Sunday, May 1, 2016

Running Up the Down Escalator

All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was the first night of DFWcon, and there was nothing but a downward escalator standing between me and the party upstairs. Who's going to let a little workout get between them and cake?

Here's a little-known fact about escalators, though: they don't stand still. And when you get about three-quarters of the way up and your thighs catch wise to your cardio-treachery, your oxygen-starved brain starts thinking, "hey, that's all right - I'll just rest for a second."

And that's when true cost of your little escalark becomes clear.

It wasn't pretty, but I made it. #noregrets
That's about where I am these days. I've been charging hard up the stairs for a couple months now, and I'm so ruinously tired - but I'm not there yet, and there's no quitting without losing the progress I've made so far.

I got Kristen's Patreon launched, but still need to find another $450/month to cover her bases.

I did DFWcon - maybe better to say that DFWcon did me - but still need to turn that momentum into finally, actually running my own classes.

I got the Writers Bloc started (with a whole lot of help from my partner in organizational crime), but still need to find it a permanent home, and a new set of speakers for the summer.

I turned in Dreams of the Eaten, but still need to revise it, clean it up, and add the various bells and whistles (map, index, etc) before the end of the month.

I made this great plan to promote it when it comes out at Christmas, but none of that is going to mean bupkis if I don't actually start submitting, applying, and travel-planning pronto.

(And if you're wondering what in the hell is the Writers Bloc, or since when Eaten got a release date, that is because I am doing a lousy job of promoting any of this.)

And man, you guys. I am just so tired. It's mostly happy-tired, of course. None of these projects are disasters or tragedies; I threw myself at all of them voluntarily, and so far they're all bearing fruit.

I just miss the other parts of life. Cooking and going for walks and catching up with my friends. Doing things with the Dude. Sleeping through the night. Some things really are backsliding down the escalator - diet, physical therapy, all that good stuff - and I really need to pick them back up before they hit bottom.

So I'm sitting here at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, eating a reheated cheeseburger and writing this tiny little testament to the overclocked life. No, it's not healthy. No, it's not long-term sustainable. But there's party-cake waiting upstairs, and damn it, I'm going to get me some. Onward and upward, y'all.

You don't find your calling. You fight for it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Indispensable Word

You know, one of the best, most vexing things about Latin is that it is so dang ambiguous.

Take the word pes or pedis, for example. It's where we get pedestrian, pedestal, pedal, and so many other foot-related words. But for the Romans, the term encompassed the whole lower leg generally - there wasn't a special word for things like "calf" or "shin". (How this became the language of medicine is really beyond me.)

But the wonderful thing about this ambiguity is that it let Latin speakers enjoy multiple meanings simultaneously. We do this in English too, to a much lesser degree. "Season" can mean the time of year, or spicing your food. "Mine" can mean an excavation, or something that belongs to you. So much of the most beautiful Latin poetry really can't be translated, because putting it into English requires choosing just one of a word's multiple meanings, and destroying the others.

So gratia seems like a good word for today. It means grace, for one thing. You hear it in phrases like Maria, gratia plena (Mary, full of grace). It also means "for the sake of" - which you invoke every time you use the abbreviation e.g. (exempli gratia, or "for the sake of example"). It's also thankfulness (gratitude), pleasure (gratifying), kindness (graciousness), and something freely given (gratis, gratuity). The phrase in gratiam even means "friendship".

Tecum in gratiam fui et semper ero.
This is something I did not appreciate at the time. Let me tell you: when it's already midnight and you have thirty more lines to translate before 9AM, ambiguity is not your friend.

But after this week, I am revisiting that.

English is by many counts a million-word language - a fact I've enjoyed and extolled to my students. After all, we don't just have a foot. We have a foot, ankle, heel, arch, ball, shin, calf, toes - some of us even have cankles! With so many words, it's easy not to get attached to any particular one. So if the word "diversity" gets too loaded, for example, we'll move on to "inclusiveness" or "multiculturalism" with no trouble. Because when you have a surfeit of anything, no single one is very valuable. When you have a million words, or a million workers, you might not even notice when a few of them get damaged or thrown away.

This is the dark side of plenty - one that we as a culture are seriously struggling with. We have more than at any time in our history - more people, more freedoms, more entertainments, more possibilities - and yet we've never felt worth less.

And I think in Latin we see the remedy for that. This old, sacred language carries old, sacred values. It was born from a time when people were precious, though not all well-treated - when everybody was valuable, because every body was valuable. It's been enshrined in a faith that says we are more than what we do, that we have worth beyond our works. And it lives on in us today, in our mouths and thoughts, as we go on blithely speaking daisy-chains of Latin children and grandchildren. This enduring language does not lose words easily. You can't cut out a word like gratia without leaving a bleeding hole in the lexicon.

So maybe it's not too late. Maybe our culture can re-learn to value its people the same way a language values its words - by giving them more than one meaning. Kristen was a disposable nonentity as long as she was a case number, a patient file, an unfortunate statistic. She has all too easily fallen through the cracks. But when you-all got to see her as a teacher, as a terrible-cat-lover, as a roommate and a friend and an underdog success story, she became real and precious to you - as multifaceted and meaningful as the Latin gratia. And now she can't be lost or forgotten about, because she is too many things to too many people.

So that's it, you guys. That's my plan. When we're well, we can be our own presenters. We can share as much of ourselves as we choose to. But when we're sick or hurt or grieving, we need someone else to communicate us - and if you're reading this right now, you have that power. You can be someone's avatar - communicate a person we otherwise wouldn't see or care about. This is how we can stay real to each other. This is how we make sure we don't get crushed by the engine of plenty.

Kristen is my indispensable word - my gratia, my grace. And now you-all are hers.

P.S.: If you haven't been able to sponsor her on Patreon but still want to get updates, please get me your email address (here, Twitter, Facebook, or tex at, and I'll be happy to include you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It's Latin for "I Need You Now"

You know, I had been wondering what this blog is for – whether it matters, what I have that's even worth putting here.

Suffice to say that I'm no longer wondering.  And I am about to need you guys more than I ever have. So if you've noticed me being especially raggedy-edged over the last few weeks – well, strap in, because here's what's up. 

Some of y'all have heard me tell the story about my first day of Latin class in grad school. The professor was explaining the basic declensions to us: nouns work like this, adjectives and adverbs do this.

And I turned to the student next to me and said "what's an adjective?"

Don't even get me started on the pronouns.
Because somehow I'd gotten through twelve years of high school, four years of undergrad, and a year and a half of grad school – that's two and a half novels, a bachelor's in history, and three-quarters of a master's in literature – without ever getting a clue about grammar. I just winged it in English class and it worked.

Until suddenly it didn't. I needed that class to graduate, and there was no way I was going to be able to do a year's worth of Latin AND catch up on English, all in eight weeks.

But that student next to me saved my bacon. She invited me to study with her. We shared colored highlighters and quizzed each other for hours on end. We became great friends. And after I graduated that spring, we moved in together.

And it was glorious.
(My photography skills considerably less so.)
And she kept right on saving me. She was the first Christian to tell me that I was enough, just as I was, without converting or changing anything. I can't tell you what that did for me. She was a spiritual comfort when my grandparents died - the first time I'd ever lost anyone. More than that, I was 24 years old and had never lived anywhere but home, with my parents, in the same city I was born in. I'd never had a full-time job or paid bills. I didn't know anything about being an adult.

Kristen, on the other hand, was a case study in realness. She grew up in North Dakota. Her childhood was dysfunctional, bordering on abusive. She left home at 18 and drove alone to a Catholic college in California that she'd never even visited, because it was her one chance at a better life.  She lived in half of a stranger's garage. She changed adult diapers at a camp for the handicapped. And when she graduated, she piled her things in the car and moved again to Texas, chasing her dream of a PhD in literature.

Well, she got it. She also got a kitten from the animal shelter (despite my protests), which she absolutely adores.

Believe me when I say that the trash can suited her.
And when I got married and our time as roommates ended, she went right back to living in back rooms and spare bedrooms while fought to make her student loan minimums and put herself through a teachers certification program.

Needless to say, we were DELIGHTED when she was hired by a local charter school – as a classics professor, no less. She was a part-time spring replacement, but they were so happy with her that they had already signed on to make her full time in the fall. She was getting to teach Latin – a rare privilege – to some of the brightest students in our community. She joined the DFW Writers Workshop. She had written a novel. After all her hard work and struggle, she was finally living the dream.

This is a close-up photo of a classroom projector screen casing. It's powdered steel. And when Kristen pulled down the screen on an otherwise-unexceptional Wednesday, she found that out the hard way: when this thing falls, it will crush a human skull.

That was two years ago. Kristen has long since lost her job. She still can't drive, or use a computer, or walk without a cane. She suffers from chronic migraines, spinal compression, and balance issues. Most frustratingly, the vision problems caused by the injury means that she often can't read. I don't have to tell you what that means for a writer.

We are still friends, of course. I take her to vestibular therapy on Wednesday mornings, and sometimes we'll share a frozen pizza from the grocery store afterwards. She can't read my books, but she interrogates me about the triumphs and travails of author-life with passionate, vicarious delight. We crack raunchy jokes together.

Then on the way home from therapy a couple months ago, she turned serious. "Do you think you could help me research no-kill shelters for my cat?" she asked. "I think I'm about to lose my apartment, and I don't want to surrender her somewhere where she might get euthanized."

And guys. I just can't tell you what a gut-check that was.

I mean, for one thing, we're talking about the world's worst cat. She is an objectively terrible animal. She pees on the carpet, attacks children, and looks like Winston Churchill. Literally nobody but Kristen could or will love her.

Much less throw her cat birthday parties.

More than that, though, I had not realized just what kind of dire straits she was in. I knew that she couldn't use her own medical insurance to pay for treatment. I knew that workers' comp was giving her the runaround. But there is this gene in our shared American DNA that says you don't talk about money, you don't rely on charity, and if you ask for help, it had better be something you can pay back in kind: a reference for a job application, someone to watch your kids, someone to drive you home from the doctor. No matter what, the checkbook of favors and obligations has to stay balanced.

And for two years, Kristen has done exactly that. She lived off her savings. She lived off her credit cards. She lived off support (practical and financial) from friends and strangers the local Catholic community.  And when all that was finally exhausted, she didn't come to me and ask, "can you help me with my rent?" She said "can you help me find a shelter that won't kill my cat?"

And I said, "No."

No, I will not help you find a shelter. No, I will not let you surrender your home. No, I will not let the world do this to you. You are thirty-five years old, and you have earned your 500 square feet of independence.

"The line must be drawn here. This far - no further."

I know that Kristen is not special. I know we all know somebody who has worked hard, played by all the rules, and been ground up and pulverized for their trouble. There is a sickness in our system that has grown so deep and pervasive that sometimes it feels hopeless to try and fix it. It is terribly easy to do nothing, because we can't do everything.

So here I am, writing to you in the space between nothing and everything. I have to help my friend. She took care of me when I needed it, and now it's my turn. But my effort alone isn't enough. By myself, I am not enough.

So I'm cashing in my chips – right here, right now. If I've helped you in some way, if I've banked any goodwill with you, if you've ever wanted to do something nice for me – please, please help me help her. Go to her Patreon page and add what you can. A dollar a month. Five dollars a month. Give her anything besides the nothing she has now.

And then do one more thing. After you've become a patron, you will be able to add a "patron post" to her page, where everyone can see it. Write there and tell her about the Kristen in your life – the person who played fair and got the short end of the stick, the person who deserved so much more than they received, the person whose life you would have done anything to fix. Her life is so small right now, and she needs to hear that she's not alone.

She is mine. Who's yours?
Today is her birthday. Saturday is the two-year anniversary of her accident. In between those two things, I want to make this right. I want to pick her up for her doctor's appointment and say "guess what?"

And when I do, I will read to her every word that you write, about every person you've wanted to help. And we will make it our shared mission to tell the world about them. No, we can't do everything – but every one of us can do something. This is the other, better part of our American DNA, the truth we feel in our bones: if enough of us do something, we can change everything.

Te egero nunc.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Fix Your Con Panels By Using This One Weird Old Trick

Man, you guys. You know that feeling you get when you're so pumped you're actually punch-a-wall angry?


Okay, let me back up.

I rounded up a few members of the DFW Writers Workshop and ran panels with them at All-Con this weekend. This was a good plan for several reasons: it gave us a chance to promote our workshop and conference, gave them a chance to practice public speaking without any one person having to solo in the spotlight, and gave me a chance to spread the joy of con-dom (heh) to writers who hadn't visited a fan convention before. We had a huge range of genres and experience levels represented, and a tremendous variety of interests.

Jennie Komp, for example, was interested in the inflatable T-Rex.
And y'all. Seriously. They KILLED it out there. This crew was just so head-and-shoulders above anything I expected, and honestly, above 80% of the panels I've done with published professionals. They were prepared. They were enthusiastic. They endured heroic commutes and ludicrous parking costs. They sat in on each others' panels, passed the ball to each other and to the audience, and rolled gracefully with every logistical punch the weekend threw at them. In short, they treated the convention experience like the pleasure and the privilege that it is.

And like... I don't need to build them up by tearing other people down, but this is SUCH a change from what I've come to expect from the convention panel format. Patrice Sarath said it better than I could. Short version: if you are LUCKY enough to have even a single person seek you out and sit in a room to hear your opinions on whatever given subject, you owe them your absolute best. Yes, cons can be exhausting. Yes, it's hard when you're sick or haven't had much sleep. But if you aren't going to bring your A-game, do the rest of us a favor and don't show up. Nobody in that audience came to hear about how tired you are, how drunk you got, how you don't know why you're on the panel or how we're lucky you're even talking to us at 9AM on a Sunday. You're (allegedly) a professional. Go hard or get out.

Okay, rant over. But to the con organizers of the world - let me lay something on you.

The DFW workshop crew aren't just magically a superior breed of human (though they are pretty dang fabulous.) They rock because they know how to play as a team. Like, they worked on this project together for literally weeks before the con. They came up with panel topics and descriptions, sorted themselves into teams, collaborated on questions, chose their own moderators... basically, they ran this thing from soup to nuts. More importantly - and here is the key difference, I think - they weren't just in this for themselves. They came to represent the workshop - to ride for the brand, as it were.

While they were at it, they also represented Ripley, Rey, Captain America, and Cosima Niehaus.
And that's what I think we're missing at our conventions. When I go to AggieCon next month, I'll be representing myself. I want people to think I'm cool and buy my books, so I will do my very best. And I happen to be a team player-type, so I will put the interests of the panel/discussion ahead of my own - but you can't count on people to do that. Given the choice between hogging the mic and maybe making a book sale off it, or passing it to the rando next to them and making the discussion more interesting... a whole lot of people are going to go with Option A. So you end up with a panel full of people playing air-time tug-of-war, talking themselves up at the expense of the conversation. It's the tragedy of the nerd-commons.

But if you "subcontract" some of your panels out to other organizations - then the dynamic changes. If everyone on the panel is from the same writers group, the same podcast, the same publisher or anthology or whatever, then suddenly it's in all our best interests to play for the team. We have sharper banter, better chemistry, the warmer atmosphere that comes from already knowing each other - and more importantly, our personal interests now align with the group interests. In improving the discussion, we improve our collective image. And that's good for everyone.

And yes, I will totally take credit for our sweet matching name tents.
I've seen this work well at other cons already. The Gentlemen Nerds put on a great show at ConDFW last month. The Redheads of the Apocalypse always do. And those names - those "brands" - are becoming a recognizable staple of Texas con programming: you don't have to know what the panel is about to know what kind of time you're going to have when you get there.

We need to do more of that, y'all. We have tons of terrific authors and artists on the con circuit, and wonderful things can happen when they land on the long side of a table together. But we also have some amazing collectives, too - and if you give them the freedom to choose their own team and run their own show, I promise you will see results.

No, better than promise - I challenge you. Book the DFW Writers Workshop con-squad for your next convention, and we'll put the 'pro' in your programming.

P.S.: All-Con was AMAZING. DFWcon will be too! For a good time, use discount code ALLCON2016


Thursday, March 3, 2016


I haven't been blogging much lately. I promise I'm not lazy, but I've been taking a real hard look at all the things I do that don't make me money or increase my audience. (Because let me tell you: there are a whole lot of ways you can give away all your time and energy without actually accomplishing either of those goals.)

But Pam decided to celebrate World Book Day by calling my ass up at 9 in the morning to tell me to tweet more. So I did.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Guest Post: How Dinosaurs Can Fix Your Wedding

Funny story, actually. I was at my very first-ever convention, all the way back in 2013. The phenomenal Jennie Goloboy had just plus-one'd me into the SFWA party suite, and I was keen to flex my neonatal networking muscle - so I asked her what she was trying to sell.

"Well," she said. "I have this one client, Dan Bensen. He's written this time-travel romance called Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen, and..."

I don't actually remember anything she said after that. The mere mention of that title shut my brain down like an EMP going off in the middle of Manhattan. 

And now, three years later, it is actually, really a real book: written, illustrated (ILLUSTRATED!), printed, and published. And here, today, the Tyrannosaur Groom himself will expound on - what else?

How Dinosaurs Can Fix Your Wedding
by Daniel Bensen

Trals Scarback, war leader of the Ethlek, has an opportunity and a problem.

The opportunity is a weapon of otherworldly power that fell out of the sky.

The problem is Andrea, who claims to be a soldier from the tomorrow of tomorrows. The weapon, her powersuit, will only work for her. Plus, she has killed several of Trals's men.

Trals's tribe is of two minds: either the foreign woman is war booty or she is an enemy warrior and should be killed, her hair flown from the poles of the tents of the women of the sons she killed. If Trals wants the use of Andrea's powersuit, she must officially join the tribe, so she is no longer an enemy. And there is really only one way to join an Eethlek tribe.

The following is a description of an Eethlek marriage ceremony.

If the woman is foreign, she must apply to the Leader of the tribe, the one who leads its triceratops herd who commands raiding and gathering parties beyond the boundaries of the camp. If he (leaders are almost always men) agrees that his warrior deserves to be a husband and father, the marriage proceeds. If not, the woman if free to choose some other man in the tribe. Then the Driver, the one who drives the herd from behind and governs within the boundaries of the camp, must agree that the tribe has enough resources to support a new member. The woman gives up her possessions to the tribe, and in return gets all the necessities to start a new life with her husband: a tent, a pot-sack, heating-stones, leather robes, metal tongs if she's lucky, and a triceratops, chriostenotes, or raptor egg depending on the season. Then the tribe's Revalatee holds a public trance, and its Sayer interprets the revelation for the congregation (it's almost always a blessing for the marriage).

Expert paleyarntologists have reconstructed
one of the dinosaurs in question.
There is then a recitation of the saga describing the historical event that separated the tribe of the husband from the tribe of the wife. If you happen to be a time-traveling soldier from the 21st century and had never heard of the Ethlek before a week ago, the saga is the origin myth of the Ethlek themselves. You will learn that long ago there was a city on the floodplains that are The Face of God. That city was Megga, and its people died when the salty tears of God killed the crops they had foolishly planted. In the chaos the followed the fall of Megga, everyone died or scattered except for a small band of people who followed a Driver who taught them how to drive the triceratops before them and a Leader who taught them how to steal food from the tyrannosaur. Soon, all people who lived on the Face of God were the children of this Driver and this Leader, and they were They who Talk Alike.  Ey-Thke-Lek

Finally, each newlywed cuts off a lock of their hair and braids it into the hair of the other. They retire to their new tent, where they summon the angels of the heavens to take up residence on the Face of God. And that's where babies come from.

About the book:

Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen is a time-travel romance with dinosaurs.

Former soldier Andrea Herrera isn’t happy with where her life’s taken her. Specifically, to Hell Creek, Montana, 65 million years before the present. As far as careers go, making sure the dinosaurs don’t eat her paleontologist clients comes in a pretty dismal second choice to serving her country. But when their time machine malfunctions, Andrea and her team are trapped in a timeline that shouldn’t exist with something a hell of a lot more dangerous than terrible lizards: other humans.

Need more help? Well, look no further - because dinosaurs can fix your everything!


The Kingdoms of Evil



TV Tropes




Deviant Art

Monday, February 8, 2016

ConDFW Schedule

So I recently heard the most phenomenal, life-changing bit of advice, from my amazing particolored pal Darusha. It seriously blew my mind. Are you ready? Here it is:

"Because everything flies by at the speed of light, no one knows you're not around a lot. They think they just missed you. So you can not tweet or blog or facebook or whatever for ages, then so long as you don't start with a big long "sorry I haven't been here," no one will notice that it's been a while."

Where have I been? No, pal - where have YOU been?!

Well, I'll tell you where I'm GOING to be - at ConDFW this weekend! Rumor has it there'll be a couple of other cool folks there - something something Scalzi? So if you haven't put the finishing touches on your Twilight Sparkle costume and poured out some kibble for the kids... might wanna get on that.  See you there!

Interstellar Archaeology: Part One – Initial Findings 
Friday, 5PM - Madison
Panelists: John DeLaughter (M), Michelle Muenzler, Tex Thompson, Michael Ashleigh Finn, Rachael Acks, Linda Donahue
The first of two panels where we inflict discover startling artifacts of OBVIOUS alien origin and our esteemed (and indeed, TRAINED) archeologists in turn tell us what the artifacts are. Light hearted fun, and bring ear plugs! This year we will visit Jakku in Star Wars VII. ROOOOOOAR!

Friday, 6PM - Adams
Tex Thompson, Martha Wells

Return of the Lone Western 
Saturday, 11AM - Hamilton
Panelists: Sabine Starr (M), Scott A. Cupp, Tex Thompson, Linda Donahue, Patrice Sarath, Bill Crider
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight brought signature Western back to the cinemas this past month. Is it a sign the Western is back? Or is it just a fanboy’s dream? Our panelists talk about cinematic Westerns and their effect on writing Westerns in today’s world.

Escape from the Slush Pile
Saturday, 12PM - Hamilton
Panelists: Julia S. Mandala (M), Lillian Stewart Carl, Tex Thompson, Adrian Simmons, William Ledbetter
The perennial panel returns at a new time as we tantalize people with mistakes and errors you should try to avoid. Beware: someday you may end up here if you do not learn from your mistakes. Come and learn from our editors what to avoid so you don’t end up on – the slush pile.

Broke Down and Out of Gas... in Space 
Saturday, 4PM - Madison
Panelists: Tex Thompson (M), Paul Abell, Martha Wells, KM Tolan, Chris Donahue, T.M. Hunter
Because even Furiosa occasionally gets a flat. Let's talk about all the fun you can have when spaceships break and flux capacitors blow – and how our favorite characters MacGyver their way back into action!

Artemis: Guys vs Gals 
Saturday, 5PM - Jackson
Guys: Michael Ashleigh Finn, Mark Finn, Aaron de Orive, Stephen Patrick, Adrian Simmons, Stephen Sanders
Gals: Mel White, Linda Donahue, Rachael Acks, Julie Barrett, Kathy Turski, Tex Thompson
An idea proposed by the Gentlemen Nerds while they were talking to some Redheads we know, then floated to Programming. Who will prove to be the superior gender? We will find out!

Researching the Technology Tree
Sunday, 11AM - Hamilton
Panelists: Tex Thompson (M), Scott A. Cupp, S. Boyd Taylor, Larry Atchley Jr., Stina Leicht
The Technology Tree is the path that humans take to find out technology. In other words, you need to learn how to make steel before you can make really good swords. Guns won’t fire if you haven’t learned the recipe for gunpowder – and that’s before learning the difference between corned powder and serpentine powder. Where in the technology tree is your world? How do you find out? Our alternate history experts talk about this and more. 

Money Makes the Multiverse Go Round
Sunday, 3PM - Hamilton
Panelists: Tex Thompson (M), Frances May, Melanie Fletcher, K.B. Bogen, Stephen Sanders
Whether you trade in credits, simoleons, rupees, or Flanian Pobble Beads, one thing is clear: money doesn't grow on trees (unless you're Donkey Kong), and you're not going to get very far without it. Come enjoy a rousing discussion of the weird, wild, and often ridiculous workings of our favorite fictional economies – guaranteed to be worth every woolong!

Monday, January 4, 2016

This is How Your House Dies

I wasn't there when it came apart.

I'm told there were ten of you in the house when the tornado hit, seven taking shelter in a single downstairs bathroom. I can't imagine what that was like. I can't believe you all survived. By the time I get there, you're long gone – in a motel, probably, or maybe staying with relatives. But the pile that was your house is still there, and someone has to take it away.

So after the bulldozer knocks down what was left of your walls, our volunteer corps get to work. We descend on your house in our grungy dozens to sift and scoop and shovel, putting the salvageable things safely to one side and sorting the rest into FEMA-approved curbside piles: brick here, yard trash there, garbage seemingly everywhere. We work cheerfully, sometimes making little jokes ("Oh! I found the Cuervo. Everyone can stop looking now.") It's crass to admit it, but even as we sort through the wreckage of your life, you're still a little bit unreal to us. We are sad to see the smashed pink plastic castle and the Doc McStuffins wrapping paper.  We marvel at the unbroken hard-boiled eggs. We put the sodden yearbook carefully aside.

You stop by a little later in the day, and I'm amazed at how calm and collected you seem. You tell us how much you appreciate our work. We tell you we're sorry that we haven't been able to find your mom's wallet. And as I rip up what used to be your living room carpet, I am grateful to you.

Because here's the thing. Your house has died, and 95% of it is going straight to the landfill. The few things we manage to save for you look like a pathetic fraction of a yard-sale: just a tiny pile of random, dirty, second-hand junk. I doubt you will find much consolation there. But as we scavenging Samaritans descend on the remains of your home to pick it clean, an amazing thing is happening. A rare and special kind of life is happening.

You've seen some of it already. The bubba brigade is out chain-sawing dead trees and broken fences, while tough Texas ladies shovel debris and haul supplies in their big muddy pick-em-up trucks. It's good, hard work – the kind that brings out the best in people.

And yet we're so much more than just our most visible vanguard. Our big kids are out delivering lunches to the workers, while the smaller ones sort clothes and canned food back at the donation center. People who can't do manual labor are going from house to house, checking on residents and finding out what they need. People with limited mobility are manning phone lines and registration desks. People who are housebound are fostering lost pets, sharing news online and connecting the resources we have with the people who need them. Everyone is doing their best. Everyone is contributing something.

One fellow called our work a "ministry of presence". I'm not very church-literate, so to me that sounds sort of exotic, almost alchemical. But I love the idea that service begins with the simple act of showing up – of bundling up all your talents and limitations and gifting yourself to whatever need arises. There's an exuberance here that I've never felt anywhere else, and I think that's where it's coming from. Here, in the rubble of your old life, a tiny, temporary, utopian human world is growing – one in which everyone is valuable and important and wanted, in which everyone is contributing towards a common goal. This is the humanity that our prophets and leaders always advocate. This is way the real world should work but never, ever does.

It won't last, of course. In a matter of hours, we've skeletonized your house – swept it clean down to the foundation and moved on to the next one. And soon the work day will be over, and soon we'll have to go back to that bigger, coarser world, in which our talent and generosity have to take a back seat while we pay the bills. I hope you don't have to go back there too soon. I hope your need doesn't outlast your help.

And even though we would never have wished this on you or anyone, I hope you know that the death of your house has brought a little more life into the world – that that big wet heap of splintered wood and crumbled sheetrock has enriched everyone who touched it, and everyone who touched them in turn. That's how I know its loss was not a waste, and why we're so glad to do this with you: because your old life has already made a better world – for all of us – in which to build your new one.

Over a thousand homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by the tornado on Dec. 26th. As of this writing, FEMA is considering declaring the area a disaster zone, and volunteers are still desperately needed. If you're local, please visit the City of Rowlett homepage to find out how you can help.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Five Things I Learned From Working at Amazon

So as you may have heard, I picked up a seasonal gig working at the local Amazon fulfillment warehouse. I know, I know. As an author and a humanist, Amazon is my natural frenemy: unavoidable, yet never to be trusted.

But now I can say that I've been inside the belly of the beast - and lived to tell the tale. Here's what it taught me.

1. Most work stress comes from trying to manage other people's emotions and/or behavior.

Seriously. You know what I'm talking about. And that's exactly why I wanted to work in a warehouse. There are no customers to wait on in this magical land, no phones to answer. The human beings we serve are distant, unseen entities, their dreams and desires reduced to a list of items on a scanner gun.

And it is wonderful. How delightful to go to work in casual grungewear! How divine to blast "Turn Down For What" as you blow through the aisles at breakneck speed, snatching the ordained goods off the shelves like a coke-addled Supermarket Sweep contestant! This was everything I loved about working in a kitchen, back in the day: it's just you, the food, and your fellow knife-wielding menials, all waging the eternal war against time and hunger. It's not that you don't care about the customers - after all, they're your entire reason for being there! But my god, work is so much easier when you don't have do it under the critical eye of the people you're working for.

Sorry I don't have any relevant photos - you can't bring your phone onto the floor.
Let's enjoy a tub of sweetcorn ice cream instead.

2. It's good business to take care of people.

I was well warned about this job beforehand. Amazon would use me up and spit me out, grind through me and every other disposable human cog with soulless, ruthless constancy. After all, isn't that what evil empires do?

Answer: that's what the stupid ones do. The smart ones know that every time you hire a new person, you have to pay: for their background check and drug testing and all the rest, but also for their slowness, their newness, all the mistakes they make and orders they botch while they're learning the job. So the smart thing to do is to minimize newness: hire the best people you can, train them up right, and then do everything in your power to keep them from getting sick or hurt or fed up and quit.

And Amazon is really, really smart. There are hand sanitizers and water stations and safety checks galore. There are literally laminated color charts in every bathroom stall for you to check your pee and make sure you're not getting dehydrated. More than that, there are arcade consoles and free snacks in the breakrooms, a super-futuristic automated scheduling system where you can request extra work and/or time off, gift card drawings and other perks for the people who are working the undesirable shifts. You know how Amazon became this world-crushing corporate monolith by being the absolute easiest, most customer-friendly e-store out there? Let me tell you: they have serious game on the back-end, too.

Here is some German peanut butter. We don't sell this, but I wish we did.

3. It doesn't cost you anything to listen.

This is the one that really gets me. All that fancy stuff I just listed above is great for the aforesaid corporate monoliths, but you know a mom-and-pop shop could never implement it. But the most amazing invention I've seen at the warehouse is just a whiteboard with a marker. It has a space for you to write down your name and your request/concern, and another space for management to write down their response, and the name of the manager responsible. In the short time I've been there, I've seen requests for everything from more stepstools to better-quality TP in the bathrooms. They are always answered with either a "yes, we can do it, and here's who's going to handle that", or a "sorry, here's why that's not feasible." And this board is IN PUBLIC, for everyone to see. The accountability is amazing. The culture of transparency this creates - from what little I've seen of it - is wonderful. And I wish more businesses would do this.

Here is a book. We sell this, but I really, really wish we didn't.

4. New things are ripe for misunderstanding.

So at one point, we were watching a training video, and it got to one of the "inspirational" bits. Jeff "The Godfather" Bezos came on the screen, talking about the launch of Amazon Prime, and how people thought it was so crazy/stupid/unworkable to offer a subscription-based free-shipping service. And I'm not a big fan of The Beez by any means, but he said this one thing, which was seared instantly onto my heart:

"Whenever you do something new, you have to be prepared to be misunderstood for a long time."

And oh, friends, what a truth that is. I think it was the last bit that hadn't quite clicked for me yet - like, just how long and how consistently you have to Do Your Thing (whatever that is) before people even begin to sit up and take notice. This is... not comforting, exactly, but really puts this past year in perspective for me.

This is a sculpture in Saratoga Springs, New York.
It's also my first-ever opportunity to write the words "fettuccine toe shoe."

5. You can't buy give-a-damn.

Heartwarming story time. So it's 10:30PM on Christmas Eve, the last of our orders have gone out, and everybody's packing up to leave. Then the bell rings. We have another order: somebody paid for special rush delivery, and now we have to make it happen. Everyone is tired and wants to go home, but the manager himself - who by this point has been at work for 16 hours straight - goes through the aisles to get the item, and personally wraps it and packs it for loading into the driver's truck. It's a Fisher Price toy. When somebody grumbles about people's failure to plan ahead, the manager says "Hey. This is what we do. This is why our business exists: to make sure a kid doesn't miss out on Christmas."

$6.50 plus shipping; colors and styles may vary; Riesling not included.

And like... if they put that in a commercial, it would be unbearably schmoopy. But it was real and it happened, and it made me think about this bit from Cracked's article on the Monkeysphere (thanks, Frank!):
Listen to any 16 year-old kid with his first job, going on and on about how the boss is screwing him and the government is screwing him even more ("What's FICA?!?!" he screams as he looks at his first paycheck). Then watch that same kid at work, as he drops a hamburger patty on the floor, picks it up, and slaps in on a bun and serves it to a customer.

The kid will protest that he shouldn't have to care for the customers for minimum wage, but the truth is if a man doesn't feel sympathy for his fellow man at $6.00 an hour, he won't feel anything more at $600,000 a year.
And there's the world in a nutshell, yeah? Zillionaires and menials. Some care, some don't, and it has nothing to do with their job title or their tax bracket. I don't think you can teach give-a-damn, at least not to adults in the working world. But you certainly can select for it, and encourage it, and equip your employees so they can actually use it to good effect.

And if you're lucky enough to find a job that does all those things - man, hold on to it two-handed. I certainly intend to.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Papercrafts and Podcasts and Book News Galore!

I have it! It is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.
-Iago, Othello

Yes, lovelings, you heard it here first: the last book of Children of the Drought is written, submitted, and green-lit. Now we're just awaiting copy-edits and the Mom seal of approval. Lord willing, Dreams of the Eaten will hit the shelves within the next year-ish.

And here is proof: Vanna Brown showing off the only printed copy!
And oh, I wish I could tell you how good this feels. Like... it's always great to finish a book, but now the story is done. This thing, this epic, ridiculous thing that's been living in my head for the last decade-and-a-half, is finally real. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I'll meet that big yellow bumper head on, because the story isn't in me anymore. It's out of my head and onto the page and safe.

I thought I would be sad about this. I read that JK Rowling cried when she finished the last Harry Potter book. Maybe the catharsis is still in the mail - or maybe I'm just super-efficient and do all my crying while I write :)

Honestly, though, my only real sadness is for everything I neglected while I was working on this. I've left a lot of people in the dirt over the past few months, let a lot of things slide. Part of that's probably inevitable - I have always been a serial monotasker - but I really need to learn to handle the production side of this job without going dark for months at a time.

So today is the day to start putting things right. Here is a short catalogue of some of the wonderful people who have been talking me up and showing me off while I was overcome with the word-sweats.

BAM. Yes. Right there, in your face. My amazing artist-friend Flea made this for me, apropos of sweet FA. Is it not cool? Is it not neat? I tell you what, y'all: my little construction-paper Elim has been hanging up on my wall for a month now (you can even see his shirt in the cat-and-book snap up above!) and I am just wildly in love with him. I've said it before, but it is just a special kind of special whenever your imaginary friends make the journey from your headspace to somebody else's fingers. Now go treat yourself to even more of Flea's amazing papermancy!

Upgrade Your Story - Episode 76, Episode 82, and Episode 92

Okay, so this is a series of podcasts that I've done with Ally Bishop (and by "I've done with" I mean "she has completely inspired, organized, produced, and promoted"). And y'all, she is just so fun. More than that, she's seriously the hardest-working writer I know - not just for herself, but for the entire writing community. The episodes above are a kind of audio workbook for authors who are struggling with self-promotion (me!), with homework and activities assigned by a real promotional pro (her!) Come follow along, and DEFINITELY follow Ally!

The Reading and Writing Podcast - Episode 188

Yeah, that's me - sandwiched somewhere between Dean Koontz and Lee Child. Why? Because Jeff Rutherford is a splendid human being who has built an AMAZING library of podcast interviews with every author of every size and genre under the sun. His archive is huge, and ranges from the biggest of the big airport bestsellers to enterprising nooblets like me. Browse the archives and treat yourself!

William Galaini - Hybrid Vigor in Genre Fiction

Okay, so of course you remember William, my excellent co-blogger and pen-genius friend who wrote that great guest post on marginalized voices in fiction. But now he's let me return the favor at his place (and he even made me my very own quotable graphic, too!) This article is just what it says on the tin: how combining genres can improve the end-product, specifically with SFF and Westerns. It may also feature an extended Toy Story analogy. You are welcome. (Also, if you haven't yet availed yourself of Hephaestion's big gay road trip through steampunk hell, you're gonna want to get on that, like, yesterday.)

Ben Galley - Westerns and Western Fantasy

So I don't know if you guys know this, but there is an alarming surfeit of British people writing Westerns. I met a few of them at FantasyCon this year, and briefly considered telling them to get their posh toffee-smeared mitts off my genre ... and now I'm so glad I didn't! Ben Galley has been just tremendously fun to get to know, and I'm going to have to hold off on plugging him at LEAST until he finishes his fairy-gunslingers trilogy. And while we wait, you can enjoy this wonderful roundtable discussion on fantasy and Westerns and fantasy-Westerns!

Red Sofa Literary - Keeping Your Writing House in Good Financial Order

Because apparently that sounded more professional than "Make Money; Get Bitches". But whether you're a writer who's already started earning or are looking ahead to your eventual first paycheck, here is a handy-dandy guide to building your massive money-vault!

Also, speaking of Red Sofa: did you know that we are doing book giveaways all this month? Truth! Go check out the goodie-catalogue and get yourself something nice - I promise they read well on a couch of any color!

My God, that was a lot. See what I mean? The backlog has been egregious. Thanks y'all for all your patience and cheerleading and support while I've been so far deep in the trenches this year - I can't wait for you to read Dreams of the Eaten, and am so looking forward to catching up on life!