Janni Lee Simner

About Janni Lee Simner

Janni Lee Simner is the author of the post-apocalyptic Bones of Faerie trilogy and the contemporary fantasy Thief Eyes, as well as four books for younger children, more than 30 short stories, and the script for the video game The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse. Check out her Writing Life Series for practical tools to hone your writing craft and unlock your creative power or join her email list for ongoing updates here.

A morning with jaguars

Unlike the last time I visited our local zoo, today the jaguars (black morph, both of them), were awake and moving about. When I got there, one was watching from a perch above, the end of her tail twitching; the other paced back and forth, roaring in the quieter-than-lions yet distinctly roar-like way that jaguars do. Yawns gave flashes of teeth, of long pink cat tongues.

The pacing jaguar seemed more uneasy, less inclined to move about, the closer I got. I backed off for a while, watching from a distance. When I got too close again, she retreated out of view. So I went off for a while, visiting other animals (and learning that mating Galapagos tortoises have remarkable endurance). When I returned (after a brief intermission for a keeper to clean their enclosure), the jaguars kept moving about, but less energetically than before. The day was already growing warm.

Jaguars jump the way we walk: easily, because jumping is sometimes simply the best way to flow from one point to the next, nothing worth remarking on. Those long tongues are put to regular use grooming, as cats of all sizes tend to do, and territorial though jaguars are, these two, sisters, seemed begrudgingly willing to groom one another, from time to time.

They really do have lovely teeth. Their ears flick in irritation from time to time, their legs and tails twitch, when they are wanting stillness but not yet settled into it. They are quite good at stillness, most of the time, good at it even, in a way that’s hard to explain, when in motion. Sometimes stillness is a thing that happens beneath the skin, rather than on the surface.

Once, one of the jaguars lifted her head and looked toward the pond neither of them had much interest in swimming in today. I saw, long moments after she had, the human family heading our way, three adults, one child. The jaguar tracked them with head and eyes as they moved past the exhibit and walked on. It was the same way both jaguars had been tracking the brave birds who kept entering and leaving their enclosure, the way they no doubt tracked me, when I wasn’t looking: with an awareness not energetic enough to be genuine interest, though I suspect in another time and place it could easily turn into interest, were the opportunity to present itself.

I wandered off again, drank some water against the growing heat, visited a tiger whose sacked-out sleep made the jaguars look positively industrious. I almost headed home, but couldn’t resist one more jaguar visit. They were moving less now, but were still awake, still aware, still twitching the occasional paw or ear or tail. I stood there, watching them, wondering about the undefined something I always feel like I’m trying to understand, when I linger to observe any animal.

The jaguars watched me in turn. Or rather, they didn’t watch me, not the way humans are used to thinking of it. They remained highly aware of me without ever looking directly at me. There’s an element, as I understand it, of dominance play going on here: I know that among housecats direct staring can feel like a challenge, and I’ve been assuming this is so among larger cats as well, though I haven’t confirmed it.

Yet as much as I know that one doesn’t want a jaguar directly staring directly at one and doesn’t want to stare directly back (with the fence between us, it would merely be rude; without it, it would be the start of a game I’m not prepared to play), I realized this was one of the things I was instinctively looking for, without fully understanding it: that meeting of eyes, that sense of “I see you and you see me,” that being-to-being connection that isn’t friendship but is a sort of acknowledgement.

There are animals that are close enough to us, through evolution or domestication or some other mysterious random convergence of traits, that they can indeed give us that acknowledgement, and give it in terms that as humans we can even understand.

Jaguars, to my still-limited understanding, aren’t among them. I was there. I was noted. I was part of their awareness, and I was as real as awareness required, but no more real, I think, than that.

A note from the past

In culling and clearing out old files, I came upon an old scrapbook of college and post-college clippings, including this 1988 note from one Helen W. Powers, who was I believe senior lecturer at my alma mater at the time and who taught my college expository writing class:

As we discussed, your challenge in the future is that of keeping your own voice but experimenting beyond the types of writing you have done and do so well. You’re so successful a writer that the temptation will always be to re-do, to re-write, the same essay with different subjects. And of course you should not write in uncongenial manners. But I think you will enjoy more experimentation in the future, and I hope you will find situations in which you are free to experiment and free to work out ideas in ways which may be less elegant, but for you more interesting.

Or put another way: don’t let the things that come easily to you and that you’re already good at keep you from venturing into new and interesting and less-certain places that could keep you from deepening your work.

At the time, I remember finding this advice fascinating, because it was neither the praise I tended to generate easily from those who liked my writing, nor the entirely-critical responses I tended to generate from those who didn’t. It saw my strengths, genuinely appreciated them, and then said, don’t stop here, in this comfortable place where you’re doing okay: push harder, go farther. This is just a beginning. You have more in you.

Stumbling upon it now, I think it’s still a useful reminder.

A thing that is done

“The pain and loss caused by the events of Jan. 8, 2011, are incalculable. Avoiding a trial will allow us–and we hope the entire Southern Arizona community–to continue with our recovery.”
–Gabrielle Giffords & Mark Kelly

“Today’s events make me very proud to be an American. It’s not a perfect solution. The perfect solution isn’t one that we can have. What we want is not available. This is the best that can be expected. We can’t bring Christina back, but that shouldn’t stop people from mentoring and participating, to get involved and stay involved.”
–Suzi Hileman

The cat goes on little fog feet

The indoor cat who has had a (brief, unsanctioned) taste of outdoor life spends a day scratching at screens and voicing his discontent beside doors through which he cannot pass, and then, with a sigh as evening falls, returns to the world of food dish and water bowl.

We shall have to watch the doors carefully a while longer, though. Especially that one, which did open for him, just once, when the slightest crack appeared to let a paw through.

Meanwhile … (more email culling)

The first half or so of my backlogged emails took all of an hour to delete, mostly a matter of determining I could have deleted them ages ago and doing so. I suspect the lesson here is to get better at deleting email when it arrives.

I expect the next quarter of them to take more work, because they require writing actual responses.

The last quarter take the longest, though, because those will be the ones that require me to actually do something, or finish something. I fear finding out how many of last quarter have been in my inbox since the last time I cleaned out my inbox.


What strategies do you all use to keep on top of your email?

Honoring your practice, honoring your process

When I first began practicing yoga, I remember wanting to succeed at doing as many poses as possible, in as advanced a form as possible. In a sense, I was more concerned with quantity of my skill than its depth or the smaller details: since I was starting from the point of knowing nothing, I wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could.

As I kept practicing, though. I actually found myself doing less, rather than more. Say, bending my back less in cobra pose, or not straining to make my heels touch the floor in downward-facing dog, or not worrying about whether my butt touched my heels in child’s pose. My focus shifted from quantity to process and depth and purpose, to why I was in a given pose, where I was going in it, how I felt in it, where my focus was while I was in it, to all sorts of things I just hadn’t even really known how to think about when I started, or that when I did think about them, had only felt like they were slowing me down, in earlier days.

I’ve gone through something of a similar process as a writer. Early on, I wanted desperately just to learn the basics of craft, and then just a little later, my focus shifted to wanting to be as fast as I could. I signed a work-for-hire project with a tight deadline in part to learn how to write faster, because back then, writing faster meant actually finishing stories, something I was also struggling with. I was a little baffled by more experienced writers who wrote more slowly than me, because they were supposed to be better than me at this, and because wasn’t a professional simply someone who wrote as much as she needed to, when she needed to?

Hah! Like it or not, I simply can’t write as fast now as I did 15 years ago. But while I have my moments when I angst over that, I’m not actually sure it’s a bad thing, because I also believe I’m writing better books than I did 15 years ago.

And regardless, processes shift, and worrying about what those around you are doing–or even what you did, last week or last year–will only make a writer crazy, as I know too well. One other thing I’ve learned in yoga is that it’s not only counterproductive to focus on what those around you are doing, but also untrue to one’s practice and one’s self. In yoga, I’ve learned to work to and then a little bit past my own edge–to honor and respect my own practice–rather than getting tied up in knots over what others are doing, or, really, getting attached to any particular result when I go into a class.

This is, of course, harder than it sounds.

I’m still working on it.

The glamorous life of a writer

Today, in the lull between the third draft and the fourth, is dedicated to catching up on email.

By a rough count, I have about 200 messages in my inbox. That’s actually not bad, as these things go.

Still, I think email messages really must take advantage of my elsewhere-focus near the end of a draft, and breed and multiply when I’m not looking.

Later, I may even do laundry.

For the next week, watching bird and cat videos really _is_ research

As are any number of other things.

Finished the third draft of the still-untitled raven book Friday, right around lunchtime. The ending needs work (the final chapter is entirely new), the usual various things need to be threaded through more thoroughly, the descriptive details and vividness of the second half need their also-usual work, I have several dozen different “research this” notes to address, and at least one central thing that made no sense in the last draft now makes some sense but still needs to make real sense, but …

… all in all, the book is in pretty good shape for a third draft.

I have some hopes of coming close to wrapping it up next draft.

Interesting to look back at other books and how they vary my five draft process. For Faerie Winter the early drafts were particularly rough, and as late as the third draft I was still working out who belonged in the story, combining and swapping out characters. Faerie After had a closer first/exploratory draft (at least it had the same concerns and same setting as the final one), yet fought me through the fifth draft and into the sixth for the details of just what was happening and just what our protagonist needed to do about it.

Anyway, the first and hardest between-drafts step is to take a few days off to gain some perspective before charging on. Because right now I want to charge on (I always do), but the next draft will go better if I don’t let myself do that quite yet.