What I’m Loving This Month: March 2017

As we roll into March, I’m going to try to keep this space updated a little more frequently. As part of that effort, I’m going to try a once-a-month or so wrap up of things I’ve run into and enjoyed.
What I’m listening to:
Audiobooks: I’m enjoying the hell out of Becky Chambers’ “A Closed and Common Orbit”, the follow-up to her terrific “A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet”. Chambers’ sharp writing is well-portrayed by Rachel Dulude, the gifted narrator of both works. While events of tremendous personal significance for the characters occur in both books, these lean more towards slice-of-life tales, with strong character development. This isn’t the sort of thing I normally read, but that’s part of what makes it great as far as I’m concerned! Not every story needs to see the world being saved.
Chambers has constructed a lovely space-opera universe here that feels real without taking itself too seriously. Her characters are a delight, even the occasional asshole. These are also stories about a generally hopeful future, featuring a wide degree of freedom for most of the residents, both human and alien. That is certainly something many of us can use these days.
Music: “Splendor & Misery” comes from Clipping, an experimental hip-hop/rap group featuring, among others, Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” fame. It also happens to be a science fiction story told through the music, rap, and spoken word of the album. There is a movement growing to nominate the work for a Hugo Award in the “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form” category. Having listened to it twice now, I’ll be doing that.
Earworm special: Canadian folk singer James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters”, a song about the smoke jumpers who perished in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana. I discovered this via the Cry Cry Cry cover on Radio Paradise a few months ago, but for some reason it wormed it’s way into my brain last week and wouldn’t let go for days.
What I’m watching:
My television time has been scaled way, way back, but I make time each week to watch “The Expanse” on SyFy as it airs. I’m a big fan of the books and the series does a great job of capturing them. (No doubt the involvement of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers who pen the books collaboratively as James S. A. Corey, helps.) The casting is pitch perfect in nearly every role, from the series leads to the secondary characters to the bit parts. Top-notch production values, too. I’ve watched season 1 three times and parts of season 2 twice. This is not just great science fiction on television, it’s great television.
I’m also watching “The Magicians”, SyFy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s best-selling novels. Unlike the Expanse, this show has departed in some significant ways from its source material, but I believe it’s remained faithful to the spirit of the books. I’ll admit part of my being OK with this is that we get to see a lot more of some characters who don’t last long in the books.
What I’m reading:
Reading time lately has most often been “beta reading” works by some of my fellow up-and-coming writers, but I recently managed to finish Chuck Wendig’s “Invasive”. This is a near-future SF book about genetically modified ants and, well, some dastardly shenanigans. Wendig writes in thriller mode, with tight pacing and occasionally brutal events in his narrative. I didn’t have as much fun with this one as with his hacker story “Zeroes”, which is set in the same continuity, but it’s still a spiffy read.
Having finished that book and wanting something a bit lighter to read, I picked up Matt Wallace’s “Sin du Jour: The First Course.” This is an omnibus of the first three novellas in Wallace’s “Sin du Jour” series about a catering company that services events for demons. Really. It’s quite funny so far, and just the kind of mental palate-cleanser I was looking for.
What I’m playing:
Well, not much. My tabletop gaming is pretty much on hiatus until I get this next revision on “The Frozen Past” done and off to it’s next readers. Ditto for my computer gaming. I have dabbled a little with Fractured Space, a space-based MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) game. I’m not normally a MOBA guy, World of Tanks excepted, but have found Fractured Space quite fun. The problem is the relatively small player base; there’s a fair bit of waiting time between matches. I tend to use these games as mental cool-downs in the time between breaking off writing for the evening and bedtime, and the downtime while waiting for the game to find players to begin a match has stretched beyond my patience point for the last few days.
I’ll try to do this again on in the second week of April.

Wait, it’s the end of February?

That means I’m way past due for a check-in about various goings-on. For this post, I’ll avoid the toxic spill fire much of the world has become.
Ben and I have been studying HEMA, Historic European Martial Arts – in our case, medieval German longsword – since August. We’ve now graduated from the “Beginners” group at our club, the Mid-Atlantic Society for Historical Swordsmanship (MASHS), and train with our much more experienced fellow practitioners. It’s fair to say we’re reaching the phase in which we don’t suck all the time, though we’re still pretty rank newbies.
This has turned out to be incredibly fun for both of us, and not just because Ben gets to hit me in the head with a sword once a week. (We wear pretty substantial safety gear when we train: chest protectors, canvas tunics, fencing masks with back-of-the-head-covers, forearm protection, and heavy plastic-shell gloves.) It’s been a long time since I’ve attempted any martial arts training. 30 years, in fact! But there’s something incredible about learning to fight with swords. Our latest investment is a pair of Regenyei steel feders, or training swords. These are what we primarily train with now that we’ve moved into “beginning intermediate” status. I’ve also built a pell, a training target we can use at home – outside, anyway, as swinging a 4-foot sword inside the house isn’t practical.
On the writing front, I plowed through the third revision of The Frozen Past in November and December. This was a major revision involving a significant restructuring of the novel. The word count ultimately dropped by about 4k words, but due to the amount I cut, I wound up writing tens of thousands of new words. Some of these were entirely new scenes; others came from major re-writing of existing scenes. This draft was critiqued by the wonderful members of our newly-formed writing group, the “Maryland Space Opera Collective”, or MD-SPOC. One of my Viable Paradise classmates also read and critiqued it for me. I’m now into heavy revision mode, which looks a lot like drafting mode. This means I pretty much spend weekday evenings, much of Saturday, and part of Sunday either downstairs on my desktop or somewhere else, typically a Panera, hunched over a keyboard.
The third draft of The Frozen Past fixed the majority of the big issues, but there’s still a rather thorny set of problems with two characters in particular. Since these are my protagonist/PoV character, and one of his primary antagonists, that’s kind of a big deal. Getting enough information about the antagonist’s motivations and history into the book is proving tricky, and I’ve resorted to gender-flipping this character as a brain hack to help. This seems to be working; it’s letting me approach this person as if they were an entirely new character. This seems to be the biggest single problem remaining in the book.
Once I’m done fixing up the antagonist, my protagonist is next up for adjustment. One issue’s already been fixed in the text, though I need to touch up some later references to it. The other problem is that he seems not suspicious enough for some readers. I’m fixing that a couple of ways. One’s a little more indirect: certain events, Bad Things, actively look malicious right now. They’re going to be throttled back in their depiction so they appear less so – more accidental or coincidental. That should mean I don’t have to tweak the actual character as much.
While I have a punch list of other tweaks, nothing else seems to require as much careful handling as these two items. Time will tell if I’ve got that right! I’m basically a month behind where I wanted to be with this for various reasons, but with if I can put the work in, I think I can have my shoppable draft ready sometime in March.
After taking stock of various factors, Michelle and I decided to put aside our tentative plans to visit Helsinki and London this summer. This trip was intended to combine attending WorldCon 75 (Helsinki) and a celebration of our 25th anniversary. Instead, I’m going to be attending four science fiction conventions this year, with Michelle coming to two of them. May brings the Nebula Award weekend & conference in Pittsburgh, along with Balticon over Memorial Day weekend. In June I’m headed to Fourth Street Fantasy in Minneapolis, which is shaping up to be a reunion of sorts for Viable Paradise 20 folks. In July, Michelle and I will head to New England to celebrate our anniversary and cap that with attendance at ReaderCon in the Boston area.
There’s been a big uptick in political activism in the Appel household. I may say more about this later, but suffice to say that by the end of this week, every member of the household will have participated in at least one protest. At least three of us have our congressional reps on speed-dial, and we’ve lately added the Governor and other state & county officials to the list. We’re not neglecting snail-mail either.
Folks who know me well have likely noticed one big absence: gaming. I have put all the tabletop games I was running on hiatus – Traveller back before my surgery, with Honor + Intrigue and The One Ring going dark in November. While I’m going to be joining a weekly short-term exploratory game at Games & Stuff in March, it’s likely going to be a little while before I’m going to have the brain cycles to actually run another game. I’ve also pulled back from all the gaming conventions I’d been attending, though I’m going to continue to support the Charm City Game Day and hopefully TridentCon. I’ll need to get back into some kind of tabletop game… but won’t be thinking about that until after this revision is done.
I’ll be trying to post things more regularly here. Coming up later this week will be a quick review of some of my recent reading. Until then, be excellent to each other, and #resist.

I Begin As I Mean to Go On

Permit me to offer some perspective I’ve learned over the last few years. I’ve made a conscious effort to meet, talk to, and follow the writings of people of color (especially women of color), LGBT+ folks, and people of different heritages, faiths, and traditions. And this discomfort you’re expressing?

This is their daily life under the status quo. They have to live in a environment in which what’s promoted as normalcy does not account for them.

Telling people in a public forum to stop talking about the issues that concern them? That, in itself, is a political act.

This does not mean there’s a place for vitriol. Nor should one spout falsehoods.

But if there’s anger? It doesn’t come from a vacuum. It often comes from pain. It comes from being smacked around, or watching those you care about being smacked around, and finally reaching the point where one says “That’s enough.”

Unfirend or unfollow me if you feel you need to. But don’t tell me, or others, to be silent.

How to Thank Me For My Service

A friend of my, a female of color, was harassed yesterday by a white man who told her to go back to where she came from. She’s from Louisiana.

The friend of a friend committed suicide Wednesday, because, in part, of fear of losing their healthcare, since dismantling the ACA is very high on the GOP’s agenda.

The KKK is having open celebrations of Trump’s victory, which they see as validating their despicable views.

Trump’s already cutting off the press, which our nation’s founders knew was our first line of defense against tyranny. That’s why it’s in the First Amendment.

Attacks and harassment of non-whites, females, and non-Christians seem to be escalating. We don’t seem to have good data yet, but the US seems to be following the pattern of increased hate crimes seen in Britain following Brexit.

This is not how this veteran expected to spend today.

If you want to thank this vet for his service, don’t give me words. Give me action.

If you see harassment, defend the harassed.

Believe people when they tell you they’re scared. Consider they are subject to things you may be blind to. Give them aid and comfort and safety.

Give money to organizations which will fight against the coming attempts to roll-back of the last 50+ years of progress in civil rights.

Find candidates for public office who will stand for justice. Support them. VOTE.

Don’t let the bastards normalize bigotry and hatred in our society.

I took the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution six times. I did not do so to let my nation fall into autocracy.

Thank me by standing up, speaking up, and taking action.

The Morning After

If you voted for Donald Trump, you voted for a man who, along with his running mate, considers the LGBT people in my circle – members of my family, and some of my closets friends, people I care most deeply for in the world – as less than people, and not deserving of basic rights. A man whose followers have credibly threatened harm against them. And you were OK with that.
If you voted for Donald Trump, you voted for a racist, bigoted man, who considers people of color in my circle of family and friends lesser humans. A man whose followers have credibly threatened harm against my people. And you were OK with that.
If you voted for Donald Trump, you voted for a man who by his own words is anti-Semitic, and whose followers credibly threaten harm to my Jewish friends and family. And you were OK with that.
If you voted for Donald Trump, you voted for a man whom by his own admission is guilty of repeated sexual assault. And you were OK with that.
If you voted for Donald Trump, you voted for what appears to be the most corrupt person in my lifetime, and perhaps in history, to stand for the office of President. And you were OK with that.
I am not OK with that.
There may come a time when I forgive you. I don’t see how, this morning, but it’s possible.
But I will NEVER forget.

Three Months Post-op

I had my three-month post-op visit with my surgeon yesterday. Well, really with his nurse practitioner, who is most excellent in her own right.

My overall milestones are pretty good: I’m down to 308 pounds & change from 396+ in April, and 362 the day I walked into the hospital on July 6th. I’m on track with my various medications and supplements, and so far there’s only two things in my blood work they want to keep an eye on. I’m hitting my protein and fluid goals every day, as well as exercise. My time at Viable Paradise excepted I’m sticking to the 1200 calories or less per day that I need to meet or exceed my goals.

Three months in, I’m finding some things are still pretty easy to conform with, while others are tricky. Eating out is definitely a challenge; even when I can find something properly healthy on the menu, American portion sizes mean I’m still lucky to eat half of what I’m served. Avoiding fried foods makes eating at some places challenging. And for any occasion, I need to either get something that holds up as leftovers, or be prepared to leave half my plate untouched.

There aren’t too many things I don’t tolerate. Unfortunately, bread is one of them. I don’t have the kind of reaction to it that someone with a bypass would from sugary or greasy foods, but I’m definitely uncomfortable if I have more bread than the hunk you get with chili at Panera. Ditto for pasta. Which is a shame, because I really, really like bread. Note that this extends to anything bread-like, such as pizza. I guess it’s a good thing I’ve always liked thin-crust pizza!

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is to listen to my body. Paying attention to the “I’m full” signal is hugely critical. Believe me, when I don’t, I know that I’ve screwed up.

The weight loss hasn’t been on a continuous slope, and it can sometimes be frustrating to do everything right for a week and end at the same weight I began. Those weeks are usually followed by a 7-10 day period rapid weight loss. The net result is that I’m ahead of the 10 pounds per month rate at which most patients lose, so I have to keep reminding myself of how far I’ve come.

I think the rest of the family has gotten used to our new normal, which includes Michelle, Alexa and Ben eating something different than I do. But we’ve been trying some things lately that everyone can partake of. That’s a work in progress.

In the end, it’s pretty clear having the sleeve gastrectomy was the right decision for me.

Next check in at the six month mark in January.

First Thoughts on Viable Paradise 2016 (VP20)

I spent last week attending the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop on Martha’s Vineyard as one of 24 students. It’s been a little more than 48 hours since I left the island, but less than 48 since I arrived back home from. Yesterday was caught up with the combination of both mental and physical exhaustion, as well as taking care of Michelle, who broke her foot the day we were supposed to leave. In the end I went up solo as she underwent surgery on Monday; fortunately, my mother in law spent the week with her and oversaw Michelle’s care, freeing me up for the VP experience. I am forever grateful for that.

This was my first experience with any kind of writing workshop, and only my second with any type of critique process, so I was somewhat nervous of how that aspect of things would go. This was mitigated a great deal by having connected with a number of my classmates on Twitter or via Slack, a text-based chat system. This meant that a bunch of us knew at least a bit about each other.

That prior connection no doubt helped, but it seems to me that what truly brought us together was our love of writing, of the SF/F/Horror genre, and our shared desire to improve our craft.

And we did come together. Not as some kind of perfect cohesive whole, but definitely as a tribe. I know there are people I became closer too than others over the course of the week, and I’m sure the same holds true for all of us. And I regret not finding ways to spend more time with those I didn’t share group critiques or after-hours talk/singing/drinking/hanging-out sessions with. But it was clear that while the work people brought was at differing stages of development or polish, there was a consistently high quality of ability and skill among all the students.

In other words, I spent a week immersed in talking about writing with incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and skilled colleagues. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was a life-altering experience.

I’ve heard it said that the biggest thing a workshop like VP does for you is to give you a cohort, a collection of folks with a shared experience. Time will tell, naturally, but I’m gonna put my money down now on that being the case for us.

It’s fair to say I learned at least as much outside the formal classroom sessions and group critiques as I did within them. The instructors and staff were incredibly approachable and freely shared advice from their experience in writing and publishing. But I learned a ton from my fellow students. Each person brought a variety of experience to the workshop, and absolutely everyone I interacted with was all-in for helping each other become better writers. It’s fair to say I learned something from everybody I talked to at any length beyond “say when” whilst pouring.

And what did I learn? Beyond the practical instruction around plotting, character development, and the Clusterfuck Deathtrap Corporation of Peoria, IL? Three main things, I think:

First up, that there’s a bunch of stuff I’m doing reasonably well for someone at this point in my writing career. Since we writers tend to be an insecure bunch, this part is often overlooked when looking back at critiques, but it’s front and center in the critique methodology VP uses. That’s really helpful – maybe in part because it softens you up a little for what follows – but more so in helping identify those things one needs to be better integrating into one’s work. (One of mine was “Really efficient world-building”, and I’ll be glowing about that one for months.)

Second was confirmation of a number of things I suspected I needed to work on – but more importantly, getting some tools on how to fix them. And as I mentioned above, those fixes came from the students at least as much as the instructors.

But the truly valuable things for me were items that only people with experiences different from myself could point out to me. I’m truly grateful that they did so, with respect and encouragement, and with trust that I was making a good-faith effort. They gave me ideas of how to fix these things too, and my work will be stronger for this.

I’ve mentioned the instructors before, and they were uniformly awesome. All of them are truly committed to mentoring and developing new writers and were incredibly giving of their time and expertise. This came during the formal classroom and group sessions, but also during the scheduled one-on-ones, off-schedule sessions, or simply while hanging out in the evenings. They packed a ton of information into our heads in an incredibly short span of time.

But, in my not-so-humble opinion, the true heart of Viable Paradise is the staff. These wonderful people, all former students themselves (with one exception, IIRC), make sure everyone is looked after. They make sure everyone is involved in whatever’s going on to the extent that they wish to, or are psychologically up to. There’s a lot of stress in this experience between the reading & giving of critiques, receiving critiques, and the writing assignments, and everyone has their own way of dealing with that. As I said to Macallister Stone, the head of staff, there seemed to be a million acts of kindness, love,  and support, and I’m certain that for every one I saw, there were a number I didn’t. I don’t think any of my classmates were hurting or in any significant distress over the course of the week, but I suspect some folks needed help over the humps at various points. I’d lay money that I got help I didn’t even realize I was receiving at times.

I’ll be unpacking these experiences over the weeks, months and probably years to come.