A Vaguely Familiar Holiday

Hēi Māo woke slowly, stretching under the warm blankets and not even bothering to open his eyes. He was warm and comfortable, and though he knew it was well past his usual wake up time, there was no rush. The whole house was calm. His father’s house had been calm on Winter Solstice, too, though perhaps abandoned and bleak would have been better descriptors.

As he breathed in through his nose, the scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, and apple filled him. He groaned a little. Brigitte had said that making the wassail was one of her duties for the celebration of the holiday. As her familiar, he should be there with her, helping, learning the Defresne‑Li ways. While solstices and equinoxes were observed in the Parenteau household, it was always a quiet affair and not much of a celebration. At least not since his maman vanished. He was curious to see what was customary in normal families. He’d been in therapy a month now, but he already recognized that there had been nothing normal, and very little that was okay, about his upbringing in his father’s home.

Pushing away his blankets, he rolled to the side to get out of bed. Scampering on bare feet, he crossed the room and opened the trapdoor his witch must have closed so he could rest. She was so good to him! He’d spent the last month getting accustomed to a new schedule including school and homework. While he liked it very much overall, it had been an exhausting adjustment on top of so many other changes.

Quiet singing met his ears as he descended the stairs, and he peered over the railing to see Brigitte, Mama, and Papa working together in the kitchen. The song was unfamiliar, but something about it touched the very core of his being, and he froze. He felt suffused with the warmth of love and family. Though this was the shortest day, the song gave him hope that the coming light would bring even more good things.


Brigitte looked up and caught Hēi Māo’s eyes peering over the banister. Continuing to sing, she smiled at him, waving with a hand that held a green bit of plant. They had reached the chorus again, and she beamed at each of her parents while she continued her work. This was their traditional blessing of the ingredients for their feast.

By the time they reached the end of the song, Hēi Māo had crept down the stairs and into the kitchen, seating himself at the counter to watch. Though he was nearly seventeen, his face held the bright joy of a young child who has been able to stay awake through the longest night to watch the sunrise for the first time.

“Good morning Kitty,” she said, setting aside the thyme and reaching over to pat his head. “Did you sleep well.”

He closed his eyes and tilted his head to press against her hand, humming happily. “I did. It was very nice to lie in.”

“You’ve been working hard. You deserved it.” It still stunned her that he’d never really had a routine sleep schedule. His father had him up at all sorts of hours for photo shoots, and no one bothered to keep track of how rested he was. As a cat shapeshifter, he had the napping thing down, though, and it had probably been the only thing keeping him from dangerous sleep deprivation.

“What was that? It was beautiful,” he gushed. “What have I missed?”

“It was the blessing of our feast, before it’s prepared,” she explained. “Since it’s such a big deal, we like to help make sure it all turns out well.”

“And we’ll be cooking all day,” Papa said. “There will be ample opportunities for you to help out.”

Hēi Māo smiled and nodded. “Oh yes. Put me to work.”

Mama slid a tray of special winter treats, including her favorite lussekatter, onto the table. “You’ll start by helping us polish off some breakfast.”

“That’s hardly work,” Hēi Māo pointed out, then he closed his eyes and sniffed the aromas drifting off the tray. It was nice to see him so relaxed in human form.

“You can’t make it through the longest night without adequate preparation,” Mama said.

“And it’s not a day of just work,” Papa added. “Time together is the most important thing. We have lots of little rituals and trappings that hold meaning for us, but those aren’t the essential parts of the solstice celebration.”


Hēi Māo smiled, taking a Neufchâtel filled croissant off the plate. “This is all so new for me.” He wiggled his legs a bit to get rid of some excess energy.

“You said your family celebrated Winter Solstice,” Brigitte said, looking puzzled.

“We didn’t really celebrate anything,” he explained. “It was a guaranteed day off, mostly because father couldn’t expect anyone to work on this day. But it wasn’t anything special.” He shrugged. “It was kind of dour, to be honest.”

Mama let out a sound of dismay. “Well that simply won’t do, Hēi Māo. This is supposed to be an occasion of merriment and joy.”

“Our ancestors thought the only way to bring back the sun was to tempt it with song and food,” Papa added. “While we have the actual science behind the astronomical phenomenon, it’s still a time of great magic and very much worth celebrating.” He patted Hēi Māo’s shoulder. “We’ll show you the proper way to do this, son.”

“I’ll be a good student,” Hēi Māo promised.

“You’ll enjoy yourself,” Mama ordered, though she softened it with a smile. “Now you should have some of Brigitte’s wassail. It’s the best way to start your solstice morning.”

“And every morning as long as it lasts,” Papa added.

The Return of Writer Brain: The Sequel

Brain: So you know how you had that home energy audit yesterday?

Me: Yeah.  That was pretty cool.  I kinda liked the door blower test.  Also knowing the water heater isn’t out to kill us all was cool.

Brain (impatiently): Yeah, yeah.  Remember how the guy went up in the attic?

Me: Sure.  I mean, I was there and all.

Brain: And remember how he came down and showed you a picture of the corner over your bedroom?

Me (uncertainty setting in): Yeah.  There’s a random box stuffed up there.  The previous owners did weird things.  On our first adventure into the attic we found a couple of busted lamps that had been put up there for whatever reason.

Brain: What do you suppose is in the box?

Me: I have no idea.  It could be empty.

Brain: Who would put an empty box in the tight corner of the attic?

Me: The same people who dumped broken lamps in it?  The same people who cut off the ground wire to the bathroom fan because they couldn’t figure out what it did?

Brain: What if it’s not empty?

Me: Maybe that’s where all the mice live?

Brain: It could have all sorts of things in it.

Me: It’s really not that big. so really, there’s a limit to what could be in it.  Kids toys from the seventies?  Old clothes?

Brain: This isn’t the kind of attic you store stuff in.  You know that, right?

Me: Obviously.  There are reasons I’m not allowed up there.  I’ll probably end up in the living room via the quick way down.

Brain: This is true.  You should definitely not go up there.  But you got me off track here.

Me: That was the plan.

Brain: I will not be derailed!  That box has so much potential.

Me: I really don’t think…

Brain: Potential!  Sure, it’s not a huge box, but it’s also not tiny.  And it took some serious work to get it into that spot.  I mean, it’s not going to be easy to get it back out.

Me: Which is why it’s still there.

Brain: Don’t you sass me!  That thing could be full of desiccated baby corpses!

Me: Well now you’re just getting gross. 

Brain: Skulls?  The sacred totem of a demon?  Pirate treasure?  Long concealed evidence of a murder?  Nosferatu (pocket size edition)?

Me: Yes… well… now that we’re dwelling on this, I can see we’re going to have to write something about it.

Brain: Good.  Good.  It’s getting close to fall.  This is always when you have your Poe and Hawthorne festival of darkness.  It’s perfect.

Me: I was thinking I’d have the box just be empty, you know all the work up and then nothing.  What do you think?

Brain: Clearly I’m going to have to supervise this task.  I’m not sure I can trust you with it.

Me: I have other things that are more urgent

Brain: Wrong answer! 


You can enjoy the entire Writer Brain adventure in chronological order here, or tap the #writer brain tag to read it in reverse chronological order. 

Book Promotion on a Budget – Upcoming Class

If you’re a small press or indie writer, or are working in this direction, it’s important to know how to promote your work. This is one of the parts of small press and indie writing that can be extra frustrating and difficult to learn on your own. 

The amazing and entertaining Catherine Lundoff will be holding an online class on book promotion on a budget through Cat Rambo Academy in January. Scholarships are available, and both writers of color and QUILTBAG writers are encouraged to apply.


For more about Catherine Lundoff, check out her website, Queen of Swords Press, or follow her on Twitter.

Disclosure: I have no affiliation with Cat Rambo Academy. I do, however, know Catherine as a friend, and consider her one of my writing mentors.

Speed Writing #14 – Going Solo

I woke disoriented and my eyes felt gritty.  Sunlight was shining on me from a strange direction, though my blanket felt and smelled familiar.  I stretched and rubbed my eyes before looking around the room.  The eggshell white walls were bare and there were boxes stacked next to the dresser.  I was in a new apartment.  I’d moved my stuff in yesterday, but hadn’t finished in time to even start unpacking.  Kicking off the blanket, I sat up and rested my feet on the bare wood floor.  It was cool against my skin, so different from the carpet of my old place.  But that had kind of been the point.

The efficiency was my first apartment on my own.  The last place I’d shared with my boyfriend.  Ex-boyfriend, rather.  We’d broken up a couple months back, and it had been ugly and uncomfortable ever since.  To be honest, it hadn’t been comfortable for the two or three months leading to our dissolution.  Getting out was a relief, and it felt like I could finally breathe again.  But it was also a very definitive sign that we were really through and there was no reconciling.  Not that I really wanted him back.  I mean he’d been a jerk.  He’d already slept with two or three people since I told him we were through, and that didn’t count the ones he’d been with when we were supposedly monogamous.  It wasn’t the end of the relationship that was hard; it was more the destruction of the idea of what the relationship was supposed to have been that hurt.

As I was rummaging through boxes for a bowl, I heard the soft sound of footsteps upstairs.  One of the things that appealed to me about apartments was that I didn’t feel alone.  There were people all around me, but I had my own private space.  Victorious with my initial search, I tried to find my silverware.  Cautious shaking of boxes eventually revealed it to me.  I was just starting my quest for cereal when the gentle background sound of water running through pipes in my ceiling started up.  I closed my eyes and embraced the way these noises differed from my last place.  I needed to get used to them, because this would be home for a while.  

Thirty seconds later I was startled out of this contemplation by the most beautiful baritone voice singing “She Moved Through the Fair.” He was really good, and I wondered if he was a vocal music major at the university about a mile down the road.  He was way too good to be an amateur, yet it seemed unlikely that a professional would live in a building of mostly efficiencies and two bedroom apartments rented by college students and recent graduates.  I felt the smile spread over my face.  I had no idea who he was, and it didn’t matter.  This one moment had totally made my day.

I tried not to get attached to the voice of my unknown upstairs neighbor, but it was hard.  He always sang in the shower, and I was embarrassed to realize I’d memorized his routine.  Six am shower, every other day.  He seemed to prefer Italian to Latin, though there was a German piece that distracted me so thoroughly I’d burned the eggs I’d been scrambling.  He had a whole repertoire of English folk songs.  He sang in the evenings as well, but didn’t really belt it out like he did in the shower.  I was torn between telling him that his spontaneous arias were a bright spot in any day, and accepting it as a gift from the universe.

The universe, as it turned out, had other ideas.  Ideas involving the two of us retrieving our mail at the same time.


Prompt: You live in the apartment above me and every day I can hear you singing in the shower; you’re really good and it makes my day.

Note:  I had to write this in two 15 minute stints because of a minor dinner calamity.  Everyone survived, and the lentil stew was awesome.

Fight Scenes: Missed Opportunities

In most creative endeavors, one of the goals is to do something different than others have, or to show something familiar in a new way. That may mean taking the same starting point and finding a divergent path to the same end, or creating an entirely new path to a different end.

Over time, many writers have certain words, phrases, and even descriptions that start to show up in multiple works or even within the same novel. Fight scenes (and sex scenes) can become routine, predictable, and indistinguishable from others by the same author. This may be the result of laziness or forgetfulness. It may be that these scenes are outside the writer’s comfort zone, and once she has come up with one, it becomes the stock version. Like stock photography, these scenes are bland and don’t pull their weight, feed the writer’s creativity, or satisfy readers.

While this argument for variation and trying new things can be applied to any aspect of writing, I’m going to focus on some opportunities to be new and interesting in fight scenes. Here are some techniques and targets that show up in real world fights, but tend to get overlooked in fiction.

Striking With Elbows and Knees

These are great for close quarters like elevators, cars, offices, bathrooms, trains, walk in freezers, hallways, etc. Don’t limit yourself to using the knee for groin shots and the elbow just for grabs from behind. Coming at a diagonal, a knee can take out an opponent’s knee (see more on knees as a target below) or, aimed higher, give a heck of a charlie horse.

Brought up or down vertically, an elbow can hit the groin, solar plexus, clavicle, and under the chin or nose. Delivered horizontally, the elbow can take out a knee, go for a kidney or rib shot, and strike the temple. Because elbows aren’t as fragile as hands and wrists, you can have an untrained character use these effectively without needing a splint and weeks of physical therapy in the next chapter.

The Claw

Some people put down this sort of attack or defense as ineffective girly fighting. The three problems with this judgment are 1) it’s actually very effective, 2) it’s not limited by sex or gender, and 3) do I really have to explain the fallacy of “fighting like a girl?” I didn’t think so.

Again, this is a great technique for a character who has no training but suddenly finds herself (himself, itself, themself, choose your favorite pronoun) in a brawl. It’s hard to defend against it because you can claw at any exposed skin from any direction, unlike a punch or kick which tend to be pretty linear. It doesn’t require a lot of strength or long nails (finger tips raking the face are quite painful). It also marks up the attacker or opponent, making them easier to identify later on. If your character needs something to focus on, have her channel her inner Bengal tiger, because great big cats totally have this down.

Hair Superiority

Again, once belittled as limited to girl fights, this is an extremely effective tactic that is often overlooked in fiction. Gaining control of your opponent’s hair means you have control of her head which very often results in winning the fight. The end of a braid or pony tail are less effective than a solid hold up near the back of the head.

Box the Ears

Depending on your age, your geographical region, and the sort of family you grew up with, you may not have ever had a grandparent/uncle/parent threaten to box your ears. If that’s the case, this involves cuffing someone upside the head, aiming for the ear. It can be done with the flat of the palm or with a cupped hand. Boxing both ears at the same time often ruptures one or both eardrums. This may or may not hurt, depending on the person and the severity of the damage. This impairs hearing until the eardrum heals and, better yet, can disrupt equilibrium making it hard to walk or even stand. Some people get severe vertigo which can be incapacitating (and gross).

All Your Jewelries Are Belong to Us

Most piercings don’t like to be tugged on, much less yanked. Your character can take control of an adversary through a firm grip on that nose ring.

Anything around the neck is fair game. This includes jewelry, ID badge lanyards, and neckties. Most of these don’t come with emergency quick release or break away clasps. Obviously, some sites prefer clip on ID lanyards for this reason, so keep it true to the setting. This can be used to get someone’s attention, take control of them, or put their life in danger.

While not technically jewelry, I’m putting a reminder about glasses here, too. I know from personal experience that getting smacked in the glasses can really smart. Even a little tap on the frame can concentrate enough force on the nose pads to make the eyes water, which makes it hard to see.

Eyes

Humans tend to prioritize vision over all other senses, and those of us accustomed to being able to do this are going to be severely hampered anytime it’s impaired. Eyeballs are fragile. Lots of things can sting or irritate the eyes, from innocuous things like sand and lemon juice, to more damaging things like solvents and acid. Pushing lightly on a closed eye can impair vision for a few minutes without causing permanent damage, and a harder push or strike will obviously do more. Light can result in temporary or permanent blindness, depending on the brightness.

Low Targets Rock

Honestly, it’s not that fun to get smacked anywhere from the knee down, and that’s just with someone’s bare foot. Add a shoe, sword, baseball bat, or umbrella, and it gets even more unpleasant.

Many men expect a groin kick, and guard accordingly (and in case it hasn’t occurred to you, it’s no picnic for a lady to take a straight shot to the bits, though we don’t tend to fall over quite so much). Knees, however, are hard to protect. They only like to bend one direction, and are pretty easy to damage even with a low-powered kick from the side.

If you’ve ever played soccer, you likely learned the hard way why shin guards exist. The shin, or tibia, doesn’t have a lovely layer of fat and muscle protecting it, so when you get hit, you enjoy both nerve-ending pain from the skin, and deep throbbing bone pain.

Have you ever had someone stomp on your foot really hard? It isn’t pleasant. If you’re somehow more fortunate than me, perhaps you’ve never dropped something on your feet. Or maybe you’ve had a pot roast fall out of grandma’s overly full freezer onto your foot. Now imagine someone stomping on your foot while wearing high heels, which will focus all the power into a smaller space increasing the damage.


This is just the tip of the iceberg of fight scene diversity, and anyone can better with some practice. I routinely contemplate how I could be attacked in random situations, and what good responses would be. After all, I’m trained to think about this stuff. Even if this isn’t your default, it can be a good exercise both for writing and self defense (which I hope you never need).

You can build up your repertoire of potential fight scenes and character reactions by building your own scenarios. Even if you don’t write them down or consciously save them for later, your brain will be able to tap into what you’ve thought about. Need a starting point? You’re in your car at a stoplight. What would you do if someone opened the passenger door and got in? How would your response differ if the person was a man/woman, armed/unarmed, drunk/sober/delusional? Or maybe you’re opening the door from your kitchen to your attached garage, and you find someone (or something, cause face it, I write speculative fiction) other than your car in there? Would your reaction differ if you’re home alone? Do you live in a town home or suburbia?

When you read a fight scene, even one of your own, ask yourself how you could do it differently. This alone can help you break away from your stock responses.

A Peek into the Indie Writer World – Part V: Presenting as a Professional

As an independently published writer, you are a professional and it’s in your interest (and in the interest of your fellow indie writers) that you present as a professional. We aren’t so far removed from the era where self-published authors were automatically dismissed as ‘not good enough for real publishing.’ While the majority of the population now recognizes indie authors as professionals, you’ll still encounter people who need to be convinced.

How do you get taken seriously? What can you do to ensure the image you’re broadcasting is professional?

The key places where your professionalism comes into play, in bullet format for those with very little time:

  • Website
  • Social Media
  • Email
  • Live Networking
  • Book Covers
  • Book Content

The more specific details regarding those key places to put your professionalism in place:

Website

A website is a must, even if it’s minimalist. Other than finding your books on sites like Amazon, this is one of the top places people will look to see how legit you are (or appear to be). This can include potential customers, the media, library purchasing departments, and schools or conferences looking for speakers.

  • Spring for the domain registry
    • Makes you easier to find
    • Implies greater dedication to your writing career
    • The cost is often bundled in with website hosting services (make sure you own the domain, so you can switch services and take it with you)
  • Go with a theme and colors that will speak to your audience
  • Hire someone to set things up if you don’t have the skills to do it yourself
  • Include or incorporate high quality photos
    • Your own if you have them
    • If using others’ photos, have the proper permission and credit as required
    • Use open source or free stock photography sources, crediting as required
  • Keep it current and engaging
  • Minimal is okay
    • About page – information about you the writer, genre, areas of expertise, and anything that will help your audience relate to you
    • Publications – your publishing history and/or where to purchase your work
    • Contact page – can be as simple as an email link or a web form
  • Consider a built-in blog for dynamic content
    • Announcements, appearances and news
    • Release information
    • Teasers

Social Media

Blogs and social media can help you build up and engage with your audience. Make sure you’ve picked a platform that hits your target readers. You don’t have to spend hours every week on a blog or forum if that’s not your thing, just keep it relevant and regular. A mostly dead Tumblr or Twitter won’t do you any favors.

Ensure that your interactions and posts are professional.

  • Avoid over-sharing or inappropriate assumptions of intimacy
  • The internet is forever; consider whether your posts could come back to haunt you
  • Approach controversial material in a way that is consistent with or related to your writing philosophy or your work
    • Eg: My blog includes real world social and political issues that are reflected in my stories and my approach to world building
    • Be careful not to alienate your audience with content that has no bearing on your work
  • Do not bully others (yes there are writers who do this) and engaging in flame wars will likely reflect poorly
    • If you mess up, damage control involves a real apology and future caution
  • Present yourself in the way you want your fans to see you
    • Be friendly and open to interactions if you want fans to find you approachable
    • Be a bit aloof or distant, if you’re aiming for more space
    • Be cautiously prickly if that’s who you are, but keep in mind that being an asshole will only chase fans away

Email

You should establish an email account specifically for your writing. This doesn’t have to run through your own domain if that doesn’t fit your budget. Select your email address carefully.

  • Easy to share and remember
  • Matches your author name or what you write
  • Doesn’t feel too casual unrelated to your writing work

Live Networking

Take advantage of the opportunities to network with readers and other writers in person. This can result in a valuable peer group, name recognition, and readership. While participating in these activities, you don’t need to wear a suit and schmooze like venture capitalist to present as a professional. Look up photos of these events and see what people tend to wear, and find something in your wardrobe that works and is comfortable for you.

  • Conventions – most genres have events where fans and creators get together
    • Volunteer and participate in programming you have an interest or expertise in
    • Attend the parties and meet people
  • Conferences – many genres have events for creators to discuss topics of interest and build their craft
    • Attend meet-ups or lunches
  • Readings – these can be held in bookstores, libraries, and at events like conventions and conferences
    • Prepare and practice your piece
    • You are in the limelight, be sure to shine

At any of these events, socialize with people you don’t know, even if that’s hard for you. You don’t need to meet everyone and you don’t have to try to impress people with exaggerations or lies. Just be yourself, unapologetically, and try to have interesting conversations. Listen at least as much as you talk, if not more. Swap contact information with people you may want to keep in touch with, and do follow up with them on social media.

Book Covers

Your book cover functions as your advertisement of the work; it sells the book. This is one of the places where a lot of indie authors make mistakes that result in an amateurish and unprofessional appearance. You can search online for “bad book covers” to get hundreds of examples of covers that have done more harm than good, and yes, some of them have been produced by big publishers.

If you don’t have the skills to design your covers, it’s in your interest to pay someone to do this. If you do have the skills to create your own covers, it’s still a good idea to run your drafts by a group of trusted individuals to identify any horrible mishaps you may have missed.

Book Content

The final piece of presenting yourself as a professional, is ensuring that your printed work meets the standards in the industry. This includes ensuring that you’ve told the best story you can, and that it is as free of spelling and grammatical errors as possible. It can be very helpful to get constructive feedback from fellow writers or beta readers, in case you’ve missed something. If editing isn’t your strong suit, paying a copy editor is not a bad idea.

In addition to the story itself, you also need to ensure your story looks good on the page, whether it’s digital or print. Pay attention to layout guidelines as these can influence whether the book looks professionally produced.

  • Margins – top, bottom and outside edges
  • Gutter – inside edges near the fold
  • Story title and author name in headings, often alternating
  • Page number in the footer

Printed work also needs properly set up front matter.

  • Title page, on a right page
  • Copyright page, on a left page, usually the other side of the title page
  • Acknowledgments, on a right page
  • A blank left page, unless your acknowledgments run two pages (which should be avoided in fiction)
  • Table of contents (TOC), on a right page
  • First page of the story, on a right page (there may be a blank left page between the TOC and the story’s first page)

Front matter can determine whether your book meets requirements for wide distribution.


Most of your steps for presenting as a professional don’t have anything to do with your actual writing, and it may be easiest to think of it as the marketing side of the indie writer’s job. It’s often easier to start out with your level of caution and professionalism set a bit higher than you think you need, as it’s unlikely to offend anyone. As you get more comfortable with the various venues, you can assess and adjust if your default is too far in one direction or another.



For the first article in this series, check out Part I. Or if you’ve just missed the previous article, check out Part IV. For the next article in this series, check out Part VI.

For more articles on writing, check out Reflections From the Sol.