Friday, March 29, 2013

So much for women's lib...

by Michelle Gagnon

While watching the season finale of GIRLS, there was a moment at the end where I was seriously tempted to hurl something at the television. Because after all the advances women have made over the past fifty years, apparently for the younger generation of women showcased by the show, we're pretty much back where we started.
This episode concluded with a nod the classic, "An Officer and a Gentleman" scene where Richard Gere sweeps Debra Winger off her feet, literally. Now, I loved that movie--still do--but the underlying message at the end was that the only way for poor Paula to advance in life was to marry well. I'd hope that nearly thirty years later, we were past such tired tropes. But according to Lena Dunham, they hold true. Not only does her character get "saved" by a man (ironically, the same one that earlier in the season terrorized her), but her fellow castmembers all fall in line accordingly. One starts dating her ex-boyfriend again because he's suddenly struck it rich. Another dumps her boyfriend for not being ambitious enough (as underlined in a scene where his boss explains that, "she wants you to make enough money to be able to keep buying her purses shaped like bread products.") Even the "hippie" character Jessa takes a payout from the wealthy investment banker she was married to for a heartbeat.
Really? Is this what we're selling to girls in their twenties? I understand that GIRLS is a fictionalized version of reality, but if this throwback mentality is being showcased ironically, it's far from apparent. And over the course of the season, this "girls can't do it" attitude has been emphasized time and again. Hannah finally scores a book deal, but suffers a breakdown over the stress and is unable to write it. Marnie is laid off, becomes a hostess (and paramour to an older artist), and decides to become a singer; but we only see her pursue that dream via an ill-advised attempt to humiliate her ex at his office. And Jessa simply takes off.
I'd like to think that this is not emblematic of a wider issue with the upcoming generation of women, but a recent conversation with a friend was very disheartening. She told me that her recently-divorced brother (a man in his forties) now only dates girls in their twenties; thirty is his cut-off point, because after that age they're focused on marriage. Plus, he's discovered that girls in their twenties are extraordinarily eager to please. They have no problem with him calling last minute because another date cancelled. They text suggestive photos after the first date. In addition to the age limit, he also stops seeing them after five dates--and he claims that most of them don't seem to expect anything more.
He's an awful jerk, of course, and probably has a keen eye for girls with low self-esteem. But listening to her, I couldn't help but think that the behavior she's describing is precisely what Dunham has been showing us over the past two seasons. Her characters are not strong young women, struggling to forge their way in the world through that challenging post-college phase. They're highly educated girls whose lives invariably revolve around men, and whose biggest aspirations appear to involve being supported by them.
Mind you, I'm not saying that finding a person to spend the rest of your life with isn't a lofty ambition. And I also strongly believe that deciding to stay home and raise children is just as valid a choice as pursuing a career in the workplace. But the fact that this is what we're seeing on television, at the same time that Sheryl Sandberg's eye opening book "Lean In" is making waves, is telling. Mary Tyler Moore it ain't.
I'd love to see a show aimed at this age group with strong female role models--and I'm hard pressed to name a single one. A show where the "girls" had some self-esteem, and respected their relationships with themselves and their friends as much as their romantic liasons. A show, basically, where it wasn't all about finding the right boys. In television, where shows created, written, and run by women are finally becoming more prevalent, is this really the best we can do?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Don’t Diss the Cheerleader!

Hi, P. J. Hoover here,  and today I want to talk for a bit about the stereotyping of girls in young adult literature. Namely, I want to talk about why I think it’s wrong and would love nothing more than to see it stop.

Let’s go with the stereotype that riles me up more than any other: the cheerleader. Lots of times . . .  (and for the record here I will attempt to refrain from generalizations. Yes, for everything I say, I am *sure* someone will be able to refute it. And I don’t want to go there. So anyway . . . ) lots of times when I read books with cheerleaders in them, there are certain defining characteristics of said cheerleader. For example, she’s got a really rocking figure. She also very pretty. And yes, she’s very popular. I mean, she is the personification of what so many others want to attain. And sure, having a nice figure is a pretty enviable character trait, but there are other traits that are not so enviable. Like this cheerleader is often bitchy. She’s cruel to those less popular than her (many times our sympathetic main character). She’s scheming. And let’s not forget the slutty factor. This poor cheerleader is often seen in the halls making out with her boyfriend of the week.

Am I seriously the only one who doesn’t see a problem with this stereotype? No? I’m not? Then why do we consistently see it in book after book after book? Is this simply the easiest writing solution?

It’s time for me to point out the fact that I was a cheerleader all through junior high and high school. Not only that, I was the captain of the varsity cheerleading squad. I am that girl. And now, with that out in the open, I have to mention the following things. I was not in general a bitchy person. I was not the most popular gal in the school. I was not bitchy and scheming. And I never took pleasure in making others feel bad. I was not a slut. I never wanted to embarrass people in front of others. Was I pretty? I don’t know. If you ask my mom, she’ll tell you yes, but that’s not exactly an objective opinion.

Did I ever make mistakes? Sure. That’s called being human. Every single one of our characters in our books should exhibit this quality, not just the cheerleaders.

So what was I? What defined me? Well, I worked hard and practiced to earn my spot on the team. I attempted to be a role model that others could follow. I was smart. I was good at math and science and loved reading fantasy and science fiction books. I had plenty of friends. I skirted around the edges of the “popular” crowd, friends with them but not quite one of them.

What I want is a book for the girl I was: a girl who breaks the stereotypes.


P. J. Hoover is the author of the upcoming dystopia/mythology YA book, SOLSTICE (Tor Teen, June 2013), the upcoming Egyptian mythology MG book, TUT (Tor Children's, Winter 2014), and the middle-grade SFF series, THE FORGOTTEN WORLDS BOOKS (CBAY, 2008-2010). You can read more about her and her books on P. J.'s website or blog.

Friday, March 22, 2013

8 Key Ways to Add Layers of Depth to Your Scenes

By Jordan Dane

I’ve been working with college-aged writers recently and noticed that many of them rush a scene by sending it to me too soon, as if they’re in a race. My job is to get them to be their own critic and not settle for mediocre, even if it means they won't get a grade. To get noticed in the slush pile of an agent or editor, today’s author must bring something new to the table that is uniquely from them and their storytelling ability.

Using an example of constructing a house, they send me the basic framework, but the finishing touches are lacking. Is the dialogue there? Check. Is there a beginning, middle and end to the writing sample? Check. Did I meet the bare essence of the assignment? Check. But a good house needs walls and all the finishing touches that make it feel like a home. Well-balanced scenes can be those finishing touches that make a house a home. They can add a balance of color/setting, voice, emotion, and memorable characters that doesn’t slow the pace down and make your work stand out as unique, too.

Here are 8 key ways to layer your scene with more depth and make them stand out:

1.) MAKE YOUR VOICE UNIQUE - Pick a POV for the character who will tell the story of the scene and give him or her a unique voice. That means you must see through their eyes and add their senses and opinions to the scene. You can talk about what’s in a room, as if it were a forgettable inventory, OR you can add color by having your character say things like, “the dump smelled like cat piss.” Also give each character their own unique voice, using the same care as you craft each one.

2.) USE ACTION - Show your character taking part in the scene, rather than merely talking about the emotion they’re feeling. A guy who is forced to fight when he’d rather cut and run like a coward will behave differently than a guy who wants to be there and do the right thing. The coward might hang back or urge someone else to take his place or fake an injury to get out of what he really doesn’t want to do. The brave guy would take lead or protect the others by shielding them with his body, for example.

3.) USE DEEP POV - Set your character’s deepest thoughts in italics as “Deep POV” to give the reader insight into your character’s internal motivation. These could be expletives or funny one liners that he /she would mutter under their breath or in their head. The right Deep POV touches can add punch.

4.) WEAVE IN BACK STORY SPARINGLY - Know your character and their back story so you can slip it into the story seamlessly. Not many readers today tolerate a back story dump. There’s not many ways to disguise it either. But weaving a back story over a longer timeframe of your story is a good way to build upon your character’s history without slowing the pace—and it can create a mystery element. Other characters (who have a past with him or her) can fill in the gaps in a more interesting way.

5.) PICK THE ESSENCE OF EMOTION - Emotion is vital to make a scene memorable. Pick out the best images or set the stage in actions that best highlight the emotion you’re trying to weave into the scene. Add only the essential images. This could be a man talking about the small of a woman’s back, at a certain time of day when her body entices the shadows, or his memory of the first time he’d ever noticed how perfect that gentle curve had always been. The sensuality can be there, without overwriting the description of her, plus it conveys his enduring love for her in a sensual way. I'm not a poet, but I often think that good writers have the soul of a poet in them when I read certain passages that make me stop and reread them.

6.) PICK THE MOST PROMINENT PHYSICAL TRAITS - Beauty is in the small details. Today’s average reader may not tolerate an author describing a character in great detail because that would slow the pace, but try picking out the most essential characteristics of your character and pepper your scene with those images to suggest traits, rather than spell them out. Instead of describing how thin a guy is, add color by saying his suit hangs on him as if he were a human coat hanger.

7.) GIVE THE SCENE STRUCTURE – I think of scenes as mini-stories that will propel the story along with 1-3 plot points infused into every scene. They have a beginning, a middle and an end so that the characters in that scene take a journey and move the story forward. Internal monologue should not be repeated. Have your character discover or learn something about themselves during the scene, for example.

8.) ADD SETTING THAT ENHANCES YOUR SCENE – Any scene can be enhanced with the right setting. The bare bones of two characters talking in a study can be enhanced if there is a menacing storm rumbling outside, a loud crackling fire in the hearth, and a musty old library smell in the air from the countless alchemy books that lined the shelves, an extensive collection of magic books that spanned centuries, set in a mansion in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Classic.

I’ve mentioned 8 key ways to add depth to your scenes. Can you add more to this list? Please share your thoughts and what has worked for you.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Four-leaf clovers make great guides!

I know, that title is a weird one. Just bare with me.

Some people may not know that the four leaves on a lucky-if-you-find-one four-leaf clover actually are supposed to mean something. Faith, hope, love and luck to be exact. And honestly, who couldn't use a bit more of these four things in their life, right?

Let's look at each one as it pertains to writing, shall we? 


Every writer since the invention of the brain has had to find their own version of faith if they ever planned on getting the thoughts and ideas in their head onto paper. Human beings all have thoughts and ideas, things they think up during the course of the day that would undoubtedly affect another person's life--whether it be through laughter or tears or fear or happiness. We all have ideas that could change the world. A writer must rely on the faith that what they have to say will change the world in order to muster the courage to relay those ideas into a book.


Oh boy, does this one ever play a role in a writer's life. Without hope, what's the point of anything, right? Hope keeps us all going, keeps our heads up when life steps on our toes and tries to crumble us. Hope is the reason the world has evolved as it has, the reason wars ended and we have cures for diseases. For a writer, hope represents possibility. The possibility that the faith we somehow found will have not been in vain. Hope is a writer's ultimate muse.


Oh yes, just as with Faith and Hope, Love is a necessity for any writer. For most of us, our day jobs are just that: jobs. We go because we have to, because for some strange reason, people won't let us have food and electricity and houses and cars for free. But for some lucky ones, the word "job" doesn't apply to what they do every day. For them, it's a love affair. They truly love what they do, so it in no way feels like work. That is what words are to a writer: an intense, maniacal, fanatical love affair. Without love, books wouldn't exist.


Though some may not like to admit it, writers (of the published variety) would not exist without even the tiniest bit of luck. Ask J K Rowling, Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer--they all will tell you that they were turned down by agents and editors and publishers, until the day luck intervened and said "enough is enough!" Even the most talented writer, the most creative weaver of words, has to have a bit of luck on their side. 

Life can be hard. We all know it, we all accept it. But with a little bit of these four things in your pocket, it might just be a little less hard. So...get out there and start hunting for four-leaf clovers.

And happy writing!

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Power of the Unknown Word

By Dan Haring

I recently read a book that I quite enjoyed. But one word stuck out to me and made me enjoy it slightly less as a whole. 

Here's the sentence. Tell me if you can pick out the word.

"Around them, the susurrus of voices and activity in the inn's barroom had diminished to a creak and whisper."

Did you find it? No, I have nothing against inns or barrooms or creaks and whispers. The word that tore me right out of the story was that little eight letter word "susurrus".

 What does susurrus mean, you may ask yourself, which is exactly what I asked myself when I read it. Now, most people would be able to take a pretty good guess at what it means, just based on context. And I was able to, and I moved along and it was fine. But as someone who loves reading and writing and words in general, it kind of bothered me that I'd never heard of the word before.

So I looked it up. According to Merriam-Webster, a susurrus is a "whispering or rustling sound."

Something like this I guess. So that's kind of cool, but it got me a bit more bothered. I feel like I have a decent vocabulary. After almost 34 years on this earth, I've consumed a lot of media, low-brow to high, and I'd never heard of this word. That part of it is fine, really. I love learning new words. I've been caught reading the dictionary from time to time. I'm not scared of new words, nor do I usually feel like I'm the smartest guy in the room.

I'm really okay with that.

What bothers me about the use of this word, is to me it's bad storytelling, for a number of reasons.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is the fact that the author pretty much wrote, "Around them, the whispering of voices and activity in the inn's barroom had diminished to a creak and whisper."

I think you can see why that's not an ideal sentence.

So why did the author write it that way? The second reason, and what bugs me more, is to me it smacks of showing off. Ask anyone you know what susurrus means. Go ahead, I'll wait.

I'd be very surprised if anyone knows. Again, it's not my ego talking. It's just the fact that is a very uncommon word. Type susurrus in a word processor or an email. You're going to get a red squigly line underneath it, just like I'm getting when I type it here. 

So what was the point of using it? Like I said, most people don't know what it means, and I have to think the author knew that. And, knowing its meaning, it makes the sentence rather clunky.

I tweeted the fact I was bugged by this word, and got some interesting feedback. My wife's cousin, who is a great guy, a lawyer, and an avid comic book reader (take that, stereotypes!) disagreed, saying "sometimes there's only one word that will perfectly express your idea."

I countered that while this his was definitely a valid argument, I didn't think it held up in that case.

He responded, "Can't compromise to fit hypothetical reader vocabulary. Every word is going to confuse somebody out there."
Again, it's a valid argument, but again, I think it fails in this context. There are thousands and thousands of words that aren't going to confuse anyone but the most basic reader.

As a storyteller, it's your job to immerse the audience in your story. You need to get them hooked in there and make them want to stay until the whole thing is over.

And overall the author was successful in that. I really did enjoy the story. But that one little word pulled me out of it long enough to remember that it was just a story I was reading, written by some person somewhere. And for what? To use a word that no one I've asked has any clue what means in a somewhat throwaway sentence? 

Like I said, it just seems like the author was showing off. Like they have a "word of the day" email and this came up and they decided to throw it in, as if using it in their book would make them the smartest person in the room.

I don't know. Maybe I'm totally wrong about this. I'm all for expanding your vocabulary and learning new things, and if an author can instruct at the same time as entertain, that's great. And there are plenty of words I read in books that I rarely, if ever, hear in spoken conversation. I don't want to dumb down writing to fit into a certain vocabulary.

But I think storytellers need to be wise with their words. Just because they can do something, it doesn't mean they should. And if they're sacrificing the immersive quality of their story in order to throw in a shiny, rare word, I think they're making a mistake. 


Thursday, March 14, 2013


Hi, P. J. Hoover here, and today I'm talking about luck. Namely smart luck. See, I'm one of these people who believes I can do anything. If I put my mind to something, I will succeed. But people like me have found out one thing:

Many things are harder than they seem.

Sure, tons of people want to write a book. Actually sitting down and bringing a story idea to completion is an entirely different thing. It's a lot harder to write a book than to have a great idea. Another thing that is harder than it seems is getting a book published. When I wrote my first book, I had visions of people knocking on my door, begging to publish it. Yeah, it didn't happen quite that way. Lots of things have to come together in just the right way in order to get a book published. And these things are after the book has been written.

It starts with revisions. An author who writes a book has to be willing to revise in order to get a book published. So, great, you think you're willing to revise. But how do you know what to revise? It takes finding the right person to give you feedback. Finding someone who isn't afraid to tell you what needs work. And trust me, finding the right critique partner isn't easy. It takes luck. But smart luck (which I'll come back to).

Okay, so you revise your story. Then what? Well, you have to find the right advocates for your book. If you go the agent route, your agent has to believe not only in your story, but in you. Agents get lots of submissions. Actually finding the right agent takes a bit of luck. But once again, smart luck.

Ditto an editor. Finding that right editor at the perfect publishing house is a lot like throwing dice. Except...right, the smart luck thing.

So what do I mean when I say smart luck? Let's first think about the critique partners. Is the best way to find one just to randomly show up to a critique group and begin reading your story? Well, it's a start. But every critique partner isn't for every person. As you're getting your toes wet, take note of who you actually seem to click with. Whose input you truly value. Take chances and go from there.

On to the agent. Sure, you can blind query. You can look up every single agent and send the same letter, maybe customized with their name, to every single agent. Finding an agent this way takes a whole heck of a lot of luck. Insert smart luck. Which agents really will mesh with your story? When you get rejections, what are they saying? Are they offering invaluable feedback? If so, take it!

The same thing goes with an editor. Getting the right editor at the right house is a tricky business. It can seem impossible at times. But tipping the scales to know the business can make all the difference in the world.

So yeah, the whole business of publishing has a ton of luck involved. Do everything you can to tip that balance of luck to your favor.


P. J. Hoover is the author of the upcoming dystopia/mythology YA book, SOLSTICE (Tor Teen, June 2013), the upcoming Egyptian mythology MG book, TUT (Tor Children's, Winter 2014), and the middle-grade SFF series, THE FORGOTTEN WORLDS BOOKS (CBAY, 2008-2010). You can read more about her and her books on P. J.'s website or blog.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Little Taste of Poison, and a Legacy of Love and Laughter

by A.G. Howard

During the week of March 11th, book lovers all over the blogasphere are banding together to get the word out about a delightful YA debut and the talented young author who left a legacy of laughter for her readers, yet isn't here to harvest the fruits of her labor of love.

In tribute to her first and last novel, authors were invited to talk about their momentus firsts, so I'll direct you to this link where I originally announced my first book contract.
The rest of this post is all about Bridget Zinn, the vivacious and lovely young author, daughter, woman, and wife, who poured humor, heart, and soul into an endearing and magical story called Poison, all while battling the very real and merciless monster of colon cancer.

About Bridget:

Bridget grew up in Wisconsin. She went to the county fair where she met the love of her life, Barrett Dowell. They got married right before she went in for exploratory surgery which revealed she had colon cancer. They christened that summer the "summer of love" and the two celebrated with several more weddings. Bridget continued to read and write until the day she died.
Her last tweet was: "Sunshine and a brand new book. Perfect."

Bridget wanted to make people laugh and hoped readers would enjoy spending time with the characters she created. As a librarian/writer she loved books with strong young women with aspirations. She also felt teens needed more humorous reads. She really wanted to write a book with pockets of warmth and happiness and hoped that her readers' copies would show the watermarks of many bath time reads.

About Poison:

Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction—which means she's the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom's future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend.

But, for the first time ever, her poisoned dart…misses.

Now a fugitive instead of a hero, Kyra is caught in a game of hide-and-seek with the king's army and her potioner ex-boyfriend, Hal. At least she's not alone. She's armed with her vital potions, a too-cute pig, and Fred, the charming adventurer she can't stop thinking about. Kyra is determined to get herself a second chance (at murder), but will she be able to find and defeat the princess before Hal and the army find her?

Kyra is not your typical murderer, and she's certainly no damsel-in-distress—she's the lovable and quick-witted hero of this romantic novel that has all the right ingredients to make teen girls swoon.

Purchase your copy:

Links about Bridget:

Thank you, and please take something away from this for yourself. Treasure every moment like Bridget did! Live life to the fullest every day. Considering all I've read about her, I believe she'd want that above anything else.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Women vs. Women

My fellow writer and friend, Emily Kristin Anderson, asked me to contribute a post to her celebration of International Women's Week, and that's her title up there, not mine.  But it was so good, I stole it just as I'm shamelessly reposting my two cents here.  If, however, you'd like to visit Emily's page--and I'd encourage you to do so--you can see the post, in all its original glory, here.

* * *

So it’s International Women’s Week, and I feel . . . okay . . . soAnd?  Yes, you’ll read this and decide I’m the oddball here, the one ornery curmudgeon in the bunch when it comes to celebrating women and women’s accomplishments. 

But here’s my dilemma: International Women’s Week means very little to me.  I had no women role models. No women inspired or mentored me.  No women helped me along the way.  Not a single woman was in my corner.  If I succeeded in medicine at all—my first profession before I turned to writing—I succeeded in spite of being a woman.

There you go, short and sweet.

Now, I’m not being woe-is-me here, nor am I one of those self-hating women.  But this was my reality in the late 70s, early 80s: there were women in medicine but not many.  I competed and lived and tried to get ahead in a world dominated by men.  Other than a single solitary female anatomist, I had no women professors in medical school.  Other than a few OB-GYNs, the attendings were, to a man . . . well, men.

While there were women in my class, only one other woman, Annie, went into surgery.  Prior to that internship year, I groveled through rotations at various hospitals, and in all that time, I met exactly one female attending surgeon, an endocrine specialist at Yale. There were no female interns or residents in any of the surgical programs I was looking into, nor were there women in any of my various surgical subspecialty rotations. 

Are you beginning to see a pattern here?  There were no women, anywhere.  There just weren’t, and the very few you did find were too busy scrambling to keep their footing.  Because here’s another truism: when you’re a women in a male-dominated world, you must do everything ten times better than the men to earn their respect and prove you deserve to be there.  It’s just that way.  You have to out-tough the men.

I finally got into a general surgery program, thank God, but I was the first woman they had ever accepted.  I also knew, virtually from Day One, that I would never make it to a chief resident’s slot.  See, many surgical programs operate in what’s known as the “pyramidal” system.  It’s exactly what it sounds like.  The program hires a bunch of interns—fourteen, in this particular hospital—and then, beginning at the end of the second year, starts to cut people from the program every year.  By the fifth year, there will be two—count them, two—chief residents.  Everyone else, those twelve other unlucky souls, will have gotten the axe along the way, and then they get to scramble around for openings in other programs.  Some of them get lucky right away.  A lot don’t, and have to grub around for years in part-time positions until they can land a slot.  Some never do.

Now, just as a point of reference, a typical general surgical program lasts five years; if you want to go into other subspecialties—say, neurosurgery—that’s a total of nine years of training, but you must complete all or most of a general surgery program first.  I wanted to do pediatric cardiovascular surgery, so we were talking, well, a lot of years.  But if I got cut—and I knew I would be—then those were more years spent trying to find my way into another program.  Those five years could become seven, or ten, and that’s all before subspecialty training.  And forget marriage or a family.

Since this program had never admitted a woman before, they didn’t have a uniform for me.  I went around in men’s smalls until I found a place to get women’s whites that weren’t designer.  (Nothing ruins those nice Adrianos like a bucket of blood.)  I got called nurse a lot, and honey, too.  Sweetie.  Pain in the ass.  (Sidebar: not once did I ever hear any chief resident dress down any other intern for questioning a call, and there were several.  Not once.  But me . . . I was a pain in the ass.  See, being a girl cut both ways: it was okay not to take me seriously, and perfectly fine to yell at me more, too.)  I even got groped several times by an infectious disease guy.  In all fairness to me, I was pretty sick with viral meningitis at the time.  Like, high fever, spinal tap, we’re admitting you sick.  (I refused and drove myself home.  That spinal tap was just what I needed.  I felt much better—until I tried to walk from the car into the condo.  I literally had to crawl into the townhouse and drag myself to the couch where I then stayed, pretty much around the clock, for two weeks.)  By the fourth exam with this infectious disease bozo, I was recovered enough to finally cotton on to the fact that, boy, this guy sure was being thorough, palpating every single solitary square inch of bare, naked, I am thoroughly nude flesh for those lymph nodes.  I think I was just too sick and then shocked to want to believe it. 

But did I report him?  No.  Get real.  I was an intern, and a girl.  Who was going to believe me?  I didn’t want to make waves.  I was already enough of a pain in the ass as it was.

Not every attending was sexist; I remember two with great fondness.  They were excellent teachers, and secure enough to tell me I’d done a good job when I’d done something, like . . . well, save a guy’s life.  Like the time I just happened to be wandering through the recovery room pretty late one night and the anesthetist, standing over a neurosurgery post-op patient and looking really worried, said, “Hey, Ilsa, would you come take a look at this guy? Something’s not right.”  Uh . . . well, yeah, the guy’s pupils were blowing.  Which meant that his brain was getting squished, and most likely from something still bleeding in there.  So there I am, an intern, shouting at the anesthetist to page an attending, any attending, as I and a surgical nurse wheel the guy really, really fast into the surgical suite where I glove up, no scrub at all because the guy is tanking that quickly, and start tearing down his dressings and sutures—and then there’s a lot of blood bubbling out, and I’m thinking, holy shit, there had better be someone somewhere because this is an arterial bleeder for sure and this is a guy’s brain I’m holding. 

Thank heavens, there was a general surgeon—name of KJ—who came busting in, took one look, started shouting more orders, and then said something that I will never forget: “Good girl. Now go scrub up and let’s save this guy’s life.”

The girl wasn’t pejorative; it was just the way it was, and KJ was a very kind and gentle guy for a surgeon.  But those moments, where my competence as a doctor was recognized without the haze of my sex, were rare. 

The writing was on the wall, and I knew it.  I saw what happened to guys who got cut from the program; a ton didn’t find slots and ended up working in ERs.  (In retrospect, if ER medicine had been a specialty back then, I’d have jumped into that in a heartbeat.  Love that kind of medicine.)  To be honest, I didn’t have it in me to keep fighting for the very limited slots.

So I jumped ship to child psychiatry.  There were a few more women in that profession (again, not many; most women were social workers), and I was—again—the only woman in an all-male residency class.  I wish I could say that I found the very few female MDs to be warm and welcoming and encouraging, but they weren’t.  The reason is pretty simple, too.  They’d come up in the same system I had.  They knew the score.  When you’re competing in an all-male environment, you man up; those other women are your competition.  They’re not there to help you; you’re all trying to elbow each other out of the way, hoping to grab onto that next rung. 

Whatever.  I got along fine with the guys.  I lucked out with a really great group of men, who helped me through some tough times with—yes—a female supervisor, a real competitive ball-buster that everyone, everyone, hated.  Things got so tense between us—and, of course, when you’re a resident, it’s always your fault—that I was finally handed off to a male supervisor midway through my second year. 

Best thing that ever happened to me.  This guy was terrific: not only gentle and insightful but very accepting.  He was the one who encouraged me to pursue my interest in film and literature and go back to school for my masters; who understood that I was, yeah, kind of bored because a lot of what we were learning came pretty easily to me.  He’s dead now—a heart attack about ten years ago—but I will never forget him.  I’m only sorry he’s not around now to see what came of all the hours we spent talking literature and film and, yes, patients. 

To be truthful, even when I finally began writing, my role models and teachers and champions were all men.  I can’t tell if I self-selected for guys because of my background—not only medicine but the military where I had to wear Wellies to wade through the testosterone—or it was just the luck of the draw.  In part, I think it’s because I started out in science fiction and work-for-hire in other universes—Star Trek, Mechwarrior, Battletech—which are still pretty heavily male-dominated.  Not all, not all, stop yelling . . . but you know what I mean.  Head to GenCon or a ton of sf or Trek cons . . . and there are a lot of guys. 

So . . . what is the moral of this?  Beats me.  I can say that not only do I know a lot more women now, I know a lot more very nice women.  Like, we’re talking the kind of supportive sisterhood I wish I’d had way back when.  There is absolutely no way that any of the very few women I knew back in medicine would’ve been a tenth as generous as the women pros—writers, editors, publishers, agents, bloggers, librarians—it’s my privilege to know now.  I’m serious.

I guess the take-home message is, you guys, don’t take any of this, or each other, for granted.  Beneath this expert coloring job, there’s a lot of gray, and I’m here to tell you that, for me, it’s been a long, hard, and sometimes brutal road.  At this point, I can no longer tell if that’s been good or bad; it just is, and I am who I am, for good or ill.  But if you do anything from now on, remember this.  Pay attention now. 

Regardless of gender, kindness and generosity matter most, and the truly kind are those with nothing to apologize for or prove.

Pay it forward, people.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Ten Things I Learned from my Cat About Writing

By Jordan Dane

I'm convinced cats are noble beings reincarnated into a beautiful and graceful creature with four legs and plenty of attitude. No one owns a cat. They allow you to live with them. They tolerate you. Their fierce independence is one of my favorite qualities of theirs. At the mere drop of a string, they are ready to play. And when they are happy, their purr sounds like a fine-tuned engine.

Here are TEN things I learned from my cat(s) about writing:


    1.) Be suspicious of every character you meet, even the ones you live with. That keeps the tension going and readers won’t know who they can trust either.       

    2.) Suspense is all about anticipation of something bad about to happen, like when my cat stares behind me and makes me turn around. Without even a word, my cat can make me think a serial killer is creeping up on me. How do they do that? I’m still working on adapting that technique for my writing.

    3.) If a scene gags you, think what it will do to the next guy. Cough it up and get rid of it. Some things are meant for the trash. When it’s a pile in front of you, you’ll know it when you see it. Then just walk away. This works in the litter box too.

    4.) A cat knows pace. If there is a back story path that meanders across the top of a sofa or winds around legs in a prodding fashion, that is all well and good, but why not walk OVER people to get where you need to go and take the most direct route?

    5.) Take naps. If you’re prone to writer’s block, a nap can’t hurt. There is nothing like a nap or basking in the sun to rejuvenate your perspective. Cats are specialists in looking out for numero uno. Learn from a master and take heed. Getting stressed out over things you can’t control is a waste of time and a distraction from your writing.

    6.) Be a good observer of your surroundings. Narrow your eyes and really take a look around. Don’t take anything for granted. Everything is interesting when you narrow your eyes. Try it. (People who Botox should avoid this.)

    7.) Look before you leap. If you pay attention, you’ll land on your feet with style and grace.

    8.) Be flexible. It feels good to S-T-R-E-T-C-H yourself.

    9.) Curiosity never killed anything.

    10.) Climb your way to the top. Be fearless and maybe even cop an attitude. You can’t reach your dream if you think small and stay safe. Dare to take risks and have an adventure.  

    I’d love to hear your cat stories. I have two rescue cats – Pinot Grigio (yes, we named him when we were looking at a wine menu) and Foochie Focker (don’t ask).

    What has your cat taught you?

    Indigo Awakening by Jordan Dane voted the winner of "Best of 2012" Paranormal Category by BookTwirps 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cavalcade of Authors

By Maureen McQuerry

There’s something magical about 900 middle grade and high school students coming to together to celebrate reading and writing. In fact, it sounds like author fantasyland and it was.

Last weekend I got to be part of that magic at Cavalcade of Authors in Pasco, WA. All the students worked hard to be there. They had to read at least four of the books by the sixteen authors who attended. They had to agree to make-up any work they missed at school. The students were transported for a day to a local college where they rotated between authors to take hour long workshops on subjects like how to write a fight scene, three act structure and conflict and tension. I didn’t notice a single eye roll or anyone texting in a workshop; they all wanted to be there. The audience hung on every word and then asked amazing, well- informed questions about our books. And we got to meet 15 other hard working authors and hear their stories.

Here’s where the magic happened for me. The authors and students all shared a common interest, a love of reading and writing. It didn’t matter how young or old we were, how tattooed or plain. How do you get 900 kids to love reading and writing? Each of those students was inspired by someone. Maybe it was an author speaking through a character in a book, maybe a parent, maybe a teacher. For those few hours, what mattered was story. And as one eager reader said, "This was the best day of school ever!"

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Which came first?: a dose of inspiration

Ah yes, it's that age-old question we've all asked/heard/pondered: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? 

It's also the question that, no matter one's stance, cannot honestly be answered. For none of us were around when the chicken came to be. (or the egg, depending on which side of the fence you fall.)

But perhaps if we change a couple of the words, an answer may be within reach. about if we replace "chicken" with "author" and "egg" with "book?" Let's see... 

Which came first, the author or the book?

Ah, now that's something we can work on.

The obvious answer is duh, the author. For a book to be written, a person must be born first, no? See? I told you it was easy!

But let's look a little deeper, shall we?

I'm sure that if asked, you could come up with the book, the one tome that sits high on a perch above all others in your Master List of literary perfection (For me, that's To Kill A Mockingbird, no doubt about it). I'm also sure that if the scribe of said book were asked, they would tell you they have no clue in Hades how they managed to put together the words you cherish so very much. They'd say it's as if an unseen force came over them, pulled that story from their mind and bled it onto the page or screen, and left them to carry the weight of having penned one of the most cherished and beloved works of art ever created (I'm talkin' to you, Harper Lee). There's no way they can explain the magic behind the sentences... And there isn't a chance they'd ever be able to re-create the phenomenon.

Which totally debunks our easy-peasy answer that the author came first, right? I mean, surely a work as magnificent and mind-blowing and heart-warming as (INSERT FAVE NOVEL HERE) comes from some otherworldly dimension, where emphatic prose sits around and waits for its moment to be--and not from the simple mind of a common human? That's just insane.

So there...the book came first!

But wait, that's even more insane, isn't it? I mean, we've already established that words don't just write themselves. So the person--the author--had to come first. Right?

Or maybe, just maybe, the stars align. And the planets align. And whatever omnipotent force you believe in makes all the right in the world align. And suddenly you find yourself sitting in a trance as everything around you grows dark and foreboding, your brain nothing more than a pile of day-old mashed potatoes, your body frozen in place. Days, weeks, months go by in a breath, time meaningless and insignificant. You awaken, tired and drained and feeling as though something...some "unseen force..." has invaded your person.

And your computer. 

For sitting before you now, raw and painful and real, is a work of art that only you could have created. That only you were meant to write. That only you had the power to let be.

So to hell with which came first. You just wrote a book, my friend.

And that is the only answer that matters. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

At the End of a Very Long, No-Good, and Very Bad Day

Ever have one of those days where NOTHING goes right?  Hello . . . I just suffered through one.  EVERYTHING, from the moment I spilled my coffee (sacrilege!) to the instant I realized that the lemon-blueberry bundt cake I LABORED over wasn't coming out of the bloody pan (note to self: next time, don't use the blueberries you froze last fall because they SINK to the bottom of the pan and STICK, no matter how much flour you coat those little suckers with)--to the bloody book that just doesn't feel quite right . . . yes, it's been that kind of day.

What I think about after a day like today is what makes me . . . afraid?  Worried?  Worried; I like that word better.  Afraid makes me sound like a wuss.  Worried. . . I'm only mildly anxious (even when I'm anything but).

Let me explain.

I'm doing this guest post for the Horror Writers of America blog, and so I get these questions.  Of course, one of the questions is about fear, and more specifically what frightens me now as an adult versus what might have frightened me as a kid.  I'll tell you what I told them: when I was a kid, I wasn't scared of very much except being alone, in a dark house, late at night.  I think it was the stillness that got to me.  So long as there was some kind of white noise—a fan, say, or some steady drone—I was fine.  But once it got ~~quiet~~, every bump and creak used to freak me out.   I hated windows without blinds or curtains; who the hell knew what was out there, looking in?  So, of course, when I babysat, I made sure every light was on and the TV just loud enough so that when the homicidal maniac came through the door, I wouldn't hear him until it was too late.  It was a wonder no one docked my pay to cover the electric bill.

One thing I didn't mention, though, was that I was afraid of disappointing my parents.  It was just this global amorphous concern, and it completely freaked me out.  When you're a kid, you work hard in school to tell the teacher what you know--and to please your parents.  So, not pleasing them, making them upset or not want to have anything more to do with me . . . scared me.  In my house, if you didn't please a parent, you got one of two things: either a very LOUD talking-to (accompanied by other very LOUD and UNPLEASANT things)--or you got the freeze-treatment.  It wasn't just that you were letting yourself down (in fact, YOU, as a kid, usually weren't in the equation).  No, no, you'd disappointed your parents.  You'd hurt them.  So you worked very hard at becoming competent; you studied harder, learned more, did more than other kids.

This may explain why, as an adult . . . I crave silence.  I like being alone.  My circle of friends is small.  I protect myself.  I love the dark.  So, go figure.

Still, honestly, nowadays, very little freaks me out.  I wasn't even all that worried for or about my kids, although I do remember turning all ninja-mom when some bozo spooked one of my girls.  Guy was lucky to leave that grocery story with his teeth.  (Another true story: big old wasp—we're talking something with BOEING written on the side—landed on my baby's shoulder?  I bare-handed that sucker, threw it down, ground it to paste.  My husband's eyeballs about fell out of their sockets.  Then we all went back to our burgers.)

In part, I think my tolerance for the horrific is because of my past life as a doc.  You know, hang around the emergency room or a psych ward or women's prison for a while, and you see some pretty terrible stuff.   Now, it's true: I really don’t want to be held up at gunpoint; I don't think I'd care much for, oh, drowning, being strangled, or knifed to death.  A stiletto pointing at my eyeball would be right up there on my freak-out-o’meter.  (Come to think of it, maybe all those times I put my poor characters in those life and death situations, I’m really trying to work through things.  You see, this is what comes of being a shrink.  You navel-gaze a lot. You think about the impact of your parents in your life.  Then you go see a friend or talk to your husband who tells you to get a grip.)

But, in reality, I guess there comes a point where, sure, you can be scared, but if you don’t do something, you’re dead.  So if I get scared, I work on getting competent.  A little anxiety is not a bad thing, by the way; anyone who doesn't doubt herself before trying to tell a story is a fool.

At this point, the things that freak me out all revolve around things that make me mad (and sad) because there’s no way I can become competent.  Climate change and mass extinction are right up there.  Scare the bejesus out of me because I know there’s very little I can do except scream at politicians and be as environmentally responsible as I can.

Today, though, I've felt a tad incompetent, and from the get-go.  The book's not coming together; the cake was a disaster (okay, not totally; it was scrumptious but not pretty); I can't, for the life of me, see how I'm going to pick myself up from this mess.  It does no good for my ever-tolerant, ever-patient husband to remind me that I am ALWAYS like this when I write a book; that I am ALWAYS convinced it is drek; that I ALWAYS flail.

For the moment--this instant, tonight--I feel incompetent, and that freaks me out.  There is no help for it; I'm not some movie star, like Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond, who can watch old films of herself when she was once someone.

All I can do is remind myself that I have been competent; I know how to do this (this being write a decent story); and if things aren't coming together today, they either will tomorrow or the next day or at some point when I figure out why they're not.

Someone once asked me if there was ever a story that defeated me.  I've written a blog about that, actually; and the short answer is yes and no.  Of course, stories defeat me; they humble me all the time; they take me down a notch or two; and sometimes, they punch me in the nose and laugh as I stagger and bleed all over the keyboard because, to their mind, I've no business in the ring to begin with.

But the one thing I have always done is get back in the ring.  I have always fought back, and I have always learned new tricks to best this beast.  

There's this great mantra that Frank Herbert put in the mouth of Paul Atreides as he's being tested by the Bene Gesserit in a trial of mind over feeling, and it's worth repeating here:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone, I will the turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Wish I'd written that.  If that's too melodramatic for you--but, you writers out there, you know what I'm talking about; fear really will cripple you--then try this one for size.  It comes from an essay by Alexander Chee who wrote a fine piece about what he learned from Annie Dillard (a fabulous writer; her best work, to my mind, is An American Childhood, a book that still has the ability to make me cry): 

What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.

So, I think . . . it's time: time to call it a day, time for a good night's sleep--and time to cut myself free and let my story find me . . . tomorrow.  Because I'm blessed with a tomorrow.