Jennifer Brozek | All posts tagged 'Tell me'

Tell Me - Emily Bell

Today, Emily Bell tells us why she and her publishing house stepped into the world of foreign language translations and what she learned in the process.

Hello – I’m Emily, a fantasy writer as well as an editor for Atthis Arts in Ferndale, Michigan. And of all the projects I ever saw myself taking on in a strange and uncertain future, I did not see Ukrainian translations. I’m not Ukrainian, or of Ukrainian culture or descent. So how did our little press in Ferndale get involved with Ukrainian translation? And what have I learned from it?

My spouse was pulled aside at Can*Con in 2022, to talk about a collection of stories hoping to raise money for Ukrainian charities. It had stories, it had a grant, but it had lost its publisher. We looked into it, knew the need for Ukrainian independence, and agreed to help.

I will not get into the details, but the more we learned, the more it unraveled. We lost the grant, we lost the editors, there were issues with the stories. Right as it was about to disintegrate, Chicago writer Valya Dudycz Lupescu, my spouse, Chris Bell, and I had a serious talk. This was too important, and we would not go back to the Ukrainian editors with the sound of explosions outside of their windows and tell them this wasn’t happening, after all their work, because it got too hard. We weren’t in a position to continue it as a direct fundraiser, but we would share these stories. We would make it work.

This is where the world stepped in. Ukrainian translators got us connected to the Ukrainian Book Institute, who offered us a grant. More than 1000 backers from over 30 countries helped fund the rest of the costs. Volunteers helped us get the book done on the grant schedule, reviewing, editing, proofreading. Embroidered Worlds: Fantastic Fiction from Ukraine and the Diaspora, edited by Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Olha Brylova, and Iryna Pasko was born. I sometimes lightly refer to this collection as “the book that made people fall asleep on their laptops all around the world.” But truly, it is a triumph; of  Ukrainian art, spirit, and culture—and the power of global solidarity.

What have I learned from all this? Human translations are vital. They cost money, yes, as they should, but they are vital. There are nuances and choices to translation, much more than right or wrong or literal meaning. Thoughtfully translated stories share culture, share hearts, connect us. They are always, always underfunded. The people who advocate for them exhaust themselves appealing to those with resources.

If you are reading this, I ask you: please advocate for translations. Read them. Fund them. Talk about them.

As a personal note, if I had life to do over again, I would have been a translator. I was taught I had to do something that “made money,” hence my two engineering degrees. But, now I can give back. Now I can do something I never expected. This experience (and other personal issues) have also revived my passion for language. I’m currently learning and practicing four languages other than my own, and it is making me a happier, fuller person. It is helping me connect with the world.

Once the book was done, we shelved our exhaustion and moved on to a now packed release schedule, and vowed: no more surprise projects. Then we learned, within a couple days of another grant timeline, that Ігор Мисяк, a poet, a writer, and a combat medic now volunteer solider, had recently published a novel, Завод, before being killed by Russia. And it was available for translation.

The project, which will be The Factory by Igor Mysiak translated by Hanna Leliv, spoke to me. In the language of poets, the language of sorrow, and the language of hope.

I hope it will speak to you, also.

To Igor, I see you. And I look forward to reading your words. They will stay with me.

To the world, keep writing. We will find ways to share our stories.
E.D.E. Bell (she/her or e/em) is a fantasy writer and small press editor. A passionate vegan and earnest progressive, she feels strongly about issues related to equality and compassion. Her works are quiet and queer and often explore conceptions of identity and community, including themes of friendship, family, and connection. She lives in Ferndale, Michigan, where she writes stories, revels in garlic, and manages the creative side of her indie press, Atthis Arts. You can follow eir adventures at

Tell Me - Xan van Rooyen

Today Xan van Rooyen tells me why a book may need to be re-written multiple times before the writer grows into the author the novel needs them to be. Then, and only then, can that story be told as it needs to be.


Silver Helix took me 12 years and 5 rewrites before it was ready for publication and found a home with Android Press.

This book became the YA novel that landed me my first agent, but never sold, possibly because it was a little too odd and a lot too queer for the industry back then. At the time I began writing this book, I had no idea I was non-binary. I knew I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin despite how hard I tried to embrace my assigned sex at birth. For years I thought if I could just perform ‘girl’ better, then happiness and validation would follow. Thus the only reason I wasn’t happy being ‘girl’ was because of my own failings.

I shelved the book and wrote other stories, all queer, all helping me explore aspects of myself I was struggling to name. “Write what you know” is an adage attributed to Mark Twain, a statement sometimes erroneously taken literally when really it means to be aware of appropriation and to write authentically, doing due diligence when writing characters with identities different from your own. Thing is, for years I was writing what I didn’t know I knew. Deep down I knew I wasn’t cis but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the self-awareness to find a label adequately describing who I was.

It took years of self-discovery and writing a variety of queer characters, inserting myself into their bodies and minds, to understand my non-binary identity. While I remain wary of labels, I eventually started using non-binary and bisexual to describe myself, and later realized I needed to add demi-ace and possibly pansexual to the mix since identity can be fluid as people change, evolve, and gain better understanding of themselves.

When I proudly displayed these labels on my social media pages, I thought I was done. The self had been realized. This was the truth I’d always secretly known, but not been able to articulate. This was why I’d been writing queer stories for as long as I could remember while masquerading as cis and mostly het.

Turns out, I’d not only been writing queer characters before I knew I was queer, but I’d been writing autistic characters (or at least characters with autistic traits) long before I ever imagined I was autistic, too.

Struggling with sudden and debilitating mental health issues, I self-diagnosed myself with everything from a brain tumor to psychosis, but eventually connected with a therapist who recognized autistic traits in me and recommended an evaluation. Almost 18 months later, I had officially been diagnosed with autistic burn out and my identity had once again been altered.

It was only with diagnosis in hand that I remembered all the times editors had called my characters quirky or idiosyncratic with peculiar habits (all little pieces of myself I had inadvertently written into my stories). I realized I’d been writing autistic characters for years the same way I’d been writing queer characters.

So, back to Silver Helix, which I rewrote a fifth and final time while getting diagnosed. It was simultaneously a source of escapism and a way for me to process a potential new identity. I never meant to write an autistic character in Silver Helix, but I’m so glad I did. I’m so glad my journey of self-discovery is reflected in my character as they grapple with their own identity, and I’m so grateful I will get to write a sequel in which my character will learn to love and accept themself the way I am still learning to love and accept myself.


Climber, tattoo collector, and peanut butter connoisseur, Xan van Rooyen is an autistic, non-binary storyteller from South Africa. You can find Xan’s stories in the likes of Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Daily Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge among others. They have also written several novels including YA fantasy My Name is Magic, and adult aetherpunk novel Silver Helix. Xan is also part of the Sauutiverse, an African writer’s collective with their first anthology Mothersound out now from Android Press. Feel free to say hi on socials @xan_writer. Linktree:


Tell Me - Amanda Cherry

Meet author Amanda Cherry. A good friend of mine who I have worked with before. Today, she tells us something most of us authors know but need to re-learn from time to time. Especially when writing the second or third (or, ahem, fifteenth) book.

Trust The Process.

That is a piece of advice all creatives hear at one time or another. It’s meant to be encouraging—to remind us that whatever mess we’re looking at can and will turn into the beautiful thing we’re intending to build. It’s a reminder that even the most exquisite painting likely started life as a rough sketch; that your favorite song probably started as a bit of melody stuck in a composer’s head or a catchy couplet scrawled into a notebook or onto a diner napkin.

Trust the process is the phrase that says: “The only way out is through, so keep going!”

The problem, when someone is new to creating things, is that the process is a stranger. And we’ve been conditioned all our lives not to trust strangers—especially not with things that are dear to us.The first time I traveled in Europe, we wound up taking an overnight train. The procedure on that train was for someone to collect all the passports in the evening so the railroad handles all the border crossings while the passengers sleep. This sounds good in theory, but in practice, it’s terrifying.

Here I was, in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, being told to surrender the one and only document that could prove my identity and my right to be there to a middle-aged woman in polyester pants.

I didn’t sleep so well that first night.

But the next morning my passport was returned to me over a cup of espresso, stamped with the names of the countries we’d passed through while we slept. All was well.

So the second time we took an overnight train, it was a little bit easier to hand my documents over—because I’d done it before, and everything had worked out fine. It turned out the person who collects the documents was in uniform—it just wasn’t my expectation of a railroad uniform. I recognized the uniform. I recognized the process.

By the third time I took an overnight train across several borders, I had zero anxiety left when asked to hand over my passport. Because I’d learned to trust the process.

Writing books has turned out to be a lot like that.

When I first had the idea for TIME & AGAIN, I had just released its predecessor (my debut) and I only had the vaguest idea of what I wanted the sequel to be. I knew I wanted a time travel story, and I knew I wanted a second chance romance.

But I had no idea of anything beyond that. Most critically, I had no idea who the time travelers were nor what they wanted with my main character.

It took me nearly five years to sit down and write this book in earnest. Because it took me finishing three more books, and seeing them published, to trust the process. Just like the overnight border crossing, my ability to get through draft after draft became familiar and trustworthy with time and repetition. And, sure enough, the answers revealed themselves as soon as I let myself sit down and do the work.

And I think y’all will enjoy the result.


Amanda Cherry is a Seattle-area queer, disabled nerd who still can’t believe people pay her to write stories. She is the author of five published novels as well as TTRPGs, screenplays, and short fiction, and a cast member in the Dungeon Scrawlers GREYMANTLE game on Twitch. Her nonfiction writing has been featured on,, and Amanda is a member of SAG-AFTRA, SFWA, & Broad Universe. Follow Amanda’s geekery on Twitter, BlueSky & TikTok @MandaTheGinger or visit

Tell Me - Sarah Day

I’m pleased to present Sarah Day to you. She was once one of my mentees. Now she is someone I look forward to reading. She is a fabulous author and I can’t wait to read her newest novella, Greyhowler. Today, she tells us why she wanted to write a monster book and what makes her monster special.


Greyhowler is a monster book. Okay, it’s a bunch of other things too, but it started as a monster book.

Ever since I was tiny, I’ve loved a scary monster. Or rather, I’ve loved being scared by a monster. I saw both JAWS and ALIENS when I was much too young to see movies with that many teeth in them, and sharks and xenomorphs chased me through my dreams for years afterward. To this day, I watch every creature movie I can, probably because I’m looking for something to replace the monsters that hunt me in my dreams.

(We all have dreams where something is hunting us, right? It’s not just me?) (Editor: No, it’s not just you.)

Now that I’m an adult, I can look at my fixation with monsters with a more clinical eye. Monsters give me a container to pour my constant low-grade anxiety into, something I can point at (or boop on the nose) and say “This is it, this right here, this is the thing I’m afraid of.” A monster condenses ambient fear about concepts (death! helplessness! mutilation! oblivion!) into something observable, but still inescapable.

Y’see, I want a monster that looms. I do not want a monster that’s basically “what if a human, but more powerful and more evil.” Not for me, the werewolf and the vampire. I want a monster that’s an extension of nature, with all of nature’s beautiful ambivalence to human life. A slow monster, a creeping monster, a monster that can slide up behind me and wait for me to notice it, patient as the grave.

The fun part of being a discovery writer (or a “pantser,” if you prefer an inelegant term, or a “gardener,” if you prefer a more elegant term) is that I maintain the ability to scare myself. Greyhowler started as a 10,000 word short story unwisely titled “The Wild World Has Room for All Manner of Things,” which I later revised into a trim novella. As I wrote my way through those first 10,000 words, the greyhowler prowled around the outer edge of my brain. It’s a constant question on the protagonist’s mind: does the greyhowler exist, or is it just a folktale? Up until I finished the first draft, I didn’t know the answer to that question myself.

When I started writing Greyhowler, it wasn’t about religious trauma. It wasn’t about friendship, or a mystery, or betrayal, or murder, or magic. All of those things are in the book now, but when it started it was because I had this persistent mental image: A woman arriving at the border of a small town, far away from home, out in the remote and golden prairie. A woman, and something just off the side of the road, crouched in the tall grass, waiting.

The greyhowler found me first, you see. I didn’t have to invent it. It was waiting for me.

Sarah Day lives in the SF Bay Area with her cat and too many LED lights. She is an author of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and many other flavors of speculative fiction. Her work is heavily influenced by festival culture, body modification, mental illness, family trauma, non-traditional relationships, and scary ghosts. She’s been published in PseudoPod, Cosmic Horror Monthly, The Future Fire, Underland Arcana, and many other great places. She’s terrified all the time and considers that an asset.

Tell Me - Iori Kusano

I had the joy of meeting Iori Kusano by being on a podcast (about Shin Kamen Rider) with them. I found them interesting, exciting, and worth listening to. Then I found out they wrote Hybrid Heart, a novella about a pop idol pursuing fame while trying to keep the heart of who she is as a person. What Iori has to say about quitting is profound. I’ve always said it: you are allowed to stop.

I am a quitter. Jobs, romances, grad school, hobbies, gym memberships: I’ll walk out on anything. If it sucks, hit da bricks, as the skeleton says.

(photo credit: dasharezone)

 This is not a trait that the rest of the world generally considers a virtue.

In both real life and fiction, our heroes are usually the ones who don’t give up—people who press forward no matter what obstacles or opponents stand in their way, those whose determination outweighs their sense of self-preservation. A good person sticks to their chosen path, keeps chasing their dreams, follows through on their commitments.

The final structure and plot of Hybrid Heart changed considerably from my first half-draft, but I knew from the first scene that it was going to be a story about the life-changing magic of just goddamn quitting.


The Japanese entertainment industry is almost universally brutal, but pop idols have it worst: the longest hours, the strictest and most unrealistic beauty standards, the sub-minimum wages. Whether it’s legal to ban idols from dating as a condition of employment is debatable (more judges rule in favor of the idols these days), but regardless of whether it’s written down, it’s commonly understood that to be caught in a romantic relationship is a career killer.

My protagonist, Rei, has to learn how to quit because her commitment to her career is actively hurting her. When we meet her, she’s so close to breakthrough success that she can taste it. All she needs is another couple of hits to cement her place in the public’s heart. In the meantime, she has no friends, she’s dieted herself halfway to death, and she lives in a smarthome panopticon that tells her boss how many minutes she spends in the shower and how hot the water is.

I think most of us wind up in a situation like that at some point in our lives—those moments when you’ve sunk-cost-fallacied yourself so far down some road that you don’t know how you’ll ever find an offramp again. We may not have brain implants reporting our social media browsing history straight to our manager yet, but everyone eventually becomes familiar with the sweaty-palmed fear of having to admit that you made the wrong choice.

And once you’ve admitted it, how do you go about fixing it?

I wrote Hybrid Heart while I was still feeling my way through the emotional fallout of quitting grad school. I’d struggled to make that decision because it felt like I was throwing away not only my own hard work, but the effort of everyone who had invested their time and knowledge in mentoring me. I couldn’t talk myself out of believing that I was letting other people down, so I had to learn how to make peace with having done so. (Fun fact: I am still too scared to talk to my former professors!)

What I wanted to communicate with Rei’s character arc was the terrifying, empowering feeling of learning how to quit. It’s heart-level stakes, but in the moment it feels apocalyptic. How do you decide to prioritize yourself when you’re sure that doing so will overturn your entire life? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but with Rei I put forward my answer: flipping the proverbial table and then accepting the consequences. Like my protagonist, I had to teach myself to move forward in an irrevocably changed world with compassion for myself.

Iori Kusano is a queer Asian American writer and Extremely Ordinary Office Gremlin living in Tokyo. They are a graduate of Clarion West 2017. Their novella Hybrid Heart is available from Neon Hemlock Press, and their short fiction appears in various magazines. Find them on Twitter @IoriKusano and Instagram as iori_stagram, or at

Tell Me - Weston Ochse

Today Weston Ochse tells me why poetry and how much wordplay means to him. I know Weston from his military fiction. This departure from his norm reveals his depths—and what a hellion he was as kid.


Okay. Okay. As long as you asked me why I wrote a short story collection, I will come clean. I cut my teeth on poetry. My first published works were poetry. I grew up with the snapping of fingers and husky-voiced women sipping Mogan David telling us bad poetry over a door spread across boxes as our dining room table when I was six. Well, that’s not fair. No poetry is really bad if fueled by the heart.

Plus, I thought I might have an interesting childhood. From drinking turpentine, to biting the heads off gold fish, to chasing old men down the street with dead snakes until they paid me a dime to leave them alone, to making a fake Rutger Hauer cry—all comically juxtaposed with a father who didn’t want me, being sexually manipulated, seeing friends die, and hardly knowing myself.

Just when I think my story is my own, I get emails about how others experienced many of the same feelings of inadequacy and valuelessness, only under different circumstance. For instance, I doubt many of the people I know bite the heads off goldfish, but it doesn’t make them any less fantastic.

When I was four we had gold fish. For some reason, I loved the feeling of biting their heads of-it was so pleasing. The way the flesh parted between my new sharp teeth and the slight tang of the fish-scented water. Then, afraid I might get into trouble, I put the bodies back into the water and the heads into a plant on an end table with poetry by Walt Whitman. My mother was so busy being a single mom, she didn't notice the floating dead fish until the smell fermented properly.

I suppose nowadays I’d be arrested and thrown into a padded cell. They say that serial killers began at home by killing small animals. Do fish count? Was that one of my possible destinies? I never felt like I was going to be a serial killer. Then again, which killer ever thinks they might be wrong?

“Wait. What? Why not simply write a short story collection?”

That’s a good one. I love the immediacy of poetry. I also love the style. Poems don’t need to rhyme, but many readers expect rhyming poetry. Yet, that’s such a small fragment of poems once popularized in the pre-Victorian Age. Now we have many styles such as Villanelles, free verse, sestina, lyrics, epics, narrative, pantoums, rondeaus, tankas, haikus, and all of those limericks your drunken uncle might have inappropriately said at Thanksgiving Dinner. There are many more, but you get the idea.  I tend to concentrate on free verse and narrative, although I have dabbled and had published some of the others.

But that really doesn’t answer your question. I suppose I wanted to open my literary aperture so that I might expand on my ability to communicate my inner self to the outer realm in a more dynamic mode. Prose is one way. Creative non-fiction is another, but neither lack the immediacy of a great poem.

I am a disciple of the Beat Poets, especially William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Alen Ginsberg, and Ishmael Reed from whom I have some of his words tattooed on my forearms.

Reed’s Poem “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” begins with I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra, I bedded down with Isis, our lady of the Boogaloo. Then there is this section that appears halfway through the poem:

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Lord of the lash,

the Loup Garou Kid. Half breed son of Pisces and

Aquarius. I hold the souls of men in my pot. I do

the dirty boogie with scorpions. I make the bulls

keep still and was the first swinger to grape the taste.


Or Ginsberg’s “Howl” which helped a generation storm forth. It opens with:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through

the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly

connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.


Can you feel the energy of those poems? The intensity? My god, if harnessed, we could change the world. Then there is my opening salvo in my short story eponymous collection Ziggy Stardust Turpentine Koolaid. It opens with these lines:

Riotous sun cooking my brain

as I sit and stare longingly at the

white liquid resting in a mason jar,

Delicious and deadly on a hard-baked stoop.


Half-crazed from boredom I glare at this world.


Do you know who I am? What I'm about?


Me, grand master of the bamboo rod, eater of

goldfish, head spitter and hider of bodies.


Me, Tow-headed maverick of the Great Plains,

I once even saw a buffalo, flick its tail like a

Great Fuck you to Buffalo Bill

before I even knew what Fuck You meant.


Me, chaser away of fathers, hated of all sons,

five-year-old testament to the fact that love

is a Cracker Jack lotto.








Convicted to a one parent family

Yeah. I dig poetry. Wait? What was the question again? Oh yeah, the reason I didn’t make this a short story collection was simple and selfish. I didn’t want to. I wanted to write a book of poetry. And I wanted to do it old school. Self-published.

And, uh, sorry. I think I might have overshared.


USA Today Best-selling author Weston Ochse has been hailed by the American Library Association as “one of the major horror authors of the 21st Century.” His work has won the Bram Stoker Award, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and won four New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. The author of more than forty books, his franchise work includes the X-Files, Predator, Aliens, AVP, Hellboy, Clive Barker’s Midian, and Joe Ledger. He was one of the founding authors of the NETFLIX TV series V-Wars. Living Dangerously:

Tell Me - Raven Oak

Today’s Tell Me is from author Raven Oak. She talks about dealing with trauma, illness, emotions, and writing—how they all intermix—and one of the most important things a writer can do for themselves.


Forgive yourself.

Seems simple, right? But for a neurodivergent, disabled author like me, not so much. The past three years have been a study in patience as I am immunocompromised aka high risk. Since 2020, I’ve carried this knot in my stomach that my career might be over.

Most authors sell more books when they’re visible, e.g. attending conventions/conferences, having in-person book signings, and teaching workshops. Without being “seen,” people forget you exist. They move on to other books and other authors. But being seen in person is something I can’t do, at least not until we have better vaccines and fewer variants. How does one continue in the face of something scary and new?

Many people aren’t honest or open enough about mental illness, let alone physical illness, but I am trying to be better about both. Getting COVID twice (from my doctors no less) kicked my ass. It physically changed me with its organ damage, not to mention the cognitive symptoms. Long COVID is not just long but brutal.

For years, I was lucky if I could work an hour without needing an hour nap in response. (Even today, I tend to take an afternoon nap, and my kitties help encourage that.) I used to type between 90-110 wpm (words per minute), but now, I’m lucky if I manage 50 wpm. My editors find simple grammatical mistakes now that I never used to make—and as a former English teacher, this galls me. I know, I mean, I knew better. Then there’s blanking on word choices and names. When did I get so forgetful?

Writing is harder. Editing is harder. Life is harder.


This past January, many of my colleagues and friends were posting articles about how much writing they’d accomplished in 2022. After the depressing look at my taxes, I said, “What the hell! Let’s see how little I wrote in the pandemic.” But I surprised myself. Looking at the number of short fiction I’d sold and written through the years helped me understand that progress isn’t the same for every writer, and I had made progress.

Piecing together the stories for not one but two collections helped me step back and find ways to accommodate this new me. To learn what I am still capable of accomplishing. While everything has changed, nothing that matters has changed at all.

I’m still an author, and I can still tell stories. How I present them to the world may look different. For example, my “book releases” will be virtual for a while, and the length of time it takes me to finish a novel may be longer, but I’m still a writer.  

Now, I don’t mean to imply everything’s fine because it isn’t. There’s an anxiety and depression that comes with long COVID. A feeling that the world’s gladly leaving you behind. It’s the Great Wall of China, and I’m an ant at the base of it looking up in a wild panic. Being a realist, I’m not a fan of toxic positivity, but during three years of hell, I managed to write.

With these stories I’m sharing with the world, I’m giving myself permission to slow down when I need to do so, and in this acknowledgement, I forgive myself. Better than that, I realize that there is no need to forgive myself.

This is who I am now, and maybe that’s okay.


Multi-international award-winning speculative fiction author Raven Oak (she/they) is best known for Amaskan’s Blood (2016 Ozma Fantasy Award Winner, Epic Awards Finalist, & Reader’s Choice Award Winner)Amaskan’s War (2018 UK Wishing Award YA Finalist), and Class-M Exile. She also has many published short stories in anthologies and magazines. She’s even published on the moon! Raven spent most of her K-12 education doodling and writing 500 page monstrosities that are forever locked away in a filing cabinet.

Besides being a writer and artist, she’s a geeky, disabled ENBY who enjoys getting her game on with tabletop games, indulging in cartography and art, or staring at the ocean. She lives in the Seattle area with her partner, and their three kitties who enjoy lounging across the keyboard when writing deadlines approach. Her hair color changes as often as her bio does, and you can find her at


Dragons Springs releases 6/1 and Space Ships 7/1. Pre-Orders live now. Print & eBook

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Tell Me - Brandon Crilly

Brandon Crilly, author of Catalyst, talks about when characters do the unexpected and how it can benefit the writer. I’ve had this happen. In the third book of the Karen Wilson Chronicles, a tertiary character unexpected sacrificed himself, changing the course of the book and the rest of the series. Yeah, Brandon, *sage nod* I understand.

 Cover of Catalyst by Brandon Crilly

Characters have minds of their own once you flesh them out—and while it sounds bizarre to some people, we writers know that sometimes they’ll take control of the story while you’re drafting.

I tend to think of myself as an outliner, but really, I’m halfway to a pantser. My outline is part scene description for a play and part predictions about what will push my characters one way or another, and I don’t know everything that’s going to happen until I start drafting. That’s part of the fun for me—if I know everything ahead of time, there’s no need for me to write the draft because I won’t be surprised. (Maybe I’m secretly a writer chaotician. I do enjoy wearing a leather jacket.)

Because I’ve only outlined as much as I need and there’s lots of room for play, drafting sometimes means my characters react in ways I don’t expect. Small scale, it’s a particular line that comes across snarkier or more heartfelt than I would’ve thought, or one character turns to face the onrushing horde of spiders instead of leaping through the portal with their friends. But occasionally, as I’m drafting, one of my characters reacts in such a fundamentally different way than what I expect that it changes the entire path of that scene, if not the whole novel, and all I can do is watch. Like they’re directing my fingers on the keyboard.

Eerie, right? Unless you’ve had this moment, in which case we can nod sagely at each other across the table and ignore the folks giving us weird looks.

This happened during the drafting of Catalyst, in what’s become one of my favorite scenes of the book. Avoiding spoilers, my three central protagonists—street magician Mavrin, self-professed heretic Eyasu, and ex-soldier Deyeri—have their first moment of genuine quiet together after one dangerous or fast-paced moment after another, which started with being reunited after more than a decade. Starting to draft that scene, I thought it would be light and comfortable, as these three remember why they were friends for so long and realize that, even now, they have each other’s backs. Maybe even with a couple in-jokes.


Partway through, Deyeri makes an offhand comment that makes Mavrin and Eyasu laugh – but as I was writing that laughter, suddenly I saw Mavrin start to come apart. He’s someone who’s not used to adventure, and carries around a lot of guilt, and the act of genuinely laughing at something for the first time in days suddenly let out a bunch of other emotions I’m not sure I realized he was carrying. And all I could do was figure out how Eyasu and Deyeri would react to what quickly became one of the most heartfelt moments in the entire novel.

Had I tried to force the scene in a different direction, it would’ve produced something awkward and probably not as good. Instead, drafting that scene felt like alchemy more than writing—which means that when it happens again, I’ll know to trust my characters and let them take charge for a bit.


Brandon Crilly has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Haven Spec and other markets. He’s also an Aurora Award-winning podcaster, reviewer, conference organizer, and snake parent to a delightful corn snake named Bob. His debut fantasy novel Catalyst came out in October 2022 from Atthis Arts.

Tell Me - Gregory A. Wilson

Greg Wilson, an author, professor, and friend of mine, has a kickstarter going for his Grayshade novels and RPG—a worthy endeavor. Today, he tells me about the eponymous Grayshade character of the series and why he would write about such a person.


The thing about Grayshade is: he’s a killer.

This is a pretty clear conclusion from the get-go, when you’re dealing with an assassin. And Grayshade is no ordinary assassin; he’s an elite Acolyte in the Order of Argoth, tasked with eliminating targets assigned to him by his superiors, and uplifted and stabilized by his faith in Argoth, the Just God. But he’s also a man with a conscience, who for years has shielded himself from the full consequences of his actions with routine and ritual. Grayshade sees himself as a surgeon with a scalpel, not a butcher with a cleaver; he only kills his assigned targets, and only when (and as much as) his faith, the tenets of which are taught and conveyed by the Order, demands it.

Yet as I try to show in the book and have discussed elsewhere, this is ultimately a fool’s game. You cannot have a conscience and be protected from monstrous actions. You cannot face trauma after trauma and not pay a price for facing them. For all of the rituals and mantras and meditations, in the end Grayshade is a killer, plain and simple, no matter what the motivations behind his actions are. It’s not until those motivations are stripped away, until he’s shown what’s actually at the core of his faith, that he’s forced to confront who he actually is, knowledge which almost destroys him.

Why write about someone like this? Surely we get enough stories/movies about killers, and beyond the constant drumbeat of stories of real life murderers, the inner life of someone willing to (repeatedly) kill others is actually terrifically boring—on a basic level, a murder is the ultimate act of petty selfishness, the elimination of the most fundamental right to fulfill a individual desire driven by hatred, or vengeance, or “justice” (which in Grayshade may amount to the same thing). I was conscious of all of this when writing the novel, and in the beginning, I wasn’t particularly interested in Grayshade as killer, but Grayshade as thinker and planner, one elite operative up against an organization with far superior resources and motivation to get their people into line. Yet as I continued to write and revise, I became more interested in what drove someone like Grayshade to become what he was…and more important, what could drive him away from it again, and keep him on that path back to better action.

Grayshade himself knows that on one level there’s no redeeming what he’s done in the past. No matter what he thought were the reasons for what he does, no matter how much a potentially good person might have been manipulated into becoming a tool for the evil acts of others, the acts are what they are. But in a way, the journey forward, away from the evil, is more important than whatever the destination is. Like The Equalizer’s Robert McCall or Jason Bourne or Nikita, Grayshade’s decision to seek a new path is, to me, a fundamentally human act of hope, driven by a desire to be better tomorrow than he was today…and it was both fascinating, and even moving, to document that journey. As to where the journey ultimately concludes?

Well, like Grayshade, that’s something you’ll only know when you get there. Until then, I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I have.


Gregory A. Wilson is Professor of English at St. John's University in New York, where he teaches creative writing and speculative fiction. Outside academia he is the author of the epic fantasy The Third Sign, the award-winning graphic novel Icarus, the dark fantasy Grayshade (with a just launched IP Kickstarter), and the D&D adventure/sourcebook Tales and Tomes from the Forbidden Library, plus a number of published short stories. He co-hosts the actual play podcast Speculate! ( and is co-coordinator of the Origins Authors Alcove. Under the moniker Arvan Eleron, he runs a Twitch channel focused on narrative, with many sponsored TTRPG campaigns featuring authors, editors, actors, and artists. He lives with his family in Connecticut; his virtual home is

Tell Me – Chris McKinney

Today, Chris McKinney tells me how finally including his childhood loves and memories into his fiction gave him a breath of new life—personally and professionally. As a child of the eighties, I can see myself in him. As an author who had her own rediscovery of self, I empathize with him.


Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, Heavy Metal—when I was a child, these were among my favorite things. Then, later, when gaming emerged, Baldur’s Gate, Final Fantasy, Fallout, Everquest, Bioshock, Mass Effect—I couldn’t get enough to the point where I had to stop (my last brief relapse was Red Dead Redemption II—but I digress). However, despite all these influences, their impact on my writing was minimal for years. After all, I was taught in graduate school that fiction writing is serious business.

It took a couple of decades for me to understand that, sure, fiction is serious, but it can be fun, too. I wanted to have fun, so I decided to delve into speculative fiction that paid homage to my childhood loves. I didn’t want to copy these things, but I didn’t shy away from their influence either. The result is Midnight, Water City, the first book in a trilogy. It’s set in 2142, and is a mash up of murder mystery, cyberpunk, noir, and eco-fiction. It’s fusion like I’m fusion. I’m a Korean, Japanese, Scottish American who was born and raised on an island in the middle of the Pacific. I live three blocks away from a huge Chinese graveyard. I live one mile away from a waterfall next to an arboretum that fights to preserve endangered Hawaiian plant species. My Japanese American stepfather is an aging vet who was a LRRP in Vietnam. So guess what? Graveyards, waterfalls, indigenous plant life, and an old war vet—I threw all this in the trilogy, too.

I’ve also spent just about my entire life in, and near, the ocean, so I figured, why not? Let’s toss in an underwater city as well. Books that I’ve written in the past, “serious” regional fiction that has been well-received over the years, really only revealed parts of me. My first book, a semi-autobiographic novel that ignores the childhood loves that I mention above. My second, loosely based on some of my grandparents’ experiences during and after the Korean War. A couple of novels about addiction, which I’ve struggled with in the past. But I revealed more of myself in Midnight, Water City than any other book. My love of the ocean and my anxiety of the future. My lifelong jones for sci-fi and fantasy. The looming sensation and fear that I don’t see things the way most others do and that a big part of my life has been me barreling through existence and leaving wreckage behind. These books, are, in fact, the most personal and “serious” I’ve ever written. They also pressed my imagination more than it had ever been pressed before.

But they’re meant to be fun, too. I hope some of the joy that I felt while worldbuilding is reflected on the page. I also sadistically hope that readers feel the twinge of terror that one can feel when underwater. We’ve all been there, some literally, most figuratively, drowning and on the verge of swimming ourselves to death. Perhaps some of us emerge from the water gasping and decide that it’s time to rethink past choices, that it’s time for a rebrand. We lean on our childhood loves and catch our breaths. Midnight, Water City is a rebrand like that for me. One that I, personally and professionally, very much needed.


Chris McKinney was born in Honolulu and grew up in Kahaluu on the island of Oahu. He is the author of Midnight, Water City, book one of the Water City trilogy. It was named a Best Mystery of 2021 by Publisher’s Weekly and a Best Speculative Mystery of 2021 by CrimeReads. The paperback edition will be released June 14, 2022 and includes the first two chapters of Eventide, Water City, book two of the Water City trilogy. Book two will be released summer 2023.

Chris has written six other novels: The Tattoo, The Queen of Tears, Bolohead Row, Mililani Mauka, Boi No Good, and Yakudoshi: Age of Calamity. He currently resides in Honolulu, Hawaii.