Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

Filtering by Category: "writing"


Author and blogger Lenore Appelhans has an interview with me up on her blog, Presenting Lenore, as part of her wonderful Dystopian August series. I'm a few days late posting this link because of the general chaos that has descended over my life during the last two weeks, but I was so excited and honored to take part.

I got the chance to talk about SALVAGE, so if you want to be tortured by small bits of information about the book, please go read the interview. Lenore gave me some great questions, including my favorite, "What fictional character from another book would your character choose as his/her best friend and why?" and the one I most dreaded, "If your book had a theme song, what would it be and why?" This is one of those questions I've occasionally seen asked of other authors in interviews, and every time I hear it, my brain scrambles around like a headless chicken, trying to remember what music is and whether or not I like it. I can't help it. This question momentarily lobotomizes me. But I'm glad Lenore asked it, because she made me face my fear, and I think I came up with a relatively coherent answer.

In addition to interviews with other authors of upcoming books, Lenore also has book reviews and giveaways. If you're a lover of dystopian fiction and you're looking for your next book fix, check out Lenore's blog all month long.


I have a vlog post up about making time for writing and life over on the Friday the Thirteeners blog. We're playing Truth or Dare over there, and this week I took a Truth. It has me thinking about honesty, so today I've decided to lay it all out there.

I've had some really wonderful things happen lately - my husband and I celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary last Monday, part of my advance arrived, my husband found a full-time job, and The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2012, edited by Rich Horton, comes out today.

Year's Best includes my novella "Rampion," about love, tragedy, and witchcraft during the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in 11th century Spain. I'm thrilled to have my writing in such good company. Two of my literary idols, Kelly Link and Margo Lanagan, also have stories in the anthology, as well as my friend Theodora Goss.

At the same time, we've had car trouble, student loan trouble, and a slew of relatives visiting all summer long. On top of that, my grandmother is very ill. All of these things have culminated in me missing work and writing time, and coming down with a nasty cold. I would love to simply celebrate all of the good things happening, but I'm feeling a little "like butter scraped over too much bread."

I think I could shrug all of these other things off, if it weren't for my grandmother's sickness. Though she's receiving palliative care now, she's been in pain and declining health for a long time. And while I'm not depressed or anything so serious, it is hard to celebrate these other things while this is happening to her.

I sometimes feel bad posting unhappy items on this blog, as if I'm burdening any readers with my own morose thoughts. It also feels as if I'm being ungrateful by complaining when so many good things are happening to me. And believe me, I'm happy about these good things in my life, but I'd be lying if I omitted the bad.

And now I'm going to go eat some chicken soup and knock myself out with cold medicine. Things always look better in the morning.


Those of you who know me recognize what an introvert I am, but lately I've been out in the world, interacting with other people and talking about my writing. 

First, I've joined a blog called Friday the Thirteeners, which is written by a small group of Young Adult authors who have books debuting in 2013. The idea behind the blog is that we're playing an extended, writing-related game of Truth or Dare. Anyone can submit a challenge, and each week, one of the Thirteeners or a special guest author tackles one of the submissions.

My first dare went up today, a challenge to read part of a story I had written when I was younger. I ended up sharing an excerpt from my attempt at a sci-fi novel when I was 11 years old. It involved evil aliens, angels, space dragons, and more. Pop over to the Thirteeners site to watch my vlog post about it, and while you're there, don't forget to send us a challenge of your own. We are gluttons for punishment ready for anything!

I also have an interview about my novella, "Rampion," up on Prime Books' site. "Rampion" is a historical fantasy based on the fairy tale "Rapunzel" and set during the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in early 11th century Spain. It first came out in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction last spring, and now it's being reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2012 edition. You can read the interview here. The anthology is slated to come out Aug. 8, 2012, but it's available for pre-order now.


To be perfectly honest, this past year has been so hard. I've had a lot of wonderful things happen - success with writing, the opportunity to spend time with my youngest sisters - along with a collection of truly awful things - some major family illnesses and drama. It's been a roller coaster.

But today, I got the okay to share a piece of news I've been dying to talk about: HarperCollins's Greenwillow Books has purchased my novel, Salvage. Which means it's actually, really, truly going to be published! Here's the write-up in Publisher's Weekly. . .

Duncan’s ‘Salvage’ Goes to Greenwillow

Virginia Duncan at HarperCollins’s Greenwillow Books took North American rights, in a six-figure deal, to Salvage by Alexandra Duncan (no relation). Another YA science fiction entry, the book, which Kate Testerman at KT Literary sold, has what the publisher calls a “feminist slant” and follows a teenager raised on a male-run spaceship who comes to a scorched future Earth where she settles on a “floating island of garbage and debris.” Author Duncan is a librarian in North Carolina and has written a number of short stories, including “Amor Fugit,” which initially ran in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and then appeared in the anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2011 (Prime Books). Greenwillow has Salvage set for a 2013 release.

This is - no exaggeration - my dream come true. Greenwillow is an amazing imprint, and I'm really excited to get the chance to work with Virginia Duncan (again, no relation), whose work I truly admire. (She was behind one of the smartest, most action-packed books I read all year, Black Hole Sun, by David MacInnis Gill.) My agent, Kate Schafer Testerman, really went to bat for me and worked out an amazing deal. Aside from marrying Jeremy, this is the best thing that's ever happened to me. So, for today, I'm going to put aside the hard things and the drama, and just appreciate the ride.


Two of my writer friends have some great news to help us all get through the long slog of winter in front of us. First, Theodora Goss's novel/objet d'art The Thorn and the Blossom is coming out next week on Jan. 17th, and she is conducting three book giveaways before then.

Book giveaway #1 has already happened, but book giveaway #2 is going on right now at her blog. If you want to enter, head over to her blog and do the following,
If you would like to enter, write a paragraph or so in response to the following question, and post it as a comment to Book Giveaway #2 below!

Here is the question: If you could travel anywhere, where would it be, and what would you do when you got there? It can be a real place, or a place that you or someone else has imagined. Again, be creative!
Even if you don't enter, it's fun to read the other entries. But, then again, why wouldn't you want to enter? Free, awesome book!

On to good news missive number two: My friend, horror writer Nathan Ballingrud, has just found a home for his short story collection, tentatively titled Monsters of Heaven: stories, with Small Beer Press. Small Beer is the publisher of the most excellently quirky Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and a growing number of beautifully inventive literary novels and story collections that defy neatly-drawn genre lines. I'm so happy for Nathan. This collection is long in coming and well deserved. You can read more about the collection and its release on Nathan's blog.


I have a ton of exciting news waiting in the wings, but I can only share one piece of it today. The lineup for Rich Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2012 has been announced, and my novella "Rampion" is going to be in it.

I'm doubly excited, because my friend Theodora Goss also has a story in the anthology called "Pug." I told my husband last night, and he said, "Hey, you guys are going to be anthology buddies!"

Dora writes these beautiful jewel-box stories that are sometimes fantasy, sometimes magic realism. When you read them, you instinctively want to read them carefully and make yourself slow down to admire the language. She has a lovely, unusual book called "The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story" coming out this January. You owe it to yourself to watch this book trailer:

The anthology also includes stories by three of my favorite authors, Kelly Link, Margo Lanagan, and Neil Gaiman (swoon). The release date hasn't been announced yet, but it will probably be sometime this summer. I'll post again as I hear more!


My dear readers, I have been lying to you by omission, mostly because I'm paranoid and superstitious. Now it's time for me to come clean.

1) I have written a novel.

It's a young adult sci-fi, and I promise to tell you more as it gets closer to actually coming into the world. But yes, it does have spaceships. Over the past six months, I've been polishing it and submitting it, which leads me to my next piece of news. . .

2) I have found a literary agent to represent me and said novel.

It's Kate Testerman Schafer of K.T. Literary. She also represents my good friend Stephanie Perkins and a ton of other authors whose work I either already love or am anxious to get my grubby paws on, including Maureen Johnson, Julia Karr, Ellen Booraem, and Ransom Riggs.

I'm almost indescribably excited about this. Kate has an amazing reputation for being both a genuinely nice person and a crackerjack agent, and she likes my book. She likes MY book!

Okay, I need to calm down, because I'm getting into Sally Field territory here.

Anyway, now that my book and I have an agent, I no longer feel that telling you about it is tempting fate to squash me with falling satellite detritus or subject me to spontaneous human combustion. This is wonderful news coming at the end of a very hard two years, and I am so grateful and thankful to all the people who helped me get this far: my husband, Jeremy; my friends, Stephanie, Nathan, and Dora; Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF, and now, Kate! 

I hope all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!


Someone asked me this summer if my husband and I were still like newlyweds, meaning, I think, were we still madly in love? We've been a couple for 13 years now, and married for six of those years. (We were both misfit preacher's kids who fell in love in high school.) I guess for most people, being newlyweds means being smitten, being lost in an unearthly haze of love. But really, being newlyweds means getting used to living with someone else and their new, bizarre habit of never pushing down the shower stopper or their unreasonable hatred of tomatoes in all forms except ketchup. You both have to figure out how to alter your routine to accommodate the other person, and this invariably makes everyone cranky.

So, I said no, we were better than newlyweds. Because we've had time to figure out how to live with each other's weird habits and preferences. Those things that truly drove us crazy at the beginning don't bother us so much any more, and if they do, we know we can look at the other person and say, "Honey, you're driving me nuts right now," without sending them into paroxysms of guilt and fear that our relationship might be unraveling before their eyes. We both know we'll be there the next day.

In books and songs and movies, love is always this tremendous, often-tragic, overpowering force of attraction that binds two people together no matter what. It burns bright and hot, and usually culminates in deep tongue-kissing and pyrotechnics. And yes, falling in love is like that, but I feel lucky that I've gotten to explore what's beyond the explosions and cascading fireworks. I feel lucky that I've gotten to experience the slow, constant burn of a long relationship. I often find myself saying, "This is what true love must be," only to discover some new and deeper level to it, like a deep sea diver who keeps finding new and more marvelous rooms in an underwater cavern. Wonders within wonders.

Jeremy and I have never had a song that was "our song," and I had trouble picking out a poem to read at our wedding, but I thought I would share some things I've discovered since that describe this quiet kind of love that grows and deepens over time.  The first is "The Book of Love," by the Magnetic Fields

I love that, "You can read me anything." Maybe it's because I'm a book-lover or a history nerd, or because I once tried to read The Book of Good Love in college (and it's totally true -- it's long and boring), but this is one of those songs that makes me wish I could sing, because there's no other way to express what's in it.

One of my other favorites is the poem, "Missed Time," by Ha Jin.

My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning—
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.

Sometimes when I lose myself in a project, I read this poem, and it brings me back to earth. It reminds me of what's truly important. I've lived a life with too much strife and plot and drama, and while I love those things in writing, I think I would prefer to live a storyless life. But I also love the paradox of it - writing about not needing to write. Because even while he's saying it's possible to live this life, it clearly isn't, at least for him. There will always be a part that writes, strife or no. Strife isn't necessary to spur creation.


I know summer doesn't officially end until later this month, but summer as I define it -- school's out, pools are open, vacations are afoot -- is over. Labor Day is here and library school is back in session, which means the luxury of having my evenings and weekends free for writing is gone again, too. Not that that will stop me. I'll still be tapping away on my lunch breaks and probably neglecting my homework in favor of a writing project at some point, but now seems like a good point to declare an end to the Summer Y.A. Novel Writing Challenge and look back on how it went.

I set a goal for myself of finishing 45,000 words in three months, but more importantly, to stay sane and keep the joy of writing in my work. What's the point of driving yourself crazy writing 45,000 words you ultimately hate? I didn't hit my word count goal -- as of today I have 26,050 words -- and in the past, this would have been cause to beat myself up and mope around eating Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia Frozen Yogurt, wallowing in the certain knowledge that I was doomed to never succeed at anything. But this summer, I managed to stay sane, and more importantly, maintain my enthusiasm for the project I've started. So what if my pacing is more deliberate? 26,000 words is a respectable start, and right now, I don't have any editors looking over my shoulder, except the ones in my own head. Why not enjoy the process or writing, rather than hounding myself over results?
Something to be proud of

The best part of this challenge, though, has been having the opportunity to meet with Nathan Ballingrud and Theodora Goss for critique exchanges. They are both wonderful critique partners, and I'm so excited to see what their current projects eventually turn out to be.

So, what's next? I'm definitely going to keep working on the novel I've started, but I'd like to intersperse it with other projects. I haven't finished a short story since this spring, and I'd like to have at least one more out there in the world by the end of this year. You'll notice that I've changed the SUMMER Y.A. NOVEL CHALLENGE tab on my blog to Y.A. NOVEL CHALLENGE, and I've changed the goal to 90,000 words. I'll still blog about it occasionally, but not as often as I have this summer. In short, I'm going to keep going. Wish me luck!


Most of the time, I don't feel like a real writer. There's a picture of me in an old family album running around in my mom's shoes and peaked nurse's cap(yes, nurses still had caps when she started her career), playing grown-up. That's how I feel about this whole writing thing most of the time, like I'm wearing this writer-hat, but REAL writers can probably tell with one look at me that I stole that hat from someone else's closet. What if they try to take it from me and return it to its rightful owner?!

Have you ever noticed that writers are horribly insecure people?

But then there are weeks like this one, weeks when I get to be around other writers, doing writer-y things, and I think maybe that hat belongs to me after all. (Okay, I'm abandoning the hat metaphor now. I'm sick of it, too.) In the last week and a half, I have gotten to:

1) See one of my favorite writers, Sarah Dessen, do a reading at Malaprop's. And I got to meet her! She signed my copy of The Truth About Forever (dorky fangirl squeal!) and let my sister and me take a picture with her.

The photographic evidence!
2) Attend a wonderfully funny writing panel that included my friend Stephanie Perkins (whose second book, Lola and the Boy Next Door, comes out this September. Yay!), Beth Revis (Across the Universe), Myra McEntire (Hourglass), and Victoria Schwab (The Near Witch). These four ladies were refreshingly open about the down-and-dirty parts of the writing and publishing process, and they had a wonderful chemistry that made you feel as if you were chatting with your friends, rather than sitting in a cramped folding chair in an indie bookstore cafe.

3) Critique manuscripts with writer-friends Nathan Ballingrud and Theodora Goss as part of the Summer Y.A. Novel Writing Challenge.

I've known Nathan for a long time, but I was actually really nervous to meet Dora. She's one of those writers whose books I had read and admired long before I started corresponding with her -- one of those REAL writers who could take away my hat. Her short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, is full of these beautifully-crafted, sophisticated fantasy stories, and her book The Thorn and the Blossom comes out later this year. However, she turned out to be sharp, funny, down to earth, and an excellent critique partner. She did not take my hat. If anything, she planted it more firmly on my head. (Alright, I really will stop with the hat metaphor now. Promise.)

None of us were done with our respective projects, but Nathan and Dora both helped me identify and buttress the weaker parts of my narrative and offered enough encouragement about the good parts to keep my going. I left that day feeling reinvigorated and even more excited about my novel than before. I hope I was able to help them as much as they helped me.

Writing is such a solitary vocation-- and writers largely predisposed toward introversion -- that you can forget what a wonderful, helpful thing it is to be around people who do the same thing you do, to share their company and discover that your anxieties are much the same as theirs. To discover other people who speak your same language. Nathan and Dora both encouraged me to try to attend a writing convention some time in the next year, so I think that will be my next goal, in addition to continuing with the novel. And surrendering bad hat metaphors sooner.


Over the years, I've heard a lot of writers try to explain why they write. Many of them say that it isn't simply that they want to write, they need to write. It's a compulsion, a habit, an all-consuming drive. Which sounds very romantic until you realize you're basically describing a symptom of an anxiety-based mental illness.

We have a conception of writers, and all artistic people, really, as mad bohemian romantics, scrounging a living from half-burnt candles and day-old bread, huddled in their garrets, conducting passionate love affairs that society will never understand. But when you're trying to make a living doing something creative, the grubby romance of huddling under a blanket with your lover because you couldn't afford to pay the heating bill gets old pretty fast.

One time, I had a writing professor tell everyone in my fiction writing class that if we wanted to be writers -- real writers -- we should psychologically prepare ourselves for the inevitable fact that we were going to get divorced at least once. At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship with the man I would eventually marry, and the thought of us not lasting was crushing. I could barely bring myself to produce anything that semester. Did I really want to trade all of my hopes for future happiness in order to be a writer? What was the point of creating anything if the dissolution of love was its ultimate outcome?

And then I realized my professor was full of shit.

I didn't have to get divorced if I was a writer, any more than I had to do psychotropic drugs (Coleridge) or develop a drinking problem (Hemingway) or sleep my way through early 20th-century literary circles (Millay). While we're on the topic of Millay, consider her famous poem, "First Fig,"

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

It's lovely and poetic, and evocative of the passionate romance of creation. But as a guide to the creative life, it's the worst thing you could aspire to. As for me, I want to last the night. I want to love. I want to have a balanced life full of friends, satisfying work, and time with my family. I don't want to develop a substance abuse problem or a mental illness. There is enough suffering in the world without cultivating it within yourself in the service of art.

As I continue to work on this summer's writing challenge, I am trying to keep this idea of balance in mind. I spent the last year working on my Massive Mysterious Project, along with numerous smaller writing projects, and I don't think I did the best job of making sure that I gave enough of my time to my husband and my work. The MMP was so omnipresent, so all-consuming, that toward the end of it, I could barely sleep because it was still racing through my mind at 3 a.m.

My goal this summer is not simply to write a novel, but to figure out how to remain sane during the process and still maintain the level of dedication required to finish it on time. Just as it isn't necessary to get divorced to be a real writer, it must also be possible to develop healthy writing habits that don't cause you to devolve into anxiety-driven fits of madness or leave you sleepless every night. Because isn't the point of doing something you love to make yourself happy by doing that thing, not to make yourself miserable?


A few weeks ago, I announced that I was taking on writer Theodora Goss's challenge to write a Y.A. novel over the course of the summer. I've gotten a little bit of a late start because I was finishing up work on a Massive Mysterious Project, to be revealed here at a later date. But earlier this week, I started on the novel challenge in earnest. I've added a tab to the top of my blog, where you can see my word count and how far I still have to go to meet my summer goal. (I don't know why, but I find graphs of my progress really motivating. I suspect this may be evidence that I'm a really dull person at heart. Or maybe just a Virgo. It's certainly one of the things I've liked best about NaNoWriMo when I've taken part.)

Anyway, I thought I'd use my updates to talk about what I'm discovering about myself as a writer during this process. There are some things all writers have in common, but we also have our weird quirks and hangups. What works for one person doesn't always work for another. Part of becoming a writer is figuring out how you operate, what motivates you, and what will stop you cold, staring at a blinking cursor.

Earlier this week, I ran into the Romantic Interest wall. The main character of my novel is a girl (hey, write what you know, right?), and while it isn't the entire point of the story, she's going to have a romantic interest mixed into her adventures. I reached the point in the story where she meets him for the very first time and. . . stopped. This guy was a blank spot in my head. I kind of knew what I wanted him to BE like, but I had not idea how I wanted him to look. Here is the point where I confess that most of the men in my stories are based on my husband to some degree or another. Sure, he may have a different haircut, or maybe some tattoos, but there's always some aspect of him in there.

Totally understandable, right?
As I was staring at my screen, this suddenly became clear to me. Oh my god, are all of my male characters going to look the same? Are they all going to have dark hair and really sexy shoulders? (Sorry, honey.) I started desperately trying to think of other inspirations for this character's physical appearance. But Daniel Craig aside, my taste in men tends to be. . . ahem, more based on personality and charisma than conventional attractiveness (see here and here).

So what did I do? I made it dark. She's going to meet him eventually and get a better look at him, but for now, I'm at the very beginning of the story. I can't let myself lose momentum or start agonizing over how one particular character is going to look when he eventually surfaces, or else this story is going to stall out before the end of the first chapter. I can give myself time to figure out how this guy is going to look -- probably he's going to have adorably messy hair (again, sorry, honey) -- and still keep the story moving. I can work with my romantic interest handicap rather than fighting it.

Come back soon for more startling revelations about my brain on literature!


My friend Max Cooper, who takes amazing atmospheric photos detailing life in the cities and forgotten places of North Carolina's Appalachian mountains, has interviewed me for his blog, A Dark Topography.

Max is one of the most interesting people I know, and my go-to contact in the case of Zombie Apocalypse. He's also one of the few people I've met who I would call a natural storyteller -- believe me, you would want him around your campfire, not only because he could tell a mean ghost story, but because he would probably come armed against said zombie attacks (or more likely, bears).  His blog is a mix of fascinating photographs, essays, and stories, often capturing the stark beauty of everyday life in unexpected places. Here is a person who can take photos aboard a cruise ship and make them look mysterious.

So, when Max asked if he could interview me earlier this year, I was genuinely excited. I knew he would come up with some thoughtful, unusual questions, and I wasn't disappointed. He also took a great photo of me that makes me look like I'm about to turn someone into a toad, and even more impressive to my mind, he managed to capture the view from my office window in the same shot. (And in case you were wondering, I have been informed by my sisters that, yes, my hair really does look that crazy in real life.) I don't think I was a very good subject, but Max is a professional, and managed to make something dramatic out of me and my office anyway.

If you'd like to read the interview, head on over to his blog. Like me, you might soon find yourself addicted to his musings on life, art, and the danger inherent in both.


Fellow writer Theodora Goss has issued a challenge: to write a young adult novel over the space of the next three months. So far, Nathan Ballingrud, Livia Llewellyn, Alexandra Wells, and I have taken her up on it, and hopefully other writers will join in, too.

This means that from June to August, I'll be attempting to write a novel at the rate of about 6,000 words per week, which is difficult but do-able. Theodora Goss has said she'll be posting daily updates on her work, but I'm not as confident in my blogging abilities as she is, so I'm planning to post about my progress here every two weeks.

Normally, I don't announce that I'll be working on writing projects until they are done or very nearly done, mostly because my computer's documents folder contains a sizeable ghost town of abandoned projects large and small. Also, thespians may have a premium on bizarre traditions and superstitions, but writers have their own brand of paranoid beliefs, one of which is that you should NEVER, EVER announce that you are working on a particular project, lest that project become IMMEDIATELY AND IRREVOCABLY DOOMED. Your writing will be as flat as three day-old Coke and you will lose any shred of motivation you previously had.

But if other writers are flying the face of superstition, I can, too. Check back to see if I succeed or if the writing gods strike me down for my hubris. Only time and this blog will tell.


I'm not good at self-promotion.  I kind of hate talking about myself outside the confines of marshmallows and cockatoo sightings, and pointing out anything good that has come of my writing tends to raise the hackles of my Protestant upbringing.  Conversely, though, I love talking about my stories.  They're like my kids or my pets, and I'm extremely proud when anyone says something good about them.

All of this is leading up to say that two of my stories are on industry recommended reading lists this year.  "Amor Fugit," which is also being reprinted in Rich Horton's Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011, is on both the Locus and Tangent 2010 Recommended Reading lists.  More surprising, at least to me, "The Door in the Earth" is also on Tangent's list.  Of all my stories so far, "The Door in the Earth" received the most divided reception.  I think it was one of those that you either loved or hated, depending on your tolerance for ambiguity in fiction.  I'm surprised and delighted to see it on Tangent's list.

There are some really great stories on both lists, including "Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe," by Dale Bailey, "The Green Book," by Amal El-Mohtar, and "A Thousand Flowers," by Margo Lanagan.  Head over and check them out!


I've always been more of a novel-loving girl when it comes to literary preferences, but lately I've been reading more short stories. Maybe my attention span is beginning to slip, or maybe I'm beginning to appreciate an art form I had previously neglected. You know me. You decide. I've dipped into Michael Chabon's Werewolves in Their Youth and several volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror before, but this winter I opened Pretty Monsters, a short story collection by Kelly Link, and read it cover to cover. Kelly Link is the editor of one of my favorite literary zines, the irrepressibly weird Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. It also turns out she writes exactly the kind of story I'll roll over and beg for.

Pretty Monsters is marketed as a collection for young adults, but it contains some crossover from her adult collections, Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners. Some highlights from Pretty Monsters: "The Wizards of Perfil," "The Faery Handbag" (which won a Hugo award), "The Specialist's Hat," and "The Constable of Abal." Her stories are full of death, humor, strange magic, and childhoods gone awry, as well as experiments with poems and lists sprinkled into the stories' structure. If you know me, you know I'm a sucker for this kind of thing.

The best thing about reading Kelly Link is that, for a writer reading her work, she has this strange, alchemical quality of simultaneously being fabulously talented and not making you feel like you should never open up your laptop again. Let me back up and explain. I love Michael Chabon's writing. His plots are inventive and the way he can write a sentence takes my breath away. But he's so good, I close his books and feel like there's no point in writing anything, ever, because even if I spend my whole life trying, I'll never write anything remotely near that good. But for some reason I can't entirely explain, when I close Kelly Link's books, I feel like I want to go out and try writing something. Okay, so it won't be as good as "The Specialist's Hat," but hey, at least I'm not a hopeless case. I think this aftertaste of hopefulness might have something to do with the way you can see the fingerprints of real effort on her stories. These aren't little ditties she knocked off in an afternoon because she's just that brilliant; they're clearly something she spent time perfecting.

Then, moving more into the range of pure, green, artistic envy, there's Karen Russell. My friend Nathan recommended her short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, to me earlier this year. I kept checking it out of the library, and then letting it sit on my desk until it was due, without ever reading it. That is, until about two weeks ago, when I sat down to read the first story, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," over my lunch break.

Karen Russell writes about the natural world in a way that's half in and half out of reality. It's beautiful and disgusting, and you're never sure when a seemingly normal situation is going to take a turn for the wonderfully bizarre. I could watch her write sentences all day long. She's been in
Granta and The New Yorker, and she was only 25 when Random House published her collection of short stories in 2006. I'm used to being younger than the people whose books I read, so it was a little bit of a shock to turn to her biography and find out how young she was. By all means, go out and find her book immediately, but don't read the biography. It will only make you feel woefully inadequate, unless you're Michael Chabon.


I came home from work last Tuesday and opened my mailbox to find a letter from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction sitting on top of a neat pile of bills and junk mail.

Le sigh, I thought. Another rejection.

I sang a little song about getting rejection letters to make myself feel better and started plotting where I would send my short story next as I unlocked the door. I plopped the bills down on the kitchen table, petted the cats, put away the groceries I bought on the way home, and only then sat down to open the mail.

The letter from F&SF felt heavier than my previous rejection letters. Maybe they liked the story enough to include an encouraging note about how the story wasn't for them, but I should try again later, I thought.

I slit open the envelope, unfolded the letter, and promptly dropped it. It was not a rejection letter. It was a contract and a check. To the dismay of both cats, I screamed like a twelve-year-old and did a dance. After I managed to calm myself down enough to regain the ability to read, I found a copy of the following previously published article by Susan Elizabeth Lyons enclosed:

The article addresses the issue of whether or not a gender bias exists in the science fiction and fantasy publishing industry, and includes interviews with well-know women writers, including one of my all-time favorite authors, Ursula LeGuin.

The gist of all this is that my short story "Bad Matter" will be appearing in F&SF sometime in the next three years, according to the contract, but more likely in nine to 12 months, according to Writer's Market's profile of F&SF.

Considering one of my friends just landed a two-book contract with a major publishing house (yay, Stephanie!), and another is an award-winning short story author, I'm very, very aware of how far I still have to go as a writer. And also, I'm feeling very, very paranoid at the moment. What if they bought my story, but never publish it? What if they only bought it out of pity? What if society collapses and there are no more science fiction magazines at all? I felt the same way last year when I had accepted my current job, which I absolutely love, but hadn't started there yet. What if the whole interview process was a dream? What if they looked back at my resume and decided they didn't want me after all? What if they decided to eliminate my position altogether before I started?

So, the long and short of it is that I'm trying not to get overly excited about this, in case Something Horrible happens between now and the publication date. At the same time, having my first short story published in a national magazine isn't small potatoes for me. I have to crow about it a little bit. But now I've done my happy dance (also frightening to the cats), and hopped up and down, and called my mother, so it's back to my laptop. Because the worst thing I can do is get complacent and stop pushing myself to write as best I can, even if it isn't up to par with Ursula LeGuin, or Kelly Link, or my incredibly talented friends.

(Thanks, by the way, to Stephanie for convincing me to do NaNoWriMo last November. I don't think I would have finished writing the story if I hadn't gone through that experience. And thanks to Jeremy, who could have killed me after I made him read my 11th draft, but didn't, and also to our mutual friend Nathan, for writerly feedback. I probably wouldn't have sent anything to F&SF if he hadn't offered some much-needed advice and feedback.)


Between work, studying for the GRE, and finishing up a short story I'm currently shopping around, I haven't taken a day off to do nothing in a while. Well, not nothing, but fun frivolous stuff, like going to the movies or attending to my personal grooming.

I was supposed to take the GRE the Monday before last, but we had a big snowstorm that left Jeremy stranded out near the airport overnight (cue ominous music) and scared the local testing center into closing for the day.
I drove through the icy streets  in my two-wheel-drive Toyota and boot-skated down the slippery parking lot, only to find a group of cold, slightly soggy, and obviously miffed women waiting outside the test center.

"Are you here for testing?" one of them asked.

I glanced from the darkened windows of the test center to the dry and slightly dusty decorative fountain outside. "Yeah."

"They're closed today."

I stood at the bottom of the stairs, feeling awkward and hoping it was all a mistake and someone would show up so I could get this damn test over with and get on with my life.

"How far did you drive?" asked the first woman.

"Not too far," I said. "I only came from the other side of town, but it took me 20 minutes to get here in the snow."

"We drove two and a half hours," the woman said, folding her arms and clearly feeling slightly better after trumping my harrowing 20-minute journey. She and her traveling companion exchanged glances. "Well, I guess we'd better head back."

The two intrepid travelers left, and I sat on the fountain ledge next to another woman who was in as much denial about the center being closed as I was. We called the hotline number again, and then waited around talking about fish and work and snowplows until our appointment time was long past. I called Jeremy out near the airport and we commiserated about how much we hated the snow. By noon, pretty much all the ice and snow had melted. By Wednesday, I had a new test appointment.

All of this left me with an awful, unresolved feeling that made me cranky for the rest of the week. So when I opened my mailbox this past Monday and found a letter from Asimov's rejecting the story I submitted to them earlier this year, it didn't do wonders for my mood. I wandered around for a little bit, trying to cheer myself up by thinking things like "At least they sent the rejection back in a timely manner!" and "They're a big name. You weren't really expecting them to want your story in the first place." (Note to self: I probably shouldn't be in charge of cheering anyone up.) I didn't actually feel better until I typed up a new cover letter, printing out another copy of the story, and sped off to the post office to send it to a different magazine.

All of that is to say, that I've been in a funk lately, and I needed a couple of days off to de-funk myself. I'm incredibly lucky to have a job that allows me to take paid days off, so I found a substitute for myself and decided to take two days to clean my house, study, and finagle my brain into cheering up. Behold, my six-part plan for de-funking myself:

Phase 1. Haircut
If you've been reading this blog, you may have noticed my haircuts are so few and far between that I sometimes devote an entire blog post to informing the world when I've gotten one. Call it a public service announcement.

This morning I accomplished phase one by going down to the haircuttery, where Amanda, possibly the nicest and best hair stylist I've ever met, lopped off four or five inches of my hair and dyed part of it cherry red.
Behold her masterwork!
I had forgotten how nice it felt not to look like a shambling sagebrush.

Phase 2. Tacos!
Last week I was reading this book called Absolutely Maybe, by Lisa Yee, in which the main character takes a job on a taco truck in L.A. Naturally, Yee describes the steamy, sizzling tacos in loving detail. And even though I was fighting off a stomach virus, it left me with an insatiable lust for authentic, savory tacos. Jeremy, ever the expert in situations like this, suggested we go over to Taqueria Fast for a plate of delicious, authentic, corn flour tacos. I completely destroyed five tacos autenticos, including several full of really tasty carnitas (shredded pork), and probably could have put away several more if it weren't for my fear of decimating the local taco population. I declare phase two a success!

Phase 3. Movies in 3-D
After Jeremy and I had stuffed ourselves full of delicous tacos, we went to catch a matinee of Coraline at a local movie theater. The parking lot was almost empty, and after a brief moment of confusion, during which we had to clarify that we were not there to see the Jonas Brothers Concert in 3-D (don't ask!), we were issued some really fancy 3-D glasses and directed into the nearly-empty theater. I was expecting our 3-D specs to look like this:
The theater was charging an extra $2.50 for all 3-D movies, and we wondered why until they handed us our glasses. Apparently, 3-D glasses technology has come a long way since Jeremy and I lucked into seeing The Creature from the Black Lagoon at the local second-run theater a few years ago. Here I am in my fabulous new specs:
They make me want to sing that Weezer song. You know,
Wee-ooh, I look just like Buddy Holly,
Oh, oh! And you're Mary Tyler Moore.
I don't care what they say about us anyway,
I don't care about that!

(What? Can I help that I was a teenager in the '90s?)

Which, all in all, makes me think my funk is lifting. And Coraline was pretty awesome, too. Phase 3: accomplished!

Phase 4. Reading
Jeremy is sleeping off all the taco and Coraline excitement, so I'm going to curl up with a good book and some fruit snacks, and spend the rest of the evening in our papasan chair. Phase 4: check!

Phase 5. Coffee
I think this one is self-explanatory.

Phase 6. Cleaning
At Christmas, I was talking to one of my relatives about writing, and they asked me how I found time to do it.

"Our house is an absolute wreck," I said.

Which is so, so sadly true. Everything but the absolutely necessary cleaning usually winds up last on my "To Do" list, so once or twice a year, I'll take a day or two off and actually clean my house. Tomorrow is going to be that day. I won't stop with shoving books on the shelves or washing laundry. Oh no. There will be vacuuming, mopping, and shredding of old bills. Jeremy will probably tell you that I'm cranky while I'm cleaning, but once it's done, I feel so much better about my life. Like I'm not an absolute slob, and even if Asimov's doesn't want my short story, at least my living room rug is finally free of cat hair.


I was going to post about my latest attempt at gardening, but then this came in the mail:
It's the latest issue of Rosebud magazine, which features, among many other weird and speculative stories, my own "Kinderkochen."

Despite wishing I could revise the thing one more time (and that the editors had left in my spacing between scenes), I was pretty pleased with the finished product. Right now I'm in the middle of reading "Living with Creely," the short story that won Rosebud's biennial Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award for Imaginative Fiction. There's nothing like a telepath with a substance abuse problem to get those pages turning.

I really appreciate magazines like Rosebud treating "genre" fiction seriously. If we didn't have mystery, science fiction, or horror, the literary world would be a tepid place. That isn't to say I don't enjoy some kitchen-sink realism from time to time, but I think literature in general benefits from a healthy cross-pollination of genres.

And since there isn't a lot of money to be made in writing any kind of fiction, I might as well try to write the kind of stories I love to read. I'll just have to set my sights on Weird Tales or Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet instead of The New Yorker.

Powered by Squarespace. Background image by Stocktrek Images.