What Some People Don’t Get

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know that my family has suffered a loss. Our cat, Phantom, passed away Wednesday. She lived a long, good life of 18 years. She was a best friend, and I’m blessed to have had her for so long (since I graduated college). Everyday with Phantom was a joy.

We got the bad news Tuesday evening from our vet that Phantom’s latest health scare was serious. She had had chronic kidney issues for over a year leading to sporadic dehydration and constipation. I was giving her IV fluids every other night to combat the problems. So taking her in Tuesday morning I expected (hoped for?) a similar diagnosis.

My two girls asleep on a Saturday night.

My two girls asleep on a Saturday night.

Turns out she had a tumor resting on her bladder. A scan showed what were likely metastatic tumors in her bladder and her lungs. Without removing the tumor, she would be unable to urinate. Treating the cancer would likely kill her or only prolong her life by a few weeks. Not treating the cancer would cause her to suffer and die within 48 hours.

The vet used a needle to extract all the urine from her bladder. He wanted us to take her home and spend one more night with her. And we did. Phantom did not feel well, she was throwing up, and kept making empty runs to the litter box. But she stayed sweet and loving until the very end.

Wednesday morning I carried her to the couch, sat down, and placed her in my lap for the last time. I thought of all the times she and I had ‘fought’ for that space, me wanting to sit my laptop there so that I could work. She wanting me to know that I was her human (and therefore she was the boss) and she would sit there whenever she pleased. 95% of the time she won.

She purred. She napped. Like she always did. I petted her. I cried. And then it was time for the last trip to the vet.

An hour later, my baby was gone. Watching the vet sedate, then inject her with the drug that would stop her hard is one of the hardest things I’ve ever endured.

Here’s the thing that many people don’t get about cats, dogs, rabbits…the pets that become important in your life. An animal dies, and you’ll hear as many “Eh, you’ll be okay, it’s just an animal. Get another” as you’ll hear “Christ, I’m so sorry, I know that’s tough to handle.” These unsympathetic individuals are blind to the two-way street of friendship and love a good pet provides. Either they’re blind, or they’re simply cold-hearted and don’t care.

Phantom with two of her favorite humans.

Phantom with two of her favorite humans.

Phantom did something that exemplifies her importance to my family, and why we love her as much as we do.

I was scheduled to pick her up before the vet closed on Tuesday. I stopped on the way to get the kids. I didn’t foresee any terrible diagnosis, and the kids delight in helping with the animal and chatting with the vet. I get their and by the serious look on the faces of the reception and nurse, I knew something was wrong. I ask the kids to stay in the lobby while I went to the exam room. The vet explained what they found and what it meant. I became upset, but composed myself so that I could bring the kids back into the exam room with me.

But my daughter reads me like a book. She knew immediately something was wrong. The nurse brought Phantom into the room. Phantom was lethargic and had a hard time standing. She looked in a bad way.

“What’s wrong with Phantom,” my daughter (ten years old) asked.

“She’s not well. She has cancer.”

“Can they fix her?” my son (seven years old) asked.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“She’s dying soon, isn’t she?”

“Yes, baby, soon,” I answered.

As understanding dawned, both my kids brave faces melted to sadness and disbelief. Tears erupted. They dropped to the floor, leaned against the wall, and started crying.

Phantom’s ears perked up upon hearing them. She forced herself up, wobbly and weak. She looked at my kids and emitted a quiet, soft meow. I noticed she was prepping herself to jump off the exam table (about 4 feet high), so I grabbed her and helped her down. She had a distended bladder and didn’t want it to burst.

Phantom limped over to the kids, meowed at them, and rubbed her face and body on their legs. She sat between them and let them pet her. She had always hated it when they were sad, and despite being on the verge of death, she still couldn’t let their heartbreak.

Some pets are indifferent to their owners and other humans. Feed them and keep them warm and that’s as far as the relationship goes. But some animals make real, personal, affectionate connections with their humans. When you find a pet like that, they do wonders to enrich your life. You learn what true, innocent love and affection is like. Your pet brings fun and levity to your life.

They’re best friends. Always on your side. Always by your side. Sometimes (literally) on your side!

These are things that pet owners understand.

And the poor souls who don’t understand why that’s so meaningful? I feel sorry for them. They’re missing out on one of the best things life has to offer.

Phantom, 1997-2015

Phantom, 1997-2015

Some thoughts about The Echo by James Smythe


On my iPhone, I made a note to myself to buy and read The Echo by James Smythe. I don’t recall why I did this. I don’t recall when I did this. But I can tell you that I followed through with my note to self.

I’m delighted I did. I should listen to my sage advice more often.

James Smythe is a British author of considerable talent. The Echo is his third book, and the second in what he calls “The Anomaly” quartet. Book one of the series is The Explorer. It appears to be out of print, but it is available on the Kindle.

A blurb on the back of The Echo calls it a mix of Philip K. Dick and David Mitchell. I find that to be misleading. There’s none of the mad imagination of PKD or the emotional twisting of David Mitchell present in this book. I think a better comparison would be Stanislaw Lem and Jose Saramago.

Despite being the second book in the quartet, The Echo stands alone. I had no clue it was book two until I finished and dug around for more information about the author. An anomaly has been found some 10 million miles away from Earth. It is a void of color, sound, and form. Satellites sent to explore the anomaly malfunction and are never heard from again. An exploration crew was sent and never heard from again (apparently, this crew’s story is the plot of book one). Twenty-three years later, a pair of identical twin geniuses, Mira and Thomas, are able to convince a wealthy conglomerate of investors to finance another exploration plot when it is discovered that the anomaly is growing in size (thus becoming a potential danger to Earth).

Mira leads the crew while Thomas provides ground support. Despite minor setbacks, Mira and crew reach the anomaly. Things go sideways soon after. The last third of the novel breaks off from a solid action-adventure mode to full-on philosophical musings by Mira. The book does not contain a tidy ending…it’s a bit trippy (not full-blown 2001: Space Odyssey trippy, thankfully). Ultimately, I was pleased by how Smythe wrapped up matters.

There is a lot to digest in The Echo. James Smythe tackles some heavy themes: duality, empathy and compassion, reality vs. the unreal, interpersonal dynamics, and so on. It is after reading a book like this that I wish I had paid better attention in my Introduction to Philosophy course back in college.

This is some quality “science fiction makes you think” stuff.

I consider The Echo to be a science fiction analog Jeff VanderMeer’s fantastic weird/fantasy Area X trilogy. It doesn’t surprise me that it is paired with Annihilation in my Amazon suggestions.

You like challenging dark science fiction? Then try The Echo.

Buy The Echo (The Anomaly Quartet)

The Art of the Formal Short Story Critique

Most writers rely on story feedback in one way or another. Be it his/her momma, their best friend, or a spouse. For a lucky few, this is all the writer needs. For the rest of us, we should seek to broaden our scopes.

First, an aside.

There are several fantastic primers on the process of short story critiques. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to link them and encourage you to read them. After the links, I’ll add my thoughts.

RJ’s Guide to Improving Editorial and Critiquing Skills by RJ Blain

How to Critique Fiction by Victor Crayne

When critiquing verbally in groups, I try to keep the following in mind:

1) The story/novel is the result of a person’s hard work and time. Hurt feelings are easier to come by when criticizing in front of other people.

2) Be sure to accentuate both positive and negative aspects of the story/novel.

3) In a group, be sure to do your fair share of criiquing for the group time spent on your own work. Keep in mind that critically evaluating others’ work will help improve your writing.

4) Your job is to provide feedback, not proofreader notes.

5) Always be respectful and professional.

When I lead critique sessions, I prefer letting each person have their say without input from the author (unless the author has a specific question to ask after the critique). Then when everybody is finished, the author can make commentary as to why the story/novel was written a certain way or manner.

For those in my upcoming 6 week writing group session at The Carnegie Center, I look forward to seeing you Monday at 5:30pm!

Sci-Fi/Horror Writing Group

I’m leading a new writing group at The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning starting this coming Monday. This is not a class or workshop, so you won’t hear me lecture or receive assignments. Basically, I’ll serve as a facilitator to the group as we read and critique each others’ work.

Okay…I will talk a bit about the art of critiques…and talk about some of the critique groups available online, writer retreats, and so on. And everybody in the group will get a free Apex book! Between now and the session, I will write a post about the topic of critiques.

Session synopsis:

Join a lively, diverse group of genre writers looking to improve and expand their abilities in the form of short fiction. This is a chance to limber up as a writer, get feedback from others, and gain confidence in an affirming atmosphere. [ALL LEVELS]

Sign up page:$72

  • Mondays, February 16 – March 23 (Six week session)
  • Time:
    5:30 pm – 7:00 pm
  • Address:
    251 West Second St.
    Lexington, KY, 40507
  • Cost:


5 More Overused Words to Cut from Your Manuscript

I’m going back to the well for today’s blog post. The first “5 Overused Words to Cut from Your Manuscript” is this site’s top post of all time thus far. Let’s milk that cow!


1. Suddenly  – This word might be more indicative of lazy writing than ‘very.’ Unless your favorite show is Suddenly Susan.

2. That – This word gets used a lot more than necessary. I tend to use it for sentence rhythm purposes, but even then, they often will get cut from the work.

3. Almost – This word comes across as repetitive. Repetitive means it should be excised…almost always!

4. Awesome – I throw this one out there because I use it WAY too often in conversation. Therefore, it finds its way into my writing. Note: An exclusion is made for the awesome song “Everything is Awesome”!

5. Actually – Want to sound like an unaware know-it-all? Throw ‘actually’ into all your corrective sentences.

I’d like to add a disclaimer. Because these words are overused does not mean there aren’t times and situations when they shouldn’t be. Using them in your work doesn’t make your work bad. An over reliance on them will. Tread carefully!

Okay, ‘suddenly’ should never be used. Like, ever.

Imperious Little Girls

The feeling of rejection is a difficult emotion to process.

Read this post by Jolene Creighton for the gory details of one writer unable to process rejection:

Personally, I hate being rejected. Who doesn’t? And the rejection doesn’t have to come from an editor. Recently, the credit union rejected my application to consolidate a pair of credit cards.

My feelings, they were hurt. Don’t they know I work hard everyday! That I pay my bills and taxes like any good citizen! The lady who informed me of my failure surely received a monumental scowl of dismay via my face expressions. Disappointed by the outcome,  I thanked her for letting me know of the decision and I moved on.

When an editor rejects my writing, I don’t even do that much. No writer should. You simply move on.

And despite how “successful” you think you are, or how educated you may be, or how much praised you’ve received, sending a letter of dissent after an editor makes a choice does one thing only: It makes you an unprofessional cry baby.

If you do send a letter of dissent, you certainly don’t call the editors “imperious little girls” and accuse them of “bitchiness.”

Laugh at the self-righteous attitude of the rejected author. Cringe at how self-important he makes himself to be. Read his response and roll your eyes when he declares that he is “practicing an active spirituality.”

Of course you are, dude, of course you are…

So, a few takeaways from this.

1) Don’t waste your time arguing a rejection.

2) Don’t waste your time listing “credentials” to back your argument against a rejection. Nobody cares.

3) Don’t waste your time being a sexist jerk when arguing a rejection. It makes you an asshole.

Thank you, enjoy your day.


Do Editors Really Reject You For That…A Writer’s Lament 1

A question I’m asked frequently in my short fiction workshops goes like this: Do you really take into consideration things like elements of plot and the part of a story when you’re considering them for publication?

My response is: Yes, but maybe not the way you thinking.

I know that’s a dodgy answer. But give me a chance to explain myself.

When I’m reading a story for publication in Apex Magazine, I don’t have a checklist that I mark off: introduction–check, rising action–check, climax–check, etc. The elements of plot aren’t constructs that editors insist you adhere to, but merely tools to get the job done.

What is that job? To write a damn good story!

I’m not checking off if you write to basic structure of a story. I will take notes if I think the climax is a let down. Or if the rising action requires more. Or if your introduction needs a tweak.

Many of the most memorable and best stories play with story structure. I’m not talking in a cutesy “Hey look at my verbal hijinks” manner.

Some of my favorite Apex Magazine stories are rather unconventional. A couple of examples: “The Performance Artist” by Lettie Prell and “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky.

Naturally, some of my favorite Apex Magazine stories have a convention structure. A couple more examples: “Pimp My Airship” by Maurice Broaddus and “Frank” by Betsy Phillips.

As a writer, you should understand the basic mechanics of short fiction. But it isn’t something to fret about if you’re hoping to sell your fiction. A great story is a great story. End of story…


Thoughts on Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

beautiful-you*NO SPOILERS*

Chuck Palahniuk’s novels have been providing diminishing returns for a long while. Readers would be asking too much for the author to reach the glorious heights of his debut THE FIGHT CLUB…that’s a once-in-a-lifetime book and earns Palahniuk a table with the greats of American novelists. But the poor quality of some of his later offerings is a bit off-putting, to say the least.

RANT was quite good. INVISIBLE MONSTERS was solid. SURVIVOR was fantastic. The rest of his early novels are good but not noteworthy.

Around the time of HAUNTED…the quality became fractured. HAUNTED has several fantastic short stories, but as a whole it fell apart logically and did not work for this reader. DAMNED I actively hated. DOOMED only made matters worse.

The frustrating part about Palahniuk is that even in the terrible books, there are moments of genius, of whimsy, and turns of phrase that tells a longtime Palahniuk reader that the man is still a master. If only he could make his books more focused and have them be less a pot roast of overcooked gross-out ingredients.

With BEAUTIFUL YOU, we are presented with his biggest pot roast of overcooked gross-out ingredients to date.

The plot goes like this: The wealthiest man on the planet, the nerdy entrepreneur C. Linus Maxwell (appointed “CliMax” by the press), meets plain-Jane Midwestern girl Penny Harrigan. Maxwell is a master in the arts of sexual arousal, and has built a line of toys that he tests on Penny. Many orgasms later, Maxwell is ready to unleash a devious plan on the world and Penny tries to stop him.

Problems abound with this novel. The characters are poorly-drawn caricatures of stereotypes. Maxwell is like a refined Bill Gates. Penny Harrigan could be any girlfriend of any sitcom set in New York City. Plot holes abound.


The whole affair is just so weird and unusual that it is entertaining.

For instance, there is a 200-year-old sex witch/shaman living in a cave deep in the Himalayas that has grey pubic hair that grows all the way to the ground. The witch keeps her dead teacher’s mummified finger in her vagina. She shares this finger with Penny. Uh, eww.

Palahniuk throws around real and made up clinical terms to describe various sexual activities that prompted amused laughter: Deftly, she compressed his seminiferous tubules in order to suppress spermatogenesis.

The novel also makes some on point observations about sexism, feminism, sexuality, commercialism, and so on.

Finally, this is a straight science fiction novel. I can appreciate that.

I would not recommend this book to those easily offended, fans of mindless 50 Shades of Grey erotica, or those who like traditional New York single lady meets rich man love stories. Because this book is giving you the middle finger.

Palahniuk fans will dig BEAUTIFUL YOU. Those amused by weird shit (like myself) will be occasionally entertained.

It’s a short read. Why not dig in and find out what ol’ Chuck has to say about seminiferous tubules.

How to properly format a manuscript — Be a conformist


There is a lot of information on the internet about all aspects of the writing process. Yet, I’m asked the same dozen or so questions by writers in every workshop or seminar I lead. Certainly, I don’t mind answering any questions about writing, editing, or publishing a writer or interested party might have. After all, that’s what I’m there for. And if there is anything that makes me chatty, it is giving me an opportunity  to share what I know about writing, editing, or publishing.

Without further ado, let’s tackle the first question in this series.


There’s a reason for the formatting rules, and it has nothing to do with causing poor, hassled writers more troubles. Editors are busy people, so a manuscript has to be especially good for an editor to waste time on reformatting. Besides, editors have better ways of driving writers crazy.

Here are some basic rules of formatting you should follow (unless you’re submitting to a publication that states otherwise in its guidelines):

  • Double line spacing is the rule. A common mistake made by new writers is to single space paragraphs and double space between paragraphs. This is a common format seen in articles of text on the internet, but it’s not how editors generally want a manuscript formatted (This editor HATES IT). Psychologically speaking, when reading double spacing, the editor feels as though he or she is whizzing through the lines (comparably). It looks cleaner and neater on the page. It allows for editorial comments and typographical markings between the lines should an editor wish to print out the story (and we often do). With modern-day word processors, none of this formatting is difficult for the writer to achieve.
  • Use a common and practical monospaced font. Most of the time, Courier New will suffice. A few editors I know prefer Times New Roman, so this is a case where doing a little bit of research might pay off.
  • Use a readable font point size. Don’t go any lower than 12 point. Don’t go higher than 14 point.
  • Leave at least an inch of white space margin on all four sides of your manuscript. This will give the editor room to makes notes and will help make your submission look cleaner. The left margin of text should be justified and the right margin of text should be jagged.
  • Use black ink on white paper and use only one side of each sheet of paper. I agree, the editor should be hip to the times and allow electronic submissions, but some dinosaurs are slow to move.
  • You don’t need a dedicated title page for short stories. You do for novels and novel-length collections. On the first page of your manuscript, using the upper half of the page to place your contact information and word count, followed by the story’s title along with your byline.
  • On all pages but the first, include a right justified running header with your byline, the story’s title, and the page number. This is in case the editor jumbles up your pages and needs to reorder them. I won’t lie, editors are notoriously disorganized individuals. I am the perfect example of this assertion.!

Master and conform to these seven basic instructions and you’ll be on the path to publication. Okay, at the least, you’ll be ahead of the 5 to 10% of submissions that get tossed due to blatant manuscript formatting shenanigans.

Wait, more rules???

There are many other ‘picky’ rules of manuscript formatting. Thankfully, a gentleman named William Shunn wrote an essay that covers such quandaries as “Do I list professional organizations of which I’m a member with my contact information?” and “Do I use the Microsoft Word word count or do I have to manually count the words or use some other formula?” You can find this excellent essay (titled “Proper Manuscript Format”) at

One trap many writers fall into is reading a publication’s guidelines once and never checking again for updates. Sometimes word count ranges change, or a publication has a change in editors and now prefers Times New Roman or Courier font. Because of this, be careful when using resources such as,, and the Writer’s Digest Guide to Short Fiction Markets. They’re useful as a first port of call, but always refer back to the official guidelines of your chosen market before sending off your baby.

As I mentioned earlier, it might pay to research a market’s editorial style. This goes beyond just reading the guidelines. Do they prefer the American style of punctuation or the British style? Will they laugh at you if you put a copyright statement on the title page (Yes, probably)? Do they prefer a single space or a double space after ending punctuation? I once suffered public ridicule in a writing workshop run by a well-known science fiction editor over my double spacing after punctuation. I’m still scarred by the experience. Read previous publications by that market. Read the editors’ blogs. There is plenty of information out there.

When in doubt, ask. Most of the time, editors are nowhere as intimidating as those burly dudes dressed as Klingons you see at every convention. In fact, Apex editors like receiving questions. It makes us feel like we have friends. It makes us feel like we are important.

Trust me, editors love feeling important.


Follow my advice about manuscript formatting. Please don’t let a simple thing you can control be the one thing that gets you rejected.

I Got Your Lunch Right Here

Yesterday, I served my first day of District Court jury duty. It was uneventful. A witness failed to show, so the trial was delayed. The most exciting part was hearing an angry lady in a conference room adjoining the court scream “You, you, and YOU can all KISS. MY. ASS.”

I’ve no clue what she was on about, but her point was made and made well.

The last time I served was about a decade ago for Circuit Court. I sat on a sexual harassment case. A lady was suing a local franchised car wash and her boss for harassment. The jury consisted of twelve folks (District court only has 6 jurors). She wanted a couple million dollars for harassment and pain and suffering.

The plaintiff had witnesses that saw inappropriate touching by the male boss. Multiple co-workers heard the boss make lewd remarks and suggestions. The highlight (nadir) of the proceedings happened when the judge asked the defendant to reenact a particular sexually aggressive mood the plaintiff like to do.

So the plaintiff stood in the middle of court and made an X motion with his arm toward his crotch and said “I got your lunch RIGHT HERE.” It was so ludicrous and immature that several people couldn’t help but laugh. That drew some gavel and warnings from the bench.

The case took a WEEK. Eight hours a day (sometimes more).

When the judge finally let the jury deliberate, I went into deliberation thinking it was a cut and dry decision. The guy obviously harassed, bullied, and harmed the woman’s emotional state. Ten fellow jurors DISAGREED. They said the woman could have done more to discourage the behavior. They said she was ugly and probably enjoyed the attention. They said the woman was being a greedy bitch and that 2 million was outrageous. 10 people voted Not Guilty. They eventually got 11 not guilty votes.

I argued that by the letter of the law she was a victim of harassment. Perhaps the 2 million was a bit much. I tried to convince them to grant her 25,000 plus legal costs. Nope.

In this case, 11 not guilty votes was enough to acquit the defendant.

That jury experience was an eye opener. It definitely sapped any remaining faith in humanity that I might have had.

Fortunately, district court handles the small beans stuff. Traffic ticket challenges. Misdemeanors. Even so, it won’t stop me from telling every defendant in my best Judge Dredd voice that “I AM THE LAW.”