"Trust Fall!"

He sags backwards, boneless, so beautifully certain you will catch him before he hits the floor. And when he falls into your arms, it feels like fate; you are strong for catching him, he is brave for trusting you completely, how could the two of you not be together?
That’s the beauty of the trust fall. Someone you love going limp, allowing the universe to brutalize them, knowing that only you will interpose yourself between them and the the skull-splintering hardness of the cement floor.
And when it is done, you have been forced into a hug so intimate it feels like no other will do. His smile, so grateful. Your body, bearing weights you didn’t think possible.
You used to be helpless and weak. Now you are the rescuer.
How could this be anything but love?
You stay together, and still the trust falls continue. Aren’t you taking your medications? Trust fall. Shouldn’t you be looking for work? Trust fall. Where did you go last night, can you just tell me who you were with? Trust fall.
Every time they tumble backwards, blissful in the comfort of your catch, always so certain you’ll snatch them up before their staunch passivity smashes them into that cold, hard cement.
They keep falling backwards, and you come to realize: it’s not you they’re trusting, it’s the universe. You find them flopping into someone else’s arms, anyone’s arms, and realize the intimacy you thought belonged to you and you alone is just transactional. You lecture them on the need to stand up, to build their own strength, and –
Trust fall.
You catch them before they break themselves in hospitals, in the hands of angry police, in the hands of owed bankers. And you come to realize that what you’re doing is not strength, not really; it’s being held hostage by all your most protective instincts. You can’t bear to see anyone hurt, because you got destroyed so thoroughly by the malicious work of bastards and you have vowed inside you’ll never let anyone endure that again.
Yet you know there’s a difference. You got hurt because of what others did to you. He’s getting hurt because of what he’s doing to himself. And you make excuses, listing all the reasons he can’t help himself, but fall after fall he doesn’t take the slightest effort to better his own situation, he’s a crash-test dummy flung down a flight of stairs with you flinging yourself after him, and –
Trust fall.
Is it strength you have now? Would strength maybe, possibly, be walking away? You’re weakening now, missing work to help him, forever paying bills, losing the social support you desperately need because your friends can’t pretend he’s good for you any more. And even his gratitude at you catching him is thin, now – he yells at you for daring to ask anything of him that might make your life easier, he doesn’t have *time* for that bullshit, don’t you understand his life is –
Trust fall.
Every fall is in slow motion. You can see him tumbling down. You can practically hear his spine snapping as you imagine his head hitting the pavement. You have plenty of time to envision how horrible this will be if you don’t catch him.
He’s going to hurt himself badly. So badly.
You have so much time to walk away.

Authors! Four Rules To Read Your Story So People Buy Your Damn Book.

I have been lulled to sleep by many an author-friend.  I show up at their readings because they kept me up until two o’clock in the morning, laughing at their wild anecdotes, listening to their observations…
Then they start reading their story, and this vibrant personality becomes the world’s dullest newsreader, rattling off the words in monotone fury like they had a train to catch.
So this is the first rule of Reading A Story: The audience did not come to hear your story. They came to meet you.
Now, if you’re good at improvising in front of crowds, then you can do what Matthew Dicks did, and just turn your event into a meet-and-greet where you take questions from the audience.  But note that Matthew is a sixteen-time poetry-slam winner, so he’s a performer.  (Me?  I’m super-good in front of crowds because I emceed the Rocky Horror Picture Show for three years, which gives me the side-benefit of being super-comfortable in fishnets and high heels.)
Yet conventions usually won’t give an unknown author a slot on the schedule for “Author does random shit.”  It’s easier to sell them on “Give me an hour to read this story.”  And if you’re not comfortable in front of crowds, then having Something To Do is a good shield in case you don’t feel like vamping for an hour.  So reading a story is a good thing, for beginning authors.
So rule two: You are not reading them your story. You are telling them what you liked about your story.
“But didn’t you just tell me to read my story?” Yes, I did. But “reading your story” is not transcribing the words with your lips.
With every paragraph, you’re telling them why you kept this paragraph in the story.
Did you keep it in because it was exciting? Then read it like you were excited. Did you keep it in because it was snarky? Read it in a snarky tone of voice.  Is this the slow, lyrical section? Read it slow and lyrically.
(Or if you’re understated, be understated. My friend and fabulous author Kelly Link thinks she’s not good at reading, because she’s low-key. But her stories are dry and understated, just as she is often dry and understated, so when she reads it’s actually perfectly suited to her personality.)
Think about the reasons you loved this paragraph enough to keep it in, then find a way to convey that audially.
And note that you’re telling them what you liked about your story, which involves telling it in your way.  The audience came to get a sense of you, so don’t try to read your talelike some bad imitation of your favorite actor.  (Unless your personality is a bad imitation of your favorite actor – an embarrassing amount of my life is a terrible Bruce Campbell ripoff.)
If you’re snarky, be snarky in the way that you are when you’re bitching to your buddies.  If you’re reading dialogue, try to give it the rhythms that you have when you speak.  This is the Whitman’s Sampler of Who You Are, and people will be grateful to see that.
Which leads me to rule three: Slow down and give the audience time to process.
You know every word in this story. The audience doesn’t. In the excitement of the performance you may well barf out the entire tale in one breathless lung-emptier, but then nobody will know what happened.
If you read your entire story and nobody can tell, audially, where your paragraphs are, then you have not conveyed rhythm.
So slow down.  Speak about 30% slower than you think you need to (and about 50% louder).  When you have delivered a chunk of meaningful information, give the audience a second to process what that information means.
And don’t step on your own punchlines. When I first started reading, I was afraid of silence, so I’d read something funny and then fill that gap with more words before the audience realized I’d made a joke.  I’ve since come to realize that a joke is a gift you make to a crowd – and like any gift, you don’t give it and then walk away (or worse, give it and then eye them anxiously until they provide the obligatory squeeing). You hand them time to savor it, and hopefully they’ll laugh. Sometimes they won’t. Crowds differ.
I give the audience my punchlines like the sampler lady giving out little sausages at CostCo.  I put it out, give the audience a moment to recognize it’s there, let them pick up the funny if it’s to their taste. Some people don’t want it; that’s fine.  Move on.  But if they crowd in and start to laugh, let the laugh build until it’s done.
So how do I know all of these places to stop and swell?
Practice and time. Practice and time.
I read every story I write out loud at least twice.  That’s good advice for any author.  “Reading out loud” will pick out awkward phrasings in your story like you wouldn’t believe, and is usually my final step before story submission.
But before an author reading, I read my story out loud three more times, with a timer handy. Charlie Jane Anders gave me some great advice that a story can hold your audience for about fifteen minutes, and you should never go over twenty.  (I have gone past my time, and it’s gone well, but I like edgeplay.)  You should know precisely how long your story takes to read, which means you get to read about 2,000-2,500 words before you’re done.
(What if 2,500 words isn’t enough? Cut. I have stories I have slashed to ribbons to make them convention-readable, with black lines gashed through whole paragraphs. Or maybe start halfway through the story; better to have an exciting fifteen-minute reading with a two-minute explanatory introduction than it is to have a forty-minute reading that exhausts the audience’s attention span.)
And when you read it, that’s when you think about why you liked this paragraph.  Which each reading, figure out ways to emphasize that paragraph-love better, get at ease with the story so you’re not reading words, but instead channelling the essence of you that you put into this tale.  Each reading tells you the rhythm of this story – where you trip up so you need to slow down, where you realize this makes you sad so you need to speak as though it is a sad thing you’re discussing.
Is that a lot of work for a single reading?  Yes.  But it’s a lot better than boring an audience.  And knowing your precise run-time convenient for multiple-author readings, so you won’t step over someone else’s time and piss off another author.
(My reading from my novel Flex requires three minutes of explanatory setup, and eighteen minutes of very exciting magical drug-making.  A little over, but when you’ve got two characters trying to figure out how to condense dangerous magic into crystallized, snortable form, people are forgiving.)
You’re going to be nervous. Crowds do that. But you should not be nervous about translating your story into tongue-compressed waves of air, and reading it in advance burns off the nervousness of Can I do this? and changes it to the slightly-more-manageable Can I do this in front of all these people?
You damn well can. Good luck.

The Babadook

I have never before seen a horror movie where the monster was so tightly wound with the metaphor. But that’s The Babadook for you, a film that’s been getting a lot of hype, and which we finally saw on Netflix last night.
The Bababook actually established a rule for me in horror writing, which is this: we must care more for the characters than we fear the monster.   Because let’s be honest, anyone can create a scary monster.  Finding some unrelenting, physics-distorting, shadowy people-eater is what horror films do.
Yet The Babadook is, for its first third, not even about monsters. It’s about a mother raising a wretched six-year-old boy who has problems acting out. The kid is violent, building monster-hunting dart-throwers in the basement which he then brings to school and almost puts out a student’s eye. He screams and throws tantrums.  He does not, cannot, listen to reason when he gets overstimulated.  He is getting expelled from his school.
And yet the kid is not a monster. He’s a kid, reacting to stresses in his life, and his mother is oversensitive ever since the father died in a car crash.  Mother and son love each other, even when son has shoved mother relentlessly up against the limits of her coping.
Enter the monster.
The Babadook is both unrelentingly grim and yet strangely hopeful.  The Babadook who stalks them is, quite clearly, formed from the family’s internal stresses, and power dynamics keep changing as a result of the book being opened.  The horror wells out of a mother who, in fact, really doesn’t want to be a mother, who wants to say “fuck it all” and throw the kid into an asylum, and the monster preys upon those urges. The horror is not the monster itself, but rather what the monster honestly reveals about taking care of a kid with issues, and the things that happen when a woman is expected to be a perfect parent.
And yet… the ending is not what I expected. Horror movies are easy to write, by and large: everyone dies and all is horrible. And yet though there is horror aplenty come the end, and is not an ending I can quite categorize as happy, there’s a catharsis in The Babadook that grabbed all my deepest fears and told me that somehow, we could cope if the Babadook came to town.
I wouldn’t want it. But the Babadook wouldn’t show up if things were good. The monster isn’t the monster here, you see; it’s the amplification of all our other stresses, given form.   And in that, The Babadook is almost a perfect horror film.

"How Do You Characterize A City Properly?" Me On Podcasts, and Video!

So if you have yet to somehow notice by now, I have this fiction novel called Flex out. It’s on shelves now. But people keep asking me questions about it! So I answer them in cool ways.
I was on one of my favorite podcasts, the Functional Nerds, where I spent entirely too much time rhapsodizing about old-school videogames. But if you’ve wondered at how delicately I had to get the inspiration for Aliyah – a question some folks have been too kind to ask – I touch on that here as well.
And then I was on Angry Robot Live!, discussing urban fantasy in a Google Hangout with Alyc Helms and Tim Waggoner and Michael Underwood, all of whom had many interesting things to say.  You can watch the video here for an hour of me in my literal green-room, answering some really interesting questions on “How do you characterize a city properly?”:

And before you ask: Yes. I always put the hat on before every podcast, even if I shan’t be seen. For me, the hat is part of my Convention Ferrett outfit, the way I know I’m in “go mode,” so it helps with my inevitable anxiety of ZOMG I’LL SAY SOMETHING STUPID AND THE ENTIRE INTERNET WILL HATE ME.
As of yet, the entire Internet has yet to hate me. Only certain parts. Which means I’m doing my job, man.
Anyway, there’s two places you can hear me, if you’d like. I trust after this barrage of me-ness on podcasts, none of you will ever be surprised by the reediness of my real-life voice ever again.  OR SO I HOPE.
Oh, and Katy Lees is in Week Four of her Flex read-through, where she is up to chapter twenty and, in her words, “Shit gets real.” Katy has been live-Tweeting her reactions to the book, which has been fascinating for me to watch someone responding to words I wrote in real time, and I am more than a little sad that she finished the book yesterday.  I’ll be curious to see her sum-up of the book, but it’s been really fun seeing this social experiment, and I hope y’all are reading it.

The Tiger Expert

“So you’re a tiger expert.”
“Darn straight I am. I’ve been watching tigers on the Internet since I was a kid.”
“…on the Internet? Have you ever actually caught a tiger?”
“No, no. Not really. I’ve watched ’em. From a distance. They don’t actually come close to me, the tigers don’t seem to like me. But I know all about how they live!”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, you know, I’ve talked with all my other tiger expert friends. You know, the ones who also can’t catch tigers. We sit around staring at woods, bitching about how you can’t ever find a good tiger, not really, and we talk about what we think tigers are like.”
“But you’ve never raised a tiger.”
“Not as such, no. But we do have a lot of expertise in what tigers don’t like. We think. As I’ve said, we don’t actually get close to tigers, we just sort of stare at them on the Internet.”
“And yet… you consider yourself an expert in tigers.”
“Awful creatures, really. I keep wanting a tiger so goddamned badly, and yet they won’t come to me no matter how many M&Ms I leave out to entice them to eat from my hand, and so they must be very mean creatures, because they won’t accept a thing I give them. Which is ridiculous, because I have spent my self broke buying M&Ms and loud clattering pans and all the other things that tigers love.”
“Have you ever considered that maybe you really have no idea how to catch a tiger?”
“Of course not. I’m a tiger expert.”
That is, sadly, the problem I have with so many male misogynists. “Man, I hate bitches. They’re terrible, because I can’t get a date and that’s their fault. I’m doin’ everything I know the bitches like!”
And all this hatred wells up from the fact that they’re not getting laid using these derogative, shitty techniques taught to them by other idiots who also don’t get dates.
Dude. You’re hating someone because you’re too lazy to change up your goddamned game. Stop looking at porn on the internet and actually start trying to talk to actual women in different ways. Switch techniques. I’m not saying I’m much fonder of Pick-Up Artists, but jeez, at least they study the field.
Meanwhile, I hear guys ranting, sometimes directly to my damn face, at how awful women are because they don’t respect men by fucking them for all the reasons they’ve deemed should attract a woman. And I suggest that maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t the women, but the idea that you’ve inhaled all these toxic ideas about how women work without actually ever having talked to a woman, and you’d do better on the dating scene if you dropped this arrogant idea that someone owes you sex, and took up the idea that you need to bring something to the table that actually makes you desirable.
They don’t listen. They’re tiger experts.