Writer’s block

Lately, I’ve been suffering from the beast known as the Writer’s Block. I’ve written maybe a few measly pages since the beginning of December. When I saw this picture on Jennifer Crusie’s website, it felt like recognition. I know it. And like Crusie, I’m going to laugh at it.

I’m going to beat it too: push the damn thing off my desk and pulverize it. One day soon…

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We need IWSG

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
On this Wednesday, the first in 2018, instead of venting my frustration and insecurities, I want to thank IWSG and its creator, Alex Cavanaugh, for coming up with this wonderful idea and opening up his website to all our uncertainties, to allow us to vent our resentment and chagrin in public. He even encourages it.

As a rule, our society doesn’t approve of whining or complaining. Behaving in a socially acceptable way means hiding our inner pain, camouflaging our self-doubts, and replying to any inquiry with a perky: “Fine, thank you.”

Alex went against this norm. His courage in pushing us all into acknowledging our fears and disgruntlement liberated us. Yes, not everything is status quo. Yes, we face problems in our writing lives. We talk about them once a month, and then we plod on regardless, despite the rejections, the lack of writing time, the writer’s block and many other ills besieging a writer.

To keep on writing, we need to purge our souls of bitterness first, to say what’s bothering us. We need to hear our peers’ understanding, see their comments, read their commiserating or cheering thoughts, before we could move forward. Alex made it possible.

Thanks, Alex.



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Happy New Year!

Happy New 2018, everyone, and my warmest wishes for the coming year.
The image of the charming snow maiden in this postcard came from my favorite free image site, Pixabay.

Also I have good news. The science fiction anthology Realities Perceived, which includes my short story Asteroid AX-582, was published early in December. It is available as paperback (no e-book yet) on Amazon and other online booksellers for $10.

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WEP: Hearts

This is the last WEP challenge of the year, The End is the Beginning, and the last of Tasya’s stories. The previous episodes are:

1. Shielding Misha 
2. Golden Fish 
3. Madonna Run 
4. Puss in Spots 
5. Magic Book 

My WEP friends, I hope you’re proud of me for sticking with this story to the end.

“I missed you so much.” Tasya hugged Misha tightly as soon as he stepped inside the door. He smelled of rain, sweat, and trains. “You have been gone for so long this time. Sometimes it feels like you’ve moved to Voronezh permanently. Your son hardly knows you.” She clung to him, inhaled his beloved scent, and lifted her face for his kiss.

Misha obliged, but he didn’t seem enthusiastic. “I work there,” he murmured. “Sometimes I’m not sure you want me back.”

Alarm bells rang in Tasya’s head. “What do you mean?”

He shook his head and picked up his suitcase. “I’m tired, Tasya. It’s been a long trip. I need to change and wash up.”

“No. Let’s talk. Now. Roma is asleep.” She whirled and led the way to the kitchen.

He followed reluctantly, dragging his feet. He sat down at the kitchen table, put his big hands on top, and faced her, his eyes shuttered and cold.

“What do you mean?” Tasya demanded again. “Did you find someone else in Voronezh?”

“Someone else?” He snorted. “When? I work sixteen hours a day. I only have time to eat and sleep. But you stay here.” He hesitated before continuing. “You’ve changed. Ever since those officers came to arrest me, but didn’t, you’ve become different. You’re hardly ever home, even when I come back. You visit your grandma all the time now. You couldn’t stand the old witch before.”

Of course she had changed. She had been learning magic and saving people from arrests, but Misha had been home so seldom lately. Tasya didn’t think he noticed. Obviously, he did, but what could she say? How to explain magic to an engineer?

“I’m not different,” she stalled. “It’s just… it was time to reconcile with my grandma.”

His gaze sharpened. “Don’t give me crap, Tasya. Tell me the truth. Have you turned an NKVD informer? To protect me? Was that why they didn’t arrest me then?”

Tasya gasped. “No! How could you?”

“What else is there?” he said bleakly. “It’s either that or another man, and I couldn’t believe that of you. And I didn’t get arrested. They take my friends and colleagues but never me. I thought it was because of you, because you traded my freedom for the others.” He sounded so miserable, Tasya’s heart ached.

“Oh, no, Misha. It is because of me, but not the way you think.” She dropped down on a stool across the table from him and put her small palm on his big one. She tried to catch his eyes, but he wouldn’t look at her. His hand tensed under her fingers, and she took a deep breath. She had to try.

“I told you my grandma was a witch. It wasn’t a metaphor. I come from a long line of witches, many generations back. Women in my family have always had magic. So do I. When I joined the Communist Party, just before we met, I renounced my magic. But I couldn’t turn it off completely.”

He finally met her eyes. “Magic?” He still didn’t believe her.

Tasya pressed on. “Magic has two components, active and passive. For years, I didn’t do active magic, no spells or anything. But I’ve always had foresight. I couldn’t shut off the visions. I knew they were going to arrest you, so I decided that my communist principles were less important than your life. I went to beg my grandma for help, but she couldn’t. As we age, our magic dwindles. Hers is practically gone. She said I must do it myself and she gave me the means. The medallion you wear – it’s magical. It protects you. It makes you invisible to your enemies. You will never be arrested. Every time your name comes up in a list or a document somewhere, it gets blotted out or erased. It’s happened twice already. I sensed it: my spell at work.”

He paled.

Tasya lifted her hand and called the medallion to her. Filled with her magic, it shot out from under his shirt and jacket, tearing off a button in its rush to her hand. Misha jerked, staring at his suddenly animated pendant.

Tasya caressed the little pewter shield, pouring more protective magic into it, before she restored it gently in its place under his shirt.

“Grandma provided me with five such medallions; one for you and the other four. By now, they’re all gone, all found their owners. Four other people are safe from arrests. A mother. An actor. A scientist. And a librarian – my former boss. They are all free because of my magic. I have been learning magic, Misha. That’s why I’m always with my grandma. She might not have much power anymore but she has the knowledge, and I need it. She is fading though. I think she is dying.” Her throat tightened in grief.

“Magic?” He looked like a lost child, not a good look on a man with a two-day stubble.

“Magic,” Tasya confirmed. “I haven’t betrayed anyone, I swear. I want to help more people but I need more medallions to do that.”

“I doubted you,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t imagine…”

“I know.” Tasya circled the table and hugged him from behind.

He covered her hands with his own callused ones. “Do you have a medallion of your own?”

“My own? No.”

“You should be protected too. I have something for you.” He swallowed audibly and turned to her, his hand diving into his pocket. “I got it right after you gave me my medallion, but then you… we… I wasn’t sure. Would you take it? It doesn’t have any magic, but… please…” He opened his palm, revealing a golden medallion with two interlocked hearts. “I love you.”

“Oh, Misha. It’s lovely. Thank you. I love you too.” Tasya picked up the medallion on its delicate golden chain and put it on. Then she kissed him on the mouth. “I’ll treasure it,” she vowed softly.

“Make it magical too,” he urged against her lips. “You should be safe.”

“I will,” she promised.

“And we’ll buy more, for other people, right? Do they have to be gold?”

Tasya couldn’t stop a smile from taking over her face, but her eyes stung from tears. “No. Any metal will do. Crystals work too. You’re wonderful.”

They stayed in each other’s arms for a long time.

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Grave Escape published in anthology

The anthology The Society of Misfit Stories Presents, Volume One, which includes my fantasy novelette Grave Escape, is available as ebook and hardcover everywhere books are sold online. It was released on Nov 20. The hardcover price on Amazon is ridiculous, but the ebook price is reasonable. I didn’t check other retailers.
My story synopsis:
Imprisoned by the sanctimonious magic thieves for years, two young witches found a way to escape captivity. Their desperate flight to freedom leads through mysterious tunnels and long-forgotten crypts, but the final destination opens up an unexpected opportunity.
When I wrote this story, I tried to find a classical image that would reflect the heroines’ pain, fear, and hope, all that entangled brew of feelings that sustained them in their madcap dash to liberty. I found the best one in a paintings by Francois Joseph Navez. Here it is:

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Writing memoirs

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
In November, I had an interesting experience. For 3 consecutive Tuesdays, I conducted a 3-part seminar on the basics of writing fiction at our Jewish Community Center library. The seminar was scheduled for the middle of the day, so not surprisingly, only retired people attended. I had 2 attendees on the first 2 days (different on both days) and one woman on the last day. And everyone told me: “I liked it very much, but if it was a seminar on writing memoirs, I’d be much more interested. Schedule such a seminar and let us know. We’ll come.”

It seems, everyone wants to write their memoirs these days. Everyone but me. For sure, I can do a seminar on writing memoirs. Writing is writing, and story is story, whether fictional or real. In fact, the librarian had persuaded me into scheduling such a seminar for next spring. But why was I never tempted to write my own memoirs?

Apart from a couple of odd autobiographical essays, published in small magazines, I have never wanted to write about myself. I just don’t consider myself interesting. I’m ordinary. My fictional heroes, on the other hand, are fascinating, and their lives are full of adventures.

But that begs the question: could an ordinary person come up with extraordinary characters, characters people would root for? Or do I kid myself, and my characters are as hum-drum as I am? Or maybe the opposite is true: I’m not ordinary at all? I’m a writer, and what ordinary person would chose such an occupation? It doesn’t pay. It forces me, more often than not, to reside in places other my life and commune with people who are all figments of my imagination. It also makes me fret constantly about story structure, plot holes, dialogs, villains, etc., while my neighbors concern themselves with their home renovation projects and their children.

What do you think? Can an ordinary person be a writer? Or does it take a certain twist of the mind to become one? And if the latter is true, maybe we all should write our memoirs? Maybe they would be interesting after all? Are you considering writing your own memoirs?

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Femininity – what does it mean?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
This month, the OPTIONAL QUESTION involves the NaNoWriMo. As I never participated in it and don’t plan to in the foreseeable future, I want to write about a different question. I went shopping yesterday and saw a small poster on a wall: a simple sheet of colored printer paper. It asked in a large font: What does your femininity mean to you? I didn’t stop to read the small font underneath, just skimmed the title and continued on my way, but the question stuck. What does femininity mean to me: as a woman and a writer?

In traditional psychology, the terms masculinity and femininity referred to characteristics typically associated with being male or female, respectively. High masculinity implied the absence of femininity, and vice versa. [He is strong and aggressive. He is a man. She is gentle and nurturing. She is a woman.] As a result, everyone could be classified as either masculine or feminine. No gray area.

Mars and Venus by Alexandre Charles Guillemot, detail

Contemporary science views the subject differently. In modern psychology, any individual simultaneously possesses both masculine and feminine features, to some degree, a mix of Mars and Venus. Moreover, many philosophers agree that both femininity and masculinity are often more social than biological constructs. Gender (outward attributes) notwithstanding, when a person has more feminine attributes psychologically than masculine ones, that person could be considered feminine. Otherwise, masculine.

Statistically, in most women, feminine traits outweigh masculine ones. The same is true of men. Our species wouldn’t have survived otherwise. But sometimes, our gender and psyche clash, and we have people who feel the opposite of their bodies, the opposite of their gender stereotype. That’s where trans-genders come from. Or, if not the opposite, leaning to the other side, trying to figure out who they are. Trying to fit in inside the rigid society definitions.

I never felt any conflict with my body. I’m a woman, maybe not 100% feminine but feminine enough. I’m a mother. I was a wife, until my divorce. I guess, I took it as a given that I’m feminine. Somewhat. It didn’t mean anything to me; it simply was.

But as a writer, perhaps I should think about it. Most of the protagonists of my fiction are females. Should I try to make them more feminine? Less? Should I find a balance of sorts? How?

There are novels aplenty about people, male and female, struggling with themselves and the society, when their genders and psyches are in discord. But I recently read a fantasy novel by Mercedes Lackey, one of her older Valdemar stories. In her story, one of the characters, Firesong, has his feminine and masculine sides perfectly balanced. In the book, he is beautiful, homosexual, and a powerful Adept magician.

I wonder if any writer ever wrote a female protagonist who balanced both sides of her nature: feminine and masculine. Would she be a lesbian? Would she be a fighter? What does it mean, when both sides of your psyche are in balance? Does it make you a better mother? A worse lover? A hermaphrodite? I don’t know. Do you? Tell me in the comments?

Unrelated: I had a fantasy short story Defying Kikimoras published in the April 2017 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly. They are running a poll for the annual Reader’s Choice Award, asking people to vote for their favorite story and author. The poll is open until Nov 15th. You can read my story for free here. If you like it, would you mind going to the poll and voting for me? You have to scroll down to the April issue and find my name. Here is the link.
Thank you.

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WEP: Magic Book

In this WEP challenge – Dark Places – Tasya’s story proceeds to its #5 installment. The previous episodes are:

1. Shielding Misha
2. Golden Fish
3. Madonna Run
4. Puss in Spots

Thanks, Yolanda and Denise from the WEP website, for inspiring me to keep up with this project.
Tasya hung her coat on a hook on the door of the janitor closet and happily surveyed her domain – the research librarian’s basement chamber. She loved her job: the books, the silence, interrupted only by the faint trickle of conversations from upstairs, and the quirky demands for research. Right now, she had two: a request about Mongolian traditional footwear and another one about butterflies of Africa. Seeking information and writing reports on such elusive subjects was almost as exciting as working magic.

Her hand stole to her breast, where a medallion reinforced with her magic resided under her blouse. It was the last one she had – a small bronze book with an enamel insert. She liked it and wore it every day since she came back to work from her maternity leave. She yearned to keep it for herself for good but knew she couldn’t. None of the medallions had been destined for her. Someone else would need it and soon to escape the NKVD persecutions.

Already missing the charming little trinket, Tasya settled at her desk, put on her librarian gloves of thin white cotton, and carefully opened her first source of the day – a yellowed hundred-year-old traveler’s journal. Engrossed in her work, she didn’t pay attention to the heightened noise from upstairs, until her boss, Margarita the Magnificent, burst through the door.

Nobody liked Margarita. An arrogant perfectionist, the director of the library dressed impeccably and carried herself like the Snow Queen from the Andersen’s tale. She knew almost every book in the catalog and could answer the most arcane questions without consulting a reference, which didn’t endear her to her subordinates.

She didn’t resemble the Snow Queen now. Panic settled around her like a cloak, suffocating the woman, making her white and shaking.

Tasya started, but she didn’t ask any questions. She knew the answer. NKVD. Now that she surfaced from her Mongolian journal, she could hear their yells – an incongruous sound inside any library – echoing from upstairs. The medallion beneath Tasya’s clothing throbbed in tune with Margarita’s ragged breathing. It had found its mistress.

Without a word, Margarita headed towards the fire door at the end of the hall.

“No!” Tasya called. “Not outside. They will chase you out there.” She jumped up from her desk and opened the janitor closet’s door. “Get in. You’ll be safe.”

Margarita stopped, turned. “It doesn’t have a lock.”

“I promise, nobody will find you here.” Tasya hurriedly took off the medallion and thrust it into Margarita’s trembling hands. “Put it on. It’ll protect you. Trust me. Hurry.”

Margarita scuttled inside the tiny closet, her eyes frantic. “It’s dark inside, no light bulb.”

“Better than jail. Keep quiet.” Tasya closed the door. Already military boots thumped heavily on the stairs. She slapped a thick layer of magic at the closet. The No Notice spell repelled even her own eyes, demanding she looked elsewhere.

Tasya darted back to her desk. She was in the process of sitting down, when two men in uniform rushed in.

“Where is the director?” the older one shouted.

Tasya pointed towards the fire escape.

“Check here,” the commander ordered his younger underling and ran towards the exit.

The young officer glared at Tasya. “You should’ve stopped her,” he growled. The fire door slammed shut behind his superior.

“She is my boss,” Tasya said faintly.

“Not for long,” the officer snarled and marched between two rows of the tall bookshelves. He didn’t even glance at the janitor closet.

Later, long after he departed, the conversation Tasya had had with him repeated almost verbatim with Margarita’s deputy Yuri. “I’ll be your boss from now on, and you’d better remember that.” Yuri stomped back towards the stairs. Like the officer before him, he didn’t seem to notice the janitor closet, even though he knew it was there. “Tomorrow morning, I expect a full report on what you’re working on.”

“Of course,” Tasya murmured to his back. She had always liked the man before, but his glee at Margarita’s misfortune was chilling.

When she was sure she was alone, she forced herself to open the closet door. It was hard even to touch the door handle. Her magic was getting stronger.

Margarita sat on the floor, hugging herself and swaying from side to side. She looked much older now than her forty-plus years. She squinted at the light. “You think I can go?” She sounded like a forlorn child.

“Not yet. They are still searching upstairs. Wait until the library closes. Soon.”

Margarita sighed. “I know why.”

“They don’t need a why,” Tasya shot back.

Margarita didn’t seem to hear her. “I had a memo to destroy all the publications with articles by Trotsky and his cohorts but I didn’t. I don’t care about Trotsky but I couldn’t destroy books. Magazines.” She talked to herself more than to Tasya and she shivered constantly. “I hid them. Yuri would never find them. The rat!” She stared past Tasya at the bookshelves.

“I’ll get your coat and purse from your office.” Tasya shook her head at Margarita’s shocked state. “Stay put.” She closed the door, made sure the spell was still active, and climbed the stairs to the office floor.

To pass Yuri’s office with its open door, she doused herself with the same No Notice spell. It worked beautifully. He didn’t notice her, and most everyone else was already gone.

Luckily, Tasya found Margarita’s purse and coat untouched. She also discovered something amazing, something that put her in shock almost equal to her boss’s. In Margarita’s desk, she found an old grimoire.

An illusion veiled the ancient book, camouflaging it as an old herbarium, but inside its faded, leather-bound cover, spells shimmered, calling to her.

Even back downstairs, Tasya couldn’t take her eyes from her new treasure. She wanted to open it but didn’t dare, not in the library, not without all sorts of magical precautions.

“I think almost everybody have left. Come out. Where did you find this book, Margarita?”

Margarita shuffled out, keeping a hand in front of her eyes after hours in the darkness. “I found a floor safe. This old herbarium was there.” She shrugged. “I don’t know why. It’s not even cataloged. I hid all the Trotskyist literature in the safe. You must catalog the herbarium tomorrow morning.” She shrugged on her coat and grabbed Tasya’s hands. “Thank you.”

After Margarita slipped out the fire exit, Tasya stuffed the grimoire into her bag. She wouldn’t catalog it, of course. She would take it home and study it. Only a witch could use a grimoire, and she might be the only active witch in Moscow. It seemed she had exchanged one tiny bronze book, the medallion, for this big magic one. Not a bad exchange rate for a librarian.



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Writing Tips: a man with a gun

Raymond Chandler once formulated his famous Chandler’s Law: “if you don’t know what happens next in your story, bring in a man with a gun,” or something to that effect. At first, I disregarded this banal trope. I thought I could do better, find a more original solution, but now, several years and a dozen stories later, I can attest to the validity of his advice. It worked for me twice recently, for two different stories.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be literally A MAN WITH A GUN. Any agent of chaos will do. When your plot is stuck, it means a balance of some sort has been reached. The forces of good and evil are clinched in a stalemate. Neither one moves because they don’t want to jeopardize their chances. You have to break the stalemate, upset the balance, so your story could move forward. And the simplest way to do that is to have a baddy at the door. The arrival of relief troops to the enemy. A treachery in your own camp. A mysterious letter from an ex. Unexpected complications in the hero’s health condition. A dragon. Or actually a man with a gun.

A couple months ago, I was working on a short story, trying to finish it to submit to an anthology. I was stuck, the deadline was approaching, but the story floundered. It needed a last punch, a final confrontation, but my heroine had already solved her problem. She just waited for the story to end. So I dropped in a bunch of bandits with guns, thus opening up a range of new possibilities for my heroine. She didn’t have a choice now; she had to act: escape, hide, fight, bargain with bandits. Anything was better than her sitting on her butt, waiting passively. Hey-ho, men with guns! You’re a writer’s best friend.

Then there is this regency novella I’m trying to write. It had resisted me for two darn years. One day, I thought about smugglers. They did a lot of smuggling in regency England, at least according to Georgette Heyer. What if a group of smugglers barged into a place where my hero and heroine enjoyed their secret tete-a-tete? Now, boom, they have to do something. Smugglers were deadly fellows in those days, so my characters couldn’t stay chatty and complacent anymore. It was a beautiful solution to my writing block, and the story is unrolling nicely.

What other literary devices do you employ, when your plot is in the suds?
Unrelated: I had a fantasy short story Defying Kikimoras published in the April 2017 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly. They are running a poll for the annual Reader’s Choice Award, asking people to vote for their favorite story and author. The poll is open until Nov 15th. You can read my story for free here. If you like it, would you mind going to the poll and voting for me? You have to scroll down to the April issue and find my name. Here is the link.

BTW: I used the device of A MAN WITH A GUN in this story as well. Worked like a charm.


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Rubens and IWSG

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

This month, I’m proud to announce that I’m co-hosting the IWSG blog hop, together with the three other wonderful writers: Chemist Ken, Tamara Narayan, and Jennifer Hawes.

OPTIONAL OCTOBER QUESTION: Have you ever slipped any of your personal information into your characters, either by accident or on purpose?

MY ANSWER: Yes. Bits and pieces of my life and my conversations with others often find their way into my fiction. Usually, it happens on purpose. For example, a few years ago I was working on a novel. I visited my sister at that time and asked her: what would you do in a situation such and such. I gave her answer, almost verbatim, to one of my characters.

Sometimes, I don’t ask. I talk to people, and something they say sticks to my memory. I might use it years later for one of my characters. The original person might not even remember he or she said that. It was in passing, in conversation, and none of us remembers what we said years ago while chatting with a friend or a relative.

I think all writers steal colorful phrases or unusual situations from their real life once in a while. It is too rich a source to pass by.

Today is the day of the Show Us Your Writer Insecurity contest (read the full description of the contest’s rules and prizes here). Each of us is supposed to post a picture of him or her (or their avatar) with the IWSG visual representation: a badge or some swag.

As a co-host,  can’t wait to see the others’ photos, but for myself, I decided to create a composite of my avatar in front of the IWSG badge. Now, my avatar is not my photo. It’s a painting by Peter Paul Rubens: Lady-in-waiting to Infanta Isabella, currently the property of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Here is what the Hermitage website says about this painting.

I imagine that if Rubens could travel through time and learned about the internet, he would’ve definitely discovered IWSG, and his charming redheaded girl might have looked like this:

Don’t you think he would’ve approved of my composition?









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