by Mickie Bolling-Burke

The trees stood in the silent night, watching as the cottage door opened and children danced out, the adults laughing behind.

“All right kids, which one is our Christmas tree?” Father called out. “This one?”

“No, it’s ugly! We should put it out of its misery.” The children laughed, breaking its young branches. They ran deeper into the clearing. “Here, this one, this is our tree!”

Pre-dawn fog, Mount Rainier National Park

Justin Kern via Creative Commons

The children shrieked with glee, counting out each cut as Father chopped down the biggest, greenest pine. When it fell, he tied a rope around it and dragged it back to the cottage. They knocked the snow off and shoved it inside as they sang Christmas carols.

The curtains stood open, showing the family nailing the dead tree onto a platform and posing it in front of the window. Showing the children hanging gaudy objects from its branches. Showing the resin tears of the dead tree clinging to its trunk. Outside, the trees whispered to each other. Their limbs pressed forward, the trees in the back pushing through to add their strength, shattering the window.

The trees crowded into the room, surrounding the family. Held tightly in the trees’ embraces, the boughs suffocated the family’s screams.


mickie_bolling-burkeGrowing up on the east coast, Mickie kept her wrist watch at California time. When she finally made it to the palm trees and Pacific Ocean of the west coast, she knew she’d come home. Working as an actor fed her creative soul, until her beloved Los Angeles grew too big for her. She and her family now live in a small corner of the southwest, where she finds the sky as majestic and blue as she did the ocean. Mickie spends her time writing, reading, hiking and watching ‘The Three Stooges’ with her much adored rescue cat, Pal.

Mickie has three short story collections available on Amazon.

In taking stock of the year, I looked back over the site and I noticed something a bit depressing: there were a grand total of nine new entries here in 2015, assuming you don’t count new pages created for publications. And the year before was only about twice as active. Unlike in 2013 where I had only one child and averaged well over a post a week, that means this site has not exactly been a hotbed of activity for a couple of years now. And that’s a shame because I like having reasons to come visit this site other than just “hey there’s a new page for a short story I just got published.”

It’s a shame but it hasn’t been some kind of crisis-level circumstance. Because the truth is I like blogging and doing interviews and free short fiction but those things actively compete for the same time blocks as my regular fiction writing. I’m not currently willing to sacrifice the time I carve for writing on site maintenance. If I had the kind of time that would permit me both, perhaps that would be ideal. But I don’t, so for the past couple years I’ve played the hand dealt to me and tolerated an infrequent posting schedule.

3 o'clock

Hani Amir via Creative Commons

But upon reflection there is more than one way to flay a feline. If I myself lack the time to write special site content, perhaps I could instead solicit interesting things to post. Sure, it’s a little strange to have my site—ostensibly dedicated to my writing—populated by other’s work, but it’s not like it’s unprecedented. And really, this site is more about stories than anything else. I don’t have to have written a story for it to be worth sharing.

So, as an experiment, over the next year (at least), I’ll be dedicating the site to some different types of content beyond the journal-style blogging I may have originally intended to fill this space.

200 CCs

The most exciting thing I’ll be doing is revising my microfiction series as an ezine which will be integrated into the main site feed. Each Friday I’ll feature another flash fiction piece of about 200 words, written by an amazing author who is (probably) not me. If you are a writer and want to contribute, submissions are now open, and I’m a semi-pro paying market. I’ll collect each month’s worth of stories into an issue and will do at least two volumes of six issues. If there’s money and interest to support it, I’d love to release these volumes into a print collection as well.

I’ve already lined up several fantastic stories and you’ll get a special sneak peek next Friday as a bonus Christmas gift with the first guest 200 CCs story.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Not just because it means I get to try my hand at the whole editor-in-chief thing, or because it means if all goes according to plan there should be something new here every week, but mostly because I really like the 200-word format. And, above all else, I can’t wait to see what other writers do with it. Already the stories I have to share are amazing and have stayed with me long after reading.

Publication Showcase

Another thing I want to open up the site to is book tours or published short story promotions. Other authors who have books coming out or who have new fiction publications and want to discuss the behind-the-scenes aspects of writing their stories can have their work discussed and promoted here. This is basically the book tour thing but I’m also interested in featuring shorter fiction than just novels. I have three pre-made questionnaires, one dealing with world building, one for the challenges of editing, and one for characters. If you have a publication you want people to know about, this is the way to get it done.

I would love to have at least one of these per week, but I also have seen other author’s sites get flooded with book tour posts so I’m not too keen on running more than two in a row. That means its probably a good idea to get requests in as early as possible. For more info and contact details, head over to the newly revamped Projects page.

5 Star Reviews

I’ve already been doing this for a little while but I thought I’d state officially that this was a Thing I’m Doing. I try to write at least a little something about each book I read over on Goodreads and for the past six months or so I’ve been cross-posting my reviews of books I rate with five stars here. The reason for focusing on only five star books is that these are basically my top book recommendations and I think it’s in keeping with the theme of the site (awesome stories) to highlight the books I read that mean the most to me.

Admittedly, this is a little tricky because I find occasionally I’m inclined to rate a book five stars (instead of a very strong four star rating) just so I can feature the review here. My internal rating system is a bit fluid to begin with and my opinion about rating things at all is fairly nuanced. But the more I’ve thought about it since starting this, the more I believe having the bar between four star book (which I usually think of as a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone) and a five star book (which per the cross-posting becomes a de facto recommendation to literally everyone) is useful to have.

Because I read at inconsistent rates and there’s no guarantee about how many really great books I’ll read in a given period of time, these are going to be far less frequent and very unscheduled. Since I write them regardless of inclusion here, I feel it’s a nice way to talk about great stories here with no additional loss of writing time.

Love Story

Atilla Kefeli via Creative Commons

Other?

I haven’t totally abandoned the freeform, journal-style, or random unformatted fiction options, either. Like I said, I enjoy writing those; I just can’t justify the time commitment it would take to populate a site with them. And of course I’ll still be updating the Published Work section with new stories as they get published.

My hope, of course, is that all this will result in a site that is worth visiting regularly, especially if you’re in the mood to read or hear about great stories. It’s what I’m all about.

Adulthood Rites
Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I’m enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it’s very best, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of wild speculation. It’s post-apocalyptic and full of invading space aliens but it’s not grim, fatalistic or even swashbuckling. It’s about relationships, about potential, about sex and gender and adaptation and growing up. It’s about change. Change happens all the time, Butler points out, but can we—as humans—ever really embrace it?

Compared to Dawn, I kind of missed the presence of Lillith, who is relegated in this volume to a supporting role. Instead we mostly follow her son, Akin, the first male construct (hybrid oankali/human—basically the new generation of oankali) and the first to look almost completely human, at least in his larval stage. Lillith and the other human survivors introduced in the last part of Dawn have been transplanted to a repaired Earth and though some humans are working and breeding with the oankali, others have splintered off into human-only villages. They are bitter at being sterilized, at being at the mercy of the aliens, and early on Akin is kidnapped by a group of them. Fortunately, Akin is a wonderful character in his own right, and is absolutely the right person to see this chapter in the broader story through.

He spends enough time among the humans to develop a fascination with them, which informs the bulk of the book’s conflict. Oankali direct their evolution by “trading” genes with species they encounter. The constructs like Akin will be a merging of the two species but will call themselves oankali. Older branches of the oankali are allowed to continue as part of the alien society, but what of the humans? They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.

The brilliance of Butler’s work is that despite there not being a ton in the way of action or obvious tension, there is a gripping quality to the story. Much of the driving action is a series of small calamities and momentary dangers. But the underlying concerns are as big as they come, full of the sorts of thought exercises the very best SF can ignite. I loved thinking about this book. Did I sympathize with the Resisters? Would I be the sort of person to see the larger vision of the oankali? What would Akin’s solution near the end of the book mean to the people who were almost convinced but couldn’t get over the hurdle of being forced into breeding themselves out of existence? What did it say about humanity that the people originally selected to be re-awoken by the oankali in Dawn were potentially amenable to re-integration and so many of them chose to be Resisters?

As with Dawn, the set-up is deliberate but fascinating. The ending where things happen is a bit rushed and a lot of the relationships don’t develop in a comfortable way, which is to say it unfolds in an unpredictable manner and not all readers are really going to cheer for how it shakes out. Unlike Dawn, which felt like it had room to continue but was complete in itself, Adulthood Rites has a much less self-contained feeling. It’s book two of a trilogy, though, so I can forgive it that. Put another way, there’s no scenario in which I won’t read book three. I’m all in with the series at this point.

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Goddess of Victory and Peace

John via Creative Commons

I watched the Hugo Awards and the attendant Puppies drama this year from more or less beginning to end without ever feeling the need to comment or engage. I have my opinions, I’m certain no one else cares about them. Mostly, it was pretty good as far as Internet Dramas go. Entertaining, you know? I follow genre awards primarily in the same way Little Leaguers follow the MLB. It’s aspirational, to a degree; maybe a little bit cautionary.

But, as the post-ceremony furor is fading, Eric Flint posts an essay about the divergence between awards and popularity. Whether I agree with his thesis, methods of analysis, or conclusion is beside the point. It was an interesting read in any case. But it lured me into reflective comment because, as a wannabe author in this space, it made me consider the real shape and form of my goals. The past four years have seen me driving (slowly but consistently) toward an end point. Considering that the previous twelve years were spent putting forth zero concerted effort (generously granting that post-college would have been the proper time to pursue my dreams, despite them being articulated aspirations as far back as 1990—21 years before I got my act together), that’s not insignificant.

However, that actual end point is a little more nebulous than I typically care to think about. There are plenty of ways to wave in the direction of a concrete goal. “I want to be a writer.” Or, “I want to be a published writer.” Or, “I want to make money by writing.” If you don’t stare too hard or add too many qualifying criteria to these nebulous statements, I have achieved all of them. But, honestly, to date that’s as far as my specificity has gone.

And I realized that pursuing dreams is all well and good but you have to put some effort into visualizing what success is going to look like. Otherwise, how will I know when I get there? But then, as I unpack this further, I realize there are steps along the way. In the short term I’d like to qualify for an Active Membership in SFWA (whether or not I actually choose to join) through short fiction sales. That means 10,000 words or more of professional-level pay (six cents a word) across at least three different story sales. Beyond that, getting an agent would be a significant milestone. But how do I really say, “dream achieved?”

Is it when I publish my first novel? When I reach the bestseller list? When I win my first major award? Eric Flint points out that popularity and acclaim don’t always go hand-in-hand, so it’s possible choosing one could mean having to live without the other.

I think the conventional wisdom is that awards are nice to have. Relying on them for a measure of success is, perhaps, a foolish yardstick. Luck is a factor, certainly. But then again, a case could be made that relying on measures of popularity like bestseller status is no good, either. Luck plays a part in that, too. And in both cases it might be chasing the dragon. I won a Nebula! But I’m Hugoless (I’m a failure). I’m on the bestseller list! But only at #25 (I’m a failure). It’s easy to think from my current humble position that anything even in the parking lot of these ballparks would be a triumph, but unless it’s clear where I’m trying to go, there will always be another pinnacle I haven’t reached.

It’s tempting to say, “I’ll keep my expectations low, thereby increasing my chances of success.” But that’s not really a dream, then, is it? It’s more of a to-do item. If I want to merely have a book published, I could quickly polish and self-pub one of my existing manuscripts. Bam. Achievement unlocked.

Upon reflection the distinction between goal, measure of success, and dream is the heart of this matter. The goals are the steps, often linear, necessary for progress. I can set a goal of selling three stories to pro markets. I can set a goal of securing an advance for a novel. And, with hard work, I can achieve those goals. It’s not “no problemo” level stuff, but it’s doable. What those are progressing toward is the measure of success. And that should be a big, hairy, audacious sort of end point. It’s almost indistinguishable from the dream. It might even be close enough. But it has to be within my power, more or less. The dream is the stuff that orbits around that point, the kind of thing I can’t really plan for or depend on to justify my efforts. The goals don’t directly feed the dream, even if they (maybe) enable opportunity for it to come true. Awards are the dream. I mean, yeah, a Hugo with my name on it? I don’t mind wasting some time idly fantasizing about such a thing.

But the thing that drives me, the measure I use to determine if I still need to set goals because I’m not yet where I want to be? That has nothing to do with recognition. That one is simple. I’ll be successful when I can support my family with my writing. That’s it. When I can quit my day job and focus full time on writing without any discernible drop in quality of life, that’s when I move out of achievement mode and into maintenance mode.

From that perspective, given Eric Flint’s theory that popularity—particularly, it seems, long-term popularity—does not track with award-based recognition, I’d rather be popular than acclaimed. I’d even be okay with not being mega-popular as long as I can be just popular enough to devote all my time to what I love. Sure, it would be lovely to have the critical and commercial crossover success (not to mention the multimedia influence) of a John Scalzi or a Neil Gaiman. But that’s dream country. I’ll take the mid-lister’s unsung 35-year career in a hot minute, no regrets.

I won’t get there without the goals. And I won’t accomplish those goals without writing. So for now, that’s what I’m doing. And compared to the guy from twelve years ago who dreamed without measure or goals or effort or any of it? I’m closer to success than ever.

Station Eleven
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it’s really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when life is stripped down to—essentially—bare survival. In that way, Station Eleven ends up being far more hopeful and beautiful than most novels that take place after or during civilization-ending catastrophes.

There are lots of overlapping elements in play, and it’s impressive to see it take shape. This is sort of the novel I read and realize it was something I wanted but never would have been able to describe or guess was an unscratched itch. It helps that Mandel realizes this ground has been trod before and doesn’t necessarily shy away from the obvious comparisons (The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, etc) and therefore isn’t defined by trying to either mimic or distance from those stories.

I did think the book was a bit slow to get started; the cast is connected by a series of loose coincidences and the book follows a non-linear path so at first it’s hard to reconcile the on-stage death of an actor, the photographer who gets wind of a breaking pandemic, the girl onstage during the heart attack who grows up into a traveling Shakespearean performer after the collapse of society, the actor’s second ex-wife who works endlessly on a personal graphic novel project—and so on—with, well, much of anything. But as the characters are filled in and revealed, as the events or happenstances both big and small that unite them and link them to each other become clear, the pacing starts to make sense. By the halfway point I was all the way into the world of the book, and scarcely put it down from that point until I had finished.

There is nothing, I don’t think, about the progression of the book’s plot that is particularly remarkable. If tracked chronologically, the chapters would tell snippets of stories from various viewpoints about life before, during, and after the end of the world as we know it. The way the book is structured though allows its themes to play off of each other, and allows for Mandel to specifically leave some elements here unresolved in a way that is actually—almost paradoxically—satisfying.

It’s a smart, thoughtful, curiously delightful book that has just the right elements of darkness and triumph and beauty and ugliness. Really wonderful work, and highly recommended.

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Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I finished The Handmaid’s Tale, I was impressed with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Having now finished Oryx And Crake, I’m falling in love with her storytelling.

To a certain extent, this is a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, wrapped in a similar framework of intersecting flashbacks all building toward the action set in the post of a post-apocalyptic (or post-dystopic in the case of Handmaid) world. Where Handmaid fretted about gender roles, Oryx fusses about environmental concerns and genetic/pharmaceutical research gone awry, but they’re really two means to the same end. They show a world not too distant from our own right before everything falls apart and then they show the aftermath. The effect in each case is deeply affecting and grim.

Where Oryx And Crake is, I think, a better book, is that the story is more compelling. The central mystery of how the pieces presented in the flashbacks come to result in the Robinson Crusoe-like existence depicted in the novel’s opening chapter is deepened by the conflicts that twist around each other like DNA backbone. The central characters of Snowman, Crake, and Oryx are all rich and fascinating. The way the whole thing converges into such a magnificent climax where all the pieces—past, present past, present future, and future—collide is like a master class on How It’s Done. It doesn’t feel forced that these three are pivotal to everything, it feels right.

Granted, as with Handmaid, the ending is abrupt to the point of absurdity. Unlike the earlier novel, Oryx has a couple of sequels so hopefully at some point there is a real resolution. But it’s not a complaint, it’s more like a promise.

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Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that’s where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.

So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it’s probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.

This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother’s attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.

The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero’s quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.

There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being “epic” (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don’t know that I finished it thinking, “I’d love a sequel to this.” But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back.

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Two Years Before the Mast

Don McCullough via Creative Commons

Today marks the second anniversary of my efforts to become a published writer. I suppose I might mark my progress based on when I began writing in earnest instead, but to be honest the specific date is hazy and anyway lost to memory. But I do know for sure when I sent out my first submission, and that was April 9, 2013. It pre-dates this site, even.

In the past 24 months, I’ve sent out over 200 submissions, totaling well over 800,000 words read by more than 120 different markets. I’ve received somewhere north of 150 rejections. My skin is tougher.

I’ve also received just over a dozen acceptances. Alas, at least one of those will never turn into a publication. But I’m slowly cobbling together a list of published work. I’ve made some money (not a lot! still, some) by selling these works. In the time I’ve spent submitting these stories, I’ve written over 250,000 additional words across a couple of novels and roughly 30 new short pieces. I think—I hope—I’m getting better.

I’ve made some wonderful friends along the way, made some mistakes, learned new things. To those who have read the stories, commented, critiqued, retweeted, signal boosted, even detested the work, I am deeply grateful. The writing would continue regardless, but the sharing of stories is what makes an idle pastime into a thrilling endeavor. Opening my imagination in a way that makes another person feel something, or think, or laugh, or just be entertained, that is the principal joy for me. I am honored and indebted to anyone who has taken time out of their lives to spend with my work.

Of course, nothing in these past two years would have been possible without the support of my family. They have all sacrificed in ways big and small for me to pursue this mad dream I sometimes wish could be discarded but cannot. My wife, who has endured my self-doubt, my existential whinging, my failed experiments, and who has cheered me on and celebrated each small triumph along the way. My children, who inspire me with their imagination and their love. They have all given generously; time, encouragement, understanding, sometimes welcome distraction. I am awash in good fortune.

Onward and upward.

A few things converged recently to get me thinking about physical spaces, in particular the spaces that we spend the most time in. The first is that I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up“, in which a Japanese tidying consultant suggests her method for getting rid of clutter in one’s home. The second was that I purchased a new eReader, and the third was that I had a series of home storage-based issues crop up during an extended period where I was away from work.
Bookshelf

David Orban via Creative Commons

The core of Kondo’s approach is to get rid of everything you own that you don’t absolutely love. She has some specific ideas about how one should go about this, but the idea is to drastically decrease one’s possessions so that what remains are things that are, in a manner of speaking, indispensable. Her criteria is that only those things that “spark joy” should be kept. I kind of like this idea, although as some critics have pointed out, it’s pretty tough to describe the feeling one gets for, say, a spatula as anything even in the neighborhood of joy. And yet, throwing out every spatula in the house might not be prudent no matter how much space it might save.
But I get the sentiment at the heart of Kondo’s regimen: all that stuff everyone has “just in case” or because it was a gift or because “what if…” is just crowding the things that are actually valued in our surroundings. The picture she paints of having a sparsely decorated and ornamented living space full of only things that facilitate simple joys is, to me anyway, very compelling.

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Princeton Groups, Diversity_2352

co Nyanda via Creative Commons

A couple of articles have cropped up in the last week or so, mostly stemming from this one about a person who didn’t read anything from white authors for a year. You can see similar themes being addressed with, for example, the #weneeddiversebooks campaign. K.T. Bradford issued a straight-up challenge to skip out on books by straight, white, male authors for twelve months. She even offers a reading list to get people started.

Then I see things like this misguided Business Insider article which tries to suggest seventeen SF books “every real sci-fi fan should read” and can’t even come up with one book by a female author. Plus, it includes Asimov twice.

I decided to do some datamining to understand how insular my own reading world may be. The results were perhaps predictable (in part because I read a lot of “mainstream” books), but disheartening. Of the 66 books I checked—and note that I omitted graphic novels and anthologies because of their multi-creator aspects—I came up with these numbers:

Orientation Cultural Background Gender
Straight: 39 White: 60 Male: 42
LGBT: 2 Non-White: 5 Female: 24
Unknown: 25 Unknown: 1 Unknown: 0

Now there is some margin of error there. I didn’t research very much so this was largely based on my existing knowledge of the authors. But I think the takeaway is pretty clear: there’s not a lot of diversity happening here. Particularly problematic is the extreme whiteness of the authors represented here, which is exactly the sort of thing #weneeddiversebooks and others are talking about.

So now that I know, I’ll be making a much more concerted effort to diversify my literature. I think for the remainder of the year I will eschew a book if it doesn’t fit into at least one of the non-white, non-straight, non-male categories above. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.