent deal, and it was worth the dollar AND worth the read. I’m realizing the moral of this week might be that it’s worth following various writers in their newsletters and social media so that you can take advantage of the inevitable deals they offer.

The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More by Steve Dunham

I’ve been working on a manuscript for a new client this week, and so thought it would be good timing to start reading this book. I picked it up about a week ago on a family trip to Barnes & Noble. This is a useful reference book, and I’ll be putting it on the shelf for a periodic reminder of things I can do to improve my editorial capabilities. On the other hand, I also tried to read it straight through, and it is really not a book that is a super easy cover-to-cover read. No matter. Some of the information is, I think, a little bit older. For example, the Words Into Type work that Dunham references multiple times appears to be out of print, and the references to typesetting vs. desktop publishing are less and less relevant as we progress through the 21st century. It was worth price, and as I mentioned, I’ll be putting it on my shelf next to Elements of Style and the other professional volumes I’ve collected.

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey

And here we are at the point where I devolve into a giant pile of fan-girl goo. I LOVE Sandman Slim. Like, have extreme fannish reactions to the books. I bought this, the next-to-last installment in the series, way back when it first came available for pre-order. This was a good idea, because then it downloaded onto my Kindle and I didn’t have to wait to read it. This was also a bad idea, because then I read the whole thing without coming up for air, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself for another year or so while Kadrey writes the last book in the series. Probably re-read the entire series while listening Spotify playlists he puts together. I don’t care if it DOES make me seem like a teenybopper with a crush listening to a mixtape… Anyway, if you, like me, are crazy for urban fantasy meets LA noir meets gritty, dark prose that sucks you in from page one and doesn’t let go until you emerge two or three days later having re-read an entire series, blinking and wondering WTF just happened–yeah. You’re going to like this series. Go, quickly, and check it out. And then go read Kadrey’s The Grand Dark, because I love that book as well. I should re-read it soon. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but if you want to talk, hit me up in the comments or drop me a line.)

Anyway, that’s the update for this week. This coming week I’ve got a bunch of great books lined up, but as always, if you have suggestions for the TBR pile, lay ’em on me!

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On the Shelf: Reading for Fun

This past weekend, the walls finally started to close in just a little too tightly in the RV… So, instead of breaking out the stack of business books like I had planned, I dove into some fiction reading to give my brain a break.

And a break, indeed, I needed. I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I used to be able to take two melatonin chews and conk out for the night. But lately, nope, I’ll take them, conk out for two or three hours, and then be up for the rest of the night. I know this is a combo of stress (still haven’t closed on the house!), cabin fever (we’ve got one car), start of a virtual school year (online Kindergarten, what even is that?), and anthology prep and all that THAT entails. Whee.

We did get out and about on Saturday, loading up the kids and the masks and the hand sanitizer for a little ride in the Jeep. We hit Target, then sat in the car while my spouse ran into Lowe’s, and then over to Barnes & Noble for some book basking. While we were waiting in line, however, I got a phone call from the campsite asking what kind of dog we had. When I told him we had a Basset hound, the gentleman informed me that the RV door was open, and while one dog was inside barking, our Basset, Captain, had gone for a jaunt around the neighborhood. Luckily, they picked him up and were holding him at the office for us. They were even super nice about it. Still … it added a note of stress onto a day that was supposed to be a de-stress.

a basset hound taking a nap

Captain Morgan, hanging out in the RV, plotting his next escape…

Anyway, thank goodness for books. In between finishing up the formatting for Stories We Tell After Midnight 2 and working on Winter Run, I read a few books just for fun. And started two more for professional development (still reading those, though, so I’ll put ’em on next week’s On the Shelf.

Monster Mash (Spells, Salt, & Steel #6) by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin

There’s not much I like better than a good ol’ science meets the supernatural set up wherein something is happening to creatures/cryptids, and our hero has to investigate and stop the dastardly (and probably IRB-violating) shenanigans. I picked this book up because someone on my FB list shared it when it was a $0.99 deal on Kindle, and then I read the whole thing and kept hitting next because I was like, come on! I want more book! I really enjoy the main character and the ensemble he’s gathered around him, although since it’s book six in the series, some of them were introduced with a bit of shorthand. I wanted to spend a little more time getting to know them… which means I’m going to have to go get books one through five, oh darn. Anyway, if you’re up for some creature feature urban fantasy (and I mean, who isn’t?), then definitely pick this one up for some fun reading.

The Wolf’s Shadow: Book One of the She-Wolf Saga by K.W. Kenny

This is another book that came across my FB feed as a $0.99 deal (I love those so much, especially to try out new authors and titles!) At first, I wasn’t sure if it was historical or historical fantasy, but a few chapters in, I would place it in the latter. A woman druid is captured during battle by members of a horse tribe. She is treated with honor as a seer, but it doesn’t stop her captors from moving against her people and their allies. I’m not super into the whole “falling into bed with one’s captor” trope, but in this setting it made sense–she was doing what she needed to survive, and that can lead to some tough decisions. By the end of the book, I was fully invested in Briga’s story, as well as the other main characters, to the point that when it ended on a big old cliffhanger, I was like–where are the other books in the series??? (Spoiler alert: There are none…yet!) Anyway, if you like stories like The Last Kingdom, or shows like Vikings, then you’ll probably really enjoy this and should pick up a copy.

The Edge by Tim Lebbon

When I picked this book up in the Barnes & Noble trip I talk about up top, I didn’t look closely enough and it turned out to be (yet again) a book in a series… I really have to pay more attention to that. This one turned out to be the sequel to a book called “The Folded Land” (as best as I can tell?) I had read Lebbon’s Coldbrook, which was a terrific running zombies tale, and when I found this in the horror section I thought I’d give it a chance. I don’t know if I would really classify it as horror–more like urban fantasy with a grittiness to it–but I enjoyed it nonetheless. In this world, fae creatures are hidden from humans, except for one town where, again, science has been colliding with the supernatural and created a plague that affects the fae. At the beginning of the book, this town is wiped from the map. The town’s resurfacing then becomes part of a larger story that deals with characters who are trying to keep information of the fae away from humans, and fae characters who are trying to start something called the Ascent, where they come out of the shadows and take over. There are dark shadows everywhere in this novel, and I can see why it got put in the horror section, but if you like urban fantasy, and stories where the fae aren’t so friendly, I’d recommend checking this one out. Although, maybe start with The Folded Land, which comes first.

Anyway, that’s the fiction I was reading to relax this week. What are you reading? Anything good? Any recommendations?

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On the Shelf: Short Stack

This week, I got a bit less reading done than other weeks. Part of this was due to that the writing wheels have been slowly grinding back into gear, but the majority of the reason was that I had my first drill weekend with my unit. It was a three-day extravaganza, which involved driving to Virginia Friday night for a range on Saturday. I shot a rifle for the first time in about a decade (previous qualifications had all used the M9 pistol, and while I was nervous at first, I ended up killing 35 paper targets, so in all, it was a good day.

It was also the first battle assembly wearing my new rank, and it was kind of weird (to use a very technical term. It’s Army jargon, trust me…) I fully expected to hang out in the Reserve as a Captain until I hit my mandatory retirement date or stopped having fun. But then, the Army decided they needed another Major, so here I am. There’s a whole new level of professional military education and expectations, and I’m working on trying to make sure I don’t immediately step in it.

But anyway, that’s where a lot of my focus was this week, plus working on some stuff for getting out the next publications from Crone Girls Press. And cranking the wheels back up on the Rick Keller Project.

Speaking of cranking the writing wheels, let’s get to the books, because two of them helped start the grind and generated two or three pages of bullet journal notes on how to make the series better from start to (the eventual) finish.

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron

This is one of those books, similar to Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling, that purport to use the concepts behind how your brain works (and how other people’s brains work) to help you come up with a plot for a book that will keep those brains engaged. Okay, got it. First, there wasn’t a lot of neuroscience here–at least, nowhere near as much as in Storr’s book. On the other hand, the way our brains process story is a long and winding road, and I’m not completely convinced of how helpful it is as a writer to know all the little nitty gritty science behind it. Second, I think this book will be super useful to a couple of categories of writer–ones new to the journey, or new to working on a novel, or those who like to have a super detailed, incredibly finely drawn plot outline, and be as prepared as possible before starting to write. For me, getting into the amount of detail beforehand would be a death knell to my personal creative process; that said, the information in this book is incredibly useful, whether you want to incorporate it into the pre-writing process or the revising process. I certainly came away with some new insight into how to shape the series I’m working on. It’ll definitely go on my shelf, especially if I’m working with a client new to the noveling journey, or who REALLY REALLY enjoys the pre-writing process.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody

It’s a bold claim, and one that I’ll probably disregard as I enjoy reading craft books from a variety of experiences and perspectives. On the other hand, when it comes to craft books gelling with my personal creative process this book, like Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story, will get a place on my bookshelf within reach of my writing area. This book draws on the story beats from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, in case that title sounded familiar, but lays them out in the context of novel development. The beat sheet with fifteen story beats arranged in three acts might sound too structured and stifling. And yet, this is the process that I have found that is the right mix of laying out what I’m going for when it comes to characters, theme, plot and subplot, and of writing forward while remaining open to discovery writing. Knowing the information about my story that this book invites you to explore both keeps me focused and at the same time gives me the freedom to play. As someone whose goal is to indie publish several series of urban fantasy, which require me to plan, write, and deliver at the rate of about a series a year, this is the structure that sets me up to do that. Of course, your mileage may vary. But I encourage you to check it out and see if it works for you.

Haunted Nights edited by Lisa Morton & Ellen Datlow

The other day, I had reached the end of my rope. Super frustrated, exhausted, stressed, claustrophobic, kids had been fighting all day… my spouse walked in and I was like, hey babe, gotta go! I went to get some yarn for some projects I said I would do, and then, I decided to just kind of drive around. Suddenly, I was at Barnes & Noble. Oh no… Guess I had to go in! I picked up a bunch of books, because why wouldn’t I, even with unread books back in the trailer. One of them was this anthology of horror stories all set on/centering around Halloween (I love Halloween so much!!) I started reading, and found a book of stories that spanned the sublimely terrifying to the straight up scary and horrifying. It’s hard to pinpoint a favorite, so I’ll just say that if you’re a fan of short horror fiction, and looking to get into the mood for fall, pick up a copy of this anthology, and you’ll be all set.

That’s what was on my shelf this week. What have you go next on your reading pile?

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On the Shelf: My TBR Pile

So, here’s the thing. I grew up a reader. Not just a reader—but the kind of kid who regularly got in trouble for, nagged at because I was instead of doing something else, or punished by taking away reading. (Not sure if all the clauses in that sentence make sense, but I’m trying to blog from my phone due to no WiFi at this campsite, so roll with me here…)

One of the things that has remained consistently true throughout my life is the size of my TBR pile—or “To Be Read” pile of books. This isn’t even the list of “want to read,” a list which, by now, is far too long to realistically finish in my lifetime, even if I suddenly became independently wealthy and moved to a remote Scottish castle where it would rain all day, and I would sit in the window seat and drink tea and nod at the children from time to time and take breaks by walking my hounds on the moors…

Oh. Sorry. Got a little carried away for just a moment.

Where was I? Yes. Talking about my TBR pile. There was actually a time in my life when I made it through my entire TBR pile. At the time it consisted of maybe thirty or forty books, all of which I read when I deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006. Then I came home and went straight to grad school, and the pile started growing once more. Never since then has my pile been less than around a hundred physical books. In fact, I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to my TBR pile, and that’s not counting the titles on my Kindle.

So, what’s on the shelf? The two tend to be split by genre. I tend to read fiction on my Kindle, particularly genre fiction. Most of the speculative fiction I pick up tends to be in digital form. I read so quickly that it becomes a matter of storage. With limited IRL bookshelf space (that I have to share with my spouse, sheesh), I am ruthless with which authors I purchase physically. Or their works. For example, I have every single Sandman Slim novel on Kindle, but I bought Kadrey’s The Grand Dark in hard copy. I tend to purchase paperbacks of nonfiction or literary fiction, as I read those a little more slowly, want to enjoy the tactile sense of turning pages, or in the case of nonfiction, can concentrate better with a paper copy.

For example, on my Kindle, I have a bunch of speculative fiction from small presses that I picked up for a couple bucks each and will probably read in the next couple of weeks. I also have some horror novels that I picked up in a Latinx horror author story bundle a while ago. Been reading those one or two at a time and really enjoying them.

Over on the physical TBR shelf (currently packed in boxes awaiting us moving into the new house), I’ve got a bunch of nonfiction on game theory, literary history, history history, biography, philosophy, and literary fiction.

Here in the camper, I’ve read all the paperback fiction I brought with, and now I’ve got a stack of craft and business books. Plus my Kindle. I’m trying to make myself read the craft and business books before I head over to the fun Kindle fiction, and it’s mostly a good idea because the more I read, the more ideas I get and the better grasp I get on the profession I’ve chosen. It also makes me more cognizant of the fact I need to wrap this up and get back to writing.

But hey—distract me—what’s on your TBR pile?

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Guest Post: GISH in the Time of Covid-19

IS Note: It’s been a hot second since I hosted a guest post here on the ol’ blog, but I’ve been seeing people post about GISH on my social media, and was kind of curious to see what it was all about. Jennifer Nestojko, who I have hosted here previously, was kind enough to send her thoughts. Read on…

Jennifer Nestojko, in her guise as Mistress Leofwen, SCA Bard.

It’s the Summer of the Pandemic, or at least what I hope is the only summer of Covid-19, as opposed to The First Summer of the Pandemic. I have been juggling training tutorials and arguing over distance ed options, because being a teacher feels a little like being led to slaughter with the push for in-class education in the fall. I have been wondering what to do. I need to write my will. I need to clean the house.  I decided to try my luck at the GISH Hunt for a novice endeavor. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

              So, here I am, slogging through Canvas tutorials and delving deep into never-ending piles of laundry, with my creativity smothered by anxiety and paperwork – or so it seems. I am also writing strange poetry and roping my children into staging scenarios from old paintings. Dinner tonight will be a challenge, and I mean that literally. There are challenges in this Hunt, and in my team I have taken on a few, and these are the consequences.

              Perhaps dinner tonight will cause my family unreasonable pain and suffering, perhaps that will be caused by the activities we have planned for later in the week, but the family that suffers together buffers together. (Yes, those training videos have left their mark. It is sad, really.) Weird is a way of life, and this week, during the Hunt, we are going to embrace the weird.

              After all, 2020 has already sent us people protesting life saving devices so terribly complex as layered fabric over their faces, it has sent us schools scrambling for ways to reach out to students now confined to home, it has sent us demon seed dreams and presidential tantrums. (To be fair, we had those tantrums happening for a few years, now.) 2020 has separated us from friends and extended family. There were murder hornets, or at least panic about them. I write horror and 2020 makes me wonder why all the good plot lines are suddenly claimed. Why should we allow 2020 to bogart all of the strangeness?

              People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang, and we should revel in that strangeness. We shouldn’t fear it; we should claim it and harness it and use our powers for good, even if that good causes unreasonable pain and suffering in the process. We already have that pain and suffering; we might as well have joy and creativity as well. GISH allows us that opportunity, in abundance. Therefore I am prepared to enjoy the Hunt. After all, signing up seemed a good idea at the time. It still does.

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On the Shelf: Some SF/F and NF

Here, NF refers to nonfiction. Once again, my reading list gets a little eclectic. I guess it’s only fair. One of the things keeping me sane as I hang out in this twenty-two-foot travel trailer with two dogs, a cat, and two energetic children is the fact that I brought a good selection of physical and Kindle books.

Yep. It’s going on week… um, three? And I’m finding that I can read and edit and schedule promotional stuff, but the writing I was planning on doing is evaporating. There’s just not the opportunity for the sustained concentration I need to in order to get quality words on paper is lacking. As I’m sitting here, for example, my oldest, who I told multiple times not to wrestle with her sister, is crying because she was wrestling with her sister, who then pinched her. A normal part of siblings learning to interact without tears, but I’ve learned that rather than try to write and get frustrated, I’d rather do something that knocks an item off my to-do list, but doesn’t require a deep flow state.

Reading in the RV. It’s a little cramped in here, but outside is super hot and humid, and I think I’m developing a pine allergy. Welcome to NC!

Add to this, my spouse is returning to a normal work schedule, which means that I’m home with aforementioned energetic children and no daycare, drop-in daycare, in-home babysitter, etc. Now that we’re back in Fayetteville, I do have a line on a babysitter, but not until we move into someplace with more space and get a little past the time that we were traveling and coming into contact with various people and places, even masked and distanced. Hopefully, we’ll be in that future situation soon, and then I’ll have some time to make progress on the long list of writing projects beckoning to me…

So yeah. I’ve been hanging out reading and editing. And yesterday, went to my first Olympic fencing lesson in a couple of years at the local Academy. And also, I’m knitting up a storm, mostly making dishcloths with profanity knitted into them. I was offering them to people who were making donations to organizations I’d like to support, and am now offering them to people who sign up to support my friend, Ed Ashford’s, Patreon. Ed and his spouse have been living in a hotel scraping by on donations from friends, trying to find ways to support themselves while dealing with disability and disadvantage. So, I’m trying to boost the signal; they put out lots of cool art and poetry, and the more they get out from under the stress of not knowing if they’re going to have a place to live next week, the more they can concentrate on creating. IMO, art and poetry and creativity are going to be what it takes to survive this crazy timeline, and if I can offer something to make it happen, I will. I currently have black, red, teal, white, and a limited supply of a sage green. I’m willing to make other things in other colors for people who hit the five-dollar-a-month and up subscription rate! Comment or contact me if you’re interested–unfamousscribbler ~at~ gmail.com

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got on the shelf this week!

A Fall in Autumn by Michael G. Williams

I actually read this a while ago, but hey, it just won the 2019 Manly Wade Wellman Award for best SF/F novel by a North Carolina writer, and it’s technically on my shelf, so I figured I’d take a moment to plug it. The world the novel takes place in is a floating city, and the premise is that in a world where genetic modification is a normal, accepted practice, the main character is, instead, conceived and birthed the old-fashioned way. Now, there is nothing I love more than the jaded private eye hired to do one last job, and Williams takes this trope and runs–no sprints, zooms, and races away–with it. Reading this–the characters, the worldbuilding, the excellent writing–put me in mind of the classic science fiction that I fell in love with as a young reader. Be warned, Williams will punch you right in the emotions, but by the end of the book, you will fall in love with the world and its characters. I definitely recommend it!

Kill Three Birds: A Kingdom of Aves Mystery by Nicole Givens Kurtz

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the other fiction book I tore through this week is another mystery. I love mysteries, and I particularly appreciate when a book, like this one, blends the genres of fantasy and whodunit. The world this takes place in is a universe where the characters are a blend of human and bird, and this colors their perspectives and worldview. Prentice Tasifa is a hawk-woman and an investigator, who gets assigned to look into the murder of a dove-woman. The case quickly grows to encompass more victims, and Tasifa is drawn into local and family politics as she untangles the thread of the plot. The writing drew me in and I enjoyed the story. I recommend it–and also recommend checking out more from the author!

Even If it Kills Me: Martial Arts, Rock and Roll, and Mortality by Donovan Blair and T.G. LaFredo

I was in the mood to read some martial arts/fighter memoirs, so I bought this book as well as Laila Ali’s book, Reach, on Kindle. I’m a fan of the genre, and enjoy reading books about men and women who train full contact martial arts. I was looking for something like Forrest Griffin’s Got Fight?, or A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan, and decided to give it a try. In this book, Donovan Blair, the bassist for the Toadies, talks about returning to Tae Kwon Do after having to quit as a kid, and his journey to getting his black belt. It wasn’t a long read, and some of the stuff he talked about, like getting older and pursuing goals, was interesting, but I think this book was written for a different audience than my demographic. It wasn’t bad, just not for me.

The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

I have a weakness for books about writing, story construction, and narratives. This book explores how human psychology and neuroscience impact what we get out of stories, what we’re attracted to in the telling of stories, and what stories resonate with people and why. Some (okay most) of the material was familiar from my graduate degrees in communication and criminal justice, as well as from previous reading, but Will Storr puts this information together in ways that provoke thought–and a number of notes in my bullet journal for things to think about and notes for projects I am working on, always a plus! My spouse listened to this book on Audible, and then bought me a hard copy, which shows how much he loves me, knowing that I cannot pay attention to audiobooks or podcasts… Anyway, if you are a writer and have an interest in how stories and narratives interact with what we know about human psychology and storytelling, then I definitely recommend picking this up.

From The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr.

Anyway, those are the books on this week’s shelf. If you’ve read any, let me know your thoughts!

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