Red Envelope by Atom Yang: A Must Read

Red Envelope by Atom Yang

I’m late to the party with Red Envelope. It was first published in 2016, but I only saw it recently, and I’ll tell you, I pounced. It’s been sitting on my phone waiting for a moment when I had a free moment to read, but even though I wasn’t done with my deadline yet, last night I started it while I was in the tub.

Look, I’m going to tell you right here and now, Yang has mad skills and is going places, wherever he wants to go. And I’m following. I’m going to be a geek and talk craft here, because it was so delicious. The story is told in a gentle ping-ponging of flashbacks, and in theory that shouldn’t work, but Yang has the chops to pull it off. It’s the only way to tell this story. Yang is a consummate storyteller, luring you in, baiting you, teasing you, handing you just enough to get you crawling forward for a bit more. The flashbacks feel like walking through rooms, deep-diving into backstory in a way that doesn’t feel like marking time but like expanding it.

Then there’s the prose. I love Yang’s turns of phrase, alternately pleasing me with something thoughtful and then making me laugh with something lighter. I love his descriptions of things like making a sauce for mapo tofu (though then I was hungry and am now considering running to Szechuan House for lunch to get some of my own) and carrying food into family parties. I loved the family parties, rich with relatives too numerous to keep track of (I so relate).

But what made Red Envelope sing strongest was two things: the own voices Chinese-American narrative and the overarching theme of accepting one’s identity. The prologue, which you can read in the Amazon preview, talks about Clint, the narrator, having two lives, an American one and a Chinese one, but that “being who you are was about doing one thing: staying true to yourself.” Through Clint, Yang takes us into the warmth and joy of not one, not two, but three New Year’s parties, which for us Westerners who don’t know why it’s so important: New Year’s is a huge, important celebration in Asia, usually centered around family. There’s also a tradition of children receiving red envelopes from the adults, and I promise you, how the title reveals itself will have you melting.

Yang has such a deft hand. I immediately ran to all his social media hoping to read more, but alas, this is it for now. Watch this author. He’s got the chops. If I were a publisher, I’d be courting the hell out of him. But if anybody does go to him, you need to let him talk to you about covers. This one is perfect, down to that yellow lettering on that envelope red.

Such a treat. Please, Mr. Yang, as your fan, I beg you to write a full length novel soon! I’ll be first in line at the store.

Buy Red Envelope here.

How books get published, a primer

If you’ve been under a rock (or wisely don’t get lathered over publishing drama), you may have missed the prompt for this post, which is the misunderstanding between a rising star of critical acclaim and Nora Roberts, the former thinking the latter copied the idea for her book. That’s a super awkward accusation on so many levels, most notably because Ms. Roberts, in addition to being a queen of publishing, is the most famously and egregiously living plagiarized author.

There’s a whole issue with some of Adeyemi’s readers being upset on her behalf, and this is a natural extension because readers are not expected to know anything about publishing or how it works. There are other arguments about who should be calling who out and when and if and whether tweets should come down or not, and while I have my opinions on that, this is not a post about that. This is a post, for those who wish to know, about how books get published. Like how a bill becomes a law, but with less singing and less corruption.

The first thing about this tale, though, is that there are many different ways books become published, and many different timelines. One way, which we will not discuss here, is self-publishing. Self-published books are set entirely by the authors themselves, and so they can have whatever timelines they choose. They can have very long lead times and very short lead times (lead times being the time between when a book is ready to be published and when it actually is). Many self-published authors choose no lead time. Personally, I like about three months when I can get it, but often I end up with one or two. The point here, though, is it’s entirely up to the author, because they’re author, publisher, marketing department, and company head.

If an author is published with a publishing house, however, everything changes. For very small publishing houses the lead time can be as small as a few months, but for the sake of this discussion, we’re going to talk about medium to large houses. And first, we’ll talk about a new author. Because images help, I have some, but bear with me because I drew these and while I think I’m not bad as an author I’m absolute crap as a visual artist.

Visual timeline for new author to publication

I see I cut off a little of my words there on the side. The bottom there says “1-2 years until publication, bigger the release, bigger the lead needed.”

Basically what you need to focus on here is the brand new, yet-unpublished author has to write the whole book FIRST, then submit to an agent with the entire book written, and then this book will be sent out to all kinds of publishers who will think about it and say yes or no. Hopefully one of them (best scenario: a lot of them) says yes. The timeline for THIS, from when the author writes the book until a publisher says, “I want to buy this,” can take years alone. It can take a decade, sometimes with this book being rejected only to be sold after another book is sold instead, sometimes to a publisher who rejected the first one. Publishing is complicated and messy. But let’s say this book sells, and it sells fast. From submission to agent to YES takes six months. That’s light speed!

Also, here’s a secret: it’s almost harder to get an agent than it is to get a publisher. But we’re also going to pretend this newbie author is LUCKY LUCKY LUCKY.

Because what really matters for the sake of this discussion is that ONLY NOW is the timeline for when the book is going to be published established, and it’s not set by the author, the editor, or anyone but the marketing department and people in meetings. The editors will have a say in it, but these are big decisions that involve a lot of people. The new author’s work will be discussed, and at this point they will decide an ad budget, a plan for how much they will (or won’t) push it. Here’s the ugly truth: most books won’t get much of anything. It’s not that publishers are mean. It’s that they only have so much money and they operate out of a certain kind of playbook. They push hits or things they think will be hits.

But some books really are marked for greatness as they walk in the door. Some have a feeling of fire under them, and even though they’re a debut author, they’re given a lot of press and money and push. And here’s the thing: the more they want to push you, usually, the longer lead they give you. This isn’t the most absolute thing in the world, and some houses might do things differently. But generally, this is how it goes. The more planning that needs to be done, the more time needed. However, it won’t begin until this moment.

Now let’s look at an established author.

Visual Timeline for Established Author Publication

That’s supposed to be a light bulb above the author’s head, by the way

Okay with an established author, you submit frequently (often exclusively) on what’s called “spec.” You get an idea for a story/series, you pitch it to your agent/editor, and if the editor likes it, they ask to buy it and argue over a price with your agent. As soon as they give you a contract, you’re sent to marketing and design, and your timeline is set, before you have finished the book. You may not have even started. You may have a hefty chunk. You may have part of book one but not books two and three.

How long is your timeline to publication? Depends on so many factors. How big will the push for this title be? How many other books are you currently working on? How big is your career? How important is your career to the house? How long do you need to finish this book? When does marketing think would be a good time for this to land? Also, the size of the house matters a lot here. I said six months is possible, but that’s really, really rare at this level. Most of the time you’re looking at a year or longer.

So these are basically the two options. New author and established author. HOWEVER. In this particular discussion, we must talk about the unicorn track.



Stick figure drawing of a guess of Nora Roberts publishing timeline

This is quite obviously a complete guess because who the heck am I to know Ms. Roberts’s business

To call Ms. Nora Fucking Roberts an “established author” is like saying the ocean is slightly damp. Whether or not you read her, if you’re published or trying to be, you’re standing on her shoulders. She’s single-handedly holding up a huge corner of the industry and has been before many people trying for contracts have been born. She has more books come out in a single year than most of us can even think of. She invented a pen name because she had too many books coming out under Nora Roberts and it was tough on the publisher. Or it was something like that–anyway, listen, the woman is a legend’s legend. She IS a publishing timeline.

I think I would pass out if I even saw one of the spreadsheets it must take to keep her business straight. She writes constantly–I can’t remember the source, but I think I’ve read several places where she says she basically finished one draft then opens the next one. She is a story producing machine. 

She doesn’t want for money. She doesn’t want for influence, attention, readers, anything. She values her readers like you wouldn’t believe, but she lets them come to her and just continues to produce more story for them.

Her process and timeline are absolutely a separate existence from the rest of us. Any and everything we think and know are not what she experiences, and we are not to have what she does, probably ever. It’s possible there will be another author this influential and prolific, but there will never be another Nora Roberts. They’ll be a different kind of unicorn.

But anyway, this is how a publishing timeline goes down. Mostly. Just in case you wondered.

ADMIN NOTE: I allow comments, but I approve them all before they go up, and I’m not quick about doing it, especially like tonight when I’m out the door to go to my daughter’s concert. I’m also not here for any drama, so should a comment come in the queue that is anyone wanting to try to bring the drama in to this post and want to explain anything about The Situation to me or tell me how you know all about Ms. Roberts’s intentions or plans, your comment will not be joining this discussion. (Unless you’re Ms. Roberts and then I will do whatever you want, Ms. Roberts, because this is your damn business, my God.) But I’m here for geek talk about publishing any damn day, and I’m especially going to post as fast as possible any comments that point out errors in my reporting, which are highly possible because I’m human and it’s Friday afternoon in the longest week I’ve ever seen.

Go forth and publish, and may you always be the luckiest.

NaNoWriMo Diaries: Letting Go

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Here is a current screenshot of my progress bar.

Heidi's Nanowrimo progress bar

It’s one thing for me to have spent the entire month barely above the minimalist line. It’s another thing entirely for me to fall absolutely under the bar this late and say, basically, “Eh, maybe I’ll hit it, maybe I won’t.”

It definitely grates for me to see this, because I dislike being told “here is success” and to continue to participate–or to have signed up at all–and allow myself to “fail.” I absolutely have mild OCD tendencies, especially when stressed, and this makes me bananas on many levels. The part of me that likes tidy, checked boxes is upset as well, and the part of me that wanted “a win, any win” after years of feeling dragged is really feeling like it wants a bowl of ice cream. But these are all the toddlers on my periphery, and I’ve handed out popsicles, blankets, and comforting TV shows. Because I’m the adult in the center of this conglomerate, and I know the real deal.

This fucking chart doesn’t mean shit.

I mean, it did for a while. It got me what I needed, which was my hands on a sizable chunk of stuff I could edit and at a faster rate than if I’d tried to do it my usual way, especially right now. I could still do it now, could have absolutely done it last week too. HOWEVER. Last week I felt really physically crappy, I had a holiday to host, and I had a lot of family around me. And I still have an edit I’m trying to finish.

The problem is, me “winning” NaNoWriMo gives me absolutely nothing except possibly more problems if I do it at the expense of my process. I’m at the point where I’m writing on thin air and I don’t know what if anything will stay, I can’t see what goes where, and every time I sit down I think, “What I should be doing is working on the beginning and putting this together in a way that makes sense so I can write this section properly.” I’m not saying that because I’m a perfectionist or uncertain or unable to finish a book. I’m saying that because I’ve written 35 books and this is how I do it.

I could have cancelled my family’s plans too–which I never would have done. Why? My god, I never get to do anything or go anywhere or see anyone, but Friday night I laughed myself sick playing Tiny Hands with my sister and daughter after eating shabu shabu. I also read a web novel all day. I built a tree out of Brain Flakes with my nephew on Thursday after serving a major meal with my sister. I didn’t write Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.

Yesterday I got almost one hundred pages of editing done too, and today I should be able to finish. Depending on when/if that happens and how I feel, I may write some today. But writing may be working on the intro of the book and deleting. At this point I’m crafting the novel I need to turn in, not trying to feed NaNoWriMo’s concept of how to draft a book.

I also have to be extra careful of my body. I don’t know if it was writing and editing at the same time or the weather or all three, but Tuesday I was sick. I couldn’t do anything: couldn’t work, couldn’t prep for Thanksgiving, couldn’t do anything but sit around. Wednesday was only slightly better and involved going to the chiropractor to get myself put back together like Humpty Dumpty. Even so, when I tried to peel potatoes on Thursday I managed four out of ten pounds of them. I physically couldn’t continue. The repetitive motion and the way I held the scraper hurt so much that even with KT tape and a wrap the pain shot up my arm. I could tell if I pushed through the pain it wouldn’t be long before my hand simply stopped functioning altogether.

So given all this, I look at that graph and think, “What in the world do you have to offer me, really?” A winner badge? Um, thanks? I literally have a contract for this book. I have a cover. I have the entire surgery team lined up and waiting for this. All I ever needed was the push.

Here’s the thing. There’s so much great about NaNoWriMo. The energy. The community. The goalposts and motivation. The idea of setting a target and reaching, placing yourself on the field and seeing what you’re made of. The problem with NaNoWriMo is the same as it’s always been: Almost no one writes the same way as anyone else, and for some reason all novels have to be taken into the dark and molded by one or two people as their creations under their processes under their set conditions.

What you learn during an attempt to put 50,000 words down on a story in one month is how much of that process is yours and how much of it isn’t and hopefully what actually is your way. No one can teach you your way but you. There’s no test you can take, no sorting hat to let you know. You just have to jump in and discover it yourself. Which is terrifying. I think the most dangerous conceit of NaNoWriMo is the notion that if you put down 50,000 words you get the novel you need. The truth is all you get is the winner badge.

If that’s what you want, then cool. If you’re trying to figure out who you are or get the right book for you, then you need to let it happen how it happens. I’m sitting here with five days out thinking I’m 80% likely to not “win”. I dislike the idea of being told by some stupid system I didn’t win, but I’m certainly not going to harm myself to get the word count. I’m not going to make my edit later than it is or ruin my arm or miss time with my daughter, or make more work for myself in December because I thought I should screw around fucking with fifteen thousand more words of garbage when I could begin fixing what I know I need to fix so I can get the story I need as I need it.

I dislike rule books and how to’s when it comes to writing, and even craft books I can only take so long before I put them down and hack my own way into my work. My path is my own path, my way is my way. I learn it by exploring and doing and wrestling it, and it works for me.

So if you’re struggling with your word count, if you’re feeling bad, don’t. Or if you need to, I guess you can, but know that I’m formally turning my back on the chart and going back to October’s path. I’ll still update this thing if I make progress, and if I get to fifty thousand by November 30, well, what a bonus.

What I will have is a finished draft by the end of the year and a published book by midsummer, one I suspect will be translated into at least two languages, possibly three, will be in audio simultaneously, and who knows what other fun things.

Pretty sure I can live without a winner badge.

NaNoWriMo Diaries, Day 15: The 30k Eureka Moment

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I’m pretty sure I mentioned in another one of these diaries that somewhere between 20-30k I get my hands around the story. Well, I’m at 29,550, and instead of writing this morning I got out my huge pad of grid paper and started graphing. I don’t know how to describe what this phase is for me. Basically at this point I’ve written enough that I can compare the idea I thought I was going to write with what I’ve actually written and start to try to make them dance together, plus I begin to look at big themes and sketch how they connect so I can start being deliberate with my attempts to lace them further.

I write romance, so the main story is always “Character A and B get together” (and sometimes there’s character C, etc, if it’s a menage/poly book), but you have to have subplots and echo plots or the reader (and the writer) gets bored. Plus if they tie together, the reader will sometimes notice consciously but at least will subliminally feel it and have a sense that the book is more thrilling and meaningful and might be able to hold it more dearly to their heart. For me, I always want to try to write a keeper, a book a reader can have resonate with them in a healing or at least joyful way. I don’t want to write a disposable tissue. I want something that can be reread and rediscovered and explored as many times as a reader wants–or simply experienced as a comfortable staple over and over.

My technique for that is this moment, this 20-30k stop-check where I map. This time I wrote out both characters’ strengths and weaknesses, their fears, and their challenge: “Faced with X, Character A must choose between Y and Z.” Both main characters also have rival love interests, or at least alternate choices/paths, so I listed those.

But this is the third book in the series, which could be the first of several series set in this town, and it’s this series is set in a hospital which has had issues spanning between the three books, plots individual and yet quietly linked. The town and the hospital are both characters too, and their growth arcs are hugely important to this moment because it closes out this series and opens the potential for more. Even if I don’t write more books in this series, it should feel open for the reader’s imagination, making it feel as if these are real people, not simply the characters but the town itself, and they could go visit if they wanted. Which they could do of course, by rereading.

My goal in the map is to not only understand the goals, motivation, and conflict of my characters, but to find connections and echoes between them and make sure the town and hospital are also underscoring those same emotions and struggles. Some things I want to be so blunt the reader notices and thinks, “Hey, that’s just like X” because these are comfortable, easy books, and when a human brain makes connections and sees patterns it feels comforted and happy. Some of them I want to be subtle so the brain is noticing them but the consciousness isn’t. I also want to make sure there’s a sense of “oh no, will it be okay” because my brand is “love against the odds,” and the promise of a Heidi Cullinan book is that shit will get real but then always work out in the end. So this means you can pick up one of my books and read it, know there will be a crisis but it will absolutely get solved, nice and tidy, and also because it’s me, there will be a bit of a fireworks and dance number at the end and you’ll put the book down feeling a bit flushed and satisfied.

I’m aware of all of this at 30k. I’m looking at the book going, “Okay, how are we going to get to that ending? Where’s the oh no moment? Is it enough tension? Does it match the other stuff going on?” This is the third book in the series, so I want it to be not just satisfying in its own right but a finish to the trio, so I look at it in context to the whole as well. All of this explains why I was so crabby as I wrote to this moment as well, but it was worth it to keep going because despite it being mostly messy, I absolutely see the shape now, and there’s a lot of good stuff in there.  I also know a lot of things I can insert.

I feel like one of the things that saves my bacon the most is I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll bend on just about every point except the romance, and even there I’ll yield once the rest of the book takes shape and I need to make things work. It’s no different than writing a thesis in college. You have to have an umbrella you’re fitting everything under, a ride you’re trying to give the reader, and you have to continue looking up at it and asking yourself if what your hand fits beneath that or not. At some point you lose your perspective, which is why you need beta readers and editors, but nothing is sacred except that umbrella. “This is a story about X and I’m trying to make the reader feel Y.” Everything becomes easier if you plant that flag instead of, “The pirate has to be from Luxembourg and have six fingers or it won’t work.” You can only say that if it serves the ride you’re trying to give the reader.

Anyway, I’m pleased, because I just went from randomly grabbing scenes and hoping they were ones I get to keep for my daily 1666 to finding surgical strike zones to add important bits or summaries to edit later, or actual new scenes I know are part of the new map. Once NaNoWriMo is over I’ll probably write out a synopsis/outline just to help me run forward to the end, though even that will likely not be entirely correct.

Good day today. Also my daughter’s seventeenth birthday. Thanks for lending me your magic, baby girl.

NaNoWriMo Diaries, Day 13: Don’t Try This At Home

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So I haven’t updated this in ten days because I’ve been laser focused on trying to keep my novel updated but also trying to keep other projects going at the same time and let me tell you it’s not my favorite thing in the world, this arrangement.

The “other projects” tab has varied, but at this exact second I am writing one book, editing another (as in, my editor sent me comments and I am responding to them), and dealing with a proof that should be simple but isn’t because of a Scrivener issue from seven years ago from the first time this book came out with a different publisher and yet somehow is still there in the text making italics vanish and me bananas. Also both my personal professional emails are at constant critical max, not just in volume of unread but in people finding other ways to contact me and say, “Did you get X?” and sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t respond because I got distracted, sometimes I never saw it, and sometimes I didn’t even see the alternate communication means.

Also, I”m hosting Thanksgiving here next week for ten people, and my kid is in music All-State this weekend and ten people are coming to meet here before that and the easiest thing is for me to have dinner for them so I’m doing that.

JUST a touch of stress happening here. But I got drafted into the hydration squad on Twitter today, so that’s good. Plus I got myself a salt lamp yesterday, which I honestly thought would just be a pretty glow but there is legit something going on with it because I find myself walking away from it and wanting to go back, and when I sit next to it and get frustrated with my writing, I start touching it. Basically, I’m this cat.

I am making progress on the book, though. Passed 25k last night to much jubilation. Kidding: I closed the document and opened the edit and worked until I had to stop because I hated the world. The edit is actually book two in the same series and I’m writing book three, so it’s not too much of a head toss, but it’s rough to edit and draft at the same time, because now I have Editing Head in my Writing Head, which is very much chocolate in my peanut butter but not in a good way. More like salmon filet in my peanut butter. Especially as I go back and forth, I find myself having difficulty getting into an acute focus for editing and when I draft I’m hyper critical of overwriting and meandering prose, which would be helpful if this weren’t very much a discovery draft. All this means I’m editing slowly and writing slower and so the whole thing is taking forever and I’m cranky as hell.

I don’t regret this, though, because I’ll still finish the edit by the end of this week, and by the end of this month I will absolutely not have a finished book but will have a meaty hunk of stuff that I can gut and turn into the book I actually need. Right now I keep writing and think, frequently, “This is seriously a fucking mess,” which in my experience with one exception is how my NaNoWriMo novels turn out. I absolutely do NOT do well writing every single day. I do NOT do well pushing through when I need to stop and regroup, and my novels, right around the 20-30k mark, show me where the real story is and I usually stop to fix it and go forward. Sometimes though I first don’t think about it for a while and then come back.

Sometimes “for a while” with me is a year or more. Antisocial was two years, I’m pretty sure, and I poked at it several times before it took off. A lot of that was because Skylar stymied the hell out of me until I could peel him all the way back. Honestly if I had my way that book would have waited another year or two to come out but it had to happen when it did because it was the only book I could put out after the Samhain mess that I had started and wasn’t connected to any other books. Rebel Heart, the next Love Lessons book, has been in my head for over two years and has over 20k in it, but when I tried to rush it all that happened was I ended up in the basement playing my kid’s video games. Sometimes the book isn’t ready.

My NaNoWriMo book is contracted, though, so it’s going to have to get ready by deadline, muses ready or not. I’m using this month as a chance for my intuitive brain to play around and just make a godawful mess of things because that makes it so happy, but the whole time I’m noting what feels like it’s clanging and what feels like it’s humming.

This trilogy has been a little tough too because it’s hit the year my body went sideways enough I had to fold a nerve drug into my repertoire that helps a ton but also slows my writing down. I’ve adapted to it, but it cuts my processing and production time by two-thirds, which his how books that were supposed to be done by March are still not done in November. Well, that and I made them almost double as thick and intense as they were meant to be, but the only one complaining about that is me. (Even my publisher said, “That’s wonderful, go ahead.”)

I don’t know that I’ll do the write every day for thirty days thing all the time, and next time I’ll for sure stop when there’s an edit. Except maybe not. If I were to stop writing this now and do the edit, I’d come back to it and feel like it was too messy to continue for sure. So perhaps it’s good to keep pushing on to fifty or sixty thousand, whatever I get.

All I know is I have to go to the chiropractor today, and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is waiting for me once I hit par on my wordcount. Probably not going to get in anything more on the edit, and I kind of despair for the proofing at the moment, I’ll be honest.

This is where I’m at. Onward we go.

NaNoWriMo Diaries, Day 3

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I didn’t get a diary update in yesterday because I was busy writing and preparing to go to my region’s Write All Night event. Prep involved baking brownies, travel to a Des Moines area library (I live in Ames), and because it’s me, assembling portable support gear. I literally rolled in with a suitcase and one of my RWA totes over my shoulder carrying seat cushions, mini tempurpedic pillows, braces, wrist supports, and of course all my pain patches and creams. Also my travel teapot, because I cannot write without tea.

I did remember the brownies.

Write All Night at Johnston Public Library

You get a tiny peek of my draft here, if you’re desperate to see it

We’re a large region with a broad spectrum of experience and ages, full of longstanding traditions, and this Write All Night is one of the favorites. It’s changed a bit since I last participated, but the core is the same. Bring food and your laptop (and some power cords) and write as many words as you can in a group setting. I wrote Randy Jansen’s confessional therapy scene in Double Blind during a Write All Night, and I don’t think I could have gotten through it the same without the companionship of the group. I remember feeling a little overwhelmed, then stopping to look up, feeling the comfort of my surroundings, then carrying on.

I wrote almost six thousand words yesterday, most of them at home before I went to the event, where I added two thousand to my total. Right now this book has 7500 words from two days of writing. It’s definitely more than if I wasn’t pushing myself to work on it. Today I won’t add as many as it’s a weekend and there’s a lot to do around the house (my weekends always feel more stressful than my weekdays), but I’m two thousand over par right now.

At the moment, NaNoWriMo is giving me exactly what I wanted it to: a boost on the book and a set of mental bumper bars so I don’t feel I’m crashing while I work. All I want is a draft, something I can fix later. I feel like I can get at least a huge start on it.

How do I feel about the book so far? I think the beginning of the book isn’t right at all. I think it’s missing several things, but I don’t know what they are yet, so I keep writing forward. This book has been good so far about showing me what it’s about as I write it, and it’s standard practice for me to fix beginnings after I finish.

Now, I also got an edit back to me in the middle of this event, which means I now have double work next week, in addition to some other projects I didn’t want to let fall completely on the wayside. This is the moment where, if I didn’t have the focus of “well, you said you were going to get 50k of this book this month” I’d probably drop the draft. Instead, I’ll make sure I at least stay at or above par.

My right shoulder and wrist and supremely unhappy, and I’m several days delinquent on my EDS exercises, so I have that to settle today as well. But first I’m going to put in at least one thousand words. I can do that at least.

I do want to attend another write in. I’m already thinking ahead to when I can next attend one. I always say I like my solitude, but I think I need to be better about airing myself out.

I also wouldn’t mind writing with a buffet and tea/coffee service behind me the entire time. But probably in the long run it’s better I don’t have that after all…

NaNoWriMo Diaries, Intro/Day 1

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I’m starting up NaNoWriMo this year after a long hiatus from the event, and I’m going to blog through my efforts for my own process, for the curious, and in case this helps someone else.

To give a quick background, writing cold in case someone comes here from a tag; I’ve written regularly since I was twelve, attempted publication since 1999, achieved publication in 2009 (my third book was a NaNoWriMo novel), and since my first published book I’ve written and published over thirty novels which have sold collectively over 100,000 copies and have been translated into four languages and counting. I’ve been with five publishers and have also self-published, and my books have received multiple awards and recognitions.

I list all the credits there because I want you to have full context when I say this year has been really rough on me; I’m tired, worn out, and while I’m not precisely in a slump, I’m having a much more difficult time than I would like.

I can pin a lot of this on a publisher closing and tossing thirteen books back into my lap, causing a lot of financial and career chaos, but I also like a lot of authors have been dragged down by world events and have difficulty crafting HEA when so much about the world feels gross. I also have only one child and she’s in her junior year, so I’m torn between wanting to spend all my time helping her with her final high school years and having some advance mourning because soon she won’t be living with me all the time, and the thought makes me sad. Writing is literally my job, so I have to find my mojo to do my part to pay the bills. I’m blessed to have the support of readers and patrons and many author friends, but at the end of the day it’s still me in front of the computer.

I joined NaNoWriMo18 because I have a contracted book due, the third in a series (books one and two aren’t out yet, they’re all coming in 2019, so don’t go thinking you missed something) and I was hoping the camaraderie and focused attention of daily goals would help me get closer to completing the assignment. I’m actually also working on three other things at the same time, book four in the Love Lessons series, something I’m writing entirely for fun, and a book that sort of hit me out of nowhere that I really like and would be happy to throw everything else aside for but I need to work on these other books first. This is the other reason I joined NaNoWriMo: I really need to finish this third series book, and I have a lot of distractions. I thought this might help give me some insurance I don’t wander off because something else is shinier.

I have mixed luck with NaNoWriMo books. It’s often far too fast for me, though the first book I wrote for under the setup is probably my favorite novel. In general, my writing pattern is a burst to get the first 20,000 words, then a pause as I sort out what the book’s frame is, another burst to 50-60k, some fretting because I still don’t understand, a slow fuss to 70k, serious panic unless I got lucky and figured the whole book out by then, and then I stop and wrestle the book until I can see it properly, often going back and rewriting slightly until I can get to the end without feeling lost. Then, once finished, I go back and usually rewrite the beginning immediately and also find two or three places in the middle where critical scenes are missing. At this point it goes to my editor, who might well tell me to rewrite the opening again, or sometimes change whole elements of the plot. So I don’t get too attached to anything since I know she might tell me to change it. In fact I’m currently waiting for an edit to come back from here where she’d asked me to substantially change a secondary plot element. Really hoping I did it right this time.

So I’m nervous about this whole writing straight through thing, and I might jump ship and write in another book for a bit if I feel like I get stuck. I’m also not going to focus on finishing the novel so much as getting a seriously huge chunk of it down. In past NaNoWriMos I got obsessed with finishing, but the books were often a mess, and I can tell you the ones I wrote and sold from NaNo excepting that first one, didn’t do well.

It’s really important that you honor your process when you write, and if you’re using NaNoWriMo, you use it for your own ends. If your’e just starting out, it’s completely worth trying to see if it fits you, because it might. If you find it doesn’t quite, analyze why. This is the trickiest thing about writing, backing up and looking at what you’re doing and deciding what is and isn’t working and not taking it personally. When my books don’t work, it makes me frustrated, and I definitely have to sit there and freak out for a day or so and think, “my career is over, I’ve lost my touch, everything is death and destruction when I touch it,” and then I get over myself and work because nothing will get solved until I do. I’ll tell you a secret: I have the same problems after thirty books that I did in my first books, but I solve them faster and am less clumsy about it, and I don’t waste time angsting as long because I walk in assuming I can do the job, and I just do it.

The other thing I want to talk about is writing with a disability.

I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, hypermobility type, which I’m not going to go into in depth here, but the bottom line is I have to be ultra careful about how I sit and how long I sit, how I hold my hands, what my keyboard and chair are like, what kind of mouse I use. I need to take not only frequent breaks but monitor how many hours I’ve been using my hands and how many hours I’ve been sitting in a particular position. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and have a disability, I want to give you an extra boost and high five and encourage you that you can do this, but to also remind you to take care of yourself and not hurt your body for word count.

I’ve collected a million things to help make my work station more ergonomic over the years, and I’ll share some of them here in case they help. You can ship a lot of them quickly if you want them for NaNoWriMo.

I can’t function without my Kinesis Freestyle Blue split keyboard. I use the 20″ variation, and I have the VIP3 accessory (essential in my opinion) which gives you wrist support and tilts the keyboard. Looks like this in use.
split keyboard(Can you tell I’m having a flare up day? Lord I didn’t realize I was this puffy/swollen until I took a pic.)

Mice are absolutely a personal preference. A lot of people love vertical mice, and I’ve considered them, but I use a three mouse combination. My main mouse is the Kensington Expert Wireless Trackball, and I use the wrist rest. I had to duct tape it on because it always fell off, but this is hands-down my favorite. For big scrolling, though, I use the Apple Magic Trackpad, and for when my Bluetooth is stupid, I have a Logitech trackball, whose scrolling I dislike but whose connection is USB and saves me frequently when I have some kind of connectivity issue with the others.

My office chair is this expensive number I got at a furniture store, and when the base broke I had my husband’s friend and my FIL rebuild the base with a plywood bottom and new gas lift, base, and wheel parts, and now I’m set for another ten years, I think. I have a Purple cushion that basically gives me another five hours a day to sit, though I’d love to find a Tempurpedic version. I also, at my PT’s suggestion, put bed pillows behind my back and neck, and I often put a roll pillow or sometimes straight up foam roller behind my neck. When my arms are stupid (a frequent issue, I put folded hand towels under them to achieve the height that relieves tension that day.

I also customize where my keyboard and mice sit depending on the day. In the photo above you’ll see the keyboard is on a blanket; I pull that blanket into my lap so my arms are in the most natural position possible, and I have enough blankets under there to make the height exactly right. There are days I feel like I want it higher or lower, and I adjust. I also have my mice on a TV tray beside me, then propped on books to achieve perfect height and accessibility. I can shift the books (the bottom ones are huge) to get the mice in the best position possible to avoid strain on my shoulder.

mouse position


I also have a Varidesk, which I use when I can’t sit any longer; I stand then on a Wurfboard, or my travel Tempurpedic bed, and I make sure to wear knee and pelvic braces so I don’t cause myself more problems. Sometimes, though, my body just is not having it at all, and I have to sit in a reclined position or lie in bed to write, at which point I use my Laptop Laidback. Ice packs are also my friend, especially the migraine hat when my neck has pinched nerves to the point I can’t think straight.

For braces, I’m in love with Bauerfiend. I can’t survive without their Sacroloc, elbow brace, and I covet their knee braces. I have various techniques for wrist support, my favorite being a simple compression sleeve my PT made me, but I also use KT tape, Ace bandages, and sometimes a carpal tunnel support because I like the hard wrist piece underneath to keep me from hyperextending. I have a lot of difficulty with my pinky hyperextending too, but I haven’t yet figured out a good way to stop that. I’ve seen some great custom EDS braces, but none that address what I need yet. Mostly I keep up my exercises and go to my various therapists.

This might seem like an incredible list of stuff needed to write, but my point is, I use all this and have quite a limiting condition and have a solid writing career. It’s not really my physical condition keeping me from writing right now, though the Nortriptaline isn’t doing me any favors (makes me really dopey). So if you’re doing NaNoWriMo or considering writing in general and you have a disability, the point is, you can modify everything however you need to in order to get to your goal, if you’re patient and clever.

Anyway. I’m going to go back to clawing at my words in my ergonomic environment. I have about 350 so far and I’ve been at it all morning. It’s the first scene and those are always hell for me, worse when it’s a sequel because I feel the weight of everything that came before. This one has the benefit that only a handful have read books one and two, but sequels still have pressure in them, to keep everything straight. Trying to remind myself right now I just need words so I can fix them later.

It doesn’t help that the words I’m getting have a character who wasn’t supposed to be there showing up and doing things not in the plan. This, alas, is typical for me. Heidi Cullinan, characters going off plan since 1989.

I wish everyone who’s writing this month many words, productive writing times, and comfortable chairs. I don’t know if I’ll update this diary every day, but I’ll update it at least semi-regularly as a kind of writer-in-slump mental health check.

Oh, burying the lede: here’s my NaNoWriMo page, so you can check up me.

Now I really am off. More soon.

RWA Nationals 2018: Yes, I was revitalized and renewed, and it was the best RWA nationals I’ve ever attended.

I wanted to write this post a week ago, but as things go with me, especially this past year, it took a bit of time. So forgive me as I am incredibly late to the RWA national conference recap party.

I had an incredible time.

Quite possibly that is the most understated statement I’ve ever made, but I must begin somewhere, so we’ll start there. I had an incredible time. The theme was rethink, revitalize, renew, and they hit a homerun with me. For anyone to understand what a watershed that is, however, I have to tell you a story.

So here we go.

As many of you know, I’ve had quite a tumultuous past eighteen months. When Samhain Publishing announced it was closing, my career and whole life went into a tailspin from which I’m still recovering. Thirteen books caught in a subrights and release struggle, self-publish titles put on hold because they were tied to Samhain books, income frozen and then dropped off for over a year as I tried to rebuild titles under a rapidly-built self-published arm (which I had to pay for). I did it, with a lot of support from my friends and especially my amazing patrons, but as the worst of the storm subsided, I was left with the gruesome aftermath and all the emotional processing I’d put off, as well as still needing to push forward and write books to try to regenerate the income that still wasn’t where it used to be. All this with a teenager approaching college and a political world that if I paid even the slightest attention to it made me not want to write at all, but if I ignored it made me feel as if I were an entitled monster betraying everything I believed in.

And at my core, I was so tired and wrung-out, and demoralized. My therapist kept trying to get me to take a break, but breaks were simply more opportunity to think about how awful that time was and how much work I still had to do, how difficult it was to do it. At one point I went into hysterics with my editor, who if she’d been anyone else I think would have dropped me, but because we’ve been through hell together and over fifteen books (maybe it’s twenty? I’ve lost count), she patiently talked me out of my tree and told me I had to slow down and breathe or I couldn’t write properly.

Cover image of Heidi Cullinan's novel, Shelter the Sea: White background with a man in silhouette in the center, his image filled in by an ocean sunset, calm with some beach at the bottom. Blue and some brown at the bottom.I wasn’t going to go to nationals. Taking my editor and therapist’s advice, I was going to take a vacation with my family instead of attending the conference, because I felt like all my energy went into work and not them, and I felt bad that I wasn’t connecting with those closest to me as I should. I made a joke to my therapist. “Now watch, I’ll final in the RITAs.”

The next week, I did. I’d completely forgotten when the announcements were. I wasn’t paying any attention. I hadn’t even remembered what books I’d entered. When Damon called me, I thought he wanted to talk about a workshop we were teaching together. He launched into the “you’re a finalist” speech, and I told him to shut up, because I honestly thought he was teasing me.

After talking to my family, particularly my daughter who loves Shelter the Sea, the book that finaled, we decided to go to the convention. We’d make a vacation before the con, and then Dan and Anna would do things together in Denver. Anna was excited to wear a dress she’d worn in a friend’s wedding to the RITAs. Dan had been to a ceremony before, when I finaled for Fever Pitch, and he told Anna maybe there would be chocolate RITAs again. I said even if there weren’t, there would be good desserts. She was all in.

We did the vacation, and it was wonderful. I had a lot of work left undone, and I did a copy edit on the drive through South Dakota, but we had no cell service in the mountains, and it was impossible to work when driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. Plus I’d been dreaming of reading books for so long that I couldn’t resist. I was finally on vacation, and I was supposedto relax. So I read books. I slept in the shade by the hot tub pool in Glenwood Springs. I ate so much ahi tuna and sushi I was surprised I wasn’t a fish. I stared out the car window and thought about nothing except how beautiful Colorado was. I enjoyed how my body feels in high altitude (less pressure on joints, less pain).

When we got to Denver, at first I was anxious and on edge. My brain just associates book world with stress at this point, plus I had a full schedule before I even arrived. For

Heidi and her family standing at a railing before a mountain backdrop. The three are standing close, Heidi and Anna leaning into Dan in the center, everyone smiling. Heidi is wearing a T-shirt that says "Diversity over division." Anna is wearing a green zipper coat (bright green) and Dan is wearing a grey driver cap. It's a cloudy day and the mountains are in silhouette behind us.

My family at Rocky Mountain National Park

someone who wasn’t going to go, I had an amazingly packed convention. Some of it was that when you’re a finalist there are events you go to and things you do, but a lot of it was that I’m on several committees, and being at the convention means you help out and work. Which I was happy to do—but then people I hadn’t seen wanted to catch up, and then I needed to meet with my publisher and some other industry people. So much of being at conventions is “oh good, we can see each other’s faces,” so that’s what you do. But with my days already slammed, my brain became anxious before we began.

Except then I experienced the actualconference, and all my anxieties melted away.

As someone who has been attending RWA national conventions since 2003, I’m here to tell you that I truly love this new schedule, and as someone who has been a RITA finalist under the old schedule and the new one, I so much prefer the new one. I love that the signing is the capstone now, an open event turning the focus back to readers. I love that being a finalist is celebrated more, highlighted all week with events and markers and ways to network with other authors and industry professionals—it’s wonderful to win, and there’s an extra polish for those authors, yes, but I in no way felt that I was less for being “only a finalist,” because I was so celebrated. I also loved that the pressure of that was released at the beginning, not dragged through. Whether or not I won meant so much to otherpeople, but remember, I couldn’t even remember what book I’d entered or when the announcements were. I was honored and happy to be present at all, and that I “lost” to Kristin Higgins, who was so lovely to me before I arrived, welcomed my family and charmed my daughter—my daughter to whom the book of mine that finaled was so important—all this meant so much to me, so much more than a statue and standing on a stage.

I loved the speakers, the award winners, the workshop leaders. Even those I didn’t have a chance to hear speak because my schedule was so packed stood out to me. Yes, I noticed that there was diversity in these lineups, that the people of color and the queer people weren’t only leading diversity panels. Yes, I was one of the first people on her feet during Suzanne Brockmann’s speech. How could I not be? I have felt the same slaps in the face and still feel them. I wept to the point I nearly sobbed during Sonali Dev’s librarian’s luncheon keynote. How could I not? She was asking for a call to action I have been yearning for, asking for in less eloquent and powerful ways. I ached during Robin Covington’s speech and Xio Axelrod’s speech, even as I swelled with pride.

But what stood out the most to me at this convention was not what was overtly said or arranged. It was something organic that takes years to nurture and a community to foster. At this convention I wasn’t simply restored. I was enveloped, and I belongedin a way I have never felt at any other convention. I belonged as a queer author. As a self-published author. As an author published at a small press. As an author from the Midwest. As an author who doesn’t do well with people for too long but had a busy schedule. As a woman with health problems who needs a little extra TLC at times. As someone who can’t drink because of a medication. As someone who can’t remember names well and whose drugs make her foggy and sometimes she can’t remember nouns either. As a very tired author who has had an incredibly rough last year and a half, who is more anxious than she wants to be—I was accepted as that too, and for that especially, I was embraced and healed, particularly by total strangers. By published and pre-published authors. By everyone I met.

What I loved at this convention most was not one time did someone see my badge with the word PAN and the sea of past con pins and cower as if they shouldn’t talk to me (this has happened in the past several times) but instead they smiled and asked questions. What I loved was I never felt like there was a wall between pre and published authors, except at the PAN keynote where I was a door monitor and had to turn people away with an apology as they came to the wrong room or just wanted to hear. I would say I was looking for this kind of convention so this was what I found, except I wasn’t looking for anything. I came completely spent, empty, slightly nervous. I left tired in a different way, filled with hope, energy, and a sense of calm and centering I honestly didn’t know I could find again.

Thank you.

The background is the RITA stage, which is a checkerboard of white and black that at the moment reads purple and black because of the lighting. A screen has the convention logo on it with mountains. Kristin is on the far left wearing a red sleeveless dress and has a tuft of blond bangs in her dark hair. She has a cheeky smile. I'm next to her with dark hair, red glasses, and a navy blue pin-striped suit. Anna is next in a blue lace dress with a bolero. Dan is on the end wearing a pink shirt with a plaid tie. Everyone is holding shoulders and smiling.

The Cullinans and Kristin Higgins at the RITA ceremony

Thank you to the convention and workshop organizers, to the RITA ceremony committee. Thank you to the board of RWA, to the staff of RWA.  Thank you to everyone who attended the convention, whether or not I was able to connect with you, for contributing to that energy. Thank you again to Kristin Higgins, and congratulations on your RITA. I’m so glad this time your husband was able to share your joy in person.

I love being a part of RWA. We have our ups and our downs, our tempests and our trials. I have not always gone to conventions and felt welcomed. I have not always felt this connection. But I have always believed it can be there and that it should be there, and I have always found people and places where it is. Thank you, though, for this time and this moment for embracing me completely as I needed to be embraced. For reminding me that it’s through action and service that I’m renewed, through networking and connection. For nudging me into the knowledge I already had, that being alone with my struggles isn’t good for me or my work. Above all, though, thank you for a week that was simply wonderful. It was exactly what I needed. You have inspired me to look harder for ways I can give that feeling back to others.

Now I have to get back to this book on deadline—with a light heart and renewed spirit, and a determination that I will make more space for connection with my support systems from here on out. Thank you for reminding me I had one around me all along.

The Marvelous, Fantastical, Incredible Chronicles of Walter the Great

Walter Cullinan, AKA Walty, AKA Super Walter, June 2001-January 11,2018

I have written some tough cat eulogies in my day. I have written plenty of cat eulogies in my day, all of them chronicled here. None of them are easy, and all of them are sad. But writing a eulogy for Walter is a sorrow I have been dreading. I knew it would hit us like a train, and it hit us like seven bullet trains, express. We feel his loss. The other cats feel his loss. Our friends and our family feel his loss. You, my reader, without realizing it feel his loss. Walter was a character like no other. Our longest-lived cat who defied not one, not two, but three death sentences at once to live more than six months past what the most celebrated veterinarians in the state predicted. He was the last surviving cat from our previous residence, the last cat from our early marriage. He is the cat who grew up in congruence with our daughter. He charmed delivery men and repairmen and all friends and family who came to see us, greeting them usually at the door. He spawned one of my most-loved characters. He scared rottweilers away, pinning them in the corner of our porch with nothing more than the force of his stare. He lost is best friend and made another. He was a viral video. He was legend.

Let me tell you his story.

Walter came into our life in August, 2001, shortly after the unexpected death of my cat Gulliver, while I was seven months pregnant with Anna. We took a walk down to see my mother, and when we came back he was screaming and unable to walk. Two days later he was dead of a thromboembolism. Gulliver was my baby, my constant companion–we had two other cats, but Gulliver was my heart, and I was utterly destroyed that he’d been taken from me the way he had. Neither of the remaining cats remotely filled the hole he left. Pregnant, hormonal as hell, and not thinking the most clearly, I dragged Dan to the local shelter to look for a new cat.

I fell in love with Bingley, a beautiful white and tan spotted cat who pawed at me through his cage and gazed at me with sweet eyes. Across the room, Dan had already sold his soul to a tiny black and white bean who hadn’t even been processed, barely large enough to fit in his hand, though he was already three months old. When Dan held him too long, the kitten peed on him. That’s when Dan says he lost his heart.


Fools that we were (and still are), we took home both kittens. A few months later we would stand in the middle of our tiny house with a newborn, two rambunctious kittens, and two dubious older cats and wonder what in the world we had done to ourselves.

Bingley and Walter weren’t litter mates, but they might as well have been. They were instant best friends and were never seen one without the other the entirety of their time together. Unfortunately, we lost Bingley quickly and unexpectedly to lung cancer in 2011, right after first Mia and then Blair died in quick succession of one another to unrelated cancers.

We were so in shock and wrecked by so many cat deaths, and Bingley was so sweet and quiet, I’m afraid he doesn’t have much of a eulogy here except to show how sad we were. Walter took Bingley’s death hard as well, and for a time we thought we’d lose him too, to grief. Thanks to love, catnip, and the power of ham, he decided to stick around.

Walter had a long, wonderful period of life with Bingley, though, and during that era he and his brother tormented Blair, their cranky alpha, and got into trouble with Mia, their adopted mother. For a few months after they arrived they were the babies, and then they were the fur babies next to the human baby, Anna.

Blair (black cat), Walter, Bingley, and Mia (orange tabby) hang out in the to-be baby’s room

Walter got into all kinds of trouble, most of it fairly innocent. Anna’s godmother and Heidi’s former teaching partner, Mary, always wanted to steal Walter and take him home in her purse, the joke being that he totally would have fit.

Walter got along with everyone, even cats who didn’t want to get along. Blair, our notorious bastard cat who despised all living things except Anna, Dan, and I, loved Walter. Walter just had this way of worming his way up to the cranky Blair, somehow knowing the anger was only there to hide a sensitive side.

Technically Walter had small man syndrome; he was never a large cat, and he lived most of his life with Blair and Sidney, who were tanks, but he never seemed to mind. He had charm to spare.

Literally everyone loved Walter, in and out of the house. For the past year as he has been known to be terminally ill, it has been a parade of visitors wanting to pet him “one last time,” and when they visited to find he was still with us, they were overjoyed to find they had yet another chance. “He’s going to live forever,” everyone said, even though we all knew it was impossible. Walter was the kind of guy who made you believe.

Walter sure did love his creature comforts, though, especially food. He would beg for (and receive) any and all table scraps, preferring meat but accepting bread, rice, and anything that wasn’t a vegetable (though those sometimes came along for the ride).

The cats circling at feeding time

His favorite food above all was ham, and he did what we called the “ham dance,” standing on his hind legs and begging if you got out the bag of shaved ham to make a sandwich or carved up a ham on a holiday. You were expected to share, and if you didn’t, he stood near you, staring with intent, until you did.

He also loved it when we made a fire in what was first the TV room and now is my office, curling up in a cat bed strategically placed, or simply lying on the rug in front of it. Above all, though, Walter loved to snuggle. People’s laps were preferred, but if he couldn’t find a human, any other cat would do. Often the other cat in question didn’t want to snuggle, but he simply kept advancing until they accepted his affections. When I went to gather photos of him for his memorial, it was a veritable parade of Walter snuggling with various family members, guests, and animals over the years.

Walter and Daisy

Walter did even snuggle Glinda, though they’re most famous for their cat standoff on YouTube (Walter wins). They made us a tidy fee in licensing, so sometimes fighting does pay.

What he liked above all was a huge snuggle pile of cats: it’s difficult to tell, but this is a (recent) photo of Walter with Sam, Mitch, and Sasha, tucked into various places on my lap while I stay up too late watching Kdramas. This is Walter’s (and my) idea of heaven.

But speaking of Sasha.

Sasha is our youngest cat, the cat we didn’t mean to adopt but somehow did. He came into our life as a three week old abandoned kitten; Anna bottle fed him until he was weaned, and then we couldn’t bear to pass him on to my sister, who had planned to take him. All the other cats adopted Sasha in their own way, Mitch carting him around like a mother cat when he was a baby, but as soon as he was old enough, Sasha started snuggling Walter, and a new love affair was born.

Walter and Sasha begging when Sasha was a kitten


Adult Sasha and Walter begging for food at the table

Sasha and Walter had a crazy bond from word go. They quickly figured out they could get away with murder if they planned it together, but since the only real goal either one of them had was food, they stuck to begging for scraps. Their favorite ploy was sitting on a chair and looking pathetic, a strategy they used from day one to the end, but they also sat on the far end of the table when they could, Sasha just out of reach being polite, Walter going in for the kill. They always managed to get away with a heavy haul, usually handed right to them.

Mostly, though, they snuggled. It broke my heart to see how many photos we have of Sasha and Walter snuggled together. They weren’t as inseparable as Walter was with Bingley, but in their own way, they had a deep bond, and it’s no wonder Sasha seems extra quiet now. He’s especially confused in the morning, trying to find Walter so he can stand guard to let him out once he’s done eating his special food. Mitch seems to have taken up the snuggle baton, but the truth is, it’s going to be hard to beat his Walter.

Sasha isn’t the only baby in the house who’s going to miss Walter, though Anna’s going to take serious umbrage with my using that term to describe her. It’s true, she’s not a baby. She’s sixteen, the same age as Walter. That’s just the point, though. Walter famously slept in her pack-and-play more than she did. Walter grew up with her. Walter has always been there, everywhere, being the most Walter of Walters.

Anna sitting with Blair and Walter after a bad day getting some cat therapy

Because of the age of our cats as she was born, and some bad luck with some others’ health, she experienced a mass cat die-off at the time of Bingley’s death, with Sidney’s to come a few years after. Walter, however, remained the eternal constant.

He has sat with her through her homework, been the subject of her Snaps and Instagram posts as she has worked out the finer points of crafting her meme style. Then he befriended the baby she raised, playing grandpa to Sasha.

Walter was my constant companion throughout his life. In his youth I was a stay-at-home mother, then as time went on, I became a stay-at-home author. I have written many a novel with him on my lap, near my desk, or batting at my face for whatever I was eating. I cried a lot Thursday because the last few times he had the strength to climb the desk recently I chased him away because he kept stepping on my trackpad, plus I was on deadline. I had a hard time eating at my desk because he would always badger me for his half of whatever I was having, and honestly I don’t know if I can ever eat there again because he won’t be badgering me. He was always underfoot in the kitchen while I cooked or sometimes if I simply walked through it. He liked to sit at the heat vent beside the fridge to watch and give me stern looks as if to say, “Where the hell is mine,” and honestly I don’t want to cook yet because he’s not going to be there, ever again. It’s hard to write, it’s hard to be in the house, and it’s most hell to come downstairs, because he’s never coming out again to ask me to feed him his special breakfast before settling in beside me to see if I’ll name a character after him again.

I’ve told the story several times now, but to be proper about it in the eulogy: Walter the cat is so extra he has a fictional character named after him. No joke, I was setting up the heroes for Love Lessons, looked to my right, saw Walter, and thought, “Yes, actually, dude, you’d make a great hero.” Walter Davidson (neé Lucas) is about as close to a human version of Walter the cat as you can get, down to the personality so intense he accidentally spawned a series that is still going instead of being a one off book like I’d planned.

Walter also kept me company late at night when I couldn’t sleep over the past year due to anxiety/PTSD, or when pain has kept me from sleeping. I don’t know how he felt about anime or Asian dramas, but I really appreciated having him with me. It got rough at the end, his tumor making it uncomfortable for him, and I knew it was over when for the last few days he didn’t come at all. A Walter who didn’t snuggle wasn’t Walter at all.

If there is anyone in our house who has the greatest hole right now, though, it’s Dan. Much as I love Walter, much as I’m the one who sees him the most, it’s Dan who picked Walter at the shelter, Dan who claimed Walter as his cat, and Dan who loved this cat above all cats, except possibly Blair, who he loved in a different way. Blair was also Dan’s cat, but Blair was a neurotic mess and difficult to love. Walter was so incredibly easy to love, and he healed Dan every time he climbed onto him and declared, “I’m sitting on you now, just make peace with it.”

Walter’s aggression was good for Dan, a healing force he often sorely needed. Dan is open about his struggles with depression and anxiety; Walter was walking Prozac that settled into your lap, on your chest, shoulder, leg, whatever he felt like.

It was his calm invasion of your space that made Dan the happiest, the way Walter somehow always seemed to know just when to come see him.

We called Walter in his youth “Sir Walter Scott,” though that nickname soon fell away. Occasionally he was “Super Walter,” though mostly he was “Walter” and “Walty.” He knew his name and came to it. He expected you’d give him food or love, preferably both. We truly thought we might get to keep him for twenty years, maybe longer. We wanted him forever.

The first sign of trouble was that he had a hyper thyroid. We’d been to that rodeo–meds every day, which was what started the food in the bathroom trick, his special meal, because that was where we snuck them. Eventually we had to give them manually in a syringe, which at first had him peeing every time we did it, which meant we had to do it on a puppy pad. Eventually he gave that up.

Walter enjoys a cat heating pad

His second strike was kidney disease, minor at first but always dangerous in cats. He didn’t care for his renal diet, and it’s hell to get him to stick to it when there are so many cats, plus when he’s a scrap hog. He did like that he could bug me for food at any time in the kitchen and receive wet food, warmed up. But at the same time as all of this, he had a strange growth in his abdomen, a tumor which first read benign (much to the suspicion of ISU vets) and then this past week in the ER began to show signs of cancer.

Whatever the tumor was, it was the tumor that took him. At first it gave us a long, free ride: the vet gave us a few weeks last summer, but he made it through another Christmas and into a new year. He was incredible at Christmas, getting in everyone’s face, even climbing the stairs for the first time in a year. A few days before his ER visit, though, things began to slide, and this past Monday, he walked out of the litter box looking like he was about to delivery kittens, he had so much fluid on his belly. We were late to Anna’s horn lesson rushing him to the ICU–so spoiled to have our primary vet also be the state ER doctors of most advanced critical care–where we learned his kidney disease was much worse and his tumor was almost assuredly cancerous, and spreading.

This week was desperate rush for one more time, one more last chance with Walter. We knew it was the end, but we wanted one last dance. We tried draining the fluid. We tried steroids. But ultimately he was so weak he could barely stand, incontinent, and on Thursday, yowling in pain. Dan rushed home from work, and in a blizzard we climbed into the car, trying to clear the window enough to drive the mile and a half to ISU vet. We weren’t out of the drive before Walter yowled, vomited blood, and sighed against Dan’s chest. He was alive for a few more minutes, but before we reached the hospital doors, he died in Dan’s arms, closing out the way he came in.

He even urinated again, Dan says, just for good measure.

ISU is a large vet hospital, full of staff and students, but they all knew Walter and loved him like we did, and they were as sad as we were to see him pass. They took such good care of him, and us, before and after his death, doing everything possible to make his final days the most comfortable possible. The front desk knew me by the sound of my voice, and when we changed appointments because of emergencies, they quietly dropped the scheduled ones without being asked.

They have the body that housed Walter the Great now, leaving us with three tufts of fur in sealed bags. In a week we’ll receive his ashes to join the other cats who have left us. We will always have our memories, and the light that he gave us. There will, however, never

be another Walter, and we will miss him until we’re the ones crossing over, where we assume he will be waiting for some seriously overdue ham.

This eulogy is late firstly because on the day of his death I was so sad I could barely move. I wrote the bulk of this post the day after, but it was delayed further because we had so many photos I wasn’t posting it until I could make a memorial video of him as well. I don’t know of how much interest it is to the general readers of this blog. However, to the vast and passionate Walter fan club, I know it will be priceless and not nearly long enough. It will be included at the bottom of this post.

For those of you who didn’t know Walter but are my readers, fear not. That will soon change.

My patrons, who bore first my initial sorrow upon realizing his time had come and then my grief at the time of his desk, already know about this surprise, an indulgence perhaps others may or may not like but I personally do not care, because I do this for myself. Walter Lucas Davidson was named for Walter the Cat, but Walter the Cat is gone. I hate that, and so I’m going to make sure Walter the Cat lives forever. I couldn’t think of anywhere better for Walter to take up residence than the White House, and so in Rebel Heart, which now has 700 words started, Walter the cat will appear as himself. You may read the snippet I shared in rough form on my Patreon.

Now the time has come, at last, for this eulogy to end. The goodbye for now, but the goodbye in this lifetime. Oh, Walter, I hate that you’re gone. People say you’re a cat, but you and I and so many others damn well knew better. We will miss you so much. Every single day. I really am sorry I didn’t let you get on my desk. I know you didn’t care and were just going to get up anyway, but I’m sorry I was angry. I’m glad you went the way you wanted to go, in Dan’s arms. I’m sorry you had so much pain in the last few days. I’m sorry if you wish I would have made it go away sooner.

You have earned your rest, mighty king. Slayer of Dogs, Eater of Ham, Snuggler of All. Walter the Great, by my pen, my mouth, and my heart, you will live forever.

Until we meet again.


(Here’s the video.)


Announcement on my attendance at GRL

I’ve made this announcement to the organizers and on the Facebook loops where I think most people will see updates, but for anyone who might not follow there and was hoping to see me in Denver in a few weeks; it is with regret I must report I will be unable to attend this year’s GRL in Denver. While I would love to see everyone and being with readers, developments in my family have made it clear to me that right now my place is here at home. I’m not going into details further than that, though I will also say that no one should worry.

I will also probably be stepping back a bit from social media for the rest of September and October, though I’ll still pop in from time to time. I’m still writing, and I’m going to conquer my email someday. But if your DMs fall on deaf ears or there don’t seem to be any tweets or posts, just know I’m probably off doing family stuff or trying to get more book in. The one online exception will be my patrons, because they are my personal support network and I’m not sure I can function anymore without them. Some of those posts are public, so if you really want to peek at me, you can hunt me down there.

I’m sorry again I won’t be in Denver and that I’m pulling out at the last minute. If you’re a member of the GRL FB group, I did say there that I would allow GRL paperback orders shipped direct to attendees (at their homes), something usually only reserved for patrons, as an apology for my withdrawal. If you’re a GRL attendee and wish to partake in this, please fill out the form posted in the group by October 4.

Thank you, and I’ll see you all soon.