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Things I feel like reading and watching right now

Apparently, I thrive on anxiety, and the very real possibility of a globe-spanning illness has upended my to-be-read and to-be-watched lists.

And it’s not just me. The twitter-verse is filled with mentions of re-watching and re-reading old pandemic-themed fiction. What does it say about human nature that we are so drawn to the very things that scare us?

Horror has always been about confronting, exploring, and engaging with fear. It peels back the skin of a visceral reaction and looks at what makes it work — physically, emotionally, and socially. I would argue that the disaster/disease/apocalypse genre is similar. It explores how people (as individuals, communities, or society at large) react in adverse situations. It explores what happens when the rules and structures holding us together break down.

I’ve always enjoyed this kind of fiction from a purely anthropological point of view. What happens when society comes apart at the seams? This is the zombie genre through-and-through, and as I’ve said before, I stand by my argument that a good zombie story is never really about the zombies. Rather, a good zombie story is about what happens to humanity when everything we take for granted is stripped away. Pandemic and outbreak fiction often explores the exact same thing.

On a more immediate and personal level, I guess watching and reading these stories is one of the ways I process my own fears and worries.

So here are some of the things I feel like reading and watching right now:

Nothing can beat the first half of King’s The Stand for getting right to the heart of our pandemic fears.
Zombie fiction meets political thriller with a dose of hard science thrown in.
I haven’t read this yet, but the reviews are incredible (as is the number of agents asking for something similar on their Manuscript Wish Lists).
Would it damage my horror cred if I admitted I haven’t read this yet either? Now seems like the time.
Incredible. All I can say. Please read this book.
Intensely satisfying small-scale zombie fiction.
The reviews are painful, but I recall enjoying it as an uncritical teen. Will it hold up? Probably not, but I’ll re-watch it anyway.
This movie is an understated gem. We really enjoyed it.
I haven’t watched this one in years, and I hope it will hold up.
Little Person just re-watched this one a few weeks ago. Nice ensemble cast and non-linear story telling.

Books and Movies that bring All the Feels!

I don’t know about you, but I LOVE books and movies that make me cry.

Bring on the tears!

Smiles come easy, and I’ll chuckle at a well-placed pop-culture reference any day. Scares aren’t that hard either. Cue up the minor-key music, throw in some creepy camera work, and bingo. Add a jump scare, cheap as they are, and you’ve got me for sure.

But for a work of fiction to make you cry…that’s something else all together. That, I would argue, takes art. To make you cry, a work of fiction has to woo you first. It has to make you love the characters, or at least imagine yourself in their skins. You need to care about what happens to them and their world. Then it has to deliver its punch — the blow, the twist, the loss — in a way that makes you believe. It doesn’t need to be epic…in fact, attempts at epic often result in cheesiness galore. What it needs is to feel real, possible, and honest. On screen, that’s a magic combination of good script, good direction, and REALLY good acting. On the page, it’s everything…good pacing, good character building, believable dialog, and beautiful language. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…WOW.

Here, for your reading and viewing pleasure, is a list of the books and movies that have made me cry.

Movies:

  • The Little Princess (1995 Alfonso Cuaron version)
  • The Beach (2000 Russell Mulcahy version)
  • Dead Like Me – Pilot Episode
  • The Impossible (2012)
  • Gladiator (2000)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)
  • Odd Thomas (2014)
  • Schindler’s List (1993)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011)
  • Up (2009)
  • My Girl (1991)
  • Beaches (1988)

Books:

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
  • The Unfortunates by Kim Liggett
  • The Crow (Graphic Novel) James O’Barr
  • Maus (Graphic Novel) by Art Spiegelman
  • The Things they Left Behind (Short Story) by Stephen King
  • The Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson

I’m sure I’ve missed some, and I’m sure there are many more to see and read, so I look forward to tearful times to come.

A few must-watch Holiday Movies

Ah, it’s that time of year again…the season of holiday specials. Everyone has their favorites, from the classics like How the Grinch stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, to newer offerings, spin offs, and even holiday horror.

Holiday specials are family traditions, and as with most traditions, we sometimes lose track of WHY we watch them. We watch them not because they’re great movies (although some are) but because we just always have. We enjoy them not for themselves(or not solely for themselves) but because watching them is what we do at the holidays, and the very act of watching them makes us feel festive, or homey, or comforted. Even if we actually kinda hate the specials themselves.

Here are a few must-watch holiday movies that we don’t hate. Some we watch because we always have and some we watch because they ROCK, but it’s not the holidays in this house without at least one screening of the following:

Can’t beat the classics.
This is a lovely interpretation of Dylan Thomas’s prose, and given my grandfather was a coal miner in The Valleys, it speaks to my family on a personal note too.
Who doesn’t love How to Train your Dragon? This Dragons holiday special is sweet and funny.
Now Little Person is getting older, we can let her partake of some of the creepier holiday fare
If you haven’t watched this one, DO IT, DO IT NOW! An anthology of four short horror films tied together by an increasingly drunk radio host played by none other than William Shatner. How could you go wrong?
The newest addition to our holiday line-up, and an instant classic!
And last but definitely not least…the VERY BEST EVER version of the Christmas Carol. Not kidding…the extended version of this movie will make you ugly-cry in the 2nd act AND hide under a blanket in fear when the 3rd spirit shows up. Our Christmas-Eve go-to.

Whatever your traditions, I hope you have a great holiday season and a happy New Year!

Are Writing Targets Useful?

It’s time to talk about targets. I’ve seen a lot of conversations on twitter and writing blogs lately about writing targets. Many of us (including myself) joke about the days our targets seem out of reach. I’ve posted a long thread about this on twitter (with questionable success, I might add; I’m still trying to figure that platform out) but I thought I’d put it all together here in an easier-to-read format.

Missing writing targets can feel devastating for anyone, but I think it can be especially hard on new writers who are still finding their footing in the game. It can leave them feeling down, less-than-successful, or maybe even rethinking their writing aspirations. This is counterproductive, and NOT how targets should work, and I’m left with the question of whether or not writing targets are useful. The answer isn’t simple. It depends on how you use them.

When not writing, I’m a senior analyst for the Canadian Government. My job involves helping international development actors (think the UN and its various agencies and bodies) plan and manage projects, including setting and using targets to improve project performance. Long story short, I know a little bit about the subject. Without going down the rabbit hole, here’s some useful info:

  • Target: an estimated value or range of values for an indicator at a set point in the future
  • Indicators: a means of measuring actual results and outputs
  • Result: a describable or measurable change
  • Output: Direct products or services stemming from activities

Targets are a management tool, used to paint a picture of what success in achieving CHANGE will look like. Thing is, as writers, I think we sometimes get hung up on measuring the wrong things…or on measuring just one thing, and not seeing the whole picture.

I’m going to make two interconnected arguments, so bear with me here. The first argument will look at what we measure ,and the second will look at how to use targets effectively.

Argument 1: What we measure:

Writers don’t write (at least, I don’t) because we want to put words on the page. We write because we want to tell stories, and we want those stories to be shared and enjoyed by other people.

To put it another way, we want to see “Increased enjoyment among people who have read our work.”  This is a change, or result. To get to this, there are other changes we would need to see along the way: things like “More readers read our book/stories”, “Improved quality of our writing”, “Improved writing, plotting and character building skills”, “Increased networking ability”, and “Increased knowledge of (insert whatever topics you need to know to write your book well)”…etc. etc… You get the picture. Finally, there are the outputs we produce to make these changes happen, such as research conducted, conferences attended, books read, contacts made,and yes, words written.

Obviously, this is a ridiculous simplification of a theory of change, but I hope it goes to show that there is a lot more to being a writer than simply putting words on the page. Thus, when we measure and set targets ONLY for words written, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. Not only are we only measuring our outputs (and not the changes to which they contribute…a huge no-no in results-based project management) but we are only measuring one of the many outputs required to write a novel or short story. We do so much more. Think about your own process. Have you done research? Taken a writing course or attended a conference? Have you blogged, tweeted, or read current books in the genre? Studied pitching, or how to write a query? Read the whole Query Shark blog? (And if you haven’t, you should!) All this is useful work too, and it all counts.

Words written is just ONE of the many indicators that we can use to assess our progress as writers. An important one, yes, but only one. And if you are feeling down about meeting your target for that one indicator, maybe it’s time to look at the broader picture of the work you’ve done.

Argument 2: How to use targets effectively.

Like I said before, targets are a management tool. They should not be arbitrary. They need to be evidence based. If you do decide to set writing targets, make sure you are setting realistic ones. As much as I’ve just finished saying it’s only one of the many indicators possible, I’ll take “words written” as an illustrative example, simply because it is so commonly used.

The first step to setting targets is to be aware of context. Are you a full-time writer, or do you have a day job? Do you have other responsibilities? Do you have health constraints? What is your writing style? Do you edit as you go, or just get it all down and go back later? All of this plays a role in setting a realistic target.

The next step is to benchmark – in other words, do some research and see what others in the field with a similar context are doing. This will give you some evidence as to what is realistic. In “On Writing” Steven King says he likes to try for 10 pages, or 2000 words a day. Other authors have given their daily word counts as 600, 1000, or 3000. The average (among authors who write full time) seems to be around 2000.

Once you’ve determined context and conducted some benchmarking, you can set a (hopefully) realistic target and start writing.

Unfortunately, as we all know, life happens, and sometimes targets get missed. So what happens then?

When I see a report for a development project with a missed target, there are a few things I look for:

  • 1st, I want to see an analysis of WHY the target was missed.
  • 2nd, I want to know about corrective action taken during implementation, and
  • 3rd, I look to see if the implementer has put in place a plan to ensure it’s not missed again.

How does this apply to writing targets? It’s pretty much the same. Step one, figure out why you missed the target. Was there an emergency? Did someone get sick? Did something extraordinary come up that ate up your time? If it’s a one-off kind of occurrence, don’t sweat it. Chances are you’ll make up the lost ground on another day. Also consider that while you may have missed your target, you may also have prevented missing it by a larger margin through corrective action taken at the moment. For example, maybe you had an appointment, but you took your laptop with you to the doctors office and got some work done there.

In project management, we talk about something called the triple constraint. It refers to the relationship between results (or scope), time, and money. When one slips, it will impact the others.

For writers, we could make a new triple constraint: words written(SCOPE), time, and life.

When you realize that something is slipping, you need to decide which of the other two elements is most important to you, because one will likely have to be sacrificed. A simple example would be a budget cut to a project. The project manager would then need to figure out which was more important — TIME (which would require a pared-down version of the project) or SCOPE (which, with less money, would require more time to deliver).

For writing, we could look at the following example. Let’s say you usually write for four hours a day and produce 2000 words. Today, however, you feel a bit sick (LIFE is slipping). Is it more important to write for four hours (TIME), or to complete 2000 words (SCOPE)? Because you feel sick, the 2000 words may take a bit longer than usual. If you decide to prioritize words, you might have to work for six hours. If you decide to prioritize time, you may only produce 1000 words. Remember also that if you were to manage your writing like a project, you’d be using multiple indicators to assess success. If you force yourself to write for six hours to get 2000 words, but what you write is of such poor quality that you end up having to scrap most of it, it may not have been the best use of your resources. A better choice may have been to prioritize “life”, acknowledging that both time and words would slip that day, and put in place a plan to make up the difference when you feel better.

If, on the other hand, the reason you missed your target is not a one-off thing, you may need to take more dramatic corrective action; i.e. adjust your planned activities so as to meet your output (words per day) target. Do you need to write in a different place, or at a different time, to avoid distraction? Do you need to renegotiate chores with a partner or roommate to get the time you need? Add music, change clothes, repair computer, get away from internet? Figure it out and do it.

Once you’ve taken corrective action, keep writing and see if anything has changed. If you are now hitting your targets, great. If you are still consistently missing your targets, it’s time to go back and have a look at the target itself. Once again, targets are management tools. They are not meant to be punitive. If you are consistently missing a target and corrective action has not helped, it likely means that the target itself is unrealistic and needs to be adjusted to fit your circumstances.

Changing targets after thorough analysis and attempts at corrective action is not failure…it’s good management.

I’ll use myself as a quick example to wrap it all up.

I am a writer (as well as a long-distance runner, which comes with its own set of results and targets). For my writing output indicator, I’ve chosen “# of hours worked per day”, and set myself a target of 2-3 hours. How did I come to that target? Through analysis of my context, benchmarking, and evidence-based adjustment. I used to work full time and wrote in the evenings, which only allowed for 1.5 or 2 hours if I wanted to spend any time with my family (which I did!). For the last 1.5 years, however, I’ve been off work with a TBI. While this change in context means I have more time for writing, I also have new limitations like fatigue and frequent appointments. On a good day I can write for 6 hours, but on a bad day, I’m exhausted after one. After some trial, error (and adjustment), I’ve found that 2-3 hours is a realistic expectation for a “work-day” for me right now. In addition, I include blogging, research, networking, querying, and short-story writing etc. as “work”, so if I’m having trouble with my novels on a given day, I have the flexibility to do one of my other writing-related tasks and still be productive without guilt. If I have bunch of errands or social engagements, my fatigue ramps up and I need to take corrective action to ensure I meet my target. I try to get to bed earlier, take additional naps, and move my work-outs and runs around to allow for both sufficient rest, and sufficient writing time. If my symptoms are still acting up, I may adjust my target for a short period of time. I manage my writing to ensure long-term sustainability and success.

Long story short, when used correctly, targets can help you become a better writer. They help you define success, measure progress and enable you to better manage your work. But when used incorrectly or punitively, they can inspire guilt and feelings failure.

Writers, please don’t use targets to beat yourself up. Management of anything is meant to be flexible…that’s the whole point of it. If your targets aren’t’ working for you, figure out why. Take corrective action, and if all else fails, adjust, adjust, adjust!

A Very Incomplete List of Board Games for People who Don’t Like Long, Competitive Board Games

I love board games. I love table-top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons even more, but board games are a close second. But as I got older, I found myself hunting for excuses not to join into games with friends and family. Why didn’t I want to play anymore? What was wrong with me? I felt like I was at risk of losing my geek cred!

After a bit of thought, I realized the problem wasn’t with me, but with the types of games we were playing. The thing is, I like games, but I don’t really enjoy cut-throat competition. I’m the player who always cuts everyone some slack, skips good moves to give the newbie a break, and gets legitimately worried about playing bad cards on friends (I play them on my husband, instead).

Side-note: Have you ever noticed that? Play a game like Munchkin with a couple, and I will bet you cash money they’ll go nuclear on each other at some point during the game, dishing out traps, curses, and monster enhancer cards and cackling with glee as their partner is reduced to a quivering Level 0 fighter with no armor and a rusty fly swatter for a weapon. Why? Because usually that’s the safe option, and while I could go into an interesting tangent on Attachment Theory here, that’s not my point.

The point is, I realized I don’t really enjoy most competitive board games because, in my experience, the investment to reward ratio for most of them is WAY OFF. For example:

  • RISK: Hide in Australia for 4+ hours while Dan and his brothers pound the crud out of each other. Die horribly when the eventual victor remembers I exist.
  • Axis and Allies: More of the same…
  • Lord of the Rings RISK: Cower while Dan and Little Person pound the crud out of each other. Die horribly when the eventual victor remembers I exist.
  • Walking Dead RISK: Hide from the other players for about 4 turns before the entire board is overwhelmed with zombies outbreaks. Spend the rest of the game losing ground and hoping for a quick death.
  • Othello: Hours of strategy, resulting in someone winning, and someone feeling stupid. It literally doesn’t matter who wins, because there will be bad feelings regardless.
  • Go: See above
  • Chess: See above
  • Settlers of Catan: %&#$ these cards! I do not need more wood.
  • Monopoly: A long, inevitable slog towards bankruptcy and debt for everyone but that one friend…you know who you are…

But I DO like long, involved games with high stakes and emotional investment. So what was a geeky girl to do?

The solution, I realized, was two-fold. If we played a competitive game, it needed to be short, silly, and fun. If we played a long, high stakes game, it needed to be collaborative.

Thus, I present to you our current favorites in the form of A Very Incomplete List of Board Games for People who Don’t Like Long, Competitive Board Games:

Collaborative Games:

  • Zombicide: Black Plague (and all its various expansions)
  • Zombicide: Invader (and all its various expansions)
  • Arkham Horror (etc.)
  • Eldrich Horror
  • Pandemic Legacy Seasons 1 & 2
  • Pandemic Cthulhu
  • Zombies (collaborative house rules)
We’ve bought so many expansions…

Competitive Board Games I actually Like:

  • Munchkin (and most of its variations…)
  • Tokaido
  • Gold Mine
  • Robo Rally (Computer generated chaos and the hilarity of watching friends and family figure out their moves – does anyone else make little sound effects during the programming phase?)
  • Carcassonne
  • Zombies!!!
  • Small World (and Small World Underground)
  • Unstable Unicorns
  • Cards Against Humanity (NSFK)
It should come as no surprise that I have a favorite Munchkin game.
From Unstable Unicorns. So cute! So disturbing!

Winter Reading List (so many books to read) and a bonus recommendation.

One of my critique partners taught me a new word this summer. That word was Tsundoku. Japanese for (roughly) the pile(s) of unread books that build up around your house, it pretty much describes my life.

On the plus side, I love having a big to-read pile, because I feel lost and confused when I’m between books and don’t know what to read next. It’s an icky, unsettled feeling, and I don’t like it. On the down side, I also like my house to be zen-like in terms of clutter and cleanliness…which just doesn’t work when you have two cats, a husband and thirteen-year-old daughter who love Lego, and you yourself collect books as if it were the apocalypse and your life depended on building a wall of novels to hold back the zombie hordes.

Lots of shelving has provided a partial compromise in most of the house…but hasn’t done a thing for the literary Leaning Tower of Pisa accumulating on my bedside table. I guess I’ll just have to read some of them!

Here are a few of the titles I plan to jump into this season:

The Bone Mother by David Demchuk. I picked this up at CANCON after attending a panel called The Horrible Renaissance, where David, along with DongWon Song, Regina Hansen, and Christian Baines, spoke about recent trends in the horror genre.
Here there are Monsters, by Amelinda Bérubé . This was another CANCON purchase, made sweeter by having a chance to talk with Amelinda herself. I haven’t met many other women (let alone moms) who write creepy YA horror.
This was a total impulse buy. I was at Chapters to buy the book below for Little Person’s enriched novel study and got lured in by the back cover blurb.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. Let’s just say I am super happy with the direction Little Person’s English teacher is going with her enriched novel studies. For grade 7 she read Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (always one of my favorites) and Nation by Terry Pratchett (if you haven’t read this book, please please do), and this year she’s branching into the growing genre of Indigenous Horror. (For an interesting discussion of Indigenous Horror, check out Alicia Elliot’s great CBC article from Oct 17, 2019: https://www.cbc.ca/arts/the-rise-of-indigenous-horror-how-a-fictional-genre-is-confronting-a-monstrous-reality-1.5323428)
I am looking forward to reading this myself, once Little Person’s finished the related assignments.
Path of the Thunderbird by Sara Miller and Pat Toole. We purchased this while we were visiting the Grand Canyon – I wanted to read some Middle Grade fiction, and it was super-cool to find something with a setting and landmarks we knew.

Bonus Book Recommendation! It’s not fiction, but honestly, anyone who likes disaster movies will like this book.

Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers

We read this cover to cover while we were traveling, trail-running, and hiking our way around Arizona, and I highly recommend it for anyone who plans to visit the Grand Canyon. The main take-away? Most deaths in the canyon stem from avoidable human error; overconfidence, risk-taking, ignorance, and just plain stupidity. Long story short, you (or your guide/hiking partner/scout leader) are never as prepared as you think you are, and please, DON’T BE THAT PERSON.

This book provides the perfect marriage of intimate case-studies, statistical information, and analysis. The tone is easy and at times even humorous, without ever detracting from the seriousness of the often deadly incidents they recount. I was left alternately shaking my head, laughing, or fuming with rage at the sheer negligence that contributed to some of the deaths discussed.

Family Vacations…otherwise known as “Location scouting for your Work-in-Progress”

Dan, Little Person, and I like to run. We like to run so much that we routinely sign up for long-distance trail races like Sinister 7, Spartan Beasts and Ultra Beasts, and Ragnar Trail Relays. We did our first Ragnar Trail Relay in 2018 and loved it so much we immediately decided to do another. But I must admit that when Dan suggested we sign up for the Ragnar Relay in Phoenix Arizona for Nov 2019, my enthusiasm came with ulterior motives.

Here’s the whole family in our little square of the Ragnar Village. And yes, Little Person is little in name only…she’s a good 4-5 inches taller at this point!

I love canyons. Always have, and don’t know why. Maybe they appeal to the same part of me that loves the stark beauty of the Canadian Shield country I grew up in. Rock like that can be humbling in its age and its grandeur. Regardless, wherever we travel, I jump at the opportunity to explore whatever canyons we can find.

“Could we,” I asked, “tack on a week or so of vacation while we’re down there? Travel around a bit? Maybe visit…some canyons? I mean, we’d already be there, right? And it would be a shame not to take advantage of it, right? Little Person could learn so much about geology!” Needless to say he saw through my half-@$$ed justifications in a heartbeat. Luckily, he loves me (and my writing) enough not to care. And to say yes.

Because loving canyons wasn’t my only motivation this time. One of the novels I am currently querying (an apocalyptic modern fantasy with a fresh, female-driven twist on the zombie genre…which has succeeded, I might add, in making approx. 75% of my test readers cry) has a number of memorable settings, but the one closest to my heart is an unnamed canyon system in the American South-West (think southern Utah/northern Arizona). Twisting slot canyons, high, sheer cliffs, isolation, and the unending beauty of shifting light on stone. This trip, I realized, would be a chance to actually visit canyons like the ones I had written about in person, rather than just via google maps, pictures, and the loving words of other stories set in that landscape. Like heck I was going to miss that opportunity!

So we went, we ran, and we visited as many canyons as we could (including the Grand Canyon, which I loved, but found so big it felt impersonal, if that makes any sense). I was not disappointed, and while photos can hardly capture the beauty (or the palpitation-inducing anxiety of hiking down a 700ft cliff via a narrow, seldom-used trail), I’d like to share a few of my favorite images from the trip.

Back entrance to Upper Antelope Slot Canyon
Lower Antelope Slot Canyon
Canyon de Chelly
Monument Valley

Big News on the Short Story Front

I am pleased (read, really-really-really-super-happy-excited) to announce that two of my short horror stories will be appearing in upcoming anthologies.

I may have actually jumped up from my desk and done a little happy dance when I got the news.

My short story “House Spider”, inspired by a family get-together at an…interesting… cottage, will be appearing in the Thuggish Itch: Hospitality anthology from Gypsum Sound Tales.

My short story “BlueTooth” will be appearing in Guilty Pleasures and Other Dark Delights from Things in the Well Press. Submissions to this anthology were in the form of drabbles or double drabbles; an interesting writing challenge I thoroughly enjoyed.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a drabble is a short work of fiction of precisely one hundred words in length. A double drabble is exactly what it sounds like.

My absolutely professional response to all of this is: WOOT!