Saturday, December 22, 2012

Most Entertaining Book of 2012: Good Omens

"I think it was a bit of an overreaction, to be honest," said the serpent. "I mean, first offense and everything. I can't see what's so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil, anyway."

     "It must be bad," reasoned Aziraphale, in the slightly concerned tones of one who can't see it either, and is worrying about it, "otherwise you wouldn't have been involved."

     "They just said, Get up there and make some trouble," said the serpent, whose name was Crawly, although he was thinking of changing it now. Crawly, he decided, was not him.

     "Yes, but you're a demon. I'm not sure if it's actually possible for you to do good," said Aziraphale.  "It's down to your basic, you know, nature. Nothing personal, you understand."

     "You've got to admit it's a bit of a pantomime though," said Crawly. "I mean, pointing out the Tree and saying 'Don't Touch' in big letters. Not very subtle, is it? I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain or a long way off? Makes you wonder what He's really planning."

     "Best not to speculate, really," said Aziraphale. "You can't second-guess ineffability, I always say..."

-- excerpt from Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I have a special place in my heart for irreverent British humor. I also am proud to admit that I know all of the lyrics to all of Queen's greatest hits. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that, unlike most of my peers, my knowledge extends beyond the hooks and choruses, but I digress. Good Omens catered to both loves and gave me a unique reading experience that was both hilarious and thought-provoking.

The story begins with Crawly - now known as Crowley - the demon and Aziraphale the angel. They have been working at cross purposes for thousands of years; however, despite their inherent natures, they aren't exactly mortal enemies. In fact, they're a bit like rival businessmen who often meet for lunch. Just doing their jobs, no hard feelings.

One day, Crowley gets the call from The Powers that Be: the Antichrist has been born, and it's Crowley's job to work behind the scenes and ensure the harbinger of the apocalypse gets a properly demonic education. Neither angel nor demon are thrilled by this bit of news. They've come to enjoy the marvels of the modern world, and humans are such interesting creatures. It would be a shame to see both meet their end in a storm of fire and brimstone.

They work together to throw the end of the world off track by giving little Warlock the kind of upbringing that would make it impossible for him to ever choose between good and evil. Eleven years later, they make an embarrassing discovery. Turns out there was an accidental switcheroo at the hospital. Warlock is not the Antichrist. Hi-jinks ensue as the denizens of Heaven and Hell (and a few humans too) race to find the real Antichrist, Adam Young, a typical English boy who is completely unaware of the world-changing powers at his disposal.  

I've loved Pratchett's satirical humor since before I was a teen, but Gaiman is a new discovery, and the timing couldn't be better. My current oddball state of lapsed-but-still-devoted Catholicism has made me much more receptive to humorous, yet honest examinations of faith and the faithful than I would have been in the past. But this book isn't just 300 pages of poking fun at religion. There's a genuinely good story happening on the surface, and the characters are their own people, not just mouthpieces for the authors' worldviews.

To put it in figurative terms, Good Omens is like broccoli disguised as cotton candy, but not at all like broccoli flavored cotton-candy. (If Mr. Pratchett or Mr. Gaiman ever read this, I hope they understand what a ringing endorsement that is.) If that isn't enough of a sell, how about this bold declaration: I think any book that contains demons using the recorded voice of Freddie Mercury to communicate with one another is a book that deserves to be on anyone's reading list, regardless of their creed.

Although Good Omens was new to me, this is not a recent release by any means. Some aspects of the setting are comically dated; however, given how angsty the world is getting about faith, politics, and the blending thereof, the themes are perhaps even more relevant now than they were when Good Omens was first published in 1990.

In fact, I'm rather disappointed that I couldn't get this post done a day earlier, when the Mayans supposedly predicted that the world was supposed to end. It would have been so wonderfully fitting. *kicks self*

P.S. I would encourage you to read a physical copy of this book, rather than the e-book version. The footnotes are great, but the e-book format makes flipping back and forth such a pain. It really hampers the delivery of the humor.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Most Compelling Book of 2012: The Sehkmet Bed

"Thutmose's full attention was on his second wife; he helped Mutnofret fix her perfumed wax cone to her lovely gleaming wig, touched her soft hand, told her she was beautiful, so beautiful. 

Ahmose's belly soured. 

The night dragged on forever. Mutnofret was a perfect woman, graceful and winsome, smiling her approval at all the performers, brushing her arm now and then against Thutmose's, her cheek against his shoulder. Thutmose was not unmindful of Ahmose, to be sure; he offered every dish to her first, asked her opinion of each performance. But all his attentions had the flavor of duty, not the adoration she craved. 

Is this to be my marriage then? A dutiful husband who cannot take his eyes off my sister, even for a moment?

-- excerpt from The Sehkmet Bed, by Lavender Ironside

Good Egyptian historical fiction is hard to find. I don't understand why, because ancient Egypt has everything: beautiful landscapes, unique religious customs, fascinating societal structures, and historical figures with plenty of gaps in their recorded lives to allow for some creative license.

Not much is known about the real Ahmose. We know she was the mother of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt's most famous queens and Pharaohs. Her own parentage is unknown, but it's likely that she and Mutnofret were at least half-sisters. Lavender Ironside (best pen name ever) chooses to take advantage of this, and the result is the most real, bittersweet depiction of sibling rivalry I've ever seen.

Ahmose is 13, intelligent, pious, and a bit naive. Mutnofret is 16, worldly, cunning, and wild. Both are shocked when, after the death of their father, it is Ahmose who is declared queen. She becomes Great Royal Wife to the new pharaoh, a title Mutnofret had prepared her entire life to have, while the elder sister is instead given the lesser title of second wife. The immediate consequences are, of course, a suddenly much more strained relationship between the two women; however, that's not what pushes them to the breaking point. Egypt needs an heir. If either woman can provide their country with its future pharaoh, it can not only determine their status in the palace, but also affect the very course of Egypt's history.

Herein lies Ahmose's disadvantage. Unlike her sister, she does not yet have the body of a woman, or the feminine wiles to compensate. And while Thutmose, the pharaoh, is an entirely likeable Prince Charming, he is also a man of flesh and blood.  

First of all, being romantic rivals with your own sibling must be one of the worst experiences in the world. But when you know that the outcome carries political weight, so much weight that the fate of an entire nation relies on it? The pressure has to be unreal.

As intriguing as it is, the premise alone wasn't what made this the most compelling story I've read this year. Ironside could have easily told it so Ahmose was the long-suffering good girl, with Mutnofret as no more than a sort of wicked step-sister type. She didn't do that. As much as I rooted for Ahmose, she makes some pretty sketchy decisions to maintain her position, and as an older sister myself, I keenly felt Mutnofret's pain at being usurped by a twiggy young girl who was never supposed to be a threat.

Because of this, it didn't matter that, as historical fiction, I already knew what happens at the end. That's not the only thing at stake. Motivations are often difficult to parse out in this book, but one thing is clear: both women genuinely love this man, and they care about each other too. Watching them struggle to preserve a once-healthy family relationship while at the same time look out for themselves romantically and politically was endlessly captivating.

It's extremely rare nowadays for me to find a book I have to fight to put down. In addition, I honestly find most love triangles irritating. What made this book different was the depth and the realness of the characters. When I wasn't reading about them, I was thinking about them. Months later, I'm still thinking about them. I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me do that, and most of them are not recent reads.

As with all books there were a few flaws. Frankly, I barely noticed them at the time because I was reading too fast, which is why The Sehkmet Bed is my Most Compelling Book of 2012.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

I'm home, and I have Show and Tell!

This visit home was easily the best I've had since moving away about 2 1/2 years ago. With the exception of those who just had to get dreadfully sick (the nerve of some people), I had plenty of time to see everyone I wanted to see. My family is just as low key and laid back as they were when I left them, so for most of the week I felt relaxed and content.

We spent one evening flipping through old photo albums and other mushy memorabilia. I now have some great pictures that will one day be in a scrapbook for the benefit of posterity. I also stumbled across some pure comedic gold: my first grade creative writing anthology. 

Oh my gosh, you guys. 

I don't remember writing a word of this stuff, which made it all the more hilarious to read out loud. As I rediscovered my 7 year-old mind, I also realized two things. 

1.) Small children appreciate life's small things in a big way.

2.) My tendency to start too many sentences with conjunctions goes back much farther than I thought.

For your entertainment and my self-deprecation, I have transcribed two of my very first stories below. My teacher was awesome enough to preserve all spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. I will do the same, with minimal commentary. 

Conner Prairie Visit
(This is a true story.)

When I visited Conner Prairie I got to carve wood three times! And I saw a man making potery. And then I went to this little tiny log cabin and on the seling I saw a lot of animals skin.  And there mugs were made of clay and we saw Dr. Campbell. And he had a large house! and (And, and, and, and...) we learned how they made clothing and then the best part of my life. (Of my LIFE,  you guys!) I bought a doll and a bonet and candy stick. 


At The Circus
(This is not a true story. Thank God.)

Once upon a time I went to the circus. I saw the clowns do silly things. And when I saw the lions, one of them begged me to get on his back! And when I got on his back he ran all over his cage. So I quickly got out and ran straight to the monkeys. But when I got to the monkeys, one of them grabbed by hand and swung me all over there cage, Hellllp! (I love that I drew out the L, not the E.) I said as they swung me around in circles, so I gragged (???) the bars quickly.  and got out fast and went to see the elephants, but when I got to the elephants, one of them caght me by his trunk, and picked me up I think now would be a good time to leave I said. (I don't think we had learned quotations marks yet.)


***

I really couldn't have found these at a better time. Not only was the whole immediate family around to crack up with me, but I appreciated finding these all the more now that writing is such a big part of my life. I saw how far I've come, and how much farther I have to go. Much, much farther. 

Gotta work on those conjunctions.

And those run-on sentences.

(See what I did there?) 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Railroads, Revamping, and The Best of 2012

Lots of cool things are on the horizon!

First and foremost, I get to visit my family in Indiana for a 6 day Thanksgiving/Christmas/"ZOMG I haven't seen you since Mother's Day" celebration. I haven't been able to spend that amount of time with them for about 2 1/2 years, and it's going to be amazing. 

But before that I have to survive a 16-hour train trip.

I say "survive", but really, I quite like trains. I greatly prefer them over flying. It's not that I'm afraid of flying. Excluding the horrific migraines I get between Albany and DC, being eye level with the clouds is neat. What I don't like is the palpable tension and paranoia of the airports themselves. I'm forced to lurk near the terminal, clutching my baggage tightly, hoping that The Voice of the Airport Gods won't announce that I and my fellow travelers are the newly chosen victims of their capricious cruelty. 

In contrast, the nice people at Amtrak are just that. If I'm in the bathroom at the station, I know they won't leave without me; if I fall asleep on the train, I know they'll make sure I'm awake when I reach my stop. I feel like these people really want me to get where I'm trying to go, and they want me to be comfortable in the meantime. I appreciate that. 

Next on the list is a blog redesign. The current look did the trick for a while, but I'm becoming increasingly less satisfied. I'm hoping that my father (a veteran web developer) and I can figure out a set-up that better reflects my content and image - assuming an unpublished dork like me can possess the latter. To any concerned, the turtle will stick around, he just might be attacking his strawberry elsewhere. Custom banner, better colors and improved functionality ahoy!

Finally, once I'm back in New York I'm going to start a series of posts about my favorite books this year. Becoming a writer has changed the way I read, which means that although I'm much pickier than I used to be, I also can better articulate why I love certain books as much as I do. 

This year my nightstand has seen more variety than ever before; I'm reading lots of different books for lots of different reasons. So, instead of doing it Top 5 style, I'm going to rate them according to my completely subjective opinion of what I found the most: Compelling, Entertaining, Beautiful, Informative, and Challenging. (Not necessarily in that order.) Detailed descriptions of what those categories mean will be included in the posts themselves, so you'll just have to wonder what my idea of things like "beauty" are until then.

See you in December!   

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post, Except Not Really

I find myself feeling extremely grateful this Thanksgiving season, if not in the usual warm, fuzzy way.

I've never been much of a patriot. I don't know why, but I have a hard time feeling proud or fiercely protective of something so vast and esoteric. I mean, what is "country"? For some it's the people living in it, for others it's the geographical makeup. Other still say it's the values it was founded on, or the values it is moving toward. Most people would say it's a mixture of all those things, and I think I agree.

It's not that I'm incapable of loving any one of those things, in fact I'm able to love all of those things, and at the same time too. But, I think what makes a person a patriot is the ability to say, "I love this country, which is the sum of all these concepts, more than I love any other, to the point that I will fight for it, be it with words or guns." They can probably say it with fewer commas too.

Part of my writing research involves delving more into the lives and minds of people who, for one reason or another, have decided that words are not enough. And among many other things, I've learned that soldiers have an interesting relationship with the country they represent. During this 10 year conflict in the Middle East (that's half my life, folks) public perception has changed from one extreme to another and back again. On a national level, I think we're currently somewhere in the middle.

One of the local papers recently addressed this trend, and made a statement regarding "the war everyone forgot we were fighting". As a card-carrying member of the Apathy Party who has no loved ones currently overseas, I found the concept convicting on a personal level.

I'm not too keen on this war, but I also know that it's not just the patriots out there. Some people are choosing to shoot and get shot at in a foreign country because it's the only job they can get.

That. Really. Blows.

I'm a cashier at a dollar store, and from the beginning of November to the few days before Christmas I'm going to have a little basket of toys at my register. Part of my job is to ask customers to donate one of these toys to an organization that will give them to children of local military families.

Sometimes I like to pretend I'm a scientist, so I'm conducting an experiment of sorts. I've found that if I just say, "Would you like to donate any toys to X today?" they can politely decline rather easily; however, if I say, "Would you like to donate any toys to local kids?" they're more like to reply, "Sure!" or "Tell me more!"

Yes, cynics, I'm basically practicing my guilt-tripping skillz. But it's true, if my customers know that the toys are going to go to a child in this area, a child they might know, they're much more likely to donate. And ever since a local soldier was killed shortly before he was scheduled to go home, the odds are even better. Make of that what you will. It's certainly one of the grayer quirks of human nature.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a bad scientist. I tend to get involved.

Once every day or two, the baskets need to be refilled. When it's my turn, I like to put in things like packages of army men (We have the ones with the parachutes!), crayons, coloring books, stuffed animals, etc. On Sunday, I had to count up the number of toys people donated the previous week. Apparently someone, I don't know who and it doesn't matter, thought that a fake winning lottery ticket from our prank section would be a brilliant gift for a kid who's dad has been gone for 6 months and might not come back while Mom does the work of two people to keep the family together in the meantime.

Honest question: does it mean I'm oversensitive if that made me want to start flipping tables?

Okay, so it wasn't that bad. And I really don't think whoever bought that did it because they had an overly morbid sense of humor. They probably just weren't thinking at all. "Yeah, sure, just pick whatever and throw it on my total. (Then I won't feel bad for saying 'no' next time.)" Even so, it surprised me how bothered I was.

I must confess I'm at a loss when it comes to taking action. Yesterday I donated a comic book, but since it only put me out a dollar and required no further effort it did little to assuage my sense of...I don't even know what to call this. It's a strange blend of duty and impotence. I'm just a broke cashier with limited transportation and opportunity. What can I do to actually help a complete stranger and tell them, "I'm not blind to the sacrifices you're making"?

I really want to know, but since I don't, I'm going to set the bar a little lower. I'll start with genuine appreciation and work myself up to true self-sacrificing compassion once I've figured out the specifics.

So then: I'm thankful my own dad has suffered nothing worse than back aches, wrist strain and migraines at his quiet office job over the years. I'm also happy that my brother-in-law could play with his 3-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter today, even if he has to leave tonight for a grueling shift at a paper mill. It's a hazardous place, but he can be reasonably certain he'll come home the next day. And I'm so relieved that when my husband and I did the long-distance thing for 2 years, he was safe on a college campus and not putting his life on the line for reasons unable to be pinned down by general consensus. Because whatever banal suburban ennui I might experience, it's nothing compared to the real pain that others are feeling right now. Pain that can't be fixed by a dollar store toy.

The men and women of the armed forces aren't angels or demons. They're humans that place themselves in situations that most of us couldn't bear. That can often lead to some unfortunate things, but it often leads to something wonderful too. And I'm finally starting to understand and respect that like I should.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"That's a Pretty Good Excuse" Writing Retreat Scholarship

I recently experienced that light-headed, acrobatic intestine feeling I get whenever I crash headfirst into a startling discovery filled with endless possibilities. Don't worry, this only happens to me once or twice a year.

I've been following a podcast called "Writing Excuses" for quite some time. Hosted by a variety of authors that I greatly admire, "Writing Excuses" is a weekly 15-minute talk about all things writing-related. It's mostly SF/F focused, but it's an awesome resource for writers in other genres as well.

On October 1st they announced their very first writing retreat, a week-long workshop held in Chattanooga, TN. Not only would this be an awesome opportunity to get one-on-one time with some of my favorite authors, but I would also get to tick a box on my extensive list entitled "Places With Long Quirky Names I Must Visit Before I Die".

Sadly, as with most amazing discoveries I make, I tripped over a massive speedbump. The total cost of the trip would be about $2,000. Not only would I have to work for about 9 months to earn that much, but if I'm going to shell out that kind of moolah for a vacation, I would want my husband with me and it would have to be something we would enjoy equally.

So I said to myself, "Aw, bummer, maybe they'll do it again someday when I'm fantastically wealthy," and I thought that was the end. And anyway, all the spots were taken in exactly 9 minutes, so my imaginary money might not have been enough.

But on November 5th (historically, a lucky day for me) my insides hopped on the ole pommel horse. The folks at Writing Excuses announced they had one last supar sekrit spot reserved - a spot that would go to the recipient of the "That's a Pretty Good Excuse" Scholarship. This will cover the registration fee, the hotel costs, and up to $500 in airfare; IE, all of those things that made me fall flat on my face a month ago.

To qualify for the scholarship, I must submit by January 15th, 2013: 1-3 separate pieces totaling no more than 10,000 words, a 450-700 word personal essay explaining why I'm a good candidate, and finally, three letters of recommendation from non-relatives.

That last part is where you guys come in! There's still a bit of time before the deadline, so I wanted to put it out there for those who need to ponder such things. If anyone is interested in supporting me in this way, and if you'd like to actually read my fiction before you decide to tell a complete stranger that I'm legit (I highly recommend this) please leave a comment here, or contact me through email or Facebook.

Just like Highlander, there can only be one, so I know my chances are pretty slim, especially when there are so many deserving people out there who've been chasing this dream far longer than I have; however, this is a once in a lifetime chance to not only do something amazingly fun that teaches me a lot about the craft, but also make some valuable connections in the writing and fantasy community.

The Writing Excuses website will give all the details about the scholarship, and what they're looking for in the letters of recommendation.

And now I'm out of excuses, so back to writing!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

This Weekend Is Going To Be Awesome

I could tell you that I'm going to spend tonight, all day Friday, and a good part of Saturday intensively planning and outlining a book, and I would sound totally hardcore, or I could tell you that I'm playing a tabletop role-playing game. (For the record, I'm still hardcore.)

At first it was just myself, my husband Matt, and a friend of ours getting together for an especially geeky weekend. Matt, a veteran Game Master, had had a campaign idea percolating in his mind for about 6 years, and life circumstances had finally given us the opportunity to finally see how the idea played out "live". About two hours into the first session, I thought, "Holy crap, you guys! We're telling a story!" (For long-time tabletop players that are thinking, "Like, duh", please understand that I was pretty fresh off the bus.)

Thing is, this was a GOOD story - the kind of story that I'd love to read. And the more we played, the better it got. At this point, I had also made a few false starts on my First Real Novel. I couldn't get anything to stick. Five, maybe six months later, and a few weeks before the second geek weekend, I decided that this was the story I wanted to tell.

I didn't know then that novelizing your tabletop stuff was a sort of hallmark of amateurism that almost 100% of the time resulted in a shallow Tolkien or Dragonlance pastiche. When I did make that discovery, I was embarrassed by my story's origins. I knew that the setting my husband created, and the cultures, characters and conflicts within it were as inspired as any other good fantasy I'd encountered, but as an amateur writer, the last thing I wanted was to be accused of being an amateur.

As my present efforts can attest, I got over it. That said, I'm trying to be smart about it. A straight-up transcription of the campaign would be a wandering, schizophrenic mess. The pacing and structure of a game, even if it is story and character focused, is quite different from that of a series of novels. There are things that I will have to take out because they veer too far from both the main plot and the various subplots in content and tone. Other things, like minor characters and the aesthetics of the world will have to be fleshed out further. ("Matt, how do Mequisians dress?" "...Lots of colors? I dunno, but it's probably very impractical.") The way the magic works has to be tweaked, because certain spell mechanics are great for game balance but kind of horrible in a narrative setting.

It could take as long as three years before the things that happen this weekend are transformed into the first draft of a book, and I can't even say with certainty if this will be Book 3 or Book 5. I think this is to my advantage, in the end. I'll be able to write the earlier stuff with the newer stuff in mind, so I can make sure everything matches up. Matt and I will have a lot of time to think back on past events and, if necessary, say, "You know, it would fit the story and the characters better if X happened instead of Y."

It's not the system I had in mind when I pictured being a novelist, but as a gamer this enriches the experience for me tenfold. I love that both mediums are starting to influence each other as they gain shape, making both stronger. And most of all, I love working together with my husband to create something. We've been a right good dragon slaying duo over the years, and to me this is the natural meeting place of our respective hobbies and passions. That, and it's way cheaper than swing dance lessons. (Someday, someday...)

Whether I'm typing away in my word processor or sitting around a table rolling dice and eating pizza by candlelight, I'm doing what I love and trying my best to tell a story worth hearing.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Didn't Always Want To Write

The blog description hints at this, but it took more than a few hyphens to make the transition from dancing to writing. To keep this from getting too long and convoluted, I'll start with the first, most basic layer.

My mother took me to my first dance class when I was 6 years old. After a few hiccups because of silly baby things like "It's too hard!" and "It hurts when I stretch!", I fell in love. By age 11, I had been competing regionally for a few years with lots of shiny medals to show for it, and went to my first dance convention, a deeply spiritual and formative experience that deserves a post of its own. My teachers admired my dedication and potential, and I'm sure my relatives were thrilled with the abundance of pictures of me in adorable outfits.

For myself, especially after that convention, I went through every day with the peace and certainty of a person who knew exactly what they were going to do with their life. I branched out from just tap and took jazz and ballet classes as well. Stretching became therapeutic, not painful. As I matured, the way I felt when I danced slowly began to match the way I moved. I say this humbly, but in truth: I was pretty darn good. By age 15, I was confident enough in my abilities to smile, wink, and otherwise emote my enthusiasm to the judges. "Go ahead, watch me."

It also helped that I had a boyfriend, I think.

But at some point, I'm not really sure when it was, I hit a wall. My improvements from year to year were less  dramatic, and whenever I competed I couldn't take my eyes off the girls from the other studios. When I was younger, I could look at them and think, "I can be that good someday." But now that I was in high school and nearing the end of my instruction I realized I was running out of time. Sure, I could hope that going to college as a dance major would help me close the gap between where I was and where I wanted...no, needed to be, but financial restraints kept me from dedicating myself fully to the idea. In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't. The cost would have been horrendous even if I had been talented enough to get a boatload of scholarships, and I can say with certainty that it wouldn't have paid off.

I adjusted my dreams to reality. I wouldn't own a critically acclaimed studio; I wouldn't win So You Think You Can Dance; I wouldn't be the principal dancer of a prestigious company, in New York or elsewhere. But I had a knack for choreography. I watched two studios perform to the same song and saw which one was an amalgam of formulaic crowd-pleasers and which one allowed itself to be inspired by, and beyond, the lyrics and rhythm. I wouldn't be lying if I said I became something of a snob about it. (Aren't most art critics?) 17 now, I was the early stages of developing my own style and motifs, though past teachers and routines still influenced me heavily.

Senior year. Just a little over a week until my last competition, and less than three months until recital, graduation, wedding, leaving the nest. Disaster strikes. I'm practicing a new leap I had learned and was considering adding to my solo. Something feels wrong when I land. I shake it off, tell myself it was a matter of improper weight distribution. I'll get it next time. I prepare to do it again. I never leave the ground.

Two days later, the podiatrist says I have broken a major blood vessel between my second and third toes. A freak accident, he says. Never seen it before, will probably never see it again. Recovery will take eight to ten weeks.

Until this point, I had never experienced anything more serious than a bruised tailbone. (Never take your butt for granted. It does more than you think.) Even with my distress, I knew I was lucky. The horror of the injury lay not in its nature but its location. I cannot walk without limping, to say nothing of dancing. For my last competition ever, I do not even consider bringing my costumes, shoes, and make-up. The thought of dancing is that unfathomable in my condition. Dozens of fellow dancers ask me, "What happened?" I have been at the competition site for less than an hour, and I'm already tired of telling the story. I stand in the wings, favoring one foot while the rest of my class performs. During my lyrical piece, my partner looks strange when she embraces the empty air. I don't remember how my studio placed.

I will not finish choreographing my solo for recital. My voice cracks as I tell this to the studio owner. I realize I didn't have the mental fortitude to add yet another thing to my ambitious list of things to do anyway.

Dress rehearsal for recital. I've been able to participate in the last few classes, but I'm taking it easy. I'm getting married the day after recital, and I want to walk boldly down the aisle in high heels, dammit. The next day someone posts a mid-leap photo of me on Facebook. It is one of the quintessential "Wow!" shots of my chosen profession. I've always wished someone would capture one of me.

My legs aren't straight, or as horizontal as they should be, my gimpy foot isn't pointed all the way. My arms at least in the right position, though a bit limp. My expression is too pensive for a routine meant to be joyful. I look exhausted. Worst of all, I don't look like a professional.

Recital night. I have six costumes. Tap. Graduating seniors dance. Ballet. Lyrical. Duet with my younger sister. (We hold hands for the first time in years as we walk through the dark to our positions.) Pointe. Production. At least, I think that was the order. Mistakes were minimal, though I completely forget one of the last sequences of the pointe dance, one of my favorite routines. I hold an improvised pose until I can jump back in.

By the end of the night, I'm just glad it's over.

My last few months as a student did nothing to change my post-graduation plans - move to upstate New York, otherwise known as the prettiest place on earth with my husband and get a teaching job - but it did rattle my already fragile self-confidence. I spent my first six months querying studios in the area. In the entire county, three were within reasonable driving distance. (My hometown alone had at least ten.) When I called the most promising of the three, I had to hang up before I finished my voicemail because I stumbled over my words too much. My second attempt was much better, though my mother-in-law says I left a dent in the backyard from pacing so much.

I won't detail the whole ordeal as this is already getting too long, but suffice to say that every studio was a long established, some decades old, one woman show that had no interest in expanding the payroll or the classes they offered. When I changed my strategy and asked about adult or private classes I could take to keep my technique sharp, the answer was a flat, unchangeable "no". "That is not a door I am interested in opening," one of them told me.

I kicked myself for not finding this information sooner, but again, I persevered. I didn't need a studio. I just needed to dance.

A year and a half later my greatest achievement was a ballet solo for a children's Christmas pageant. The whole thing took place in the basement of a 100-member church. I had to keep my movements small to avoid kicking my audience. When I suggested a worship dance program open to all ages, the person in charge of such things gently said it wouldn't be possible. Though I was very well received at the pageant, the woman who ran the best studio in town was the granddaughter of one the parishioners. "We wouldn't want to offend the family." No evidence was ever presented to me that they would be, or that the woman would have ever started something similar given the opportunity, but it was another wall. I could have spoken to the family myself, but at that point I was so demoralized by small town politics and its mentality that I couldn't bring myself to try.

I made half-hearted attempts to contact other churches. After all, dance was a universal blessing, and I didn't need to root it in my own denomination for it to be successful. The concept of dance as a religious expression, such a treasured part of life at home, was beyond comprehension to the people here. They were very sweet, but it was obvious they had no idea what to do with me.

A few weeks after my last phone call, I waited in my bedroom until I knew I would be alone and unheard. I let myself come undone. But just in case, I wailed into my pillow. And that was the end.

I have since decided that it was my first break-up, as devastating as the loss of any boy. Moreso, even, because the courtship was so long and I was so devoted and there was so much promise. Like most first boyfriends, a part of me will always love it, will always belong to it. I can now watch other people dance without tasting salt and my own bitterness. Thoughts like, "Should I have done more? What could I have done differently? Did I give up too soon?" no longer plague me.

Who knows, I might one day be in a more urban, culturally alive setting, and I can take a class, one hour a week. Paying per class, not month. It would be a friendship. Less intensity, fewer expectations, but perhaps just as fulfilling.

And in the meantime, I have my writing.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

About My Book

I'm working my way through the second draft of my first novel, a gritty heroic fantasy tentatively titled Chains of Gold and Iron. My elevator pitch still needs work (people on trains are great practice for when I eventually meet an editor or agent), but so far I've boiled it down to this:

"Two elven siblings - one devoted to a god of healing, the other a god of war - are sold into a pit fighting circuit by a merchant lord who sees their divine gifts as an opportunity for profit."

Sure, it cuts to the meat of the plot, but it leaves out the things that I find most interesting to explore within the story. The book alternates between the perspectives of two very different people, and I think that comparing and contrasting their inner workings is what turns a fairly straight-forward concept into something more. (Intro to Psychology tied with Writer's Craft as my favorite elective in high school; the two interests became inextricably entwined, and since then I have not enjoyed reading or writing about well-adjusted people.)

We have Kortesh: a brash spitfire who's spent all his life in his elder brother's shadow. Embracing the teachings of Cevarius, a human god of war, gives him something to strive for, but sparring matches and history lessons get a bit repetitive after 120 years. Bored and untried, he jumps at the chance to see the world and find out what he's capable of.

Then there's Elestyne: younger than Kortesh by one year, and the lone agnostic among a family of clergy; however, any elf who wants to be seen as a medical professional associates themselves with Leiana, patron deity of their race. She packs up her kit and heads for the frontiers, hoping to share her knowledge and talents in a place where most people acknowledge the rule of neither kings nor gods.

A merchant friend of the family offers to let them stay with him until they get on their feet, in exchange for a favor or two. But when someone tries to rob the merchant and threatens both siblings, which one of them uses magic they didn't know they had to accidentally kill the would-be thief?

Not Kortesh. *grins*

This leads to the stuff mentioned in the pitch, and then the real story begins. I get to subvert and deconstruct some of my favorite tropes in the genre, both for horrific and comedic effect - occasionally at the same time!
(I mean, seriously, pit fighting elves? I've had almost 2 years to adjust to the concept and I still think it's weird.)

My only hope is that one day my skill will match my enthusiasm, and I'll have the writing chops to do the story justice.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hello, world!

It's generic, it's amateurish, but it's mine.

I'm hoping this blog will fill a need I've had for a while. Facebook is a fun place for sharing quippy one-liners and commiseration for life's common struggles, but I wouldn't attempt an in-depth conversation with someone over the medium. We've all seen someone try it. Most of the time, it doesn't end well.

I've also been a part of many forums over the years. They're great for getting a variety of views on a variety of topics, but even online I am an introvert. I lurk more than post, and when I do post I feel like I'm intruding on the turf of the more prolific regulars.

This is going to be a place where I can talk about things I think are awesome. As such, it's going to be a bit unfocused at first, and I can't guarantee that every person is going to be interested in every post. Since I just jumped right into blogging and am figuring it out as I go, perhaps I'll split things up into different categories later on if the archives get out of hand. I like the concept of organization, but the execution and subsequent maintenance is an epic struggle. Anyone who has seen my desk at any point in time will understand this.

The first few posts are probably going to be writing-related. I'm in the midst of revising my first fantasy novel, so I'm absorbing as much about the craft as I can. But I also used to be a competitive dancer, I watch anime and play video games, and I'm currently a cashier at a dollar store. Despite my hermit-friendly pursuits and dead end job, I still manage to live an interesting life.

And here I will conclude my long-winded blog intro and get back to my book. The main antagonist just made his first appearance, and he has a tendency to steal the show.

Cheers!