Autumn Portfolio

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The American pika is this year’s Animal Behavior poster child. Too much cuteness in one ball of fluff!

Classes start this week. In other words, we are five blinks away from Christmas!

I’ve been blessed with a wonderful summer and am starting the new academic year rested and ready (more-or-less) to go. Two of my favorite courses are in this fall’s line-up: Introduction to Animal Behavior and Women and Science. 

When I was an undergrad, I took a course in Animal Behavior that changed my life. Now – 30 years and a fun career as a field biologist later – I secretly hope my version of this old favorite will have the same impact on some of my students. Animal Behavior demands a critical examine of how evolutionary theory applies to behavior. Students consider in concrete terms how scientific theories generate hypotheses, and how those hypotheses in turn must be tested.

It’s rigorous but also just plain fun! We consider a wide spectrum of behaviors across all kinds of animals. Everything from wasps to elephants behaves, and so every species has the opportunity to provide examples of cool/weird/amazing behaviors. Even single-celled organisms like slime molds have stories to tell. More recently, scientists have looked beyond animals and protists, uncovering compelling evidence that plants may also have evolved behavioral strategies.

Rachel Carson

Biologist Rachel Carson, one of many women who have made important contributions to science.

In addition to Animal Behavior, this semester I’ll be teaching Women and Science. It’s been five years since I’ve had the opportunity to do this course, and I’m very excited to see it come back. Together with my co-instructor, Dr. Abigail Lambke, we’ll be looking at several aspects of the intersection between gender and science.

We’ll start with a consideration of feminist theory and how various modes of feminist inquiry can enhance our understanding of the substance and practice of science. Along the way, we’ll celebrate the many contributions of women to science while acknowledging, through case studies, the particular challenges women have faced in the scientific endeavor.

Images of women in science will be a recurring theme throughout the semester, and before we finish we’ll touch on some very contemporary topics, including fertility, women’s health, and population growth. We’ll also discuss how women and science is being increasingly discussed through modern-day media, including social platforms such as Twitter. (Think #distractinglysexy and #Googlememo, and you’ll know where we’re going…)

Courses like these inevitably inspire reflections for my blog, so stay tuned if you want to hear more. I know we are in for some lively discussions and thought-provoking discoveries.

atonement

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Charlottesville pays homage to Heather Heyer.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week processing the events in Charlottesville.

I wasn’t surprised by what happened; anyone who knows history and has a little bit of common sense could have predicted what this administration would unleash. But even when you see the cracks in the wall, even when you know the dam is on the verge of collapse, confronting the moment it actually breaks can leave you stunned and speechless.

This long night of our nation has moved many things inside of me. As a German-American, I grew up keenly aware of the danger of blind patriotism and most especially, of the terror and brutality that comes with the doctrine of white supremacy. One could call this the unique burden of my cultural identity. I had much to be proud of in my German heritage, but much to be ashamed of as well.

Born in the United States, some four decades after the Nazis came to power, I could hardly claim personal responsibility for what happened in the 1930s. But that which is not our fault must sometimes, nonetheless, be our responsibility – especially when it comes to cultural identity.

While children should not pay for the sins of their fathers, I’ve always believed in embracing the task of atonement. We have been given this life to help heal the wounds caused by our predecessors, and in this way, to build a better future. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt this instinctive commitment, though when I was young, I didn’t really have the words to express it. In grade school, I found those words in the Prayer of Saint Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth…

And on it goes. Coming from a cultural legacy that – in spite of its many positive aspects – instigated the darkest war of modern times, it seemed to me that choosing a personal path of peace and commitment, of truth and justice, of encouraging love among all neighbors, was an appropriate and noble goal.

Over the years, I’ve tried to live by this creed in many ways. But since the summer of 2015, I’ve had to face up to an ugly truth: Whatever I may claim to have done with this short life has not been enough. It hasn’t been enough, because here we are again: torches in the night, young people gripped by a twisted ideology, innocents dying in the streets. Worst of all, this racism, bigotry, and violence is openly incited and endorsed by the man who holds the highest office in our nation.

I’ve often wondered what I would have done, had I lived in Germany during my grandparents’ time, during the 1930s when the fever of Nazism was beginning to take hold. What would I do, if confronted with a rising tide of white supremacists? I’ve been learning the answer to that question over the past couple years. Despite all the brutal lessons of the 20th century, my grandparents’ time has become my own.

 

Something that gives me hope in these difficult times is the tremendous effort on the part of many fellow Americans to fight against the blight of white supremacy. In the case of Charlottesville, what began with a handful of students on Friday night and has now engulfed the nation and reached beyond our borders. I continue to believe the human spirit is greater – much greater – than all the ugliness and violence that converged on this one university town in Virginia last weekend. We can stop the tide of hate, but we have to stand up, speak out, and resist. And that resistance will not come without cost.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

waiting until you’re clueless

 

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Yes, it’s beautiful, but we’re still working on the final draft.

One of the drawbacks of the surge in self-publishing is that too many writers have been allowed to believe an inspired work is also a publishable work. As a result, inspired works are too easily thrown into the market before they are publishable.

 

This is an easy slipping point for any writer. After all, inspiration is the fun part of writing. The juices are flowing, the ideas seem fresh, and words simply tumble out of the mind and onto the computer. A new story feels easy and exciting.

Inspiration brings its own euphoria, and as writers, we are anxious to share that euphoria with other people. It’s this same euphoria that gives us confidence in the tale we need to tell, that convinces us everyone is bound to love our characters and their stories as much as we do.

But at the end of the day, the inspired draft is also the first draft, and as Anne LaMotte has famously said, first drafts are always shitty. Not because we are poor writers, but because it’s the inalienable right of every first draft to be a bad piece of prose. This rule remains constant throughout the writer’s journey: No matter how many novels you’ve written, the first draft will always be crap.

“Got that,” you say?

You already know first drafts are shitty and would never presume to upload a first draft onto your KDP account?

Great! You’re now ready for the next hard truth of writing:

Second drafts are also shitty.

As are, more often than not, third drafts. By the fourth draft, you might have a quality piece of work in the making. But even then, your manuscript is not as good as it could be.

To compound the problem, by the fourth draft you’ve been spending so much time with the story, you cease to see areas that need improvement. Or – more frustrating – you know certain pieces still need fixing, but you can’t envision how to fix them.

This is where the six month hiatus comes in: An extended period where you put that manuscript away and focus on something else entirely, whether it be a new writing project or – if you’re feeling really adventurous – having a life outside of writing.

Doing this allows you to come back to the manuscript with the eye of a reader rather than an author. This is what I mean by “waiting until you’re clueless.”

As the author, you know everything about your story: the history of each character, their hidden motivations, the rules of the world they live in. An omniscient narrator can’t always judge how much information to give the reader and how much to hold back. But if you allow yourself to acquire the eye of a reader, it’s easier to fill in places where information is lacking and backpedal on moments when you’re bludgeoning the reader with the obvious.

Sometimes we choose the six-month hiatus; sometimes it’s forced upon us. In the case of The Hunting Grounds, I’ve done both. This latest novel has had multiple back-burner periods, first at my choosing, but most recently as a result of the query process itself.

My first bout of querying for The Hunting Grounds began about this time last year. I was mildly successful, in that I had several promising bites, a few requests for partials and fulls, and even a couple contract offers (which I decided to turn down, but more on that later).

In sifting through the scattered feedback of different editors (last year’s query effort was directed mostly at small- and medium-sized presses, as opposed to agents), I was able to identify some sticking points in the narrative. By spring of this year, I’d decided to go back to the drawing board and work through the manuscript one more time. 

I don’t regret it. One year ago, The Hunting Grounds was a strong manuscript. If I were committed to the path of self-publishing, I might have released it on Kindle as early as October or November of 2016. But I chose to wait, to query, and to let things simmer.

Now, my novel is even better, with more depth and cleaner prose, and reworked in a way that addresses some of the feedback I’ve received from professionals in the field.

At the end of the day, there may not be a future for this novel on traditional markets, but I derive tremendous satisfaction from seeing my work realize its full potential. My days of inspired writing on this project are long gone, but the tedious process of crafting and molding and honing the details carries its own rewards.

Whatever road takes this manuscript to its final, published version, I’m more confident than ever that the finished novel will be everything it was meant to be.

And that, my friends, is well worth waiting for.

Summer Book Sale

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I’m taking a break from my regular programming to announce a great Summer Book Promotion going on over at author Vanessa MacLellan’s web site. Vanessa has gathered 10 authors of fantasy and science fiction who are offering their Kindle titles for less than 99cents, including 8 FREE books!

Two of my titles are in this promotion: EOLYN, now available FREE on Kindle, and SWORD OF SHADOWS, on sale for just $0.99. Blurb and purchase links for both books are provided below, but don’t stop here! Go to Vanessa’s Summer Deals Book Shop to download more free and discounted titles. Happy reading!

EOLYN (Book One of The Silver Web)

Eolyn cover flat2 reduced 1 22 16FREE on Kindle!

In a land ravaged by civil war, the Mage King Kedehen initiates a ruthless purge of the magas. Eolyn, last daughter of the magas and sole heiress to their forbidden craft, seeks refuge in the South Woods. When she meets the mysterious Akmael, heir to the throne of this violent realm, she embarks on a path of hope, seduction, betrayal, and war. Desire draws Eolyn toward Akmael’s dark embrace, but fate binds her to Corey of East Selen, a cunning mage whose ambition challenges the limits of love and loyalty.

Can she trust either man?

Hunted in a realm of powerful wizards and brutal deceptions, Eolyn must find her own path to freedom or she will burn on the pyre.

“Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes, with a romantic thread.” – Publishers Weekly

A “dreamlike, fairy-tale ambiance…immersive political machinations and grand-scale battles.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A tale of female oppression, prejudice, and even deadly seduction, Eolyn touches on issues that are deeply relevant in our own society.” –Apex Reviews

“Magnificently written.” –Kindle Book Review

Download EOLYN today!

Sword of Shadows (Book Two of The Silver Web)

Sword of Shadows Kindle 3Just $0.99 cents on Kindle!

Sisters in magic, Eolyn and Adiana seek to revive a millennial tradition once forbidden to women. When war strikes, their fledgling community of magas is destroyed; its members killed, captured, or scattered.

Determined to defend her people against the darkest forces of the Underworld, Eolyn seeks to escape the occupied province and deliver to King Akmael a weapon that might secure their victory. Trapped by the invading army, Adiana is taken prisoner and placed at the mercy of the ruthless Prince Mechnes.

Even as their paths are separated and their world torn asunder, Eolyn and Adiana cling to a common dream. Courage and perseverance guide them through chaos toward a future where women’s magic will flourish in a world set free from violence and war.

But that dream will not be possible unless both are willing to offer the greatest possible sacrifice…

“War propels the story forward, and the characters are at their best when circumstances are at their worst.” –Publishers Weekly

“Lush, evocative descriptions carry readers through an unforgettable journey.” –Kirkus Reviews

Download SWORD OF SHADOWS today!

Looking for more free and discounted books? Visit Vanessa McClellan’s website for more great deals from authors of fantasy and science fiction!

milestones

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Sometimes revisiting the past can help us embrace the future. (Photo by Wendy Donnell)

Week 4 Query Totals (Agents Only):

  • Submitted: 41
  • Rejections: 7
  • Requests for Partial/Full: 0

And…I’m done. For the moment, at any rate. July has ended, and August is here. Time to set aside query madness and focus on getting my act together for the start of fall semester. Later on down the road – probably in September – we’ll revisit the query adventure. You’ll get an update on rejections (I’m sure there will be many!) and though it’ll be slower going with classes in session, I will manage few more submissions before the holiday season begins in November.

~*~

One of the biggest tasks in post-divorce life is figuring out who you are on your own.

As part of a couple, we acquire a thousand habits that are either a product of our partner’s preferences or an emergent property of the relationship. These habits touch all aspects of our lives: daily rhythms, the food we eat, the friends we keep, the places we go, the things we do on weekends… The list goes on and on. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in this, but when that other person is suddenly gone, it demands a reassessment of whether to continue doing things the way we have been doing them.

Example: Am I now avoiding that park because I never actually liked our evening walks, or does it just make me sad to be there without my ex?

If you never really liked taking a walk in the evening, now is probably a good time to stop. You aren’t beholden to your partner any more; you aren’t responsible for this piece of his or her happiness. Dedicate your evenings to something else, something that you truly enjoy doing.

If you do like those evening walks, but that particular park brings back memories that are still too painful, you have a couple options. You can find another park. Or – my personal recommendation – you can reclaim that space as your own. No need to push yourself too hard or too fast in either direction, but if there’s one thing I have learned about coping with divorce: It is absolutely fundamental to identify what you really enjoy doing and do it. A lot. In fact, you should do everything you like in bold excess, if you can manage it.

In my experience, part of this process of rediscovering one’s preferences involves revisiting the past. Over the last year, I’ve found myself looping back to key points in my life. This has included reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen in years, either through their initiative or my own.

It also included resurrecting certain rituals that have strong associations. For example, in Barcelona I walked to our neighborhood bakery first thing every morning, in part because I loved having fresh bread for breakfast, but mostly because it reminded me of summers spent with my grandparents in Frankfurt while growing up.

There’s been a lot of this sort of thing: I keep gravitating toward experiences that were once an important part of my life. Recently, I went out for a night of Latin dancing (something I couldn’t go a week without in my 20s); this summer, I returned to the Ozarks for some good, old-fashioned water sports (harking back again to my childhood).

Not that I want to return to all the habits I had decades ago, but I have been engaging in a kind of mental time travel: looking through windows toward my past as I work to integrate who I’ve been with who I am and who I want to be. I didn’t conscientiously plan it this way, but in hindsight I know a good instinct has led me down this path.

One of the most important outcomes of these multiple encounters with Past Me has been a reaffirmation of the choices I’ve made. This has been a little surprising, because if I’m to be honest, not too long I believed I would find at least one mistake and probably many in my past. Choices I should – or should not – have made. Moments where I went right when I should have gone left, or veered left when I should’ve gone right.

Being unable to identify any glaring mistakes in my past has been at once comforting and unsettling. Why, if I’ve consistently made the best choices I could, has life handed me these terrible periods of deep pain? Why, after having chosen the best partner among all those available to me, did I still end up alone?

It’s a common myth that making the right choices inevitably leads to happiness. But [spoiler alert] life is never constantly happy, no matter what choices we make.

In this sense, making the right choices also inevitably leads to sorrow, loss, pain, and all the other difficult emotions we really wish we could avoid.

But who wants to think about it that way?

One of my favorite characters in The Silver Web, Mage Corey of East Selen, has a habit of insisting there’s no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” choice; there are simply decisions we make and the consequences they bring. Corey does not endorse moral relativism (except, ahem, when he does…). He’s just saying that a fork in the road is nothing more than that: a fork in the road.

So make your choice carefully, but once you’ve made it, don’t punish yourself for what might have been. No matter which route you take, everything life has to offer – joy, sorrow, triumph, and defeat – will be waiting around the bend. To embrace life, you must embrace it all.