Here comes a new challenger

Logo for ConZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention
New Zealand just got much closer!

Life comes at you fast sometimes, and in this case, “life” means ConZealand, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, aka WorldCon. I’m happy to be a last-minute addition to their programming; this means you can watch me have entertaining opinions and read from Prime Deceptions live from the comfort of your home.

I’m also doing a kaffeeklatsch, so you and nine of your closest allies can ask me questions about extremely important topics, like which Renegade interrupts are morally acceptable for Paragons to take, or who are the most entertaining party members to bring to the Winter Palace. Or you could ask me about MY books, I guess!

Behold, my schedule:

ConZealand

  • Tuesday, July 28, 2020 at 8:00pm EDT: Reading
  • Wednesday, July 29, 2020 at 8:00pm EDT: Kaffeklatsch
  • Friday, July 31, 2020 at 11:00pm EDT: Not Your Parents’ Space Opera
  • Saturday, August 1, 2020 at 8:00pm EDT: In Space No One Can See You Hide the Evidence: Crimes in Space

If you’ll be at ConZealand, stop on by and say hi! If not, you can still say hi to me on Twitter, and maybe ask me that Winter Palace question.

Stay safe, amigos!

Summertime scoops

Tools of the trade.

Sumer is icumen in, as the song goes, at least in the northern hemisphere. Every day is hotter than the last, the world is on fire, but the cicadas are still rattling away in the trees and bushes outside.

As a break from all the bad news everywhere, I have a few items of good personal news. First, I’ve sold two more books to Harper Voyager! Eva and the crew of La Sirena Negra get to have a third book, coming in 2022, in what I hope will be a very fun and satisfying end to their story–maybe with room for future shenanigans? The other book, for now, shall remain super secret, but it’s coming in 2023.

The pact is sealed.

If you’ll be attending the virtual San Diego Comic-Con this year, you can catch me on a panel of awesome women and nonbinary authors, discussing other awesome women and nonbinary authors, past and present. The other panelists are Nicky Drayden (Escaping Exodus), Marina Lostetter (Noumenon Ultra), Jessie Mihalik (Chaos Reigning), and K.B. Wagers (A Pale Light in the Black). That will be on Friday, July 24 at 3pm PDT (that’s 6pm EDT, East Coast residents).

I also have a virtual event coming up on July 29th at 6:30pm, hosted by The Ivy Bookshop, with Michael R. Underwood, author of the forthcoming Annihilation Aria. I got to read an ARC of the book, and it was a delightful space adventure with, among other things, a paladin-bard, which is frankly a multiclass that should exist in more fiction. Check it out, and come to our chat!

Finally, a reminder that I’m in an ongoing Blades in the Dark game that streams monthly on Twitch. Check out the latest episode, or catch up from the beginning. A mech powered by an anxious ghost, a former soldier with PTSD, an eclectic antique dealer with a dark past, and a food-obsessed bounty hunter try to figure out The Case of the Cindered Seal.

That’s all for now! Stay safe, amigos, and as the prophets say, be excellent to each other.

Space cats!

Space cats? Space cats!

Everyone always quotes the great Terry Pratchett when talking about cats: “In ancient times cats were worshiped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” But through the inimitable Granny Weatherwax, he also said, “If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”

Personally, my experience with cats has been more along the lines of derpy snuggle-fiends who like to rub their face on me and cry for snacks. They can also be sneakily empathetic, appearing from their undisclosed cat sleeping locations to comfort me when I’m struggling with big feelings.

Cats have been our allies for ages, and given that they were often employed as pest control on ships, it’s reasonable to expect we’ll want their companionship and skill set once we start exploring the stars. We’ll have to solve the whole artificial gravity problem first, of course; cats always land on their feet, and this makes for a rather tragic scenario when one is floating around with no fixed concept of “down.”

With that in mind, I present to you a list of some of the best (so far) fictional cats in outer space–besides mine, of course:

Jones hard at work on the Nostromo

Jones, aka Jonesy (Alien): The pinnacle of space cat. Did his job, accepted occasional affections from the human crew, and valiantly attempted to warn everyone when there was an incursion he couldn’t handle from a horrifying xenomorph. Declined to participate in further missions with Ripley, because cats are no fools. A survivor, a legend, and an adorable orange tabby who I would absolutely nuzzle.

Spot: An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature

Spot (Star Trek: The Next Generation): Another orange tabby (and sometimes Somali) cat who is more stripey than her name would suggest, Spot was Data’s companion, so beloved that he wrote an ode to her. She behaved in standard cat ways: sleeping, playing, and bothering Data while he was trying to work. She even scratched Riker’s face once! While other cats are pest-catchers, in the pristine future of Star Trek there are apparently no rats on the ship, so instead Spot gets busy making babies–weirdly, while turned into a lizard. She got better.

Cat is appalled at your lack of fashion sense

Cat (Red Dwarf): Cat is a descendent of the original pregnant cat smuggled aboard the ship, whose progeny… evolved into felis sapiens. He’s a bit of a cat stereotype, and he likes to go around licking people and marking stuff with his signature scent from a spray can. Self-centered and a bit cowardly, but ultimately a loyal crew member. Definitely the most fashionable space cat.

Being a cat in space is serious business

Chessie and Chester (Barque Cats): Like Jones, Chessie is part of a proud tradition of ship cats tasked with chasing down pests, while also alerting humans to other ship problems that may not be obvious. Like Spot, she’s part of the proud tradition of making babies, and Chester is one of her kittens. And like the cats in my books, Chester is psychic, though his abilities are more direct telepathy with his human companion than emotional manipulation. Proud, parental, and psychic: three excellent qualities for some adventurous felines.

Honorable mentions:

Goose (Captain Marvel): Goose is not actually a cat; Goose is a flerken, which looks a lot like a cat until, well, it doesn’t. Still, Goose is an excellent companion and Infinity Stone guardian, even if he did do Nick Fury dirty.

Lying Cat (Saga): Lying Cat is also, sadly, not an actual cat, despite the name. But this now meme-famous felinoid is still a badass. Who wouldn’t want a sidekick with the power to tell when people are prevaricating in your presence?

Jake the Cat (The Cat From Outer Space): His real name is Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7 and he is, once again, not a terran cat. His collar lets him communicate with humans, and he has his own spaceship, so he probably outranks the other not-cats on this list.

Orion (MIB): He’s a cat! Sadly, he does not go into space, but he has a galaxy on his collar, so that’s kind of the same? Space comes to him.

So there’s my list! Who are YOUR favorite space cats?

Deleted scene from CHILLING EFFECT

Box: a cat’s natural habitat.

Now that page proofs for PRIME DECEPTIONS are off to the publisher, I thought I’d share something fun to celebrate. The votes are in, so please enjoy this deleted scene from CHILLING EFFECT, in which The Fridge’s attempt to take over La Sirena Negra doesn’t go quite as planned. This occurs in Chapter 20, but is relatively spoiler-free.

Stay safe, amigos, hasta luego!

Read more

CHILLING EFFECT is out in the UK!

Cat sitting next to Chilling Effect
Inara is very impressed.

Because one book birthday isn’t enough, CHILLING EFFECT gets another in the UK today! Please be sure to pet your local space cat in honor of this exciting occasion.

If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, Orbit UK is running a contest on Twitter. Or you can just buy the book if you’re not the gambling type.

You can also check out me and the other 2020 New Voices from Orbit Books talking about ourselves and our work. It’s an amazing lineup, and I’m so proud to be part of it.

Adios for now, and stay tuned for the cover reveal of PRIME DECEPTIONS!

It’s the end of the year as we know it

2019 has been a hell of a year, the kind where some days felt like weeks and weeks felt like decades.

I feel like I could sum it up in a list song. I left my old job. I moved to a different state. I didn’t start the fire, but it’s literally burning in Australia right now. It’s the end of the world as I know it, but does anyone really feel fine?

I guess I do. I feel fine. Sometimes great, sometimes terrible, sometimes exhausted, sometimes furious, but mostly… fine.

Every year, people use the excuse of a new year to start being a new person. I like to tell my son that every day is a chance to start over–that you don’t have to wait for a good reason, that just wanting to do it is reason enough–but the collective milestone, the changing over of the calendar for most of the world, is a convenient demarcation. It’s a boundary we cross together, a door we all open, a portal fantasy where we can choose to leave our old lives behind and find a fresh adventure waiting for us.

Or not. No pressure. You do you.

This year, my first book came out. Chilling Effect wasn’t the first book I ever wrote, or the first one I finished, but it was the one that made me a published novelist. It’s wild to write that down, to know that after so many years of hard work it finally happened. And next year, unless the world completely combusts, it will happen again.

But then what? Well, hopefully another one, and then another, onward into the future. Beyond Prime Deceptions, I have two fantasy novels in different stages of completion, and plans for a third adventure for Eva Innocente if the publishing powers are kind. I have older novels I could revisit, revamp, rewrite. I have new ideas patiently waiting for me to pick them up and start scribbling.

No one knows what’s on the other side of the door, though. No one can predict what you’ll find once you step through.

Now we get to the part where I bestow upon you my sage advice. That could be a whole other list song, but I’ll keep it short and allusive: be excellent to each other.

My friends and family supported and kept me going this year in ways I could never have hoped to manage alone, and I’m intensely grateful for all of them. I hope in the new year I can pay it back, and forward, even though such things aren’t intrinsically transactional in nature. But the more kindness we spread around like seeds in a field, the more opportunities there will be for it to take root and grow and flower.

If you’re feeling lonely or helpless right now, I’m sorry and I hope it passes. I hope you find the strength to reach out to someone, or to accept a hand being offered to you, or to let go of whoever is holding you back.

May your 2020 be awesome, amigos. Salud, amor, dinero, y tiempo para disfrutarlo.

Pantsing for plotters

You like to plan your stories. Write detailed outlines and character backgrounds and wikis for your setting with reference photos where appropriate. Answer hundreds of questions that may never be addressed in your book. Maybe you even craft in-world songs and stories, sometimes in languages you’ve invented. Before you ever type the words “Chapter One,” you’ve prepared more than some people actually work on a single project.

Pantsing? Hell no. You would never. You’re an architect, not a gardener!

But what do you do when your plans fail? What happens when you hit a roadblock or traffic jam on your carefully planned route? What if you find yourself getting bored and wondering how to reignite the spark you’ve lost? Or glancing at other paths, their mysterious attractions and sideshows shimmering with potential?

That, amigos, is when you take a page from those pantsers you previously scorned.

If you’re a plotter and you’ve gotten mired or disinterested or frustrated by your story, or you’ve hit on something you didn’t plan for and are scrambling to keep your momentum going, here are some options cribbed from folks who are more comfortable with flying by the seat of, well, you know.

You’ll notice that the key to a lot of these approaches is randomness. Having some external input from outside your own mind works well because humans are naturally pretty good at finding patterns and coming up with ways to integrate new knowledge. Being given some random thing to incorporate into your story is like sticking a piece of grit in an oyster; your brain tends to start working to turn that sucker into a pearl, assuming it doesn’t spit it out immediately. Or it can be like finding a strange puzzle piece, and your imagination perks up and tries to reconstruct more of the picture from that small fragment.

Use random generators.

Websites like Seventh Sanctum or Fantasy Name Generators have dozens, even hundreds of different random generators for everything from character names to magic potion descriptions to fake history book titles. If you’re stuck and need to come up with something on the fly, a random generator can give you a useful placeholder. Or if your brain has taken a temporary vacation and you’re hoping to lure it back, a generator can jump start your imagination and suggest options that lead you to whatever ends up working. Beyond internet options, there are products you can buy like story dice or cards, which tend to be more vague and generalized but offer similar randomized input scenarios.

Take suggestions or dares from family, friends or people on social media.

If you’ve ever been to an improv show, you know most scenes start with the performers asking you to give them a word or a phrase, maybe something more specific like a non-romantic relationship or an object you’d find in your house. You don’t have to give any context for your question, either; in improv, the suggestion inspires the scene, so there’s no need to launch into an explanation about your story and how you’re stuck and why. But don’t be afraid to ask for outside input from your fellow humanoids and see how you can make those ideas work with what you’ve already written or were planning to write. Sometimes it gets lonely in your head, and adding a few extra voices turns an echo chamber into harmony.

Go for a walk/ride and write about anything you see.

This won’t work if the weather is trash, or if your area isn’t accessible, or if you literally can’t move for some reason, but getting outside or simply switching up your location can give you fodder for characters, descriptions, and so on. Look for stuff you can integrate into a current or future scene. What specific sensory details can you pull from your surroundings? What patterns of speech or quirky appearances? What strange smells and dissonant sounds? If you’re stuck in one spot, open Pinterest and type in a general location, like “desert” or “coffee shop” or “hot spring,” and see what images come up. If you’re stuck and you don’t have internet access, then…

Look around you: pick an object and add it to the story.

Objects in stories can function as gravity wells, adding weight to a scene or setting. They can be motifs that repeat to give the reader anchor points, or to accumulate emotions like snowballs rolling downhill and gathering snow. They can add depth to a character, convey theme, flesh out back story, all sorts of useful stuff. Maybe your original plans didn’t include any particular objects that might be associated with a person or place or theme, but nothing is stopping you from grabbing some random item off a shelf and imbuing it with meaning. It doesn’t have to be something unique or strange, either; a perfectly ordinary thing can take on extraordinary proportions when used properly.

Tell a story within the story.

Maybe it’s a flashback, or an origin myth, or a morality tale. Maybe it’s a parent embarrassing their child, or a villain revealing their tragic origins. Maybe it’s a newspaper article or eyewitness account of an event that occurred beyond the point of view of your characters. If you deploy this trick carefully, you can do some neat world or character building, or even slide in some important plot information in a more entertaining way than a straight infodump or “as you know, Bob” conversation. Use sparingly, or make it a feature of your particular structure and apply liberally.

Add a new character.

Whether it’s some minor annoyance or a major antagonist suddenly busting in like the Kool-Aid Man, throwing a new character into your mix can turn a linear narrative into a frantic bee dance. Who are they? What do they want? How do they know your other characters? Are they here to help or hinder? Will they come back later or are they only here for a single scene? Are they just really sad about their cabbages constantly being destroyed?! It’s up to you! Make them as odd or enticing or disruptive as you like.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? IT HAPPENS!

Whether you suddenly don’t know what comes next, or your previously planned plot feels lackluster now that you’re writing it, you can always default to asking an operative question. Which question you want to ask depends on the kind of story you’re telling. Instead of figuring out the worst thing that could happen, maybe instead you should come up with the funniest, or strangest, or sexiest, or saddest. Regardless, whatever you choose should probably make your character’s life harder somehow, their goals more unattainable, their present or future situation more complicated. Raise the stakes. Brainstorm without rejecting any options; you can pick and choose later. Push past the obvious first choice and find secret options X, Y and Z.

Be receptive.

This may sound vague, but it’s an essential skill to cultivate, and one that pantsers often have naturally. As you work, your brain is probably doing a lot more subconsciously than you realize, whether it’s forming connections or drawing out themes or supplying character details you hadn’t considered before. A closed mind will reject new ideas or changes to old ideas, which shuts down your inspiration factory and keeps it from producing to its full potential. An open mind will accept ideas without judgment, then consider and integrate the cool things and gently discard the rest. The more receptive you are, the more of that background processing your brain will do, and the more it will produce either on demand or as sweet bonus material when you least expect it.

When in doubt, write it out.

Plotters may be nauseated by the prospect of (gasp) wasting time and words on the wrong choice or scene or whatever, but sometimes you have to do something the “wrong” way to figure out what the right way looks like. No writing is ever truly wasted, in the same way that experiments don’t fail, they simply prove or disprove hypotheses. And even if a particular approach is wrong for this story, there may be some core element that can be scavenged for another tale in the future. If nothing else, you’ve practiced your craft, and that’s always intrinsically useful.

Part of the sweet joy of pantsing is chasing the rush of the surprising, the unexpected, the flashes of unanticipated and unpremeditated brilliance like lightning or rainbows on a clear day. It’s the thrill of discovery, uncovering the unknown and bringing it back to show others. Sometimes plotters concentrate so hard on the road that they forget to look at their surroundings; they focus on the destination and miss out on unforeseen adventures along the way. Don’t be afraid to occasionally succumb to spontaneity! Life rarely goes according to plan, so why should your story?

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Special thanks to Jeffe Kennedy for the idea of putting this together, and to Jay, Cee, Chelsea, Amanda, Mary, Maureen and Jo for input and support.

A plethora of updates

Want to win this cat magnet? Scroll down for details!

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know already that my life for the past several months has been, shall we say, hectic. Repleto. Un arroz con mango.

But as I slowly emerge from beneath the mountain of tasks that has been doing its best to compress me into a diamond, I come bearing news in a digestible format, for those who have also been buried or perhaps voluntarily hiding in a cave from the intense and varied pressures of the world.

Item 1: my book! It’s coming out next month! This is both very soon and an eternity. It’s been getting some good press and blurbs and whatnot, which is exciting.

Item 2: my book release! Also next month, at Books & Books Suniland on September 17th. If you’ll be in Miami, come on by to hear me read from the book while enjoying some pastelitos.

Item 3: NYCC! I’ll be there! It’s my first time and I’ll be on a rad panel about space fantasy. I’ll post more details on my Events page as they become available.

Item 4: a contest! If you want to win a copy of my book and a really cool fridge magnet–either the cat one above, or one of Captain Eva Innocente from the book cover–go enter. US residents only, unfortunately, and it ends on September 12th.

That’s it for now, amigos. Hope to see some of you at the release party, or at least somewhere in the wilds of the Wired. Cuídate!

Go ahead, make your choice

So many paths, so many decisions.

Outlining approach #247.3: character choices.

If you want to get a BioWare fan talking, ask who they romanced in a game. (It’s probably more than one character, tbh, we replay a lot.)

But if you want to get them arguing, ask which narrative choices they made in certain games.

Choice is one of the best and easiest tools for showing who your characters are. You wedge them into a situation where they must choose a thing to proceed. You make them sweaty and uncomfortable because making choices is hard!

Their choice tells the reader about their most deeply held beliefs and priorities, about shifting allegiances and agonizing doubts, about all the collected experiences that add up to make a person.

Setting up the choice is the challenge, of course. Some choices can feel artificial: do you save the boyfriend dangling off the edge of the building, or stop the villain from escaping? GASP OH NO.

The best choices are tough to make and have lasting ramifications for the rest of the book. Too easy and who cares? And they don’t have to be binary, but too many options will dilute the impact, so don’t go overboard.

Also, because you are wise and sneaky, you do not have to make the character pick one of the options you offer. Oh, no. Never forget that you are in charge, dear writer. You control the horizontal and the vertical and also the SECRET FIFTH DIMENSION NO ONE ELSE CAN SEE.

Faced with terrible consequences behind every door, your character may go for Secret Option bust through a wall like the Kool-Aid man. It’s a great way to surprise readers, but it will get predictable if you overdo it, so deploy it carefully.

The characters also don’t necessarily have to make the choice right away. Setting up a choice, with a deadline that’s looming, is a great way to create and maintain tension. Especially if the secondary characters have their own opinions, and there will be fallout among them when the decision is finally made. Big consequences + delayed choice = SUSPENSE.

So, how to do this when outlining? Instead of just plotting out what happens, from one chapter or scene to the next, look for specific points where you can force your character to make a dramatic choice. This can either be a variation on tentpole moments or as part of whatever outline method you normally use. Have at least one Big Choice in a synopsis. If you go chapter by chapter, try to sprinkle choices throughout.

Tentpole moments are big deal things you build the narrative around. They can be plot moments, like when Luke chooses to leave Yoda to save his friends even though his training is incomplete. That choice impacts the rest of the events of that movie and the next one.

Or tentpole choices can be character moments that impact the relationships more than the plot, like when Aladdin chooses to use his final wish to free Genie from the lamp. (It’s a resolution to their relationship plot, too, but good plot and character are interwoven SO.)

If you’re stuck and need a tool to add more suspense to a flat or linear narrative, look to the choices your characters are making. Are they too easy? Too obvious? Nonexistent? Fix it! Your readers may not remember other plot points, but big, hard choices will stick with them.

This concludes our morning craft ruminations. Let us all go forth and mess with our characters accordingly. Adios, amigos, may your mana bar be full and your potion supply unlimited.