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Making My Life and Rounding a Decade

This morning I woke up late, was finally coaxed out of bed, and returned to my cats with tea to spend the next couple hours reading a book without any particular urgency or guilt that I really ought to have been doing something else. While this was the first day in several I was able to spend in this excellent fashion, it was possible, which is a remarkable indicator of my success this year: to be able to be happy being.

Strap in, friends; this is a long one.

In past years, my annual year-in-reflection birthday post (yes, I know it’s December, life happens and I’m not fretting about it) has often been a way of discovering for myself the pattern of my efforts and accomplishments. This year, I knew ages ago what I’d be writing about, which is this:

Sustainability.

After an incredibly rough year culminating in a deeply upsetting outcome, this year I decided I needed to adjust my course. I’ve been pushing as hard as I could for years, learning how to prioritize writing for myself, how far I can push myself.

It’s far.

And I crashed and burned out, hard.

Because what I hadn’t established for myself was stability. I didn’t have a job I could foresee myself still working at happily, or sufficiently lucratively, five years down the road if a publishing contract never comes about. I could prioritize writing, but I’d also learned to de-prioritize myself. Financially, emotionally, logistically—I needed to shift my goals for myself to be less dependent on what is ultimately outside of my control.

I made myself take a step back, which was a feat in and of itself. I thought about what kind of life I want, and I worked on building some structures into it and slowly settling into them.

Stories are absolutely part of the life I want, will always be, but taking a step back in terms of writing means that I only fully wrote and edited one novel and one novella this year. That only had me feeling unproductive, even though there are countless professional writers who don’t manage a single book in a year—or perhaps insufficiently ambitious, because I can do another full novel plus revisions on top of that in a year if I choose to. This year I deliberately did not.

And I’m proud of the work I did. I got to work on some secret projects I’m excited about. I love my weird shounen anime-style but with women (tournaments! friendship! magic swords!) novella. Tea Set and Match is the first sequel I’ve ever written, which was its own education and journey, and I’m happy with where I landed. Tea Princess Chronicles resonates more strongly with people than I ever imagined, and readers’ responses to it have heartened me in turn. (I am still not quite over the shock that people want to give me money for my fiction, particularly fiction I give away for free. It flabbergasts me every time.)

(As an aside, if you want to support artists: tell other people about their work, buy their work, and tell the artist their work mattered to you. Those three things get us through.)

Stories are also now part of how I make my living, which has long been a goal, and now it’s taking another form. I’m going to keep writing, and I’m also now a professional indie bookseller, which combines a lot of my project management skills as well as a long history of shouting at people about which books they should buy!

On another axis, bookselling has given me an avenue to build a form of activism into my daily habits, working on change on a local scale. I don’t have the time or money for many other forms of activism that matter, but engaging day by day and face-to-face within my community is something I’m prepared and satisfied to be practicing. I look forward to taking that even farther as I grow into this work.

Working at a bookstore has been a dream of mine for years, and now it’s work not instead of but in addition to writing that I actually care about and can sustain me. That’s huge.

Adventure and friendship are also hugely important to the person I want to be. This year I ventured off to Tibet with a friend, a trip I haven’t written about much because it’s difficult to convey how surreal it was. It truly was an adventure, in both the positive and negative connotations that word can imply—in the sounds and silences, in the visible history, in how we use and are used by our bodies. But it was also an exercise in traveling in a way that still felt like an adventure without going at a pace that made me unhappy, with support in place to address the unexpected—and friendship that is uplifting rather than pressuring.

And after what seems like forever of living where I do, I finally begin to feel like I have a core of close friends. The kind who go out for ice cream when you’re bored or sad or just very enthusiastic about ice cream, answer calls at weird hours and talk about everything, and share otter pictures and watch ridiculous movies; the kind who are there for the fun and the hard.

I also got engaged, which is its own kind of adventure! There’s the adventure of wedding planning, of course, but I really mean the adventure of deciding you want to build a life with another person and actively setting about entwining your lives together structurally, in figuring out the life you envision for yourselves and working to make it reality. This was a step a long time coming, and I am glad to have finally made the choice to go down this path.

I also turned 30, which seems like it ought to have been a bigger deal than it was. I went out of my way to make sure I celebrated thoroughly, but I think the most notable thing about embarking on a new decade is that I don’t feel any stress about it.

I had a great year.

I expect even better to come.

And I’m going to go and make that happen for myself.

For those keeping track of my flying adventures, this year I flew on a hot air balloon, accompanied by my fiancée. A less dangerous flight for me than some—given, in succession, skydiving, flying trapeze, indoor skydiving, ziplining in Thailand, and paragliding (…okay now that I’ve located 5 years’s worth of posts on this website I do feel a little old)—but one I could share with the most important person in my life.

I’m not giving up on flying adventures, but for my 30s I’ve decided to change the annual adventure requirements:

Every year, I want to go somewhere new.

And I started that this year, too: with Tibet, and again on the actual day of my birthday with a tea party to visit friends in Victoria. Sustainable adventure and connections, in concept and action.

So I’m still busy and sometimes overwhelmed. I always will be, because I am too ambitious to ever truly rest, and I will never, ever stop pushing myself to be more. But I’m learning to adjust my goals and expectations, plans and efforts accordingly.

I’m learning to have the life full of stories, adventure, impact, and connection that I want—sustainably, all at once, because I am also too ambitious to settle for less.

Ready for a new year and decade an adventures,
Casey

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Thanks, Goku

I am having Actual Feelings about Goku’s appearance in the Macy’s Parade and what it means.

For one, it’s that we now live in a world where Goku can appear in an event of this profile in the US. As a nerd who stereotypically grew up largely isolated among people who disdained anime, I can’t deny there’s an element of vindication in this—but also wonder, that this is now where we are today. It’s not exactly a surprise to me anymore that there are other people who grew up on Dragon Ball Z, but this is a different level of recognition of cultural significance.

But it’s also waking up Thanksgiving morning to all of the reactions (I’m on the west coast) to Goku flying above us. I don’t just mean the many in-jokes, although those are absolutely giving me life today. I mean the unabashed enthusiasm people are publicly expressing, the wonder we’re all sharing, at seeing an actual giant Goku flying through our streets.

Not mockery, but earnest delight. It is, for one, Americans rallying behind a non-white illegal immigrant refugee and alien character literally and figuratively from another world as our hero.

And what’s really getting me in the feelings today is that this is also about who Goku is as a hero specifically: no matter how old he gets, how often he literally has to sacrifice his life, or how often people around him fail, Goku as a hero is not cynical or grizzled.

He always delights in silliness. He is endlessly hopeful. He dares to dream and gather his wishes into reality. He never stops working toward what matters. He never shies away from the impossible but instead takes it as a challenge to make it possible. He enthusiastically welcomes new friends and celebrates their victories, no matter the scale. He always believes in people, and in the power of ordinary people—because to Goku, nothing and no one is ever ordinary.

That’s who we’re celebrating as our hero today, and it’s a reminder I will hold with me. This Thanksgiving, I am 100% Team #ThanksGoku.

And with that, I’m off to prepare enough food for a Saiyan, a tradition I think Goku would heartily approve of.

grateful to these cats who never cede the paw ground

Empowering Ourselves to Change Worlds

For Part Two of my set about making choices to effect change, I want to talk about the power we already have in our daily lives to empower others. I know more people than ever committing and taking steps to changing the political reality we’re all living in, from organizing protests to donating towards important causes. Which is fantastic.

But there are everyday steps I think it’s important to take in our communities, too. Because when enough individuals change, we can change culture. Small changes can grow.

(Tangentially, this is also why I believe creating art is one of the most important kinds of work a person can do, but that’s a post for another day.)

What this looks like in practice is different for everyone, depending on industry, home situation, etc. Some people have to focus on surviving their environments, and that, too, is resistance. But for those of us for whom it’s safe to do more, I believe it’s important to take up the burden of that work in whatever way we can. I don’t just mean confronting oppression when we witness it, though that’s critical as well. I mean building into our own lives sustainable acts that can go a long way.

In my day job as an indie bookseller, I find there are lots of moments day-to-day where I make small choices that can ripple outwards.

When a man makes a joke about being embarrassed to read romance novels, I can push back on the idea that enjoying a genre devoted to centering women’s desires is something to be ashamed of.

When facing out books on the shelves that will draw customer attention, I can make sure the excellent books we face out are not dominantly by straight white men, and I can choose not to promote books by known misogynist and racist writers.

When organizing book clubs, I can make a point of choosing work by women of color, who systemically enjoy far less support and promotion than other demographics in publishing.

When parents ask for children’s book recommendations, I can recommend books by and about girls—especially girls who aren’t white—not just for the girls who need to see themselves represented on the page in stories, but for the boys who need to see them represented, too.

These are all choices I can make easily and regularly, and many of them don’t take much time.

But they do take awareness and deliberation.

As readers, we can make choices that matter just by looking at the kinds of books we read by default. Because the systems are stacked and often opaque, lots of people are startled to find what percentages of stories they’re reading by straight white men in comparison to the demographics of their lived reality.

We can make the choice to actively seek out work by women, people of color, and queer folk. We can recommend those books to our friends and communities, and we can make a point of including authors that aren’t all straight white men in our best-of lists. (Just in the last weekend I’ve had occasions to talk publicly about Mirage by Somaiya Daud, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, and a diverse list of folklore retellings I put together for Sirens two years ago!)

Boosting those authors and works helps change the publishing industry, and diversifying our reading helps change us.

Empathy is learned. It takes thought to undo societal conditioning. But we can do it if we try, and it doesn’t have to take heroic effort to make choices that matter.

A ripple can grow into a wave.

Let’s start poking our waters.

cats committed to contributing ridiculousness into the world every day

Sirens and Voice

The other night Sirens Conference co-founder Amy Tenbrink called me out on Twitter (my weakness is dance music playlists, the trashier the better, now you all know), and obviously I picked up that gauntlet because of course I did.

For every $50 donated to the Sirens scholarship fund that night, I gave one suggestion for a panel not solely consisting of writers as the panelists (aka interdisciplinary panels), because this is important to me.

One of my favorite parts about Sirens is that any attendee can propose programming, and they have no better shot at getting in than anyone else. The vetting board is independent of the conference staff, and all they care about is your proposal.

(Really. I promise. I did my first programming back in 2011 without a credential to my name, and the first time I wanted to do a panel the programming staff helped me figure it out. If you want to participate in Sirens programming but need some backup, EMAIL THEM.)

And that matters. It matters that there is no box anyone has to check to be allowed a platform to speak and share their thoughts.

Because one of my other favorite parts of Sirens is that it’s not a writers conference.

Once more, because it’s super important: SIRENS IS NOT A WRITERS CONFERENCE.

Yes, there are writers there, and that’s great. But what’s also great is that there are readers, academics, publicists, librarians, editors, booksellers, and, oh, did I mention readers? Because the one thing we ALL have in common is that we read fantasy, and we’re passionate about the remarkable work of women in the genre.

One of the ways Sirens demonstrates its commitment to lifting up everyone’s voices, to making sure Sirens is a place where anyone can participate in practice and not just in theory, is by offering several scholarships. Right now, they’re down to the wire to finish meeting this year’s goal.

I think somehow people have gotten the sense that only writers can be on panels, and nothing could be further from the truth. But to have non-writers on panels, attendees need to submit proposals for those panels–and they need to be able to attend.

If you can donate to the scholarship fund, I hope you’ll consider it.

And if you’re going to Sirens this year, I hope you’ll consider submitting programming, which opens soon. To help get you going, here are my panel suggestions from the other night, and all of them are free for the taking.

(Sorry friends I am The Worst at snappy titles.)

 

  1. The Role of Reviews

What are reviews for? What are readers looking for in a review–help choosing a book, or critique to consider it more thoughtfully? How can reviews help or hurt marginalized communities? How does the publishing side use reviews? Are there right/wrong approaches?

I think the Sirens community could have a field day unpacking the challenges/opportunities of reviews. A panel like this could easily include readers, reviewers, librarians/booksellers, publicists, editors, writers, etc.

 

  1. Female Friendships in Fantasy

Let’s talk not just about our favorite female friendships, but what makes them work, and why women having non-toxic and complex relationships on the page, being excellent separate from men, is important.

Why does it matter to see female friendships in fantasy–for readers in today’s world, and in the context of the fantasy genre? What kinds of friendships do you want to see, and have there been shifts? What are common pitfalls? WHERE ARE THE GIRL GANGS. Come on, Sirens! =D

 

  1. Women’s Clothing in Fantasy

First off, there had BETTER be cosplayers on this panel, and also historians, AND I KNOW SIRENS HAS A PLETHORA OF BOTH AMONG ITS ATTENDEES I SEE YOU.

How is clothing in fantasy used to restrain or free female characters? Are dresses and corsets really swordplay prevention (SPOILERS THEY ARE NOT–so what else does fantasy commonly miss?). How does it reinforce values of femininity or its rejection (can we talk about transformation sequences?!)?

 

  1. Plot-bearing women over the age of 30 in fantasy novels: where are they?

And by that I mean, not just side characters, but women well into adulthood who actually shape the course of the story.

Where are the mothers? Where the successful career women? The badass old ladies who aren’t just generic stock crones (though I do love a cantankerous witch)? (None of these are mutually exclusive!) Why is it so important to have them on the page (and not just as villains!)?

And I’d LOVE to see some of our older readers at Sirens on this one. I want to hear their perspectives on these characters–what’s done well, what’s missing–as well as on how the fantasy genre has evolved on this point, if at all.

 

  1. Women’s Work in Fantasy

I want to see historians on this panel, but also knitters and bakers and seamstresses, programmers and chemists and engineers.

How does fantasy privilege traditionally masculine-coded disciplines (like physical combat) over feminine-coded ones (homemaking, textile work, gardening, etc.), and why does this matter? What stories are we missing? How can this work tie into magic, tech, economics, intrigue?

 

Let’s do this, Sirens. ❤

The Choice to Fly

I love flying. And this year, I went paragliding.

 

photo by Drew McNabb from Acroparagliding

Starting my annual birthday flying adventures is the best tradition I’ve established for myself. It’s a chance for me to step outside my day-to-day, to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and who I want to be and whether I’m on that path.

This year was hard, for a lot of reasons, and I have been pushing hard. On the writing front, I wrote another book’s worth of words in the course of revisions, and I have revised more–both in thoroughness and in quantity of time spent–this year than I’ve revised in my life. And amidst everything else, I wrote a new book (which you can read for free!), which was a new kind of challenge and adventure. But I’ve gotten so caught up in the minutiae of that daily work that I was desperately ready to fly.

For my birthday flying adventures, I’ve been skydiving, flown on trapezes, sped through the air on ziplines. There are spectacular views to be seen this way, but it’s ultimately not the external perspective I value. It’s the act of flying itself that I love, that I can never get enough of.

When I’m in the air, I don’t feel adrenaline rushes from fear or even thrill. It’s a quieter feeling, but it centers me: flying, I know who I am. I know what I can do, and what I will do.

Every time, I wonder if it will be hard to jump. This year, I wondered if I’d feel nervous running off the hill with so much air below me. I’m familiar with that feeling, standing at the edge of a cliff and making myself jump, and I was prepared to do it, to prove to myself that I could. But there was no doubt, no fear; just launching into the sky.

This year, though, something else struck me. Throughout the trip–doing the paperwork, riding the van up the mountain, strapping in amidst endless jokes to test whether I was going to panic (they, clearly, had not met me)–people kept asking, with some confusion, some disbelief, “you’re here alone?”

Like it was so rare not to need people to come along for moral support, or to witness me. Like I really was there just to fly.

And when I responded affirmatively, they just said, “Good for you.”

Good for me, for taking steps to pursue my own path. Good for me, for knowing when I am enough, for being enough, by myself.

But even though I came alone, I came to a community. People who joked, knew each other’s hopes and struggles, looked out for each other, expected the best. A community of people who have learned to carve a regular space for adventure into their everyday lives, as though flying above mountains is a normal part of everyday lives.

Because it can be.

And the other consistent refrain throughout the trip was when people asked me what I did, and I said I was a writer, and they all marveled.

At first I thought they were impressed by my ability to make ends meet as a writer, but after a couple interactions I realized they hadn’t considered that the challenging part. It was the fact that I write, and I write novels, and multiple, and fantasy, facts I always take as a matter of course, that was what wowed them.

Writing has become such an integral part of my everyday that I sometimes forget what an adventure it is, to pour my time and energy and thoughts and passion into creating stories with words, to throw myself off the cliff over and over and trust that I will fly.

When I fly, I remember I’m an adventurer.

photo by Jenny Scott

Critique and Target Audiences

I spent last weekend at Cascade Writers Workshop and had a blast. Thank you again to my critique group for being awesome and insightful. I have a solid idea of where to start editing not just in this section, but the broad strokes to keep in mind all through the novel and in other projects.

I love critiquing and reviewing, though the one should not be confused with the other. In critiquing, my goal is to help the author identify how they can edit to match their writing with the story they want to tell. Note, that is not the same as telling the author what they should or must do, nor is it fixing the story for them, nor is it recommending ways to change the story to one that I would like better.

In reviewing, my goal (and this differs greatly among reviewers) is to help readers find books they will like by promoting the novels, the particular aspects that worked for me or didn’t, and why. This is also not the same as writing what I think the author should have done or be doing with their story: it’s what works for me, and why.

That why is the critical bit. That’s what tells me what needs to change and how, if at all. For instance, if you don’t like the protagonist because they’re clearly a bad person, well, if that’s what the story needs I’m not going to change it. If you don’t like the protagonist because you don’t understand their motivations or stakes and thus don’t care about their character arc, that’s something I need to address.

In receiving feedback, it’s important for me to get multiple points of view, because often two people will totally disagree with each other’s assessments. If multiple people are pointing out problems in the same area, even if their “why”s are different, I know where to look for the bit that isn’t working properly.

For me, the very best kind of critique is when the reader is able to understand what I’m trying to do (without any direction from me outside of the text) and can tell me whether it worked. If they say, I see what you’re going for, but it’s not quite there, because of x reason, that is THE MOST HELPFUL THING. This is why I usually request feedback from fellow writers, to help me identify the “why”s when something is off with the craft.

My second-favorite kind of critique is from people who are not my target audience.

I get the impression that’s not common? And I understand that there are some forms of feedback that I’ll take with grains of salt from, for instance, non-genre readers, because it may be a trope or tone issue throwing them out that’s totally fine. But it might also be something that I haven’t explained sufficiently. It might be a world-building issue or plot hole that a genre reader will gloss over but that causes the non-genre reader to cease suspension of disbelief.

Target audience, though, can be complicated, because it goes beyond subgenre. In fact, writing with a group of other reviewers at Fantasy Book Critic has been an object lesson in target audiences for me. My reading tastes overlap with several of our reviewers: a few of us will often read the same epic and high fantasy, or the same urban fantasy, or the same YA books, even if our thoughts aren’t all posted on the site.

And yet the three of us can read the same book, write a joint review, and have COMPLETELY different opinions on why it worked or didn’t.

(This has actually come to be a recommendation marker for me: if two of us actually agree on a book, I tend to trust that assessment, because it’s very much not the default. Mihir and Liviu’s joint review got me to pick up The Thousand Names, for instance.)

Just because we’re readers of the same subgenre doesn’t mean we’re looking for the same things in our stories. Target audience is more complicated than whether someone wants or hates vampires in their stories. It’s about the kind of story and how it’s told.

It’s also why I think it’s important in reviewing to isolate that I’m talking about “why”s, because even within the genre reader tastes vary. Huge amounts of expository detail, for instance, are not my thing. There are only so many trees and hills you can describe before my eyes glaze over (I’m looking at you, Tolkien).

Some readers LIVE for that sort of detail, and that’s fabulous for them! But when I write my review, I will mention that for me it slowed pacing down, but I won’t call it a bad book, or say that the author doesn’t know how to write exposition. I don’t think my role is to judge; it’s to analyze and isolate parts that will help readers decide whether a book is a good fit.

And in critique, I will point out concerns, issues to consider, places that don’t work for me, and why, so the author can judge for themselves how much weight to assign to any piece of feedback. Awareness, for me, is the key. Maybe the author is dead, but their stories are alive in the hearts and minds of readers.

They’re different animals, reviewing and critiquing, but I love them both and I hope people find my feedback helpful. It makes me appreciate even more when people are willing to take the time to consider artistic work carefully and thoroughly, because I think it helps us all as a community to push ourselves to be better, to expect better. And especially, thank you again to all who have critiqued or given me beta feedback. You’re the best =).

The Rising Wall

I mentioned this project called The Rising Wall briefly a month or so ago, and it’s finally kicked off. This is one of those projects that makes me love fan community and the possibilities opened by current technology.

If you are familiar with Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, you’re aware of the Wall. I wasn’t — this series is still on my to-read list — so for those of you who aren’t: in this series, the zombie apocalypse happens in the summer of 2014 (now) and is known afterwards as the Rising. People don’t know or believe what’s happening, and traditional news media outlets utterly fail at reporting the truth; it’s bloggers that step up and start sharing information on what’s going on and how to survive. The survivors later collect the names of those bloggers to commemorate them on the Wall: these are the people that risked themselves to help them survive.

With the author’s blessing, fans and friends in the community are creating a fictional Wall as a “collaborative transmedia fan project.” There are tweets, music compositions, blog posts, all kinds of things. It’s such a cool idea, and I love it.

Katie Hoffman, the mastermind behind this project, has a great Zombies 101 summary for anyone who wants to play but isn’t familiar with the canon. Even if you’re not into the series, I’d highly recommend checking the Tumblr out just to see what people are doing with this kind of project.

I had a lot of fun writing a four-part blog series from the POV of a college student abroad in Japan when the Rising starts. Panic and betrayal, flamethrowers and cosplay, good times. All four parts are posted if you want to check it out!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4