Michael Levy, an Appreciation and a Farewell

April 4, 2017 in About Kelly, Pets and other friends, Politics/Public Service, Publishing

Michael Levy, one of best men it has ever been my pleasure to know, has left the world. He was a friend, a mentor, and something halfway between a brother and father to me and to Laura.

I first met Mike in 2000, the year my wife, Laura, took her current position as a professor in the physics department at UW-Stout. The then director of research services heard that Laura’s husband was a science fiction writer and immediately thought of Mike’s work as a reviewer and scholar of science fiction. Introductions were made, and we soon became friends with Mike and his wife, Sandy. Over the following seventeen years that relationship has deepened into a connection that is as much family as it is friendship.

Mike was brilliant, giving, gentle, kind, and possessed of a bottomless and quirky sense of humor that meshed with mine in a delightfully odd sort of way. I think that the laughter we so often shared is what I will miss the most about him. We shared many meals, we played games together, and critiqued each other’s writing. We shared good times and bad and we were always there for each other. But most of all, we laughed together every time we were in the same room, even in darker moments. It hurts my heart so very much to know that we will never share another joke or quip.

Other people will talk about Mike’s many important contributions to the field of speculative fiction and they will do a better a job of it than I could, but I do want to talk a little about how his work affected mine, because my writing is at the center of who I am and Mike deeply affected my writing. One of the first things that Mike did after we met was ask to see my most recent book, though I was at that point still barely published with only a couple of short story sales to my name. It was a contemporary fantasy with the working title Winter of Discontent and I had finished the book within the last few weeks. It was steeped in theater and set in a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Of everything I have ever written it was far and away the most literary. Handing it to a man who was not only a speculative fiction reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly, but also an English professor was more than a bit intimidating, especially when we had only just met, but I swallowed hard and handed it over.

When Mike finished the book we got together in his office for a chat about it. Scary stuff for an unpublished novelist. I’m not sure what I expected to hear. I was proud of the book, certainly, but not at all sure I had pulled off even half of what I intended. I cannot begin to express how validating it was to hear him say that not only was it good work, it was important work. He thought it had the potential to be a big book. Not necessarily in terms of sales, but in stature. That conversation is one of the things that kept me writing in the years between 2000 and selling my first novel in 2005. Sadly, Winter of Discontent has never been published, though it has come very close several times. It is out on submission again now, after sitting in a trunk for most of a decade followed by a recent rewrite. When it sells, I will owe a huge debt for any successes it has to Mike.

Though he never got the chance to formally review Winter of Discontent, Mike did review several of my other books and was a champion of my work, taking me more seriously as a writer and an artist than I often do myself. For the last decade when Mike taught his yearly science fiction course, one of the assigned books was always my WebMage. Every time he taught it he would invite me in to speak with his class about the work, which was always a pleasure. Now, I think of myself as a commercial writer first and foremost and that is how I generally talk about my work at places like Mike’s class. But it’s not something he was ever willing to let pass unchallenged. When he spoke about my work he would argue for me having a great passion for politics and ethics in my writing, a tendency to slip deeper topics into light books, and even my literary merit. He always took my work more seriously than I do, and believed in it in ways that I am not generally willing to. My gratitude for that is boundless.

Mike was an academic mentor to Laura as well, helping her negotiate the academic politics specific to Stout, the challenges of being a department chair, the world of academic publishing, and so much more. He made us better, stronger, happier people, and we are not alone in that. Over the last few weeks we have heard similar stories from many of his friends. Wherever he went, he helped people to achieve their dreams and be their best selves. His absence is going to take a bright light out of our world. He was endlessly generous with his time, his insights, and his love. He was a great mentor and a great teacher and he made a huge difference in the lives of his friends, his colleagues, his many proteges, his students and the whole world of speculative fiction. He was taken from us both too soon and too young and Laura and I will miss him as long as we live.

Eulogy for a Cat: Beloved Isabelle

March 1, 2017 in About Kelly, Cat Things, Pets and other friends

Yesterday I said goodbye to Isabelle. She was my cat, or perhaps that should be My Cat. I’ve lived with and loved quite a few cats and a number of dogs, but none of them were as close to me as my Belle. For seventeen years she was my shadow, rarely out of sight and usually touching me if she could.

With the exception of a few of my first short stories, she has had a paw in almost everything I’ve ever published. Literally. The sound of my keyboard in production mode has always brought her hurrying to climb onto my chest so she could cuddle up while I worked. The fact that I am typing this now without her breaks my heart. I want nothing more than to set my laptop aside and curl up in a ball in a dark room.

But, if I am anything, it is a writer and a storyteller. Sometimes that means writing things I never wanted to write and telling stories with endings I never wanted to see. Today, as I sit here typing alone for the first time in ages, is one of those days. But not writing this would be a betrayal of the life I have set out to lead, because part of being a writer is to say the things others don’t have the words for, to give voice to things that are hard to say. So, here goes.

Someone I love dearly has died. That she was a cat and not a human being doesn’t make that any easier to say or to cope with. It feels like I have shards of broken glass in my heart, and my eyes ache from all the tears. I know from past grief that this deep pain will ease over time, that it will become a thing of sudden moments of loss and not a continuous ache. It will go from constant companion to daily visitor and eventually to a series of lightning stabs triggered by an image or sound or quiet memory.

But it will never fade completely away, and that is as it should be. Because grief is love, however much it hurts. We would not feel it if we had not loved, and the greater the love the deeper the pain. I would not give up the one to save myself the other, even here at the rawest edge of loss. I loved my Isabelle and she is gone forever and that cuts me to the marrow, but I would not trade a second of the time we had together to ease the pain of the moment.

Farewell my dear one, I will never forget you. Thank you for being my cat and for letting me share you with the world by way of catvest and Friday cat blogging and about a million pictures and stories. The best way I can think to honor your memory is to do what I always do and tell a few more of your stories here.

Isabelle was abandoned by the neighbors who lived across the alley from us. We had seen enough of her to know they had gotten her largely to be a plaything for their children, who did not treat her well. It was one of those things that makes you angry but there’s not much you can do to fix. Not until they moved out in the middle of the night and left her behind. I’m not sure how long it was from then until we adopted her—though it couldn’t have been too many days—but I do remember the second I decided that she was doomed if she stayed out there much longer.

It was the squirrel. Laura and I were sitting at the dining room table when we happened to see this half-starved adolescent cat stalking the squirrel sitting under our birdfeeder. She was maybe twenty feet away from it at that point and the thing that made us notice her was that the squirrel suddenly sat up and glared at her as if to say “Are you serious?” The cat froze and the squirrel went back to eating.

After a few seconds the cat started to move forward again. She got about five feet before the squirrel sat up again. This time the expression on its face was pure DeNiro: “Are you talkin’ to me?” Again, the cat froze and the squirrel went back to eating. Another five feet, another confrontational look, another freeze. Finally, when she was about two yards away the squirrel turned, ran straight at her and leaped a couple of feet into the air before landing on her head and smashing her face into the ground. Then, as if nothing had happened, the squirrel went back to its lunch. The cat staggered off in the other direction and I decided I’d better see about feeding her and trying to get her to trust me enough to bring her inside.

It took exactly two plates of food before she crawled into my lap and started purring like her life depended on it. Since I had to go pick Laura up from grad school, and I couldn’t bring her in the house with our other cats before we took her to the vet to make sure she didn’t have anything contagious, I brought her with me to the U. She hid under the seat the whole way, but came out as soon as Laura was there to hold her. She loved being held like no other cat I’ve ever known.

She especially loved being held on her back like a baby, at least until the last few years when her arthritis started to make that painful for her. Perhaps the best example of that was a few days after we got her when our friends Sara and James came over to meet the new cat. James picked her up like a baby and she stayed there purring for over an hour. He finally had to set her down because his arms had fallen asleep.

Isabelle was a bit of a shock for our two elderly male cats. Imagine a street kid moving in with a couple of bachelor farmers and you’ll have the effect pretty well nailed. She went into heat in that first couple of days, and that really freaked them out. It also had one particularly embarrassing and funny moment for me.

I am in the habit of getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and nabbing a cat to bring to bed with me on the way back. Isabelle is such a snuggler that she always loved this. Only, when she was in heat, she decided that I was a BOY and that she needed to let me know. So, as soon as I laid down she peed on my chest. I was able to keep it from getting on the sheets by pinning my arms to my side, but then I was completely unable to move. Eventually, Laura stopped laughing long enough to get me a towel. Eventually.

Yesterday, when I took her in to the vet to see if she was in as bad a shape as I feared, Isabelle peed in her carrier and I got it all over me when I pulled her out and held her while we waited for the vet to join us. I am a storyteller, and that circular story structure is a thing that I have often used to effect. To have it happen in real life seems exactly, hilariously right. Especially since it was her kidneys that killed her.

Once we knew that she was going to die, I arranged for the vet to come by in the evening and I brought her home. She always hated going to the vet more than any of the other cats, and I didn’t want her to die in that environment that frightened her so much. We spent the day snuggled up in bed—always her favorite thing—and I took one last nap with the cat who has always been able to get me to go to sleep no matter how badly stressed I am or how hard the insomnia is hitting.

She died in my arms surrounded by love and I am incredibly grateful for that. I never wanted that day to come, but as terrible things go it happened in the least terrible way possible. I don’t think things happen for a reason, though I wish I did, but her death couldn’t have been better timed or gentler if she’d arranged it to make it easier for us.

She hated when we traveled and it stressed her into some kind of ailment more than once. But we had been home long enough so there was no guilt about our last trip and the next was still on the horizon, so that worry is gone. It was very sudden. She’s old and arthritic and has had bad kidneys for nearly a decade, but she’d been doing better the last few months and acting positively spry. She didn’t suffer.

It came at the end of a break for me so that I was relaxed and had had plenty of time to spend with her in the past few weeks. It came before what’s going to be a very tough writing task that will absorb most of my energy, but not so soon before that I can’t push it off a bit and take time to grieve. It was on a weekday so there was no need to try to deal with the emergency vet instead of people she knew well. Her illness wasn’t so terrible that we had to let her go on the spot at the vet. It was a mercy in every way but one.

Someone I love has died, and my heart is broken. Over time it will heal into a new shape, but now, in the moment, I am full of pain and I miss my cat so very much.

Goodbye Isabelle, I love you.

A tribute in photos. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Wisconsin Nov 6th…

November 6, 2016 in About Kelly, Silly

Tales From the Other Side of My Life

September 28, 2016 in About Kelly, Politics/Public Service

Last night was one of those great meetings where it was genuinely fun to be an elected official. Agenda item: awards and recognition.

In addition to being an author, I’m what most people think about as a county commissioner, though that’s not the language we use here. My county is a largely rural, midwestern county with a university town in our micro-metro area, part of which I represent.

Last summer our local 4H cow judging team took the state championship, and then went on to nationals where they also won. This is unusual for two reasons, my county is relatively tiny and most state teams are an all star slate instead of a single county team.

Until they came before the board to present on that last fall, I didn’t even know we had a cow judging team, much less what it does. But they cheerfully educated us on the topic.

Having won nationals, our cow judging team was invited to the international competition in Scotland. The county helped pay their way. Last night they came back in to report on how they did and to thank us.

Fun for me both because we helped them along and because I have spent many happy weeks in Scotland where I was married in 1994. So, lots of slides of places I know.

But, even better, they did very well. For the world cow judging competition, they split our four person team into two sub teams. They took 3rd and 6th place. They also took 1st individual, and 1st individual for showmanship.

The young woman who was their lead person on the report was the one who took 1st individual. She was poised smart, and focused. She was also a dead ringer for Hermione Granger, which warmed my geeky heart.

So, why do I bring all of this up?

Because, these smart and talented young people from a tiny rural county were significantly helped by local government. Too often, we hear about government getting it wrong. I thought it was worth pointing out a place where government got it right.

It’s also worth pointing out that in a representative democracy, WE are the government. Me more directly than many, but it always comes down to us, either as the people making and implementing policy, or as voters choosing who will do those things for us.

This is exactly why I am now serving my 5th term despite low compensation, and the drain on time and energy that I could be sinking into my primary job of writing fiction. Because it’s important, and someone needs to do it.

Me And My Creative Brain: A Dialogue.

September 26, 2016 in About Kelly, Kelly Vs. Morning, Silly

Brain: Ooh ooh ooh!
Me: What? It’s three in the morning.
Brain: I figured out the whole unicorn thing.
Me: What? The? Hell?
Brain: No, it’s great.
Me: It’s not great, it’s three in the morning.
Brain: No, I’ve got this.
Me: All right, It’s obvious you won’t let me sleep. Tell me.
Brain: *assuming an erudite English accent* It’s the equinox!
Me: …the hell.
Brain: *in accent* You see, the mistake is easy. Vernal instead of virginal. Right?
Me: *blinking* Not sure where you’re going with this…
Brain: *in accent* And equinox. Equi meaning center and nox…well, it doesn’t mean horn, but it sounds like ox and oxes have horns. Easy mistake.
Me: *in accent* First, it’s oxen…oh gods, now I’m doing it.
Brain: *in accent* See! It makes perfect sense. Vernal equinox and virginal unicorns.
Me: Go back to sleep, brain.
Brain: *drops accent* Not till we tell Laura, she’s going to want to hear this.
Me: Not at three in the morning.
Brain: Sure she will.
Me: I may not be _good_ at self preservation but I’m pretty sure on this one.
Brain: *pouts*
Me: *sigh* All right, I promise I’ll jot it all down and we can tell her first thing in the morning.
Brain:
Me: Brain?
Brain:
Me: You’re asleep already aren’t you?
Brain: *snores*
Me: Fucker.

Addendum from a few hours later with Laura.

Me: *sighs* My fucking brain.
Her: That’d be a good autobiography title for you.
Me: O.o
Her: *chuckles*

Daily Writing Habits

September 20, 2016 in About Kelly, Professionalism, Writing

I was asked when I write and for how long, but there’s no simple answer because time at keyboard has never been my writing metric. So, it can vary quite a bit day-to-day and has varied even more over time.
 
When I was starting out I wrote mostly in the late afternoons and evenings after my college coursework, from 4-6 hours. While Laura was in grad school I wrote 6-8 hours a day most days while she was at school—basically 10-6.
 
For the early Blade books I was writing mostly 9-12 in the morning with a second, smaller bite at the apple starting around 2. With the later Blade books and middle grade stuff I’ve often been doing most of my writing 3-5 in afternoon.
 
Some of the variability is writing speed. When I was starting out I wrote 2-4k words in 6-8 hours, of which maybe 1-2 was ultimately salvageable. Now I typically need to write 1-2k words a day for a deadline and I can use 85-95% of what goes on the page in a session. That can take anywhere from 1-6 hours to write depending on whether I know what happens next or not and if I’m in flow state.
 
I also used to do most of my thinking about the book while I was at the keyboard and trying to write. These days, that part of the work is quite often a separate step that involves walking and talking to myself. That, and I have a lot more non-writing tasks that are part of my job these days.

How Fast I Write

July 8, 2016 in About Kelly, Professionalism, Publishing, Writing

Someone asked how fast I write compared to other writers. Since I thought that might be something of interest to some of you. Here’s my response:
 
An average working science fiction novelist can reliably produce something in the neighborhood of one book a year at around 100,000 words. Some, including some of the best, are slower—1 book every 2-5 years.
 
I can reliably write around 200,000 publishable words a year in fiction and another 50,000 of nonfiction. I’ve written 100,000 in 88 days for deadline, but that’s really pushing what I can manage. I’m considered a very fast writer by most of my peers, but there are a small number of people in the industry who are considerably faster.
 
I know writers who can produce 1,000,000 publishable words in a year.
 
Gaming and tie-in writers tend to be on the faster end of things, and, while it’s a slightly different skill set, I respect their work enormously. I can’t do some of the things they do at anything like the speed. I know because I’ve tried writing in other people’s worlds and I find it very hard.
 
For me that’s produced something like 5,000,000 words in the 25 years I’ve been writing. From there, a guesstimate puts me at something between 15,000 and 25,000 hours of hands on keyboard writing time, which has been something between 35% and 65% of the job depending on where I’ve been at in my career.

Writing and Stubborn

April 18, 2016 in About Kelly, Books, Publishing, Writing

Writer World PSA: Rejections mean you’re doing writing right.
 
I have ~500 rejections, some very recent.
 
I also have 12 novels in print, 2 under contract, numerous short story publications, poems published, and even a science comic.
 
I had 91 rejections before my first sale. My 2nd sale was to a pro market that went under before it published. It was 6 years between my 1st short story sale and my 1st novel sale. Time and rejection are normal.
 
I started writing seriously in 1991. 1st short sale 1998. 1st novel sale 2005. Novels 11 and 12 came out in 2015. 13 and 14 are due to my editor in 2016.
 
I have 12 novels or partials out under submission right now reflecting 3 series and 3 stand-alones. I’m writing a spec book between the contract books just because.
 
Stubborn succeeds.
Don’t give up because your story got rejected. Don’t give up because you got a hundred rejections. Don’t give up.

Squick and Squee As Cartoon Mice

April 15, 2016 in About Kelly, Kelly Vs. Morning, Silly, Surreal, The Genre

My Brain, a Brief Illustration:

A) This thread needs a mouse saying squick squick squick.

1) Okay, someone with art skill needs to draw an obviously alarmed little mousy saying “Squick! Squick! Squick!”

2) Google tells me that the Squick Mouse is not a thing, and it clearly needs to be.

3) Actually there should probably be a pair of mice like comedy tragedy masks. Squick and Squee for different occasions.

4)…and now I’m picturing the mice Squick and Squee sitting in a theater box commenting on fan fiction plays like Statler and Waldorf at the Muppet show.

There’s Nothing Inherently Wrong With Self Confidence

February 26, 2016 in About Kelly, rant, Writing

Every so often I am reminded that I am not like all the other children. By which, I mean that I do not suffer from the same set of confidence issues that many of my writer peers deal with. This is not to say that I don’t have my own personal set of writer neuroses, or that I have always believed my work is amazing, but simply that I am not and really have never been subject to imposter syndrome.

I suspect part of this comes out of my Open School background where I was taught to believe in my bones that I could do anything I wanted to do, if I was willing to work hard enough for it. It is worth noting that I was not taught that I would be good at something from the start, that I was inherently talented at everything, or that I wouldn’t experience a lot of failure along the way. In fact, I was taught and internalized that it would take hard work, that I would have to face a lot of failure, and that talent mattered much less than being willing to do the work. I was also taught methods for realistically assessing my progress toward my goals and the necessity of accepting responsibility when I fall short.

As I said, I’ve never had imposter syndrome. I have had any number of moments where I fell short and realized I needed to work harder to reach the next level with my writing.  Then I went on to do that work and moved on and up. It’s been a hard slow climb—I’ve got five hundred rejection letters that speak to that—and there’s still a lot of room for me to grow and improve, but I think that it’s fair to say with twelve published novels and dozens of short stories under my belt at this point that I’m making my way up that wall. I’m just taking a different route than those of my peers whose issues include dealing with imposter syndrome.

There is no one right path to becoming a successful writer or artist. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.