It’s been a while

It’s been two years since I posted here last. Which may make things seem rather quiet, but they’ve been anything but.

I’ve been hard at work on a project. Something I haven’t really spoken of here. A project I never expected would be of interest to me, but I fell madly in love with it every day I thought about it. It called to me. I hope I’ve done it justice.

More details to come, because I’ve learned a lot on this journey that I want to share, but for now the key points:

  • It’s historical fiction.
  • The first draft is complete.
  • It takes place in Japan.
  • The below image is relevant.


Too Many Notes – Some Ramblings on Feedback

As a competitive classical pianist, one of my favorite movies is Amadeus. Yes, it’s not exactly historically accurate, but on the whole it’s a great film. Here’s one of the more memorable scenes:

Feedback. We all want it. We all strive to be better at whatever it is we do. Having worked in a creative industry for fifteen years now, and writing for more than that, I’ve learned quite a lot about how to process feedback over the eons that I’d like to share.

People are really good about telling you when something isn’t working for them. When something doesn’t feel right. When they just don’t like it. You’ll hear all about what doesn’t work from your readers. And sometimes you’ll even hear about what does work, and that’s always nice too, so you can make sure you keep on doing whatever that is.

People are not really great at telling you exactly WHY something doesn’t work, or specifically how to address it. There’s definitely an objective layer here where they’ll be right: “Too many typos” is a good example. But that’s not the kind of feedback I’m talking about. I’m talking about the real creative stuff. The guts, so to speak.

In that clip above, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that he really enjoyed his music. He then goes on to say, after some difficult internalization, that it has “too many notes.” Mozart immediately goes on the defensive and the conversation descends into utter madness about the “number of notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening.” The Emperor closes by telling him to “just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

We laugh at that last line in particular, because it’s just flat out absurd. It’s obvious that the Emperor knows nothing about musical composition.

But even people who are experts in your field won’t be able to tell you how to solve your problem. Ten readers may discover the same issue, but if you ask all ten of them how to solve it you’ll get at least eleven completely different answers. Probably more. You cannot address your problems by asking people what they’d do instead–they aren’t in your head, they don’t know your story like you do. They all have their own vision of where they want it to go and if you listen to all those solutions you’re going to have a heaping mess on your hands. Art is not–I daresay it CAN not–be created by a committee. It sure as heck can be REFINED by a committee’s feedback, however.

You have to be confident that you are in charge–you are the creator. You are the one who makes the final decision on how to fix a problem. Sometimes maybe you won’t address every problem and that’s A-OK! Name one film/movie/song that’s absolutely perfect for you with every word/scene/beat. You can’t. Everyone can always find something to critique–especially when you’ve asked them to do just that! So it’s okay to not stress out over fixing every single thing. Just fix the big ones.

If someone tells me the opening chapters of my novel are too slow, it’s easy for me to get defensive: “But there are explosions and crazy-ass monsters falling from space and soldiers of questionable intent rounding up children and wacky escape sequences and and and and!”

But when I sit back and look at it a bit more carefully I’ll notice that while all those things may be true, the main character has no concrete GOAL. There’s no ultimate thing he’s trying to achieve. All that action is just noise–none of it gets him closer to any sort of goal because he doesn’t have one until halfway through the book. And watching characters wander aimlessly across the page for chapter after chapter can make the story feel slow and lacking any sort of tangible progression no matter how many explosions or chase scenes you’ve got. If I ask the people who gave me that feedback they may say “you need more explosions!” or “how about more crazy-ass monsters!” and that wouldn’t really solve the problem. I’d toil away for a few days adding even more fluff.

Did the Emperor really mean there were too many notes? Probably not. Maybe he meant it was too fast. Maybe he meant the oboes were so loud that the string section got lost in the noise. Maybe he was just really tired after a day of partying with his court. Mozart needed to analyze why the Emperor felt that way, not get defensive, and not take his suggestion on HOW to fix the problem–because it was, after all, a pretty ludicrous suggestion.

Don’t knee-jerk react to your feedback. Don’t get defensive about it. Don’t do whatever the person giving the feedback says you should do because you’re not writing their book. Analyze it. Massage it. Weave it back into your story. Use that gift of feedback to find ways to strengthen your own creations.

Now go out there and CREATE.





They grow em’ bigger over here.

First up, I finished drafting another book this week. It’s called CREATUREFALL and it’s kind of like Pokémon except the Pokémon eat people. I sent it off to my agent just yesterday. I updated the header for the time being with the cool artwork my friend Stephane Imbert drew.

I talked about it briefly in my last post about diverse books. The main character’s a thirteen-year-old dwarf trying to live up to the legacy of his mother who was a famous warrior in the last creaturefall. Talk about your 30,000 foot summaries…

But this post is not about that book. I’ll post about CREATUREFALL another time. This post is about creatures, though, so it’s at least tangentially related.

In Alabama, we had centipedes. They looked kind of like this:


A couple of inches long, at best. They roamed around the gardens eating all sorts of pests, and occasionally came into your house and you squashed them or sprayed them and tossed the remains down the toilet. Creepy, in some ways, but mostly harmless.

I heard before we came to Japan this time that my father-in-law had some centipedes in his house. The thought of this did not bother me in the least. Centipedes are not spiders, after all. They’re just weird little crunchy worms.

Or so I thought.

See, when the Japanese say “centipede”, what they mean to say is “hundred-legged merchant of death”. The Japanese word for centipede is mukade and that is all I’m calling them from now on because these are not centipedes. Calling these things centipedes is like calling a sabertooth tiger a calico.

Here, allow me to illustrate:

merchant of death

“Oh,” you’re thinking. “I guess it does look a bit creepy, but it’s still just a centipede.”

No. No, it isn’t. See, this thing isn’t content to only be an inch or three long. Oh no.


not my hand

You can see we’re well beyond “step on it” or “drown it in bug spray” territory here. I don’t even know what you do with one of these things. How do you attack it? Since firearms aren’t legal in Japan I can’t very well bring my hunting shotgun, though that’s probably the best bet. I suppose you could still use bug spray but use it with a match to create a kind of anti-mukade napalm spray. I don’t know. I just. don’t. know.

For the record, that’s not my hand. I have no idea whose hand that is, or why they thought this was a good idea.

Mukade can grow up to 20cm long (that’s just shy of 8 inches). Their bites are insanely painful, and have been known to cause deaths in people who are allergic to them. Also, they hunt. In pairs. Just… no. No no no no no.

I haven’t seen any in the house yet, but I’m starting to question the wisdom of the Japanese custom of sleeping on the floor. At least during mukade season. The neighbor (my father-in-law lives in a condo) also had a mukade problem. She showed me her bites. Five in a row. Left scars. I did see a dead one outside on the street. It was about 5 inches long. A car ran over it. I can only imagine the damage the car suffered as a result. Seeing its flat body did fill me with a kind of glee, though, because nope. Nope to that thing.

So when my father-in-law says he’s got centipedes in his house, what he means is, it’s time to move. To Mars. And obliterate the Earth with an orbital ion cannon on the way out.



I wasn’t going to get into this. There are any number of reasons. I’m no fan of jumping on internet bandwagons. Especially because they quite often turn into internet hate trains, and that’s just not my thing. But I enjoyed sitting back and watching this hashtag on Twitter over the last couple of days.

Then, today, I got a mentioned in a Tweet by a good friend and I started feeling guilty:

He’s right. I should be in this discussion. But not because of RYOJI AND THE RIDDLE MASTERS. I’ll tell that book’s submission story someday–hopefully when it’s en route to a bookstore near you.

No, see, the reason I should be in this discussion is right here:

I have all the kids. All of them.

Yes, that’s quite the assortment of children. Five half-Japanese kids, ranging in age from 9 years old down to 8 months old. The oldest two are voracious readers of all genres. The dude in glasses is starting to get his reading on. The other two love to listen to one of their siblings or parents read to them. Who’d believe a writer would spawn five children that all loved books and storytelling? All right, so now it’s question time. Surprise, there’s a test with this blog post. Two questions.

Here’s the first:

Name a half-Asian hero in popular American literature. Go ahead, you’ve got time. I’m not looking at my watch. You can spend all night on Google if you want. Heck, for that matter, name a full Asian hero. There aren’t that many out there, especially not in children’s literature. While my kids are too young to form a truly complex opinion about the matter, they are definitely starting to notice that the kids in the books they read are usually white.

My kids would love some half-Japanese role models in the fiction they read. It’s more than just changing a character’s physical description in a tale–though that’s always a good start. There are experiences tied up in that racial identity as well that people who are part of the ‘norm’ will never understand. It’s often a very lonely feeling. I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and outside of the one French Canadian programmer I worked with, all my interactions were with Japanese people. Aside from one incident with my boss at the time, there was never any overt racism directed at me, but that wasn’t the problem–the problem was the loneliness. When you go for years not seeing anyone like yourself represented in the media around you, it creates a kind of emptiness inside that’s impossible for me to describe. I’ve heard other people in America who never see themselves speak of a similar loneliness.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the second question. Here goes:

Name a dwarf hero in popular American literature. I can think of exactly one: Tyrion Lannister. There’s also a YA novel starring a character with dwarfism: JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS. In movies we’ve got WILLOW. And… not much else.

“I’m all for diversity, but why in the world are you bringing up dwarfism? Isn’t diversity all about race and gender identity and stuff?”

Go back up there to that picture of the eighty-seven children. See the one sitting on my wife’s lap with the glasses and the rather dapper cap? He’s Noah, and he’s a dwarf. I suppose I could start reading A Song of Ice and Fire to him but at 5 he’s probably a BIT too young to hear of Tyrion Lannister’s exploits. So what are my options?

For a long time I’ve wanted to write a story with a dwarf in it with a prominent role. It’s been hard finding the right one. Dwarfism is tricky because it affects an action-heavy story in ways substantially different (not greater, mind you, just different) than something like skin color or gender. There are specific physical limitations to consider, and I tend to write very actiony things. I couldn’t quite find the right place in RYOJI, though most of that had been written in some state or other in my head since 2006/7.

I’ve recently been working on a new project codenamed CREATUREFALL. Middle grade fantasy set in a world where every seventy years an assortment of crazy creatures straight out of an old 80s RPG rain down from the heavens and cause general havoc. I’ve felt like something’s been missing from my MC in that story. He’s got the typical “kid who always dreamed big goes on to prove to the world he can live up to it” thing going on, but so what? That happens in so many stories.

Then today, while chatting with a friend, it hit me. A way to weave dwarfism naturally into the story, along with all its limitations, with all the emotional struggles, and without it feeling like I’m just checking a diversity box or dwarfsploiting (is that even a word?!).

My main character, a thirteen year old boy named Mako, is going to be a dwarf.

I’ve had several heart-wrenching conversations with my son about things he quite literally will never be able to do, about the difficulties he faces doing everyday tasks that you and I take for granted. I’ve had conversations with teachers and students about how to treat him because the default reaction is “oh he’s so cute! look at the little child!” It’s something I’ve experienced as close to first-hand as one can without being a dwarf. And yet when I see that gleam of distant dreams in his eyes, when I see his wild and hilariously witty personality, I get to thinking that maybe I’m wrong, that maybe even those things that seem flat out impossible he just might find a way to do them.

The answer is not forcing stories to conform to a sort of census-like demographic checklist. Constraining art in such a legalistic way isn’t good for anybody. The answer is not to take iconic heroes and make them gay/biracial/handicapped. That generally just makes everyone who loves those heroes as they are uncomfortable–and there’s nothing wrong with loving our old heroes.

What we need are new heroes. New stories. Authentic stories, told by people who come from places and cultures and identities that are outside the realm of what we’ve got so much of already. Sesame Street did a better job forty years ago of representing American diversity than the entire spectrum of our popular literature does today.

Sesame Street


The answer is to be the change we want to see.

Challenge accepted.

To Catch a Train

I’m currently in that lull between projects. Still letting ideas percolate through for the next WIP, waiting on agent feedback on the last novel, and mostly staring at the walls in kind of a dizzied stupor. Though that’s mostly the fault of juggling the day job, the five children, and writing novels, I think.

I wrote a short-short story a while back and entered it into a few contests. It got some decent feedback, but never won anything. (How’s THAT for a sales pitch? Are you interested now?) I’m harvesting some of it for the next WIP–a decidedly contemporary piece about two mixed-race kids who have a hard time fitting in anywhere, but manage to find each other. There are also going to be cherry blossoms and tsunamis. But no dragons or ghosts this time.

Since the short-short story has seen the end of the editorial road, I figure there’s no harm in sharing it.

So here you go, all 2100 words of “To Catch a Train”:

Eyes closed. Steady now. Deep breath. Hold it. Exhale, and eyes open.

The judges stare at me with cold faces. Behind them, I see the guest seating area. The two seats I had reserved for tonight remain empty. She couldn’t come. He didn’t come. I knew he wouldn’t. I’d held out hope, though. I’m not even sure what I’d tell him. Goodbye?

The rest of the concert hall is lost in darkness, overpowered by the bright stage lights overhead. In this moment everything is pure silence. I take my place at the keyboard of the polished black Steinway. Right index finger on upper B flat. Left little finger on lower B flat. My nails are pink, well-manicured. The color clashes with my mood and the setting, but it felt appropriate. It makes me smile, briefly. My soul slides into place with my hands.

I close my eyes again. Everything’s clear in that inner darkness. The last year comes rushing back and I exhale, forcing the tidal wave of emotions away from my eyes. This is too good to waste on tears. This is how you play Chopin. Right hand begins the slow, silent opening run, quickly joined by the left. My fingers caress the keys, right foot working the sustain pedal. My body moves in time with the music as everything I’ve ever felt courses through me, struggling to find a way out, at last fleeing to the only outlet I’m making available. My fingertips.

I melt into the melody and it embraces me. This is where I belong. Not in Japan, not on this stage, but in the bittersweet notes of Chopin’s Nocturne in B-flat Minor. I crack my eyelids open and that’s when I know I’ve won the competition. One judge has closed her eyes, the other has raised his eyebrows, leaned in on suited elbows. This is my one performance to die for. Achingly perfect legatos drift through the concert hall like cherry blossoms on the breeze. Beautiful in their death.

I close my eyes.

Father died a year ago today.

Mother and I moved from backwoods Mississippi to backwoods Japan, into a small house with my widowed aunt. Foreigners were rare and mixed kids like me were unheard of. Friends came quickly at school as my classmates asked about life in America. I represented it all to them. But soon that melody grew old, they went back to their familiar social tunes, and I was left alone again. Alone with my music.

I felt him there, that rainy afternoon in the music room. Watching me. I played harder, tears streaming down my cheeks as all my loneliness, grief, and disappointment poured from my fingers. And when I had finished, he stood there, slack-jawed, his face telling me all I needed to know.

His name was Ryoji. Maybe if I had opened up to him that day, everything would have ended differently. Maybe if I had told him how mother drove me to cut myself with the constant pushing for perfection at the keys, refusing to let me play by heart. By soul. She demanded flawless technique and execution, as only that would win the highest accolades. Day in, day out I practiced until my fingers throbbed. Numb, broken. She would stop me at the first wrong note and force me to start again from the beginning, even if it was the last measure of the piece.

I did not cry out for help. I remained silent. Ryoji would reject me if he thought I was weak.

Another bitter swell of music, longer than the first, carries me onward. The stage lights continue to warm my arms. My black dress tickles the back of my thigh as my right leg pedals through the next several runs. I wish I’d practiced in this dress to get used to the feeling, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore.

When I told mother about Ryoji, she slapped me so hard one of her fingernails clipped my cheek and drew blood. It was not the first time. I yelled at her that I was in love, and he loved me, and my music had brought us together.

She slapped me again.

My aunt stopped in the kitchen doorway the next morning at the sight of my face, her smile turned sour. I wanted to tell her about the bruises, about how mother had beat me since I was five whenever I would talk back or make the same mistake a second time at the piano. But she and mother shared a sisterly love I had never known as an only child. She couldn’t ask. I couldn’t bring it up.

Three months ago Ryoji kissed me. It was raining and he’d come home with me to hear me play. Mother was out with my aunt burning money at the pachinko parlor. I kept peeking through the curtains as I played, fearing she would come home early and catch us together, catch me playing from the heart.

We kissed on the front porch, soaking wet, giggling as we kept trying to say our goodbyes but finding our tongues getting in the way. I felt a spark there I was sure would flare up into an inferno if only mother hadn’t interrupted us with her scream of disapproval. She had returned at the exact wrong moment.

Mother threatened to call the police, threatened him with charges of rape. Ryoji fled. And then she chased me inside. She grabbed the large carving knife from the wood block on the kitchen counter and pointed it at me. I backed against the piano, nowhere to run, tears streaming down my face. I screamed I was sorry, that I would never see Ryoji again. She called me a slut, cut the air between us with a slash of the knife. I screamed I’d never given myself to anybody but my music, screamed she needn’t worry about me, that I would win the competition. That I wouldn’t make the same mistake she made. That I wouldn’t get pregnant.

That’s when she cut me.

My aunt called the paramedics while mother locked herself in her room. They asked me what happened as they bandaged up my arm. I told them I slipped while making dinner. Nobody asked why the only blood was in the living room. Nobody asked why there were no vegetables on the cutting board, no pans on the stove.

After they left, we went to check on mother, forcing the door open after she refused to answer. She swung by the neck from a coat hook near her bed, calloused feet scraping a footstool lying on its side.

The song now segues into an uplifting tone. Someone in the concert hall sighs.

For weeks after the funeral I cried myself to sleep. My aunt wandered through the house like a ghost, never speaking. She only let me stay because I had nowhere else to go. Alone. Terrified. But for the first time, I was free.

Three weeks after mother died, I mustered up the courage to invite Ryoji over. The Chopin competition was coming up. I wanted him to hear me play, to tell me I was still perfect. To give him one of my two guest tickets for the competition. The other was for mother.

Before he arrived I painted my nails pink, braided my hair, perfumed all the right places with one of mother’s favorites. I waited by the door until I heard his footsteps on the gravel path outside. I opened the door but his eyes would not meet mine. He tapped his legs, looked over his shoulder. I told him my aunt was out shopping for groceries, that we were alone. That he needn’t worry. Reluctantly, he came inside.

I took him upstairs to my room where I told him I had something special for him. I pulled the ticket from under my worn pillow. He took it, looked it over, and held it back out to me. I asked him to see my dress before making up his mind, and quickly slipped into my closet, closing the door behind me. My breaking heart beat quickly in my chest and I knew that this was the crucial moment. I pushed aside the other clothes until I got to that black dress with its wide open back and thin velvet shoulder straps.

I pulled my t-shirt over my head, stepped out of my pants, and stared at that dress long and hard. Winter was approaching, and goose bumps popped up all over my arms and legs. I listened for Ryoji’s breathing. He hadn’t left. I slipped the dress on, took a deep breath, and opened the closet door.

His back was to me. I took a step toward him and nearly changed my mind but he turned around at the sound of my footstep and saw me standing there, arms by my side. Goosebumps and all. His eyes grew wide as I walked toward him. He didn’t back away.

We stood eye to eye. Our noses touched. His breath came fast and warm against my upper lip. I leaned in to kiss him but he pulled away. He told me to stop but his eyes told me to go. I grabbed his hand and held it against one of my breasts.

Ryoji fell against the wall like he’d been shot. He scrambled to his feet, telling me he was sorry, he’d thought he could love me once, but now his heart was with another girl. She was nice. She understood him. She was Japanese.

I let him go. I wanted to cry, but a small part of me still clung to feeble hope. He’d taken the ticket.

The song ends much as it began, with haunting runs and unmatched timing that only raw emotion can deliver. I hold the last note longer than necessary, until the strings inside the piano go still and the sound dies against the velvet walls of the concert hall. I stand and take my bow to roaring applause. I would smile but there’s nothing left inside. No more smiles. No more tears.

The final two contestants play their pieces and while technically perfect they are wooden and lifeless. The judges confirm my feelings. I am declared the winner. I’ve done it. I’ve beaten mother.

I wave to the audience as they applaud once more and one of the judges presents me with my trophy and a large bouquet of white flowers. After several more bows and photographs with the judges and runners-up I head out into the cold Osaka night and make my way to the station.

I stand off to one side of the platform away from the crowds. It’s a Saturday night and people are out with their friends, catching movies, grabbing bites to eat, heading to clubs. Everyone is having a typical life except for me. I’m here to catch a train. I have no idea where it’s going to take me, and I don’t even care because anywhere is better than here.

I study the flowers and the trophy for a moment and decide that both are too troublesome to carry. I set them down on the platform at my feet. In the distance I can see the next express train approaching the station. Its whistle calls out in the busy night.

I scan the platform and one girl catches my eye. She looks vaguely Japanese, but with rounder eyes, red hair that does not come from a bottle. Another mixed girl like myself. She half-smiles, and I wonder if it’s an invitation. For a split second I think I should go talk to her, maybe not catch this train after all. Share our stories as outsiders, become sisters in our displacement.

Then a Japanese guy comes up and puts his arms around her. She smiles, kisses him over her shoulder. Behind him comes an older couple that look like his parents, and beside them another couple—a balding American man and his petite Japanese wife. They smile and chat amongst themselves as I hear for the roar of the train’s approach.

She is no outsider. She cannot help me. I turn to face the rails.

The train’s almost here now. Everyone’s picked up their bags and belongings, preparing to hop on as soon as the doors open. I watch it approach, its headlights blinding, just like the stage lights from the concert hall.

Eyes closed. Steady now. Deep breath. Hold it. Exhale, and eyes open.

And jump.

Consummatum Est – II

Wow. It was one year ago that I finished the novel that landed me an agent. Almost to the day.

Since then, things have been a bit wild and wooly and all over the place. It’s been a great journey so far.

Will this book sell? I have no idea. It’s out of my hands, for the time being. My agent will read it now, I’ll work on a summary and a pitch for a potential series (thinking trilogy here), and then we’ll get back on the submissions merry-go-round.


What? You thought there’d be horses and lights? This is SUBMISSIONS we’re talking about, pal. You’re lucky there are handles.

So what’s this new book about?

The title: A TALE OF JADE AND CHRYSANTHEMUM. For a while I thought that was quite the horse-choker of a title, but like the “temporary working title” of RYOJI, well, it stuck. So there it is.

The pitch: A girl who kills monsters meets the boy who makes them. Hijinks ensue.

Okay, okay, a better summary: A girl fighting to protect a society that would have her executed as an escaped slave stumbles upon a dark plot by a distant empire that threatens to consume her and the kid sister she’s sworn to protect. Hijinks ensue.

When I’ve got the real summary written, I’ll update it. But for now, that’s all you get. Off to the plotting and synopsizing cave–this series pitch won’t write itself.