Factory Settings

“Eliza, your mother needs to be changed,” David yelled across the classroom.

Six-year-old Eliza threw her multi-colored blocks at the tower she had been creating. The mini architectural masterpiece flew into pieces, adding to the mess of toys already on the floor.

“Already? I just changed her!” She tossed her head back dramatically and stomped over to the corner where the parents were watching a Disney movie.

David was used to the theatrics of the children. But he was finding it hard to get used to babying the grownups. It had only been a week since adults all over the country had started reverting to the mental state of infants. Right now he was helping a couple of his kindergarten students feed snacks to their parents. They spit most of it out, whining at the fresh veggie sticks more than their children did.

“This will make you grow big and strong, Dad,” tiny Claire told the large truck driver wedged half under the rainbow kiddie table. A carrot went flying into the DVD player across the room. The Beast and Belle stopped dancing as the DVD ejected. Deep-voiced wails erupted from the crowd that had been contentedly watching.

“No, Daddy, we don’t throw things!” Claire scurried to the TV and pushed the DVD back in. A few parents continued to sniff to themselves, but most were quieted by the flash of colors on the screen.

“Open wide for the airplane!” David made whooshing noises and flew some broccoli through the air for the benefit of a skeptical mother. Her low-cut dresses no longer aroused the same feelings in him that they had a few weeks ago. “If you finish this last broccoli, you can go watch the movie with the others.”

She scowled at the offensive vegetable, no comprehension showing in her eyes. Just yesterday she had been able to follow simple directions. They were getting worse. David sighed and sent the rest of the holdouts to sit in front of the TV.

“But they didn’t eat it all. It’s not fair!” Michael always made a fuss about vegetables and David always told him they had to finish everything before they could go play.

“And when you’re an adult, you can decide what you eat, too.” It was all too much. David flipped the switch on the wall near the door and watched the kids curl up with their parents in front of the movie. Like magic.

He tiptoed to the bathroom at the back of the room. A tall cabinet full of cleaning supplies and extra pants (accidents happen) stood in the corner next to the diminutive urinals. David had recently stocked it with adult diapers from the store down the street. Though money had always been tight, he didn’t mind picking up the supplies. There was no paying for things these days. There weren’t many people left who knew enough to care about money.

A pyramid of toilet paper rolls hid David’s bag, out of reach on the top of the cabinet. He pulled it down and fumbled inside for the bottle. Drinking on the job wasn’t allowed, of course. But his boss was sitting on the ABC rug with her finger up her nose, so what did it matter?

He gulped a mouthful and grimaced. Yuck! He wasn’t much of a drinker. But there was something about going out and picking up diapers for 40 year-olds that made David grab the vodka as well.

He wrinkled his nose at the liquid sloshing inside before screwing on the lid. It would be there later.

He wondered if there was time to nap a little before the movie ended. This was his first time being surrounded by people who needed constant care 24 hours a day. It was exhausting. Before this all began, whatever this was, the kids were gone by 4:00. But for the last few days, he was all they had. He had hardly had any time to himself since.

The first couple of days Miss Abner from across the hall had helped. But now David had to take care of her students and their parents in addition to his own while she tried to put her foot in her mouth.

He decided against the nap and sat with his legs crossed on the cold tile opposite the propped-open door. His thumb slid to the corner of his mouth as he leaned his head against the wall and started to nod off. He was so sleepy.

David’s mouth stretched in a gaping yawn as the characters sang the closing number. He shook the fuzz from his brain and stood. He’d forgotten how good that movie was. They could watch it again later. On with the lights.

“Who wants to go outside and play?”

A chorus of “I do” answered. The kids grabbed their parents’ hands—a built-in buddy system. At least now he didn’t have to hear them whine about their buddies any more. They walked down the empty halls together, their footsteps echoing in the abandoned classrooms. David felt the absence of the other adults and students like a weight. For all he knew, he was the last man on earth. The last who could write his name, anyway.

Outside was sweltering. David didn’t like the hot. He wanted to go inside and rest. But it was good for the students and their parents to get some fresh air. The kids ran to the swings and slides and seesaws, leaving their parents standing in the middle of the yard with their fingers in their mouths.

David wanted to play, too. He knew he should wait his turn, but he really wanted to swing. So when Michael got off he jumped the line and started pumping.

“Hey!” someone yelled.

Yeah, David was being a bad boy. He should get off and let someone else have a turn. When the swing reached its apex, he leapt into the air. His legs collapsed when he hit the ground, sending a shock through his shins.

“Ooouuuchie!”

The kids were staring now. He didn’t like it when they stared. And his leg really hurt. And it was hot. And he was sleepy. He didn’t like it! He ran through the gate, away from the playground. Outside, his foot slipped over the curb and he crashed to the ground. He jumped up and brushed the gravel from his knees. His hand came away hot and sticky. That was it. David sat down in the middle of the road and began to cry.

Advertisements

Top Books That Inspire Me

I have been inspired by a lot of books. The stories, the worlds, the characters, the writing, the themes, the tones. It was a struggle to narrow it down to ten, but I think this list represents where I’ve most drawn inspiration as a writer and a person (please don’t be scared by that last part). A lot of them are classics, but a number of classics are classics for a reason. While conventions in writing change over time, these books have stuck around because they tap into something universal.

  1. A Wild Sheep Chase: Haruki Murakami

When people talk about Murakami, they often start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And that’s the first book of his I read. It was weird and wonderful, like most of his stuff. But it is very long, mostly because it goes off the rails into incoherent rambling at regular intervals. A Wild Sheep Chase is just as strange and beautiful, but the narrative is far tighter. I read this book in college, before I knew of weird fiction as a genre, and was immediately captivated by this trippy world. I couldn’t get enough.

  1. Pandemonium: Daryl Gregory

This book made me think more about the nature of good and evil and heroes and villains than any I’ve read in recent memory. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Go read it and see why.

  1. American Gods: Neil Gaiman

This is the first gritty retelling of ancient mythology I ever read. It excels on so many levels at bringing the ancient world into the present. And the fact that much of it takes place in Wisconsin doesn’t hurt either.

  1. The Old Man and the Sea: Ernest Hemingway

Every last word in this novella pulls its weight. The skill it takes to write a story where each sentence contains exactly what it needs and nothing else astounds me. This man was a superstar.

  1. Perdido Street Station: China Mieville

I’ve talked about how revolutionary I found this book to be when I first read it. For the first time, I found the chaos in my mind mirrored on the page. I can’t oversell how important that was to me.

  1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll

If you’re following along, you may have noticed that most of these books are supremely weird. How could you read this book and not want to find your way to Wonderland? I’ve been looking for it ever since.

  1. Wuthering Heights: Emily Bronte

I’m not a very sentimental person, much to the disappointment of my family. But this book made me feel. So many feels.

  1. The Tell-Tale Heart: Edgar Allan Poe

It’s hard to choose just one Poe story. He changed the face of literature. And as unflattering as it may be in many ways, I’ve always felt we were kindred spirits.

  1. Something Wicked This Way Comes: Ray Bradbury

This novel reads as a love letter to the night. And the night is where I feel most at home. I even wrote a book about it.

  1. Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Brothers Grimm

Isn’t this the first exposure to storytelling for most of us? And then when we find the horrifying truth in the original stories, it only gets better. There’s so much here to be inspired by. I’m still reading through these stories and I keep finding (forgive the pun) grim truths.

Honorable mentions:

I’ve talked about Sabriel by Garth Nix before. It made me think differently about the afterlife—a topic that still fascinates me. The Pearl of the Soul of the World by Meredith Ann Pierce taught me that not all love stories can, or should, end in a happily ever after. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole taught me the joy of a repulsive protagonist. These are all things that seem to keep finding their way into my writing.

Railsea

Railsea by China Mieville is about a boy who finds himself on a moletrain after his guardians find him a job as a doctor’s assistant. He joins the crew in their hunts of the giant burrowing mammals in a world where the trains cross the treacherous land via tangled rail lines much the same way ships cross the sea. Then he finds a photo buried by long-dead explorers under a wreck. Pirates, armies, and opportunists chase after him as he searches for the impossible—a single rail stretching from the throng of lines that are the railsea, leading to a land that exists only as legend.

I loved this book. I mean, I love most of Mieville’s stuff, but I was not expecting this to be so much fun. It’s a reimagining of Moby Dick (with a great white moldywarpe as an adversary), and while Moby Dick is many things, fun is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. But this is not just a book about obsession and adventure on the high rails, it’s also about a boy growing up and finding who he is and confronting the accepted narrative of his world.

The protagonist was a little irritating at the beginning, but he soon grew into an interesting and sympathetic character. The other characters were a delight, but we never really got to know them on more than a surface level, which was a shame because I bet they had some great stories to tell. Railsea itself was wonderful at every turn, with its predatory burrowing creatures and landlocked islands and train-faring folk.

After making it through Embassytown, which was thought-provoking but belabored, this was an utter joy. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good adventure. 4 stars

Violin Lessons

I told you I’d keep you updated on how the violin lessons were going. They aren’t. I loved learning the violin. It did not love me, but that’s hardly inconsistent with my reception by, well, anything. But I digress. I went to lessons once a week. However, every time I went, I had already forgotten what I had learned the time before and had to start over from the beginning. Holding the bow correctly is really hard, BTW.

The problem is that in Japan, most apartments do not allow residents to play instruments. So I had no way to practice between lessons. So Husband and I decided to move to an apartment that allows instruments. Yes, I decided to lose our deposit by breaking our lease on our current apartment,  pay gift money to a new landlord (that is a thing in Japan, and it is a very annoying thing), and pay an additional, non-refundable deposit on a new apartment, all so I could learn the violin. And let’s not even mention how expensive it is to actually buy a violin.

Japan, however, had other ideas. Every real estate office we walked into laughed at us when we told them we were looking for an apartment where you can play instruments. If you want to do that, apparently you have to just buy the property outright or pay a ridiculous amount in rent (and be decidedly not walking distance from the station).

So we quit our music lessons (Husband had started to learn the cello). It just didn’t make sense to be spending so much money and making so little progress.

Instead, we decided to get a cat! Cat is a hobby, right? But we ran into the same problem with cats as we did with musical instruments. Japanese landlords hate cats. Most don’t allow them, and if they do, you have to pay double the ridiculous, non-refundable deposit.

And as it happens, everyone and their brother is moving right now in Japan. Not only do new jobs and school years start in April, but a major apartment company just revealed that many of their buildings are not up to recent earthquake codes and there has been a mass exodus.

What that means, other than crazy competition over apartments, is that moving companies are charging stupid fees for moving right now.

So after a month of looking, for one kind of apartment or another, we decided to just stay where we are. No cats, no violins, just our cheap, spacious apartment close to the station. That, and the question of why Japan won’t just let me live my life. I mean, why?

Black as Night Progress

So I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I wrote a novel in under 20 days! The bad news is that it is almost a novella. As an unpublished author, novellas are a notoriously hard sell.

But I love the story. The reason I was able to finish it so quickly (when my previous novel took a year to write—and we’re talking first draft) was that I was so excited to tell the story to myself that I couldn’t stop writing.

I would call the basic idea behind this book Swan Lake meets Frankenstein. Fairy tale retellings are very popular, and for good reason. Fairy tales are magical and romantic, and while often gruesome, end on a hopeful note. That is why these stories have endured. But they do have some issues when viewed in a modern context. And that is why they keep getting retold.

I have a personal soft spot for fairy tales featuring swans, and more specifically, people turning into swans. I don’t have any special affection for actual swans, so I have no idea where this comes from. Juliet Marillier has written the definitive fairy tale retelling, as far as I’m concerned, and about my favorite fairy tale! But a cursory internet search revealed to me that Swan Lake has few major retellings when compared to other fairy tales.

While this was a joy to write, I needed to make a few updates for the 21st century. Swan Lake falls victim to the same tropes as a lot of other fairy tales, specifically, love at first sight, damsel in distress, and evil for the sake of evil.

I enjoyed turning these tropes on their heads, and I hope I did so while maintaining the magic of the original story.

As a new writer, each project I begin inevitably contains a lot of firsts. This was my first time writing a book from multiple points of view. It was also my first time writing from a male character’s POV. I’m not sure how well I pulled it off, but I definitely think that I was worrying about it more than I needed to.

Whether or not anything comes of this book, I learned a lot from writing it that I’ll take into my next project. Unfortunately, I have too many ideas. I can’t decide what I want to tackle next.

Whatever it is, I think this is my last foray into straight-up fantasy. I prefer writing about magical and weird things in more modern or futuristic settings. Onward and upward!

Top World-building

World-building is one of the most important components of any speculative fiction story. If the world doesn’t make sense, readers can’t immerse themselves in it. A unique world can change a simple story into an unforgettable experience. These are my favorite examples of great world-building.

  1. Dragonriders of Pern: Anne McCaffrey

This is a world where not only do dragons exist, they are necessary. The way people live and interact is shaped by this relationship with dragons and the natural phenomenon they fight. It’s all very intricately connected. Great world-building should leave a distinct mark on all the characters.

  1. Pandemonium: Daryl Gregory

This is a world in which demons exist and wreak large-scale havoc. And it examines the consequences of the chaos this causes for the population at large. The world is changed by these events, as it must be. The most impressive part is that these are not demons in the traditional sense, so the world is unique from others we’ve seen.

  1. The City & the City: China Mieville

Because two cities occupy the same space in this novel, it required double the world-building. Each city exists as an independent entity, but also as a counterpart to the other.

  1. Every Heart a Doorway: Seanan McGuire

I especially like the system for classifying the worlds the children visit. All are somewhere on the spectrum from logic to nonsense, virtue to wicked. It’s a very elegant way to deal with all the disparate worlds within this world.

  1. Something Wicked This Way Comes: Ray Bradbury

The creepy carnival and all its denizens are a world unto themselves. From the moment it arrives in town, Jim is in danger of being pulled into it. This is what drives the story.

  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis

Narnia. Just…Narnia.

  1. The Giver: Lois Lowry

Lowry’s world-building is more subtle but no less powerful than others on this list. The entire book is pervaded by this gentle sadness created by the characters’ surroundings.

  1. Harry Potter: J.K. Rowling

Rowling’s writing style is not my favorite. But she is a storyteller extraordinaire. The magical world she created is one that anyone would want to live in, Nazi wizards notwithstanding.

  1. The Hobbit: J.R.R. Tolkien

Middle-earth is iconic. It has inspired hundreds of fantasy worlds and novels.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood

Gilead is real and terrifying. The rules are clear and the consequences for breaking them horrific. Every plot element is rendered more sinister by the environment, which is exactly what you want in your worldbuilding.

 

Honorable Mentions:

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

Big Machine

Big Machine by Victor LaValle is about a former addict who gets a bus ticket and a mysterious note telling him it’s time to keep his promise. As nobody could have known about that promise, he takes the bus to Vermont to find out what the note means. He arrives at a library hidden in the middle of the woods. There, he and other Unlikely Scholars are tasked with scouring local newspapers for suspicious happenings. When he’s called to the Dean’s office for his first field assignment, he thinks it’s his chance to pay back the institution that helped turn his life around. But things are about to get weird.

There are a lot of things to like in this book. The main character lends great voice to the storytelling and has a fascinating backstory. He and the other characters are unique and well fleshed out. And the writing in general is a joy to read. The library itself is amazing, and I loved every moment we spent there.

The plot is what was problematic for me. It seemed promising, setting up all these grand ideas and complications, but in the end, it never really arrived. The main characters just ended up being observers, and the biggest mystery remains unrevealed at the conclusion. I’m more interested in what happened after the story ended than in what happened throughout the course of the novel. 3 stars

Knitting

I’ve been trying to take on new hobbies lately. I learned to sew (kind of) and made about a dozen tote bags.

I also made a really bad quilt.

1E411C37-3389-4528-B830-E0BBFDC6B6A0

But I haven’t sewed anything lately. Instead I tried out knitting.

IMG-0215

I ran out of yarn before I finished, so this is just a really short scarf. While it’s not great, this is the first time I have knitted anything since high school, and it turned out much better. That project started out scarf width and ended up blanket sized. So, headed in the right direction. I have since bought more yarn, which has been sitting in a cupboard for the past three months.

My doctor is the one who has been encouraging me to find new hobbies. He’s a funny guy. He’s convinced that I’m a secret extrovert because the activities I choose when I’m on my meds are always more active than passive. My husband almost died trying to hold in his laughter when he heard that.

But who knows? Maybe I am the extrovertiest extrovert that ever extroverted. I did recently start learning to play the violin. Perhaps that will lead to whole new social situations. So far it has just lead to me producing noises like a baby bird being strangled to death and making pained faces at my teacher. But I’ll keep you updated.

Querying Progress

I queried an agent for the first time today. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything so terrifying in my life. What if I did it wrong? What if they don’t like me? What if my first pages aren’t strong enough?

But I also felt really relieved. After writing and editing my book, this is the most significant step I’ve taken in pursuit of a writing career. It makes me feel like I’m taking control of my life.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out. All I can do at this point is wait. But even if this query is ultimately unsuccessful, I’ve still learned something by going through the process. I’m going to keep querying for as long as it takes. I’ll query 100 agents if I have to. Because I’m just getting started, and I’m ready to go.

Top Weird Fiction

Weird fiction is captivating and thought-provoking. It shook my world when I found it. I still have a long way to go on my weird fiction journey, but so far these are my favorite novels in the genre.

  1. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: Amos Tutuola

Ghosts! In the bush! These are not your Victorian ghosts. They are violent and smelly and bananas.

  1. American Elsewhere: Robert Jackson Bennett

Lovely balance of grossness and heart. I love the creatures, which are always the best part of weird fiction, for me.

  1. The City & the City: China Mieville

What can I say. I’m a Mieville fan.

  1. American Gods: Neil Gaiman

I’m not quite sure this qualifies as weird fiction, but the definition is so nebulous, I’m counting it.

  1. Kraken: China Mieville

So many amazing ideas in this book. The Tattoo, and the nod to Star Trek (of course), are things that have particularly stuck with me.

  1. The Scar: China Mieville

This is only behind Perdido Street Station because PSS was the book that introduced me to the genre and so will always be more important to me.

  1. Pandemonium: Daryl Gregory

Such a unique take on demons.

  1. The Hearing Trumpet: Leonora Carrington

Nonagenarian shenanigans.

  1. The Library at Mount Char: Scott Hawkins

This book is brutal in all the best ways.

  1. Perdido Street Station: China Mieville

Duh.

Honorable Mention

Railsea: China Mieville

It’s just so much fun! Who wouldn’t want to go on a mole-hunting adventure?