I see you shiver with antici…

Tim Curry wakes me up with that line some mornings. It’s just tucked into the folds of my brain, in that rolling enunciation he has:

“I see you shiver with antici—

—pation.”

I’ve seen Rocky Horror Picture Show maybe twice in my life, thought a midnight dress-up show is on my bucket list. But there’s something about that line: About the onomatopoetic joke that combines a creative sense of word play with Curry’s incomparable delivery.

I can’t even say it wakes me up on mornings where something big’s happening. It didn’t wake me up this morning, but I’m thinking about it tonight as I’m waiting for something really wonderful to happen in just a couple hours. I’d say more but…this isn’t that kind of blog. Winky-face emoji.

Instead of shivering with anticipation, here’s the scene, written out as the biggest cheat of a blog post I think I’ve ever written:

Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure album is spinning on the turntable. The cheap Victrola suitcase player doesn’t do justice to the depth of this album‘s production value, but after months of searching and waiting for Best Buy, then Amazon, to cancel my order of a vinyl copy, I finally got the album from a tiny record shop in Chicago. Buy local, buy indie. The song that’s playing is “Step Into My Life.” Every song on this album is good, though. This and Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA kept me sane during Summer of My Suburban Pandemic.

A candle from Burke & Hare Co. is burning. It’s the Nevermore scent — tobacco, teakwood, vanilla and black pepper, like a high-line cologne that covers up the smell of the brownies I baked earlier.

Instead of reading the biography on Gypsy Rose Lee that’s waiting for me on my bedside table or watching the third episode of Halston on Netflix or god forbid doing more online shopping, I’m waiting for Sims 4 to finish updating so I can build a house and bulldoze it. That’s what I do now, I’ve learned. Sims isn’t fun as an adult: The excitement of building a person, giving them a house, finding them a job, make friends when you’re a barely a teenager completely dulls when you realize that your little virtual person is just as damn tired as you are, juggling the house, the job, the friends. So now I just build and demolish, like a kid constructing sandcastles at the beach.

I told a friend last night that I didn’t know what to do with myself now that my beta reader team has a copy of the first half of my novel: The logical thing would be to start the second half, but I’m far from logical with a can of Dark Horse wine in my system. He suggested I put on music and dance around the apartment.

Jessie Ware just started singing “Mirage (Don’t Stop).” Seems as good a time as ever to get on my my groove.

Beta Readers Assemble: Pulling together the ultimate review team

I’m trying something new with Lucky Ellis and sending out the first half of the draft to my beta reading team before I even get my head wrapped around the second half. There are a couple reasons for this: One is that I’m hoping that once the first half is finalized — which I won’t feel it is until my trusted cabal gives input — it’ll provide an unalterable basis for the second half.

The other reason is I just need a bit of a spiritual uplift to get my energy up for writing Part Two. Hey, we’re all human. We all need our ego boost sometimes.

I don’t usually post “how to” articles on here, but this morning I found myself thinking about my beta reader team for this project and how it’s different from the project before it, which was different from the project before that, etc. So here are my tips for finding your A-team for beta reading:

1. Think about the project, not the people.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of “she’s my best friend” or “he read the last one” or “my boss found out I write and really wants to read it now” when drafting your team. Don’t. (Unless your job might be in jeopardy if you leave your boss out, in which case maybe start looking for a different gig?)

Let the nature of the project be your guide. Did it require a lot of world-building and lore creation? Find your Game of Thrones fans and Dungeons & Dragons DMs. Is it a romance? Call on your friend who eats Harlequin paperbacks for breakfast. Did you risk getting put on a watchlist for all the dark, murdery Google searches you did? If you have any friends in the medical industry, consider asking them to take a look.

In practice, here’s what that looks like: My first book, Omaha, included a lot of neuroscientific and anatomical details, so my friend Noah, who had just concluded his neurology rotation at med school, was the first one I called upon to read it. He gave me some pointers but seemed rather disturbed at how spot-on I was in creating my speculative brain-chip-driven dystopia.

Noah didn’t read Nobody’s Hero, though. For that one, I called on Cody, who once led the Loyola University Comic Book Club and has an encyclopedic knowledge of heroes and villains across big-name and indie series. He was able to give me some pointers on how to structure Nightfire’s team and create a stronger “big bad” for the ending.

But there are a few constant draftees in my beta reading team, which brings me to no. 2:

2. Find your expert readers, and make sure they don’t all look like you.

Almost all my close friends are readers, but there are some that are simply voracious: They read entire books in a weekend and know all the Book World Drama that goes on. These are my Expert Readers and have an automatic place on the board.

The team is also as diverse as possible. I make a conscious effort to ensure my books have characters of various races, sexualities, genders, cultures, ages, etc., which means that I’m not always writing from my own personal experience: As a single, childless white woman of considerable privilege, I’m only have one kind of perspective. That’s why my beta teams are filled with people unlike me — women of color, non-straight friends, parents, older, younger.

Note, however, that having a diverse beta reading team is not a substitute for hiring a professional sensitivity reader. You should still pay someone with that expertise to read your work before publishing.

3. Convey the importance of the job but don’t take it personally when half your team fails on their mission.

They say when throwing a party to only expect half the guest list. The same goes for beta reading. I usually get 2/3 of my readers to give me feedback, and only 1/3 of them do it in the timeframe I ask. Why? Well, we’re all busy adults with lives and day jobs and better things to do than read my newest book. So give your beta team a flexible deadline and lots of gratitude up-front so they know you understand what an undertaking this is — and to drive home to them, too, how much their feedback means to you.

Because the truth is, without beta readers, a lot of our work wouldn’t make it off our laptops and Google drives and into the hands of agents, editors and publishers. So choose wisely!

Leave the ghosts behind

Every box I packed last week, I made sure that none of the infected things were in it.

Nothing that had your memory on it made it into a box. Nothing that you had given me with a card, or shipped me in those polka-dotted sacks that Amazon uses to specify that someone half-dead on their feet put into a bag for someone who didn’t order it. None of the empty vases from my birthday flowers; not the crumpled business card or shotgun shell on a chain or the event wristbands curling into itself on my counter after your last visit; none of the burned CDs you left in my car — remember when we’d tear down silent suburb streets in that 2003 Impala, Nate Ruess and Janelle Monae declaring that we were young?

Instead I held a funeral at the garbage shoot: My own memorial to the people who had come and gone — or, rather, the times I had to the people who had come and gone. A wake for the person I was with them, and the parts of me that they had taken with them as souvenirs.

And I thought it would work. I really did. After all, we always say at the coffin’s edge “They’re in a better place.” And I’m sure all of you went to better places with husbands, wives, children, functioning livers, fulfilling careers. And, truth be told, I myself am in a better place than where many of you left me — a new apartment with in-unit laundry and a private balcony.

But when all the boxes were packed and taped, then untaped and unpacked, it became clear: I could set afire the love notes and friend notes with a bundle of smoking sage, but it wouldn’t burn the memories of you out of my mind.

So I guess I took you with me. I’ll try not to bother you.

Hope you enjoy the fresh air and sharp dryer buzzer.

The year I’ll become a cheerleader: Cautious optimism meets bitter realism in 2021

Remember all those word-truthers who went on and on in 2019 about how the new decade starts in 2021, not 2020? I think they had a point…

This post isn’t going to go on ad nauseum about the awfulness of 2020. We get it: the year sucked. And as much as we’d all possibly like to think of today as the start of a fresh, unsullied 365-day period, the truth is that the pandemic isn’t over. Racism and injustice isn’t over. Exploitation of the working class and economic disparity isn’t over. Hell, the current administration still has 19 days to smash up any last bits of remaining stability on its way out of the White House, and don’t think they won’t try.

But as Jonny Sun wrote this morning, “sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to help us believe that things can be different when it’s hard to believe it ourselves.” And that’s why 2021 — at least for me — is starting with a healthy cocktail of cautious optimism in a glass rimmed with bitter realism, all ending in me getting pink-faced and breathless while cheering on my friends.

(I’m doing Dry January, too, so excuse the booze-based metaphors. That and unspiked eggnog are all I’ve got right now.)

For a lot of us — notably the privileged (white, able-bodied, young, financially comfortable) among us — this is the first year that “survive” is at the top of our list of goals. COVID isn’t going away quickly, even with a vaccine now available, and I fear that the “crisis fatigue” that lured people away from playing it safe during the summer is about to hit us like a face mask soaked in chloroform. I saw a projection today that said the U.S. death toll will likely reach 700,000 by the time we wipe out the virus entirely. At 350,000-ish deaths today, we’re only halfway there.

So there’s the bitter realism on the rim of the glass. If you were able to tolerate it, now you get to balance it out with some optimism.

Any rose-tinted attitude I have toward the new year and next decade is directly due to the people around me, and here’s why: In the last 36 hours of 2020, my friends contributed more than $800 to Women Employed, an organization that’s been working for 43-plus years to enable equity for women in the workplace. One of those friends ran a virtual New Years Eve fundraiser herself for Brave Space Alliance, the only trans-led, Black-led LGBTQ+ organization serving the South and West sides of Chicago, and collected more than $550 in just 3 hours. The willingness and enthusiasm of the friends around me to take action for the causes we support made it hard to walk into 2021 with anything more than unabashed hope. There’s plenty of work to be done, but at least I know there’s also plenty of people willing to contribute to the effort. That in itself is enough to celebrate.

Which is why, in conjunction with my “survive” goal of 2021, I’ve decided that this is the year that I will become the loudest, most spirited cheerleader I can be for friends, family and causes that I support. It’s good for my soul and psyche, good for their self-esteem and energy, and (I hope) good for the world around us.

In fact, it might do us all some good to find someone or something to shake our virtual pompoms for — even if they haven’t made it to their goal yet. Remember that cheerleaders don’t show up after the game to celebrate with the winning team: They’re present from the first whistle-blow onward, and they rally support and sponsorship along the entire road to victory. And they have fun doing it! As Jonny Sun wrote, sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to give us hope, and while today that’s the change of the calendar to 2021, for the remainder of the year, that should be those who inspire us, help us grow, and make us want to be better contributors to the world around us.

Now pass me that bullhorn — I’ve got some people to cheer.

The first paragraph of my autobiography

Today the vice president of my department gave everyone on our team an assignment. She usually sends a TED talk or think piece out on Fridays as “Friday Inspo,” and oftentimes we all read it, comment, and move on. But today was different: She asked us each to write the first paragraph of our autobiography.

I had two things each working simultaneous for and against me. The first is that I am relatively new to our team. Although I’ve been with the company for more than five years, I haven’t worked a job like this or with almost any of my current teammates before — so this assignment was a way of introducing myself as much as it was a way for me to learn abou teveryone I hear on weekly or daily calls.

The second was that I am a writer, and sell myself/have been sold as such, which means there’s a considerable amount of pressure to turn in something that will knock all their contact lenses out with its powerful prose and turn-of-phrase. I practice enough that I should be good at it, but I also work with incredible wordsmiths in their own (w)right, which means even more pressure was on during the four hours I spent reading the prompt, some of the paragraphs my peers were submitting, and crafting my own version.

If I was being a bit more honest about it, I might have explored my two greatest fears: The first, that I become boring. COVID has severely impacted the effort to avoid this, but between NaNoWriMo, Dungeons & Dragons, my friend launching a media business and naming me her unofficial executive producer, this blog, etc., I’m hoping that I’ll squeak by until a vaccine and solid injection of common sense make its way into the world’s populace. The second, that I become incapable of supporting myself. Daily fitness routines and smart spending are my antidotes to this one, as of today anyway.

Instead, I decided to sink fully into my reputation as an outlandishly inventive writer who’s still trying to figure out exactly who she’s supposed to be. It took a deep dive into my past writing projects (including a few key omissions), but after approvals from Cody and Hannah, I submitted this:

When I was 11, I was a teen pop sensation. Then, at 14, an identical twin with secret agent parents. Two years later, a high school student returned from the dead to settle an unfinished score, then in college a barfly conscripted into a city-wide mob war. Around 25 I became a brain-chipped assassin sprinting through abandoned Chicago streets, and two years later got a job as a press agent for a state-sanctioned superhero, accidentally killed my client, and started wearing the cape and cowl in her place. Lately I’ve been switching between voyaging the mystical seas as a half-elf haunted by demons and traversing the Wild West as a rancher’s daughter who joined a train robbery gang to avoid marrying the undertaker’s boring son. I’ve been all of these before turning 30, but I’ve never shot a gun or saved a city; never performed on stage or returned from the afterlife; never had a computer chip installed in my brain (I don’t think…) or spent much time in the western half of the U.S. And yet I’ve pulled these personas on like second skins over my own, creating complex characters on page after page, if only to avoid having to figure out my own true identity. I guess it’s time to do that here, so I’ll do it the only way I know how: Pen to paper, fingers to keys, one chapter at a time.

5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

Writespiration: “Sunny” by Boney M.

Like all the other post-Emo kids who follow everything My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way has done since his band broke up (and reunited — briefly, anyway, before COVID), I spent the last week binging The Umbrella Academy season 2. It’s not a perfect show; it won’t be heralded as part of the golden age of post-millennium TV. But I’m a sucker for soundtrack dissonance, and every single episode delivers — so much so that Vulture declared the show as the killer of the “sardonic needle drop.”

In that way, whenever The Umbrella Academy does in fact use music that fits a scene perfectly, it stands out. That’s the case with Boney M.’s “Sunny,” used in the S2E3 opener that recaps what Klaus — aka Seance in the comics — has been doing while seeing ghosts and leveraging his dead brother’s invisible presence in 1960s America. The song is peppy and builds up with key changes and orchestration enhancements so well that now when I hear it (which I have numerous times since watching that episode), I can imagine exactly where in Klaus’ journey we are.

Tonight I watched a documentary on Disney Plus called Howard. It looks at the life of Howard Ashman, who wrote Little Shop of Horrors and penned the lyrics to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. I was enamored by his adamance that every song needs to have a reason to be in a movie or show. “Part of Your World” is the “I Want” song that introduces you to exactly what Ariel desires — to become human. The song’s lyrics are part of the storytelling device, and they’re blatantly placed in front of you as something the character is saying.

Now look at shows like The Umbrella Academy, where the characters sometimes dance, sometimes fight to songs that already exist and come with their own history, both to the world and to us in our own heads.

“Sunny” has a perfect place in The Umbrella Academy because it’s deliciously anachronistic. The album it was on came out in 1976, while the scene it accompanies runs from 1961 to 1963: But that would just be like our hippy dippy protagonist Klaus, who’s riding high on attention and the start of the free love movement and not thinking “Gee, did Boney M. even exist yet?” The anachronisms of all the song choices this season make sense, as those song choices match the fact the Hargreeves family has traveled back in time from 2019 and could easily be hearing these songs in the memories while the world of 1963 twists and shouts around them.

So how’s this all “Writespiration?” In only one project so far I have mentioned what my characters are listening to: whether it’s the engineer blasting A Tribe Called Quest inside his soundproof lab; a federal agent turning her car on to Elton John blasting out of the Bose speakers; or Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) singing “Wild World” at the denouement. After seeing how The Umbrella Academy uses music to push the story forward in a way very different than how Howard Ashman did, I’m interested in adopting more of that into my writing. When I was singing along to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” at the bowling alley when I was 9, I didn’t expect to see it played behind a bloodbath between two civil rights activists and two Swedish time traveling assassins, but here we are — how many other ways can songs we have personal history with be used to characterize a scene?

I’m mad as hell, and I can’t write it anymore

Another non-creative piece this week, folks.

Originally I planned on doing a whole post about new horizons and starting fresh. As of this week, I’m officially an agent-free free agent after mutually deciding to part ways with my two-year literary cheerleader.

But this post isn’t about that. Or me.

OK, it’s about me.

The last week has led me to read and reflect on a lot of ways that systematic racism embeds itself in white artists’ work, whether or not they realize it. I’ve also learned more about “copoganda” and how popular media centers around police power — both as heroes and as the plot-drivers in anti-hero stories like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos — and fetishizes Black pain, even when trying to point out that brutality is wrong. Law enforcement has a pervasive presence in our stories: Just look at network TV lineups. At least one law procedural airs every night on every channel.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my own work. Those who’ve read parts or all of Nobody’s Hero know it’s about vigilantes, but they’re still overseen by the Federal Vigilante Agency that helps process the criminals they catch. Cops aren’t the focus, but they’re in the background, and even though my Black FVA agent has a conversation with her sister about the use of Black people as cops in popular culture, the very nature of vigilanteism is linked to violence-based responses to crime.

There’s probably a number of scholars who could better explain that, but the TL;DR version is: “I’m not sure Nobody’s Hero accurately represents my opinion on America’s law enforcement complex.”

So while I grumble a bit about being back to Square One on my journey to being a published novelist, I also thank my lucky stars that no editor or publisher wanted to pursue putting my latest project out into the world, particularly now that I’ve continued educating myself. Maybe I’ll go back to Nobody’s Hero and try to adjust it to my new view of the world. Or maybe it’ll get tucked away with so much other work.

I do know that my next project will contain no references to police whatsoever. It’s a supernatural mystery centered around journalists, and I’ve been struggling to gain the courage to write it for more than seven years now, and I think it’s time to buck up and write. No cops allowed.

Music of the Write: “Warriors” by League of Legends, 2WEI and Edda Hayes

Imagine Dragons’ “Warriors” was already built to be an epic theme. It launched at the League of Legends 2014 World Championship and was later used as the theme for WWE’s Survivor Series. I’m also certain it was one of the original songs I used when writing Omaha back in 2018.

It’s hard to believe it can get any more heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, fight scene-inspiring than that, but it can. Just add trailer music mavens 2WEI — responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot’s take on Destiny Child’s “Survivor” and the orchestrated cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” for the Valerian trailer.

This month I’m going to use the remainder of Illinois’ stay-in-place order to complete a book that came to me while listening to this version of “Warriors,” which means it’ll be on heavy rotation. I’m particularly envisioning a scene where a house implodes under the weight of very dark magic, and another where our witchy heroine has to face the “friend” she accidentally banished into a tiny stationery box so they can help her combat forces trying to end the world.

#NaNoWriMo 2019: What to do when you don’t have a plan

In my latest weekly post, I teased a character I had been working on for a while and was thinking of using for whatever I end up writing during National Novel Writing Month. When I posted it on Twitter, a friend from college responded, saying he was inspired to try his first NaNoWriMo but wasn’t sure what to know going in.

I responded with a couple 280-character tips: Have a network, set up a daily word count goal, tune out the editor in your head, etc. Anything you’d find on a typical writer’s blog.

But then I started thinking: What if you don’t have any plan whatsoever? How do you do NaNoWriMo when you have no concept of what the story is, who the characters are, and what critical human theme you want to explore?

I started thinking this mostly because, Hello! That’s me this year! And, as a sign from Master Bong Joon Ho himself, I saw Parasite on Sunday (excellent film, go see it), and there’s this monologue that’s gripped me since I walked out of the theater:

You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned…You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next.

So in that spirit, here’s what I came up with if you’re facing Nov. 1 without any idea what to write but the egotism? courage? stupidity? to want to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month anyway:

1. Build the story around stuff that’s happening in your actual life. Have a croissant and coffee for breakfast? Your main character did to. What were you daydreaming about while waiting for the barista to hand you said croissant and coffee? Imagine that happened — a homeless man went sprinting through the Starbucks and dropped a weird metal piece on the floor, not turning around to pick it up because there’s three alien-looking dudes chasing him, leaving puddles of slime behind them. But then one of them turns and looks at you, and signals that he wants your croissant, and you (rather, your main character) is now part of the story. OK, now what happened? You’re easily at 2,500 words after describing the scene. Only 47,500 more to go!

2. Pick a two-word name for your main character. Every time it gets mentioned, you’ll be two words instead of one closer to that 50,000 word count goal.

3. Be super descriptive of everything. What music is playing? What does the coffeeshop smell like? Is the croissant crusty, or does it give a little in its paper baggy? What does the barista look like? Multiple hair colors are a plus because they take up more words.

(Spot the trend yet?)

4. Spell out the chapter titles. That’s two words each time you break. Might as well make chapters pretty short, then.

5. Everyone your character talks to on the street has a dog. Describe it in full. More words!

6. I’ve started putting allusions to pop culture into my work when they make sense. Do the same thing. Find a great song to write to when describing what happens when your character finds out that the metal part they absconded with from the coffee shop while the alien was munching on the croissant is actually the key to a spaceship that landed in the dog park across the street. Then have it playing on the character’s earbuds or something, and toss in some of the lyrics to boost your word count.

7. Stuck on a battle scene? Write “They fight” and follow it with little bullet points of things that might happen. Then highlight it bright yellow so you can find it later when you have a better idea (or just need to bite the bullet and write it). My first NaNoWriMo project literally had “Zombies attack” written in the middle of the second chapter because I wanted to get on with the story instead of focus on action scenes, which I hate writing.

8. Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Write something you LOVE! OK, so maybe you’re gluten free and can’t eat croissants for breakfast, and the thought of having to write about an alien species for a whole book makes you cringe. Find something else to explore and enjoy. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about: playing and having fun with words. We just do it really fast, and really intensely. It’s like a month-long sprint, and we all end up stronger for it in the end.