Keeping Score: February 26, 2021

Novel’s up to 32,300 words!

It’s been easier to write this week. My wife’s recovered from her vaccine ordeal, and is well on her way to hitting her two-week full-strength-protection mark. Neither of us have picked up anything in the meantime, so — touches wood — we should be ok to ride out the rest of the pandemic.

I also got back in the habit of writing in the mornings, which seems to help. Something about trying to switch gears one more time, at the end of the day, makes it that much harder to focus on the story. Harder to think about where it’s going, and what I want to describe along the way.

Finally, I think it helps that I’m facing down the two scenes in this sequence that scare me the most to write. They’re both action scenes, which I consider a weakness of mine. And they’re both emotionally fraught for the main character. In one of them, she winds up losing an animal companion she’s had since she was a little girl. In the second, she’s seeking — but not necessarily finding — vengeance for her father’s death.

These are big, tentpole scenes. I need them to move quickly, to feel realistic, and also to hit readers right in the feels. Which means on top of my normal first-draft anxiety, I’m worried about building up to scenes that fall completely flat. Or scenes that are laughably implausible. Or scenes that make it all seem too easy on the protagonist.

Even success, in a sense, is rough. Writing scenes like these — where the emotional stakes are high for the characters, and it can end in a broken heart — are hard on me, too. Because I live through everything they experience; I have to, in order to put it down on the page. So I feel the knot in my chest when their father dies. My own tears well up when they have to put down one of their closest friends.

So I’ve been putting them off. Writing around the scenes, so to speak. And there’s been plenty of other things to cover! But now I’ve got to write them, so I can move ahead with the story.

And somehow, once I’m in the scene, writing it, it becomes easier. Easier to picture what’s happening, and easier to describe it. Easier to say what the impact of it all is. So I end up writing more, and more quickly, than before.

It’s almost like my fear of the thing is worse than the thing itself?

Of course, this is still just the first draft. It might feel easier to write it once I’m in it, but it could still all be terrible writing. I won’t know till it’s done.

How about you? Are there particular types of scenes that you put off writing, for whatever reason? How do you overcome your hesitation?

Short Book Reviews: February 2021

With the new year, Biden settling into the White House, and the vaccines rolling out, my reading pace has picked up from its previous pandemic low.

So rather than work up longer individual reviews of the books I’ve gone through, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of them, all at once, in reverse order (so, the most recent book I finished this month is listed first).

Here we go!

Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg

A frustrating read. Zuckerberg (yes, the Facebook founder is her brother) provides a detailed, anthropological study of how the denizens of the manosphere wield Classical authors to promote their racist, misogynist views. What she doesn’t cover is any way to counter these arguments. If anything, she comes down on their side, agreeing that yes, the Classical tradition contains lots of misogyny (Though no racism, since race as a concept wasn’t invented till the modern period. Which makes it weird that she would fall into the right-wing trap of assigning Whiteness to the Mediterranean authors of the Classical tradition? But I digress).

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

A set of separately-published essays stitched together in book form. It works, because each essays illuminates a different side of the central question: What happened when an administration scornful of expertise took control of the nation’s experts?

This was published in 2018, and already Lewis could see — via his interviews and investigation — that disaster was coming. We’ve got a lot to rebuild.

The Mongol Art of War, by Timothy May

Discovered this via military historian Bret Devereux’s excellent series of blog posts about the historical accuracy of the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire (narrator: there is none).

It’s a fairly quick read, giving a detailed look — well, as detailed as we can get, given the reliability of our historical sources — at how the Mongol army was able to conquer so much of Asia and Europe in such a short period of time. Goes through command structure, tactics, even some detailed logistics. For example, did you know Mongols preferred riding mares on campaign, because they could drink the milk provided (and thus not need to bring as much food along)? Or that the Mongols built a navy from scratch (with Korean assistance) just so they could conquer southern China? Fascinating stuff.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This is one I’m going to be reading and re-reading. It’s basically a manual of all the different navigation techniques used by humans before the invention of GPS. How did the Pacific Islanders sail thousands of miles across open ocean to settle so many islands? Why did the Atlantic triangle trade develop the way it did (hint: it was the prevailing winds)? What sequence of clouds denotes an oncoming storm?

Simply wondrous. Made me look at the world around me in an entirely new way.

Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein

The final volume in Perlstein’s excellent series on the rise of the Right in the United States. This one covers 1976-1980, and it’s absolutely riveting. All of the techniques we’ve seen from the GOP under Trump — misinformation, distortion, and deliberate hyperbole — got their start in this time period, and coalesced around Reagan as their standard-bearer. His election cemented the shift to the Right that we’ve been suffering from for the last forty years.

I consider this book essential reading, if you want to understand how we got to this point in American politics.

Movie Rewrites: Iron Eagle

My wife and I are only six years apart in age, and yet our childhood pop culture was completely different.

For example, I know if she starts singing along to a song I don’t recognize, it’s a 1970s radio hit. She knows all about The Partridge Family and Three’s Company, shows I’ve heard of but never seen. Minstrel hobo chic is her fashion jam.

But move into the 1980s, and the roles reverse. She’s never seen Fraggle Rock or Duck Tales. Doesn’t know Bon Jovi or Journey (or Def Leppard or R.E.M. or Bauhaus or New Order or….).

So we’ve made an effort to introduce each other to our respective pop landscapes. It’s interesting to find places where we overlap (MacGyver) as well as the gaps (I’d never even heard of The Rockford Files before her, and she had no clue why I was so excited to hear that She-Ra was getting rebooted on Netflix).

All of which is to say, we watched Iron Eagle this week, as part of introducing her to 80s movies I loved as a kid. And it did not hold up well.

What I remember as a scrappy-kids-rescue-the-grownups movie, a sort of Goonies adventure with higher stakes and fighter jets, is actually a harrowing tale of how a group of teenagers infiltrate a military base, steal a bunch of weapons, then invade a sovereign country, kill dozens of members of its military, and destroy a major oil refinery, all for one downed American pilot (who was violating the country’s airspace).

Questionable morals aside, that might be forgiven, if it were at a good movie. But…it’s not. The Eagles are thinly sketched, the lead has no charisma, the timeline is way too short (only three days between “go away kid” and “you’re the finest young man I know”??), and the climatic battle with the “villain” is just ridiculous.

Only Louis Gossett Jr comes out well. His character isn’t written any better than the others, but he’s just so damn good as an actor that he breathes life into Chappy through sheer force of will.

But! We talked it over, and we think the movie’s salvageable. At this point it’d be a reboot, but that’s ok; it gives us license to do the extensive rewrite the movie needs.

What to Keep

Chappy. Chappy Chappy Chappy. He’s the real heart of the movie, the mentor tying everything together, and that needs to stay. We need someone with the right mix of charisma, maturity, and gravitas that can play him, like Denzel Washington.

We also keep the central conflict of the story: Military pilot is shot down in a hostile country and held captive. Their eldest kid and that kid’s friends — with Chappy — plan and execute a bold rescue mission.

I also like the story of how Chappy first met Doug’s dad. It’s sad, but true, that a Black man getting mistaken for janitorial staff is just as plausible in 2021 as it was in 1986.

We also keep the idea of The Eagles Flight Club as a place where certain military brats hang out, and as a group of friends to help with the rescue.

And we’ll keep the general sequence of how the final third of the movie plays out, with Doug ending up on his own for the rescue mission (accompanied only by Chappy’s voice) after things go wrong, the attempted blackmail of the country’s leaders to free his dad, and the need to evade a pursuing force once he’s got his dad in the plane with him (but more on that later).

What to Change

So, we’ve kept the bones of the story: A military-brat teenager is going to get help from his group of friends and an older pilot to go on a daring rescue mission in a foreign country using aircraft. But we need to shift things so that it’s both more realistic and less jingoistic.

We start by altering the nature of the Eagles Flying Club. Instead of being a bunch of military brats who have “the whole base rigged,” it’s a group of kids who work on and fly old planes. That airplane graveyard that Doug takes his date to? That’s their source material, where they go to get good deals (because their parents don’t make a lot) on parts and planes that they then fix up and fly. So right away, we position Doug and his friends as clever, hardworking underdogs, not bratty teens.

We also need to up the diversity in the casting. Half of the Eagles should be women. There should be more than one PoC. The US military (and thus, military families) is diverse, and we should show that on screen. Ideally, the Doug character himself is not White.

Okay, so now we’ve got the casting, and the reason the friends hang out put together. Now we give them an early challenge, to show who they are and how they work together: the Snake Race scene. But we make a few alterations: the bullies are not just bullies, they’re fellow military brats. But their parents are wealthier (higher-up officers), so the planes they fly are expensive and new, not the buckets of junk the Eagles cobble together. The main bully got in to the Air Force Academy, while Doug was shut out.

So when the main bully taunts Doug about his rejection letter, it’s the culmination of a lifetime rivalry for these kids. And when Doug accepts his challenge to race, the stakes are high in terms of pride: it’s the Eagle’s junkyard plane against the bully’s new Cessna. No motorcycles involved.

Doug still has to take the (shorter) risky route, because the bully’s new plane flies straight and fast down the (longer) easy way. And that’s how he wins the race, because he and his friends have modified the old plane to perform better under such stressful conditions.

Just a few small tweaks, and we’ve taken this scene from “why is this in here? is that a motorcycle in a movie about planes?” to “oh shit there’s no way they can beat that fast new plane in that hunk of junk.”

Then, just as they’re celebrating their victory, they get the news: Doug’s dad has been shot down.

Here we keep a lot of the beats from the movie, but we spread them out over time, and we don’t have anyone just waltz into a Situation Room and get access to Top Secret reports and a high-ranking Air Force officer. The Air Force stonewalls Doug and his family; they get most of their information from news broadcasts (yay, journalism!). All they know is where he got shot down, and why, and that the government is negotiating for his release (or worse: the government is not negotiating for his release, because “they don’t negotiate with terrorists, and that includes rogue states”).

A month passes. Not three days, not a few hours, a full month. Doug spirals, spending more and more time in the simulator, ignoring his friends, going through the motions with his family.

It’s Chappy that pulls him out of it. Chappy that chews him out after that he takes up the Colonel’s simulator time (and Doug is mouthy about it). Chappy that takes gives him a job, working with him at the local commercial airstrip.

And it’s a story from Chappy, about a rescue op that almost went bad, that inspires Doug to mount a rescue for his dad. Not one that uses military equipment, though. What he imagines is a stealth mission, where they get in and get out without being caught or recognized.

Because the head of the military in the country that’s holding his dad is a fan of…old aircraft. He has a collection of old planes that he’s bought from various places over the years, painted and fixed up. He likes to take them out himself, without any guards, just for the thrill of it.

So that’s how the Eagles plan to get into the country’s airspace: They build copies of some of the planes in the enemy general’s collection, so they can pretend to be just him on a joy ride.

No theft of military hardware needed, this time. No hijinks on the base that would end up with the kids spending their lives inside a military prison if they got caught. Just good old fashioned elbow grease and research.

They do still need some military intelligence, though, to track where Doug’s dad is being held and the disposition of the country’s air defenses (so they know how to fool them). This they have to steal — or maybe Chappy provides it? — but that’s it.

Chappy’s role is still advice and planning. He knows the hardware they’ll be up against, knows how to teach them to avoid triggering any reaction that will get them killed. But he doesn’t have to aid and abet them ripping off the US military, this time.

He also doesn’t go. His role during the mission is going to be monitoring everything from the ground, pulling up fresh intel as they need it, and coordinating everyone. He doesn’t fly any of the old planes they fix up. That’s what the Eagles are for.

This lets us continue to fill out the Eagles as characters (because they’re in the film more) and gives us more possibilities for the rescue (because they’re part of the mission now).

So, they spend weeks (not days) planning the rescue, and working on the planes (to make them match the enemy leader’s collection). They contact other Eagles Flying Clubs around the world — thanks to the internet, there’s franchises all around — to have a place to stop, refuel, and repair on the way from the US to the country where Doug’s dad is being held.

Just as they’re putting the finishing touches on the plan, that’s when they hear that Doug’s dad is going to be executed in three days. So we get the scene where Doug can’t sleep and Chappy shares war stories with him, but this is after their relationship has been built up over time, so it’s both more believable and more poignant.

They set off! Things are bumpy from the beginning, of course. One of the old planes starts having engine trouble over the Atlantic, and only just touches down on the borrowed runway in rural Spain (cue shots of sheep running from the incoming planes). So they have to leave it behind, along with its Eagle pilot (to repair it and fly it home).

They lose another plane as they’re crossing the Mediterranean, getting close to the country where Doug’s dad is being held. A sudden fog blows in, and one of the plane’s instruments starts malfunctioning. Unable to see, its pilot is forced to climb up and out of the fog, which uses up too much fuel. It’s forced to turn back.

Only Doug’s plane is left. He thinks about turning back himself; there’s no way the plan will work with just one plane. Chappy gives him the “I’m right there in the cockpit with you” speech, bolstering his confidence.

He makes it over the border successfully, and when contacted by ground control manages to fool them into thinking he’s part of the leader’s entourage. He heads for the prison.

This is when they switch deceptions (and where the other planes would have been handy). As he closes into the prison, Doug switches on an electronics package his Eagles worked up. At the same time, another Eagle on a fishing boat off the coast unfurls a huge makeshift radar dish on deck, and activates another one. We see the air control at the base near the prison react to seeing an American warship appear off their coast, followed by a radar ping off an F-18 (!) deep in their airspace.

Then Doug contacts the prison, issuing his threat: He’s part of a strike force sent to get his dad out. If the captured pilot isn’t put in his flight suit and set on the tarmac within an hour, the warship will start launching cruise missiles at strategic targets in the country.

The prison scrambles to comply, while contacting the leader for instructions. The leader is skeptical; he orders them to go ahead and release the American, but to set snipers over the runway and prepare their own fighter craft.

Hearing that they’re moving his dad, Doug relays the next part of the plan: His fighter is going back to the warship, and the pilot will be picked up by a civilian aircraft. He switches off his electronics package, and the “F-18” vanishes from their radar.

This makes the leader deeply suspicious. He orders visual confirmation of the warship’s presence. A scout plane is duly launched, headed to the coast to confirm.

Meanwhile, Doug prepares to land. Watches them take his father out of the prison, shove him into a jeep, and wheel him down the runway. He makes his final turn, landing gear down.

And then the scout plane spots the “warship” in the bay: Just a fishing boat, with a smiling, waving, Eagle in it.

The leader orders the snipers to fire, just as Doug touches down.

His dad falls, shot through the shoulder. Panicked and enraged, Doug lifts off again, followed by machine gun fire. He looks back at the runway, sees his dad moving, pulling himself along till he’s behind the jeep, using it for shelter.

Doug can’t leave him there. Thinking quickly, he flies back over the runway, a little down from where his dad is. Drops his spare fuel tank, which explodes on contact, creating a wall of fire on the tarmac that obscures the vision of the snipers. Under its cover, he’s able to land, grab his dad, and take off again.

But they’re not safe. Three enemy fighters from the base set off in pursuit. Doug doesn’t have any weapons, so it’s just his flying against theirs, as they race for the coast.

And it seems like he’s bested them! They’re almost to the Mediterranean, when six more fighters show up ahead of them on radar. They’re caught.

That’s when we hear the American accent crackle over the radio, letting the enemy fighters (and Doug) know the six planes ahead are real F-18s, and suggesting they do not engage with Doug’s plane.

The enemy fighters break off, not wanting to take on such odds. The Americans offer to escort Doug back to base. Doug follows, though he wonders what base they’re referring to.

…Which is revealed as they pass back through the fog near the coast, and come out the other side, where an aircraft carrier is waiting!

Along with Chappy, who “convinced a Navy friend of his” who “was going to be in the neighborhood” to let him come along (and bring his carrier).

And that’s how they work up the cover story for the rescue: The aircraft carrier strike group carried it out, not the Eagles. This gives the military the win, and lets the Eagles off the hook for the whole thing.

There you have it! An updated Iron Eagle, ready for remake in the 21st Century. We keep the emotional heart of the story, and many of the beats, but we deepen the characterization, broaden the representation, and up the realism.

sits by phone, waiting for Hollywood to call

Keeping Score: February 19, 2021

Writing each day’s words this week has been like extracting teeth using a slippy pair of old tweezers.

I had a…let’s say rough…ending to last week. Several things came together at once to make work stressful, which bled into the early part of this week.

Also my wife got her second vaccine shot, which on the one hand is awesome, but on the other required her to suffer through being harassed by a cop and yelled at (in close proximity) by the staff working there. And a few hours after she got the shot, she came down with alternating chills and sweats, shaking uncontrollably. She didn’t leave the bedroom for three days.

The icing on the stress cake was some maintenance that we needed done on the house, that could only be done by people entering the house. Which meant shutting off the heat, opening all the windows, and locking myself in my office while they were here.

My body, being slightly over four decades old now, doesn’t react well to such compounding stresses. And it’s gotten creative, so the manifestation of the stress differs every time, by type of stress and how much I’m going through.

Big speech coming up? Probably going to break out in fever blisters.

Mother-in-law had a pulmonary embolism requiring you to give up all your pets, sell your car and your house, and move back to Arkansas to take care of her? Prepare for root canal failure.

This time, I started clenching my jaw so tight that I woke myself up with muscle cramps. Felt like someone was reaching from my neck through my jaw to tug at a tooth. I got maybe four hours of sleep over two days.

So…yeah, focusing on the novel’s been difficult.

It’s during times like these that I’m glad I set my writing goal so low. 250 words is something I can hit in about 20 minutes, on a good day. So on days that are not good, I try to give myself an hour to hit it, dropping other housework to carve out the time. And it’s working, so far.

All the same, I hope next week is more relaxing.

President’s Day, 2021

Coming in the midst of Black History Month, I can think of no better way to honor this President’s Day than to read two essays. Both by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and both published in The Atlantic, but with completely opposed subjects.

The first essay, “My President Was Black” was published a little over four years ago, in January 2017. Obama had just left office, and Coates wrote a long, reflective essay on what the Obama Presidency had meant, both for him as a Black person, and for the country as a whole. He explored Obama’s unique raising, and how that had influenced his perspective on race relations in America. He talks about how Obama achieved so much as President, despite a coalition of racist opposition that formed from his very first day in the Oval Office. And he covers how Obama disappointed him, in the way he spent more time chastising Black people for “blaming White people” and not enough time openly calling out the structures of white supremacy.

Like all of Coates’ writing, it’s powerful, it’s though-provoking, and it’s worth your time.

The second essay, “The First White President”, was published just ten months after the first, in October of 2017. Even then, Coates could see clearly what many commentators could not, until after the Capitol Riot: that Donald Trump’s entire political philosophy, such as it is, can be summed up as white nationalism. That Trump would not have been President at all, were it not for the racism that undergirds all politics in the United States. Trump was the ultimate expression of that racism, of that contempt for non-Whites. His racist supporters elected him as if to say, “True, a Black man can be President, after a lifetime of struggle and study. But any incompetent White man can trip into it, if he hates Blacks enough.”

Everything in that essay still rings true. It’s a potent reminder that Trump’s grounding in racism was always there to see, if we were willing to see it. That so many people were not willing, for so long, tells us exactly how deep white nationalism’s roots go in this country, and how much work we have left to do to pull it out.

Keeping Score: February 12, 2021

This book may end up being much longer than I thought.

It’s currently at 29,122 words, which is almost half of the 70K or so I thought it would end up being. The trouble is, I’m not even close to being halfway done.

The section I’m working on now, just by itself, is 16,000 words long. And it’s not near done, either. I’m maybe….halfway? through the story I want to tell in this part of the book. And this section is only meant to be about one-fourth of the whole, so that would put the final word count at around 120,000 words (!)

That would make it a third longer than the longest thing I’ve ever written in my life.

I swear, I’m not eating up word count spinning needless metaphors or having characters do a lot of navel-gazing. It just turns out that yes, when writing a novel that moves from the lakes and forests of northern Sweden to the neverending sky of the Central Asian steppe, there’s a lot of, um, ground to cover. Who knew? (Narrator: He did. Or should have).

Granted, a lot of what I’m writing now might be cut out. Some of it is no doubt redundant, or can be compacted so that the events of a few pages get covered in a few paragraphs. But even lopping off 20,000 words of filler would make this a 100K book.

100K is about 400 pages, which…well, that’s a commitment, isn’t it? For reader and writer alike.

So much for being done with the first draft before April. This might end up taking me the rest of the year.

Maybe it’s time to look at bumping my daily word count? Trying to squeeze in a second writing session in each day? Or I could start writing on the weekends again. Just two extra days of my regular word count would be an extra 500 words a week.

Or perhaps it’s best to be patient. Work on this draft during the week, like I have been, and use the weekend to edit other stories (and that previous novel, which needs a tune-up before going out).

What about you? What do you do, when a story you’re working on starts to look like it’ll be much longer than you anticipated?

Post-Game: Writing Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World

So the Clarion West online workshop was…interesting.

The instructor, Fabio Fernandes, seems like a fantastic person, one I could easily sit and talk to for hours. I feel this because that’s basically what he did for two hours: talk to us.

Well, I exaggerate. We spent the first hour hearing having everyone in the class introduce themselves.

The second hour — and beyond? he wasn’t done when I had to hop off to get back to work — was him telling us stories, making reading recommendations, and…that’s it. No real writing advice, other than to write what we want to write, rather than what we know.

But his personal stories were fascinating and eye-opening. Like the one where he picked apart a scene in Ian McDonald’s Brazil (which he translated into Portuguese) involving a group of black men and a white woman, talking us through how the race relations displayed in that scene were not Brazilian, but American. Or how he’s considered to be White in Brazil, but in the US or UK he’s Latino, but only to people in those countries who think of themselves as White, because to other South Americans, Brazilians are not Latino, because they don’t speak Spanish!

And he did in general give me confidence (permission?) to write about cultures other than my own. He said we have to find things in our experience that can bridge the gap between the culture we grew up in and the culture we want to write about. And to remember that we are all both insiders and outsiders: insiders for our native culture, outsiders to everyone else (and vice-versa).

So I guess my experience was positive? If a bit less focused than I’d like. And less organized; they said they’d have the recording link sent to us, but it’s been over a week now and so far, nothing.

So I’m not sure I’m going to sign up for any more of the Clarion West online courses. Apparently fifteen minutes is more than enough to get some excellent feedback on a story draft, but not even two hours is enough time in which to give some general writing advice and techniques.

In conclusion: I really cannot wait for the pandemic to end, so we can go back to learning and sharing in person.

Keeping Score: February 5, 2021

I’m not sure I could keep doing this writing thing, without the support of my friends.

Just this week, one of them pinged me, to ask if I’d heard anything back about a short story he’d recently beta-read for me. And I felt a prick of shame, because I hadn’t submitted the story, even after incorporating his feedback, and declaring that was my intent.

But that shame is becoming action. I’ve promised to send it off this weekend, and asked him to penalize me (via drinks owed) if I don’t.

The funny thing is, I love the short story in question. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written to date. But it’s already been rejected, in previous draft form, by half a dozen different magazines. So I’m terrified of submitting it again, and having it rejected again…and then discovering later that there’s one small thing missing that makes it perfect.

Because I only get one shot at each magazine for this story. They all have policies in place that won’t let you re-submit a story, even after editing. Which is their right, of course; they get inundated with submissions as it is. But it raises the stakes for me. Makes me hesitate to send the story in. Because being told “this isn’t good enough” is fine with me. It’s not being able to fix it and then try again.

In an odd way, I feel like I’m failing the story when it gets rejected. Like it’s my job to make it the best it can be, and then go find it a home. And when I edit after getting rejections, and those edits make the story shine brighter, I feel like I let the story down by sending it out too soon.

And yet, how would I know to keep editing, without those rejections?

All of which is to say: I’ve got another short story I’m sending out this weekend. And another friend to feel thankful for.

Short Fiction Review: Apex Magazine Issue 121

Apex Magazine is back!

Apex went on what looked like permanent hiatus while editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore dealt with multiple surgeries for serious health issues (see his editorial in this month’s magazine). But he’s thankfully recovered, and after a successful Kickstarter, he’s re-assembled the Apex editing team, and resurrected the magazine!

Issue 121, then, is their first new issue in almost two years. It’s a double issue, as all of them will be from now on, released every two months. You can grab your own copy here

So let’s dive in! (no spoilers, I promise).

Root Rot, by Fargo Tbakh

Jesus, this story.

Reading it is disorienting at first. There’s a good reason for that, for why the narrator’s voice seems jumbled and confused. But as I read, more and more pieces fell into place, until the very last scene broke my heart.

I wish I could write something this powerful. This moving. An inspiration, and a bar to shoot for.

Your Own Undoing, by P H Lee

Second person, represent!

I usually hate stories told in the second person. All those “You”s feel like commands, and I instinctually kick back against those, and out of the story.

Not so in this case. Lee’s story wove a meta fairy tale around me, a story that was itself an illustration of the conflict at its heart.

If it sounds too clever for its own good, don’t be put off. It’s not. It’s a fantastic story, first and foremost. It’s only afterward, when thinking about it, that its clever structure reveals its shape. Just amazing.

Love, That Hungry Thing, by Cassandra Khaw

This one….this one did feel too clever for its own good, for me.

Not in structure, but in the way it leans so far into the modern (well, post-2004) tendency to leave readers out on a limb. Being confused can work — see the first story, above — for a while, but I (being very careful here, as I know not everyone shares my tastes) tend to get very frustrated if there’s no payoff at the end.

And there’s no payoff in this story, for me. In fact, there’s very little action at all, or even dialog.

A lot of beautiful description, though. Evocative words and phrases that promise glittering insight into this future, but then never cohere into a stable image. Nothing falls into place. It’s an exquisitely described place, though.

Mr Death, by Alix E Harrow

My favorite of the bunch.

I don’t want to say too much, lest I give anything away. Let me just say that this is what I wish the movie Soul had been. Read it. You won’t regret it.

The Niddah, by Elana Gomel

A short story about a global pandemic. Yes, really.

Grey Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Had an allergic reaction to this one. Something about another story that drops the reader into a confused space, with no explanation, and calls its main environment “The City.”

All I Want for Christmas, by Charles Payseur

Short, powerful flash piece. Made me shudder.

Only a Year: A Thank You Letter to Our House

My wife and I bought the house we’re living in almost exactly one year ago. We closed (finished all the paperwork) on January 31, 2020. Started packing on February 1. And moved in February 2nd.

Anticipating all the get-togethers we’d host in the new place, with all that extra yard space.

During the move, I cut my head, bad enough to think I might need stitches. I drove the twenty minutes to the nearest Urgent Care clinic, only to be turned away. It was Super Bowl weekend, you see, and everyone was getting in to see the doc before the game started. I could wait two to three hours, or I could go home. I chose to go home, and resume moving (suitably bandaged, of course).

No masks. No fear of other people. No hesitancy in going out for fear of catching something.

Three weeks later, having finally decided where the furniture would go, we held a house-warming party. Invited friends from all over town, got a taco truck to cater lunch, filled half a dozen metal troughs with ice and beer. We thought it’d be maybe a few hours, ended up lasting all afternoon and into the night. I made a toast for the late-night crowd using Stone’s Vertical Epic re-release to talk about every significant year in our two-decades-long marriage. We had a blast.

It was the last party any of us have been to since then.

We’ve been lucky this year. Neither of us has caught Covid-19. We’ve both been able to work from home, from this home, during the pandemic. My wife took over the third (guest) bedroom as her office, a bedroom we didn’t have at the old place. We had a garage big enough to hold all the boxes for all the deliveries we started getting. We had a kitchen big enough for us to start cooking all of our own meals. A yard just big enough for our pups to go out and get some exercise, since they couldn’t go to the park anymore.

I feel fortunate and grateful, and a large part of it is due to this house. So thank you, house, for being there for us.

For not having any roof leaks, other than the small one in the garage that we won’t talk about.

For being insulated enough so that we can both be on Zoom calls in different rooms and not hear each other.

For not having any weird smells.

For being rock-solid enough to keep on trucking with your older appliances and bathroom fixtures, and yet flexible enough to accept upgrades when we could get them done (safely).

For having lots of sun for the pups to lay in (they really do seem to be solar-powered).

For being well-ventilated enough when we needed you to be, and tightly sealed when we needed that, too.

For being just big enough for the two of us, but not so big that we couldn’t keep you clean (and thanks for understanding when we felt a little too overwhelmed to scrub the bathtub that other week).

But most of all, thanks for being ready for us. And for our company, in the short time period when we could have it. I hope we can have some more company, too, in the near future.