Dave Sweet and Sarah Graham

What to do when your career that pays the bills is stalled and you can’t see the next step?

Why am I talking about careers, you ask? I’m supposed to write about books and writing and characters and urban fantasy. Well, when I was at When Words Collide this year, I attended two presentations with Detective Dave Sweet (an actual detective!) and some suggestive force from those presentations must have guided my hand to his book, because I bought it, Skeletons in my Closet: Life Lessons from a Homicide Detective with Sarah Graham as the co-author (who is not a detective but she is an actual author!).

What a great cover! Except for my giant sock

I’m struggling in my career right now, stuck in a position I can’t leave without a cost to those around me, and wondering what step to take next. Could this book help me figure out my next steps?

I was surprised and relieved when this book showed me that my core guiding principles could remain, that I didn’t have to reinvent most of my values. Values can always use tweaking in a world that changes as fast as ours but changing them quickly and often goes against what and who I am and lesson number 11 had my back:

Our best compass comes from trusting our instincts, following our heart and staying true to our core values.

This book isn’t a career advice book, though. It’s a life lessons book, a gritty, no holds barred exploration of what is good in relationships. The authors discuss what we can bring to our communities, our workplaces and our families by remembering these principles in our lives.

I didn’t make as many mistakes as I thought. When the foundation upon which I make my decisions is solid, than so will the results of those choices.

We can become those heroes in our books, not because we can shoot three guns at once but by making choices that centre around people.

Lesson # 3 – Leave people in a better place than you found them. 

Faith Hunter – Nell Ingram

I didn’t want to like Nell Ingram, Faith Hunter‘s main character in her Soulwood series. I have nothing in common with her, having never lived in the woods, in America’s south, or been a part of a religious cult-like community. For all intents and purposes, I should never have gotten past the first fifty pages of Blood of the Earth.

Blood of the EarthYet, I did. Nell is fascinating as a strong, reliable, and hard working main character, all traits I would like to embody.
She emerges from a cloistered existence, part of a very closed religious community that does everything it can to be self-reliant, into a town with paranormal cops policing her community that also has vampires, werewolves, witches, and humans. As a woman who owns her own house and woods, Nell must protect herself and her property from members of her church who view it as theirs because she is a woman and shouldn’t be able to own property.

To protect herself and her property, Nell relies on her wits and a couple of shotguns. She’s afraid but she doesn’t back down. She holds her own without help from others. What a powerful woman!
Nell’s new job with the paranormal investigative branch means all kinds of changes for her including cell phones and computers. Yet, these changes don’t phase her. She adjusts, keeps moving forward, forging her own path in a place where she has no one to follow.

Through her new job, she discovers her own latent abilities, a supernatural that can make plants grow, read the earth and much more. These abilities, to nurture and protect those around her, once discovered, in hindsight should be obvious since she’s protecting that which is closest to her, her freedom and her family, when we first meet her.

She risks herself to protect her family and her friends and by the end, she’s protecting her new work colleagues, expanding her world and those she considers close to her. She’s growing, blossoming like the plants she coaxes into full bloom and there’s lots more to come.

Rhonda Parrish – Sandra Wickham

Anthologies offer a great variety of stories so I love to grab one when I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for. Sirens, edited by Rhonda Parrish, is a collection that is a walk along the beach meandering into a neighbouring mangrove forest, soft water bathing buried toes even as gloomy trees threaten to stab feet and any other body parts with their thirsty roots.

The anthology contains “Experience” by Sandra Wickham, a story that had me cheering. Who doesn’t want to see the bad guy get punished?

Well, this is awkward. The main character doesn’t have a name, just “I” since the story is in first person.

She’s a Siren, who works at the behest of the Goddess, to avenge women who have been wronged by men and has done so for millennium. Yet, now she just sings, pulling her audience so far but never over to obsession, having lost the desire to kill.

The Siren has been called to kill again and she doesn’t want to. Her Goddess removes her abilities to force her to hunt and she moves quickly after that to comply since she ages into an old woman instead of a sultry siren.

Our Siren becomes a wounded woman’s revenge on an assailant from many years ago and I cheered for the Siren because violations stay with victims. Those hurts linger, informing a victim’s decisions and choices forever afterwards. The perpetrator should, our innate sense of justice tells us, pay for the damage that that has been inflicted. It doesn’t happen enough in real life so I love stories with characters that deliver justice, even if these simple solutions would never balance out in real life.

What really struck me about the woman wronged though was her choice to keep her own experiences despite those painful wounds: “I’ve done my time, lived my life. I like who I am now.”

Axel Howerton – Jimmy Finn

What do we as a society do with misfits? More importantly what do misfits do with themselves in a society hell bent on conformity and the norm? In Furr , Jimmy Finn’s mother sends him to a psychiatrist and eventually to the mental health ward of the local hospital so he can be cured. Society tries to cure our misfits with drugs and therapy but for Jimmy Finn, none of those work. He’s a misfit with urges and rages. They come and they go and he can live a somewhat normal life with a job and an apartment. He drinks to cope, consuming a burning liquid to incinerate what he can’t control. 

Until he starts drinking on the job, and he wakes up in a park with the police chasing him. He runs from the city into the hills, where, through a series of unexpected discoveries, he finds himself because he finds others like him and finds his past. 

Who hasn’t felt out of place at some point – at the office, with friends, surrounded by family? My current out of place environment is the office. I ride this cusp having been so long in one job I’m considered experienced and senior yet realizing that younger, less experienced people are passing me by. I stick out like a sore thumb. 

Our need to belong is strong, hard wired into us to maximize our survival, and Jimmy wages a constant battle with that need to belong when he is so out of place in modern society. He desperately wants acceptance but can’t have it, squirming against the order that society tries to impose upon him time and again, fleeing the skyscrapers and cement and roads for open skies, woods and small towns.

Oh, how I would love to do the same when that out of place feeling strikes, waiting to pounce on me from behind every cubicle wall. 

In the mountains, Jimmy finds an unexpected place where everyone knows him and what’s going on, leaving him to wonder why he doesn’t know what’s going on. What he does find is a place where he belongs, one way or another and he will carve that place out for himself or die trying. 

Good on you, Jimmy Finn.

Finding Time to Write

I am busy. Are you busy? Everyone is busy! Everyone is so busy…

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So, how do you find time to write, or play the drums, or run or build models or whatever it is that brings you pleasure? I find it by scheduling my life in a militaristic manner where I know exactly what’s happening and for how long at each moment of the day. At least I do that until illness or exhaustion or work stress knock that idea sideways and I have a day or a few days or even a few weeks where I don’t write. This used to drive me crazy. To have my carefully planned schedule thrown out of the windows was an insult, a slap in the face taunting me by pointing out what I wasn’t going to accomplish. Then I learned to let it go and accept that I couldn’t control most of my day let alone every minute of my day and that I would still be able to write my 600 words a day.

That’s the big part of what I’m doing when I’m writing – keeping the daily goal realistic and with a dog, cat, 21 month old and a full time job, I need to pick a goal that I can actually accomplish. I’ve managed 600 words (give or take a 100 here and there) a day with enough flexibility to miss days when I needed to, and I was able to finish my work in progress. If I can’t reach my goals until the end of my work in progress, I adjust it. Goals can vary as needs change and if I can accept that, then I will be more likely to finish my work in progress. Otherwise,  I may just burn out and never finish it.

Seanan McGuire – Toby Daye

I first found Seanan McGuire through a friend. Word of mouth is so important for books! Spread the word for those that you love.

Ms McGuire has a couple of series but I started with her October Daye series, which follows October (Toby) Daye, a changeling who navigates the Fae courts and its denizens in modern day San Francisco. 

Toby does dumb things. Really stupid, dangerous things that get her injured and push her limited magical knowledge and ability to dangerous territory. However her tenacity and moral code have given her powerful friends who want to help her, when she will let them. 

Doing the right thing is what we are taught in most of our childhood and adulthood stories. We’re told that doing the right thing will be rewarded. Adulthood teaches us this is not actually how the world works. But Toby’s actions, doing the right thing even when it means she may lose everything, does get rewarded through her relationships and the high regard people hold her in. 

It is this ideal that draws me to her, that we could do the right thing to help someone else and have that decision be a positive action. Characters like her are important because they remind us that intention can count for something, even if the results are never as pure as what shows up in our books.

 

Returning to Exercise

Sometimes though exercise just isn’t possible due to the other commitments I have. 

Life takes me away from exercise from time to time, whether it’s illness, playing with my son, taking my dog for a walk, vacation, getting together with friends or any of a bunch of other things. It happens and I’m at peace with it. Sort of. I’m trying to accept that I can schedule my life all I want but events will happen to disrupt my plans.  

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By giving myself a pass and being okay with not exercising for whatever period of time I don’t, I find it much easier to get back into exercise when I’m ready physically and mentally. Sometimes I have to start at the beginning with the 1, 2, and 5 pound weights but even then, I find it easier to progress and get stronger than when I first started exercising.

I used to make myself feel guilty about all the things I should be doing and wasn’t –  exercising, finishing assignments early, writing, cleaning. Feeling guilty about not doing those things sucked all my willpower to do those things. I would feel so bad about myself and feel like such a failure that I still wouldn’t start them. So I decided to stop making myself feel guilty about something I hadn’t done and start being kind to myself. I started to recognize that I could only do so much in a day and could only say yes to so many things before I burnt out so now I give myself a pass and decide that tomorrow will be a day that exercising may happen. 

I’m slowly getting back into regular exercising. I run with my dog when I can, I go to the gym, I walk. Illness and work pressures have made this a stop start process so I’m not really into a routine yet. That’s okay because I’m doing what I can when I can and sometimes that’s amazing.

In one of my previous posts, I talked about being stuck and as a result, not exercising. I’m coming out of that total paralysis that sucked all the joy out of exercise for me. Fingers crossed!

Mary Robinette Kowal – Elma York

I decided to read The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal because I’ve been listening to her podcast for years and thought I would give it a try. 

I’m not a fan of alternative histories, because I like history. History is already full of interesting twists and turns and there’s enough of it for a lifetime’s exploration rather than imagining what could have been, in my opinion, anyway. Alternative history is a big section of the fantasy/science-fiction market so it obviously has an audience and people always enjoy asking “What if?”  

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)

I was so surprised how much I enjoyed this book! Elma York, the main character, hooked me with her strong contributions to the space program and her desire to travel into space.  

In this alternate history, a meteor slams into Earth and brings about climate change on such a scale that humans have to seek out another planet. Yet, this is the 1950’s so they must speed up the space race. 

Elma is smart, very smart, so smart that she does calculations in her head faster than anyone can do with calculators. She works at NASA as a computer, since computers don’t exist yet,and supports those who are working to get rockets and men into space to colonize Mars. 

Notice I wrote men. I should have also written white men. This is the 1950’s so even though Emma flew in World War II (this still took place in this alternative history), she is not considered a suitable candidate to be an astronaut because she is a woman. 

Elma handles the judgement by pushing back against it, time and time again, applying for and demanding her place amongst the men who are going up. 

Fighting for something that should be merit based and isn’t, is exhausting. It shouldn’t be happening and Elma asks why it happens when she sees black men being excluded from the space program because of their skin colour, and when her and her colleagues are excluded or worse, paraded around as astronauts only if they show enough skin and do their make up to be a part of the game. 

In our own times, these are questions that should have been left in the 1950’s but they remain with us still.

Someone shrieked. That was me. I had jumped and thrown my hands into the air like I was some sort of gymnast…They were staring at me, and I didn’t care.

“They’re taking women astronauts!”

Those lines can very nearly be written for today. Thankfully, we have had and hopefully will continue to have women astronauts like Roberta Bondar, Christina Koch and Stephanie Wilson.

 Elma gives us an opportunity to re-examine whether or not our society is actually merit-based and if it isn’t, how can we make it merit-based. This is a complicated problem that requires us to ensure all have the potential to get the skills to participate in a merit-based society but if Elma and her fellow humans can get off the planet, then why can’t we demand that equality?

Camaraderie in Axe Throwing

Shared interests create commonality and friendships, even with people who are disparate. 

I forgot that. I saw it when I was a kid watching my parents in their dart league. Through a shared activity, they could chat with other people that they normally might not talk to or have much to talk about with. 

A friend invited me to axe throwing night at his club, Batl: Backyard Axe Throwing League. The scoring is simple and for a more complete description than I could give, check out the FAQ page. At this club, people face off one another in a round robin style tournament each night for a season (eight weeks).

The night was filled with axes bouncing off targets, people throwing one or two handed, people showing me their axes, people sitting at tables and watching others throw axes, and people watching their own scores in comparison to others. It’s a loud but not too loud event where things are happening and everyone is relaxed and enjoying themselves. 

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Of course, darts is nothing like axe throwing. One person (who I later learned works at the axe throwing club) visibly winced when I asked about scoring and commented that it was nothing like darts (don’t make this mistake!). Fair play, the scoring is nothing like darts but the camaraderie, the chatter, the ambiance, all of that energy and warm human interaction buzzing around me, was. 

People love to lament nowadays that social media has led us down a path of no human interaction where we lack empathy and understanding of each other. I saw no evidence of that when I watched people throw axes. And guess what everyone was doing every time they threw an axe – exercising and having fun at the same time! It is possible. 

**I didn’t participate in throwing axes only because my shoulders dislocate (subluxate? Physicians, discuss!) when they are out to the side so throwing at or above shoulder height is out of the question, especially large, sharp objects. 

When Words Collide 2019

I’ve been going to When Words Collide for 7 years and the knowledge I’ve gained has taken me much farther in my writing than I would have ever gotten on my own. I attended this year’s festival (check out #wwcyyc2019 for highlights) I was really surprised how many new and different panels there were, ones that I had never seen before so of course I had to go see them. Unfortunately that meant I didn’t make it to enough publisher events but I bought enough books to make up for it. I’ve just started The Dame was Trouble edited by Sarah Johnson (published by Coffin Hop Press) and it’s off to a delicious start with a tale of a shrewd woman looking out for herself even as she holds her hand out to help others.

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Dwayne Clayden’s presentation on “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” had tears flowing (I refuse to acknowledge that any tears touched my cheeks or that my nose was running) and surprised quite a few people, in a good way, with its heartfelt tenderness and fresh honesty. His presentations are always interesting and he’s got a wealth of knowledge from years working as a police officer and as an emergency medical technician (EMT).

Dave Sweet’s presentation on “How to Sell a Life Sentence” was relevant to my own work and so I had to go. I’m never disappointed when I go to his presentations. They are often filled with sad stories of those who have suffered, but his gritty lived experiences give writers and readers a glimpse into the city outside of our house, our car, our workplace where people are experiencing the most powerful stories when their loved ones don’t come home, or their own choices catch up with them. Characters and books and adventures and the theory that we explore at such festivals can often feel disconnected from people out there who may be experiencing their own trials and bridging that disconnection, for those who see that suffering every day, can bring a story to life.

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Next year will be ten years for this fantastic festival! The organizers have done a phenomenal job building a bigger and better festival every year, one where new people arrive with fresh faces and repeat attenders can’t help themselves and gush.

A lot of people give their time and effort to make events happen – presenters, editors, agents, volunteers. I have to give another big thank you and shout out to all who volunteer their time.

#wwcyyc2020 looks like another promising festival. In the meantime, time to put my new knowledge to use. Happy reading and writing!