My Locus Byline

I had a short article appear in Locus, the trade magazine for science fiction and fantasy. Locus provides market reports, market updates,  convention reports, interviews and reviews.

The article was a recap of HawaiiCon 2017. It ran just shy of 250 words long and they included four photos with it. I think I only sent four. To my surprise, I had a byline! There was no pay, but a byline is nice. I wasn’t expecting either.

(The online magazine is behind a paywall, and I don’t have my hardcopy yet. When I get it, I’ll try to post a .pdf of the article.)

This was a nice learning experience, and I’m not being sarcastic. First of all, this was closer to journalism than fiction or essay-writing. Secondly, I actually queried them, which is not something I do regularly. Granted, it wasn’t a fancy query, basically this:

  • Would you like a ___-word article on (subject)? [HawaiiCon]  (In fact, putting an upper word limit might be a mistake. It would have been easy for them to say, “500 words? Eeek! No!” and stop there.)
  • Why the subject would interest you (Science track, writers who attended)
  • My writing experience and a link to Fantasy Literature.

Their reply was that they could not do 500 words, but they would look at something about 250 words. The first draft I’d written wasn’t 500 words long. It was about 350, and it wouldn’t seem like cutting 100 words would be that hard. It was more difficult than I expected.

The first thing I had to let go of was any desire for personal style. This wasn’t an essay or a story. It didn’t need a “narrative voice;” it needed clarity. It needed facts, with important facts toward the front of the article.

I did realize that I wasn’t going to write a comprehensive review of the Con in 250 words, and many things like the wonderful resort hotel, etc, weren’t going to get much mention. Let me rephrase that; any mention. In the end I focused on the writing track and the science track, and I was able to include that the Con opens with a traditional native blessing. My opening paragraph, while including the facts that HawaiiCon is primarily a media con, stressed that Nnedi Okorafor was the Writer Guest of Honor.

When I sent it in, I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks and I assumed that they had rejected it, or were going to. As it turns out, the November issue is not jammed with convention information, so I don’t think I had a lot of competition.

Once I did hear, things went pretty quickly. The Locus editorial crew were easy to work with. They contacted me to see if I could send them larger-sized photos, and I did. The day of their deadline I got a frantic e-mail because they couldn’t open one of them—but I was away from my computer. It was all right; they figured out a way to open it. And there it is in the article.

So, another positive experience with editing. And a byline. WhooHoo!

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All Hallows Read After Action Report

Trick-or-treaters started earlier than usual on my street; the first ones showed up at 5:30 and the sun hadn’t even set yet. They were tots, and I think the parents were hoping to keep to a semblance of a routine.  It meant that I didn’t even wear my sorta-Professor-McGonagall costume (so it’s good I got to wear it Saturday to a party.)

All Hallows Read table with books and a scary tablecloth

All Hallows Read table

I only had about 35 books to give away this year. In some ways, this year was a book-fail for me, because I lost track of time. The fires absorbed all my attention and I lost an entire week, almost literally. I made a run to Sutter VNA Thrift, and Santa Rosa Goodwill, for books, and I was in Frantic mode, not Reflective mode. I rounded the selection out with many mini-comics from Gryphon Nest Comics and Games, here in town.

The mini-comics were quite popular with some parents, who actively steered the kids toward them. “Look at these little comic books! These are fun.” After watching a couple of groups I figured out the motivation. If the child chose a book, they immediately handed it to Mom or Dad to carry. The mini-comics, though, would fit in a trick-or-treat bag. Mystery solved.

(The mini comics were popular.)

At least two groups of kids never came up to the door. They went right to the books. And in one group at the door, a boy dressed as “a Professor,” wearing a tweedy jacket, with a pocket protector, horn-rimmed glasses and a Rubik’s cube, said, “I’ve heard this is the house that gives out books.” I directed him to the books after dropping a mini KitKat bar into his bag.

As with most years, there were lots of kids.

Costumes:

There were lots of firefighter costumes this year, especially for younger kids, and they were as cute as all get-out. Of course the choice carried some emotional weight too, in light of recent disastrous events.

Two tiny girls, in different groups, were dressed as butterflies.

Hogwarts students, particularly Gryffindor House, were still popular, more among girls. So were princesses, vampires and cats. I didn’t see very many Wonder Woman costumes.

Boys were mostly zombies, ninjas, and (and I quote) “army guys.” I had a few home-made monsters.

Books:

Girls grabbed the horse books. (Duh.) Artemis Fowl was recognized by both sexes, and the Eoin Colfer books went fast. I had a few board books, and parents picked those up. My favorite board book story was that of the one of the butterfly girls. She was about three. I told her dad that there were some books. He scooped her up and they went to take a look. “Oh, look,” he said, “here’s one called I Hate to Go to Bed. That’s for you!”

One dad said, “Ohh! Andre Norton!” and I could hear the nostalgia in his voice.

King of the Wind is not about a horse,” one boy said.

“Yes, it is,” said the girl next to him. (Yes, it is.)

Generally:

Every Halloween, three stories come up in the news and on social media.

  • poison/needles/drugs in the candy
  • “Why do I have to give candy to kids from other neighborhoods?”
  • “Why are teenagers trick-or-treating?”

I think some of these are fake stories. (I do think Donald Trump Jr.’s stupid tweet was really him, but I suspect he was trying to do his dad a favor by drawing some fire.) For the record:

I put zero drugs, poison, needles or anything in my candy, which is individually wrapped anyway.

Our neighborhood is at the edge of the town, and to the west the areas is largely rural. Kids live on streets where there is maybe one other house. For as long as I can remember, people have driven their kids into our neighborhoods to trick or treat. As this neighborhood cycles through its life-span, for a six-or-seven year period we had older childless couples on the street. “Our neighborhood” trick-or-treating would have been pretty boring for those years. Now we have some kid-centered families again. Our neighborhood decorates; we’re away from any main thoroughfares but we’re still centrally located. In other words, we’re a great Halloween neighborhood.

The people who complain about kids from “other” neighborhoods often mean either 1) poor neighborhoods, or 2) neighborhoods where dark-skinned people live. For me, if you’re from those neighborhoods, come on by on Halloween and I will offer your kids candy and books until I run out.  It’s a bit hypocritical that the one or two people who always complain are the first to look online or in the local newspapers to identify the “best Halloween neighborhoods” for their kids.

Teenagers… I had two teenage boys, in great costumes, standing at the end of the driveway while a flock of little kids came to the door. When the little kids had their treats, I said, “Do you guys want candy?” They shook their heads and one said, “We’re supposed to be the adults.”

If you are a teenager and you are in costume I will happily give you candy. If you are not in costume, I may still give you candy but I will also give you some grief because, c’mon guys, make an effort.

The holiday is over, and already it’s car-Christmas. I am holding fast for my favorite holiday of the year (even if its reputation is more and more tarnished) Thanksgiving.

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An Evening of Scary Stories

Friday, October 27, Copperfield’s in Petaluma hosted a “scary story night” book launch of Word Horde’s latest anthology, Tales From a Talking Board. The fourteen stories (nearly) all contain some form of divination but, as the title implies the most common tool featured is the spirit board or the Ouija board. You can read my review of the book and my responses to some of the stories at Fantasy Literature.

Ray started off the evening with a warm Copperfields welcome.

Ray started off the evening with a warm Copperfields welcome.

The Petaluma Copperfield’s excels at speculative fiction events. This one drew a good-sized crowd, with a few folks in costume. (I was in quasi-costume.) Three writers from the anthology read from their works, while Word Horde Editor-in-Chief Ross Lockhart shared the classic story “King of the Cats” and read from the book’s foreword.  When the formal readings were done, two mediums demonstrated the spirit board for us, with mixed results. Let’s just say no skeptics in the room experienced a conversion, or at least not yet.

Ross shared "King of the Cats" and introduced the night's writers.

Ross shared “King of the Cats” and introduced the night’s writers.

There was also a fund-raiser for fire relief. One dollar purchased a raffle ticket and one lucky person would win this spirit board. This is another reason I like Copperfield’s; they are part of the community and they give back, in large ways and small.

One lucky contestant won this handsome talking board. Proceeds went to help fire victims.

One lucky contestant won this handsome talking board. Proceeds went to help fire victims.

I would have gone to the event anyway, but I had really hoped David Templeton would be there. He wrote my favorite story in the anthology. Templeton is a local theater critic, lifestyle journalist, playwright and writer. Unfortunately, the catastrophic fires from two weeks age meant that the opening of Templeton’s play had been rescheduled to the same date as the reading. That is one of the better excuses for not showing up.

Amber-Rose Reed was up first. After Ross finished his detailed history of the spirit board, Reed stepped to the podium and said, “My story doesn’t have a spirit board.” Her tale, “The Empress and the Three of Swords” instead focuses on Tarot, as you might have guessed from the title. Reed’s piece always felt more like a vignette than a full story to me, but it was beautifully atmospheric. I didn’t think to ask her if the woman character referred to as “Gypsy” in the story was meant to be Lady Frieda Harris, who created the Book of Thoth deck for Aleister Crowley.

Amber Rose Reed just before she got up to red from "The Empress and the Three of Swords."

Amber Rose Reed just before she got up to read from “The Empress and the Three of Swords.”

Reed was not exactly in costume, but her clothing and hair did evoke the late Regency/early Victorian styles in vogue in Britain at that time.

Anya Martin reading from "Weegee, Weegee Tell me Do."

Anya Martin reading from “Weegee, Weegee Tell me Do.”

Anya Martin read from “Weegee, Weegee, Tell Me Do,” her charming 1920s period piece that encompasses spirit boards, spiritual possession and vaudeville. Martin is a dynamic reader, full of vitality. Like Reed, she stopped at a natural stopping point, to build up the suspense (and book sales). I wished she could have read another two pages, because the scene she stopped short of featured the character I liked the best, the “Great Marie Cahill.” The song, it turns out, existed.

David James Keaton read last, performing “Spin the Throttle.” Like the other two, Keaton is a good reader and he brought out the rhythm of his story, about a group of partiers who are on a “party truck” speeding through the night. The story gets stranger and stranger and it becomes clear that for these folks, the party never ends, or at least never ends well. The remodeled fire truck that is the party vehicle features a pool or a hot tub in the back, and a floating booze bottle forms the spinner for a strange game of spin the bottle/truth or dare. Keaton’s line by line prose is creepy, graphic and often witty. I didn’t care for this story simply because it is a type of story (sinners are going to hell and don’t know it) that I’ve read before and it just doesn’t work for me. Certainly hearing the creator read from it improved it for me, but it also seemed like Keaton read a lot longer than either of the women did. I have so scientific basis for this. I don’t think there was a stated time limit, and even if there had been, they were short one writer, so each person could have read longer. While Martin and Reed’s stories had definite stopping places, pauses for the reader to catch a breath, or for a scene to change, the pace of Keaton’s story matches a hellish truck tearing through the dark, faster and faster. There are very few natural breaks. And maybe it just seemed longer because it wasn’t one of my favorites.

David James Keaton, "Spin the Throttle."

David James Keaton, “Spin the Throttle.”

After the readings were finished, Sarita and Katie came up from the audience to demonstrate the spirit board. The spirit board created for the book is lovely, a re-creation of an historic board. At first the two women worked from the table, but folks in the audience couldn’t see. They turned around the podium and used that. The gravity was definitely an influence.

For the first question, a man in the front row called out, “Who made it all go wrong?” That’s a pretty broad question. The women waited, and the board spelled out E… G…. G. Egg. Petaluma used to be an egg production center, but I don’t see how eggs are responsible for whatever’s wrong.

(Unless it was the first part of a message from the Daleks…? “Eggs… stir… min… ate?”)

Two mediums work the talking board, and get "eggs" and "GN."

Two mediums work the talking board, and get “eggs” and “GN.”

I forget what the second question was, but then it seemed we were done. Ross asked for a third question. I raised my hand asked who Special Counsel Robert Mueller would be indicting. The answer seemed to be “G… N.”  The planchet slipped down toward the numbers and I wondered for a minute if it was going to designate the G8. Instead, it motored into a corner and finally off the board, signaling that the spirits were gone.

Shortly after that, we were too. I got some autographs. In addition to Tales from a Talking Board, I bought the wonderful-looking new John Crowley book, Ka. Talking spirits? How about talking crows?

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Cash on the Barrelhead? Maybe Not

A few months ago I posted on Facebook about a strange occurrence at the Peet’s Coffee closest to me. I buy coffee beans there. More than half the time – probably seventy-five percent of the time –I pay cash. Maybe it’s more like ninety percent of the time.

Here’s where I digress and say that I still pay cash for a lot of things. It makes me old-fashioned, and I don’t care. I like it.

A few months ago the young barista at Peet’s took my cash, gave me change, offered me a complimentary small coffee, and pushed a cash receipt across the counter, along with a pen. “Please sign,” he said.

“I paid cash,” I said. By the way, the cash receipt had no signature line, and there was only one copy. If it required a signature, there should have been two copies. I could go on with the logical arguments, but I don’t need to.

He nodded. “I know, but we require a signature on cash purchases over twenty-five dollars.”

There was a line behind me, and I was on my way to an appointment, so I signed it. When I got home that afternoon I emailed Peet’s customer service and asked why they required a signature for a cash transaction. They replied that they don’t. They asked for the date and location of the interaction and I gave it to them.

Flash forward to yesterday. I’m in Peet’s buying beans, paying with cash, and a different barista pushes the cash receipt and a pen across the counter. “Please sign,” she says. “You can sign anywhere.”

(“You can sign anywhere.” Obviously, someone besides me has pointed out that cash receipts don’t have a signature line, because they don’t need a signature line, because when you pay cash you don’t need to… oh, never mind.)

“But I paid cash,” I say, looking around to see if the walls are swirling and voices reverbing in a 1980s-bad-movie-kind-of-way, because déjà vu is rising around me like an incoming tide.

“I know, but we require a cash signature for any transaction over twenty-five dollars.”

There is no one behind me, and I don’t have a full calendar, so I stand my ground. “I don’t have to sign for a cash transaction,” I say. “Your own customer support people told me that when I called them once before about this.”

“Well, I can go ask my manager, but it’s how I was trained,” she says.

“Yes, go ask. Why don’t you go ask?” I say. I wait while she walks down to the end of the counter and says something to a woman who might be thirty. The thirtyish woman shakes her head and my barista comes back.

“You don’t have to pay,” she says. I raise my eyebrows and she laughs. “Sign, I mean! You don’t have to sign.”

I take my beans and go away, but I’m thinking. I’m thinking that her last slip of the tongue is a clue as to what has gone wrong with the training at this particular Peet’s. She seems to think if I haven’t swiped something, or signed something, I haven’t exactly paid. And she seems to have been trained that way.

I’m guessing she and the first guy got trained at the same time by the same person. Obviously, they have few enough cash transactions that this hasn’t been corrected yet.

Whoever trained her and the first guy is young enough that they aren’t that familiar with cash transactions. Does this make sense? Both of these sales reps were young. Is it possible that they just really aren’t that familiar with the concept of cash?

Sigh. I feel old. Thank God I have some coffee beans to get me through my doddering old-ageness. Maybe I can go out and yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

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After the Flames

The fires are nearly 100% contained in Northern California. That doesn’t mean they are out, although they are nearly out. We got a little bit of rain last week and that helped.

During the time of the fire disaster, 100,000 people in Sonoma County were displaced at least temporarily. At least 5800 buildings were destroyed. Most were homes. Many were businesses.

Now, slowly, things are settling into a post-disaster mode. Most people have places to stay. Evacuation orders are lifted and people are allowed back into neighborhoods. Some return to find their houses untouched by fire. Some are returning to look at a cracked, blackened foundation and a field of rubble with perhaps a chimney sticking up through it.

I know five people who lost the houses they owned and lived in. I’m tempted to say “I know five people who lost their homes,” but in fact I know seven people who lost their homes. Two people were renters, and the place they rented is now gone. They lost their homes too.

The county has announced that it is reaching out to neighboring counties who were not affected by the fires to “borrow” plan-checking employees, so that plans to rebuild can be expedited to some extent. The City of Santa Rosa has made strong statements, with no details, about a desire to expedite plan-approval for homes too.

People don’t even have insurance payments yet, but they are starting to get ready to go home, or to re-create a home.

During the urban wildland fire, the county banded together and the outpouring of civilian help was inspiring. People with land in fire-free areas immediately offered to take large livestock; people donated water, clothing, food and bedding. People volunteered at all of the shelters. Those who could gave money. People are still giving money, planning fundraisers, and offering good and services.

We aren’t in the next phase, the recovery phase, yet. When we transit into it, it’s going to be interesting. There aren’t enough carpenters in Sonoma County to rebuild all the housing that is needed. Some of the carpenters we do have lost everything to the flames. Carpenters from other regions and states will be coming here. From the outside, what happens here will look like an economic boom. I doubt you’ll be able to get an oven, a washing machine, a dryer or a TV without a four-to-six week wait. And I don’t know if you’ll be able to get a new car without going onto a waiting list for months.

Rents will skyrocket. On the other side of our “recovery,” there will be fewer people of modest income in this county, and the people who manage to hang on will have it a little bit worse. But I think many of us won’t notice. We’ll breathe sighs of relief when we see new houses in those tracts or on those hills, and not think about the people who were pushed out.

Wineries were among the businesses struck by the fires. If you are a winery and your buildings burnt down, you may be fine after a tough year, because you’re insured, and can rebuild. If your vineyard burned, that’s another matter completely. It takes two to five years to bring a vineyard to maturity. And we don’t know yet what the ash is going to do to the soil.

I don’t know what will happen to many of the truck farmers who lived and grew in eastern Santa Rosa. There shouldn’t be a loss of a growing season, unless the soil has been damaged.

A lot of businesses lost at least a week of commerce because they closed. They closed because their staff were in shelters, having been evacuated, or because they themselves were evacuated, or because they had gone to help in shelters and distribution centers. A week doesn’t sound like much, but if you were retail or food service, you run pretty close to the margins on a good year. It never helps to lose a week.

Already, too, the rumormongers are hard at it. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall, culprits have already been assigned. Left-leaning rumormongers are blaming PG&E, which is a soft target after the San Bruno firestorm. Conservatives have decided that an undocumented immigrant started the fire(s). There is no evidence for either theory, yet, and investigations haven’t even started, but already there are radio ads in Sonoma County from a personal injury law firm blaming PG&E, and already acting Sheriff Giordano has had to issue a press release correcting misinformation propagated by ICE about a man who was arrested and being held in the county jail.

As things get better, and we move farther away from this life-changing tragedy, the rumors will get worse and people will revert to our more common natures; fault-finding, blaming and nitpicking. In the meantime, though, we are still doing well. We are still checking in with each other, still making donations, still offering “Thank yous” to the many first responders. We are gathering our strength. We’re getting ready to rebuild. We’re getting ready to get through this.

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Rejection, Part Two: Rage in Private

Now you’ve just survived a discouraging rejection, and you want to vent. Of course you do, and of course you should. You have writing friends who understand that providing support is part of the process. To them, you can say that the editor is obviously an ignoramus; anyone with the sophistication of a ten-year-old could see how elegantly your plot flows from the characters’ motivtions; that anybody with a brain can see what you did there; that editors just aren’t ready for strong women characters with flaws.

Just be careful where and how you say these things. An e-mail circle is a great place to vent; so is a restaurant, a bar, a coffee place, a walking path. (Probably not at a table in the ConSuite at a convention.)

You know what isn’t private?

Social media.

I will bet $100 that if you tweet about how ignorant, arrogant and myopic an editor is, they will see that tweet within a day. If you use their name (even if it’s not their twitter handle) they’ll probably see it about an hour. A whole bunch of other editors will see it too, and they’ll see your name, and they will assume that working with you, even if your writing is good and you have some interesting ideas, is going to be problematic.

Every editor has had at least one experience of taking a chance on a work that had good qualities and an interesting idea. Every editor has had at least one experience of discovering, hours (and no story) later, that the writer is more interested in being the protagonist of their own personal drama than in telling a good story. Every editor has wasted hours, and suffered hurt feelings, stress and possibly even mild threats (eg, lawsuits), because of that person.

By tweeting about a mean, nasty, stupid editor who rejected you, you are placing yourself in that category of person, not just for the editor who rejected you (if they remember you or your story) but every other editor reading your comment as well.  So don’t to it.

Cultivate writing friends who are going to provide the emotional support you need via e-mail or via a private FB circle. It’s fine to put on Twitter that you’re sad because a story got rejected. You probably don’t need to do more than that.  I think if you’re going to vent on Facebook you might want to mark the post to be limited to Friends, for much the same reason; if it’s public, you have no control over where it goes.

Count on your writing friends, and be sure you have also cultivated ones who will be honest with you and who will say, “Well, events do get confusing in the middle of the story,” when you’re ready to hear it.

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Rejection, Part One: Some Thoughts

I’ve gotten plenty of rejections, so I think I can speak with some authority on this subject, and I plan to.

This post was inspired by yet another story about a writer who confronted an editor. I’m going to call the writer Blue and the editor Lonesome.

“Why’d you reject my story?” Blue demanded.

“Well because [reasons],” Lonesome replied.

“Oh, fine! So you think that [long set of reasons that had nothing to do with the editor’s comments.]”

Lonesome, “[SIGH.]”

I’m sure there is a lot of angst and backstory to this that we’ll never know, and on Twitter I only read the editor’s side. But I came away with a certain conclusion.

I must never do this.

There are times to follow up with an editor. For example, if the rejection says, “Your story ‘Lonesome Blues’ is just not right for us,” and you never sent them a story called “Lonesome Blues,” you should probably follow up.

You might be thinking that the editor is an idiot for rejecting your story. You read the magazine they work for and you’ve seen stories in there that are nowhere near as good as yours; or, you can tell from the letter that the editor just doesn’t get your story, and once you explain it, they’ll understand and want to publish it.

Well, this is hard to absorb, but it’s true; no, they won’t.

Let’s take a look at things that drive the impulse to respond.

They print stories that are nowhere near as good as yours.

Think for a moment. Basically, you are championing your work by saying, “You’ve published way worse stuff that this!” Is that really the approach you want to take?

Yes, maybe they have published stories that you found silly, shallow, poorly written, over-written or whatever. The terribly written story you read in last month’s issue may have been purchased ten months previously. You are always competing against the pool, and for all you know, your story was in the running with a half-dozen future Pulitzer Prize winners. You just can’t tell.

Maybe a published story sucks, and it was an invitational story, or a story submitted by an established writer to meet a contractual requirement. Money’s been paid, the writer has a name, and the publication is probably going to print the story for business purposes, even if it isn’t that good.

Maybe the editor thinks the stories are great and yours are not, in which case this might not be a market for you.

Send your story to the next market on your list.

If they just understood your story, they’d buy it.

If they didn’t understand the story, one of two things is going on. The first thing might be that the story is flawed.

It’s unimaginable, I know, but as a thought exercise, let’s just pretend that your story does not explain itself; that it really needs more work. Explaining it to the editor is not going to fix the problem. Consider revising the story. Look back on the notes from your first reader or your writers group, perhaps especially from the folks whose comment you dismissed because they just “didn’t get it.” There might be something of value for you there. Once you revise it, send it to the next market on your list.

Console yourself when this thought: in the future, when you are accepting an award for that revised story that you sold to another market, editor number one will be sitting at home thinking, “Curses! I let that one get away.”

The second possibility is that the story’s fine and the editor truly just doesn’t get it. You explaining the story isn’t going to help. That editor’s opinion is still that the story doesn’t work (the proof is that you had to explain it). This editor is not a match for that story. Send the story to the next market on your list.

The editor is obviously racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever and is reacting to my work from that place.

Sadly, that may be true, and again, writing back to them isn’t going to change that. If you believe this, they aren’t the market for you. I happen to think this is a problem; editors who are unconsciously racist/sexist, and don’t understand stories that come out of different cultures, use language differently or have a different sensibility. Participating in discussions about this, raising the profile of this issue, and using resources like Facebook, SFWA and Codex to find markets that are consciously working to broaden their own horizons seems to be the solution. And, send your story to the next market on your list.

Rejection is hard. Sending out work is hard. It helps to develop some kind of a coping mechanism; friends are one. Depersonalizing the rejection is another. Someone on Twitter (of all places) tweeted about “collecting rejection tokens,” and I’ve appropriated that one. It’s just another token. It’s like a game and when I collect enough tokens I can trade them for something… maybe an acceptance. The facts are, the way you get published is by sending out your work, so keep doing it. And a by-product of sending out your work is rejection. So, collect the whole set. Rage in private. Mock the editor with your friends in private, and send the story to the next market on your list.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

We woke up about six-forty-five Monday morning, because the rookery of crows about a mile away was raising its usual ruckus. They all start, cawing and squawking, for about fifteen minutes, before they fly off in various groups to their various territories. I’m used to them.

I’m not used to it being dark this time of year though.

Spouse got up and twitched aside the curtain. “Huh. Overcast,” he said. He opened the slider a bit. “Looks like fog.” He pulled on his jeans and walked out of the room, and I thought, smoke.

There was a layer of nearly white powder on the deck, punctuated with slender black lines and arcs. I got my robe and went out to the front, where the sun was a fire opal in a rust-colored sky. Near my foot was a slug-shaped object, glossy black. I nudged it with my slipper and it pulverized into dust; a burnt leaf.

Smoke everywhere.

During the night, we’d heard sirens once. I’d known about a Calistoga fire and a small fire in Kenwood, twenty-seven miles away from where I live. The wind had rattled the house with sharp gusts all night. I had expected more sirens. I hadn’t expected this.

And I didn’t even know that much, yet.

On the news; the Tubbs Road fire was getting a lot of attention. Tubbs Road was in Calistoga, nearly fifty miles away. Why so much attention? Then I started hearing names like Larkfield. Mark West Springs Road. Fountaingrove.

I e-mailed my friends who live in Larkfield. I knew they were fine, it was just a formality, a “you guys okay?” thing, like you do. Karen e-mailed me that they and the pets had evacuated at about 1:30 and had stayed at her office; everyone was fine.

I thought, “Mark West Springs Road. That’s like 1964.” I knew Karen and Brian would have an inconvenient night or two and then go home. Later, there would be funny stories about getting up and leaving in the tiny hours of the morning.

“Do you need anything?” I sent.

She said they were fine. Half-jokingly, I replied, “Not even kitty litter/dog toys?”

I looked around on Facebook to make sure friends had marked themselves “Safe.” A couple of friends were without power but were in no danger. I realized Nixle, the law enforcement notification system the county uses, had notified me 14 times during the night. All of them were about fires. I started swiping through them not really reading them, when Karen e-mailed me back.

“I just heard the house is gone. Pet toys would be appreciated.”

I looked at it. I could tell I was reading it wrong, because that first sentence looked like it said the house was gone. (My memory suddenly flashed up a perfect image of their house, at Halloween, Brian’s spooky special effects in the front yard, sunlight through the peach-pink dogwood leaves, the pitch of the roof… like I was standing in front of it. Why do our minds do that?)

I read it again. I think I replied “What?” but I could decipher the words. I just didn’t understand what they meant. Only I did.

*

In September, 1964, a cigarette tossed away by a hunter started a brush fire near St Helena. The Hanley fire, as it was called, would spread, and embers carried from it would start fires in Boyes Hot Springs and Nun’s Canyon Road. The winter in 1963/64 had been a wet one, and the fire found lots of fuel. Strong gusting winds drove the fire forward in fits and starts. The fire would “hang back,” as one firefighter put it, “hang back and hang back and then you’d be dead.” Bursting with fuel, pushed by the winds and generating its own weather, flame roared through the narrow canyons of Mark West Road and Chanate Road, coming within a mile of what was then the county hospital. It burned north, up toward Windsor and Chalk Hill. I remember walking home from school under a leaden sky and watching a black leaf twirl down out of the sky to land on my hand. It was still warm as it broke into ash.

*

No one died in the 1964 fire, mainly because there weren’t a lot of homes or businesses along the fire paths. Not like fifty years later, when the city’s boundaries have grown, and houses have gone up onto ridges that used to be grass, and into canyons that used to be trees and meadows.

*

I did what a friend would do; I brought pet toys.

Karen is the Director of Human Services; with no sleep, knowing her house was gone, she was hard at work maintaining her department and getting ready to deploy staff to the EOC, to shelters, to staff the phone lines at 211. Brian, a writer and artist, was trying to reach all family, friends, neighbors, to let them know his status and Karen’s, and also find out how they were; where they were (in the case of some neighbors) and did they know.

The entire neighborhood is demolished. People are alive. People are okay.

Brian said that there are days in your life that divide your life into Before and After. “Until today,” he said, “The birth of the twins was that day.”

*

Nearly everyone I’ve talked to in the last three days knows someone this has happened to.

This fire followed the path of the 1964 fire. Supercharged by fuel, 65-mph winds and its own energy, it jumped the freeway at Fountaingrove Parkway, and burned a housing tract on the east side of town. That was new. That was probably the scariest thing; the moment we all knew that we could not predict this event.

The other thing that’s new, good and bad; how quickly we get given input. Some of the input is fact. Some is assumed fact. Some is wrong. Most of it is good; all of it is terrible. I hope that makes sense.

*

My town is filled with evacuees. I’m glad they’re here. I’m glad they had family or friends they can stay with, or came to one of the shelters. I’m glad they are safe. Karen and Brien are safe too, staying with grown daughters far from the fires. The other people I know who lost their homes have a place to stay, food, safety.

I don’t know about those who were in homeless encampments in the Fountaingrove hills, or people who were renting. We won’t know for a while. The fires are still uncontained; they have spread to Windsor and Geyserville, and there are fires in Napa County, Solano County and Mendocino.

I was just a kid in 1964. I wonder if this what the grownups felt like; knowing nothing, waiting, hoping a time would come when they would be able to help.

 

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Killjoys; A Pleasure

Killjoy character D'avin, Dutch and Johnnie

Basic Black and Projectile Weapons, it’s how we roll

You may have gathered that I like the Syfy show Killjoys. I wrote about hackmods; I wore a Feminist Killjoy T-shirt at HawaiiCon. (A guy said, “It’s nice to see the RAC represented.”) Killjoys is a space opera conceived by Michelle Lovretta, the inventor of the quirky fantasy show Lost Girl. It shares some philosophy with Lost Girl, and some sensibility. And it’s fun.

I called it “space opera.” Killjoys is set in a planetary system in the “J star-cluster.” There are rocket ships and pulse weapons, AI ships, and colonized moons. No one really talks about how fast the ships go or where they go (there may be one or two hand-waving mentions of FTL travel). None of that matters because this isn’t “hard” science fiction. That’s what “space opera” is; the term grew out of an old TV phrase, “horse opera” (which might have even come from the much-older expression soap opera, still in use today)… horse operas were westerns. Space operas have space ships and fancy weapons, usually take place on other planets, and are not at all worried about the “how” of being there. They are usually military, often capers, and basically provide action adventure in space. Killjoys honors that lineage and uses a little bit of each subgenre.

It’s fun, it’s actiony, and it’s popcorn-worthy, but it isn’t shallow. Killjoys asks a lot of questions about inequality and privilege. Capitalism comes in for a thorough critique in this show, and that critique is a large part of the plot and the story.

The main character of Killjoys is Dutch, a Reclamation Agent (bounty hunter) and part of the Reclamation Apprehension Coalition (the RAC). Dutch is a bit of a mystery. She says she was raised in a harem, and is the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat in a remote system at the “end of the J,” and to our surprise, this turns out to be true. Dutch, who was born Yalena Yardeen, is also an assassin. Dutch has two partners, brothers Johnnie and D’avin Jacobuis. They berth their smart ship Lucy on the moon of Westerly in a planetary system called The Quad; a large planet with three habitable moons. Leathe is a garden planet; Westerly has been strip-mined and is definitely the Bad Part of Town, and Arken, although technically inhabitable is (wink, nudge,) empty. The host planet is called Creche, inhabited by the Nine Families, who together form a corporation called… The Corporation. Creche’s ice caps are melting at a fast rate and land on Creche is disappearing; and the Nine plan to do something about that, mostly by ignoring contracts and deals they made generations earlier. Because they’re the Nine, who says they have to honor their own treaties?

Killjoys at the Royal bar

“Did I mention we killjoys drink? A lot?”

Like Lost Girl, the center of the on-moon action in Killjoys is a bar, the Royal, owned by Pree, elegantly played by Thom Allison. Dutch has befriended a Scarback monk who is also a revolutionary, named Alvis Akari, and Season One concentrates on unrest on Westerly and an attempted miners uprising. There is a deeper, multi-season story at play that involves Dutch’s scary tutor, Khylen, a rank of RAC agent called a Level Six (RAC ranks only go to Level 5); Red 17, and a neon-green goo.

Apart from a complicated, interesting story, Killjoys has a lot going for it.

Characters:

Characters are well-drawn, and rather quickly drawn. In the pilot, the original pairing is techno-boy Johnnie and Dutch, but Johnnie darts out into metaphorical traffic to go after a mystery warrant, which is his long-lost brother D’avin. D’avin and his own secrets join the partnership. I didn’t like D’avin that much at first; he seemed like a stereotypical character, but then I realized they were writing him funny. Johnnie (Aaron Ashmore) is the quippy, snarky one-liner brother, Luke McFarlane, who plays D’av, is master of the deadpan delivery. In Season Three, when talking about baby names (long story) he says to his nemesis/baby-mama, “How do you feel about apostrophes?”

After a nasty fight with a green-goo-laden Level Six who explodes (eeuw) D’av says to Dutch, “Remember when we just used to catch badguys? Yeah, that was fun.”

Johnnie loses some of his idealism as the story progresses. He is still the “good” brother, but he’s made some choices; he’s done some things. And I don’t think he’s done yet. Dutch has tried to leave her assassin past behind her, but she is realizing that she may need to draw on those skill if humanity in the J system is going to survive.

Characters like Pree, Pawter, Turin and Delle Seyah Kendry are all well-developed, complicated people who don’t always fall into line when Dutch wants them too. Even Dutch’s smart ship, Lucy, has an AI of her own and chooses to exercise it.

Humor/Anachronisms and Pop Culture:

The show gleefully plays in anachronistic pop-culture references and makes them work. In the apostrophe conversation I referenced above, D’av says a moment later, “Fathers have rights too.” Dutch and D’av call each other “special snowflakes.” It’s all done knowingly, and it works. The show also uses the word “joy” for “money” which goes a way to explaining the title.

Costuming:

Delle Seyah

“Why yes, I am evil. Your point?”

Generally, Syfy does not seem to have invested a boatload of cash into the production values of Killjoys, but the production makes that work. Westerly is grimy; most “other planets” are the same desert-like location. (They clearly used a quarry for one exterior and that was simply awesome.) Where the show chooses to spend money is on costuming is mostly for Dutch and the evil Niner Delle Sayah. This choice completely pays off. Usually, Dutch is running around in standard woman-warrior black, flipping badguys, doing spin-kicks, taking the one-in-a-million shot, but several times a season she “goes undercover” in some glamorous slinky affair. And it all works. With the introduction in Season Two of another female adversary, Aneela, we get a whole different wardrobe look. They all work. They’re all fun.

Autonomy, Corruption and Revolution:

The Corporation is corrupt and has been for generations. The RAC has held itself as “neutral.” “We take no bribes, we take no sides, the warrant is all” is their motto; and this is a complete lie. The RAC is as deeply compromised as the Corporation, and our Killjoys discover that pretty quickly. The multi-season story is about memory, about being co-opted, and about fighting for personal freedom. This may be Dutch’s personal story, as she struggles reconcile her current life with her past identity. This may be the struggle of the miners on Westerly; or the hackmods who have been enslaved and had their bodies and brains modified without their consent. It’s the struggle of anyone who has ever questioned the idea that something is right just because it’s been that way for a long time.  The show is all about these questions, but it doesn’t sledge-hammer you.

Music:

I thought the incidental music in the first season was intrusive, but by Season Two I was loving how they used song, both instrumental and voice, to enhance the story. A real treat (they’ve done it twice now) is letting Thom Allison’s character Pree sing. He has a gorgeous voice and the character of Pree melds perfectly with these choices. The “bar music” we’ve heard in the Royal has mostly had a folk-music vibe, which fits impoverished miners and taps into a cultural theme (Scottish music making the journey to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Appalachian mountains). Allison can sing pop or he can sing folk and he does both. Beautifully.

Killjoys has been renewed for Season Four and Season Five. Right now it’s on hiatus, so it’s a great time to watch it On Demand. Usually it is on Friday nights. Check it out.

Dutch:  Hannah John-Kamen

Johnnie Jacobius:  Aaron Ashmore

D’avin Jacobius:  Luck McFarland
Lucy: Tamsen McDonough
Pree:  Thom Allison
Alvis Akari:  Morgan Kelly
Turin: Patrick Garrow
Khylen: Rob Stewart
Delle Sayah Kendry:  Mayko Nguyen

Here’s the imdb page, and here’s the wiki.

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Orphan Black; Which Sestra Had the Greatest Growth?

Five Ledas

Five Ledas

Orphan Black completed its run with the Season Five finale. The showrunners and the astonishingly versatile Tatiana Maslany managed to complete the story, wrap up loose ends and bring us out on a note of hope and female autonomy. Along with The Expanse, Orphan Black is the best science fiction show on television. Now that it’s over, I find myself ruminating on just which of the five women whose lives we followed – five “genetic identicals,” clones – grew the most over the course of the show.

To write this column I am going to talk about everything that happens right up to the final few minutes of the final episode. Spoilers abound so if you haven’t seen the fifth season yet, you may want to hold off on reading this.

Orphan Black started us off with Sarah, British-Canadian; a grifter, a scrapper, one step up from a street kid. Tough, savvy Sarah is returning to the home of her foster mother, Mrs S, with half a brick of cocaine she stole from her boyfriend. Her goal is to sell it, snatch her daughter Kira who is in Mrs. S’s custody, and make a run for it, setting up a new life for herself and her daughter. In the first two minutes of the show, we get the feeling that “making a run for it” is what Sarah does best.

Sarah Manning

Sarah Manning

On the train platform in Toronto, Sarah comes face to face with a woman who looks exactly like her, seconds before the woman throws herself in front of a train. Stunned but still opportunistic, Sarah snatches the look-alike’s purse and bolts. Soon she has roped her foster-brother Felix into a scheme to impersonate the dead woman and clear out her savings account. She has reckoned without a couple of facts; Beth Childs, the dead woman with her face, is a homicide detective, and one in trouble with Internal Affairs for a bad shooting. And, Beth has a live-in boyfriend named Paul.

There is more of a mystery with Beth; specifically, the women who keep calling her, and in short order Sarah discovers that there are several women who look like her. She –and we—meet the sisterhood of the Leda clones; the main characters of this twisty, crazy, suspenseful show.

In addition to Sarah, the primary Ledas are:

Alison Hendrix, a rigid, controlling suburban housewife and soccer mom; a woman who is perfectly turned out at every moment, who has a frighteningly well-organized crafts room; the mother of two adopted children; a secret boozer and pill popper who seethes with rage at never having been good enough.

Alison Hendrix

Alison Hendrix

Cosima Niehaus, a gifted scientist from the U.S. with a degree in biology, getting her doctorate in evolutionary development (evo-devo); a lesbian with an open heart and a compassionate, non-judgmental nature. Cosima is sick, with a persistent cough that is getting worse.

Cosima Niehaus

Cosima Niehaus

Helena Black ; a Ukrainian woman who was raised as an assassin. Helena is feral; there are only two things she does well; kill people, and interact with children.

Helena. Yes, that is a bloodstained wedding gown.

Helena. Yes, that is a bloodstained wedding gown.

Very soon another Leda appears on the horizon; Rachel Duncan, a Leda clone raised in the bureaucratic bosom of the Dyad Corporation, the business-mask of the secret group who created the Ledas and another line of clones, the male Castors. Rachel is not and will never be part of the sisterhood. Her early childhood was idyllic, raised by two scientists, Ethan and Susan Duncan. When they were killed in a fire, she was “adopted” by DyadCorp, with Dr. Aldous Leeky as a proxy parent. Rachel was a “self-aware” clone; she knew what she was and that she was part of an experiment. She has been groomed to be a manager and a CEO and has risen to prominence in Dyad in the first season of the show.

Rachel Duncan

Rachel Duncan

As this group of Canadian Ledas struggle to figure out what they are, Dyad rushes to contain them, or, if that isn’t possible, eliminate them. Dyad is fascinated that Sarah has a child, because the Ledas were developed to be sterile. Then they discover that Kira has some unusual abilities, and she becomes the prize the factions fight over for the next four seasons. The “sestras,” the Ukrainian word for “sister” will fight Dyad; a fringe group called Neolution; the religious Prolethians; the Castors and each other for their freedom and Kira’s.

Each sestra has to grow and change, or risk failure. Who grew the most? In Hawaii, I discussed this briefly with Marilyn Hedtke, who felt that Rachel did the most growing. I certainly saw how Rachel had grown, but I disagreed at the time, because I was measuring her growth in terms of how much farther Rachel has to go in terms of redemption. Rachel did a lot of damage, and when the show ends, she has a lot to make up for.

I thought the sestra who had grown the most was Helena, who changes from a savage killer to a loving sister and mother who is still a… well, still a savage killer. Helena will always be a savage killer, but she has learned to trust. Helena is happy at the end of the show, a thing we could not imagine her being in Season One when we first meet her.

In the final act of the final episode, it seemed like Sarah had changed the least. The Ledas have won; they are free of all their enemies. Kira is free to live her life, and she has cousins now, including the young Leda Charlotte. Sarah, planning to take her GED and become a productive member of society, instead blows off the test. She has put a For Sale sign on the lawn of Siobhan’s (Mrs. S’s) house which she’s inherited. All the signals point to Sarah doing what she does most easily; making a run for it.

At Helena’s baby shower, though, Sarah comes clean with her sisters. She admits she ditched the test and lied to Kira about it. “I’m still a shit mom,” she says, echoing a very important line that Helena uses not once, but twice, with the psychopathic scientist Virginia Coaty. Now that there is no one left to fight, Sarah doesn’t know what to do. She hasn’t let herself mourn the loss of Siobhan. In that moment, however, Sarah is doing the thing she has never done before; she is reaching out to her family, being vulnerable.

Cosima is a vital player to the plot of Orphan Black because she is the scientist who has come the closest to curing the disease that kills both the Leda clones and the Castor clones. As a character, Cosima demonstrates nearly zero character-growth. It sounds paradoxical, but what Cosima has to do in the show is stay alive until she can save her life. In terms of emotional growth, Cosima is a plot engine more than a character.

Within Cosima’s story arc, though, the Neolutionist scientist Delphine faces challenges on nearly every front; from her sexuality to her own autonomy. When we first meet Delphine, she is prostituting both her body and her intellect to Leeky and Neolution. At one point, she ousts Rachel from the CEO chair of Dyad; and shortly after that she betrays Cosima. And shortly after that she is shot. Delphine’s resurrection and growth happen mostly in the last two seasons and she credits Siobhan with her growth, telling Sarah, “[Siobhan] taught me how to not be afraid.”

And then there is soccer-mom-from-Hell Alison, and her husband Donnie. I was often frustrated with the Alison storylines, even while I was doubled over gasping with laughter. Alison’s marriage to Donnie is flat and insincere until circumstances force them to get authentic. It’s sad that those circumstances involve killing Dr. Leeky and burying him under the floor in their garage, but sometimes that’s how things go. This magical moment over a jackhammer bonds Donnie and Alison, and Donnie’s connection to a pregnant Helena later in the show helps him emerge as a real, nuanced person and a loving husband. I did wonder if the showrunners did so much with Alison because Tatiana Maslany and Kristian Bruun, who played Donnie, had such great chemistry. Alison bottoms out, has revenge sex with another husband on the street, lets a rival wife on the street die in front of her, goes into rehab, relapses, becomes a drug dealer and a member of the school board (those two in the same season); and at the end is oddly at peace with herself, coloring her hair purple and getting rid of her crafts room so she can write music and “live deep.” Perhaps this is the greatest growth, but somehow, I never quite believed it. With Donnie and Alison, the next catastrophe is only a breath away.

It seems like detective Beth’s growth arc ended in the first five minutes of the series, but in Season Four, the story circles back around to the police detective, and we find out that her fatal act is not bred of despair, but of a desperate self-sacrifice, one that Sarah unintentionally ruins with her impersonation.

Beth Childs

Beth Childs

I should mention that there are several other Leda clones who make an appearance. Maslany, in addition to being an actress capable of deep emotion, and startlingly versatile, lent herself to stunt casting and there was a time when it felt like the show runners were saying, “How many clones can we add?” The majority of them were on for one or two episodes. The character of Krystal showed character growth, definitely.

Which leads me back to the essential five; Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Helena and Rachel. By now, looking at where they started to where they ended up, I see the argument for Rachel. Rachel will never be part of the sestras. The wounds she has caused, and her own wounds (literally, a lost eye and brain damage) are too deep. Rachel, raised up to be the token corporate clone, had the farthest to fall. In Season Five, from the exalted expression of ecstasy on her face when she hears the words, “Mr. Westmorland will see you now,” to the moment in her office with the stem of a martini glass, Rachel’s plunge is the deepest, but it isn’t a fall, it’s a dive. Rachel finally, literally, sees the truth of Neolution, of the men who have lied to her, shaped her and controlled her. A captive Kira asks her, “Who hurt you?” Rachel answers, “All of them.” When she acts, it isn’t a fall. She chooses her own actions to be free of them.

Rachel still has the farthest to go. Did she come the farthest? Cosima lives, Helena, Alison and Donnie have twin boys to raise, and Sarah is letting herself, slowly, put down roots. Rachel drives off in an Uber, but not before making a gesture of redemption to Felix, one that will save lives. So, it is Rachel? I think maybe it is.

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