So Many Feathers in My Mouth from Eating All of This Crow

Late last night, my husband and I came home from a week-long trip to Austin, Texas. We drove there to visit Greg’s youngest son, Wesley, his wife, Brandi, and their four-year-old son, Gabriel. We also visited Greg’s nephew, Shane, who works for the current governor of Texas (Greg Abbott). The drive to Austin from Durango, Colorado took us two full days each way. So we spent four days on the road, and four days in Austin.


I took several pictures, and hopefully I’ll share those in a future post. But I have some writing-related news to share at the moment.

On Saturday, May 13, bestselling author Mindy McGinnis slashed (“critiqued” free of charge) my query letter for my current work-in-progress, a manuscript I decided to name after the villain of the story, The Shadowfall Witch.

A quick note on my use of the word “villain” — I do understand that it sounds more “humane” and “compassionate” (as well as “more educated”) to call the creator-of-conflict in a story the “antagonist,” but I prefer the word “villain.” Mostly because it’s such a cool word. Plus, it just seems more honest, given the moralizing that goes on in a story — any story, even the most highbrow literary novel.

I love the word villain so much. And I *do* humanize my story villains. As an author, I could put a bumper sticker on my car that reads I LOVE MY VILLAINS but that might freak people out. And other writerly types would accuse me of being a hack, because nowadays, only hacks still call their antagonists “villains.” If you suspect I am a hack, maybe unsubscribe to this blog and find a better writer to follow, preferably one who hears the word villain and squinches their face with a noxious expression, like someone just silent-farted in the room and the air smells like diarrhea now. Because there will be no face-squinching going on in this blog post. Not unless someone brings me a plate full of lemon bars, because I think those things are disgusting.


Ew. Lemon bars. Ew, ew, ew. This is what I imagine people are forced to eat in Hell. Just looking at that picture makes me queasy. So much ew.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog post. Which was my latest query letter, shared in an earlier blog, and slashed by Mindy McGinnis on May 13. You can read her full slash comments right here.

Her comments are excellent, I emailed her as soon as I could to say thank you, and I can definitely put her feedback to use to write a better query.

But what caught my attention the most were her final thoughts on my letter: “Your word count raises questions about length. While your genre allows for such a hefty WC [word count], the fact that there are multiple examples of unnecessary wording in your query, I have to wonder if the same is true of the manuscript.”

Now, she is absolutely right to say I have redundancies in that letter, and to state I have a hefty word count. A novel of 100,000 words is the largest manuscript a literary agent will consider these days. (And if this had been a contemporary novel, I’d need to cut the book down to 80,000 words to be viable to an agent.)

And here is the cold hard truth: The Shadowfall Witch will be longer than 100,000 words. I was just using that number as a placeholder, so I could start querying agents and see if they like the idea of this project before I finish writing it. I knew I couldn’t put a larger number in the letter because agents would delete the letter immediately, if the word count was too high.

The reality is, no matter how artfully I pen this query letter, the manuscript itself will be unsuitable to an agent. Not only due to an undesirable word count, but because the book itself doesn’t fit a strict genre. As Ms. McGinnis pointed out in her feedback: “Right now it reads like a magical realism historical romance, which, while that’s really cool, you need to hint more about what exactly that is, without lengthening the query by much.”

First, I should make clear that The Shadowfall Witch is not a romance, and I do think I can adjust this query to make sure the story doesn’t sound like one.

Second, for Ms. McGinnis to call the book “magical realism” rather than “fantasy” is an upgrade. A big upgrade. Fantasy is genre fiction. Magical realism is literary fiction. To non-writers that might sound meaningless, but to me, it means my query letter sounded far more precise and rooted in reality than most genre fiction (generally) is.

But the mash-up “magical realism historical romance” is not a good thing. Literary agents do not like “blendy” books — books that blend multiple genres together — because they are difficult to market. Meaning, they are difficult to sell. And selling books is hard enough without adding more complications like a novel in a blendy genre no one knows how to talk about in a five-word sound bite.

I have written and self-published five novels, and my last two manuscripts were written with the specific hope that they would be attractive to a literary agent. Then I went to a writers conference in Denver last fall, and discovered some genres and subjects are “toxic” to agents, because acquiring editors (at publishing houses) won’t touch them. Some of the most toxic stories (right now) are urban fantasy and anything starring mermaids. So I had to give up my hope of ever successfully querying two books that took me a long time to write — but because I think they are great books, I made them available on Smashwords for free. If I couldn’t query an agent with them, maybe they could bring me new readers, or new blog followers, since both books will have sequels one day.

So far, that has not happened. My two free books are just — um, there — existing unread — on the internet. Like a lot of other self-published books.

I promised my husband that taking this risk — putting two ebooks up for free — would be a boon to my writing career, but the fact is, the whole experiment turned out to be fruitless, Greg wasted a lot of money paying my self-publishing costs (about $3,000.00 for the two covers and the formatting fees), and I have eaten a whole lot of crow.


Greg serves me plates of crow daily. I have eaten a LOT of crow since January, when I published Bloodshade of the Goddess, and even more crow since March, when I published Kinned to the Sea. One of the biggest humiliations of my life has been Kinned to the Sea, since I was so sure that book would find a niche readership, and I spent a lot of time on Goodreads telling mermaid-lovers about the book. I even convinced Greg to give me $400.00 so I could pay to format the book with CreateSpace, and make it available as a paperback, and all I can say is, nothing makes me feel more pathetic, or more of a super-failure, than looking at my first proof copy of Kinned to the Sea. The formatters did a horrible job with the font, so I have a lot of work to do to make this paperback formatting not-totally-suck, work that will be overall pointless for a non-selling book, and it depresses me to no end.

Look, I am not saying that I regret self-publishing my books — I am saying I regret that my hopes were so high that offering ebooks for free might have some kind of benefit to my readership. Hopes crushed by reality are brutal pills to swallow. Crow is not fun to eat.

The feedback Mindy McGinnis gave me — free criticism from a professional — is invaluable. Because here’s what I chose to do with that feedback: I immediately shelved my work-in-progress as another unsellable book, and decided to work on something an agent might want.

What do agents want? In the adult world, psychological thrillers are big. Mysteries are always big.

In the YA (Young Adult) world, contemporary YA and historical YA are both big.

So I’m going to work on a YA contemporary right now. I’m going to make sure the book isn’t blendy. I’m going to make sure the manuscript isn’t longer than 80,000 words.

I can’t keep publishing books the industry doesn’t want, and I can’t keep publishing books when I have no marketing budget for them. If one more person tells me I should “pay to advertise on Facebook” and that this will “solve all my problems,” I might scream. To the folks who have money to spend on advertising, all I can say is, “How awesome for you!” This is not my reality. I can’t advertise on Facebook when I don’t have the money to pay for the ads. I love knowing that Facebook ads have been successful for a great many people. But this avenue just isn’t one that is open to me.

For the time being, I need to get busy and work on something a literary agent might be able to sell.

And for anyone who hasn’t yet read a book by Mindy McGinnis, I **highly** recommend her YA contemporary, The Female of the Species. I devoured this book as soon as the novel debuted, and you can read my review on Goodreads here, if you want to hear me gush about how much I loved this book. The prose is amazing. And this is the first YA I’ve ever read that felt, in any way, like my own high school experience. Guhhhhh, this book is just so flipping good. (Even if the cover does squick me out a bit, since the color reminds me of one of my most-detested foods, the dread lemon bar. Food of Satan.) I’m sure whoever created this cover loves to eat lemon bars. ^.^



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Work Songs, Night Skies, and Animal Love

My husband drove me to Farmington, New Mexico, to look at laptops for sale in Best Buy. We contemplated buying one, debating whether we could spend the money right now. I felt pretty stressed out, and just wished I could have my long-gone, motherboard-crashed-and-was-irreparable laptop back. We left the store without a new machine, because I just couldn’t commit to the expense of a purchase.

In the car on the way home, I told Greg about a scene in my third Pterren book, in which Rafael must cook some river fish at a crude camp, and I needed a natural replacement for aluminum foil. “He guts the fish, leaves the bones and skin attached, places slices of pineapple into the flesh, then wraps this up before cooking the fish in the fire. As a soldier responsible for his own meals, he carries salt and pepper with him, but I want this meat to be tender, not dried out at all. Could he wrap the fish in yucca leaves? Would that keep the juice in the meat?”

Greg thought yucca leaves would be far too bitter. “Have him use banana leaves,” Greg said, since this crude camp is set in Central America. “The banana leaves wouldn’t leave the meat bitter.”


Which I thought could work, and I thought about how South Indians use banana leaves as meal plates. Then I thought of that famous song, “Day-O,” or “The Banana Boat Song,” sung most famously by Harry Belafonte (who celebrated his 90th birthday this year, on March 1). So I started singing “The Banana Boat Song,” and thinking of those dock workers loading ships full of bananas, and in my mind I saw them in a heavy night rain, their shadows illuminated by old sodium lights, their fatigue immense, their eyes distant and sad, anxious for dawn, their voices painful and beautifully harmonious as they sang the callbacks together. The sound rose up and filled me, those straining men and their voices, as I gazed out the window and watched the sun set.

My eyes kept lingering on irrigation equipment, those giant contraptions that turn circles in fields, and as I looked over the farms on the mesa, I remembered taking a particular turn off this highway, fifteen years ago, and driving into those fields. I was a passenger beside a different man then, a man whose name I cannot remember, but he had met me in some chance encounter in Durango, and fallen in love with me, and asked me to come with him out to one of those fields, so he could show me “the most important thing” in his life.

Since I hadn’t been afraid of this man, I had said yes, took a seat in his pickup, and we traveled to the end of some dusty road, parked, and then crossed two empty pastures on foot. The air had been windy and cold, the earth hard with frost, the sky overcast with a storm moving in. The fields were jagged and barren, colorless in the dim haze of winter. We arrived at a wooden fence, which we climbed over, and then far in the distance, I saw a young bison, a goat, and a donkey running toward us. They traveled in a group, excited and happy, kicking up their heels and tossing their heads.

The man had tears in his eyes as he introduced me to his animals, which swarmed around us, eager for pets. We stood in that field for over an hour, petting them and watching them frolic around us. I wish I could remember the name of the man’s bison, and donkey, and goat, but they are as lost to me now as his own name. The bison’s head reached my shoulders, and he had the most beautiful dark eyes, with long, curling lashes. I was so enchanted by the delicate, humongous eyelashes of this buffalo.


The memory stirred up another one, another time I had spent with a man and his most beloved pet. I had been in a different part of Colorado, about five hours north of Durango, staying in a rickety old hunting lodge way up in the mountains, one of those big open cabins lined with narrow cots, tiny beds with thin blankets and thinner pillows, where groups of men sleep before venturing off into the wilderness.

I’d gone up there to visit my friend. Her father owned the cabin, as well as about 2,000 head of Hereford cattle. Maybe the count was higher than that, I forget. And maybe her dad crossed his line with some Angus, and had some Black Baldies in his herd too, I forget that as well. It’s obvious what a poor memory I have.

My friend helped on the ranch, though she didn’t much care for the hunters who came in the winter and fall. She had a lot of colorful swear words for those guys, wealthy Californians and Rust Belt Hemingway wannabes who didn’t know sh*t about staying alive in the mountains, but wanted to shoot stuff with guns.

My friend shot stuff, that’s for sure — she had no tolerance for coyotes, and would fire shots at them whenever one appeared in the distance. I was nineteen then, she was around twenty-three, and it was mid-August when I went up to see her. I arrived on a Friday night, met up with her at a rodeo in town, and after the rodeo ended, I followed her pickup way into the mountains, to the cabin. We had the place to ourselves, and the cabin was cold that night, since we didn’t build a fire in the stove, but I slept hard and woke before dawn with my friend.

We cooked some bacon and eggs, and then we saddled her two favorite horses and went out for the day. I rode a dun gelding named Captain, and he was a good horse, very gentle and calm. My friend rode a chestnut mare who never flinched when we stopped to shoot at coyotes. My friend would drop the reins, grab her rifle, and fire a single shot, but she never hit one, and each time, the coyote would bolt away. Personally, I thought those coyotes were just f*cking with us, though I never told my friend that. Her hatred was fierce and she wanted those animals dead.

We rode around all day, sometimes coming in sight of the herd, but mostly just keeping off by ourselves, and in the late afternoon, I heard sheep bawling somewhere. I asked my friend if she wanted to say hi to the shepherd, and she said okay, so we searched around a bit and found his tiny trailer.

The man was happy to see us, and so was his Australian shepherd, a scruffy white and brown dog that circled the horses. Maybe the sheepherder was Basque, or descended from Basque sheepherders, or maybe he was from Argentina or Bolivia, I couldn’t say. He didn’t speak English, though he was friendly and kind and he let me play with his dog. His trailer was not large enough to sleep in, just a small steel trailer that could be hitched to a horse and deposited high on a mountainside, because we were right at timberline, barely in the shelter of trees. The grass was tall and lush though, silvery when the wind blew, and he had built a small fire in preparation for supper.

My friend wanted to get back to the cabin before dark, but I decided I wanted to stay and spend the night by the fire. She didn’t like that idea, since I hadn’t brought my sleeping bag with me and the temperature had already started to plummet, the moment the sun slipped behind the top of the peaks. I said I’d just sleep on the ground by the fire and meet up with her in the morning.

So she took Captain with her, and I played fetch with the dog until it was too dark to see the ball anymore. The man heated a tin of beans for supper, and he offered me some, but his poverty was too stark, too brutally apparent, and I couldn’t take what little he had. So I told him I’d already eaten, gesturing when he gave me a quizzical look. When he made a kettle of coffee for dessert, I drank a cup with him, and he tried to teach me a song I could never memorize the words to, but I could harmonize with him well enough. So I laid by the fire with his dog on my chest, which was the whole reason I’d stayed to begin with, to lay there with his dog, and we sang this Spanish song I could never translate, gazing up at the stars.

Sunset over mountains

Maybe he’d chosen a work song like “Day-O,” waiting out the cold dark until the sun rose again. I can’t remember if I slept, or if the sheepherder ever left me to check on his herd. He was there when I told him goodbye, and headed back to the cabin at dawn. My friend was cooking some eggs when I got there. “I thought you’d freeze to death,” she said. I just smiled and joined her for breakfast. We ate on battered tin plates, sitting outside on the cabin stoop, in the sun.


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The People’s Climate March, Pretty Pictures, and Some Book News to Share

Saturday, April 29, 2017 marked President Trump’s 100th day in office as well as the People’s Climate March, and there was a local climate march in Durango, Colorado, which I attended. My friend Hannah went with me, and since the sky was spitting snow at my house that morning, everyone had to dress warmly.

Everyone smiling banner picture

As you can hopefully see from that picture, some folks made large puppets to walk in, supporting the effort to power the American economy with 100% renewable energy, and there was a mix of professionally-made and homemade signs on display.

This was my favorite professional sign, art created in a similar design to the professional Women’s March signs used in displays on January 21 —

My favorite professional sign

This was my favorite homemade sign, propped against a stroller at the gathering after the march in Buckley Park —

My favorite homemade sign

I love preschooler artwork like this. Totally great sign.

A lot of my friends attended this march, and I took pictures of some of them. Here is poet Mary Kate, with her puppy dog Cher (who is hiding behind Mary Kate’s preschool class sign), along with tireless LGBTQI advocate Anna (who made her original cloth Earth Day sign, attached to the snow shovel she’s carrying, 26 years ago) —

Mary Kate and Anna

Here is my friend Dreamweaver, sporting a super-awesome hat a shaman made for her —


Here is a picture of me and Hannah, in front of one of the giant puppets who walked in the march —

Coal is dead, with Hannah

As the final speaker told the crowd about the importance of minimalism and shared stories about how she grew up summitting tall mountain peaks all over the world, Hannah and I climbed the hill at Buckley Park, and I took this photograph of the people listening to the final speaker —

On the hillside, final speaker

I don’t know what the final attendance numbers were, but there were at least 700 people there, probably more. It was a chilly morning, but the weather was pleasant despite the cool temperature. Overcast, but not pouring rain or dumping snow.

I turned 37 on Tuesday, May 2 (don’t I have such a great birthday? spring baby Taurus here, word), and since my two newest novels are still available for free, I wanted to share my current download counts for Kinned to the Sea and Bloodshade of the Goddess. Especially since Kinned to the Sea is ALL ABOUT climate change, and I just participated in this march.

The clear winner (no surprise) is Bloodshade of the Goddess, with 313 downloads. Kinned to the Sea, which debuted about six weeks after Bloodshade of the Goddess, has 183 downloads.

The free downloads have not created any new reviews, either on Amazon or on Goodreads. I have two diehard bestie-friendsies (also known as fans of my work who are my friends in real life) who have each reviewed both of these books, so when I see that Kinned to the Sea only has two Amazon reviews, even after being out for two months, all I can do is shrug and say, “This is why literary agents want nothing to do with mermaids.” The follow-up statement being, of course, that “mermaids don’t sell.” I don’t think climate change fiction sells, either. I had hoped this book would do a lot better, but the market has spoken, and in this case, the nay-sayers were right.

There is also a “common knowledge” idea out there among indie authors and people who promote indie books that the more titles an author generates, the more their readership will grow. I would like to say I have not found that to be true. Here has been my particular reality, concerning my books and my readership —

My husband bought about 60 copies of my first novel in paperback, which I gave away to people in the hopes of gaining reviews. Some of those people were strangers, some were friends, some were friends of friends. For my second novel, my husband bought far fewer paperback copies, about 20, and I gave those away. People who received free paperback books had a much better track record posting an Amazon review. People who received free ebooks also posted reviews, but the percentage was a lot smaller. I think about fifteen percent of the free paperback readers posted reviews, and about two percent of free ebook readers posted reviews.

For Mark of the Pterren, my book fans are solely responsible for all nine of my current Amazon reviews. I offered the free ebook to people, but hardly any of my friends or family wanted the ebook. I had a dedicated group of beta-readers who loved that book and promoted it, and that is why I have nine Amazon reviews for my third novel. (My husband and I cannot afford to buy any copies of this one. It’s a massive book, and expensive to purchase, and I need to prioritize saving up for a laptop, since mine died in November, and has not been replaced. Thank goodness my old desktop is still grinding away, or I’d really be in trouble.)

This brings me back to the fact my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves, has 42 Amazon reviews, and my second novel, Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems, has 16 Amazon reviews. Now, before you get all excited and assume that almost all 20 of my free paperback copies of Love and Loans earned me reviews, I must also make clear that a local book club chose Love and Loans for their monthly pick, and a number of those book club members bought the book and posted positive reviews. Before that happened, the book had nine or ten reviews. So the book club readers were a HUGE boost to my review count.

And I should also say that I know my diehard besties frequently spend money on my paperback books and ebooks, even though they can receive the ebooks and/or the paperbacks for free (when I can afford to buy the physical books for them) so beta-readers also cross into this category of being customers, despite the laborious work they put into these projects.

Here are the numbers I have right now on Amazon:

The Etiquette of Wolves (mystery): 42 reviews

Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems (contemporary): 16 reviews

Mark of the Pterren (science fiction): 9 reviews

Bloodshade of the Goddess (urban fantasy): 3 reviews [*only available as an ebook]

Kinned to the Sea (YA fantasy): 2 reviews [*only available as an ebook]

In my opinion, having physical copies of books makes a huge difference in review counts. Most book clubs do not review ebooks, they want the paperback copy available. The vast majority of book clubs who meet in person, chat about books over wine, and post online reviews, tend to read what is called “women’s fiction” and shy away from science fiction, urban fantasy, and YA titles. (Note that I did not say “all” book clubs, but “the majority” of book clubs favor women’s fiction or historical women’s fiction, rocketing titles like Orphan Train and The Language of Flowers onto bestseller lists.)

On Goodreads, the YA fantasy genre, YA historical genre, and YA contemporary genre dominate the market in book sales and reviews. But it’s really hard to break into that market, for a large number of reasons. If ALL of my books were YA fantasy, I might be making some headway. But I suffer from the fact that I write across genres, so I cannot build a genre readership. I am a writer who must rely on my diehard besties and diehard fans for reviews, also known as people who are always game for my completely erratic stories, stories which have no logical coherency to bind them together other than the fact that I wrote them.

I’m not even helping myself right now, since I’m currently working on a historical fantasy at the moment — yet another genre jump that makes building a readership that much harder.

I wrote a query letter for this work in progress, and I’ve submitted this letter to be slashed — better known as “critiqued” free of charge — by author Mindy McGinnis on May 13. She slashed my query letter for Bloodshade of the Goddess last year, and she was willing to slash a new one for me, because she is awesome.

My letter is pasted below, and I welcome any feedback my Thought Candy readers might like to share. Just comment below, or use the Contact form on my website, if you don’t want to share publicly. Query letters have to be really short, and detail the plot without giving the ending away. They are complicated things to write. But I’m hoping that, this time, I can start the query process early, receive the results by the time the book is finished, and then (most likely) move forward with self-publishing from there.

If I had a good number of reviews for all of my self-published books, I could mention that in my letter. But unfortunately, my low review count would make a literary agent more likely to delete my letter, unread, so I have to leave my self-published books out of this letter. I have won no awards, and do not possess an MFA in creative writing, so there is no bio paragraph in this letter. Just the plot of the work in progress, and the comparative titles for marketing purposes, which all literary agents require.

Thanks for reading! And if any Thought Candy readers want to comment on this letter, your feedback is appreciated as well! ^.^



Warrior, wizard, slave: no matter how powerful Andre Hawthorne becomes, he knows only death can set him free. He is the property of Mara Tsaryov, the ruthless Witch of Shadowfall, named for the Lithuanian forest where she was born. Mara bought Andre as a child, bonded him to her with magic, trained him to guard and protect her—and now that he’s grown into a charismatic young man, Mara has fallen in love with him. But in 1790, an aristocrat of New Russia would never permit herself to fall in love with a black slave, a living piece of her property who doesn’t even desire her. Mara despises her feelings, and she longs to kill Andre to rid herself of her shame.

            But this particular slave is too useful for Mara to kill, and her political schemes would be impossible without Andre’s skills. His magic protects her chateaux in the Carpathians, Mara’s favorite home and the seat of her power. Frustrated with Andre’s indifference, Mara decides to enhance her physical appearance, and dress to inspire his lust, in order to regain control of herself, and of him.

            So when a gifted seamstress in Kiev loses her husband, and must sell herself into slavery to keep her family safe, Mara is only too happy to acquire this slave. A Mongolian witch raised by Cossacks, Sienna Katyev will never be as powerful as Mara—but Sienna has her own kind of indomitable strength. As she works alongside Andre inside Mara’s chateaux, the two become friends, and then lovers. If Mara knew how they felt, she would kill Sienna, so Andre begins using his magic to free her. The more secrets Andre must keep from Mara, the more perilous freeing Sienna becomes, as political intrigue and love bring Andre toward a violent confrontation he knows he can’t win.

            The Shadowfall Witch (100,000 words) will appeal to fans of historical fantasy such as Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.


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Writing While Ableist

So I am about to do something I’ve never seen a mainstream author do before, which is to criticize my own work for negative discourse.

You might be wondering, “What the hell does that even mean?” since “discourse” is defined as “the use of words to exchange thoughts and ideas” and I am a writer and it sounds like I’m speaking in gibberish.


So, to clarify: when I say “negative discourse” I am talking about how text — in this instance, the text of a novel — can perpetuate ideas in support of racism, sexism, classism, ableism — or pretty much any kind of negative stereotype or slur humanity has ever invented. Not because the author wrote specific slurs into the text, but as a function of the plot of the story, or in the way the characters are described in a story.

The older I get, and the more I study the world around me, it has become apparent to me that the strongest forms of all negative stereotypes are really good at hiding in plain sight. The strongest forms are the most subtle, the most insidious, the most cruel, and a person has to have some very sharp eyesight indeed to notice these things. Because mostly, in combating negative stereotypes, what you’re learning to see is yourself — at least, that’s been my experience. The more clearly I see the world around me, the more clearly what I am really examining is myself — most especially, my own shortcomings, and the ways I constantly perpetuate problematic ideas that I do not agree with, but are readily promoted by society as a whole.

Now, you might think that since many fiction writers are self-identified liberals, progressives, moderates, or non-racist/non-sexist conservatives, then these creative writers would be analyzing their own work for negative discourse all the time. But in my experience (with a big thank you to social media, for allowing me to watch such drama unfold), writers don’t criticize their own books — their readers do — and when readers take books to task for being racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, classist, or anything else — the authors most often react with a mixture of silence and denial. Sometimes fury. And one of the most frequent defense mechanisms authors use to dismiss criticism of their work is to tell their critics, “It’s just a story.”

Which makes me narrow my eyes, and put down my snooty teacup with a growl. Just like this —


Hearing the statement “It’s just a story” reminds me of how many times I voiced an opinion as a kid growing up, and was immediately told, “You’re just a girl. What would you know?” Which is considered the polite way of telling a female to shut the f*ck up.

So let me say this: there IS no “just a” in life, especially not when it comes to story. All meaning and judgment are rooted in story. Secular or religious, nonfiction or fiction, nonverbal, spoken, or printed — story is the mechanism by which humanity creates meaning and judgment to order society. Which is also to say that every point in the hierarchy of power is rooted in story. To claim anything is “just a story” is a much bigger feint than to dismiss my voice by telling me I’m “just a girl.” Denying the power of story is to deny lived reality. The statement is thoughtless, cruel in its absurdity — and, to be blunt — a complete lie.

Now, it is true that people who read a lot of books tend to be people who like to seek out new ideas, and think challenging thoughts. Not always, but much of the time, book-readers give society the side-eye, and view the world at large with a healthy amount of suspicion.

And book-readers often turn into writers. Writers who then have to worry about sales, and reputations, and selling their next book. So when readers levy attacks on their work, it is understandable that authors often react with silence, denial, or — (a bit less common) — lash out with anger and attacks of their own.


Over the years, my readers have shared plenty of criticisms with me. Their comments most often stun me into silence a moment, and then I’ll say, “Okay, thanks for sharing that,” or some such acknowledgment of what they have said. I certainly don’t yell at these people and say they are wrong. They’re entitled to their opinions of my books.

As an example, here are some common criticisms readers have shared with me after reading my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves

1. “You wrote a book about wealthy, intelligent college students who attend a fictional Ivy League school, students who participate in gang rape, and that is completely absurd. Wealthy white men do not gang rape women. That is something only poor, uneducated people do. Intelligent men don’t behave like animals.”

2. “The college students in your book drink a LOT, and I don’t think you understand people can’t drink this much alcohol. It would just make people sick, and these college students would all fail out of school. You should have done some more research about the effects of alcohol on the human body, because no one could drink as much as your characters drink and stay in school.”

3. “It’s unrealistic that teenage girls would know as much about sex as the girls in your novel. For instance, you have your main character, Jimmy, taking birth control even though she is only eighteen or nineteen years old. What girl that age would understand how to take birth control to avoid an unwanted pregnancy? When I was that age, I didn’t know anything about having safe sex, and it would have made a lot more sense if Jimmy had just asked Alistair to use a condom, rather than planning ahead to have sex and taking birth control.”

4. “Fraternities are positive places that shape the adolescent characters of boys into upstanding young men. Frats are beneficial to society and all you did in your book was slander them. You don’t think the Greek system has enough people to bash it, you need to add your book to the mix? You should open your eyes to the fact that fraternities are excellent organizations designed to help people make friends, and do great things for society, and stop perpetuating the lie that girls get raped at frat parties. That’s just not true.”



For anyone who has read The Etiquette of Wolves, you can determine for yourself whether or not you agree or disagree with these criticisms. Each of those statements is an example of negative discourse in action — statements containing stereotypes/generalizations and slurs that exist in society. Each reader is expressing a judgment about men, women, race, class, biology, group think, and/or group behavior. In some cases, it is clear how much personal experience is shaping the reader’s particular criticism of the book. In other cases, you can probably assume the identity of the speaker based upon their opinion. Whether you agree or disagree with their stance might be largely based upon your own identity, and your own experiences in life.

And it’s probably obvious what my own beliefs are, given the statements being made in criticizing my first novel. But for those Thought Candy readers who have not read my first book, I’ll briefly state my positions:

I do believe that “wealthy white men” can choose to “behave like animals.” I do believe that many college students “drink a lot” but don’t fail out of school. I do believe that some teenage girls use birth control to avoid unwanted pregnancies. And I do believe that girls (and sometimes boys, or a person of any gender) are raped at frat parties — not at ALL frat parties, but my novel isn’t describing a rape at every frat party. Nor does the book portray every fraternity brother as a rapist.


And this is a big but.

There was one fraternity brother in The Etiquette of Wolves who was a textbook example of negative discourse — specifically, a textbook example of ableist discourse. One of the most ugly stereotypes any story can perpetuate. Even if most readers never recognize ableism in a story, or ableist discourse in prose, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

This character’s name is Bridgley Kingson. Of the 62 chapters in The Etiquette of Wolves, Bridgley appears in scene in only two of them — Chapters 43 and 45 — so he is a secondary character, but his role in the story is highly ableist.


There are seven major disability tropes (which I have typed up below) that Jack A. Nelson cited in his book The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age — and I know of these seven tropes because I watched a TED talk by Ben Myers, which you can watch here. These seven tropes are all negative stereotypes that able-bodied writers most frequently use for their disabled characters, thereby removing agency from that person in the story. In other words, these stereotypes make the disabled character less of a person, or make them sub-human, or infantilize that character. In many novels, disability is also a shorthand way for indicating a person is “evil” — and if you have ever read about the process of fat-shaming in books, you will recognize a strong similarity between how the words “fat” and “disabled” are frequently chosen by authors to communicate that a character is “evil” or “corrupt.”

Disability Tropes

  1. The disabled person as pitiable and pathetic.
  2. The disabled person as super crip.
  3. The disabled person as sinister, evil, and criminal.
  4. The disabled person as better-off dead.
  5. The disabled person as maladjusted — his own worst enemy.
  6. The disabled person as a burden.
  7. The disabled person as unable to lead a successful life.

The character of Bridgley Kingson falls into six of those seven tropes. Bridgley is portrayed as pitiable and pathetic (#1); he did something evil in the story (participated in a gang rape) and was “punished” for leaving his organization, giving him a trope of being sinister, evil, and criminal (#3); the reader probably assumes he would have been better-off dead (#4); he is portrayed as being maladjusted (#5); he is a burden to his parents (#6); and he is unable to lead a successful life (#7).

While Bridgley is also portrayed as a member of a resistance group in the book, and he does help the able-bodied characters save themselves, I must also say this: characters with disabilities should not exist in stories for the sole purpose of helping the able-bodied characters do things. If the only reason a disabled character is in a book is to serve an able-bodied character, that is ableism. To strip all agency from a disabled character in order to serve the needs of an able-bodied character is the most glaring, and vicious, form of ableism a piece of art can ever contain.

So while it’s nice that Bridgley *does* perform good deeds in this story, he does so for disturbing reasons. Reasons that flow from his own need for redemption, as well as being unable to help himself.

But worst of all — for me — is that Bridgley was placed in this story to scare the (assumed) able-bodied reader by representing what could happen to the able-bodied characters if they are caught and mutilated by their enemies. So let me add a trope of my own to Jack A. Nelson’s list —

8. The disabled person as embodied horror — a projection of what the able-bodied hero might become if he fails.


Here is a criticism of The Etiquette of Wolves that no reader has ever shared with me, but I will phrase as if a reader is criticizing the book, the same way my real-life criticisms were worded above —

1. Your portrayal of Bridgley Kingson in this novel is incredibly ableist, and incredibly insulting. People who have disabilities should not exist in a story to serve the needs of able-bodied characters. You should recognize that people with disabilities shouldn’t be treated like stereotypes. Disability shouldn’t be treated like it’s a punishment, either. Grow up and educate yourself and quit being so ableist.


I have been trying to grow up and educate myself about ableism for the past year, and everything I have learned has come from my friend Amanda, who is also my Little Orange Monster, due to the fact she is small and orange and a monster. In other words, she is an alien from the planet Xenon. (Sorry, Amanda — I have officially outed you.) She answers my questions, she points me in the right direction for research, she has given me books to read and links to TED talks to watch, and she is always down for a discussion about anything. But she has never once taken it upon herself to point out my ableist failures, not in our discussions, and not in my books. Amanda just lets me come to my own reckonings. And that is why I wrote this blog post.

Amanda would point out that if you want to see an amazing character who is NOT a stereotype of disability representation, you should read the novel Mark of the Pterren and take note of Rafael Rennon. Rafael embodies his disability without ever losing his agency — or, as Amanda always says, “Rafael is a character in the round.” Not a two-dimensional stereotype, not a disability trope, not an infantilized sub-human who exists solely to help the able-bodied characters around him. Rafael’s body changes dramatically, but he never becomes less of a person, or less important to the story. In fact, his disabled body makes him even *more* central to the plot, and drives the book toward its conclusion — which is something most stories hardly ever do. (This is all according to Amanda, however. And she is from planet Xenon. But I do trust her a lot, even if she is orange.)

I wrote Mark of the Pterren before I learned about ableism — because it was only after I published Mark of the Pterren that Amanda came into my life. She loved that book, and thus began our friendship. I told Amanda that as a result of this knowledge she’s given me, I now have a new head. She laughs at this. Of course. Only someone so little and orange would laugh at my head. Sheesh.



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A Goat Named Chorny

A brief warning that there are some racist terms ahead. Readers sensitive to racial slurs might want to skip this post. Thanks.







I have been doing some very haphazard research for my current work in progress, which I thought would be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, set in New Russia (in territory that is now the country of Ukraine) in 1790. I kept seeing a main character in my head who I thought was a black eunuch, and the more I tried to research this character, the more apparent it became that this man was not a eunuch, but he had almost become one. I originally thought the antagonist of the story (a powerful sorcerer) had purchased him from the Ottoman Empire — but it turns out she bought him from one of the castration centers in Europe, places that castrated young boys to sell to the Ottomans.

(The Ottoman Empire had white as well as black eunuchs, and gave them different roles to perform as slaves. Many slave boys were castrated in Europe and then sold to the Ottomans, which was a lucrative business for Europeans, even though around 90% of the boys bled to death from the procedure.)

My character-who-is-not-a-eunuch is named Andre. Usually, I can hear a character in my head long before I can see them. In the case of Andre, I could only hear him singing, and then I could see him — and finally, on Easter Sunday, he started talking to me. Even though I’m not working on his story right now, and am not even writing at all, Andre sure has a lot to say. Hearing his speech felt like a major breakthrough, so much that I kept telling my husband, “I feel intense joy right now,” and then said, “I can hear him, he’s really alive now,” while tapping the side of my head. Greg just gave me this worried look and said I should never admit these things to people, ever, because I sound like I need medication.

Since Andre is black, I wondered what kind of racist slurs Russians have for black people, since Americans have negro, n*gger, colored, coon, buck, ape, monkey, tar baby, etc. etc. The antagonist needed a realistic term to call this slave of hers, since I’m writing historical fantasy, and racism is endemic to modern history.





I discovered today that a particular Turkish word for black — zenci — is a pretty awful derogatory term for black people. Calling someone a zenci is to say they are ignorant, lazy, lower class — as well as being a term for those with black skin.

In Russia, it turns out people use the terms apes and monkeys for black people — but behind their backs, not to their faces. Which is similar to most of the overt racism I witness in my everyday life, wherein white people who use the word n*gger do so only among other white people, and sometimes they use it in a kind of academic, historical way to voice their protest against “the f*cking P.C. culture that is ruining America.” I’m around a number of white people who hate the thought of being politically correct, and the phrase “P.C. culture” is just kind of everywhere these days. I’ve never been around a person of color who has expressed contempt for “P.C. culture” but I frequently encounter rage against political correctness among white people.

But anyway, back to my research. Here is the word “black” in Russian:


Which is pronounced “chernyy” — at least, according to my google search, it is pronounced that way.

Closely related, the word “chorny” is a Ukrainian or East Slavic term for black. Some Ukrainian Americans use the word “chorn” to refer to someone they think is stupid or lesser, and while the word can be used as a racial slur for people with black skin, anyone can be called a “chorn.” But from what I gleaned about this word online, the fundamental “slur” in this word is racist, rather than ableist.

Chorny was also the name of a black-haired goat I knew once, when I was a child. Chorny was owned by a man I’ll call Lenny, who was an acquaintance of my father’s. Lenny also owned two Rottweilers, some guns, and a wrecked Grand Am that sat in his yard. He lived on the far end of a trailer park with his girlfriend and her three children, who were all around my age at the time, between five and ten.

I remember the last day I ever saw Chorny, which was the day I helped bury her, while two of my younger brothers waited in our dad’s truck. Lenny owed my dad some money, so my dad went to his place to collect. This was in 1987 or 1988, when I was seven or eight. My brothers and I rode in the pickup bed, which was nice, since it was a hot summer day. Lenny lived in a different town, so this journey took at least a half hour, probably more.









When we arrived at the trailer home, however, Lenny and his girlfriend were gone. Lit out of town, my dad said, to avoid paying their debts. They had taken the three children with them, but they’d left Lenny’s pets — and they’d left them locked up inside.

The Rottweilers were always chained up, because both dogs were vicious and would bite. Each of Lenny’s girlfriend’s three kids had been bitten before, and I never went close to those animals when we came over. Chorny was a really sweet goat though, and she loved anyone who would pet her. When Lenny left, he chained the two dogs up in different rooms in the trailer, so they wouldn’t attack each other. My dad banged on the front door, even though he’d guessed Lenny had moved, and then he noticed a lot of blood had seeped out from beneath the door, and had pooled on the little wood deck.

So my dad opened the door, looked around, and then called for me to walk over to Lenny’s junk pile and bring him a tarp. I located a filthy piece of frayed plastic, a tarp that had once been blue but had darkened greenish-black with mold, took the rotten thing to my father, and then I saw for myself what had left all that blood in the house.

One of the two Rottweilers had gotten loose and killed Chorny, eviscerated her and severed her head. The blood on the deck was all hers. Both the Rottweilers were dead, too — they had inflicted fatal wounds on each other. One of the dogs was still chained in the back bedroom, and the other had bled to death in the area that had once held the couch.

With the help of a broken snow shovel, my dad and I pushed Chorny and her guts onto the tarp, carried her outside, and buried her. My brothers were told to stay in the truck, and they did. I told them the dogs were dead, and they were glad, because those Rottweilers scared the sh*t out of them. My dad and I washed off our hands with a garden hose, and then we left.

If my dad were still alive, I would ask him if Lenny had Ukrainian or Slavic heritage, and if that was why he had named his black-haired goat Chorny. Or maybe someone else had named the goat Chorny, before she became Lenny’s property.

As to my current work in progress, I doubt I will use any of these specific slurs in my book. None of these terms resonated with my story at all, but they definitely registered with my own memories, and my life.

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When I Am Reading a Book and Turn into Satan

On September 10, 2016, after the awards banquet for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference, I bought a pile of books from some of the local authors hosting tables at the book sale that night.









Today, I officially finished all but *one* of the books in this pile. The task felt like such an accomplishment that I decided to share a list of my book reviews, so my Thought Candy readers can see how I fared with my haul.

Because I need to be honest here: reading self-published books and/or books published by small presses is often torture. And other than the three books on the top of my pile (Transformation, Restoration, and Revelation, by Carol Berg, which all had a traditional publisher), the rest of these titles were either self-published or released by small  presses — what people call “indie books.”

Indie books tend to overwhelmingly fall into my “strongly dislike” category. I’m a literary omnivore, and I often read across genres, but I am a cutting and judgmental reader — which is the polite way of saying that I am an asshole when I read. I can put up with grammar errors, because those exist in every book — but cliche-ridden books with clunky prose, plot holes, factual errors, and poorly drawn characters flip on my Satan switch. And once reader-me lands in Satan mode, I want to smash things and curse and watch the world burn. My inner toddler runs amok, and I become Lucifer’s female twin.

Because few things are as torturous as reading a book I strongly dislike.

The nice thing about my brain is that I can also be really generous with books. I can overcome bad first impressions, and keep reading a book until it “gets good” and becomes enjoyable. I can forgive a lot of plot holes and dull storytelling, as long as the writing is strong and I’ve bonded with the characters. Bad covers don’t scare me away. Neither do bad titles or bad book descriptions. I can forgive a book with sloppy font choices or lazy proofreading, as long as the writing is engaging. I am a literary glutton for words, even if I am rather demonic.

So here are the links to my Goodreads reviews for each of these books, listed in the order in which the book appears in my photograph above. (The highest ranking on Goodreads is five stars.)

1. Transformation, by Carol Berg. Five stars. I LOVED this book!!

2. Restoration, by Carol Berg. This is the final book in the Transformation trilogy. The second book in the trilogy (Revelation) was not nearly as good as the first one, so I decided I will read Restoration in late summer or fall. Based on what my friend Ronni told me after she finished Restoration, I predict that I will give this book three stars.

3. Revelation, by Carol Berg. Three stars. This is the second book in the Transformation trilogy.

4. Legs: A Short Story, by Travis Heermann. Three stars. Reviewed on Amazon only, because there was no listing for this on Goodreads.

5. The Never Prayer, by Aaron Michael Ritchey. Three stars.

6. Antler Dust, by Mark Stevens. Three stars.

7. Beneath Wandering Stars, by Ashlee Cowles. Three stars.

8. The Dragon Waking, by Grayson Towler. Four stars.

9. Christmas Spirit, by Julie Cameron. Three stars.

10. The Rampart Guards, by Wendy Terrien. Three stars.


For any of my Thought Candy readers who love my third novel, Mark of the Pterren, I highly recommend the first book on this list — Transformation, by Carol Berg. The story reminded me of Terrence Davin and Rafael Rennon. Transformation is a fantasy with a medieval setting, a tale of two men — a prince and a slave — who come to love each other like brothers. One of those men is a winged warrior, though his wings appear later on in the story.

For anyone curious about books that feature really horrible ableist tropes, then please note that Legs: A Short Story, Beneath Wandering Stars, and Christmas Spirit all have particularly egregious ableist story lines, in which the disabled characters are only a plot device and a demeaning stereotype. To say that a character is a plot device is not a good thing — it means that the writer put a disabled character into a story for the sole reason of forwarding the plot for the able-bodied characters. A plot device disabled character has no agency — no authentic feelings or goals. These characters only exist in the story because the writer needed something to happen for the able-bodied characters, and using a person with a disability was a means to an end.







You might wonder why I still gave these novels three stars, if the stories were so horribly ableist. My answer is a bit complicated. First, I must say that I forgive indie authors more than I forgive traditionally published authors. Even though it’s a myth that all publishing houses hire editors for the novels they publish, and many traditionally published authors never receive content editing or even copyediting for their work, I still hold traditionally published titles to a higher standard. It’s unfair, I know. But that’s the truth.

Second, ableism is not something we talk about, or teach writing classes about, in American culture. I made terrible ableist mistakes in my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves, in my portrayal of a character who uses a wheelchair. That character only appears in two chapters, near the end of the book, but my portrayal of that disabled character was no less egregious than what these three authors did in their books. Those writers only made the same mistakes I did, and I messed up not because I had a desire to be malicious — my errors were due to my ignorance. I have the hardest time forgiving myself for what I have done. It’s much easier to forgive these other books.

Third, any piece of art can fail in one way, but succeed in other ways. I cannot reduce my opinion of a book to one subject alone. Even big mistakes in a book do not necessarily mean that the entire book is a mistake.





Those are my three biggest reasons to explain why I can still give a book full of ableist tropes a three-star review. I wish I could wave a magic wand and vanish All The Ableism from All The Books. But alas. I have no magic wand.

We can never fix anything unless we first know something is broken. And no one can become a better writer unless we can see what is wrong. Ableism is not something many people recognize or see as a problem — not in our everyday lives, and certainly not in our stories. It’s such an insidious evil because ableism hides in plain sight. Or, even worse — ableism masquerades as The Good, or as Truth, or as The Way Things Should Be.

I’ve finally started to see ableism in life, and in literature — but I still have a long way to go. Taking my time reading this pile of indie books was actually an important part of my journey, an activity I’m really glad I had a chance to engage in. No story I write will ever be perfect. I will never be perfect. But I would like to keep getting better, with the words I write, and with my time on this earth.































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I Went to a Fractious Town Hall, and So Did Princess Sparkles

Friday, April 7 ended up being a day of living my social activist values. I was invited to give a short presentation to a sociology class at Fort Lewis College about my work organizing the Standing on the Side of Love March, which took place in Durango on Saturday, January 21, 2017. Despite receiving more than a foot of snow that Saturday morning, which trapped many people at home (unable to leave their driveways or navigate unplowed roads into town) — over a thousand people still attended that march. The event covered the front page of The Durango Herald the next morning (you can read an online version of the article here) and I delivered a speech to the crowd, which you can find on the Facebook page for the march, following the link here.

The Facebook page for the march features a LOT of beautiful photographs, as well as a video of my speech at Buckley Park. You just need to search around a bit to find the right posts. The event was a smashing success, and after the march, many people built awesome snow sculptures to hold up their signs. Here is one of my favorite photographs from that day —







I also really love this picture —







I had no idea how many procedures and requirements were involved with organizing a project like that, and I’ve shared information with many people since then — but Friday was my first time speaking in front of a class full of college students about those details. My friend Hannah Dzubinski — who designed the march posters, social media pages, and spent hours and HOURS of time with me, working hard to make that march happen — Hannah came to the sociology class with me, because we are a TEAM and the Standing on the Side of Love March was an event we are both extremely proud of.

Right after the class finished, we jumped in my car and drove 2.5 hours to Montrose, Colorado, to attend a 6:00 p.m. Town Hall with our District 3 U.S. Representative, Republican Scott Tipton.

Like many other GOP members of Congress, Representative Tipton is avoiding town halls in counties won by Hillary Clinton, such as the one I live in (La Plata County). For activist progressives, this means a longer drive into a county won by President Trump in order to attend a congressional town hall. All across the country, liberals and progressives have been filling these events, the same way Tea Party members packed town halls in 2009 and 2010. Here is a photograph of the front page of the Montrose Daily Press this morning — Saturday, April 8, 2017 —









“Fractious town hall for Tipton” is the headline beneath a photograph of Representative Tipton speaking in front of a large crowd in the Montrose high school gym. One staff member commented that this was the largest attendance for a town hall in Montrose they’d ever had.

(Also fun to note: Hannah and I are in that photograph right above the headline, because we were seated directly in front of Representative Tipton, in the third row.)

People are fired up with anger and fear about the state of the country right now, and Representative Tipton sure got an earful about climate change and health care last night. He also witnessed lots of feet-stomping, clapping, whistling, yelling, and chanting. Like other recent town halls I’ve seen on TV, this one was full of people who are worried about losing health care, and people who are REALLY worried about climate change ruining all of our lives. Also strongly disliked: the current administration’s ideas about building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. At one point during the two hours in which Representative Tipton answered questions, the audience yelled, “No wall! No wall! No wall!” for quite some time.

I think there were maybe six people in that entire gym who were Republicans. The rest were all Democrats, libertarians, independents, and people who ride around on unicorns, like me.

(All special snowflakes ride around on unicorns, of course. My unicorn is named Princess Sparkles. She has pure white hair, and a pink mane and tail. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed.)

My camera does a miserable job taking photographs indoors at night. Here is the one blurry picture I have of Representative Scott Tipton speaking at this town hall —







My sincere apologies that my camera is so non-good with distance photographs taken indoors. Maybe I will get a clue one day and buy a new camera. As long as I don’t have to dismount Princess Sparkles, of course. Because God forbid I do anything without my unicorn, mystical steed of special snowflake magic.

Here is how I felt every time someone asked Representative Tipton to reconsider his denial of climate change last night —






(As you can probably tell from the rainbow and stars, Princess Sparkles was super happy as well.)

Representative Tipton stated he is against the Paris Accord. He also said he has “core values” that will never change. He did a very nice job facing this large, raucous crowd in the Montrose high school gym. I hope to attend another one of his town halls. He is a good man and I believe his heart is in the right place. But my core values do not match his. I believe that the burning of fossil fuels is creating global warming as well as ocean acidification, and if human society does not change our ways, we are on a path to extinction. Representative Tipton disagrees.

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