Category Archives: Writing

Spies, mysteries and gender: this week’s reading

AN ACT OF VILLAINY: An Amory Ames Mystery by Ashley Weaver, is a decent retro mystery with a 1930s English sleuthing couple (though their marriage is less stable than detecting couples were at the time), poison-pen letters, plenty of suspects for the murder of a talented actress (a jealous understudy? A cheated-on wife?) and everyone gathered together for the big reveal. I enjoyed this, though the reveal the killer is insane comes out of nowhere — that’s the kind of explanation that needs some groundwork. While this didn’t have as much period detail as I was expecting, I give Weaver points for having all the characters act appropriately formal — Amory’s husband still refers to his mother-in-law as “Mrs,” for instance.

A DELICATE TRUTH by John Le Carré starts with a terrorist operation you just know is going to go terribly wrong (it involves an ambitious British politician working with a private Blackwater-type group), then focuses in on the minister’s private secretary, Toby. He knows something nasty has gone down and begins investigating, but that of course proves an extremely dangerous choice … I’m sympathetic to Le Carré’s scathing view of counter-terrorism and the way botched operations and innocent deaths rarely bring down any punishment. But by the same token, it’s hard for me to buy that the big reveal (innocent woman and child killed!) would actually be a career-ender for anyone. And in many ways, this felt more like a stock spy movie script (Toby struggling to get the truth out reminded me of Three Days of the Condor) than Le Carré’s best work.

YOU THROW LIKE A GIRL: The Blind Spot of Masculinity by former NFL star Don McPherson argues that society needs to throw a sharper light on men’s behavior (“We ask why an abused woman stays in a relationship — but never why the man stays.”) and find positive role models rather than just focusing on what not to do. While much of this is familiar to me, McPherson makes some sharp points, such as the difference between chivalrously protecting women and supporting and helping women.

GOOD AND MAD: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister looks at both the power for change that women’s anger can fuel change (it prompted a lot of women to run for office in 2018) and the way society has portrayed female rage as something they should be ashamed of, particularly when it’s directed at men.

Traister, who’s done a lot of reporting on sexual harassment (and has some eye-raising Harvey Weinstein accounts) does her sharpest writing on that topic. She points out, as others have done, that the issue isn’t sex but the damage to women’s professional lives (half of the women who experience harassment start looking for a new job within two years). And that contrary to anti-metoo writers, the issue is not weak women terrified of sex (as Katie Roiphe pretends) but “women in 2017 who had briefly believed they were equal to their male peers but had just been reminded they were not. [They were] women who had suddenly had their comparative powerlessness, their essential inequality, revealed to them.”

And that, she adds, is why even groping and leering comments that don’t rise to the level of Harvey Weinstein-class predation still deserve to be punished: they’re “professional harm and power abuse” and that needs to end.

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In the face of all odds, I struggled on … or something like that

This week got messy. Not as bad as October, but I did start feeling like Spider-Man on this classic Steve Ditko cover.

Monday, Trixie started having her tummy troubles again, where she’s in obvious discomfort and won’t eat anything (it’s a semi-regular thing). We made an appointment for the afternoon and I decided that when she moped off to hide in the corners I’d just steel my heart, ignore it and get to writing.

Only unlike previous incidents, Trixie didn’t hide as much. Mostly she came over and begged for petting, which of course I couldn’t help providing. So my work slowed to a crawl.

Worse, getting her drug injections at the vet didn’t help. She was just as miserable Tuesday so I had another day of distraction, another vet appointment (as did TYG, who had to break off work to come home).  I didn’t even make writer’s group. Partly that was because it had been a rainy day and it looked to get cold enough the roads might ice over (I don’t drive on ice unless it’s absolutely necessary). But I doubt I’d have had much fun if I did go.

Wednesday, thank goodness, Trixie was back to her old self. Thursday, we took her in for an ultrasound to see if the vet could find an underlying cause (they suspected pancreatitis). Nothing. Nor did the bloodwork show any signs. We’ve switched her to a more easy-digestible food, and we’re going to try and watch in case she’s eating something harmful (she likes to eat dirt. Who knows what’s in it?). Oh, and they had to shave her to make the ultrasound, which looks weird. Hopefully if nothing else, we can make sure the time between these attacks is long.

We do have pills she can take for the discomfort but it’s very difficult getting a dog that doesn’t want to eat to take a pill. I managed it, but it took a lot of work. Next time we’ll pop it in the first time we suspect a recurrence — hopefully it’ll solve things before it gets bad.

And of course, I didn’t sleep very well with Trixie in distress.

Astonishingly, I did get some writing done. I rewrote most of Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates but I couldn’t quite figure out how to revise the finish (it’s way too expository right now). And I began working through the bookmarked references for Sexist Myths — but damn, there’s a lot of them. I know I probably won’t use all of them (there are only so many examples I need to make my point) but I’m not sure which are dispensable yet. And I submitted three short stories, though one’s already back.

I did some Leaf articles and wrote a sample article for the Bakova Gallery in Hillsborough, whose owners I met with last week. If they like it, writing for them will become a regular gig — not as lucrative as the Leaf, but it’ll be lucrative enough. And I’m pleased that even with all the distractions, I’m much more efficient than when I was writing for Raleigh Public Record a few years ago.

But I’m glad the weekend’s here.

#SFWApro. Trixie photo is mine; all rights to cover remain with current holder.

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How could you hate my protagonist? She’s so awesome!

An article on Jezebel argues that the characters movies present to us as obnoxious women are often the good guys: they’re mature and they’re dissing the hero for perfectly good reasons (The Mary Sue discusses this in relation to Breaking Bad and the narrower range of options for women to be non-nice without the audience hating them). An article elsewhere some years back made the same point about Rachel on Friends. She’s presented as a a spoiled princess out on her own, but if she stuck with Monica — an overweight, very uncool kid in her teens — there has to be more to it than that.

Having readers or viewers like characters who are supposed to be obnoxious villains is a problem for writers, though I think I see it more the other way around — characters the writers think are great and I or others find insufferable. There are a number of supervillains the writer clearly thinks are seriously awesome and I just find annoying (giving a character mind-blowing power levels does not, in itself, make them interesting). Similarly, readers often look at heroic protagonists, particularly female ones, and dismiss them as a Mary Sue.

Outside of comic-book villains, I think Wesley Crusher on Next Gen was my first encounter with the phenomenon: I didn’t mind him, but I learned that a lot of fans found him insufferable. Lots of fans (myself included) had a similar reaction to TK Danny Chase, a teenager Marv Wolfman added to the cast of Teen Titans (by then just New Titans) in the late 1980s. A teenage spy and the son of spies, Danny considered himself way more competent than the rest of the team and the scripts seemed to agree (Danny takes down two of the unstoppable Wildebeests during the Titans Hunt arc).

The worst-case scenario is where the author’s written a character who’s transgressing boundaries and the story doesn’t acknowledge it. The wizard in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted abuses the protagonist for much of the book, but it’s hand-waved away. I doubt Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang meant for readers to see Orion in their Wonder Woman run as a sexist douchebag, but that’s how he comes across. James Bond’s treatment of Patricia in Thunderball is played for laughs, but it’s creepy as hell.

Or consider My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). In a reverse of the female characters discussed in the first paragraph, we’re supposed to see Cameron Diaz’s Kimberly as a woman who deserves Michael (Dermot Mulroney) much more than Julia Robert’s Julianne: Where Julianne’s always prioritized career over love, Kimberly’s willing to postpone college and career for marriage, and even give up her honeymoon so sports reporter Michael won’t miss covering any baseball games. This is supposed to make her the Good Girl; all I could see was an appalling doormat and a sexist script (despite AV Club’s argument the film subverts rom-com tropes).

Badass characters in comics are usually supposed to be cool anti-heroes who have no patience with your shit, won’t follow anyone else’s rules and kick butt in a way nobody else can. Wolverine when he’s written badly. Battalion, a loud-mouthed jerk in the Titans spinoff Team Titans (I think we’re supposed to be impressed than when he crosses the street he just smashes cars that get in his way, but that’s just being a jackass). Ravager, a Teen Titan who wins fights just by the sheer weight of her badassery. To me they’re all just jerks. Keith Giffen had the opposite problem with Lobo: conceived as a parody of violent psycho badasses, huge legions of fans decided he was so over the top he was absolutely awesome.

We can’t guarantee readers will have the same reaction to our characters that we do; the best we can do is hope our beta readers or editors pick up on problems. KC, the protagonist of Impossible Takes a Little Longer, is self-conscious about not looking like a classic comics superhero (shorts and t-shirt for a costume — that’s about all she can stomach in Northwest Florida’s heat). The first or second time I read the beginning of the novel to my writing group, several women said it came off more like she was self-conscious about her looks and not being pretty. I rewrote to make it clear it’s not a lack of body positivity, it’s just that she doesn’t look epic compared to say Gil Kane’s Green Lantern or Curt Swan’s Supergirl (the gap between comics and her life as the Champion is a running element of the book).

Beyond that, like so much about writing, we just have to roll the dice and hope the numbers are good.

#SFWApro. Cover by Scott McCowen, all rights remain with current holder.

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Saving Daylight, Stealing Sleep

Like so many people, the switch to Daylight Savings Time messes up my body’s clock something fierce. I’d go to bed regular hours, but if I woke up around 3:30, my body would insist it was 4:30 which is too close to 5 AM to go back to sleep. So I’m a little sleep-deprived, again.

Despite which I had a productive week, making up for the mess of October. And that’s despite Plushie and Trixie insisting an hour before lunch and dinner that Daddy, it’s time to eat, it really is, why are you writing? And having to take Trixie into the vet Thursday for a sore throat. Chihuahuas are prone to collapsing trachea, and hers was acting up (it’s not fatal, but we have to take care of it). We got some drugs, she’s doing fine.

So what did I do, besides my usual quota of Leaf articles?

•I worked on my rewrite of Rabbits Indigneotem. I think my friend Cindy was right that a more upbeat ending works, but it’s still not quite right. I feel it’s close though, so I’ll keep working on it. I think something upbeat but black-humored would be ideal, but that’s tricky.

•Having gotten such a good response to the rewritten Chapter One of Impossible Takes a Little Longer from the writing group, I followed up with the next three chapters. I’d actually already made some changes on them so it didn’t take a huge amount of effort. It’ll get tougher as move forward into terra sort-of incognita.

•I continued rewriting Oh, the Places You’ll Go. I want to either finish the story by the end of the month (if it’s a short) or get 10,000 words in (if it turns into a novel). While I’m keeping the core of the original short story, which is the relationship between the four protagonists, I’ve followed my feedback and put a lot of work into fleshing out the world of people who use maps to time travel.

•I started going through the articles and blog posts I’ve bookmarked for Sexist Myths and incorporating them into the book. It’s going better than expected. I suspect I’ll have to cut some stuff when I finish this draft, because it’s getting pretty damn big.

•I went out to Hillsborough, about 30 minutes from my house, to meet with the new owners of an art gallery there. They’re looking to have someone write some press releases and articles for them; I’m sure they can’t pay what Leaf does, but it would be a fun break and a second income stream, which I haven’t had for a while — and not one that would suck up a huge amount of time, as some projects have.

I’m crunching numbers to figure out what to charge; I’ll get back to them this weekend and we’ll do a trial run article for their opening next week. Good thing I work fast.

•I sent off three short stories to different markets.

Hopefully I can keep up the momentum next week despite a doctor’s appointment. It does feel good to be productive again.

#SFWApro. Photos are mine.

 

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book

Why not a woman?

One-time X-Men editor Louise Simonson has said the reason Chris Claremont’s X-Men run (starting with #94 of the Bronze Age run) included so many memorable women characters was that when he created a character he’d ask “why can’t this character be a woman?” And frequently there was no reason the character couldn’t be a woman, so she was.

That’s a neater trick than it sounds. For a lot of writers in that era (or even now), colorblind casting was not an option. The male protagonist or even supporting character was the default: characters are men automatically. Rather than “male or female?” it’s “male unless there’s a good reason to make them female” (trans or non-binary wasn’t usually in consideration at all). You didn’t need a reason to write a guy, but you did for a woman. Or a gay. Or a minority. And it had to be a plot reason, not just “let’s put a woman in this role.” That was just tokenism.

Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty said in the letter column of their 1980s PI comic Ms. Tree that they’d include a gay character when it was significant to the plot, not before. Director Martin Scorsese, in a recent interview, said similarly that he wouldn’t write a female lead “if the story doesn’t call for it …. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. If the story calls for a female character lead, why not?” (Several of his movies have had female leads, as people in the comments noted). Lionel Shriver has similarly said deploying a transvestite or bi character might “distract from my central subject matter.”

As countless writers and readers have pointed out, the idea you need a story reason to cast a woman/gay/Latino/Muslim in the role has problems. As Foz Meadows puts it in response to Shriver, it implies that straightness/masculinity/whiteness is thematically neutral whereas gays/women can’t simply exist in fictional worlds: they have to be there because being there is the topic of the story or relevant to the plot: “By treating particular identities as “subject matter”instead of facets of personhood – by claiming that queer characters can “distract” from a central story, as though queerness is only ever a focus, and not a fact – you’re acting as though the actual living people with those identities have no value, presence or personhood beyond them.”

That doesn’t mean race/gender/orientation-flipping the characters always works: it’s possible to do a movie with a woman as the hardbitten sergeant leading her platoon to glory, but not if it’s WW II. Switching out the white guy for a black woman may make some of the story unworkable, or open up new options. Ms. Tree herself was as hardboiled a PI as they come, but I doubt if Collins and Beatty had written about a male PI they’d have focused as much as they did on the relationship with her stepson (the authors do a good job not making her a stereotypically nurturing person under her hard shell).

When I first wrote Southern Discomfort my protagonist was male. Gender-flipping didn’t actually change Maria as much as making her a nurse rather than a modern-day combat veteran (much less likely to fight). Raceflipping characters (not so much “why not a black character?” as “why are there no black characters in this?”) caused a lot of changes for the better, but as huge chunks of plot got cut out, I wound up dropping the characters and making a couple of minor black roles into major roles. That worked better.

So no, the answer to “why not a woman?” is not always “yeah, why not?” But often it can be.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Gil Kane, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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October was a month. It definitely happened

That feels like all I can say as far as accomplishing my goals this month. Between the teeth, contractors, insomnia, caring for Wisp, and vacation (yay!), I got maybe a third of what I wanted accomplished, and even less of my writing goals. But now it’s November, so I feel magically like everything bogging me down has been washed away. We shall see.

This final week of October was decent. I finished the latest redraft of Sexist Myths and began adding my massive list of bookmarks with specific incidents, statements or refutations to the text. It’ll be a job. I’m hoping to finish next month.

I read the most recent first chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer to the writing group. This got a much better response than previous versions; a large part of that is, I think, because first person made it more emotional and speeded up the exposition a lot. The response was so good (I got a couple of instant beta-reading volunteers), I hope to resume work on the book this month and see if I can keep it up (no, I’m not doing Nano, so it’ll be a while before it’s done).

And I got my full quotient of Leaf articles in, so that’s done.

Thursday I took off, sat down and thought about the remaining two months of the year, what I wanted to get done and how much I could get done. It was a big help to making me feel focused instead of as frazzled and disorganized as I’ve been the past few weeks. I also went over my budget because traveling to Fort Walton Beach on vacation unsurprisingly took a bite out of my finances. Nothing that will cause a problem, but it’s nice to know that for sure.

I also thought about how to incorporate petting Wisp into the work day. I really don’t have much wiggle room, particularly now that it’s cold and Plushie is up for long lunch walkies (hot days are not good for squishy-faced dogs like him). I think it’s doable, if I structure my work breaks right.

 

One of my tasks for this month is to research cat doors and see if they’re a good option for letting Wisp enter freely, as an alternative to leaving the back door open while I pet her. That will be really unpleasant as things chill down. She’s definitely not into being shut in; Thursday she explored much of the living room but fled out as soon as I made a move that might have been to trap her. The two big problems will be making sure Trixie can’t get out through the door, and how we’ll deal with Wisp if she decides to come in at will (will she climb the shelves? Hassle Plushie? Take a crap?).  We’ll figure it out.

#SFWApro. Photos are mine.

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When will this cruel month be over?

Okay, it hasn’t been that cruel. Vacation was fantastic. But the repeated appointments and obligations keep nibbling me to death.

This week it was some extra dog-care duties on Sunday when I hadn’t expected it. And Wisp showing up to demand petting, which I’m too soft-hearted to refuse. I have to resist, but when she mews I usually get all mushy.

Tuesday I had to go back to our dentist and finally get a crown that fit. It did, but it’s still really sore. I’m hoping that’ll pass and I won’t have to go back soon to fix something. Wednesday I had my latest Alexander technique appointment. It’s really starting to have an effect on my posture and body tension.

But after repeated doctor appointments and contractor appointments and other distractions in previous weeks, my brain just entered “Screw it!” mode and tried to stop doing any work. I got my Leafs for the week done which is good (money coming in is always nice). I managed to rewrite Chapter Eight break down Chapter Nine of Sexist Myths and reorganize it while the dogs were in day care (that kind of pure thought is much harder with them around), but no fiction at all.

And Wisp has been adorable.

Next week I have my semiannual checkup but hopefully nothing else to distract me. And then November begins and I can put this month behind me.

#SFWapro. Photos are mine.

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Style and Substance: the Stuff That Screams Are Made Of

Rereading Robert Bloch’s collection The Stuff That Screams Are Made Of gave me fresh appreciation for Bloch’s ability to write with style.

It’s his narrative voice that particularly stands out: it changes from story to story, and quiet effectively. In The Big Kick, for example, we have the voice of the sleazy Beatnik rapist Mitch (“Sure he’s got the hots for you but he’s too sick to make move one. Too sick for the big kick.”) vs. the more intellectual (but just as nasty) Kenny (“An immature in-group’s set of catch phrases used to dramatize irresponsibility.”). Then there’s the poor whites of A Case in the Stubborns (“That porch was like a bake-oven in the devil’s own kitchen.”) and the deadpan government-report voice of Talent (“We have little information on Andrew Benson’s growth and development between the summer of 1950 and the autumn of 1955.”) and the Damon Runyonesque tone of Luck Is No Lady (“What made her think he’d go back to being a working stiff now that he had all that dough in his kick?”).

The Pin doesn’t have as much of a distinctive voice but in showing Death at work, Bloch does convey the scope of what’s going on: “How many others had died today, in how many cities, towns, hamlets, crossroads, culverts, prisons, hospitals, huts, kraals, trenches, tents igloos?”

It’s all the more impressive given Bloch started writing with painfully bad imitations of HP Lovecraft’s style (admittedly something lots of us, myself included, have tried to imitate). He worked hard, was extremely prolific, and improved steadily.

For me, style doesn’t count for much if the underlying story isn’t good. While I like Bloch a lot, this collection is a mixed bag. I loved The Pin and the Lovecraftian The Unspeakable Betrothal (not his choice of title), enjoyed most, but The Big Kick and Life In Our Time fall into the same Kids Get Off My Lawn mode as the stories in Fear Today — Gone Tomorrow. The stories sometimes feel misogynistic, as the woman are mostly there to die. Of course, so are the men, but at least they get to be the protagonist before the axe falls (Unspeakable Betrothal and The Weird Tailor are exceptions). The Big Kick is the worst, casually tossing off that Mitch raped his girlfriend Judy as if it were no big thing (back in 1959 that was a common sentiment, but that doesn’t make me like it better.

Heavens, having started rereading my handful of Bloch books back in 2011, but then getting distracted, I think I’m almost done.

#SFWApro. Cover by Howard Koslow, all rights remain with current holder.

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Saints, Gentlemen and Scoundrels

So a great while back I read something that stated “Chinese traditionally classified people into people with morality and ability.” People who are moral and capable were classed as “saints.” Moral people with low ability are “gentlemen.” Skilled people with low morality are “scoundrels.” People with neither are mediocre. Ideally saints or gentlemen are the top dogs in government with scoundrels under them. The scoundrels get the work done, and their superiors keep them from moral lapses.

Being a writer, I started thinking about this as a way to classify fictional characters.

Saints. Doc Savage. Batman. Sherlock Holmes. Obi-Wan Kenobe They have the skill to get the job done, and they wield it in a righteous cause. Not necessarily what society says is moral: Doc Savage brainwashes criminals rather than jail them and Sherlock Holmes has no qualms letting someone escape punishment if he thinks it’s best.

This group should probably include some villains who can make a claim to acting in a moral cause. Fu Manchu, for example, seeks to reverse British imperialism and restore Chinese independence, which is certainly a commendable goal. In the real world, Robert E. Lee fought as a “traitor to humanity’s god,” but doubtless believed he was fighting in a righteous cause (Fu Manchu was more on the side of justice than Lee). The Punisher probably counts too.

Gentlemen. This one doesn’t work so well for fiction: people with limited ability are more likely to be supporting characters than leads. The hero’s best friend or significant other, for instance. Average ability characters are a little more common. The typical cozy mystery protagonist isn’t a Sherlock Holmes-class detective, they’re not professionally trained; as I’ve written before, part of the appeal is that they’re regular people. But when faced with a mystery they have to solve, they go ahead and solve it, despite whatever death threats they face along the way.

The same applies to the average cop or the average G.I. who rises to the story’s challenge when they have greatness thrust upon them. In the film A Walk in the Sun, our heroes are just average American soldiers fighting in Italy, but they prove themselves heroes. Science Investigator Steve Flanagan in my own Atoms for Peace isn’t a superstar as an agent, but he’s tough, determined and capable enough to fight and win.

And of course countless superheroes start out as regular people before getting blessed with their exceptional abilities —though as they do become exceptional, possibly I’m pushing the interpretation.

The evil equivalent would be, I guess, generic Nazi soldiers going down before Captain America’s fists or the nobody villain who acquires superpowers.

Scoundrels. These protagonists range from Han Solo — a good guy at heart, even if his goodness needs a nudge — or Spider Scott to completely unprincipled shits such as Harry Flashman. They may have their own code of honor (the rogue as hero) or completely unscrupulous (the antihero). As villains, they’re the crooks or schemers who look out for number one: they have no ethos other than what’s in it for them. Magneto qualifies as a villain-saint; Doctor Doom, despite occasional flashes of decency, is purely interested in his own power.

Mediocrities. To me, if a mediocrity is the protagonist it’s probably a serious drama (Death of a Salesman) or a comedy (a lot of Bob Hope’s old films) rather than an adventure. In a fantasy story I think mediocrities are more likely to be villains or obstacles: the dishonest cop who’ll let the scoundrel walk in return for a payoff, the annoying coworkers who populate Aggretsuko and countless other workplace sitcoms, the bureaucrat who insists on you going back and filling in the third paragraph of Form XQ-y-23 correctly.

I’m not sure this has given me any writing insights, but it was fun to post.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama (t) and Zakaria Nada (b) all rights remain with current holders.

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October continues to underwhelm, writing wise

But it’s not surprising. And I still feel pretty relaxed from vacation, so I guess that’s a win, sort of.

It’s not surprising because first, I was traveling Sunday so I couldn’t do any work. Tuesday I had a contractor in and had to walk the dogs before he arrived, so I figured I’d wait until he’d arrived and done the job before I started work. Only he didn’t show (for valid reasons). Then he did show Wednesday, so that ate up a couple of hours. There’s a limit to my concentration when the dogs are all Stranger Danger Daddy! Danger! and Plushie wants to climb on the lap desk to make sure he has my attention.

Good thing he’s so cute, huh?
So that took out a chunk of time. And once I accepted I wasn’t going to get in a full week, it was easy to just get less and less done. Particularly as I was out late Tuesday after writers’ group, and woke up exhausted on Wednesday.

I did get my Leafs for the week done, and another chapter of Sexist Myths redrafted. And I rewrote the first chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer in case I was called to read at the group (I’m first in line for next week, but I may pick something else by then). And I rewrote Rabbits Indignateonem based on my friend Cindy’s feedback; I think her advice was definitely what I needed, though I still need to tinker with it.

And next week I have a dental appointment to finally get that crown on, plus one of my Alexander Technique classes. But at least I’ll be able to work on this coming Sunday.

#SFWpro. Photo is mine.

 

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