Perhaps we’ve heard this before

And so it happened that a darkness came over the land. Some were consumed by the dark, and some were destroyed by the dark, and some fled the dark at great cost, escaping to tell the tale.

Some too watched the darkness approach. “We must fight the dark,” these people said, but they did not know how. Darkness is not easily captured and destroyed. A sword will not slay it. An arrow will not pierce it. Iron bars cannot hold it, no more than they can hold light. And so they were greatly afraid.

Until one saw the people fleeing the dark. “Swords can slay them,” he thought. “Arrows can pierce them. Iron bars can hold them, though they cannot hold darkness or light.”

This one turned to those around him and said, “Look! Those people who are fleeing the dark, they have been touched by the dark. The darkness is within them now. We need only keep them away, and we will keep the darkness away, too. We need only keep them away, and we will be safe.”

The people looked to the ones fleeing the dark, and they saw at last something that swords could slay, and arrows pierce, and iron bars hold. “We can fight that,” they said, feeling their courage return. “We will fight that. Those who are touched by the dark, are the dark, and must be kept away.”

And so, at last, they felt safe.

But they were not safe.

And they are not the heroes of this story.

They are never the heroes of this story.

Writer’s block: short answers and long ones

“What do you do about writers block?” It’s a question writers get asked often.

It’s also a subject on which writers are tempted to go the hard truths route on when they answer.

When I was asked this question, I used to say something like, “Well, I don’t really get writer’s block. I just keep writing.” Maybe I’d throw in some helpful words about how it’s okay to write a crappy rough draft, as if all that stood between a–any writer–and writing was the fear of producing some bad words that they’d need to figure out how to revise later. The truth was, in my earliest writing days, I didn’t believe in writers block, and I did believe in simple truths. Writers write, right?

As time went on, I began to allow as how I did at least know what burnout was–both as a writer and in other fields–and that maybe that was what writers really meant, when they talked about writers block.

I still think I was right that the phrase, “writer’s block,” might be problematic, if only because it carries a lot of almost-mystical weight among writers, and that naming the specific reasons for not writing–of which burnout is only one of many–can sometimes give being stuck a little less power. But beyond that, when asked what I do about writer’s block now, I no longer have a quick, simple answer. There are so many reasons writers stop writing, as many reasons as there are writers.

But if asked to break it down, and given the time for a long answer rather than a short one, now I’d say there are three main things I do when I get writer’s block–or whatever we want to call it–things that, like all writing advice, are right for me, but may or may not be right for anyone else.

1) Sometimes I need to push through.

Sometimes what feels like writer’s block really is just a case of the I-Don’t-Want-Tos or the I’m-Scared-Tos. And sometimes even something more complicated than a case of the I-Don’t-Want-Tos or I’m-Scared-Tos can be fought and pushed through. Sometimes, the advice my younger self gave still holds, and I just need to keep writing, keep my butt in my chair, and get those words on the page by brute force.

2) Sometimes I need to step back.

Sometimes when writing just isn’t happening, something in the story isn’t working, or I need to figure something out before I can move forward. When that’s true, going for a walk, going to a movie, even just taking a shower or grabbing lunch and giving myself some thinking time may be the break I need to figure out what that something is. Once I figure it out, often the words will start flowing again, no brute force required.

Sometimes taking a break just re-energizes me, too, even if it doesn’t lead to any profound story realizations, and that can help my words to flow more freely, too. Writers like to talk about how we can’t afford to take breaks, but sometimes, I think we can’t afford not to.

3) Sometimes I need to step away.

Sometimes there are real, legitimate stresses, positive and negative, that take away our focus or our writing time or our writing brain and leave us in a place where we can’t push through, for a short time or a long one, and a shower or a walk or all the writing pep talks in the world just aren’t going to change that. That’s when we need to forgive ourselves for not writing for a time, allow ourselves some grace, and stop beating ourselves up and making ourselves feel worse about something that just isn’t going to happen right now.

The truth is that I remain, really, really bad at this. And to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever been wrong to try responses 1 and 2 first–more often than not, they do work. But not always, and that’s okay.

Or maybe it’s not okay. It’s terribly hard, actually, especially when one is also trying to make a living, especially when writing is part of one’s identity and one’s way of being and expressing and existing in the world. I don’t have easy answers to what to do about any of that. (Or even, as Terri Windling says, any difficult ones.) But it’s going to happen to many of us, maybe most of us, at one point or another, if we keep at this writing thing long enough.

Most of us will also, at one point or another, find our way back, though we may stop believing that and it may take longer than we expect. I now believe that if we can learn to treat ourselves with compassion during these times, rather than with anger and self-hate, if we can find a way to be gentle with ourselves, this can actually help us through and provide comfort–something that’s especially important at times when writing isn’t there to do these things for us.

On writing and so-called hard truths

Today, as sometimes happens, I’ve been stumbling, unbidden, on writing posts on a theme.

First, J.H. Moncrieff on the problems of writers telling one another that “Writers write”: “If nothing has ever stopped you from writing, you’re very, very lucky. You’re also a rarity.”

Then, Terri Windling on hard times and some of the reasons writers don’t write: “For those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art and when that discipline fails us, when the fire’s been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do? I wish I had an easy answer to that question … or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire …”

Even though I’m writing consistently right now, I’ve been in both these places. I think most of us have, though I think most of us also hesitate to say so.

Then, after reading both those posts, I stumbled upon an old never-shared post of mine on the problems of ignoring all of the above when dispensing writing advice. So since the universe seems to be telling me to talk about this today (and was, perhaps, telling me to wait when I set this post aside months and months ago for reasons I no longer clearly remember), I’m adding this post to the conversation now.


Over on facebook, I recently (not so recently now) posted the following:

I used to think writing was entirely about being determined enough and wanting it badly enough to put one’s butt in the chair and do the work. Now I get that it’s also about sorting out both sleep and time, about keeping the creative well full, about so many complicated and intertwined and individual/personal things. While it may ultimately be true that in order to write we have to do the work, I regret all the times I put a “just” in front of that statement when giving writing advice, or went all “this is the hard truth” about it. It’s not that simple, not always, not for an entire long career. Don’t let anyone tell you it is, and don’t let yourself feel inferior when they do if their current truth isn’t your current truth.

That was the short version. This is the longer one:

I did once think writing was pretty simple. You just had to be determined enough and want it badly enough to put your butt in the chair and do the work. Nothing else mattered. If you didn’t put in the time, you simply weren’t going to be a writer because you weren’t committed enough to being one. End of story. Thinking this, I gave my share of tough love, “I’m sorry, but this is the hard and unassailable truth, no way around it” talks to my fellow writers.

As a beginning writer, I was so harsh–on others and on myself. I was incredibly intense about writing back then. I wanted this writing thing so badly I could taste it, I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way, and I had little empathy or understanding to spare for those who felt differently.

Over the next couple decades I mellowed, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve come to understand that that intensity is something you can maintain for a few years at a stretch, but not for a lifetime, not without burning out. There comes a point where we need to chill out, to relax a little, to remember to breathe if we’re going to keep doing this at all.

And we need to accept that not only do careers have ups and downs, lives have ups and downs. We’re in good and bad mental places and these things affect our work. We have higher and lower levels of non-writing obligations and these things affect our work.

None of this means we don’t want it badly enough. It means we’re human beings. It means not every day, year, or decade is going to be a perfect one, and that’s all right.

But here’s a thing: For every one of us who finally comes to this understanding and stops beating their fellow writers over the head with so-called tough truths, there’s another writer who’s still riding that first (or second, or third) wave of intensity, and so deliverting talks about all the things that they’re sure, so very sure, are hard-and-fast requirements for being a real writer and having a real career–with no time to stop, while being that intense, to wonder what that word, “real,” even means.

It may be true that we need to do at least some of the things, some of the time, to get our work out into the world and into the hands of readers–though it may also be true that it’s possible to do these things at a sustainable intensity instead of flinging our whole beings at the universe day after day to get them done. But that word, “true,” is as problematic as “real” is. Careers are long, time is long, people are individuals. None of us knows what will even work for us in a year or five, let alone for anyone else.

I’ve come to believe that when it comes to writing hard, necessary truths are neither as true nor as necessary nor as universal as we think. When we share our experiences–because there is value, immense value, in writers sharing their experiences, in connecting and knowing we’re not alone and finding common ground–we can share them with all of that in mind, and not only for others’ sake. Because when we become less harsh with others, we become less harsh with ourselves. This may be one of the writing truths–or one of my writing truths–that it’s taken me longest to learn–that time is long and careers are long, and in the end, no matter what anyone else needs, sooner or later we need our own self-kindness and self-compassion and self-understanding to see us through.

Join me for my hometown con!

Aka TusCon 42. I’ll be there this weekend and hope some of you will, too.

The con is at the Hotel Tucson City Center at 475 N Granada Ave in Tucson. Here are some of the specific places you can find me!

Friday, 7 p.m.
Meet the Guests
Ballroom (Copper Room)

Saturday, 8 p.m.
Why Teens Are Drawn to Dystopian?
With Willian Herr, Janni Lee Simner, and John Vornholt
St. Augustine

Sunday, 9 a.m.
Finding Your Sense of Place: Emotion, Description, and Setting
A craft-of-writing talk with Janni Lee Simner
Garden Room

Sunday, 2 p.m.
Bring Back Your Dead: The Uses and Misuses of Killing Your Characters
With With James Breen, Seanan McGuire, Janni Lee Simner, Thomas Watson, and Colette Black
Ballroom (Copper Room)

Want to learn how to do origami? Be sure to also catch Larry Hammer in the Art Show room at 10 a.m. Saturday offering a paper-folding tutorial!

Is Star Wars better than Twilight?

An article on how Twilight-hate is part of the larger picture of teen girl hate in our society, something I’ve been aware of for a while now: “For many people, the fact that teenage girls like something — whether that something is Taylor Swift or One Direction or ‘Twilight’ — is a reason to write it off completely.”

When I first shared this article on social media, there was some discussion, as there usually is (because I’ve been part of discussions about this before, the past few years), about how our hatred of Twilight isn’t really or only about dissing teen girls, because the books really are problematic, because they provide such horrible models for teen girls of who they can aspire to be.

I used to share this concern. But after talking to actual Twilight readers, I’m convinced that teen girls read as critically or more critically than the rest of us, and that they’re no less aware of the problems with the books than any of us are aware of the problems with whatever fluffy, escapist stories we happen to enjoy. In fact, I’ve had some of my favorite thoughtful conversations about YA books and reading with Twilight readers.

The Twilight books still don’t hit my story buttons. I’ll never be part of their core audience. But then I began thinking about how Twilight is nowhere near the only fiction out there that provides poor role models for girls. One could argue that, more often than not, most stories out there–in books and in other media–still do that. Girls and women are so often either absent or victims in everything from children’s stories to adult ones. (Being a girl is also not-infrequently tossed off as a one-line joke in movies, because apparently nothing is funnier or more humiliating than a guy being mistaken for a girl, or finding himself in girl’s clothes.) One could argue that Bella, at least, gets what she wants at the end of her story, which even today isn’t true for the women in so many other stories we read and watch.

So after thinking about that, I began thinking about one of my favorite bits of escapism from when I was a teen, something that remains one of the things that still does hit my story buttons: the original Star Wars trilogy.

Star Wars had a huge influence on my writing. It helped ignite my love of fantasy and adventure stories. (I do consider it more fantasy and adventure than science fiction, though that’s a whole other discussion.) It helped turn me into a writer, because I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing hundreds of thousands of words of Star Wars fanfic. The Star Wars movies were huge for me. Huge.

The Star Wars movies provide horrible role models for being a woman.

Oh, sure, in the very first movie Leia is full of spunk and fire and no small amount of strategic planning. She’s also, as far as we know as of the original trilogy, one of only two women in the entire Star Wars universe, which is a tremendous problem in itself, especially when the other woman dies horribly in the opening scenes and is never really a character at aLL. But by the end of the trilogy, Leia has been drained of all real agency. In The Empire Strikes Back she’s reduced to primarily a love interest, and by Return of the Jedi her main active actions revolve around trying to rescue the man she loves. By the end of Jedi movie, Luke does all the heavy lifting, while Leia discovers and helps inspire the Ewoks to help out on the ground. And that ground battle doesn’t even really influence the course of events; it’s Luke and Vader’s battle with the Emperor that truly destroys the Empire, though not everyone knows it.

A point is even made, in Jedi, of the fact that Leia has the same powers as Luke–but she never gets to use them, not even a little bit. At the end of Jedi Luke has saved the galaxy, Leia falls into Han’s arms, and viewers cheer.

I cheered. Which is actually the point I’m trying to make. These movies, which also don’t provide strong role models for girls, were movies teen me loved beyond all reason. They’re movies adult me loves beyond all reason, too. Loves them even as I critique their flaws, which I’m fully aware of, and which include front and foremost their treatment of female characters. Teen me was just as aware, though she articulated it differently, by constantly adding female characters to the fic she wrote, and giving them agency.

Teen Twilight fans (and, yes, adult ones too) are capable of the same self-awareness. They’re as capable of enjoying problematic things as I am.

The difference is that, when I say I love Star Wars, very few people sneer and go “oh, lightsabers, seriously?” in that way that they so often sneer and go “oh, sparkly vampires, seriously?” Two problematic stories–two very different societal reactions.

Likewise, while there are certainly thinky gender critiques of both Star Wars out there, when I say I love Star Wars, few people immediately respond by saying, “Oh, but what kind of an example is it setting for our girls?” — even though the example Star Wars sets is not ultimately better than the example Twilight sets. Leia has more spunk than Bella, sure (though even that spunk is tempered by the end), but she doesn’t have more agency.

Of course we should talk to our daughters about the problematic messages and role models in Twilight. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But we should also talk to them about the problematic messages and role models in other stories–and be on the lookout for them ourselves–because Twilight is nowhere near unique in this regard.

But before then, first and foremost, when a teen girl says she loves a thing?

We owe her the same respect we owe anyone else, when they talk about the things they love.

Find me at the Humboldt County Children’s Author Festival

From October 15-17 I’ll be at the Humboldt County Author Festival. I’m excited to be visiting schools Thursday and Friday—and I’ll also be part of a public signing with all the other Festival authors on Saturday. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hi!

Saturday, October 17, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Humboldt County Children’s Author Festival—Book Signing
Eureka Main Library
1313 3rd Street
Eureka , California

Looking ahead, I’ll also be back at TusCon Science Fiction Convention Halloween weekend.

Friday, October 30-Sunday, November 1
TusCon Science Fiction Convention
Hotel Tucson City Center
475 N Granada Ave
Tucson, Arizona

It be great to see you either of these places!

Writing, writing, writing

That lovely moment in the story when a phone rings, and you let your character answer it so that both of you can find out who’s on the other end.

Really, knowing where the story is going before you get there is overrated.1


Dear Characters,

I’m sorry, but you cannot organize yourselves into one Leader and Four Lancers.2

It just … doesn’t work that way.



Dear Group Leader,

I know, I know. You have to deal with this lot and you don’t even get the benefit of being the protagonist for your trouble.

Would it help if I gave you some angsty back story to make up for it?


1Necessary disclaimer: For my writing process.

2If a Five-Man Band has one Leader and Four Lancers, does the Leader become the actual Lancer?

Diversity and the stories we tell

Recently, in my search for diverse picture books and especially for books where my child could see other children who look like her in the illustrations, I came upon Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. This beautifully written and illustrated book, for those who haven’t read it, introduces babies from around the world and of many races with the refrain:

And both of these babies—as everyone knows—had ten little fingers and ten little toes.

The strength of the writing and illustrations meant that it took two or three or maybe five readings (because no one reads any picture book only once to their child) for it to hit me that that well-crafted refrain … wasn’t actually true. That the very book I’d bought to help my child celebrate her diversity and the diversity of all children was not about all children.

Because somewhere out there–many somewheres out there–there’s a parent who saw this book that was trying to be about all babies and set it aside because it wasn’t about their baby. Maybe this parent’s perfect, beloved, amazing child was born with polydatyly, or with a limb difference–yet here’s this book about how perfect, beloved, amazing children all have one thing in common–that they aren’t anything like this parent’s child.

At first I thought I was overthinking things. And then I thought I wasn’t. Intersectionality is tricky. It’s easy to say that no one book can be about every child and move on, but really it’s so much more complicated than that.

And this post isn’t about this one (otherwise lovely) book, or about any other one book, though I fear it will be taken that way. It’s about how I then thought a little more deeply about what the stories I tell mean for my child, who I want to embrace diversity not only when it’s about who she is, but also when it’s about the wide world she lives in.

I tell my child hundreds of stories every day, and not all of them come out of books.

Shortly after we finished the second or third or fifth reading of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, my child handed me her stuffed bat, which had recently lost an eye. She pointed to the spot where the eye had once been, asking without words for an explanation.

I almost went for the obvious story–that yes, the toy was broken, and yes, I could fix it. Then I realized there was another, truer story I could choose instead.

“You’re right,” I told her matter-of-factly. “That bat has one eye. And you have two eyes.

“That’s because everybody’s different.”