In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Satisfaction of a List.”

Fave SG-1 Episodes:

1. The First Ones

2. The Quest

3. Legacy

4. Prototype

5. The Curse

Yes, they are all Daniel Jackson heavy. Daniel holds the Stargate universe together for me. He’s the conscience, the scholar, the unlikely hero who makes friends with both the lizardy monster who wants to eat him and the race of whack-a-doo creatures who like Klingon opera. He’s played beautifully by Michael Shanks, the most underrated actor of all Canada. These are puzzle episodes, sad, episodes, dangerous episodes, but all episodes that reveal something of Daniel’s character. That take us behind the nerd glasses and into his heart. Daniel loses a lot. His wife. His home. His mind. His reputation. His life. His innocence. But he gains, too. Respect. Friends. A place.

No, you don’t see Window of Opportunity up there. Why do so many people love that episode?? Because there are funny bits? Really? Jack riding a bicycle does it for you? Someone explain why that is so many people’s absolute fave because I just don’t get it.

Give me a character that I can sink my teeth into and I’m all in. It worked that way for Stargate, for Criminal Minds (Spencer Reid), for Buffy (Xander and Anya), Star Trek (Spock), The Man from UNCLE (Illya), and NCIS (Tony). Give me someone who has a past, a secret, who is conflicted, or a fish out of water. These are my characters.

So, in writing my original fiction book, why didn’t I consider what I liked? Why didn’t I keep with the types of characters I would want to read about? My first readers – and thank you all again for wading through that first draft – did not connect with Deok. Why? Because I didn’t make her into the type of character that I love. The type of character that pulls you in, that makes whatever story you’re telling so much deeper and more cutting and more emotional.

Time to start my re-write. Time to make Deok into that character, that woman, who will center this world I’ve created. Matthias is there, he’s fleshed out and whole, with the right amount of strengths and weaknesses. But he’s only half of the story.

Time to write that strong female character that I’ve wished for all my life. The character that every girl wants to be and every actress wants to play. Janet Frasier and Samantha Carter and Anya and Black Widow combined.

New List: Things to Do with Deok:

1. Give her a past

2. Show her struggles to fit in

3. Show her strengths and her weaknesses

4. Let her lose

5. Let her win, sometimes, too

… Checking it Twice

Thanks, Mike

It’s a journey, this writing business. It started when I was a child, when I took the stories from my head and put them on paper. Stories about characters that I saw on my family’s one small television. Or characters I read about in comic books. Or science fiction novels.

My brother-in-law was a great supporter. In college, I began an original fantasy novel about brothers who were separated and found their way back to each other. I guess my love of “buddy” stories, the modern day “bromance,” is deeply rooted in my soul. Mike (said bro-in-law) is also a writer. A creative soul. He taught me a lot about patience, and being true to yourself and your voice. I wish he was still writing.

I’d like to think the novel I just finished, The Heir of Time, is that original brother story, all grown up.

Then came love and marriage and work and family. It was a busy time and, like many others have, I lost my love of writing for a while. It was only after falling in love with Stargate SG-1 and the characters of Jack and Daniel that the muse awoke. And, thankfully, fanfiction had finally found its home on the newfangled thing called the Internet. I found friends and fans, and outlets for my stories. I grew as a writer, as a reader, and as a critiquer, and everyone who ever left a comment on one of my stories helped along the way.

Now I’m taking different steps on this path – steps that are harder, on steeper mountains with rocky, broken surfaces. I’m reaching out to find a handhold in the publishing world – a world with rules and regulations, with antique ideas and unclear requirements. The first steps are hard. Scary. Daunting. But I’m putting on my big-girl panties and getting on with it.

A writing friend pointed me in the direction of a local workshop taking place this weekend. It seems like an obvious handhold – a next step painted in neon orange and lit with blinking lights. It’s being presented by Chuck Sambuchino of Writers’ Digest, a man who knows a thing or two or a bazillion about publishing. I’m really thankful for kinfolit’s excitement, her support, and the chance to walk a little farther on this journey with a friend at my side.

Mr. Sambuchino offered a personal critique of attendees’ first query letter and I jumped at the chance. One-on-one advice from a professional? Yes, please, sign me up! Trying to write it brought me to hair-pulling frustration and my last blog post. Such a dilemma! Such contradictory advice posted on reputable on-line sites! It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Sambuchino had some criticism, which, after my usual knee-jerk denial, I took to heart.

But, here’s the problem: after perusing Mr. Sambuchino’s blog site, where he shares query letters that actually led to literary representation, I’ve found that agents’ reactions to query letters are completely subjective and idiosyncratic. Four paragraphs. Five paragraphs. Begin with a single sentence that has a compelling hook. Forget the hook and tell your main character’s story in simple language. Talk about why you chose this particular agent. Explain your background and platform. Don’t waste time. Be funny. Don’t try to be funny or unique. Unique voices catch agents’ attention.

Hence the hair-pulling.

So, what have I decided? It all goes back to the advice my brother-in-law once gave me. I’ve decided to be myself. To trust my own voice. And, above all, not to play games trying to mind read literary agents.

I don’t think I can go wrong with that advice.

Thanks, Mike

Where’s Tim the Enchanter When You Need Him?

Ah, the Query Letter.

To the writer, the skeleton key that opens the massive iron gates to the mysterious and fantastic Universe of the Printed Word. The single-spaced sheet of paper that, if the runes be carved properly and the ink simmered with the perfect pinch of sweat and blood, can be transformed into a message that spans continents, slips through the narrowest crack in a literary agent’s armor, and tickles the ear of the publishing sovereign.

The Writer-Penitent who seeks to enter the Halls of the Represented must make sure to follow each convention, to stay true to the decrees and directives of the Gatekeepers. The arrow ridden skeletons of those who raced ahead seeking entrance by stealth or bribery, heedless of sage advice, line the pathway. Dusty and mold-ridden, their bones lie upon the remnants of rotting manuscript pages dotted with the wicked smart-quote, typed in the fiendish Font of Not Times New Roman.

But, say the listeners, surely any true believer, any of the pious who can read and write can follow these formulae?

Students of this lore laugh at such a foolishly innocent question.

These regulations are not listed out in black and white, boldly lettered over every portal. Even in those few, well-guarded entries that proudly display their incantations, one halting error made by the Writer-Penitent can release the Kraken of Rejection.

The mere thought of undertaking this quest can chill the most ardent heart, can cause the steadiest pen to stutter. “Perhaps self-publishing,” the fearful acolyte whispers, alone before the towering gates that seem to be forever slammed in his face.

And yet, amidst the carnage, wading through shredded 20 lb. laser-printed paper floods, brow unbeaten beneath her helm of rusted confidence, one more comes to do battle for entry. She will throw her skills against the chains and bars, forge her tens of thousands of words into a single, sharp sentence that will slide between the tumblers of the Great Lock. She will avoid the Trapdoor of Triteness and the Cleavers of Cleverness, while balancing on the tightrope over the Chasm of Showing Not Telling.

One single page. One chance. One try.

It is a daunting and terrifying feat even to one who has already created new worlds and breathed life into sympathetic and multi-faceted characters. Let us wish her well.

“What is your name?”

“My name is AUTHOR.”

“What is your quest?”

“To be published.”

“What is your favorite color?”

“Um… red. No, blue!”

SPROING

“You’ve Finished the First Draft, Now What?”

My first answer was dance. Yes. I danced. All around the kitchen, up the stairs, through the dining room, and then on the sidewalk outside the Ashton Diner where I met my friend and cheerleader, Michelle, and then later in the gym locker room. I danced. I laughed. I shouted in glee.

After five years from first thought to ‘THE END,’ I deserved to dance, even with two left feet and all of the grace God gave a goose. Heck, as a certain Princess Bride once said to her Wesley, “If you like, I can fly!!!”

My second answer was to back it up. On my computer. On a flash drive. On the cloud. Then print it, mail it, and shove it in a drawer for safekeeping. Done. Good.

After that it was time to make copies so that my first readers, loyal fan-fiction buddies, and those who have no choice but to read and give comments (like my daughter) for their critiques.

There might have been some celebratory wine drinking between two and three. And after four.

This is huge. Gigantic. From my first notion, from a dream I had of a man struggling through a snowstorm towards a red glass castle, to my first notes dictated to my daughter on a long car ride from Florida, to my 2012 NaNoWriMo victory that helped me get the story straight in my head, it has been a long, frustrating, exhilarating journey. There have been flat tires. Medical issues that have stolen my energy. Sinking depression that has swallowed up my confidence. The ups and downs of a moody creative type turned into vast mountains and deadly swamps that my little furry feet could only conquer with the helpful hands of friends and relatives.

Along the way, I hurried back to fan fiction many times. It was a way to center myself. To remind myself that, yes, I could so write. I could plot. I could develop character. I could do it and people would not hate it. There are a few stories hanging out there, unfinished, even now. I’ll finish them. I’ll put my very best into them, just like I did my novel. Why? Because all of my readers deserve it. They deserve great characterizations, dialogue that echoes perfectly, and plots that make sense. They deserve my time and attention just as much as those hopeful future readers of my original fiction do.

Why?

Because people are people and readers are readers. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about being a writer or reader of fan fiction, no matter who pretends there is. We read. We write. The same people who pick up the latest Patterson or Bujold will also pick up a fan zine or a web story and get enjoyment there.

So, after my house is cleaned (thank you my poor, dusty husband!) and after my fan fics are polished up and posted, then what?

Then I will write my Query Letter – a one page letter which brings more trepidation and dread than knowing I have many more books in Matthias’ series to finish. Then I will attend a Writers’ Conference, find an agent, and get my words into my readers’ hands. Somehow. Some way.

I didn’t write this so that it could sit on my shelf as a paperweight.

Is it going to be easy? Well, why should it be? Nothing about this journey has been easy, so I’m not expecting that now. But my skin must be thickened, and my heart must be steadied against all criticism, harsh words, nasty reviews, and rejection. I have a wonderful passel of friends to pat me on the head, give me another glass of wine, and shove me back into the fight when things go badly. Thank God.

On to the next mountain, Samwise! Where are those dratted eagles when you need them?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “A Moment in Time.”

oreo

It’s a picture of my cat. Well, not my cat, exactly. My daughter’s cat. But my daughter hasn’t lived here for quite a while now. She’s 26, in medical school in another state, and has a big rambunctious cat of her own. My grand-kitty, if you will. Max. Maximus. Huge and bouncy and adorable and not at all brilliant.

But I digress.

Oreo. The cat’s name is Oreo. That’s what you get when you allow your eleven-year-old to pick a name for the new kitten that is black and white. (Her brown/orange/white sister was named Snickers. True story.) So, by now, you can do the math and figure out that this is an old lady cat. Elderly. One might say set in her ways. Or, one might just go with blatant honesty and say ornery. Crotchety. Stubborn.

Old.

When she climbs up on my lap now, she seems to weigh nothing. All fur, bright eyes, and a scraggly tail. Her bones are just beneath the skin and when I run my hand over her fur I wonder if I’m hurting her. Petting her is not an option, however, more of a royal decree. And I can’t help myself. Softly. Gently. She purrs. She lifts her head to make it clear to the dumb human that I’m to rub her chin. She scruffs her cheeks against my hand. The table. My laptop. My laptop is warm and must feel good to those old bones. Measuring the *poof* of cat fur that greets me each time I open it, it must feel very good indeed.

A cat’s internal clock is unquenchable. I’ve always thought so, anyway. Every evening, about 9:20, she begins to pace, to stalk my husband, to chirp at him, reminding him that feeding time is coming right up. Ten o’clock. On the dot. Not one minute later. But, lately, she is sleeping so soundly at ten o’clock that we must rouse her. Pick her up. Give her a snuggle. Carefully. And as soon as that tummy-alarm kicks in she’s away to her food dish, ready for action.

She’s been a friend, a monarch, a companion for a very long time. The proof is there, in the pictures, the scrapbooks, the memories. Playing. Sleeping. Allowing my daughter to dress her in doll clothes. Suffering the cuddles and clutches of young hands, or the benign negligence of impatient adults.

Ahead, the days stretch out. Days of not enough sunshine to warm her, fewer laps to cushion her, no sister to lick her face or curl up in a pile of vibrating fur to sleep away the day.

We’re not going to even mention that behemoth (Max), annoying (playful), giant (well, he is large), thing (grand-kitty) that invades her home (comes to visit) far too often (once in a while).

It’s far too late to guard my heart against her leaving, even though I know that day draws closer every hour. But I will resolve to make more laps. Free up more hands for careful petting. And relish the need for a lint roller in every room.

Stay a while, Oreo. Another summer is coming, I promise. With sunlight. And warmth. And that favorite lap of yours visiting.

Please, stay a while.

Stay Awhile

“Follow Your Passion”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? I’ve seen it on motivational posters, heard it at graduation ceremonies, and listened to it come from the lips of celebrities and CEOs alike for many years. I’ve even said it myself a time or two.

Today I read Mike Rowe’s take on this phrase, and it got me to thinking. And regretting. (Read Mike’s explanation here: Mike’s answer )

At times, I’ve wanted nothing more than to have someone say it to me. “Mary Ellen, follow your passion. It’s the only way you’ll be happy.” “Major in Art in college if that’s your passion.” “Quit your job.” It sounds like validation. Like recognition. Warms the cockles of one’s heart.

Or does it?

Maybe what it really says is, “drop out on all of your responsibilities, ignore the commitments you’ve made, what you WANT is so much more important than what you SHOULD or even CAN do.”

Passion can be great. It lights the fire inside of the creative person. It keeps that inventor working through the night to come up with unique, important ideas. It holds the medical intern to the 48-hour-straight-shift because she wants to save lives. It keeps you working at crap jobs so that you can get that degree.

But passion, in and of itself, is not a virtue. Passion can lead to war. To envy. To selfishness. To obsession. A passion for money chews up personal relationships. A passion for your boss’s wife will lead to betrayal. I’m sure Ted Bundy had a passion for killing women. Certainly ISIS has a passion for beheading people. Does that make it okay? Hey, they’re following their passion, aren’t they?

Passion, like many emotions, is neither good nor bad, neither uplifting nor degrading. It is passion’s root and passion’s fruit that put it on one side or the other. Does your passion bring light and life, or does it lead to anger and harm? Is it borne from frustration and vengeance or is it kindled through compassion, self-awareness, and empathy? If your passion for the simplest, most inane and seemingly harmless activity comes at the expense of your soul, your friends, your family, those you love and those who love you, can following it ever be a good thing?

Beyond good and evil, beyond the big questions of life and faith, God and the devil, Mike Rowe makes another important point: passion for any endeavor without the skills or knowledge or talent for it will lead to frustration and heartache.

“When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing. It felt contradictory to everything I knew about persistence, and the importance of “staying the course.” It felt like quitting. But here’s the “dirty truth,” Stephen. “Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.”

Think about it. No one ever told the captain of a ship that all he had to do was “stay the course” if he was headed into a reef. Or an iceberg. Passion does not trump knowledge. Or talent. Or genetics.

I’ll admit it; I watch some reality television. Top Chef. Project Runway. Face-Off. Masterchef. But, please, spare me from contestant rants. “I deserve to win because I have so much passion! I want it so much! I want it more than anyone else so I should be rewarded!” Is this how life works? I certainly hope not. I really want a million dollars – does that mean I should rob a bank? Cheat? Steal to get it? Can I be a professional baseball player right now, walk on the field, grab the bat, and hit a home run? Can I do it if I spend the next five years working out, practicing, and devoting every moment to this goal? I’m a 50-something year old woman. Doesn’t seem likely, does it?

If you can’t find contentment, success, or happiness by pursuing your passion, I think it’s time for a change.

I’d never have made it as an artist. I have a little natural talent in that direction, but that’s it. I know that because, even though I didn’t study it in college, I kept drawing. Painting. Creating. I didn’t need to make it the center of my life to “follow” it. It became a hobby. And it translated well into some of my other responsibilities, like raising my daughter with a love of art and music and making things with her hands, decorating our home, making gifts for family and friends, and inspiring students.

Change your passion. Change your attitude. Change your focus. Take a look around. This economy stinks. People are struggling. Veterans are in need. Children are hungry. Stop telling people to follow their passion and tell them to get involved. Help others. Volunteer. And then look into the eyes of someone you have made the tiniest bit of effort to help. I think you might find your passion there.

Non Con Report, Day One

I am not at DragonCon.

I am not in Atlanta, Georgia.

Yesterday, I did not drive for twelve hours from the Washington, DC area, my car loaded to the rafters with bottled water, laptop, power cords, Stargate and Steampunk costumes, including boots and hats, deodorant, snacks, comfortable shoes, changes of underwear, and pictures for autographs.

Last weekend I was not racing around to finish costumes, to put the last touches on PowerPoints (no, that was TWO weeks ago), to do laundry and cook nourishing meals for my hubby to enjoy while I am geeking out with my friends.

This morning, I did not wake up in my hotel room with only one roommate, in a bed all to myself. Did not take as long a shower as I wanted. Did not hear crickets as I breakfasted in the Hilton’s Executive Level lounge, wondering which stars would be on my floor this year. Sigh. Richard Dean Anderson. (He likes oatmeal in the morning, doesn’t he, Sallye?) Teryl Rothery. Jonathan Rhys Davies. Bruce Boxleitner.

I am not, right now, standing in line at the Sheraton, eagerly awaiting my shiny Con badge and my Programming Guide, chatting with fellow geeks and sci-fi enthusiasts, reading their shirts and chuckling warmly because, yeah, I get that joke – I get ALL the jokes. And I am not wearing my “I Love the Tea-Boy” Torchwood shirt because nobody around here gets that at all.

I am not moving through the line so much quicker than in the first years of Dragon(*)Con when they used printed membership lists split into alphabetically-designed lines of doom and despair that never moved.

Until lunch, I won’t be settled in the lounge with my notebook, my DragonCon App, and my Programming Guide, making up lists of places to go and people to see that completely contradict one another and wondering when I’m going to get a shot at that Time Travel machine I need to see everyone and everything that I want in the next four days. Yes, I know, DragonCon App, I’ve already scheduled something for that time. Get over it.

Later today, I won’t be walking through the hotels to re-orient myself on which Ballroom is where, which floor of the Hyatt has American Sci-Fi Classics, which level of the Marriott houses the Starbucks and the Walk of Fame, and checking in with my favorite Track Director, Jamie Poff, in the Westin at the SGMT Track Room. (same place, different name)

And then, after lunch, I won’t be laughing and crying and welcoming my geeky buddies as they arrive to clutter up my pristine hotel room in the BEST WAY POSSIBLE with their own laptops and power cords, and boots, and fake weapons, and costumes, and bottled water, and snacks, and deodorant. And we won’t compare notes on panels and guests and who we wished was coming, and why wasn’t Michael Shanks on the guest list every year, and how well are our panels going to go over, and how early are we going to be able to get into the line that is not a line for the Big Guest Panels. And talking about our mothers and husbands, our real babies and our fur babies, our jobs and our health (we’re all getting older, aren’t we?) and how much weight we’ve gained or lost or redistributed over the past year.

For dinner, I won’t be joining them at the lovely Mexican restaurant just outside the entrance to the Peachtree Mall, where we always have margaritas and nachos and catch up on life while we watch the serving staff gird their loins for the next four days of craziness. We won’t check in – again – at the Track Room to see if we can help and to chat with the volunteers who take care of all things Stargate from year to year so well. We won’t make sure that our technology is compatible with the hotel’s so that the PowerPoints we’ve labored over for days and weeks will run smoothly and show brilliantly on the screen.

Later, Amy and I, and whoever else is feeling enthusiastic, won’t put on our Steampunk outfits, cinch each other into our corsets, adjust our gears, fasten down our hats, and head over to the Aether Lounge in the Westin Augusta Ballroom for drinks and costume ogling. But we won’t not stay late, because we’re tired, and we have a big panel tomorrow morning.
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So I won’t check out DCTV playing all day and night on the hotel television. I won’t set our morning shower schedules. I won’t tip-toe around all our gear by the light of my Kindle during the middle of the night toilet opportunities. I won’t have to wait in line for everything, dodge huge crowds, get stuck on escalators behind the guy with the tail and the woman with the giant axe made of styrofoam, get stepped on, shouted at, jostled, sneezed on, confused, perplexed, spend way too much money, smile at drunks, walk up and down and up and down and up and down that hill many times during each Hotlanta day, wait for hours to be shut out of the panel for my favorites, brave the crush of the new vendor hall where oxygen is at a premium, or stand, sweating as I wait for the elevator every time I have to get back to my room.

I miss it already.

Have a drink, take a pic, oooh and aaaaah at the pretties, and laugh a lot for me, my friends.

I’ll be here, in real life land, working on my book in the air conditioning with my cat.

Dang it.