Writing… IN SPACE!

What comes to mind when you think about the words writing and space? Maybe you think of the place where you typically write, be it an office, a kitchen table, a coffee shop, or even during an hour-long commute on public transit. Maybe you think of that 100,000-word Q/Picard slash fic you wrote but never posted.

Neither of those things is what I’m going to be talking about today (sorry, shippers). Rather, I’m talking about how writing itself is inherently spatial, and what that means for writing practices.

Image of the W40 nebula from the GPA Photo Archive. It kind of looks like a red butterfly in space.
Space–the final writing frontier??

Language Made Material

In her 1996 book Writing Technologies, researcher Christina Haas wrote that “…writing is language made material” (p. 3). Material in this context just means that it takes up space in the world. If you write something down, it exists in the world in a concrete way, even if you write it on a screen. The words I’m writing now in this draft in Microsoft word currently take up a roughly 2-inch by 5-inch space on my laptop screen. To put it in slightly fancier terms, researchers Thierry Olive and Jean-Paul Passerault called this material existence a visuo-spatial trace.

The trace is different on a laptop screen than it is on other surfaces. Northanger Abbey, my favorite Jane Austen novel, looks different on my Kindle app than it does on my paperback copy. Hell, it looks different on my Kindle app depending on whether I’m using the iPad app or my Android phone app, and my Oxford University Press World Classics paperback edition looks different from the version printed in one of those giant Barnes and Noble Complete Works Of editions. The way the text takes up space in the world differs according to its material components.

Image of paperback copy of Northanger Abbey and iPad Kindle copy of Northanger Abbey, open to the same chapter. The text is displayed differently on each interface.
Jane Austen, Queen of Snark in print or on screen!

2D vs. 3D Writing

There are a number of differences between reading and writing on a screen and reading and writing on paper. The one that interests me the most is the dimensionality of screens vs. paper. Screens present two dimensions—vertical and horizontal—and require scrolling if you surpass whatever the limits of those two dimensions are. On the other hand, printed works essentially exist in three dimensions, not because paper is especially t h i c c, but because it stacks rather than scrolls. Here’s an illustration from a job talk I gave back in 2018.

Diagram illustrating 2d vs 3d texts: an illustration of a desktop monitor is marked with a horizontal and vertical arrow illustrating 2d space, while an illustration of a stack of papers is marked with a horizontal, vertical, and lateral arrow, illustrating 3d space.
2D vs 3D Texts

Now, I’m not here to tell you all about how screens are ruining reading and writing practices and gripe about the kids these days and to holler at you to get off my lawn. Absolutely not.

First of all, relationships between writing and technologies are more complex than that. And second of all, complaining about the kids these days with their newfangled reading and writing tech is about as old as writing is. If you think you’re mad about new writing tech, go read some Plato. In the Gorgias, he writes his mentor Socrates as the OG Chronicle of Higher Ed columnist here to complain about new writing tech—except he’s complaining about writing itself.

ANYWAY. [Steps down from soap box.] Why should you care? Well, because while technology isn’t all-powerful, it’s not transparent either. It can and does impact writing practices.

Text Sense and 3D Writing Spaces

Take for example a study from Writing Technology. In the study—which was conducted before 1996, mind you—writers were asked about the tools they used for their writing, and many of them reported that they did all of their writing on computers. Except, when it came time to review and revise their manuscripts, many of these same writers printed out their manuscripts for this stage of the writing process.

When asked about why they printed out their manuscripts to revise, many of them reported having a better “sense of the text,” or text sense, as Christina Haas came to call it, with the printed version. Haas explains that “text sense is a mental representation of the structure and meaning of a writer’s own text,” (p. 118). In a way, the writers found that they could know their own writing better when it was printed in three dimensions rather than when they were scrolling through it in two.

Now, this study was discussed in a book published in 1996, which means that the study itself was likely conducted in the late 80s or early 90s. Many writing technologies look vastly different now than they did then. But—I, too, like these writers, often print out drafts of my writing when it comes time to revise, especially writing that is longer or that deals with more abstract concepts. When I’m writing longer fiction, I’ll sometimes print out to revise; when I’m writing academic articles, I always print out to revise. Even in 2019.

Get Off My Lawn! Just Kidding

Again, I’m not here to yell at the kids for using their mobile phones to read and write. I think it’s pretty great, actually. I’m just trying to spread the good word about what writing researchers know about how writing works. For one, I just think it’s cool stuff. And for two, the more you know about what you do, the more tools you have to try different things when you get stuck.

So what are your processes like? Do you write everything on the computer? …Do you? Do you write first drafts by hand? Did you write that 100,000-word Q/Picard fic on your phone? Let me know in the comments!

Sources and Resources

Interested in this topic? Check out the pieces I cited in the post!


Two Myths of Technology that May Be Holding Back Your Writing

Close up of old Remington typewriter with circle-shaped keys.

What’s your favorite mythological creature? Unicorns are really popular right now, but dragons are a classic. Harry Potter fans might say hippogriffs or crumple-horned snorkacks.

Me? My favorite mythological creature is technology.

I’m kidding, of course, but the myths surrounding technology are almost as big and pervasive as the myths surrounding unicorns and chimeras and dragons—maybe even bigger. These myths pervade everyday discourse around technology, and especially around communication technologies. They may even seep into our beliefs about writing technologies. They may seem harmless, but if we cling too tightly to these myths, they may impact our writing practices in ways that aren’t so great.

And that’s why I’m here to BUST THOSE MYTHS because bustin’ makes me feel good.

Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd getting out of the ghost buster-mobile. Text on image reads, "Get in loser, we're going busting."
Image source:Know Your Meme

Both of these myths are discussed in the 1996 book by Christina Haas called Writing Technology. Pick it up for a much more detailed busting of these myths—including actual empirical research! But for now, without further ado, let’s bust some myths!

Myth #1: Technology is transparent.

The myth that technology is transparent may not seem pervasive in a culture that just loves to whine about how the kids can’t write because they’re always twittering on their beep-boopers, using textspeak and emojis in their school paper.

And yet, this myth does still operate in wider cultural beliefs about technology today. This myth says that it doesn’t really matter whether I use a notebook and pen or a computer to write—it won’t really impact my writing practice that much, except maybe to make my writing faster and more efficient.

But anyone who’s tried to have a complex conversation on Twitter knows that writing technologies are not transparent—that they do, in fact, impact writing practices. Different writers have approached Twitter’s 280-character limit in different ways, but no matter the workaround, the limits of the platform do impact how writers work. And I want to say here that I’m not saying that you can’t have complex conversations or talk about complicated subjects on Twitter; I’m saying that it impacts both how you say what you say and the way in which you go about saying it.

Myth #2: Technology is all-powerful.

The other major myth surrounding technology may seem at first blush to be the polar opposite of myth number one, but in fact it’s deeply linked to it. Any time you’ve heard a technology called revolutionary, or heard someone say (or said yourself) that such-and-such a technology is going to drastically change how we do X, you’re operating under this myth.

Christina Haas explains the myth’s relationship to writing and literacy in this way: “New technologies for literacy are such a powerful force that simply introducing them to writers will change literary acts in the most profound of ways. […] This myth imbues computer technology with a number of qualities, among them that computers are unique and that they are active, independent agents of change,” (p. 35).

Haas wasn’t saying that technology doesn’t have impacts on the ways we write; in fact, her whole book was about some ways in which writing technologies do impact the ways we write. But the big issue with this myth is that it assigns too much agency to the technology itself—it sees the technology as deterministic, rather than as something created by people and therefore imbued with cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Even the example used in the first myth—that my computer is such a powerful piece of writing technology that it will increase the speed with which I produce writing—is bound up in attitudes about speed, production, and efficiency. It assumes those are good things when it comes to writing—that I want to write faster, that I want to write more; that these are inherently good things, and that there is no downside to producing more writing faster.

If you’re struggling to see how producing more writing faster could be a bad thing, that’s because those are deeply, deeply embedded cultural values. But writing more and faster may not actually be the best thing. Sometimes creative endeavors take time, and that’s that. Trying to rush through them with faster, “more efficient” tech may not actually make for better writing.

These myths are everywhere.

These myths about technology—specifically as they are applied to writing—are everywhere in our culture! I can think of several examples, mostly surrounding hopes or fears for student writing, but I want to hear from you. What examples of these myths have you seen? Have you perhaps said yourself? Let me know in the comments below!

Sources and Resources

For more great myth bustin’, check out Writing Technology by Christina Haas.

Featured image by Marco Verch. Used under the Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.

Fanfic Updated: The Wrackspurt Infestation

Howdy, folks! Just a quick update to announce I’ve added a NEW CHAPTER to The Wrackspurt Infestation, my ongoing fanfic about Ginny Weasley’s life following her misadventure in the Chamber of Secrets. Chapter Five is now up on Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net. Stay tuned, though, because there will be eleven chapters total!

If you’re enjoying the story, be sure to let me know in the comments here or on AO3 or FF! Happy reading!

Six Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me about Combatting Writer’s Block

Dungeons and Dragons. Given a current cultural context that has seen D&D references in shows like Stranger Things and Community, and an a recent explosion of actual-play podcast and shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone[1], Dungeons and Dragons hardly needs an introduction.

As a TTRPG (tabletop role playing game), it has offered players countless hours of entertainment, but it’s also served as inspiration for sci-fi and fantasy writers since its introduction in 1974. The first (unauthorized) novel inspired by D&D was written by Andre Norton and published in 1978, with authorized novels (currently numbering in the hundreds, and that’s not including novellas, novelettes, and short fiction) first seeing publication in the 1980s. Talk about your points of inspiration!

But what about when you’re stuck? When those moments of inspiration just don’t come? Here are six things Dungeons and Dragons taught me about combatting writer’s block. Let’s roll initiative.

Close up of three hardbound 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons books stacked atop each other: the Monster Manual, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Player's Handbook.
I cast Enhance (writing) Ability.

Leveling up happens through regular, consistent play.

One of the fun parts of Dungeons & Dragons—or really, any game with leveling mechanics—is leveling up. Leveling up means that certain challenges become easier; a level one party facing a young green dragon is likely going to get burnt to a crisp, but a party at level ten? Piece of cake!

It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. The Behemoth Blank Page doesn’t have hit points and a challenge rating. Writer’s block is a sly, ever-changing creature whose face may be different each time we see it. But, as with D&D, the more regularly you can manage to at least sit down at the (writing) table, the more strategies you have for defeating it.

Close up of a black pen resting atop a blank page of a spiral bound notebook.
The thing all writers fear most… the Behemoth Blank Page!

But sometimes you roll with disadvantage.

One of the core mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons is dice rolls. Players describe a thing they want their characters to do to their Dungeon Master (DM), and the DM tells them what kind of a roll to make to see whether that thing happens. If the player rolls at or above a particular number, then the thing happens! Great! If the player rolls below that number, though, the roll fails, and usually, what happens is… not great. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a DM will ask a player to roll with disadvantage. That means they roll twice and take the lower of the two rolls. This increases the likelihood that the player fails the roll.

Sometimes, with writing, you’re rolling with disadvantage. One of the most memorable pieces of writing advice I have ever heard was at a panel at a sci-fi and fantasy convention where the topic was writing and mental health. One audience member asked how the panelists with depression managed to keep writing through a major depressive episode. And one of the panelists essentially said, “I didn’t.” Once he found the an antidepressant that worked for him, he was able to get into a productive writing routine, but during that depressive episode, no number of nifty tricks and tips could help him put words on a page.

And you know what? Sometimes that happens. And it sucks. Like, really sucks, and not just because it keeps you from writing. But it doesn’t make you a bad writer. Here’s a great, but longer series of posts from writer and Writing about Writing Facebook page admin Chris Breechen about the truth about writing routines that says a lot more about this issue than I have the space to say here [2].

Gather yourself a party.

Most D&D games consist of a smallish party of 3 – 6 people. Maybe some parties are bigger, and I’ve DMed sessions with only a single player. But the three main components of D&D—exploration, social interaction, and combat—are easiest when they’re done in a group. And believe it or not, the same goes for writing.

I have taught writing classes of various types[3] for eight years. And I was a writing tutor for five years before that. If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that sharing it—scary as it may be—is one of your best tools for moving past writing difficulties, and that includes writer’s block. Even just talking through a scene with someone can help you shape it more firmly in your mind.

Whether you’re part of a formal writing group, or you join a site like Scribophile to trade works with other writers, or you just hand your writing off to a friend or family member for a quick read-through, finding a regular, trustworthy writing party can help you slice through that writing block like a +1 Luck Blade slicing through a Gelatinous Cube.

But learn your party members’ strengths, and be clear in what you ask of them.

Here’s the thing, though. One of the great things about Dungeons and Dragons is that each player’s character has their own strengths; on the flip side, each has their own weaknesses, too. And the same likely goes for your writing party.

Just like you wouldn’t ask your lawful-good paladin to use thieves’ tools to break into a locked treasure chest (that’s your rogue’s job), you don’t necessarily want to talk to your Plot Hole Detector when you’re staring down a Behemoth Blank Page. Now, if you’re actively trying to find those plot holes so you can fill them up—of course, call that Detector over. But for a Behemoth Blank Page, you likely want someone you can bounce ideas off instead.

Now, that’s not to say the same person can’t do both of those things, and that’s why it’s so important to clarify what you’re looking for when you’re asking someone to help you work through a writing difficulty. When you ask for help, be sure you ask precisely.

Rests are good….

In D&D, after several grueling rounds of combat, a party might elect to take a short or long rest to recover some or all of their hit points before they move to the next room in the dungeon. And if you’ve been staring at the same blank page for the last twenty minutes, maybe you do, too. Get up; stretch your legs; make some coffee or tea; meditate. Recover some hit points, and then try tackling that Behemoth Blank Page once more.

…in the proper environment.

In the wrong environment, though, a short rest can prove dangerous. If you don’t properly barricade that door, a wandering Bugbear may burst through and foil your attempt to regain that HP. And most writers know how easy it is for a five-minutes social media break to turn into a whole hour of scrolling. I’m not saying never use social media to break up your writing; I’m saying be honest with yourself about what kind of break will be most useful in any given moment.

What do you think? Do you play D&D? What other lessons does it have for writers? What about other TTRPGs? Let me know in the comments!


[1]: The McElroys have described it as explicitly not an actual-play podcast, because their goal is not so much actual play as it is comedy and storytelling. But, still.

[2]: Incidentally, as I was scrolling through the Facebook page trying to find that post, I also found a post he wrote titled, “9 Thinks Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me about How to Write.” I didn’t read it until after I wrote this post, but there’s a chance I saw the link on Facebook and it gave me the idea for this post. #nowriterisanisland

[3]: Full disclosure: these classes have been of many types (first-year writing, tech writing, professional writing, digital writing, stem writing, etc), but not of the fiction writing type.

The Wrackspurt Infestation: Chapter Three

Chapter Three: The Return


She had done it. She had climbed the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.

She had contemplated trying to find a broom cupboard in which to wait out the several hours after curfew that it would take for the common room to empty. But the prospect of wandering the dark corridors in search of such a hideout threatened to bring back… not memories so much as anti-memories—dark, blank spaces bookended by feelings of guilt, shame, and fear.

So, she had stood before the portrait of the Fat Lady, all but whispered mimsy borogove, and climbed through the portrait hole. She had hovered near the entrance to the common room, hoping she wouldn’t be spotted.

And yet. She should have known.

Ron sprang from the overstuffed chair where he had been sitting and practically leapt over to her, wrapping her in probably the biggest hug he’d given her in his life, ever. Fred and George followed shortly, and even Percy, though in a more dignified manner than his younger brothers, joined the embrace and patted her head. Ginny’s eyes, throat, and chest burned.

“Ginny!” Ron said again, pulling back. “You’re all right!”

Ginny drew in a deep breath and put on a smile. “Course I am,” she said, but it came out croaky. She cleared her throat, shrugged her shoulder. “Dunno what you were worried for.”

“That’s our girl,” said Fred, and he ruffled Ginny’s hair.

“We looked for you in the hospital wing after dinner,” said Percy, “but Madam Pomfrey said you’d gone. Where’ve you been?”

Ginny shrugged again. “Went down by the lake for a bit.” She thought of Luna sketching merpeople and the bright golden rays of the sunset on the water. “But I’m here now.”

“Come have a game of Exploding Snap.” Fred motioned over to the chairs where he, George, and Ron had been sitting. Already there was a card tower of some height balancing precariously on the table.

“Er,” Ginny said, glancing over. Harry and Hermione were sitting there, Hermione with her nose mostly in a book, but her eyes peering out over the top, watching Ginny closely. Harry, looking over and smiling. He caught her eyes and waved. Ginny’s stomach lurched. “Er.”

But Fred would brook no protest. He and the others shuffled her over to their corner of the common room. They passed Colin Creevey on the way, and the Something around Ginny’s heart gave a tight squeeze. He looked up as they passed and waved. “Hiya, Ginny!”

Her voice caught in her throat as she tried to reply, so she just grimaced at him and waved.

In some ways, it was nice, being back in the common room. Fred and George made jokes and cast hexes on each other to make her laugh and were generally as loud as possible. Everyone laughed—even Percy—when the tower of cards exploded and Ron’s eyebrows almost caught fire.

The noisy chatter of the students surrounding her seemed mostly pleasant, but she wondered what they were talking about. As she glanced around, she caught a few people’s curious glances in her direction. Were they whispering about her? Did they know? What had Dumbledore told everyone at the feast? Ginny’s skin was starting to tingle. She could feel more and more eyes on her from across the room. She folded her hands tight in her lap and looked purposefully, intently, at Fred, whose eyebrows were growing rapidly and currently looked a bit like a handlebar moustache.

Suddenly, Hermione yawned loudly and closed her book with a loud thump. “I think I’m going to go to bed. You lot should get to bed soon, too,” she said, and glanced casually around at them, her eyes finally landing on Ginny.

“What in the blazes for?” demanded Ron.

“I’ll go to bed when I please, thanks, Mum,” George said, raising his own rapidly growing brows. He twirled the end of one for dramatic effect.

Hermione shrugged, unperturbed. “Suit yourselves. I’m going up. Ginny? You coming?”

Ginny was torn. She wasn’t really tired, but the common room was growing warm and uncomfortable and maybe a bit too loud. Her dormitory would at least be cool and quiet and dark. On the other hand, Hermione had that look like She Had Something to Say. Ginny wasn’t looking forward to a telling-off, but she supposed she had it coming. Might as well get it over with and then go to bed.

Just then, the card tower exploded again with a tremendous SNAP, and Ginny jumped. She collected herself and nodded up at Hermione, who was standing and waiting patiently, as if she already knew Ginny would come.

“Goodnight, everyone,” she said.

There came a chorus of goodnights from her brothers and Harry—gulp—and she followed Hermione up the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.

Once they had reached the second-floor landing and the noise below began to fade, Hermione turned to Ginny. Here we go. Ginny bowed her head and tried to steel herself.

“Ron and Harry told me what happened, the whole story,” began Hermione. Ginny nodded, and shut her eyes tight against the wetness beginning to form there. “And I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

Ginny looked up, incredulous. “What?”

Hermione nodded. “I should have figured it out sooner. I’d worked it out about the basilisk—”

Ginny flinched.

“Sorry,” Hermione said and put a hand on Ginny’s shoulder. “I’d worked it out about the…monster and the chamber and the pipes. But I hadn’t quite worked out who was doing it.”

Ginny shut her eyes again and bit her lip. Here it came.

“If only I’d thought of You-Know-Who—sorry—” Ginny had flinched again. “If only I’d thought of him sooner, he might not have… you know… taken you. I’m so sorry this happened to you. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here to listen.”

By now, Ginny was silently sobbing. She could tell Hermione was trying to help, but she—that is, Hermione—didn’t really understand. She couldn’t. Hermione, who made perfect scores on every exam, who did extra reams of parchment on essays, who somehow managed to keep her brother mostly out of trouble, who had probably never lost a single house point for Gryffindor. How could Hermione understand what it was like to be responsible for the near deaths of her friends and schoolmates? How could Ginny possibly explain? Her father had been right. She should have thrown that diary into the fire the moment she’d discovered it among her schoolbooks at the Leaky Cauldron.

“Here,” Hermione said gently, and pulled Ginny into the first years’ dorm. It was quieter and cooler and gloriously empty. Hermione wrapped Ginny in a hug, and Ginny’s silent sobs turned into just sobs. When her eyes finally dried out, she pulled back and wiped her eyes and nose.

“Sorry about your shirt,” said Ginny.

Hermione laughed. “It’s perfectly all right,” she said. “Do you want to talk?”

Ginny thought about it. Maybe Hermione, out of everyone, deserved an explanation. She tried to consider it, but as her thoughts started to flit toward that deepest and darkest corner in her mind, her mouth clamped shut and her heart felt like it stopped. She couldn’t do it. Not now. Maybe not ever. So much for being a Gryffindor.

Finally, she spoke. “I think I just want to go to bed. Thank you for… thanks.”

Hermione smiled and hugged her again. “Just let me know,” she said, and Ginny nodded, though doubtfully, and then Hermione left.

Ginny dressed for bed and then laid in her four poster with the hangings pulled tight, but she couldn’t bring herself to close her eyes, lest her mind wander to that same place she couldn’t talk about with Hermione. She cursed herself for forgetting the sleeping draughts under her pillow in the hospital wing. What she wouldn’t give now for some twelve-odd hours of dreamless sleep.

Her dormmates entered the room soon after, chattering loudly at first, but then quietly as they noticed Ginny’s pulled hangings. She heard them drop off to sleep, one by one, and then she heard only the hooting of the occasional owl as it flew by Gryffindor Tower in the night.

Once she was sure the others were asleep, she crept back into the common room and curled up in an armchair by the dwindling fire. She stared into its golden depths and listened to it crack until she finally fell asleep.

At some point, she halfway woke to the sensation of being carried up the stairs. She opened her eyes just a crack to see Professor McGonagall’s stern mouth pulled into a frown. Was she going to be in trouble for being out of bed? She quickly shut her eyes again.

But the deputy headmistress just eased open the door to Ginny’s dorm, laid her in her bed, and pulled the covers to Ginny’s chin. She pulled the hangings shut, and then Ginny could hear the soft click of the dormitory door being closed. Ginny lit her wand with a soft lumos, laid it next to her, and then tried once again to drop off to sleep.

Her dreams were full of empty snakeskins and dead roosters and massive stone chambers dripping with venom that hissed as it hit the floor. She woke up more than once crying out in fear, and once or twice she heard the uncertain whispers of the other girls in her dorm.

“Ginny?” they called, but she did not reply.

When she awoke after one such dream to the pale blue light of early morning, she simply crawled out of bed, dressed, and crept out of Gryffindor Tower. If she went to the Great Hall now, she could probably sneak some breakfast in before anyone else was awake.

And then she was going to the hospital wing to steal those sleeping draughts.

Book Review: Kopp Sisters on the March

Advance paperback copy of Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart against a wooden background. Cover art shows three women in military-style dress in an outdoor area, biplanes in the sky and tents on the grounds surrounding them. The woman in the foreground holds binoculars to her eyes, the woman in the middle ground raises signaling flags, and the woman in the background holds a hand up to her hat as if surveying the goings-on of the camp.

There’s this thing in film and TV criticism called the Bechdel Test. Named for Alison Bechdel, author of acclaimed graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother? (among others, the test asks three questions about a piece of media:

  1. Are there at least two named female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. …About something other than a man?

If you can answer “yes” to each question, the media passes! Hooray!

This test exists, though, because so many contemporary pieces of media do not pass it. Who would have thought that, in 2019, it would be so difficult to get two or more women into the same scene taking to each other about something other than a man?

One of my favorite things about Kopp Sisters on the March is that, were there a “reverse-Bechdel” test, asking if there are any scenes with two named male characters talking to each other, it might not pass.

Kopp Sisters on the March is a book about women. It’s about what women do when life tries to kick you when you’re down. It’s about what women do when men try to tell you you can’t do something because you’re a woman. It’s about female friendships, and sisterhood and the ways we can step up or act out when a situation pushes us to our limits.

Advance paperback copy of Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart against a wooden background. Cover art shows three women in military-style dress in an outdoor area, biplanes in the sky and tents on the grounds surrounding them. The woman in the foreground holds binoculars to her eyes, the woman in the middle ground raises signaling flags, and the woman in the background holds a hand up to her hat as if surveying the goings-on of the camp.
Kopp Sisters on the March, by Amy Stewart

Full Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book, but I was confident I’d love it way back when the author, Amy Stewart, wrote in her newsletter that she was working on the fifth Kopp Sisters novel, which sees the Kopp sisters leave their New Jersey farmstead for a six-week women’s military-style training camp in the weeks leading up to the U.S.’s entry into World War I.  I’ve loved the Kopp sisters novels since I finally bought Girl Waits with Gun on Audible in 2017 after seeing its excellent cover art in bookstores over and over again, and then read Lady Cop Makes Trouble and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions shortly thereafter.

Before I move on, there are a few warnings I should give you:

  • Spoiler Warning: Mild spoilers for Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, Kopp Sisters Book 4
  • Content Warning: Some discussion of domestic violence.

If you’d like to proceed, read on below the break.

Continue reading “Book Review: Kopp Sisters on the March”

What if I could be a writer?


I’ve started this post twice already over the past year and change. I’ve been trying to write a post describing several major changes in my life, and I keep starting and not quite finishing.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that some of these changes come with some heavy (negative) emotional baggage that I both do and don’t want to air out in pubic, so I err on the side of caution.

But on the flip side, the tiny optimist that’s still living somewhere inside me sees these changes as an opportunity and wants to talk about them and actively work to keep making them happen.

But back on the other flip side, talking about these changes and trying to make them work for me (by talking about them here on the blog) leaves me feeling vulnerable. What if I talk about what I want to do, what I want my life to be, what if I try to make these changes happen, and then they just… don’t?

But enough vagueblogging.

Here’s the footnotes version:

  • I got my Ph.D in 2016.
  • Then I got a two-year postdoc.
  • Then I went on the (absolutely excruciating) job market again and received precisely zero job offers.
  • My husband got an offer for a postdoc in Luxembourg. He took it, and we moved.
  • I continued to work as an adjunct and an online tutor.
  • This summer, I lost one of the adjunct gigs for the time being, and the other didn’t offer any fall work. SO:
  • I am a quasi-ex-academic currently without any adjunct work.
  • I have picked up a few semi-steady freelance writing and consulting gigs.
  • But otherwise, I have a bit more “free time” than I used to, thanks to this “quasi-ex” status.
  • I have been using this “free time” to write. Quite a bit.

And I remember how much I love it. I used to write a lot. Pretty much from the time I could use a pencil, I wrote things, and if I wasn’t writing things, I was reading them and thinking about writing things. I wrote poems, stories–I even wrote an entire YA novel one summer while I was in college about gender-bending royalty, my twist on ye fairy tales of olde about how gender roles are bogus. After I graduated college and spent a year splitting my time between retail and tutoring, I turned to television and movie scripts. But still, I wrote a lot .

Until I entered grad school in 2009. Then I was still writing a lot, but it was all academic stuff. I don’t think I wrote any fiction from that fall 2009 until the first full summer of my postdoc, right before I was set to enter the job market for a second time. Then I wrote, like a few chapters of a mystery novel and then stopped again until, basically, this year (2019).

For reference, that’s roughly a decade with hardly any fiction writing. Sheesh.

Sometimes I get really mad at myself for not trying to keep writing fiction while in grad school, because think of how much I could have written. I’d probably be published by now, right? Except then I get mad at academia for being so utterly exhausting that I didn’t have the time or energy to write fiction. It’s not that I didn’t have any hobbies while in grad school, just that it took up so much B R A I N that writing fiction barely ever crossed my mind.

But now I’m back at it! In the less-than-a-year since we moved to Luxembourg, I’ve written almost 40,000 words of a mystery novel, roughly sketched out a setting for another, written and started a handful of original short fiction pieces, two of which are currently in review at lit magazines (one for the third time–fingers crossed), and written almost 20,000 words of fanfic that I’m slowly letting out into the world bit by bit.

What if I could do that thing I’ve wanted to do for, like most of my life, could actually happen? What if I could be a writer?

I mean, I am. Like I said, I’ve written close to 100,000 words of fiction in the past nine months, and that’s nothing to say of the freelance writing, editing, and consulting I’ve done for actual money or the homebrew D&D adventures I’ve written. I am a writer–I am one who writes.

But the real question, of course, the one I’ve dismissed basically since failing to get into an MFA program the first time I applied to grad schools (and graduating college into a recession), is whether I could use writing to pay the bills.

Right now, the answer is decidedly, no. But I also happen to be in a different place financially than I was back when I first pivoted away from professional fiction writing. My husband makes enough to pay most of our bills, and my online tutoring gig makes me enough to pay the rest–and only takes up about 20 hours a week.

So here I go, trying to figure out how to make writing pay the bills. Fingers crossed!



The Wrackspurt Infestation: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Moonlight and Merpeople

Luna left the hospital wing later that afternoon once her horns disappeared. Ginny didn’t see them go, which was disappointing; she was still pretending to be asleep.

By this time, Madam Pomfrey was checking on her every half hour or so, placing her hand on Ginny’s shoulder and shaking gently. Sometimes Ginny stirred, sometimes she didn’t, but always she continued feigning sleep. Once, her stomach rumbled so loudly just as Madam Pomfrey was leaving that she was sure the nurse had heard it. Her heart leapt in fear. She was hungry, yes, but the thought of going to the Great Hall made her feel nauseous every time she considered “waking up.” Maybe if she cornered Fred and George, they would nick her something from the kitchens.

They had come by in the evening, all of them—Fred and George and Percy and Ron and Hermione and even—her stomach flipped as she remembered—Harry. They hadn’t stayed long, as she had been still been feigning sleep, and Madam Pomfrey had chased them out when they started making too much noise, but Ginny had been grateful for it. Now that they were gone, and Luna was gone, the hospital wing was too quiet.

Gryffindor Tower would certainly be noisier than the hospital wing, she supposed, but the thought of climbing through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room, of facing questioning eyes and looks of concern and maybe even smiling faces, made that Something holding tight to her heart squeeze even tighter.

Ginny was still wondering what to do when she heard someone enter the hospital wing and approach her bed. The side of the bed sank down as someone sat, and Ginny heard a few soft thuds as something was placed on her bedside table. Then a soft, musical voice whispered to her quietly.

“I’ve brought you up some dinner,” said Luna. “If you want, I can distract Madam Pomfrey so you can eat. I might try to turn myself blue or something.”

Ginny couldn’t help it. She laughed and opened her eyes. “Can you do that?” she whispered.

“I don’t know,” said Luna. “But I think it’d be fun to try.”

Ginny laughed again. She eyed the small parcel of food Luna had brought and then glanced back toward Madam Pomfrey’s office. She would likely be coming round to check on her again soon.

“That’s all right,” Ginny said. “What did you bring?”


After her dinner with Luna, Ginny was dismissed from the hospital wing by Madam Pomfrey. The matron gave her a stern once-over and made Ginny promise to come back if she needed anything, and to eat plenty of chocolate.

“Don’t worry,” Luna had said, pulling a few boxes of Chocolate Frogs out of her bag. “I brought dessert.”

Ginny had nodded, as if chocolate could erase the memories of wet, damp caverns, of fangs, chicken feathers, and blood. Madam Pomfrey had nodded and smiled at Luna, but her eyes were still on Ginny. Ginny had looked away.

Once they finished the dinner, they headed out of the hospital wing toward the Grand Staircase.

“I suppose you’ll want to head back to your common room and see your friends, now that you’re out of the hospital wing,” Luna said. There was no malice in her voice; she spoke matter-of-factly.

“Oh,” said Ginny, who had decided to Gryffindor Tower only once she thought most people would be clear of the common room, even if she had to hide in a broom cupboard to avoid being caught out of bounds. “I suppose. What about you?”

“Oh, I don’t have any friends,” said Luna, her voice light and serene.

“Oh,” Ginny said. What on earth could she say to that? “Why don’t we go down to the lake for a while?”

By the time they reached the lake, the sun had almost reached the horizon and the light across the water was bright and golden. They sat at the water’s edge and took off their shoes, letting the water lap at their toes.

“I heard there were merpeople in here,” said Luna dreamily.

“Are you sure?” Ginny asked, and Luna nodded. “Fred and George said so, my brothers, but I thought they were taking the mickey.”

“I’d like to meet them, but I don’t speak Mermish.” Luna sat up suddenly. “Do you know Mermish?”

Ginny sat up, too. “No.”

Luna shrugged, then reached into her bag and pulled out a small, black leather book. Ginny recoiled before she remembered the diary now had a large hole in its front. This book, too, was much more modern looking than it had been.

If Luna had seen Ginny flinch, she didn’t say anything. She simply dug into the bag again, withdrew another small, leather book, and offered it to Ginny.

“Would you like to sketch?” she asked.

“Er,” said Ginny. “Sure. Thanks.” She accepted the book and pencil Luna offered, but didn’t open it. Rather, she watched as Luna opened her book and began flipping through its pages. As she turned the pages, Ginny could make out drawings—dozens of them, from what she could see, some in color but most in pencil, mostly of magical beasts of varying shapes and sizes.

The page Luna had stopped on contained a half-finished sketch of a merperson. Opposite the sketch was a torn sheaf of parchment that Luna had shut into the notebook—a detailed illustration of a merperson, likely from some book or other. Ginny snickered quietly for a moment, glad Hermione wasn’t there to see, but then the mirth was rapidly replaced by guilt.

The feeling dissipated, though, as Ginny watched Luna work. She was careful and deliberate in her pencil strokes, frequently looking back and forth between the reference and her own work.

But Luna had made no attempt to be faithful to the reference illustration. The merperson depicted stood tall and fierce, clutching a trident and frowning, brows furrowed. Luna’s merperson, however, was waving and held no trident, and their face was soft and smiling.

They stayed that way for a while, Luna sketching and Ginny watching her sketch, until it became too dark to see and the stars began winking into the night sky. If Luna minded Ginny watching, she didn’t say, or even notice that Ginny wasn’t sketching herself. Once Luna closed her book, they lay back on the ground for a while, watching the stars come out and listening to the gentle hum of the waves.

When Luna finally suggested they return to the castle, Ginny didn’t reply, but stood up regretfully and dusted herself off, and they began to head back.

As they reached the entrance hall, Luna said, “That was fun. Want to sketch together again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Ginny said, and she meant it. The Something in her chest that was wrapped around her heart seemed to have loosened as she listened to the lapping lake water.

They agreed to meet in the courtyard after breakfast, and Luna skipped up the staircase toward Ravenclaw tower. Ginny watched her go and began her own slow climb to Gryffindor Tower, the Something in her chest drawing tighter with every step.

The Wrackspurt Infestation: Chapter One

Chapter One: Sleeping Draughts and Snorkacks

It was morning, and Ginny knew it.

She could feel the sunlight streaming through the windows of the hospital wing, and she could hear her parents and Madam Pomfrey whispering. They didn’t seem to be trying very hard to stay quiet.

“Do you think she’ll wake soon, Poppy? I’d like to say goodbye before heading to the ministry.”

“There’s really no telling, Arthur. Some patients sleep for a full twenty-four hours before waking up.”

Actually, Ginny had been awake for some time. She had slowly awoken to her mother’s familiar touch, her hand gently stroking Ginny’s hair. Ginny had kept her eyes closed.

“I want to take her home, so she can rest and recover in her own bed,” whispered her mother. “Albus said exams were canceled, didn’t he?”

“She shouldn’t be moved just yet, Molly. She needs to wake up naturally. You and Arthur go on home—you need rest too, you know. Don’t think I don’t know neither one of you slept a wink last night. You should go on home and take a Sleeping Draught yourself, you know. I know you think you have to work today, Arthur, but you need to take care of yourself, too. Ginny will be in good hands here.”

Ginny could hear her mother begin to protest, but Arthur cut in. “She’s in the best of hands, Poppy; we know that. Just… just send an owl the moment she wakes, day or night.”

“Of course, of course.”

Ginny felt her mother pull the covers up to her chin and tuck he blankets tightly around her where they’d come loose in the night. She felt the soft pressure of one kiss on her forehead, then another. There was a long, writhing Something wrapped around her heart, and as the sound of her parents’ footsteps receded, it somehow both loosened and clenched tighter. She laid very still, trying not to disturb the Something, trying to ignore the tears dripping down the end of her nose, thankful they had waited until her parents had gone to fall.

After ushering out the Weasleys, Madam Pomfrey stopped near the foot of her bed.

“I’m going down to lunch, dear, can I bring you anything back up?” she said.

Was Madam Pomfrey talking to her? Could she see through Ginny’s charade?

“Maybe just a sandwich,” said a soft, musical voice a few beds away. “Grilled veg, if you don’t mind.”

And with that, Ginny could hear Madam Pomfrey’s footsteps receding once again. They echoed around the high ceilings of the hospital wing, just like her steps had echoed in….

“You can open your eyes now,” said the girl with the lilting voice.

Ginny started, but did not, as the speaker had suggested, open her eyes. Her heart was pounding. Her palms were sweaty underneath the blankets, but she didn’t move them. In fact, she wished she had more blankets so she could bury herself in a hot pile of darkness from which she could never leave. She didn’t deserve cool air, light, a friendly voice.

The voice spoke again. “Madam Pomfrey usually takes about an hour for lunch.”

Ginny didn’t know how the girl knew she was awake, and she didn’t care. She rolled over and thought about pretending to snore.

She’d pretended to snore many a night that past year in the dorms, while the other girls in her year chatted happily about the wonders of Hogwarts, about wands and lessons and cute boys and girls, before falling asleep. She had pretended to snore until her classmates had fallen silent, and then she had continued to pretend to snore, hoping it would help her eventually fall asleep.

It never did.

“I can keep a lookout, if you want, for Madam Pomfrey. In case you have to go to the bathroom or something. I won’t tell her you’re awake.” The girl paused. “We don’t have to talk if you don’t want. It’s just a bit empty in here now that all of the Petrified students have been revived.”

Ginny’s eyes flew open. Hermione. Forgetting her charade, she sat up and looked around.

The wing was empty, save for herself and a small girl with wide, blue eyes and long blonde hair and…horns peeking out from just above her ears. They looked a bit like the antlers she used to see on deer grazing around the edges of the backyard at the Burrow. They never stayed long once she had liberated out one or other of her brothers’ brooms from the backyard shed and taken flight, but she’d always found their early morning company pleasant.

The girl attached to the antlers smiled at Ginny over a magazine she’d been reading, but by then Ginny had taken in the rest of the hospital wing. Empty beds all around, save herself and the antlered girl two beds over.

When she’d been brought to the hospital wing, several of the beds had been full. They’d made her walk all the way to the bed furthest from the ward door, past the beds of the petrified students, past her own terrible handiwork. Hermione, of course, but also Colin, who’d sat by her in Charms class. That second-year Hufflepuff, Justin. She didn’t really know him, but he had helped her find her way to the Potions dungeon once, smiling at her in that way Hufflepuffs did, like they’d all just swallowed a Cheering Concoction right before talking to you. Nearly Headless Nick had floated above one of the beds, his head hanging limply from that awful neck. They’d even lain Mrs. Norris in a hospital bed, Mrs. Norris, who Ron had insisted probably deserved to be petrified, but who was just a cat, no matter how terrible her human companion was.

None of them had said anything, as she walked past, of course, but it had felt like every pair of petrified eyes had followed her as she was ushered into the wing. Dumbledore had said they’d all been given the restoration draft, but no one had been moving just yet. She had downed her potion as quickly as possible and lain on her side with her back to their still-unmoving bodies and counted backward from fifty until she fell asleep.

But now, their beds were empty. Only herself and the antlered girl remained, though Ginny didn’t remember seeing her the night before. She was sure she’d seen the girl about the castle, only without the antlers. She had always worn long earrings made from dirigible plums, which had prompted some of the other girls in Ginny’s year to call the girl—what was it again? Looney. Looney Lovegood.

“What happened to you?” Ginny blurted out, before she could remember she shouldn’t really be talking to anyone.

The girl just laughed and put down her magazine—a brightly colored issue of The Quibbler with an illustration of Hogwarts Castle on the front. A blood red headline proclaimed, “Horror at Hogwarts? The Top Ten Monsters that may be at the Heart of the School’s Rumored Closing.”

Ginny shrank away from the magazine and pulled the blanket around her shoulders, in case things started to go dark. But the girl’s voice brought her back to the present.

“Do you like them?” she asked, patting both antlers with her hands. “I conjured them myself.”

“You… conjured them?” asked Ginny. “Aren’t you a first year?”

“I suppose,” said the girl people called Looney.

“But that’s a really advanced hex.”

“Is it?” asked the girl. “That’s what Professor McGonagall called it, too—a hex. She said people don’t normally cast it on themselves and took me up here for observation. I missed almost the whole feast, but I don’t mind.”

Oh, yeah, Ginny remembered. There had been a feast. She was glad she had missed it. She didn’t know how she was going to manage going back to her dormitory, much less how she might face the entire great hall. How long would Madam Pomfrey let her stay here in the hospital wing? Maybe if she could find the potions cabinet and sneak herself some extra sleeping draughts, she could sleep away the rest of the term and not have to see anyone else until it was time to go home.

Going home, though. Did she want to go home? She didn’t want to go back to the dorm, she didn’t want to go to the Great Hall, but maybe she didn’t want to go home, either. She loved her mother, but she knew she would make such a fuss. Maybe she should steal an extra sleeping draught or two to take back to the burrow with her, too.

She climbed out of bed and looked around. Just her luck (for once), the potions cabinet was only a few steps away, beside the door to Madam Pomfrey’s office. The cabinet’s door was made of glass, and she could see bottles in many shapes and sizes—vials of green and brown and purple, some even tinted an opaque black. On the very top shelf sat several green bottles clearly labeled “Sleeping Draught.”

A simple alohamora unlocked the cabinet, but Ginny was too short to reach the top shelf.

“Do you need some help?” asked a voice right behind her left ear.

She jumped and turned, and an antler scraped across her cheek.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the antlered girl. “My sense of space isn’t been quite the same with these. Did I hurt you? Let me see.” The girl moved to touch Ginny’s face, but Ginny ducked out of her way.

“It’s fine,” said Ginny, though it did hurt a little.

“We can probably find some tonic for it.”

“No, really, it’s fine,” Ginny snapped. It hurt, but that was what was fine about it.

“Well, what are you trying to find? Maybe I can help.”

“I want some more sleeping draught,” said Ginny. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, but if this girl was going to insist on helping her, she didn’t see a reason to turn her away. “I want to go back to sleep.”

“Oh, that’s easy then. Wingardium leviosa.” The girl twirled a wand Ginny hadn’t seen her produce, and a green bottle floated down to her from the top shelf. “How many do you need?’

All of them, Ginny wanted to say, but she thought Madam Pomfrey would notice. “Five, for now, I guess.” The matron probably wouldn’t notice five.

The girl repeated the spell four more times, and Ginny grabbed the bottles from the air. Then the girl said the spell again, moving bottles from the middle of the shelf up to the front. “That way, Madam Pomfrey won’t know they’re missing,” she explained.

Ginny eyed the girl with interest. She hadn’t ever struck Ginny as the Fred-and-George type, but then, she didn’t really know this Looney girl at all.  She didn’t even know her real name—surely it wasn’t Looney.

“What’s your name?” she asked as they walked back to Ginny’s bed. Ginny shoved her contraband beneath her pillow and climbed back under the covers.

“I’m Luna,” said the girl. She must have taken the question as an invitation to chat, because she onto the end of Ginny’s bed and sat cross-legged atop the covers. “What’s your name?”


“Ginny, like Ginny Pescanoe, the first witch to ever photograph the elusive crumple-horned snorkack?”

“What?” said Ginny. “No, I think it’s a family name. What’s a crumple-horned snorkack?”

“You’ve never heard of it?” asked Luna. She jumped off of Ginny’s bed and rushed over to hers, grabbed the magazine with that horrid front cover, and tossed it onto Ginny’s bed before jumping back on herself. She flipped through the pages rapidly, until she came to a double-page spread featuring two photos: one, sepia-toned, featuring a dour-faced woman pacing back and forth in the wilderness, occasionally fiddling with a very old-looking camera, and a second photo, black and white and extremely difficult to make out, of some kind of animal that looked like it might have a large horn somewhere on its body. The accompanying headline read: “100 Years of Snorkacks: Celebrating the Anniversary of Genevra Pescanoe’s First Photo of the Crumple-Horned Snorkack.”

“No one’s managed to get a photo since Ginny Pescanoe. She was the first and the last. She made sketches, too, because she knew the photo wasn’t very good. Look,” she said, and flipped to another page in the article. There were several sketches of a large, horned animal. It looked sort of like a cross between a hippo, a unicorn, a hippogriff, and a crocodile.

“Neat,” Ginny said, because Luna was looking up at her expectantly.

“Daddy’s going to take me on an expedition to find one someday. It’ll be very dangerous, though, so he says I have to study hard, but I would study hard even if we weren’t planning an expedition. Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure,” she recited, as if that explained everything perfectly.

After a few moments of studying the sketches in the magazine, she looked back up at Ginny. “Do you think they need flowers?”

“What?” said Ginny. “The… the snorkacks, or whatever?”

“No, my antlers,” said Luna, patting them once more. “I think they need flowers. Orchideous!” And a burst of pale pink flowers erupted from her wand tip. She laid the bouquet on the bed, gingerly lifted a single blossom from the rest, and wound the stem around one of the horns. “What do you think?” she asked Ginny.

Ginny thought it looked completely outlandish, but she didn’t want to be rude. “Very festive,” was all she said.

“Exactly!” chirped Luna. She flicked her wand and again said, “Orchideous!” This time, the flowers were a deep yellow with black centers. Once again, she wove a flower into an antler.

“How did you do that?” Ginny asked.

“Hmm?” asked Luna. Her eyes were dreamy as she picked another pink flower and tied it to the same stem as the yellow daisy.

“How did you conjure different flowers with the same spell?” asked Ginny. “I’ve never seen that before.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” said Luna. “It’s all in the intent—what kind of flower you bring to mind. I’ve tried making up new flowers, but I haven’t managed to conjure any yet. Orchideous!” she said again, but this time, her wand just shot a mixture of pink and yellow flower petals, as if in protest. Ginny laughed, Luna just shrugged.

“Want to give it a try?” Luna asked.

Ginny began to reach for her wand, which lay on the bedside table next to her, but then thought better of it. “Maybe not.”

“Oh, go on, then,” said Luna.

Ginny closed her eyes and tried to picture the same pink flowers that Luna had conjured the first time. They grew in the garden at the burrow; what were they? Carnations? Zinnias? She was sure her mother had told her their name, but she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t seem to bring them to mind, either, though a bouquet of them sat barely a meter away from her on the hospital bed. Instead, when she closed her eyes, she saw a damp, cavernous hall with serpent heads carved into the pillars. She shuddered and cast the spell before Luna could notice. “Orchideous!”

Flowers burst from the tip of her wand, but they were wilted and colorless, almost dead.

“Oh,” was all Luna said. “That’s all right. It’s not an easy spell when you’ve got other things on your mind. Here, have some of these,” she said, and she began showing Ginny how to weave the stems together into a flowery circlet.

They stayed that way for the rest of the hour, until Luna suddenly jumped and warned Ginny of Madam Pomfrey’s approach. Luna gathered the flowers and her magazine and scrambled back over to her bed, and Ginny placed her new flower crown gently onto her bedside table next to her wand. She burrowed down into the covers and closed her eyes tightly and began to feign a snore just as Madam Pomfrey’s heels clicked into the hall.

The sleeping draughts lay undisturbed under her pillow, forgotten.