Paying It Forward Foreword

If you kn578c827c7aec8437a27134929c53d118_originalow me, you know that I’m a believer in Paying It Forward.  I’ve been the fortunate recipient of the generosity of someone else who believes in that same philosophy–fantasy author Brian Rathbone–and I want to tell you about something you can do to Pay It Forward, too.  So consider this a Pay It Forward Foreword.


A few years ago, Brian and I became friends via Twitter.  I knew immediately that he was a kindred spirit, and the more I got to know him, the more he affirmed my gut instinct was on target.  We did finally meet in person at Balticon, and over time, we’ve become good friends.  When Brian approached me to write a prequel novel that would be set in his World of Godsland fantasy world, I was shocked and thrilled and humbled.  I admire Brian for his imagination, and I love the characters in his books.  He asked if I’d take on the prequel story about one of those characters: Gwendolin Ahlgren.  I enjoyed Gwen in Inherited Danger, and I had wanted to know more about her.  Brian gave me that chance.


Now, Brian and his publishing company, White Wolf Press, are running a Kickstarter campaign to help fund hardback versions of Gwen’s story, entitled Ascension, as well as that of a new writer, Jack McCarthy, who has penned the first novel in a trilogy of prequels, this one entitled Onin.  The third book in the Kickstarter is one of Brian’s own, Dragon Airways.  It’s a marvelous steampunk romp that takes the World of Godsland into a whole new territory.  As a beta reader for that novel, I can tell you it will make you laugh and cry and fall in love with dragons all over again.


Brian has Paid It Forward to me and Jack by giving us the opportunity to contribute to the World of Godsland series.  I’m humbled and inspired by his generosity.   As of the time of this article’s publishing, the campaign is nearing the 50% mark, and it’s only on its second day!  It’s hit #15 in the Popular chart for Publishing on Kickstarter.  I hope you’ll join me in Paying It Forward to Brian by contributing whatever you can to the Kickstarter.  Together, we can get this campaign to the top of the Popular chart for ALL categories.  Let’s do this!!


Writing Cave Displacement

dust-monitoringAs we enter the death throes of the most comprehensive stage of remodeling our 100 year-old house, I’m preparing to evacuate what has become my “office” during the project and temporarily squat (in the property sense, not the knee-bending kind!) in the newly remodeled “library alcove” of our living room, which will continue to remain empty of its normal belongings until the official writing cave is finished. Then, we’ll move our furniture and JUNK back into the house and begin the process of paring down and relocating STUFF.

For the next few weeks, the library alcove will house me and my makeshift office. Despite its temporariness and its slapped-together-like-a-Dagwood-sandwich aesthetic, the large bedroom we deemed would be my office has been home for my muses and me for almost two years.

In a sense, I hate to uproot the refuge my ragged office has provided. It has a lovely view of the back yard with perennial gardens, wisteria, and droopy tree limbs in full view. And I can see that view from my desk if I choose to open the shade and drapery; I can even look at it through various layers of fabric filters, so even when Nature isn’t moving at a quick enough pace for me, I can choose to see it differently. I’m going to miss that. On the other hand, the sycamore in front of our house will be in full view from the library alcove. It’s older than the house by at least 2 decades, and it’s magnificent. How I do love that tree and watching its seasonal changes.

Change really is the theme of this entire remodeling project, but change for the better despite the inconveniences of breathing (and sweeping up) plaster dust, listening to power tools all day, and constantly shifting materials and necessities from one room to another.

I’ve thought a lot about what the change might bring. Some tension about whether my muses will like it there has crept in, but overall, they’re a fairly flexible lot, so I’m sure they’ll adjust. Once I’m in my new writing cave, we can always revisit the library alcove if my muses or I want to commune with the sycamore. Have laptop. Can Relocate.

The room I’ve been working in will undergo a transformation in more ways than one. While there’s value and satisfaction in restoring a space that deserves restoration, there’s even greater value in the change in energy. While I’m enjoying watching the sycamore and the neighbor’s gorgeous maple, my office space will metamorphose from our former tenants’ destruction into a warm, comfortable, and creative space . . . sans the negative vibes of people who need a lot of counseling and an intensive course in personal accountability.

The space feels what’s coming, and the energy in the room is already improving.

Smashwords Template, Paying Forward, & Writing with Passion

Most people who are inspired to do something with passion can look back on their lives and point to a few specific times when another human being reached out and helped them in a meaningful way.  I’m among that group, and one of those human beings who reached out and helped me was a man named Christopher James Canali.

Almost two decades ago, I was at a low point—heartbroken, living in a strange city far away from family, and barely eeking out enough of a living to call it a living.  I met Chris, and Chris Canalihe and I became close friends.  He was a former radio announcer and journalist who had turned his keen observation, bold critical thinking, and love of good writing into a career in medical writing.  Our common connection, however, was our mutual love of Shakespeare.  I still remember both of us sobbing aloud when we went to see “Shakespeare in Love.”

Chris knew I was struggling, and he knew I wouldn’t take a handout.  When he got the chance to do so, however, he recommended me for a job at the firm where he was the Manager of Medical Writing.  I started out organizing an internal medical library and establishing systems for acquiring journal articles and other reference material.  It wasn’t a high-paying job, but it was a steady gig that let me keep writing and teaching part-time.  Before long, Chris shifted my duties to writing continuing medical education.  I remember telling him, “Just don’t give me an assignment in neurology or cardiology.  I don’t want to mess up anything important.”  My first assignment was in cardiology, and my second was in neurology.  Chris believed in tossing a non-swimmer into the pond, and I’ll be forever thankful that he did that for me.  He taught me everything I know about medical writing, and that job changed my life.  When I decided that I couldn’t not write fiction as my primary job, I remember the initial terror I felt, and I also remember thinking, “Well, at least it’s not neurology!”

Chris was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known.  Even when he wasn’t working, he was working. Before he “semi-retired” (He just couldn’t bring himself to retire fully.), he’d established himself as a Red Cross Volunteer for national disaster response—floods, hurricanes, earthquakes.  He did that during his “vacations.”  He was there to help do whatever needed to be done to help others because his volunteering was a natural extension of his personality and ethics.  Anyone who knew him knew that he was all heart, a passionate half-Italian, half-Australian who never failed to offer a hand to anyone who needed it.

Today, I learned that Chris passed on, and my heart is so very, very broken.  It will heal.  But I can’t let this day pass without honoring Chris Canali by doing something for someone else.  I thought about what I could do, and it seems appropriate to do something to help other people who are passionate about writing.  I think Chris would like that because he loved good literature, and he encouraged people to write with passion.

A lot of writers new to self-publishing have commented about how difficult it is to get their work through the Smashwords metagrinder, also known as the MEATGRINDER (for damned good reason).  I’ve had great luck with the MS Word 1997-2003 template that I made.  It strips out all of the icky code that the new version of MS Word insists on inserting.  Chris would have approved of that, too.  He was a dyed-in-the-wool WordPerfect afficionado who used keyboard shortcuts and “reveal codes.”  All four of my books have passed the Smashwords formatting software test without a hitch the first time through it using the template.

So, if you’re struggling with how to format your book for Smashwords, just go here and download the document.  Here are some tips that will help you stay within Smashwords formatting guidelines:

  • Open the file and save it as a MS Word 1997-2003 template if you want to keep it in your MS Word template library.
  • To keep your novel file in the 1997-2003 .doc format.  Use “Save As” instead of “Save.”
  • You can use the file as a document and paste your novel’s content into it if you want to do so, but keep it as a MS Word 1997-2003 .doc file if you do.
  • You can alter the fonts for any of the styles without a problem (right click on the style in the toolbar), but I recommend you keep the style for “Normal” as is.
  • Don’t change any of the font sizes.
  • Also, don’t use more than 2 hard returns anywhere in your document.
  • Leave only one space after the end of a sentence and the start of a new sentence.

Feel free to pass along the template to any other writers you know who need it.

Write with passion!

Love you, Chris, and thank you.

Little Granny’s Recipe for What Ails Us

The World’s Changin’, Baby.

December 18th never passes that I don’t think of my paternal grandmother.  It was her birthday.  Yesterday would have marked her 104th birthday.  This year, when December 18th rolled around, it set me to thinking about all the changes in the world that my grandmother saw during her lifetime and the changes that have happened since she died a quarter of recipe-book-cover14a century ago.  It also made me think about the things that haven’t changed at all since my grandmother and I had one of the most important conversations of my life back in 1969.

Change didn’t come easily for Little Granny, the name her grandchildren gave her to distinguish her from our other grandmothers, who all far exceeded Little Granny’s 4 feet, 10 inches.  I remember being at her house when the first moon landing took place.  She didn’t believe it was really happening.  How could men send a rocket to the moon and then go outside of that rocket and walk on the surface without dying?  Despite the simulations on network television (there was no live video feed from the moon to homes at that time) and the explanations of what was happening and how it all worked, Little Granny refused to believe it was true.  I don’t know if she ever changed her mind about it.  I didn’t ask.

That same Christmas, I got a chemistry set.  It came in a blue, metal case, with racks inside for all the chemical jars and beakers and test tubes and the most prized object of all, a microscrope.  It was all I wanted for Christmas, and my parents, despite their abject poverty, somehow managed to scrape together the money to buy it for me.  I wanted to learn chemistry, but only because I wanted to be a neurosurgeon.  Brains fascinated me.  They still do.  Chemistry was a step toward neurosurgery.

We spent Christmas Eve at Little Granny’s that year, so Santa visited her house instead of ours.  Knowing how excited I was to dive into the experiments in the instruction book, Little Granny let me set up my chemistry set in the corner of her living room.  My first experiment was a blazing success, and in a matter of hours, I proudly held up the results for all my family members to see: a test tube full of colorful crystals.  I still remember her words and the voice that spoke them with tenderness and encouragement, “That’s pretty, baby.  You done a good job.”  She called everyone she loved “baby,” but that didn’t matter to me.  It made me feel special that she said it, and it made me feel special that she liked my work and was proud of me.

After the holiday celebration was over the next evening, my parents went home with my brothers, and I got to stay behind with Little Granny and PawPaw, who would drive me what was then considered a daunting distance of 100 miles back to my parents’ house on Saturday or Sunday.  Travel plans were always vague when it came to Little Granny.  For one thing, it seemed she and my grandfather never had a reliable car, and she was afraid of getting stranded on the highway, a valid concern if one lives in the high desert and is traversing territory that’s sparsely populated.  A tow would have been too costly for people as poor as my grandparents, and according to Little Granny, “There’s crazy folks out there.  They’ll kill you in the bar ditch for a plug nickel.”

Truth be told, I think she just preferred being in her own home.  She certainly didn’t leave her property more than she had to.  I liked that about her, though, because I liked being in her house with her.  Just as much, I loved being able to stay in her spare bedroom, even if it was an unheated room.  Little Granny would pile so many quilts onto the twin bed in that cluttered space, which she used for storage mostly, that a small child might have been at risk of suffocating, but I would crawl under their hefty weight with eagerness.  It felt like the safest and most loving place in the world, and I slept the peaceful sleep of the dead when in it.

Over the next few days, I followed Little Granny around while she did her chores.  The least favorite of these was feeding the chickens in the back yard.  I didn’t like the way they pecked at my feet.  When I hopped away from the pecking hens and squeaked in fear, Little Granny laughed and said, “Throw the feed away from you.”  (DUH.)  I did but was still terrified of her crazed rooster, which seemed to want to flog anything that moved in the yard . . . except Baby.  The rooster had at least one neuron that fired correctly, though!  Baby was a Chow, and he took his job as watchdog very seriously.  The only person who could get near him was Little Granny, so she wouldn’t let anyone into the backyard alone, which suited me just fine.  Baby was even scarier than the rooster and a lot meaner than the pecking hens.  I never understood why she called him by the same name as she did everyone she loved.  I suppose it was just easier when one had 8 children and heaven knows how many grandchildren.  One more name, even if it was for a dog, might have been more to remember than should be expected of anyone.  Or maybe it was her reluctance to change that bit of the southerner in her that was a calling card.  Some southern women call everyone “Baby.”

When we weren’t busy doing chores, I played with the chemistry set.  Time and again, I repeated the crystal experiment, and time and again, I failed to reproduce those first glorious results.  I still don’t know what I did wrong.  What I do know is that every test tube in my new chemistry set ended up filled with hardened gunk adhered to the glass.  After several attempts to clean them with soap and water and a dishrag I tried to stuff in and pull out, I’d managed to break several.

Hearing the breaking glass, Little Granny came into the kitchen to investigate.  I showed the ruined test tubes to her.  In tears, I admitted with great shame that I’d failed to grow the beautiful crytals again and had destroyed my equipment in the process.  As I remember it, “I ruined it” was the most coherent thing I snuffled out during that conversation.  Little Granny took the test tubes and shooed me out of the kitchen, telling me that she would get the broken glass out of the sink so I wouldn’t cut myself.  I sat on the couch in her living room and stared at the chemistry lab across the room.  I felt hollow from disheartenment and regret and ineptitude.

After a while, she returned with my test tubes in hand, and they were clean and almost as shiny as new.  When I asked how she’d managed to get them clean, she sat down at the iron-legged, linoleum-topped dining table positioned against the wall just outside the kitchen door.  I came over and sat down, too, and watched her pour a cup of coffee from the electric percolator that was her pride and joy because it was an electrical device that saved time and work and “made good coffee.”  After a few sips of the coffee, she reached for her tobacco pouch and rolled a cigarette while she answered my question.

“Bottle brush and kerosene.  You can’t use kerosene.  It’s dang’rous.  Ask your mama to do it for you when you mess up again.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.  She had cleaned the test tubes, and I was grateful for that, but she was also saying I would fail again.  The woman who had been so proud of my accomplishments was now proclaiming that not only had I failed once, but also that I would do so again.  My silence must have amused her because she laughed.  Then, she said the most profound thing I’d heard up to that point in my life.

“Everbody messes up ‘cept those who don’t try.  If you wanna do whatever you’re doin’ over there,” she said, nodding toward the chemistry lab in the corner, “go do it.  When I was little, girls couldn’t do that even if they wanted to.  And neither could poor folks.  But don’t go thinkin’ you’re special and won’t mess up or that you know more’n anybody else.  Some is gonna say you can’t.  Don’t listen to ‘em.  They’s jealous or ig’nrant or just plain mean.  The world’s changin’, Baby, and you gotta change with it.  You gotta help them that needs help changin’.  You study your books hard and make all the mistakes you can so you learn from ‘em.  Leave them’s behind that wants to stop you.”

I got up and wrapped my arms around her neck and kissed her wiry hair.  She patted me with her bony fingers and let me cry.  She might have thought I was crying over failing.  In reality, I was crying because she had just told me that she couldn’t have done what I was trying to do, couldn’t have been what I wanted to be.  This woman who had restored my test tubes using common sense, experience, a tool meant for something else, and what amounted to a chemical solvent even though she’d never had a bit of education in chemistry couldn’t have been a chemist or an engineer or anything else that required a college education.

For Little Granny, those men on the moon weren’t real, but the possibility that her granddaughter could be whatever she wanted to be was.  That possibility had opened up because of educational opportunities for women and for economically disadvantaged students in the U.S.

As it turned out, that wasn’t true for everyone in 1969, and it still isn’t.  As my grandmother said, “Some is gonna say you can’t. . . . They’s jealous or ig’nrant or just plain mean.”  There are women and girls in this world who can’t be chemists; they live in places where they are denied education and opportunities to fail and learn because they are females.  There are people of both sexes and every gender identification who can’t be chemists because they live in places where children’s educational opportunities are truncated by hunger and poverty, where adults’ opportunities are truncated by prejudice.  Some of those places are in our own backyards, where Baby isn’t a Chow but a self-interested human being or political party or government.

For writers, the watchdog is most often our own fear of failure, fear that we’ll gunk up our test tubes and not be able to get them clean or ever grow the crystals again, fear that if we help someone else, they’ll turn out to be competitors who will assure our failure in a competitive marketplace.  Sometimes, the watchdogs are those in an industry reluctant to deal with change because it means relinquishing some of the power they’ve held for a very long time.  In response to those facing such watchdogs, I offer Little Granny’s words:

“Everbody messes up ‘cept those who don’t try.  If you wanna do whatever you’re doin’ over there, go do it. . . . But don’t go thinkin’ you’re special and won’t mess up or that you know more’n anybody else.  Some is gonna say you can’t.  Don’t listen to ‘em.  They’s jealous or ig’nrant or just plain mean.  The world’s changin’, Baby, and you gotta change with it.  You gotta help them that needs help changin’.  You study your books hard and make all the mistakes you can so you learn from ‘em.  Leave them’s behind that wants to stop you.”

Thank you, Little Granny, and Happy 104th Birthday!