Cherish your Mentors – Part 2

My Swedish maternal grandmother (mormor) died today.  Ingrid Lilly Margareta Dandenell née Gerdner was born on Oct 1, 1910.  She studied four languages in finishing school (Swedish, German, English, and Latin), married a gentleman farmer, and served as matriarch to a mostly tight-knit and happy clan.

She was also a mentor. She wasn’t a writer, but possessed an amazing spirit.

Among other things, she taught me to eat leeks, to appreciate the imprecise recipes of her delicious baking, to drink dry & sweet vermouth (“mormor’s blandning“), and to listen to stories.

Ingrid (Inga) was the oldest person I knew, and one of the happiest.  She inspired me to embrace my culture and to sing even when I didn’t know the words.  (She herself was a fearless singer, and always knew the lyrics and the melody.)

She drove her own car until she had a series of strokes at age 95, but continued to live on her own well past the century mark.  Every summer, she made the pilgrimage from Jönkoping or Linköping to the west coast where the family maintains a house on Särdal strand (near the medieval city of Halmstad), taking up residence in her “apartment” while the rest of the family took turns crashing in the other bedrooms and sleep spaces.

It was her absence from the beach house these past two summers that told us she was truly slowing down.  It wasn’t the arthritis or the deafness or anything in particular.  It was just age. She was older than God. She outlived a husband and her youngest daughter.

Despite the immense love and light and energy and support of all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Inga simply drained her batteries. She’d reached the end today, and passed away, attended by her first-born son and a respectful coterie of relations.

I knew this woman for my whole life — more than half a century. But her favorite story about me comes from my first visit to Sweden, when I was about 4 years old.

Like many other children, I fell in love with the hampis — the stone quay that lies a short walk from the beach house.  The granite blocks of the hampis create  tide pools where you can fish for crabs using the time-honored technique of a bit of scrap fish and some string. I spent significant portions of my mornings filling up a plastic bucket with the tiny crabs, which mormor would then cook with mounds of fresh dill.  Hardly enough to eat, but that didn’t seem to matter.

On the day of our return flight, my parents called us down to breakfast and told us we were leaving.  According to mormor, I refused. “No!”  We could go home anytime, I said, but today we are fishing for crabs.

She always laughed when she told that story, and eventually I stopped being embarrassed when I heard it.

I have visited that beach many times since,  eventually bringing my fiancée, and then my daughter, Lilly-Karin — her namesake.

The next time we visit that beach, I suspect we will fish for crabs. And remember my mentor.

Photo credit: Anna Dandenell

Mormor Inga

Cherish your mentors – Part 1

Carolyn See, Ph.D., died on July 13, 2106.  That bastard cancer struck her down at 82. (For a more official appreciation, you can read Mary Rourke’s column in  The Los Angeles Times. This is my bit.)

Carolyn was a quintessential California writer, a literary sidhe of Topanga Canyon, and she was the first mentor who took me seriously, and more importantly, forced me to take myself seriously.  She stood at the front of a creative writing course at Loyola Marymount University and said “Oh my dear” — her students were all “dear ones” — “you can do better than this.”

She introduced me to the 1,000 words a day or 2 hours of editing rule.  She taught about the value of villains, of finding characters in the every day, and Getting It Done.

She told her students to write thank you notes to editors, even when they reject you.  She encouraged us to go to book launches, and even slipped us the occasional $20 if we couldn’t afford the hard cover.

When I was a struggling, unfocused underclassman at LMU, Carolyn gently pushed me to apply to the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.  Unbeknownst to me, she also submitted one of my stories to John Rechy, one of the writers in residence.  I don’t remember the exact cover note, but it basically said, “Keep an eye on this one.” (To this day, I’m not sure if she meant “encourage this guy” or “this one is trouble.” Probably both.)

John Rechy returned the story to me —with a wink — during my first graduate seminar.  He eventually became my thesis advisor, despite his acknowledgement that he “didn’t do ‘fantastic fiction.’ ” (That was a polite lie.  He wrote amazing literary fiction, but not science fiction or fantasy.)

After I graduated, I kept in touch with Carolyn, and had the delightful experience of transcribing the first chapters of her collaborative novel Lotus Land (written with long-time partner John Espey and daughter Lisa See).  I will always cherish the memory of sitting at Lisa’s house, typing up the hand-written drafts.  I’d never seen writers actually write before.  It was alchemy.

Over the years, Carolyn and I met occasionally when she passed through town on a promotional tour, and she was a tireless supporter of my fiction, always ready to give me firm but gentle feedback on my writing.   She also gave me valuable advice during my brief tenure as an English teacher.

Her notes and book inscriptions often included the phrase, “To Karl, my almost-son.”

Goodbye, almost-mother.  And thank you.



The tribe grows – Paradise Lost VI

I’m back from the latest meeting of Word Tribe, and of course, I’m a bit late posting this.  Normally I rake together some thoughts at the airport, but thanks to an extended game of Flight Cancellation and Rescheduling, I didn’t make it home until late, and then the whole Work Thing grabbed my brain and refused to give it back.

Not that I feel any rancor toward Southwest.  Their service and spunky attitude have made air travel almost bearable for many years, and will do so in the future.  This time, however, they had to take a jet out of rotation for mechanical issues, and the resulting schedule shakeup reminded me of a bad French farce.

So… Paradise Lost VI.

I came armed with a humorous submission story (“Phunny Phantasy” as one instructor described it), 2 bottles of Hanger One vodka, and a sample of St. George absinthe.  Yeah, it’s that kind of weekend.

My critique group (A – The Awesome) consisted of two pros (Walter Jon Williams and Fran Wilde), plus 7 students.  Why the organizer assigned me to Mr. Williams after the infamous limoncello spit take, I can only guess.  Still, the pros and the students all had very positive reactions to my story, and there was universal agreement that the ending… didn’t deliver.

At least I know what I have to fix.

We also had a second critique group B (aka The Heathens) run by pros Ken Scholes and Jaye Wells.  I hadn’t met either of them before this event, and both gave excellent lectures on issues ranging from Managing Your Muse to Mastering the Scene.

(Ken, it should be noted, gives off the vibe of a jongleur, but in reality he’s an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion.  And his novel Lamentations is turning out to be ridiculously good.)

Paradise Lost has become annual meeting of The Tribes – Codex and Taos Toolbox and Viable Paradise were all represented.  I was jazzed to see three four other alumni from my own class at VP16 – Fighting Fire Wombats.

In addition to the usual critiques and lectures, we had our open social time, which consisted of booze, chocolate, Cards Against Humanity, bawdy songs, more booze, dramatic readings of appallingly bad porn, and general commiseration about parenting, writing, editors, and the state of democracy.

I added new friends to my social media, new writers to my TBR lists, and recharged my hug battery.  It has to last until new year, after all, when Paradise Lost VII invades San Antonio agin, bringing another bunch of folks together to revel in that thing we call genre writing.

You folks are the best.

With gratitude,



Paradise Lost VI – The Unusual Suspects

“Packrat Machine” is now archived

Get it while it’s hot – “Packrat Machine” is now live archived at Perihelion SF. (Download: packrat-machine.pdf) (The original title was “The Packrat Machine,” but the editor prefers not to begin story titles with that particular definitive article, so there you are.)

I’ve already talked about the challenges I faced in this story’s exposition here.

For now, I’ll just say that this story wandered the desert for quite a few years, and I’m happy it’s found a home.  Early reader responses have been very positive.

It was a fun story to write, and a bear to edit.  Enjoy!

2015 reading: thoughts

I read a lot of books in 2015, according to Goodreads.  How many? 56.  And that number doesn’t take into account keeping up with Daily Science Fiction, the odd issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and all my slush reading for Flash Fiction Online.

For a complete list, go here.

How did I manage this?  There was no magic method, no secret speed-reading technique.  Simply put, I was not, ah, gainfully employed from January through April-ish.  I looked for work, and did lots of Reality Maintenance™, but gave myself long lunches with a book, an iPad, or the laptop. I’d like to think that much of that reading kept me sane.

Last year’s books covered a wide spectrum:

Short and long:

  • 181 pages – The Ocean at the End of the Lane (by Neil Gaiman)
  • 880 pages (!) – Seveneves by (Neal Stephenson – of course)

Slightly obscure and super popular:

  • Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple by Kaoru Nonomura
  • The Martian by Andy Weir

Series (in no particular order):

  • California Bones, Pacific Fire, Dragon Coast by Greg Van Eekhout
  • Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars & Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear
  • War Dogs & Killing Titan by Greg Bear
  • Ancilliary Sword & Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  • Blightborn & The Harvest by Chuck Wendig
  • Blackbirds & Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
  • The Blue Blazes & The Hellsblood Bride by Chuck Wendig
  • The Trials & Going Dark by Linda Nagata
  • Inferno & Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • The Just City & The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton
  • Terms of Enlistment, Lines of Departure & Angles of Attack by Marko Kloos

First novels:

  • Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
  • Updraft by Fran Wilde
  • Letters to Zell by Camille Griep
  • Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo
  • Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennet
  • The Saffron Crocus by Alison McMahan

I am also happy to note that a whopping 44 of the 56 books on my total list were written by people I’ve met through Viable Paradise, Paradise Lost, and the Science Fiction Writers of America.

For the first time in many years, I found myself pre-ordering books, buying new e-books as they dropped, and attending author events because I couldn’t wait for the paperback or library copy.

The quality of the words last year: very, very high.  I think I abandoned one, perhaps two novels that just didn’t work for me, but overall I found myself appreciating the books, if not outright loving them.  (I also wonder when the hell I’ll find time to go back for a proper re-read, but that’s another blog post.)

Of course, in addition to filling my brain with all those wonderful characters and stories, those 56 books will spur on my own writing.  That’s a win-win.

This year: I’m working again, so we’ll shoot for 45 books.  And a few more sales.

Winning NaNoWriMo, sort of

Last year – 2014 – I jumped into the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) pool for the first time, and promptly pulled myself out after a serious cramp.  My favorite aunt had just died from cancer and the grief process was too strong.  Every time I sat down at the desk I was either overwhelmed by tears or paralyzed by the dread Inner Editor.  (It also didn’t help that I was  pretty bruised from a series of employment setbacks.)

Total word count: 3400.

This year I wanted to try again.  While I didn’t have a strong outline for a novel, I did have plenty of rough story drafts and writing prompts clogging up my hard drive.  So I set the goal of finishing/revising 5 short stories so I could fill the hopper on my personal Submission Machine.

I also had a SECRET GOAL.

November came and went, and I wrote.  And edited.  And struggled.  Business as usual.  There were also  mundane reality challenges : short project deadlines at work, my mother celebrated a Significant Birthday,  a house guest, plus the whole Thanksgiving thing.  (Suggestion: can’t we move NaNoWriMo to some dead month, like March?)

Total word count – 19,303 words.  ALMOST 20K.  Not even CLOSE to 50K.

Did I finish 5 stories? Again, ALMOST. I worked on 6 stories, overall. Four are basically finished.  All need revision.

However, I completed my SECRET GOAL.

I wrote EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Not a lot.  Some days it was only a few lines, or perhaps a paragraph.  But I carried my laptop with me everywhere, and found some mental space to be a writer.

It’s hard to admit, but it’s the longest stretch I’ve ever managed. 30 days.

Did I win NaNoWriMo? Yeah, I think I did.  Next year might be even better.

Whatever the outcome, I couldn’t have done it without my tribe.  Thank you.

Viable Paradise redux: Burden of Exposition

Three years I attended the week-long bootcamp/spiritual pummeling/lovefest known as Viable Paradise.  If you’re a serious genre writer, or simply looking for your tribe, check them out.

Several of our instructors discussed the special challenge faced by SF/F writers: how much exposition is necessary to create the world?  More importantly, how much is too much?  They referred to this as the burden of exposition.  For every cool technology, language, ritual, gender, and dinner item that you invent for your story, there is a corresponding weight for your reader.  They have to carry that around in their mental backpack  as they traverse the landscape of your tale.  After a while, that backpack is going to get heavy.  When it’s heavy, it’s distracting.

I had a trunk story that I revised after VP.  It was a Jack Vance-inspired story, set in a far future Earth where garbage men were priests, and hereditary Princes ruled absolutely, surrounded by Official Toadies.  I filled it with all sorts of weird world building because hey, I was having fun.

However, the story was too long.  I needed to bring it in at 5000 words.  I needed to lose at least one scene, and a lot of description.  I really fought through those edits, since I was worried that the readers wouldn’t appreciate the story I didn’t provide context for everything.

Wrong. Readers are “extrapolating machines” (Therese Hayden Smith).  Give them enough clues, and they’ll usually figure it out.

Once I embraced this principle, I carved away enough words to meet the editor’s requirement.   The end result wasn’t my original vision, but it got the job done.  And I still liked it.

So did the editor at Perihelion SF.  In his acceptance letter, he wrote:

I’m sort of glad you  didn’t make any attempt whatsoever to explain how that society came to be. That would be unnecessarily confusing and probably elicit an immediate rejection.

So when you’re asking the reader to carry all your Cool Details, choose wisely.

Online Rules of Engagement – updated

(Given all the recent kerfuffles, I thought it was time to update folks on discussion decorum)


When a person or organization commits an act that you find morally reprehensible (e.g., kills lion on illegal safari, refuses to serve same-sex couple in restaurant, shoots unarmed teenager), please follow these practices:

1) Take a breath.  Do not immediately sign every online petition to close the offender’s business/school/church.

2) Get the facts.  Verify news sources.  Suspect anything from Fox.

3) Do not dox the offender.  (Doxxing is defined as publishing another person’s private contact information such as phone numbers, addresses, family members, and so on.)

4) Do not become a vigilante.  You are not Batman.

5) Spend your money at a high level.  Donate to recognized organizations that help large numbers of people/animals without regard to nationality or religious affiliation  (e.g., Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Fund).

6) Act locally.  Offer to help rebuild the school, house the displaced, feed the unemployed.

7) Focus your anger.  WRITE LETTERS.  Engage elected representatives.  Explore legal avenues.  Seek justice rather than revenge (see Rule 4 above).

8) Avoid trolls. You’ll never win.

9) Practice compassion in all things.

Thank you.

Brain, please pick up the white courtesy phone

It’s late afternoon on Sunday of the Nebula Awards@ weekend, and I’m in that familiar fuzzy state.  Hello brain, are you there?  It’s me, Karl.

First off, I want to thank the tireless efforts of all the staff and volunteers who made this weekend run very smoothly.  Second, congratulations to all the winners and nominees.  So many good stories that represent the best of the field, and nary a whiff of unwashed puppies among them.

I commend the choice of Nick Offerman, who, as toastmaster/emcee, channeled some seriously funny and foul-mouthed riffs.  Who knew the guy could write and sing?  And was a huge SF nut?  Next year will be fun as well, I suspect.  The emcee hasn’t been announced, but I heard good things this morning….

Attending this sorts of gathering is always a bit of a challenge.  As much as I love SF, I have to work against my natural inclination to cling to the shadows in the presence of Very Important People.  Just look at what they’ve done!  What amazing books!  Such insightful criticisms!  And here I am, sweating to put words on the screen. So I screw my courage to the sticking place, ask for an autograph, or raise my hand in a panel, or take the last seat at the dinner table.

And I lived through it.  And managed to have reasonably articulate conversations. Wow.

When you listen to the officers at SFWA, the core message is pretty simple: We’re all in this boat together. We are artists, and affiliates, and consumers. We all depend on each other.

On a personal note, I am always so impressed and delighted at the courtesy and respect that the seasoned pros show to the fans and the other writers.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a Grand Master, or just had your first pro sale.  You’re part of the big SF family. Welcome.




Two stars and counting

It feels like I haven’t stopped since returning from San Antonio and the brilliant, warm, and definitely fuzzy Paradise Lost . Between commuting to a regular full-time job and helping my daughter build her tinkering project (a go kart), there hasn’t been much time for anything else except for sleep and reading the occasional chapter on the iPad.

I had signed up for Paradise Lost 5 as soon as the Master of Mischief Sean Kelley opened the registration, but hesitated about the trip due to my shaky employment.  Fortunately, I was able to cash in Southwest Airlines points for transportation and split a large hotel room with the droll Tim Keating, so my cash outlay wasn’t as painful as it might have been.

Big thanks to Tim, by the way,  for introducing me to the Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre, where we watched Avengers: Age of Ultron in comfy seats and full meal service.

I am extremely grateful for the kind and insightful words of my instructors, Chuck Wendig, Delilah S. Dawson, and Robert Jackson Bennett.  Thanks to them, I hope to kickstart some stalled projects and get more stories out into the market. (I also added three more authors to add to my Goodreads lists.  Such problems!)

The event attracted nearly 30 people this year, and that’s definitely pushing the envelope.  It was nearly impossible to find time to catch up with old friends, let alone make new ones.

These folks are good writers, and good people.  They tolerate my pent-up energy and too-fast talking when I drink craft vodka and play Cards Against Humanity.  They laugh at my jokes.  They appreciate my writing.  They also tell me how to make it better. They listen.  They make me listen.

As a final bonus, my new company, Kyocera, observed Golden Week (a Japanese holiday) during this time, so I didn’t have to worry about interrupting any projects.  If my job is still around next year, I’m hoping the company closure will coincide with Paradise Lost 6, because I really want to make this an annual pilgrimage.

As a two-time attendee of Paradise Lost, I had 2 stars on my name tag.  Why not go for 3?

Paradise Lost 5 alumni

Paradise Lost 5 alumni

Now I really must get back to reading The Goblin Emperor before I crash.