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Nebula Weekend 2: Mentoring, Awards, and Bronchitis, Oh My

In which our Hero wrestles with Imposter Syndrome and Reconnects with Old Friends

Day 2 of the Nebula Weekend found me joining a host of brave volunteers for the second part of the Mentor Meetup. I was assigned two bright-eyed new writers and given 50 minutes to impart All The Wisdom. Poor kids. I opened the tap full blast, and between coughing fits, challenged them to attend a serious workshop (hello, Viable Paradise!), find tough beta readers, create a process, abandon the process, and overall keep the faith. This is art, dammit. No actual egos were harmed. I think.

I also sat in at the usual SFWA Business Meeting, which was much improved by the presence of Aliza Greenblatt, fellow VP16 alum and freaking Nebula-nominated person. (Sadly, she didn’t win, but I cannot believe this will be her only time on the ballot.)

For the afternoon, I caught a quick nap, hoping to quell my symptoms, and then did a couple of hours of KP duty in the Hospitality Suite, where I met more cool people and got to listen to John Scalzi’s philosophy on burritos (he’s a descriptivist, rather than a prescriptivist). He also confirmed the story of how he wrote The Consuming Fire in 2 weeks. Seriously.

Friday night was dinner with fellow writer and all-around good person, Rosemary Smith, purveyor of quality dinosaur stories. Rosemary helped me beta test Write Here, Write Now in Baltimore two weeks prior.

Saturday was full of special writer goodness. I attended the interview with this year’s Grand Master recipient, William Gibson, who related some pretty funny stories about his brief time as a screenwriter, and the fact that his last novel had to be completely torn down and rebuilt due to the timeline disruption caused by the 2016 elections. Later that afternoon, I helped schlep camera gear for the official photographer (the great Richard Man), who used me as a proxy for Mr. Gibson so the Grand Master didn’t have to wait while lights were calibrated. Turns out he and I share a similar build and hairline, although he’s a tad taller.

The Mass Autographing event gave me an opportunity to get books signed by William Gibson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Derek Künsken, Sam J. Miller, and Fran Wilde. I’m happy to report that Mary Robinette’s novel, The Calculating Stars, won the Nebula award for Best Novel later that evening.

My table at the Nebula Awards banquet ended up being relatively close to the stage, so I had a good view of the actual proceedings (although two excellent video screens provided full coverage). My table companions included another Viable Paradise alum (Aimee Picchi), a seasoned pro (Jeffrey A. Carver), and other volunteers, partners, and even a freshly minted writer who’d never attended any event before. Good on him. I don’t think I’d be that brave.

The awards featured a new category, game writing, which was very popular, and plenty of quality contenders for the usual fiction (short, novella, novelette, and novel). Happy to say that many works I read and enjoyed ended up on the ballot and a few of them even won.

I was too tired to attend any of the after parties, so retreated to my room for some light reading and much-needed sleep.

Sunday started off with a (slightly delayed) volunteer breakfast. This was Cat Rambo’s last year as SFWA’s President, and she graciously thanked us all for the continuing spirit of paying it forward. I got in a few more panels, including a thought-provoking discussion on gender and writing (with Futurescapes buddy Jordan Kurella), and listened with great amusement as several pros described their various personal writing habits and hacks. Some good ideas there.

My best friend Dan Malcor (with his new love, Cora) came up from Orange County to transport me back to the airport. Since we had a few hours, we decided to do a spontaneous trip to the Getty Museum. This branch of the museum wasn’t open when I last lived in Los Angeles, so it was a real treat. The weather was nearly perfect, and the view from the upper deck showed the Valley in all its springtime glory:

LA as seen from Getty Museum

Getty looking south

Due to the recent rains, the main gardens were closed, but the exhibits were open. We had a lovely time, and found this one example that we promptly dubbed, “Dude Christ”:

Casual Jesus portrait

The Savior Abides

Karl, Dan, and Cora

I get cultural with Dan and Cora

Eventually we had to trek back over the hills to Burbank, where a very late, very full flight brought me home. It’s a good thing I had upgraded my seating earlier, because even boarding early (in the rain!) I could barely manage to get my carry-on into the overhead bins. Very grateful the actual flight time was barely an hour.

Monday – ugh. Back at work, coughing. Less said, the better.

There were many other people I wish to thank for a great, affirming weekend, but I can’t remember them at the moment. You know who you are. I’ll buy you an absinthe next time we met.

Nebula Weekend 1: Space!

The 2019 Nebulas arrived at an interesting confluence of mundane reality — I was just coming off my Write Here, Write Now weekend in Baltimore, still dealing with bronchitis, and trying to change my contract to a new company so I could keep my current job (and applying for the same job as a full-time employee). It’s complicated.

Because I didn’t have any vacation time (the life of the contractor), I worked until the last minute, and picked up an early flight from Oakland to Burbank. However, what should have been a one-hour hop turned into something more due to unseasonable storm activity. The airline topped off the plane’s fuel in case we had to re-route, but the flight was overbooked, which meant they now had a very full, very heavy aircraft. The solution? Shunt the last-minute ticket purchasers (and their luggage) to another flight.

So I arrived later than I wanted, and took my carry-on to the shuttle to the hotel in Woodland Hills. Due to the nature of LA traffic, we used rough city streets rather than the freeway, and the driver had his phone set to squawk like a startled parrot every time he received a text.

He got a lot of texts.

My room wasn’t ready at the hotel, despite promises of early arrival, so I registered and picked up the bulging Bag o’ Books that comes with the conference. So many excellent and interesting things to read! I ended up storing my luggage (and my medication — oops) with the front desk because I had to meet up with my tour group for Space X.

Thanks to some local connections, the conference had organized a tour of SpaceX for some of the volunteers, and my name was picked. It meant a long drive through fabled LA traffic (which could have been much worse, to be honest) but we arrived with time to spare. (Unlike the second group, which took an Uber that apparently disagreed with Google Maps and got lost in a parking lot.)

You can’t take photos inside SpaceX, although they have one of their Falcon boosters in the parking lot for selfies. (Named after the Millenium Falcon. Of course.)

Inside the facility, there were fanciful travel posters for alien worlds, movie props (a suit from Iron Man 2) and more flat panels displays than a Las Vegas trade show.

There were also rockets. Engines, fairings, frameworks, nuts and bolts and strange valves, many of which were printed on site.

I was surprised that only a small portion of the shop floor was set aside as clean room space (for the Dragon capsules). Most of the heavy assembly took part in the open, much like the repair section of a high-end car dealership. The tour guide took us through a clearly delineated path, but you could literally reach out (past the safety rope) and touch an engine that might one day boost a satellite into orbit, or lift an astronaut to the ISS.

For me, SpaceX felt more like a big software company that also played with big hardware. The vibe was intense, but friendly, and there was a familiar tribal energy of We’re Doing The Cool Thing.

It wasn’t all geekery. The astronaut liaison related the story of her meeting with families of the test pilots. When one boy told her to “take care of his daddy” she recognized the heavy responsibility that she and the other employees shared. If they didn’t do their jobs well, people could die. It was sobering.

Elon Musk is doing some interesting projects in the world (tunnels? really?), but I truly hope that this venture succeeds. We really do need to get people off the planet, and it’s groups like this that are going to do it. Also, having cheaper worldwide internet service wouldn’t hurt.

Write Here, Write Now 2019

Write Here, Write Now name button for Karl, Benevolent Overlord

DIY fancy buttons

I recently returned from Baltimore, where I hosted my first writing retreat weekend, Write Here, Write Now. After a long absence from my tribe, and the hiatus of Paradise Lost, I decided to put together my own getaway.

As you might imagine, it turned out to be a complicated enterprise, given that my job was in chaos, my father’s health was in decline, and I didn’t rope in any help apart from reaching out to folks about local options.

My writing community is spread out from western Canada to Florida, so I ran a series of surveys to get buy in on location, activities, available hotels, and budget. In the end, Baltimore edged out Chicago for both number of potential attendees and hotel prices. (San Diego was also a strong contender but hotels were crazy expense in late April/early May.) I did manage to convince the nice people at Hilton that WHWN 2019 was a legitimate business meeting, and thus shaved a few bucks off their best published rate.

In the end, we had 11 confirmed attendees plus a potential cameo or two. That many people didn’t quite fit into the Benevolent Overlord Suite, and we ended up using another room for some of our group activities.

Two of the participants, Gary Henderson and Lauren Roy, were part of my class at Viable Paradise XVI. Lauren and I hadn’t crossed paths since 2012, and it was a joy to see her again.

Unfortunately, I caught a pretty nasty bug (the crud) a few days before the event and was sorely tempted to cancel. Since I owned the weekend, and it was the first time, I didn’t want to disappoint.

Let’s just say the flight there was hellish (ear infections and pressure changes do not mix well).

I was met at the airport by one of my long-time Paradise Lost tribe, and thus was saved the pain of navigating a strange city while exhausted and under the weather.

Most of the mob gathered for a casual dinner on Thursday at Kippo Ramen. I was in the mood for soup and we had not one, but two ramen virgins in our group. We had to go. Excellent food within a short walk from the hotel.

Everything we did was a short walk away. One of our number was very pregnant, and I was sick, so that factored heavily in our plans.

Friday morning I “officially” opened the event, laying out the basic rules, which were basically NO SPOILERS and ASK FIRST BEFORE YOU HUG SOMEONE.

After coffee and carbs — featuring homemade scones from Gary’s talented chef housemate — we split up into writing and critique groups. After lunch, there was more critiquing, then plot breaking. Despite my lack of energy and ragged voice, I enjoyed the back and forth, heard many good ideas, and had a generally fine time.

For dinner, the mob traipsed over to Little Italy, where pasta and excellent cannoli were acquired. After dinner, of course, we met up again for libations and silly games (Flux, Werewolf*, Cards Against Humanity).

For the weekend, I brought Alameda vodka and absinthe, plus Writers’ Tears irish whiskey, and absinthe. Other participants kicked in spirits from Italy, Greece, and plenty of American things. One writer, Shannon, proved to be an excellent mixologist.

Saturday saw more story breaking in the morning and afternoon as people found it useful and brought in more novels to kick around. I took a break and visited a local Minute Clinic, where a very professional Licensed Nurse Practitioner hooked me up with some antibiotics to go with my cornucopia of over the counter meds. (The CVS pharmacy and Whole Foods were located a block from the hotel, which was good news  for everyone.)

Saturday night we ordered in some very good local pizza, then tried our best to empty the bar and talk ourselves hoarse. I think I had an advantage there.

Sunday found us gathering for one last session of plot breaking, conversation, and the breaking of the fellowship. I divested myself of anything that couldn’t be carried on the aircraft, which turned out not to be necessary since an overly full flight meant I had to check my bag anyway.

<How could I forget? We celebrated Cinco de Mayo at a local taco joint that had astonishingly diverse dance music blasting upstairs, plus infomercials and lacrosse playing on competing televisions. Great food, though.>

Folks drove off, leaving my friend Rosie and I chilling in the hotel lobby on a rainy afternoon. She was headed for the train and I had several hours to kill before my flight to Nashville…

…which was rescheduled, forcing me to scramble to make a missed connection. Ironically, I ended up flying to Chicago (where I go frequently to visit my mother-in-law), then back to Oakland. Total travel time > 12 hours.

I splurged on the flight for WiFi and caught up on Game of Thrones and a new Netflix series, Derry Girls. (Yes, I had books to read but my brain just couldn’t.)

All in all, I had a good trip, met some online folks in person, and did the writing thing. I hope that the participants will stay connected and expand the tribe a bit more.

The surveys from the weekend are still trickling in, though the trend is very positive. If my work and family schedule align next year, I might be persuaded to do this again.

"Benevolent Overlord" mug

Mug courtesy of Terri!

*According to our game moderator, we truly sucked at this. The werewolves ate the hell out of the villagers, even after I accidentally outed myself as a shapeshifter.

The Squatter and the Podcast

This past week I hit another milestone: first podcast appearance! I learned about The Word Count podcast through Marie Haskins, whom I met as a fellow contributor to the Abandoned Places anthology.

What is unusual about this podcast is the authors do the primary narration, and the host, the fab RB Wood, adds the intro and writer bios.

Now, I’ve never done this sort of voice work before. I’ve recorded dialog for training software, but never a complete story. This one, “Burial Detail,” runs about 1,000 words, which clocks in just under 7 minutes. I was on deadline, so I did one rehearsal, then recorded it. (In retrospect, I could have practiced more.)

What surprised me most when I listened to the playback was the timbre of my voice. It had gone from “rough baritone” to “broken baritone that really needs to hydrate more.” I’m not a smoker, and I wasn’t sick before the recording. Apart from the normal aging process, the primary alteration to my voice has been come about because of  The Squatter.

You may remember that I had a tumor removed from my sinus back in 2016. It turned out to be more annoying than we first thought, and required a second cleanup surgery. That procedure, while successful, also streamlined my breathing passages.

You’d think that’d be a good thing, right? It is, up to a point. You want the air to flow, but as I’ve learned, you always want a certain rough texture to the sinus cavity to retain moisture. Without the nooks and crannies, the normal mucus just goes where it will, and that means excessive drainage (in certain sleeping positions) and — ironically — drier air. Over time, that continual irritation has changed my voice.

Not many people are thrilled when they hear their own voice via recording as opposed to their own skull. For me, it almost sounds like a stranger.

Not sure if I’ll be looking to do my own readings in the future. With luck and perseverance, I’ll sell to markets that can hire that sort of talent.

I’m okay with that. And I’ll take the hit on my voice over a brain-threatening tumor any day.


2018 reading: some thoughts

I’m finishing up The Golden Compass tonight, and I doubt I’ll get through another book before Jan 1, so it’s time to look back on the year’s reading.

Overall, it was a good year. A very good year. 43 books (with a target of 40, but some of these are pretty short, so I consider it a wash).

According to Goodreads, I awarded 5 stars to 29 books, and 4 stars to another 13. Only one novel, Very Hard Choices, was something of a disappointment and earned 3 stars.

I read from a number of series. Some of my favorites:

  • The Armored Saint (The Sacred Throne) Cole, Myke
  • Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire) Lee, Yoon Ha
  • The Collapsing Empire  (The Interdependency) Scalzi, John
  • Foundryside (Founders) Bennett, Robert Jackson
  • The Moons of Barsk (Barsk) Schoen, Lawrence M.
  • The Lady Astronaut of Mars (Lady Astronaut series) Kowal, Mary Robinette
  • Revenger (Revenger) Reynolds, Alastair
  • Annihilation (Southern Reach) VanderMeer, Jeff
  • The Night Masquerade (Binti) Okorafor, Nnedi
  • All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) – Wells, Martha
  • Hymn: The Final Volume of the Psalms of Isaak – Scholes, Ken
  • The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials) Pullman, Philip

For beautiful prose, check out:

  • In the Vanishers’ Palace – Bodard, Aliette de
  • Forest of Memory  – Kowal, Mary Robinette

Noteworthy standalones:

  • Sea of Rust – Cargill, C. Robert
  • The Prey of Gods – Drayden, Nicky

Weird and wonderful!

  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – Robson, Kelly
  • Blackfish City – Miller, Sam J.
  • Space Opera – Valente, Catherynne

Craft & miscellany:

  • Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative – Wendig, Chuck
  • Roger Zelazny – Krulik, Theodore
  • The Ides of Octember: A Pictorial Bibliography of Roger Zelazny – Kovacs, Christopher

My TBR shelf is still — unsurprisingly – full, and many delights await on my Kindle library as well. I have no doubt next year will be a bounty of favorite authors and new voices.

Looking forward to it.

Winter Solstice 2018 – Writing numbers

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

— Thomas Mann, novelist, Nobel laureate (1875-1955)

The calendar year is almost over, so I’m pretty confident there won’t be any last-minute submission, rejections, or sales. (If a seasonal miracle occurs, I’ll be sure to update this.)

This was a slower year for me, writing-wise. I was very focused on getting a new job (which happened), helping my spouse with her business, and dealing with family drama and new kittens.

Since I sold a decent number of stories last year, the available pool was greatly reduced, and my usual writing getaway didn’t come together. That resulted in fewer new stories seeking their fortunes.

2018 Submission Grinder stats:

New things

  • “The Last Feast of Silas the Wizard” (short)
  • “The Last Good Shoppe” (short)
  • “Jazmin’s Diary” (micro fiction)
  • “Burial Detail” (flash)
  • “Seven Cups of Landfall” (poem!)

Total number of submissions: 18


  • “Just Another Night on Telegraph” – Factor Four Magazine
  • “Supply and Demand Among the Sidhe” –  Strange Economics
  • “The Carpetbaggers Ball” – Stupefying Stories

Pending response: 5 (1 in second review)

Works in progress:

  • Short stories: N + 3
  • Novella: 1

Awards Eligibility 2018

Yes, it’s that time again!

Thanks to the randomness of publication schedules, a lot of my previously contracted work appeared in this calendar cycle. All these stories are eligible for Nebula consideration.

Short fiction (which appeared in three brand new anthologies)

Short fiction (magazines)

That’s all for now. I really must shovel some more words into the Submission Grinder for 2019.

Last of the Gray & White

We never intended to have gray & white cats. Seriously. My spouse is fond of black cats, and I had no real preference. A few years ago, however, we found ourselves in possession of THREE identically decorated beasts. Three? Yes, well, we never intended to have 3 cats, either. Before we embarked on parenthood, I offered my spouse a deal: we could have a child, or we could have a third cat. But not both. Our daughter is now 16. However, what I didn’t factor in my ultimatum were the child’s wishes. Funny how that happens. When Lilly-Karin was in elementary school, she decided that since Mom & Dad each had a cat, she needed one. After some discussion, I capitulated. However, I said we couldn’t get a gray and white one. Our last two acquisitions (from two different shelters) were that color. Enough, I thought. What are the odds? Well, Mr. Lukas came along. He was found by some construction workers and brought to the Oakland shelter. He was a mere wisp of a feline. A tiny ball of gray and white fur. Ha! We fell in love. Little did we know, he was Maine Coon, or possibly a MC and Norwegian Forest Cat mix. In any event, he turned out to be HUGE. So we found ourselves with three. It caused some confusion among the neighbors, who could never really tell just how many cats we add. There was always one prowling the street, or sunbathing in the yard, or running up to greet us. Our middle cat, Ratrani, died in early 2017. Mr. Lukas passed away just after Christmas, leaving us with our matriarch, Elin. Well, that wasn’t sufficient. So by and by we found ourselves with new kittens, Decaf (AKA the Panther) and Cheerios. Back to three. At least this time, we thought, they were distinctive.
Cheerios (front) and Decaf, the new kids
Elin never really connected with the kittens. They were too fast, too feral, and didn’t respect her rights to the couch (and laps) of the humans. Still, she kept her dignity and insisted on directing the house, especially around meal times. This past Thursday, Elin ate breakfast, crawled under my desk, and refused to leave my side for several hours. Around noon, I found her in the kitchen, panting (never a good sign with cats). A quick trip to the ER confirmed that her heart was failing. She passed away soon thereafter, closing the door on our gray and white chapter. I’m sure in some other realm Elin, Ratrani, and Mr. Lukas are sharing a couch, as long as the sun is warm and the humans are nearby.
3 gray cats
Elin (front), Mr. Lukas, and Ratrani (rear)

Back on the clock again

After more than 18 months of actively searching for a new gig, I finally gave notice at Kyocera. My last day was Thursday, October 18, 2018. So I managed three and a half years out in Concord. 

 I had given myself Friday to decompress before starting a new contract on Monday, October 22, at Kaiser Permanente. However, things didn’t work out that way. While there wasn’t any issue with my background check, or my drug screening, or my education reference, the IT group couldn’t commit to completing my account and hardware setup by that date. The slight irony here is that I took a role with Kaiser IT. But hey, everybody takes a number and waits their turn. Especially when you’re a contractor. So they told me to wait. Then they said Wednesday. Then they said I might as well take the weekend and we’ll start fresh on Monday. New week and all, etc. So I ended up with a sort of vacation. Got in some reading, did some house projects. Drafted a new flash piece. I also worried a bit. For reasons:

  • For the first time in four years, I was moving into a completely new role as a contractor, with few benefits and no guarantee of a paycheck. It also meant getting back into the strict 40-hour headspace and showing up at the office every day. All day. And no aloha shirts.I was returning to a company that had downsized me after a lot of turmoil in the department (4 bosses in 13 months) and a general realignment of finances, i.e., reduction of force. Would that count against me?
  • So what am I doing as a Technical Consultant in User Engagement and Enablement? Herding cats, basically. Updating the IT group’s WordPress sites, writing copy, tweaking workflows, doing meetings (lots of those), helping with strategy, advocating for users. You know, general web stuff. If all goes well, the contract will turn into a regular gig. In the meantime, I’m…

    • Figuring out the best configuration of limited parking optionsLooking to take the bus a few days/weekWorking from HOME on Fridays. Huzzah! Seriously, this group likes to be away. They gifted me with a dedicated remote access point so my laptop thinks it’s directly connected to mothership whenever I take it home.Extending my insurance with COBRA because it was actually cheaper than getting coverage from the contracting agency. Jeez.Making myself useful. I brought Finnish chocolate and Swedish tea this week.Dialing down the snark to appropriate levels
    It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure. I have to work in locked-down corporate systems, and security has no sense of humor. Try forgetting your badge or modifying your config files and see what happens. Still, the money will pay the bills for now, my core projects have immediate and obvious goals, and my contributions are improving the bottom line for healthcare. Certainly beats documentation for printer drivers. Oh, and my customers and team members are based in the US. No more late night/early morning conferences with lousy connections to Germany and Japan. That’s an improvement.

    Does this mean I can’t decorate my cubicle with swords?

    It’s the story, stupid

    I had a pile of laundry to iron the other night, so I fired up Solo (A Star Wars Story). It was one of those films I wanted to see, but didn’t manage to catch it in the theatre.

    After an hour, I finished the laundry. And then I turned off the movie.

    More to the point, I switched over to a BBC nature documentary, which had maybe 5% of Solo‘s shooting budget but a much more compelling set of characters. And story.

    There’s the rub.

    Solo isn’t a bad movie, but it didn’t engage me. It certainly didn’t pack the punch of Rogue One, which had a set of (mostly) unknown characters and a we-knew-it-was-coming ending. We all went along with the ride since it was a ride. The characters had agency, they had conflict, they had cool stuff to do.

    In contrast, Solo started with a vehicle chase, shoved in some quick background, attached another vehicle chase, then quickly flittered to war scene/montage/introduction of cool kids and THEN A TRAIN ROBBERY.

    How exciting.

    I didn’t care. And I was annoyed at the level of expository dialog that felt like the writers (and I’m sure there were many) were checking all the Star Wars boxes:

    • Solo wants to be a pilot
    • Solo does the “thermal detonator” trick
    • Chewbacca needs a nickname. Why not “Chewie”?
    • The Millenium Falcon is won in a card game. Or is it?
    • There’s a Kessel run.
    • Et cetera.

    Two of the most interesting characters were killed early in the process, leaving some rather second-string folks to carry the show. (Okay, I’ll give props to Donald Glover for his turn as Lando Calrissian. But poor Paul Bettany – someone told him to BE EVIL, OKAY?)

    I didn’t read reviews beforehand, or troll the film blogs, and perhaps that was a mistake. If I had known about the director swap, the rewrites, and the reshoots, I probably would have set my expectations accordingly. As it was, I thought I was going to get a high-quality popcorn flick that played off my nostalgia and (maybe) brought something new to the table.


    The takeaway for me is focus in storytelling. Pick an angle, a theme, a character. Run with those. Give your audience something to care about, and then drag them along. Hell, they’ll come willingly.

    Second, don’t be afraid to walk away when it doesn’t deliver. The BBC is always there with life and death struggles of snow leopards in the Himalayas.