Saturday, December 20, 2014

Secret Princess Training Camp, pt. 3

Parts 1 and 2 can be found here


Unsurprisingly, our first "secret princess" class looked a lot like those special seminars where you're supposed to learn the secret of success for three easy payments of $49.99.

"The only thing that's missing are smiling minions with name tags," I muttered under my breath, making a mental note that folding chairs were no more attractive or comfortable-looking in a fantasy world than they were in mine.

"You're letting your sarcastic internal monologue leak out again," Hortensia whispered, keeping an eye on Mother Gans as she poked me in the leg. Kate had taken over the job of drawing her attention, but the pig was right – I had to be more careful. "You have a point, though – this crowd is too well-behaved for there not to be minions lurking around somewhere."

Magical minions, probably, and the sudden thought made my stomach twist. I scanned the crowd again, hunting for any sign that someone was here who didn't want to be, but no matter where I looked there were only bright, shining faces. There was some whispering, but the women looked too excited to be plotting escape.

There was only one explanation.

Hortensia saw the answer in my face. "Mind control spells," she breathed, looking absolutely panicked.

She started backing up, her steps slow enough I wasn't sure she was consciously doing it, and I caught her arm before she could get very far and leaned in close to whisper into her ear. "They're probably not dosing everyone, or they'd be doing it at the door and we'd already be feeling it. That means they're likely targeting troublemakers. If we smile, play nice, and don't take anything they hand out, we should be fine."

"Unless it's in the food," Hortensia whispered back.

"Well, then we'll... we'll...." See, this is why I liked writing the action instead of living it. I was much better at coming up with clever plans when I had some thinking time and a backspace key. "You're just a ray of sunshine, aren't—"

"You were just telling me about that, weren't you, Jenniffer?"

I shot upright at Kate's suddenly loud question-slash-warning, pasting a bright smile on my face. "Sure!" Deciding that was a little too psychotically cheerful, I dialed it down a notch. "We're really excited."

The small headshake from Kate made it clear I hadn't guessed quite right, but it was close enough that Mother Gans only hesitated a moment before smiling again. "Of course you are, my dears." She ushered us toward the seats. "Now, if you'll just sit down, we can get started. I can get someone to—"

"Oh, there's no need to go to the trouble," Kate cut in, using a smooth, persuasive voice that she must have once used during her old happily-ever-after sales pitches. "I'm sure we can find an open spot somewhere."

We hurried to the chairs, tugging each other into position as Mother Gans headed to the stage at the front of the room. As the music started, Kate leaned over and whispered in my ear. "I think the seating attendants are holding small misters."

As a former Fairy Godmother, Kate has more experience with mind control potions than the rest of us. "Any chance there's a cure like there was for True Love?" I whispered back. I'd have made sure there was, if I'd been the one writing this, but since I wasn't at my keyboard there was no way to be sure.

Kate shrugged. "I don't know. Given the way she was smiling, Mother Gans might actually be spraying herself."

Onstage, she'd started into the pitch, a magic mirror projecting a fake ballroom onto the walls behind her. "...want to shift the nature of what is possible for each and every one of you. In your old lives you were forgotten – shopkeepers, scullery maids – passed over every day by dozens of people who saw you as boring. Ordinary. But I'm here to tell you that each and every one of you are special. You are...." She paused for emphasis as her hands lifted, the music providing the appropriate dramatic accompaniment. "Secret princesses!"

Wild applause erupted, which we joined an instant later. Tuning the sales pitch out, I studied the seating attendants who were positioned in the aisles. They were all average-looking women, clearly no warriors among them, and the fact that they needed the potions hopefully meant they weren't witches or sorceresses themselves. If it was anything like True Love, we'd be fine as long as we stayed out of spraying range, though that would eliminate any chance of being able to steal one for ourselves.

Which, now that I thought about it, might be the best idea. If the crowd was any indication, a good spritz of the stuff made you super compliant. If we gave them a dose of potion directly to the face, it was possible we could get a minion to actually lead us out of here....

"...deserve more than to be a bit player in someone else's story, appearing only in a few crowd scenes to fill out the background. You're all meant to be the heroine of your very own tales, sweeping princes off their feet with your beauty, charm and goodness. Who knows, maybe you all are lost princesses, trapped in the wrong life through a cruel twist of fate with no memory of the glory that you've lost."

The crowd cheered again, even more loudly than before, and out of the corner of my eye I could see at least one woman with tears streaming down her face. Next to me, Kate looked alarmed. "At first I thought she was trying to start the Fairy Godmothers, Inc. racket up again, but the truth is that she sounds more like you."

I just stared her, horrified by the thought. "Take that back."

She looked almost guilty, which only made things worse. "I'm sorry, but it's true. The whole 'everyone deserves their own story' thing? You were talking about almost exactly that last night."

Worried now, I paid more attention to what Mother Gans was saying. "The only thing holding you back is the tools needed to become the heroine of the story. The way to dress and the things to say that lets the story know that you are the one it should be paying attention to. The one who the prince adores, who always knows the right thing to say and just how to solve the problem. The one everyone listens to." She threw her hands up in the air, face once again alight with the crazy. "We will make the world beautiful with your stories, and when we're done no one will ever ignore us again?"

On my other side, Hortensia leaned in close. "Is it just me," she whispered, "or does this sound suspiciously like some kind of hostile takeover?"

I sighed, squeezing my eyes shut for a second. Only I would be dumb enough to create a reality where Mother Goose would get a taste for world domination. "It's not just you." I hesitated, thinking. "Are you okay here alone for a little while?"

She looked around, then nodded. "Don't be gone long, though."

"I won't." Then I leaned over to Kate. "We need to get outside. Follow my lead." I doubled over, clutching my stomach, then hobbled my way over to the aisle. Kate stayed next to me, a hand on her back and a concerned look on her face.

We'd barely left the row of chairs when one of the seating attendants moved to intercept us, hand slightly raised, and I kept an eye on the bottle while Kate spoke. "I'm sorry, but my friend is nauseous from something she ate before we arrived here, and we don't want to interrupt the beautiful presentation. Where are the bathrooms?"

The woman hesitated, hand half raised, and I lurched forward with a gagging noise. She jerked back, clearly afraid of being in target range, then waved us both to the exit. We hurried out, straightening only when the doors had swung shut behind us.

"This will go faster if we split up," Kate said. "One of us can check the perimeter while the other looks for our things."

I shook my head. "It also increases the chance of one us being caught and conveniently used as a hostage during a key narrative moment." I tried not to think or Hortensia, knowing that I'd left her in exactly that position. "Come on. Let's go look for your magic mirrors."  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Don't get fooled by Photoshop

Photoshop claims yet another victim. Seriously, this woman
would be incapable of standing if her thigh muscles were
really that non-existent.
There’s no diet in the world that will make you look like the models you see online and in magazines. The models themselves don’t even look like that.

See, there’s this little thing called Photoshop.  And it turns out that, no matter how skinny a model or actress is in real life, the people who run the magazine or website want them to be even skinner. For their skin to be even clearer and their breasts to be even bigger. Wrinkles? They don’t exist in Photoshop land – a quick brush with the blur tool and they’re gone forever.

Sometimes, you don’t even need the “before” picture to tell. Those shots where the skin on their face looks so smooth and tight you could bounce a quarter off it? That’s not a magic skin crème – it’s someone in the art department who went a little too crazy on the computer. Not even Scarlett Johansson has that kind of face in real life, and if she can’t manage it that officially proves that it’s impossible to pull off.  

Besides, would we really want to? It kind of makes them look like aliens from another planet.
If someone ever invents a Photoshop that works on real life, they will immediately earn a gazillion dollars and legions of people would happily bow down to them as their new overlords. A quick swipe with the erase tool, a couple of taps on the “bright” slide bar, a little judicious stamping, and we could all look like those poor half-naked women draped over the couches in all those high fashion ads.

But right now, in a world where that kind of miracle technology doesn’t exist, we have to stop looking at those fantasy images and thinking that they’re something we need to work towards. That we need to be as skinny as those models we see in advertisements. That our chests need to be as round and as perky. That we can age in such a way where wrinkles don’t exist.

Those things are just as unreal as the idea of waking up in the morning with wings growing out of your back.

Think of those glowing, alien pictures of non-existent women in the same way you do paintings of nubile warrior women or ridiculously sexy space babes who were always inexplicably attracted to the hero. You’d never think you had to actually be one of those women, would you? If nothing else, those metal bras always looked incredibly uncomfortable.

Remind yourself of that, every time you start looking longingly at a Photoshopped waistline. Tell your sisters, friends, daughters and granddaughters, and repeat it until you see it start to sink in. Trying to twist, tighten or shove your body into a shape that doesn’t actually exist in nature can only bring you pain. At best, it leads to heartache and constant frustration. At worst, it leads to eating disorders and the kind of self-hatred that can screw up entire lives.

Exercise so you feel healthy and strong. Use that skin crème because you love the way it makes your skin feel silky soft. Change your diet because you want to wake up with more energy in the morning.

Whatever you choose to do, you’re showing the world how awesome, beautiful and powerful real women can be. In the end, that’s so much more amazing than any magic Photoshop can pull off.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Fight Like A Girl

Saying that someone “fights like a girl” is a pervasive enough insult that even we women have been known to use it sometimes. Everyone knows the unspoken images behind the words – a useless slap instead of a solid punch, ridiculous angles and no follow through. In popular culture, to fight like a “girl” means you’re no good at it.

But have you actually seen women fight?

 I’m not talking about female boxers and MMA fighters, though those women are awesome and terrifying in their own way. I’m talking about the struggles an average women goes through in her life, and the challenges she’s able to take on without breaking a sweat.

 Our bodies are wonders of strength and design, able to accommodate an entire other person growing inside of us without breaking or becoming permanently mangled. We’re such great survivors that our bodies know how to not only keep one person alive for months, but two. And we can do it again and again.

 It’s not just childbirth that shows how tough a woman’s body is. Studies have shown that women overcome brain trauma faster than men, taking less time to heal from concussions and other injuries. We outlive men by an average of about five years, at least in the United States, and are less likely to be obese adults as well.

 Inevitably, there are a few areas where men have the edge over us. National statistics show that we’re at a higher risk of developing strokes, and more women suffer from osteoporosis than men. Heart attacks are more of a concern for women than many of us realize or like to acknowledge. There’s also breast cancer, the most common cancer in women and second to lung cancer as a leading cause of death for women.

 But real fighters know that just because you’re down doesn’t mean you have to be out. The fact that breast cancer is so common, but still isn’t our leading killer, is proof that it’s possible to fight back against even the worst illnesses. Breast cancer survivors are some of the strongest, bravest women I’ve ever met, banding together to support each other and pushing a major outreach to make sure other women get tested. Even if they’ve been hit by the disease, they don’t want to see other women fall.

 We can combat other illnesses as well. Research shows that potassium lowers the risk of strokes in older women. Knowing the warning signs of heart attacks for women – which are different than they are for men – and pushing for early detection can lower our risk for that as well. Making sure your calcium intake is high enough can help you avoid having to deal with osteoporosis later in life. Screenings of all kinds are important.

 Sure, men may be physically stronger than you are. But strength is only one factor that matters when surviving a physical fight, and when it comes to the battles life throws at us it’s often the least important one. The ability to survive, to take care of yourself and others, and to heal and move on can be far more important. And we women excel at all of that.

So the next time you hear the phrase “fight like a girl,” tell the person that they’re using it inaccurately. Because girls are some of the best fighters I know.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Be loud

Be loud.

You can’t trust anyone else to remember that you have a voice. To care that you have a voice. Silence is seen as assent in today’s society, and even if it isn’t no one seems to remember the quiet person.

No, that’s not quite true. No one seems to remember the quiet woman. The quiet person of color. The quiet minority of any stripe. No matter what titles are attached to our names, no matter what work we’ve done, we will be forgotten by even the most well-meaning if we let ourselves. Because the world moves by those in power, and all their old instincts tell them that we are supposed to be quiet.

Don’t be quiet.

Speak up every single time you have something to say. You don’t have to shout, you don’t have to throw accusations, you don’t have to even be rude. But. You. Must. Speak. Up. When they have a meeting without you, step into it. When they try to make a decision without you, intrude on the conversation and tell them your opinion. Always make sure your name is counted, and you have gone on the record.

Force them, even if it’s only for a little while, to see you. To hear you.

They will be surprised to see you. You will hear it in their voices, see it in their faces. They had forgotten you were there. They may wish you weren’t there now.

But that doesn’t matter. You must walk into that room certain in the knowledge that this is your place. As if you had been told about the meeting. As if they are waiting for baited breath for what you have to say. Do not dare devalue your voice just because they do.

It may change nothing. In the immediate circumstance, it will probably change nothing. The world is still moved by people in power, and it is easy for them to forget we are here at all. Actually listening to us is another thing entirely.

But speak, even if no one is listening. Raise your voice, and every word you speak will be a testament that we are worth hearing. We are worth remembering. We deserve to be heard.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Secret Princess Training Camp, part 2

(Part 1, for those who might have missed it.)


It was all well and good to decide you were going to break out of a Secret Princess Training Camp, but first you had to figure out how you were going to actually pull it off.

“We don’t have a lot to work with, unfortunately.” Hortensia kept her voice matter-of-fact, and if she was worried I couldn’t see it. “They grabbed our personal magic mirrors, which means there’s no calling the cavalry until we get them back.”

Kate’s expression was grim. “They also took my wand.”

I’d assumed they had – she would have said something before now if she could have just magicked us out of here – but it was another thing we’d have to figure out how to get back. “I’m not sure how useful it would be, anyway. I’m pretty sure they have anti-transport wards….” My voice trailed off as my brain caught up with the real problem. “Oh no.” I looked over at Kate, feeling the panic come back. “Once they figure out they just grabbed their very own Fairy Godmother, they’ll never let you leave.”

Hortensia’s brow lowered. “Why haven’t they already, though? Given how obsessed they are with fairy tale situations, I would think that would be their first guess when they saw your wings and the wand.”

“And even if it’s not, they’ll think I’m a witch or sorceress and I’ll be in nearly as much trouble.” Kate’s jaw tightened. “My best guess is that our things got put somewhere else, and no one’s bothered to look through them yet.”

“Which means we have a lot tighter a deadline than we realized, at least to get our things back.” The kidnappers had my cell phone, which had no signal in this world but might be useful at some point for its strangeness factor. They’d left me with a tube of Chapstick, two tissues, a pen and a flier that someone had stuck on my windshield back in the real world.

Not a lot to engineer a dramatic escape with, even for a writer. Which meant that I needed more to work with.

“Just go with me on this,” I told them, heading toward the door. Then, taking a deep breath, I channeled every con artist character I’d ever written and pounded on the door. When nothing happened, I pounded even harder.

Finally, there was the sound of running footsteps, and a nervous-looking boy carefully opened the door. He couldn’t have been older than 16, and when I smiled brightly at him he flinched. “Did … did you need something?”

Okay, this required a slightly different pitch. I dropped my shoulders, making my voice sound much less certain. “I’m sorry, but I was thinking about how much we’re all going to have to learn to be good secret princesses and I got so worried that we wouldn’t be able to learn it in time.” I lowered my voice a little further. “Could you tell someone we’d really like to get started right now?”

He looked slightly less nervous now, his expression sympathetic. “It is really tough. Even if I hadn’t been disqualified for being a boy, I don’t think I could have….” His voice trailed off, and he squared his shoulders. “I’ll be right back.”

When he was gone, I heard Kate come up behind me. “We’re breaking him out, too, if he wants,” she said softly. “Right?”

I knew she was thinking of Ned, too. “Absolutely.”

Hortensia came up to join us. “If everyone’s in that bad a shape, we should probably just lead a revolution and be done with it.”

I smiled a little. “Now, there’s an idea.”

We cut the conversation off at the sound of footsteps. The same woman from before was coming down the hallway with that same bright, slightly deranged smile as before, flinging her arms out as if she was about to drag us all into a group hug. “Excellent! I didn’t mention it before because you dears looked a little nervous, but Thomas tells me you’re just itching to get started."

Making a mental note of the kid's name, I put on my best earnest expression and stepped forward. "Absolutely. We're not going to become the best secret princesses we can by just sitting here."

Behind me, I heard Hortensia clear her throat, pretty sure that would have been a discreet elbow jab if she'd been within arm's reach of me, but the woman just clapped her hands together again. "Perfect!" She glanced back at Hortensia and Kate. "Do all three of you feel the same way?"

"Oh, absolutely," Kate said immediately, sounding breathy and dreamy and not at all like herself. "I'd love to be a fairy princess."

There was a beat before Hortensia spoke, voice polite but nearly expressionless. "What they said."

I made another mental note – clearly, the con game was not on Hortensia's list of skills – but the woman didn't care. "Oh, I'm so happy that all of you could join us." She gestured us all out into the hallway, and it took effort to resist the urge to actively run. "Let's get you to your first class."

After she turned, I passed the flier and pen to Kate, mouthing the word "map" before setting off behind the woman. "Will you be teaching it?" I hurried ahead until I was almost walking next to the woman – the less reason she had to turn around, the better. "You seem like you know so much."

She chuckled, and the sound was nearly as unsettling as her smile was. "Oh, aren't you a dear." The woman shook her head, immediately patting her hair back into place. "Sadly, I don't teach anything but a few special classes. I'm Mother Gans, and I oversee our happy little camp."

A camp which, at the moment, consisted of nothing but a second stone hallway and other seemingly locked doors. Creepy, and not even slightly helpful. "Are we in a castle?" I made sure to sound excited, even though all my attention was focused on the tiny slit of a window we were about to pass. "I've never camped in a castle before."

"We're not camping, dear." She patted my head without turning to look at me. "We call it a camp because we hold some of the later classes in tents outside. The introductory classes are in the main rooms downstairs, and the offices and 'introduction' rooms are upstairs."

So freedom was with the advanced classes, but our things were probably upstairs. I slowed my steps enough to move out of Mother Gans's immediate visual range, ducking over to the window and getting up on my tiptoes to get as detailed a look outside as I could.

Trees. So many trees, thick enough that I couldn't see anything but their tops.

Damn it. Clearly, I had written way too many forests into this universe.

As I hurried to rejoin the group, Hortensia moved to take the spot I had vacated. She wasn't a great liar, but she was good at being thorough. "What will be learning in our first class?"

"Oh, the first class isn't really a class, per se. It's more about helping the girls understand the vision of what we're trying to do."

Kate glanced over at me, eyebrows raised questioningly. I hesitated, weighing the need to speed our way up through the classes with finding out whether or not we had any allies here. Even if we didn't have to go the revolutionary route, I couldn't leave a character here who was just as trapped as we were—

I was jerked out of the thought by a white flash in front of me where I knew there shouldn't be one. I scanned the ridiculous, ruffled edge of Mother Gans' blouse, my eyes widening when the fabric slid in just the right way to reveal the tip of a white feather.

I couldn't say for certain without Google in front of me, but it seemed pretty safe to say that it was a goose feather.

Putting my smile back on, I moved to switch places with Hortensia. "I'd love to hear all about it." 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Don't just dream, write!

Writing is hard. There are millions of books, essays, blog posts, letters, diary entries and online rants going into detail about how hard it is. We’re creating worlds here, taking little squiggles of ink and pixels and making them into entire living, breathing worlds, and it takes all of our blood, sweat and tears to make it happen. We’ve got to wrestle with characterization, dialogue, plotting, timing, interpersonal relationships, symbolism and any number of things that Literature teachers spend years talking about.
The biggest challenge, though, is getting started in the first place.
I’m a journalist by trade, and if you talk to any one of us long enough you’ll find out that most of us have a novel we’ve always meant to write. The same is true of Tumblr and online message boards, where fans come up with a whole host of fanfiction plots that they swear they’ll write or keep hoping someone will write for them.  Each and every one of them can always tell you the plot of their unwritten novel or story in exquisite detail, having spent hours, days or even years of their free time working it all out in their heads. They’re outlines even the most planning-obsessed writer would kill for.
And the tragedy of it all is that most of these stories will never be able to be read, because none of these people ever seem to write them down.
Getting that first sentence out of your head and onto the paper can be unspeakably terrifying. You’ve dragged your fantasy out into reality, and every insecurity and doubt you’ve ever had comes right along with it. The sentence sits there, lifeless, completely without the crackle and sparkle the story has in your dreams, and you want nothing more than to delete it immediately.
But don’t. Go on to the second sentence instead, then the third, fourth and even the fifth. Rip the scene out of you word by word and lay it down on the page. Let the characters you’ve come to know so well laugh and scream and trip all over the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first scene of your story. It doesn’t even matter if it’s any good. What matters is that it’s there, it’s real and you can touch it.
If you do this for long enough, you might get lucky and the words will start pouring out of you on their own. If that happens let it all pour out of you, not worrying if you’ve gotten a description wrong or part of the dialogue is terrible or you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few minutes. All that matters right now is getting the words out of you and on to that page.
Later, you can go back and slap it all into shape. Even the most experienced writers rewrite and edit their work dozens of times, throwing away whole scenes and changing characters and redoing the ending when the first one didn’t work.

In the novel I just finished writing, I literally stumbled my way through an entire third act plot twist because I knew I needed to get from point A to point B but I had no clue how to get there. Later, when it was done and I could see the entire story arc laid out in front of me, I went back and rewrote that whole section exactly the way it should have been.

The truth is, no one’s first draft is very good. But if you never write that first draft, you’ll never get to the second (and the third, fourth, fifth, etc.). And, more importantly, you’ll never get to that moment when someone reads your story and tells you how grateful they are that it was out in the world for them to find. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Loving your brain

by Gaetan (via Wikipedia)
We're reminded almost constantly to treat out bodies right. We're told to exercise so our muscles stay strong, eat healthy foods so our bodies get the vitamins and minerals they need, to protect our skin from the sun and make sure we get regular dental checkups.

When we get sick, injured or just achy, our co-workers tell us to go home and take care of ourselves. Get some medicine. Have someone cook you some chicken soup. Give your body the love and attention it needs to get well again.

Our brains, however, don't get nearly so much love and attention. We're constantly making demands out of the thing, insisting that it perform perfectly at work, remember the kids' schedules when we get home and think up something brilliant for our anniversary. We get mad at it every time it forgets something, and when it feels things we don't want it to we bottle the emotions up and pretend they're not happening. We're expected to be able to work forever, shake off negative feelings, and constantly achieve more.

But it's just as important to take care of our minds as it is our bodies, maybe more so. Our bodies may be what keep us alive, letting us do all those wonderful things like walk, talk and breathe on a regular basis, but the brain is the switchboard that makes it all happen. You wouldn't lovingly take care of a sports car only to mistreat the engine, would you?

What people tend to forget is that our minds are just as fragile and just as prone to injury as our bodies. That organ that allowed Beethoven to write symphonies that outlasted him my centuries, or Einstein to discover things about the universe that no one had ever imagined before, is just a small, wrinkled organ that's so complex internally that scientists are only beginning to understand it. If something as relatively simple as an arm or a leg can get damaged so many ways, imagine the trouble that the brain can get in to.

But we shouldn't be ashamed of our brains for getting tired, or even breaking, any more than we are when our muscles and bones do the same thing. We should learn to accept its frailties the same way we accept that we'll never be a size six, no matter how many diets we go on, or that we'll never run as fast an as Olympic sprinter no matter how hard we train. Sometimes we get a cold, no matter how hard we try to protect ourselves from germs, and sometimes we feel sad for no reason we can explain.

Once we can accept that our brains aren't perfect, then maybe we can start learning to take care of them as well as we do our bodies. Addiction can have as many effects on the mind as it does the body, and seeking treatment can improve your life on more than just a physical level. Taking breaks, and not being quite so hard on yourself, can help lower potentially damaging stress levels. Seeking treatment for depression can help you reclaim the life you no longer feel like you have the energy to maintain.

It's normal to take vitamins to improve our bodies, or medicine when we're sick and need to feel well again. It's normal to pamper aching muscles for a little while, giving them the chance to heal. We need to learn to treat our brains the same way.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Adventures in Meta (part 1?)

You know how easy it is to get sucked into a story when you're reading it, and even more when you're writing it? Well, blogger extrordinaire Kriss Morton asked me to get sucked into the world of my books "Fairy Godmothers, Inc." and "Huff and Puff" for her Fourth Wall Friday and spend some time with my characters Kate and Hortensia. I was happy to.

Unfortunately, I had no idea we'd get sucked into a Secret Princess Training Camp.


I woke up with a groan, opening my eyes just far enough for my brain to start screaming at me for making terrible decisions. I immediately shut them again, rolling over to my side and pressing my hand against the back of my throbbing skull. “What happened?”

Clichéd, yes, but head injuries wreak havoc on my ability to come up with witty dialogue.
“We’ve been kidnapped.” That was Hortensia, using that matter-of-fact voice that meant she wanted to gouge someone’s eyes out but hadn’t yet figured out the best way to go about it. Not that most people could recognize it – few people tended to be intimidated by a talking pig in a dress.

At least, until they found out what happened to her brothers.

“I still can’t tell if it’s my fault or Kate’s, but I’m leaning toward Kate’s,” Hortensia continued, having waited a respectful pause for my internal monologue. “BB’s enemies don’t tend to put people in holding cells that look like a birthday cake exploded all over it.”

Okay, that was unexpected. Deciding the knowledge was worth the suffering, I slowly opened my eyes to discover that the room we had been tossed into was ridiculously pink. There was bunting all over the place, swirled over the walls and bed as thick as icing, then tied up in a bow at every possible opportunity. On top of all that, someone had scattered tiny satin hearts.

It was horrifying.

Read more


If you'd be interested in reading even *more* than that, I'm considering continuing the adventure over on my blog. What do you guys think?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Being A Little Nicer To My Future Self

My future self will regret this eventually
My older self is going to be so mad at me.

When you’re young, it feels like there’s so much to worry about now that the future is the last thing on our minds. We have no time even for our lives right now, juggling our education, one, two or even three jobs, and all of our other responsibilities. The future will have to wait until we have a few minutes to spare.

We don’t have time for exercise, or to make ourselves a healthy salad instead of grabbing a too-salty chicken wrap from the local fast-food place. We definitely don’t have time to worry about retirement, especially when many of us are having trouble with month-to-month bills or even just finding a job. We definitely don’t have time to worry about forcing ourselves to drink milk or calcium supplements, especially when getting proper creamer in our coffee is sometimes more than we can manage.

At least, we tell ourselves that. What we don’t admit is that it’s hard to do things for a version of ourselves we can barely fathom, a distant figure that seems light years away. What right does that older you have to stop you from eating that chocolate bar? Will one less slice of pizza really make their life any better than it would have been? Why should we have to turn down our music? Shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now, because when we’re old we’ll be in no shape to enjoy any of it anyway?

It’s easy to let ourselves get caught up in thinking that way, to almost resent the idea that we have to take the time to care for a version of ourselves we haven’t even met yet. There’s always time to change, isn’t there?

The thing is, there’s less time than you think.

Getting healthy at the last minute doesn’t erase the years when you’ve been stuffing your body with fat and letting your bones get thin and brittle. It’s like driving a car for years without ever doing any maintenance, letting the brakes wear thin and the oil lines clog up, and then expecting it to run great after a car wash or two.

It takes long-term care to keep your body at its healthiest. True, it will start to break down anyway – even the most well-maintained car runs out eventually – but a healthy body will take longer to lose steam. Slowing down is so much harder on your heart when it already has clogged arteries to deal with. Hearing loss is that much stronger when you’ve been pouring years of loud music into them.

Even though we don’t like to think about it now, we’ll all have to deal with the mess our younger selves leave behind. And when it does happen, we’ll probably wish we could reach back in time and throttle the people we’d been.

I’m sure I will. I know how much of a mess I can make.

So maybe I’ll start worrying about my future self a little more right now, before she shows up and tries to hurt me. I’m not sure how I’ll squeeze in time for that salad, but I can make my own sandwich instead of picking up a hamburger for lunch. I can park my car further away from work, and squeeze in a walk on my lunch break. I can start taking multivitamins, and drink that extra glass of milk even though I don’t really want to.
In the end, my older self will probably still be mad at me. But at least this way, she’ll know I tried. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Textual Salvation

"Power of Words" by Antonio Litterio
I've kind of been going crazy for the last several days. Something had had been working is suddenly not working anymore, the IT people deep in the heart of a faceless corporation that I desperately need to talk to won't acknowledge my e-mails, and to top it all off I was in a constant tailspin of worry that I wasn't figuring out a way to fix these things immediately. You know, my entire future was on the line, I was blowing my chance, failure was imminent, that sort of thing. It was all I could think about, and because there was nothing I could do to fix it I had absolutely zero interest in doing anything else.

Then I had a realized that I had a metric ton of writing to do, and the deadlines were about to hit me over the head.

It was like a miracle. All of my anxiety about my future and success suddenly narrowed down to the simple fact that if I didn't get these writing assignments finished, I would be screwed in very concrete and practical ways. I'm a journalist by trade, so I respect deadlines in a way I respect few other things in my life, and here was a whole stack of them in front of me.

My worry narrowed down in a wonderful way from things I couldn't control to things I could. Even better, I could control them by writing, which is something I would rather be doing than nearly anything else in my life. I'm terrible at social interaction, marketing, long-term planning or convincing people to respect me, but I am freaking great at putting one word in front of another.

I might not have been able to fix my life, but I could absolutely sit down and wrap up the blog assignment I had finally found the perfect idea for. I couldn't predict the future, but I could definitely start slugging my way through the pile of articles I had been putting off for days that had a very immediate deadline. I had little interest in being inside my own head, but I could happily fulfill my obligation to characters whose company I vastly preferred to my own.

Writing saved me, as it has before and as it undoubtedly will again. I see a purpose in it in a way I can't always see a purpose in myself, and I can give myself over to it wholeheartedly when the inside of my head is just a little more than I can take at the moment. Every time I write an article, a story or a poem, I am validating my own existence one more time. Yes, I may be kind of messed up, but look at this awesome thing I made.

I think ... no, I hope, that Robin Williams's movies saved him for a long time. Like everyone, I wish they'd been enough to hold him here with us even longer. And I wish for you all the inexpressible gift of finding some form of expression that might help save you. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Talking to people

I still don't know how to talk to strangers.

It's probably incredibly embarrassing that I'm a fully grown adult and haven't managed to figure this out yet, but I haven't yet been brave enough to ask anyone about it who might actually give me an impartial answer. See, I'm great at talking to my family and friends, because they already know exactly how weird I am. They've listened to me rant about a character who isn't doing what I want them to, or about how the dialogue in a particular movie was so terrible that it caused me physical pain, and they're still willing to associate with me.

But people I don't know well ... that's another story. I'm paralyzed every time I try to open my mouth, so used to my own eccentricities that I'm no longer sure where the line is between "Oh, how eccentrically charming" and "There's something wrong with you." I either say too much and end up looking nuts, or I say too little and sound like the most boring and unopinionated person on the planet. I've been trying to balance the two for decades now, and though I've occasionally managed to hit the sweet spot I mostly end up landing firmly in "Why did you do that?" territory.

The awful thing is that I'm a journalist, so talking to people I don't know well is literally my job. There, though, it's almost easier than it is in day-to-day conversation, since I don't have to talk about myself at all. The entire purpose of my job is to find out about the people I'm interviewing, and I'm curious enough that I'm fantastic about asking questions. The fact that I'm terrible at answering them never comes up.

So I talk to people for a living, but when I stand next to a stranger at a party I'm absolutely paralyzed. I've tried to steal from work and just ask them a ton of questions, but apparently in social situations that's weird, too. They always want to know why I want to know so much about them, and I haven't yet figured out a normal way to say "It's so much easier than talking about me."

So I'll keep guessing, and probably keep missing the balance by a mile. If you're ever one of the people caught in the crossfire, I'd like to apologize in advance.

I hope I don't scare you away.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why paranormal is so popular

Johnny Worthen, author of the new "Eleanor," is stopping by to talk about why everyone can't get enough of the paranormal:

Paranormal writing reaches for that often overlooked emotion in the human spirit: Wonder. Akin to love and horror, It is a juvenile emotion often lost in adulthood, beaten out by cynicism and experience. But in the best of us, there’s always at least a little spark looking for wonder in the world.

Wonder is the feeling of realizing there’s more to the world than we thought, more than we know and in the paranormal, more even than is known. A touch of magick in any setting creates a cascade of possibility and excitement. This too is in your world. How will you adjust to it? What else might be there?

That’s what Paranormal does that other genres don’t do. Whereas a person might levitate in a science fiction story with the aid of technology, if it’s done in a paranormal setting, it’s a whole different event. It’s a new nature that the world must respond to in a different way. It rattles us in a way that open ended technological progress doesn’t.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
- Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

Wonder. It is a powerful emotional tool but like a strong spice, a little goes a long way. If there’s too much magick in a story, it’s not wonderful, it’s reality. There’s a place for that but when miracles are commonplace, they cease being miracles.

In ELEANOR, THE UNSEEN for example, I go to great pains to create a realistic setting, with honest modern characters and places. Then into that, I drop a single paranormal thing - a Skinwalker – and allow the world to react to that. How the characters respond – fear or wonder, hostility or acceptance is the crucible that tests them.

Moreover, I chose to frame the miraculous in my story as realistically as possible. I created costs for it, recognizing (though taking some liberties with) the laws of conservation of mass and energy. This was meant to slide my paranormal out of the realm of the supernatural and into the real of possible biological. 

Eleanor’s wonderful power is balanced by terrible costs – the pain, always pain, change is pain. It’s work to do it, requires planning and time. Vulnerability. All this creates a metaphor for the story; change and acceptance, appearances versus reality, the terrible necessity of change and the desire to blend in.

Eleanor, shy, unassuming Eleanor is in fact wonderful, more wonderful than anyone can imagine. When the wonder is revealed does it mean she’s different or the world is bigger than anyone thought? Who must change?

How to get the book:


Heeere's Johnny!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


The gray times
are the hardest.
The emptiness somehow worse
than pain would be.
as if your heart has forgotten
how to be alive.
Winter, too,
is cold and grey,
and the callous silence
of frozen ground,
the promise of spring
locked just out of our reach.

But waiting
is not the same as death,
no matter how eternal it seems.

The ground will thaw,
the sun will warm,
and the emptiness inside you
will bloom

-Jenniffer Wardell

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mapping my mind

One of the most important tasks of a map is to identify the dangerous places. Landslides, impossibly strong currents, jagged rocks – we mark down where they are, so the people who come after us can know to stay away. Some choose to venture in anyway, but the map helps them know they need to be cautious.
            There are days when my entire head seems to be a dangerous place. There are hurts so old and deep that the resulting emotional scar tissue rises up like mountains. Waves of emotion will crash into me at unpredictable moments, strong enough to send even the toughest ship off course. Monsters of panic lurk in the shadows, always ready to send their claws at my throat.
            I started mapping the inside of my head when I was in high school, trying to time the waves so I would at least know what direction they were going to toss me in. It took me years of careful, methodical study before I could predict them as well as the tides, trying to organize my life so that my tasks best suited my emotional state and forgiving myself when I couldn’t. Learning to let the water only carry me so far, and to never forget how off course I was.
            Those years added more details to the map, cautious expeditions into the thickets of fear and careful outlines of the boundaries of the pits of self-doubt. I know the shape of my scar-tissue mountains, and have carefully outlined a few careful trails that will let me navigate the foothills without getting caught in an unclimbable area or falling to my death. I have marked many of the places where panic waits, and though I can’t avoid it I am no longer surprised.
            None of this has razed the mountains, cleared the jungles or defeated the monsters waiting for me. The purpose of a map is only to identify what’s already there, leaving the choice of what to do with it to the person reading. It’s a light in the darkness, not a weapon.
            But oh, how I need that light. The world is still a terrifying place, full of uncertainty and things that want to hurt me, but over the years I have stopped being afraid of myself. I know the contours of my mind as I know few other things, and even the dangers have become as familiar to me as the walls of my bedroom. I have learned how to navigate them, and because of that they are no longer enough to stop me from exploring the wild, beautiful places my mind contains as well. Any jungle has its treasures as well as its dangers, and if you watch for them both there is no place that’s closed to you.
             I’m not quite there yet. There are still a few shadowy places that I’m not brave enough to venture in, too uncertain what I’ll find once I cross beyond the boundaries of what I know. But I will, one day.

            A map maker doesn’t like blank places.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Never Open the Death Closet

One of the poop-covered victims
Our apartment has a death closet.

Mind you, we don’t provide the bodies. The birds do it themselves, flying in through an opening on the side of our building to drop in to our water heater closet through the vent. Too often, they’ll injure themselves and fall/crawl behind the water heater, where they then can’t get back out again. We hate it, but none of our previous supers would put grates up, and short of developing some sort of bird pulley system there’s nothing we can do.

It’s better when the birds can fly, and we have a rousing game of “fly out the open door you stupid bird.” One of the birds that showed up after the last rainstorm did just that, while the other one insisted on a game of tag first as it tried to fling itself against our closed and screen-covered kitchen windows (that were three feet from the open door, mind you).

The following morning, I heard more noises from the bird closet. Our new guest had no interest in flying, and when I tried to grab him he just tried harder to wedge himself in the crack between the wall and the water heater. I had to get to work, and I didn’t want the guy to get back there if I could help it, so when I left for work I kept the door open and hoped it would see sense.

When my roommate got home, she texted me that there was a bird trying to fling itself against my bedroom window and no sounds from the closet. She got the bird out and closed the door, and I told myself the matter had been solved. The bird she described sounded too big to be the one in the closet, but I wanted to think that it had gotten out.

The next morning, though, I swore I could hear birds in my room. Now, sounds echo oddly through the thin walls of my apartment building – when I’m in bed I can hear anyone knocking in my building – but I was certain enough to get up twice, put on my glasses, and peer desperately around my room. Finally, I convinced myself I was hallucinating and went back to bed.

I later got up, went to work, then came back home. As I was hanging a shirt up in the closet, I heard a flapping noise from somewhere around the floor. I shrieked “I knew it!” and proceeded to hunt for the bird, which was trying to wedge itself into a tiny space behind the filing cabinet. After an exciting adventure behind my bookcase, we got the bird and deposited it in a safe place outside. Finally, all the birds were accounted for.

Somewhere, the universe was laughing at me.

Later that evening, I was on the phone with my sister, and when I turned around there was suddenly a bird sitting on my bookshelf. I made an unholy noise, which caused the bird to disappear again, at which point I starting shoving my way through the solid two feet of furniture and assorted crap that stood between me and the corner. One of those things was a stuffed animal that made a trilling noise. It activated when I threw it, at which point I shrieked, “There’s another one!”
I was overwhelmed enough I had to hang up the phone.

When I’d collected my thoughts a bit I realized it was the stuffed animal I’d heard, and I was calmer as I finished clearing everything else out of the way. Then I looked down into the dark corner and saw two little birdie faces staring up at me, their expressions clearly wondering why I was freaking out so much.

I then walked into the kitchen, laid my head on my roomate’s shoulder, and said “There are two of them.” She patted my shoulder and came to help.

The first one was relatively easy to get – plastic bag gloves are an important part of this process – and as I carried it outside she tried for the second one. This one, unfortunately, wanted to die, and we had a whole adventure behind two different sets of bookcases while it ran back and forth along the entire length of one wall. My roommate had it at one point but it escaped, making her wedge her hand into an inch tall space while she cursed the bird’s ancestry and all its cousins.

Finally, though, she got it, and I hurried to the front door to open it for her. Just as I left the room, I suddenly heard her scream (and I quote), “Fuck! There’s another one!”

At that point, I was laughing too hard to breathe. After that, getting the last bird out was almost anticlimactic.

I’m still finding poop in my room, and our landlord swears we’re finally getting a grate. Until then, though, I’m not opening that damn water heater closet for anything.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The body inside my head

Photo courtesy of Microsoft Office
Here’s the thing about weight loss. It doesn’t change the body you have inside your head.

Honestly, I didn’t even really mean to lose weight in the first place. I’m a bit of a pessimist, so I didn’t think it was even possible. But a few years ago I realized that I was so out of shape I no longer had the strength to take the short walks I used to enjoy so much, and I was horrified. I had always been proud of the strength in my legs, and I wanted that back.

So I started walking, which is about the only exercise I knew I would reliably keep up with. Slowly, my route increased as my energy did. Later, I realized I was probably eating enough for two people, so I tried to be a little more reasonable about my portion sizes. I found I could walk even further. I would start walking places just because I knew I could, proud at how much easier it had become.

It was a surprise when I realized I could once again fit into t-shirts and tops I had stopped wearing a long time ago. It was like I had been re-gifted with an entire half of my closet again, and I enjoyed it in much the same way I would have a surprise shopping trip.

Having people tell me I looked good was even more of a surprise, and even now I’m still not entirely sure if I believe it. I’m panicking about the shirt I’m wearing now – even though someone just complimented me on how good I looked at it an hour ago – because it touches my ribs.

It’s only the lightest touch, the kind of top people wear all the time because apparently it’s normal to want to give people an idea of what your general body shape is. This is, I’ve recently discovered, a normal thing for clothes to do. In fact, less-than-skinny people are told to gravitate towards these kind of tops, because big, baggy things only make you look larger.

But I didn’t care about looking larger, because I had given my body up as a lost cause. I had decided there was nothing I could do to make my body match the normal expectations of beauty, so I wrapped myself in large shirts as if they were protective blankets. I wanted only to hide.

Even now, when I have been told time and time again that I should be proud of what I’ve accomplished, the feel of fabric tight against my ribs feels like staggering out into the world without my protective shell.

The thing is, though, I have nothing to hide. More importantly, I never did.

So, in addition to exercise, I’m spending an equal amount of time learning to appreciate my body. I’m learning decorating it in ways that appeal to me, much the same way I take careful time finding just the right spot for the butterflies flying on my walls.  I’m enjoying not only the t-shirts that have come back into my life, but the fact that I look pretty darn good in some of them. I’m teaching my brain that feeling that fabric against my ribs is nothing to be scared of.

It feels like running into someone I’d thought was a childhood enemy, only to discover after spending time with them that they’re actually a really nice person. It’s not an easy process – old instincts die hard – but I’m finally starting to realize that my body might be a friend worth having.

There’s no amount of weight loss in the world that can make you realize that. You have to find it out for yourself. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Guest column: Fresh Zombies

Today we're going to here from F.J.R. Tichnell, author of the upcoming YA novel "Confessions of The Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know Of)." She's going to talk to us about the challenges of keeping zombie fiction new and exciting:

With all the zombie-related fiction out now, how do you make them seem fresh?

It's true, everyone does seem to be zombie obsessed lately, myself included. As with any trend, lots of zombie stories run together, following all the same tropes and rehashing the same material.

Thanks to the significant lead time in publishing, I had no idea while I was writing Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) just how big this whole zombie thing was going to get by the time release day rolled around. I'm not one to jump on a bandwagon, certainly not if I don't have something new in mind to contribute, but with all the zombie fiction in existence both before and since I wrote Zombie Slayer, I still see something missing from all there is to choose from.

Cassie’s story is that something.

The vast majority of zombie fiction is written by men, about male protagonists, for a primarily male audience. That's not to say that there aren't female zombie-fic lovers -- I'm proud beyond words to be part of a healthy generation of she-geeks who don't fear the icky bits -- but we continue to be mostly an afterthought.

What zombie fiction there is that's written with a female audience in mind, particularly a teenage female audience, tends to be either unrelentingly depressing dystopia, or sentient zombie romance that isn't particularly zombie-ish.

Now, I'm a fan of a broad spectrum of horror. I like dark stuff, including serious zombie fiction, but zombies of the unromantic and non-sentient variety also have a lot of potential for silliness and humor that's only been widely explored in R-rated guy-oriented comedies.

I wanted to bring the fun of zombie slaying to new zombie geeks, especially girls. I wanted to write about a girl who can crush skulls, love a fellow human, and still crack a smile.

Zombie Slayer's categorical distinctions aside, though, the most important part of making any story fresh is not to depend on the gimmicks to make the story.

You can tell a story about zombies or about vampires or about a machete-wielding slasher, but unless you're the first person in a generation or two to use that device, you'll have just another zombie (or what-have-you) story.

There are only so many stories you can tell about zombies. People run from zombies. People hide from zombies. People do bad things because of zombie and angst about it.

The stories that stand out, other than the ones that can pull off being remembered simply for coming first, are the ones that are about characters.

Ideally, Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and contemporary settings should be support and seasoning for the story of the characters' self discovery and relationships, not a crutch or replacement.

I had lots of fun with the zombies in Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of). There's plenty of brain-mashing action to go around, but at its core, it's a road trip story. It's about a group of friends working out their issues, strengthening their friendships, and coming of age together, and I hope that, as well as enjoying the zombies, readers will come to love Cassie and her companions as much as I do.

Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) blurb:

The world is Cassie Fremont’s playground. Her face is on the cover of every newspaper, she has no homework, no curfew, and no credit limit, and she spends her days traveling the country with her friends, including a boy who would flirt with death just to turn her head. Life is just about perfect—except that those newspaper headlines are about her bludgeoning her crush to death with a paintball gun, she has to fight ravenous walking corpses every time she steps outside, and one of her friends is still missing, trapped somewhere in the distant, practically impassable wreckage of Manhattan. Still, Cassie’s an optimist. More prone to hysterical laughter than hysterical tears, she’d rather fight a corpse than be one, and she won’t leave a friend stranded when she can simply take her road trip to impossible new places to find her, even if getting there means admitting to that boy that she might just love him, too. Skillfully blending effective horror with unexpected humor, this diary-format novel is a fast-paced and heartwarming read.

F.J.R. Titchenell bio:

F.J.R. Titchenell is an author of Young Adult Sci-Fi and Horror fiction. She is represented by Jennifer Mishler of Literary Counsel and currently lives in San Gabriel, California with her husband and fellow author, Matt Carter, and their pet king snake, Mica.

The "F" is for Fiona, and on the rare occasions when she can be pried away from her keyboard, her kindle, and the pages of her latest favorite book, Fi can usually be found over-analyzing the inner workings of various TV Sci-Fi universes or testing out some intriguing new recipe, usually chocolate-related.

Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) is F.J.R. Titchenell’s first novel. Her first novel coauthored with Matt Carter, Splinters, will be available fall of 2014.


Other details:

Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) is F.J.R. Titchenell’s debut novel, to be released May 6th, 2014. It is a Young Adult Horror-Comedy.