Refugees, Language, and the Meaning of ‘America’

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to hear Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen speak at the College of William and Mary for the 2022 McSwain-Walker Lecture. His talk was entitled “Refugees, Language, and the Meaning of ‘America’“. Nguyen wrote the novel The Sympathizer, and was also a guest on my favorite podcast, Throughline, in the episode entitled All Wars Are Fought Twice (worth a listen… or maybe two!).

I took away so many insights from Dr. Nguyen’s talk, in which he – a Vietnamese American – referred to being “split in two” by the duality of how the Vietnam War is remembered by Vietnamese and by Americans, and finding himself in neither narrative. Both vantage points, he remarked, “want to believe only in their own humanity.”

The persistent anchoring in our own constructed memories and shared narratives about nation, identity, and what constitutes ‘us’ and ‘them’, and then the conflict which occurs when these constructs collide against the views of others, are persistent motifs in Nguyen’s fiction and lectures.

The feeling of being caught between two worlds but part of neither, and yet craving earnestly to be “wholly inside” in Nguyen’s terms, is a primary inner conflict for one of the main characters in my novel in progress, tentatively entitled Rassam’s Eye. Nimasha Vaas grew up on a highly technologically advanced planet in the neurally-augmented Dharumi Hegemony. She returns to the remote backwater planet on which she was born, Iskaria, while the build up to an interstellar war threatens to close in around her.

It was an inspiration and an honor to have the opportunity to listen to and meet Dr. Nguyen. I have not yet read his book; but now that I have a signed copy, I might have to bump it higher on my list! I will say, the Throughline episode I linked above is a great one, and one I’ve listened to at least twice. I’d strongly recommend it as an access point to Nguyen’s perspective and ideas.

#IWSG: Highs and Lows

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover

May 4 question – It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What are your writer highs (the good times)? And what are your writer lows (the crappy times)?

I do enjoy the act of writing itself, but I’d say the highest of the high times (in the context of writing) for me is actually the community aspects of the work. I love shopping early drafts and brainstorming ideas with the Word Still Writers Circle, talking about what beta readers got from an early preview, chatting about some aspect of craft with a writing class, workshop, or convention, and taking a deep dive into the themes and issues that I enjoy writing about with family, friends, and readers.

The worst of the worst? Feeling too bogged down, uncreative, stressed, or otherwise unmotivated to go on, especially when there is a commitment (even a self-imposed one) on the line. Those days when I just stare at a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Or when I find myself starting over on draft after draft because it doesn’t feel right, but I’ve already told friends and fans I’m working on something. It’s really about the feeling of letting people down, including myself.

Fortunately, the highs can directly combat the lows! I’m grateful to have a fun and creative writers critique circle, and a highly supportive friend and fan base.

Short Stories!

All three of my published short stories are now available to read directly on this site, without needing to download from an e-bookstore.

In order of publication, they are:

  • Remembering Turinam – (2013, fantasy, originally published in We See a Different Frontier)
  • The Parched Lands – (2014, science fiction, originally published in Issue 7 of Crossed Genres Magazine)
  • Anpo (The Dawn) – (2021, science fiction, self-published)

If you prefer to read these via an ereader, these stories have been (and still are) available for free download as mobi (Kindle) and epub (everyone else) files on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore, Kobo, and, sigh, yes even Amazon.

Thanks to someone I met at MarsCon for the suggestion! This person was interested in my ideas, took my card after watching me on a panel, followed the QR code on it to my site… and then wondered why she couldn’t read some of my fiction immediately without having to do a transaction (even a free one) at a separate bookseller.

Seems obvious in retrospect, but I’m glad I could fix this now! All of my published stories, including my novel, will continue to be linked from the Stories page.

#IWSG: Audiobooks

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover

April 6 question Have any of your books been made into audio books? If so, what is the main challenge in producing an audiobook?

The short answer is: no.

But if I left it there, that would be a very boring blog post! A better answer might be: I’d like to do that.

Anecdotally, I gather that a significant swath of millennials and younger consume audiobooks, many as their primary (or even only) mode of accessing books. The ability to multitask while driving, getting housework done, or doing anything else seems to make audiobooks ideal for a generation that is constantly on the go. And as people get busier and true downtime to read seems to get ever scarcer, I would guess that audiobooks would continue to see growth as a Thing.

What research I can find seems to support that intuitive conclusion. And further, the fact that I all my previous work is published via Smashwords means that I definitely could do it on my own if I wanted to. So… why not?

The main challenge in producing an audiobook is that either: (a) I would have to pay a professional to do it — and even if I wanted to spend that money, I doubt that would ever be a net positive return on investment at least for my currently published work; or (b) I’d have to do it myself, which means a lot of time that I don’t have. Otherwise, I probably would have done it by now!

Still… maybe either approach wouldn’t be so bad for a short story. Perhaps I should pick one and try it out… Anyone have a vote as to which one?

The Story of Us

I recently listened to a great (really, they’re all great) episode of my favorite podcast, Throughline, called “A Story of Us?“. The conversation and interview with Tamim Ansary, author of The Invention of Yesterday, ranges across a variety of interesting topics, but the general takeaway is summarized in the episode description:

With a world seemingly more connected than ever and still volatile with a constant sense of fracturing identities, Tamim contends that our shared history is a story we must invent. And the future of our species depends on our ability to develop a story we can all see ourselves in.

I actually listened to the interview twice, re-parsing every phrase. I think it resonated with me so deeply because many of the topics Ansary touched on (and the philosophy with which he does so) mirror, to a great degree, what I love about history and what I try to put into worldbuilding. It also speaks directly to the heart of the fierce cultural and political divides that the country (and really, the world at large) are experiencing right now.

The idea of humanity trying to tell a unified story about itself is a central theme of my short story Anpo: The Dawn, which I published earlier this year with an original cover by Patricia Revolinksy. The story started with me asking myself the question, “Could humanity ever unify around anything besides an external threat?”. I don’t think I ever actually answered that question, but the story did come out as an exploration of that struggle at the individual and societal level.

I highly recommend a listen to this Throughline episode! (And, I suppose, my story as well… if you find parallels, please feel free to comment on this post or reach out.) I’ll probably also be trying to track down Ansary’s book to add to my nonfiction to-read list…

MarsCon 2022!

Cons are back! After two years of cancelled nerd conventions during the pandemic, it feels great to be looking forward to MarsCon this weekend up in Williamsburg. I’ve only been to this con once before, but I’m looking forward to getting more directly involved now that RavenCon has moved back up to Richmond, which is a little farther away.

I’ll be on a few panels for the first time in a long time:

  • Bring on the Bad Guys! – Friday 5pm, Room L
  • Short Stories – Saturday 1pm, Room 6
  • Making That Battle Real – Saturday 4:30p, Room L
  • Mythology, the Original Fantasy – Sunday noon, Room L
  • “Thou Shalt Fall Before My Mighty Sword!” (dialogue) – Sunday 1:30p, Room A

I’m also looking forward to sitting in on a few writing panels as an audience member and checking out the dealer’s room for delicious cheap used books and perhaps some new D&D accessories…

Hope to see new friends and old there this weekend.

#IWSG: The Circle Reforged

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

February 2 question – Is there someone who supported or influenced you that perhaps isn’t around anymore? Anyone you miss?

My time in Boston (2012 – 2017) was the high point of my writing life so far. I sold my first, and then soon after it my second short story, both to anthologies at SFWA professional rates. In 2016, my debut (and thus far only) novel hit the digital shelves, and was reviewed well. I was heavily involved in multiple SciFi/Fantasy writing conventions, was taking classes at GrubStreet, had an active writing community on social media… and also had a fantastic writers critique circle (sometimes called a writers critique group, or simply a writers group).

Then things kinda started to fall apart.

Close members of my writing community in Boston began to move away, each for different reasons. I myself moved to Virginia due to a career change. I went through a separation and then a divorce, and my ex-wife was part of the writing circle… Even if there hadn’t been a dissolving marriage right in the middle of the circle, by then all but three of us were in different states anyway, with different lives, and with regular meetings growing harder and harder to maintain.

As you might expect, the circle disbanded — and for years I’ve missed it very much.

The lack of a writing circle wasn’t the only reason my writing fell into a rut for the past four years or so, but it certainly was a significant gaping hole in my creative life. I missed the group accountability to regular deadlines, the monthly jolts of inspiration and infusions of creative ideas, the constant growth of exploring the craft with others, and the unparalleled sharpening that comes from regular exposure to thoughtful critique.

I haven’t sold a story since January of 2016.

Last fall, I finally began trying to resurrect my writing life. And I’m very pleased to be able to share that with the new year came the first meeting of a new writers circle, the Word Still Writers Circle (a play on a whiskey still, in which we distill words instead of fine spirits). Together with fellow speculative fiction writers Chris Jones and Micheal W. Lee, we meet biweekly to catch up, do a deep dive critique on a recent submission, talk ideas, and do a craft exercise. And well, of course, we drink whiskey.

I’m still in the process of ramping back up and discovering my new writing self — but I’m certainly glad I have a new writers circle to take that journey with me! Here’s to new high points coming soon.

#IWSG: Writing Career Regrets

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

January 5 question – What’s the one thing about your writing career you regret the most? Were you able to overcome it?

I regret spending three years of my discretionary writing time spinning my wheels on a project that I felt obligated to work on, while knowing the whole time that it wasn’t what I wanted to be working on.

The project was the sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers, my first published novel. While I was happy with how Red Soil turned out, I felt obligated to write a sequel for several reasons. Firstly, I had sort of left a few threads open and unresolved at the end of the book, and thought I owed it to readers to continue the tale. Friends and family who enjoyed the story also were highly interested in a sequel, and I didn’t want to let down their expectations or enthusiasm. Further, as it was my first novel project and first experience with publishing, I learned so much about craft, revision, and the publishing process along the way that by the end I didn’t feel like Red Soil continued to accurately represent who I was as a writer any more. Thus I also felt a personal need to have written the sequel.

Despite all these motivations to work on the sequel to Red Soil, I kept spinning my wheels on four separate from-scratch attempts at a draft. I felt that my ideas for how I would approach the story now, as a more experienced writer, were constrained by what had come before. I also had other story ideas and creative outlets (like running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign) that felt far more interesting and enjoyable to work on than a bogged down sequel. And finally, a variety of personal circumstances, including going through a separation and divorce, often prevented me from feeling like I had the emotional energy to write.

So my writing languished for three years, a time during which I produced very little in the way of new prose — except half-hearted, aborted drafts of the sequel to Red Soil. I’m glad I found my way back… I wrote about that process in a previous post, Getting Unstuck.

The takeaway? This is not a job to me. To the greatest degree possible, I believe it should never feel like work, no matter what the internet advice is for maintaining “writer discipline”. Yes, consistency is important — I have to show up and write. But to sustain that writing, I need to be writing what I want to write, when I feel like writing, about ideas and characters that engage me, on themes about which I believe I have something meaningful to say.

It seems heretical to type in a writing post… but if you’re not feeling like writing something, hey, maybe you shouldn’t be? Stop wasting your time and write something that hooks you and won’t let you go!

Distribution on Amazon Reactivated

About four years ago, I pulled my novel Red Soil Through Our Fingers from distribution on Amazon. My reasons at the time are outlined in a blog post wrote at the time. While I believe the reasons I had for my boycott are still valid, I’ve had to weigh continuing it — at least in my author life — against the cost of maintaining it to my growth as a writing life . The result is that, after long deliberation, I have resumed distribution of my published writing on the Kindle Bookstore.

The two things anyone will tell you are absolutely essential for an indie author in the present are 1) social media, and 2) Amazon. Having also given up basically all social media around the same time (it was essentially a boycott of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and all of their subsidiary services), I eliminated nearly all of the avenues available to an indie author to build and maintain a community of followers and fans.

For the last few years, this didn’t actually matter that much — for a variety of reasons (see upcoming IWSG post on January 5!), I had largely stopped writing. But as I’ve started to reengage with writing and set new goals, I’ve had to consider the implications of cutting off the two main supply lines of oxygen to an indie writer’s prospects. Like it or not, Amazon and mainstream social media have grown to have a complete chokehold on anyone chances of getting their work out to a community that would.

Despite protests to the contrary, Amazon has near-total global monopoly on ebook content. About 75% of ereaders in the United States are Kindles. In the UK it is closer to 90%. And while it was possible for Kindle users to access my books by purchasing a copy on Smashwords and manually downloading and transferring the mobi file to their Kindle device… I’m sure no one ever does that. Especially without any other way to find me on social media.

I decided that I had to relax at least one constraint.

And if it was between turning Kindle distribution back on versus returning to social media, the choice to me is easy. Creating new accounts and grinding in the cesspools of what Facebook and Twitter have become in order to establish a following again seems both time consuming and detrimental to a contentedness I regained only after giving them up. Not to mention how fake I would feel posting things just to try and keep an author following! And besides — I have a newsletter for reaching out to my community, and I’m just fine with that.

I can’t say I’m happy about it per se, and I still continue to boycott Amazon where possible in my personal life; however, I do hope that this change allows more people to access my work going forward.

Red Soil Through Our Fingers is once again available on the Kindle Bookstore.

Cover Artist Interview: Trish Revolinksy

I was happy to work with my friend Trish Revolinksy for the release of my first directly published short story, Anpo (The Dawn). You can learn more about the story in the blog post for its release.

Below is an interview with Trish about the cover. Thanks for answering all these questions and for this wonderful collaboration!

How would you describe the cover?

The cover is of the modern science fiction variety. It emulates Kim Stanley Robinson’s first edition covers of the Mars trilogy and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Both covers give the subject and setting of their stories to the reader using only the cover and I was inspired by that approach. In this cover, there is a planet covered by storms that is ambiguous when examined alone, but is confirmed as Earth when you spot Earth’s moon tucked behind the planet. The cover shows my interpretation of the moment the Swirl takes place. The space vehicle is prominently placed and interacting with the Swirl.

This is the first time you’ve done a book cover, correct? What new things did you have to consider and what changes did you have to make to your usual artistic process?

Yes, this is my first book cover! The most prominent and new things I had to consider were pixels and quality of the images I used. At one point in the process, I had a grainy moon and a crisp planet that distracted from my intended focus of the cover, which is the Swirl. Most of my past projects made in graphics editing software were for personal use and I was not concerned about image quality or content source since the result would live in my computer and never be used elsewhere. For this project, I was very careful of image source and permissions and ensuring the cover image quality translated for a thumbnail up to a zoomed in image on a large monitor. It forced me to be very deliberate with my image choices and to revisit design choices when I encountered difficulties with image copyright or quality. It changed my process to a more structured method that required more planning. The structure was different, but a nice learning experience.

Cover art could be described as an act of translation (from words to images) and visual summary (conveying quickly what this story is about). Why did you choose the elements you did as being the most important to convey to a potential reader?

I wanted to convey the urgency of the story with each cover element. The massive storm covering the visible planet indicates that all is not well on the planet and in the story. There is a sense of danger and mystery that the hurricane represents. Saveen is at the center of his story and humanity’s story. While he is not experiencing the immediate danger of the story moving around him, he is trapped in the middle of it all. He carries the responsibility of a task placed on him that requires so much sacrifice. I echoed the eye of the storm in the center point of the Swirl to draw that parallel between the events on Earth and events in the Swirl. The vehicle where Saveen enters the Swirl is near the planet, but held at a distance to demonstrate in a physical sense how Saveen is valued but forced outside humanity. The moon is visually close to the planet to further isolate the Swirl from every other human. I also did not include stars on this design because they represent hope and offer an escape. I wanted to reinforce that the Swirl is the only route Saveen can take.

Would you change your approach to creating future book covers based on your experience with this one?

I would change my approach for future book covers by being more deliberate with the plan going into each cover design. This cover and alternate covers started with a general idea of the style I wanted to use. I then added elements and removed them as the design shifted. It took a number of iterations to reach a design I was comfortable sharing for review. I would definitely plan out the designs more before even starting to build a cover next time.

Are you open to new commissions for cover art or art in general? If so, what are you interested in doing and how can people contact you?

Absolutely! I enjoy exploring different art forms and learning about other creative processes. Working with others helps me to learn more and I am all about it! People are welcome to reach out on instagram @trickaject or by email to [trickajet at gmail dot com].