The Strong Silence

Sometimes, people actively discourage you from your goals and dreams. It is possible they care and are worried. Maybe they are jealous and mean-spirited. There are responses to a verbal takedown of your aspirations, but there is nothing you can say to a disapproving silence.

You can try, of course. Feel free! You'll only be rewarded with a variation on the reply, "I didn't say anything."

Silence can be incredibly powerful. When disapproving, it implies an idea or aspiration is so awful that words are unnecessary, or that the speaker's stated goal is evidence of such profound idiocy, any attempt at 'helping' the offender would be without purpose.

This form of silence can only imply these thoughts, because it is disapproval based on confusion, anger and sometimes willful ignorance. The gay man who mentions his spouse to a suddenly inert listener. The musical kid who shares her passion to silent, frowning parents. The friend who writes of his good fortune from his new city, while the bff he left behind simply scowls. The author who shares her stories with loved ones, who declare them garbage to others but say nothing to the author herself.

Mellie aspiring to hunt Buffalo  photo by Norah Woodsey  

Mellie aspiring to hunt Buffalo photo by Norah Woodsey 

We tell ourselves and those we love that criticism can be helpful, but no constructive feedback can be parsed from silent disdain. If you respect, cherish, and believe in a friend or family member who shares with you their aspirations, give them your polite but honest feedback. If you have nothing positive to say, and the goal isn't evil*, your reply can simply be, "I don't understand this, but I'm glad you are happy."

If you are the silence-recipient in this scenario, stop sharing your interests with that person and consider whether a relationship is salvageable. Usually it isn't. If you are the one dishing blank contempt in response to a person's interests, you're a shitty friend.


*I've had people share some seriously messed up ideas with me, where my stunned silence could be misinterpreted as what I describe above. Evil goals are excluded from my argument.

They Shoot Movies, Don't They

My fabulous editor suggested I get an agent once Lifeless was complete. She listed the pros and cons while describing the traditional publishing process. The pros list was compelling; easily contracting cover art, engaging in successful marketing, and scheduling promotional events practically requires a publishing contract.

I'm still self-publishing by choice. I get why this is can be confusing. Many writers (and book lovers who wish to be writers) dream of a publishing deal, a multi-book advance, to see a big studio buy the rights to their book. Unfortunately, those hopes are both totally unrealistic and, more importantly, problematic in my little universe. I love books, but I might just love movies more.

Eventually, these stories will be made into television shows or movies by me, my husband and his future production company. I'm excited to share my books with the world, but I see publication as stage one on this adventure and not the destination. 

There are filmmakers that I admire and I'd love to work with them. But there are many others who perform purely to the whims of business, as represented by studios, producers, their agents and theater owners. They reduce female characters to obstacles or motivations for males, plot subtleties to heavy-handed exposition, and anything deemed too intricate is reduced to rudimentary parts. These are the filmmakers who I would never want to touch my work. As an author on a publishing contract, you rarely have a say. 

Directors who are talented, ambitious, and have proven themselves as moneymakers still struggle to produce high-quality films in their own vision. Working with a dream director who is tied to a studio may be prohibitively complicated.

For now, my goal is to complete the many stories I have started. The dark fairy tale for my daughter, the teleportation story for my husband, and everything in between. One after another, I'll get them done while I look forward to what comes next.

Lord of the Rings and Off to Be the Wizard: An Audiobook Trilogy Showdown

I’ve listened to a lot of audiobooks in my life. In those hours spent entering data, cooking, running, driving, or desperately trying to fall asleep, I’ve learned that not all narrators should read books aloud and not all books should be read aloud. Recently I purchased the audiobook version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. The performance was pretty good, I’ve read the books before and loved them, but these audiobooks? Oh good grief, I struggled. When reading silently, I must have skimmed through the redundant announcements, superfluous speeches, and ridiculous monologues. How many times does Aragon have to announce his title, his sword, and his full name? When will people stop asking Legolas what his “elf-eyes” see? And STOP COMPLAINING, GANDALF THE WHITE.

I have known for a while that people pay attention to a spoken-word book differently than a written book. But I was surprised to suffer through a book whose paperbacks I had read until they fell apart. The narrator, through no fault of his own, focused a spotlight on shortcomings of the books that I must have glossed over. I don’t think the performance is at fault. Unlike The Hobbit, LotR is simply TOO MUCH to read aloud. To maintain listener interest while still reading all of the text is an impossible task.

Mellie only listens to audiobooks on vinyl.  Photo by Norah Woodsey

Mellie only listens to audiobooks on vinyl. Photo by Norah Woodsey

On the complete other end of the spectrum, I absolutely love the audiobooks of the Magic 2.0 series by Scott Meyer (the first book of the series is Off to be The Wizard). I haven’t read the written books for one simple reason; the audiobook performances by Luke Daniels are perfection. If I read them silently, I’d do so with Daniels’ fantastic voices in my head and at that point I might as well just listen to the audiobook.

While pausing the first book until our laughter abated, my husband and I wondered how much the narrator contributed to our enjoyment of the story. Without access to The File, it’s impossible to travel back in time and find out. There are certainly problems with the books. We have both worked in tech, which means some of the programming logic in the books is confusing verging on irritating. But then Daniels’ hilarious voices come back and the problems are temporarily forgiven and forgotten.  

It’s safe to assume that while I would like the text versions of the Magic 2.0 series very much, I wouldn’t love them as I love the audiobooks. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t have given the audiobooks a chance had I read the text version first. I would live my life never knowing the true sound of Agent Miller’s negotiating voice, or that Martin is properly pronounced MAH-TIN.

Some books are to be read with your eyeballs only. Others are better off performed. Hopefully I’ll figure out which one of the two categories Lifeless falls into before it is released.

Everyday Villains

Ominous, but not as frightening as your high school locker room.  Photo by Norah Woodsey

Ominous, but not as frightening as your high school locker room. Photo by Norah Woodsey

I've been thinking a lot about villains. Fiction provides us with a range of examples, from Hansel and Gretel's witch in the woods to the flat yet grandiose evildoers in Marvel and DC Comics movies. As a general rule, super villains don't appeal to me. Storytellers insist they represent an intrinsic moral decay in society and/or the corrupting influence of power. But these characters are often two-dimensional. In the world we live in, there are many villains that share reality with us. Just turn on the news.

It doesn't take extreme loss or sorrow to make a villain.  This is a misconception nurtured by those who believe humans are inherently good. To become a villain, a person simply needs a lack of compassion for the victim along with means, motive, and opportunity. The motive can be self-preservation, a need for a resource, or simply the desire to see a particular person suffer.

Lately the concept of the well-groomed sociopath has taken hold of public imagination, but only 1 out of 100 people in the US population have psychopathy. The vast majority of people who do terrible things are not mentally ill. They're just assholes.

Your horrible teacher from childhood who made you cry, that man who shoved you out of the way when you were on crutches, the bus driver who threatened to run you over in the crosswalk, the nurse who dismissed your suffering, these people were your villains. In your life, you will encounter people who take pleasure in the misery of others. They put themselves into positions of power to make you, or someone like you, unhappy. Some want you to fail at the things you cherish. If they can't make you fail, they try to tarnish the things you love with ridicule, sarcasm, and resentment.



For the Love of Automaticity

Kurt Russell is in a new movie other than The Hateful Eight, a different western by newish director/writer S. Craig Zahler called Bone Tomahawk. This blog post is not about that movie. It is about a probably-is-true and interesting factoid on the IMDb profile page of the director:

[Zahler] wrote scripts for 9 years while working as a catering chef.

You may have heard how driving can induce a hypnotic state in people. This process is called cognitive automaticity and it applies to running, reading, cooking, data entry, and other monotonous tasks. It is glorious and I love it.*

When I read that fact about Mr. Zahler on the internet, I immediately understood how he accumulated a wealth of creative ideas.** I’ve spent the majority of my adult life thriving in repetitious, high-production computing jobs. Processing hundreds of financial documents and portfolios, digitizing medical records, moderating on websites, the list goes on. These jobs offered me wide expertise in quickly and accurately completing exceptionally boring, tedious tasks. These were often small ponds and, for the only time in my life, I was a great white shark. Not in the sense that I ruthlessly devoured prey; I was often not conscious while I moved.

    Chomp.   Great White Shark by  Elias Levy on Flickr

  Chomp. Great White Shark by Elias Levy on Flickr

I’d often get teased for ‘zoning out’ while I worked. Coworkers could tap me on the shoulder, put things on my desk, push my chair, and I’d keep working. More than once I had Very Important People try to figure out what made me different. I considered saying that I wasn’t actually paying attention when I worked, that I was putting together short stories, movies, and books in my head. But that would have been stupid. My typical reply was that I loved my job, it was like a video game to me, and don’t you ever make me answer a phone.

If you’ve had a big idea while driving, running, sewing, coding, gardening, or playing catch with the dog, you know how valuable rote tasks can be. Doing something productive that requires only a part of your brain is like recess for your creativity. Losing this type of free time is an unacknowledged misery when becoming a manager.***

Creative people need a break from thinking. They need automaticity.


*Supposedly, automaticity is important in language acquisition, but I’ve reaped no benefits there.

**The internet is made by experts, for soon-to-be experts.

***Sure, you SAY you miss “the work” and “solving problems” and “actually accomplishing things” but don’t you REALLY miss wondering whether you can develop a bike that rides on telephone wires?

Gender and Sexuality in Character Development

Many years ago, my high school creative writing teacher Mrs. Brennan suggested that a classmate change the gender signifiers of his male character to female. This was emphasized as a way to reveal cliche, boring characters.

It was good advice for a high school writing class. I still use it when I find myself confused about a character's motivation. Complex characters have complex identities. Gender and sexual identity are unique to the individual you wish to introduce to the world. These interests and impulses influences how a person approaches nearly every situation. Sometimes, switching gender of a character can show me how to add depth and color to their identity.

However, this technique is not a band-aid for lazy characterization. Bold women are not basic men. Weak men are not soft women. It takes more to represent a unique place on the gender spectrum than creating a woman or man and swapping their bathroom assignment. Without added character development, the storyteller risks overlooking opportunities for complexity.

The most obvious example is the massive societal pressures to conform to gender and sexual identity expectations. From birth, little girls in western culture are inundated with pink and boys with blue. There are bikinis for toddlers and plastic guns for boys. Teenage boys must be aggressive in all things while teenage girls must walk the thin line between slut and prude. It continues into adulthood; men want ladies, women want babies. Society offers two buckets to choose from, except you don't get to choose. These pressures influence a range of choices, preferences, fears, and hopes every day, all around us. To fail to account for these influences when switching a character's gender is madness. 

Switch your character's gender if you aren't happy with their story arc. Explore what it meant for them to grow up in the society you have envisioned. Allow them to live out in your mind the challenges they faced and then describe the person they came to be in your story. Just don't expect changing the gender of your character will magically add interest.

"What's your book about?"

I hate this question.  

Of course, I appreciate the asker's curiosity. There are plenty of people in my life who should care what I'm up to, but never bother asking. Even better, they may sarcastically acknowledge that I do "a little bit of writing". Even still, being asked what my book is about puts me in a state of perplexed anxiety every time.

In large part, I write to work through troubling things I have seen or experienced. I wrote Lifeless as a book because it took that many words and pages and chapters to finish what I had started. I can't summarize it for small-talk; that is a talent I sorely lack. I start with some optimism, trying to get across the general idea. The listener either wants me to give away the story, or they don't care. Either way, I'm always disappointed by the effort. 

There is also a genre issue. Lifeless is historical fiction, but it has a fictional scientific element. When an acquaintance hears "sci fi," their eyes either glaze over or light up. Both responses discourage me. This book isn't the type of science fiction I think of when I go looking for a sci fi book to enjoy. To say my book is sci fi, though technically accurate, feels deceptive.

Even historical fiction, the genre I can cite with confidence, is not without issue. With shows/books like Outlander or Game of Thrones, historical fiction is now part of popular culture. But there are no dragons in Lifeless. Or bodice ripping. Sorry.

I'm sure there is a professional way to respond and my inexperience and introverted nature are combining to thwart me yet again. So I'll keep replying to the question until I find the correct short sequence of phrases that does justice to myself and my book.


I've just completed Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku in preparation for my second novel. I love researching a topic that I find intriguing, jotting down notes as I go, finding inspiration by a particular fact or theory. I haven't stated anything earth-shattering here; research for fact-based fiction is common sense. While some research is always good, too much is always bad. Here are two examples.

I have a shelf at home that contains some of the physical books I ordered to prepare for Lifeless. These are in addition to the digital books, articles, and research papers I had studied before completing my first draft. Several of these physical books took their sweet time in transit - they were rare, out of print, or the shipping was just slow. In either case, I no longer needed them when they miraculously appeared on my doorstep. I was satisfied with the work I had completed on those topics. Now there they sit, with their facts, silently judging.

I keep thinking of taking them up, tweaking some things in the book. But I know me - I'd look at the cited works in the back and I'd find other handy materials. Just two more books, then I'll be done, I'd think. But those books would have interesting citations. And thus I would fall down the rabbit hole, my orange highlighter tumbling in after me.

There is another problem when researching a fiction book too deeply. Facts are not rigid and interpretations are endless. Sure, you've read the most popular research, but you know the historical dubiousness of popular research! Then of course you could talk to experts, but experts often disagree with one another. Who do you trust? If you wait long enough, new discoveries will be made that reveal the inaccuracy of 30% of your reference material. So you fix those things; you keep thinking of that expert in your audience, given the book by a well-meaning friend ("look at this, Betty! I saw 'rocket engineer' on the back and thought of you!"). You don't want to disappoint that expert.

My greatest challenge, and I know I'm not alone here, is accepting that you will disappoint that expert. If you don't disappoint that expert, you'll disappoint another one. You can't win over everyone. Someone will call you a lazy writer who didn't do enough research. That's OK. Your goal as a fiction writer is to create a coherent world for your characters to inhabit, to suspend disbelief, and to move on to something else when you are finished. Out-of-control research can prevent that from happening.

And when all else fails, be vague. :)