My Favorite Bit: Michael J. Martinez talks about MJ-12: INCEPTION

Favorite Bit iconMichael J. Martinez joins us today to talk about his novel MJ-12: Inception. Here’s the publisher’s description:

It is a new world, stunned by the horrors that linger in the aftermath of total war. The United States and Soviet Union are squaring off in a different kind of conflict, one that’s fought in the shadows, where there are whispers of strange and mysterious developments. . .

Normal people across the United States have inexplicably gained paranormal abilities. A factory worker can heal the sick and injured. A schoolteacher bends emotions to her will. A car salesman alters matter with a simple touch. A former soldier speaks to the dying and gains their memories as they pass on.

They are the Variants, controlled by a secret government program called MAJESTIC-12 to open a new front in the Cold War.

From the deserts of Nevada to the palaces of Istanbul, the halls of power in Washington to the dark, oppressive streets of Prague, the Variants are thrown into a deadly game of shifting alliances. Amidst the seedy underbelly of nations, these once-ordinary Americans dropped in extraordinary circumstances will struggle to come to terms with their abilities as they fight to carve out a place for themselves in a world that may ultimately turn against them.

And as the MAJESTIC-12 program will soon discover, there are others out there like them, some with far more malevolent goals. . .

What’s Mike’s favorite bit?

MJ-12 cover image


This may be terribly un-American of me to say, but one of my least favorite comic-book characters is Superman. The vast majority of the problems Superman faced in the comics – especially as I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s – could be boiled down to two things: a moral dilemma and Kryptonite. Pretty much everything else could be handled neatly because, well, his superpowers are pretty super.

I still think Superman is pretty boring, sad to say. His superpowers are immense, and they don’t actually cost him anything. Most of the time, he doesn’t even break a sweat.

So when I came up with the central idea behind the MAJESTIC-12 series – superpowered spies battling in the shadows of the Cold War on behalf of a shadowy government conspiracy – I knew I wanted characters to pay a price. I wanted there to be consequences to having these strange abilities. I wanted superpowers to be difficult.

An African-American factory worker gains the ability to heal – but at the cost of his own health. A car salesman in the South can alter matter, but can’t always control his manifestations. A former soldier can read minds, but only at the moment of the other person’s death – and he ends up carrying around far more of their memories than he’d like.

One of my very favorite bits in MJ-12: Inception is when Maggie is introduced. She’s a schoolteacher out in California who gains the ability to manipulate emotions – but at the cost of her own emotional stability and wellbeing. Not only is the ability rather difficult to control, but it’s also changing her in very scary ways.

Think about it: If you can manipulate emotion with a thought, how real is emotion to you? How can you trust your own emotions, or those of the people close to you?

We all think having superpowers would be awesome, but we never consider the downside. Yes, there are moral quandaries as well – it wouldn’t be a good superhero story, or a good spy thriller for that matter, without those. There are limits to those superpowers, and ways to counteract them.

But in MJ-12: Inception, powers come with risks. They aren’t easy to use, and it doesn’t always go well. That’s the kind of superhero story I wanted to see.





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Michael J. Martinez is a husband, father and writer living the dream in the Garden State. He’s been a professional writer and journalist for more than 20 years, including stints at The Associated Press and, and recently got it in his head that he could write fiction, too. He’s the author of the Daedalus trilogy of Napoleonic Era space opera novels, as well as the new MAJESTIC-12 series of paranormal Cold War spy thrillers. Mike is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Guest Post: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry talks about Writing Deaf and Blind Characters

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is joining us today to talk about her Writing The Other Master Class: Writing Deaf and Blind Characters.


I’m teaching a class in September about deaf and blind characters, and how to write them. I’m doing this, because I’m deafblind (by the medical classification, we’ll get into that in a second) and I believe that portrayals of disability are both vital to the world of speculative fiction, and also done wrong most of the time.

Cyberpunk tends to erase it.

High Fantasy tends to make disability inconvenient and/or a punchline.

Space? Shrug. Yes, there’s Geordie, but he can see using his VISOR. Yes, there’s Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One, but I’m pretty sure he’s doing the same thing Daredevil does. “See” with his senses.

Don’t get me started on time travel (you can read about how I feel about that at Fireside Fiction Company.)

But disabled people belong in all of these worlds, all the genres, all the places. Disabled people can be more than just villains, or angels. We are real, fully articulated humans, and we deserve to be part of Story. We also deserve to be part of a story without our disabilities being rendered not actually disabilities, but transformed comfortably into a unique characteristic.

When I was little, I only had one book with a disabled character in it. I read and re-read it, but I never could actually identify with him, because he lost his sight due to an accident, because he had a guide dog, and because he was a he. I’m not saying one must identify with same gendered characters, but I remember in those days it was a sticking point.

When I was 17 years old, my now ex boyfriend pressed a book into my hands and told me he thought I’d like it. He said it was really great space opera, and it was a fun read.

And inside those pages, I found Miles Vorkosigan.

Miles was like me.

Adventurous. Unwilling to change his goals to satisfy the body he was born in. Unable to stop being who he was. And disabled.

From birth.

Hell, Miles’ disabilities are even the result of external influences, just like mine.

The trouble is, almost all disabled characters come out as tropes, the Magical Blind Person trope, the Blind Seer trope, the Deaf Composer, Throwing Off the Disability.

That last one is my favorite, because inevitably, someone will write a disabled character who was never really disabled to begin with, and in fact, often that’s how we talk about many disabled heroes. Frequently, Daredevil is defended with “but he’s not really blind.” Which raises the question: if he’s not really blind, then why is he using blindness as a cover?

There so many tropes, and wrong turns, but the point is simple: I want more from disabled characters in science fiction and fantasy. I want more than what we have now.

I don’t want to see timid blind women hiding from murderers anymore, I want to see blind warriors who can fight for themselves.

I don’t want to see evil blind men lurking in the dark waiting to kill their prey – I want to see blind villains capable of everything that a sighted villain is, without all the tropes.

I want a blind woman who is interacting with ghosts without the tropes of her sight being restored when it comes to auras or the dead.

Miles is the only disabled character I know of who makes me feel like I might fit between the pages of a book, and he’s why I’m teaching a class about how to write deaf and blind characters carefully and accurately – because as a disabled reader, I want to see more people like me between the covers of a book. I want to be able to read a story and not be afraid that I’ll be disappointed by the representation.

When I teach, I encourage people to look past the tropes and the boundaries they’ve been taught by society and by the fiction that exists, to look far beyond what they’ve been told is the way to write blind and deaf  characters and push them into the realm of reality and truth.


Sign up for the Writing the Other Master Class: Writing Deaf and Blind Characters

Find Elsa on Twitter

My Favorite Bit: William C. Tracy talks about MERCHANTS AND MAJI

Favorite Bit iconWilliam C. Tracy is joining us today to talk about his book Merchants and Maji: Two Tales of the Dissolutionverse. Here’s the publisher’s description:

An old war machine and a revolutionary space capsule will change relations among the ten species forever

Last Delivery
Prot, Amra, and crew sell goods across the ten homeworlds in a refitted war transport, saving up to buy a shop. But after fees to travel between worlds, their profits always fall short. Their newest customers are the xenophobic Sureriaj. But when a protest over offworlder trading shuts down all business, the crew’s only hope is to leave the planet delivering emergency medical supplies. The contract is for too much money, the seller is using a false name, and the cargo is magically sealed. Nothing could go wrong.

The First Majus in Space
The ten species are in awe of the first space capsule. But when the majus piloting it is assassinated, Origon Cyrysi is the only one able to complete the mission. Too late, he finds the spacecraft may cost him his abilities. And even if Origon returns from space, the escaped assassin might still trigger an interstellar war. Either way, the fuel is burning.

What’s William’s favorite bit?

Merchants and Maji cover image


Hopefully I may be forgiven having two favorite things since there are two stories in this novella. The first occurred in editing “Last Delivery.” I happened to listen to an episode of a podcast many of us are familiar with, which discussed unconscious biases, specifically with respect to women. I, as a male writer, often find myself writing male characters, especially side characters. But lately I’ve started challenging my character gender choices. In this particular case, “Last Delivery” had a cross species couple, consisting of a fiery female gun toting Festuour (large bear-like creature) and a very tall and dark male Methiemum (basically a human) doctor. Though their relationship is not a major part of the book, I have a whole convoluted and star-crossed background to the relationship floating through my mind.

The writing prompt at the end of the episode was to take something you’ve written and gender-swap it. So on a whim, I applied it to my story. Boom. Kamuli (the Methiemum doctor) was now a very large and dark woman who liked carrying knives. And her relationship with Bhon (her Festuour mate) suddenly took off for me. It finally worked, Kamuli’s actions became more certain, and the story became stronger. On top of that, a certain head-cannon (which I suppose is actual cannon, since I wrote it…) became fixed in my mind. Like many others, Kamuli had not been comfortable as a man. She was not only a female character, she was a trans woman. It isn’t mentioned or even hinted at in the story, as it’s not important to the tale, but you, dear readers, know the truth. There may be a story in the future of how Kamuli and Bhon’s romance began, and now you have a sneak peek…

I also challenged myself to scrutinize the heroic, over-the-top female lead. You’ve read the type before—Conan the Barbarian in a bikini. Instead, Amra, the main character’s girlfriend, is not a badass. She’s not very good with weapons. She’s an accountant. She wouldn’t mind settling down somewhere. I worked very hard on her character, with some great feedback from critiquers to tell me when I had crossed too far into “subservient and passive.” But in the end, I feel she becomes the heart of the story. Certain events could not happen the way they do if her character had been more intense. Amra also became a stronger, more real character for me, and I hope, for my readers.

My favorite bit for the second story, “The First Majus in Space” is pretty much what it says on the tin. I get to put a wizard in a spaceship. If you’ve ever watched Babylon 5, you can probably guess my favorite characters—the technomages, of course. I liked this idea so much it even became my imprint: Space Wizard Science Fantasy. The interaction between magic and technology is always a fascinating place to explore, but since the magic system in the Dissolutionverse uses reversible and non-reversible energy transfer, I got to play with how the technology effectively would suck away a majus’ magic, defined by their “song,” even if the end product still had the desired effect:

There was a pattern to the relentless beat of the fuel. He didn’t have to catch the notes to change them. He instead saw their pattern, made the new musical phrase, crafted from his own song, ready to insert it…there.

The ship righted abruptly, but Origon felt his invested song ripped out of his grip, flying out far beneath them. The ship began to list to the other side.

Gasping, his stomach threatening to jump out of his throat, he realized what he should have before. He no longer envied Teju his place here. There was no chance to reverse any of the changes he made. Every change to the Symphonies on this trip would be permanent. The shuttle was flying so fast that the surrounding music was in constant flux, notes changing. It would strip each application of his song from his being. If he was not efficient, the flight would drain him to something insubstantial, his song stripped of its notes.

But this unfortunate development will become a defining aspect for the titular majus, Origon. Because I’m a big fan of connected stories and larger universes, it becomes part of the arc started in my first novella, Tuning the Symphony, set almost twenty years in the past, and continued in a full novel coming in 2017.

So there you have it: gender studies and technowizards, my favorite bits of Merchants and Maji. As the story of the Dissolutionverse grows, I’m looking forward to writing more adventures and finding many more favorite bits in the years to come.




@wctracy on Twitter




William C. Tracy is a North Carolina native and a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy. In no particular order, he is a mechanical engineer, a Wado-Ryu Karate instructor, a video and board gamer, a gardener, a reader, and a writer. In his spare time, he wrangles three cats and a bald guinea pig, and his wife wrangles him (not an easy task). Both of them both enjoy putting their pets in cute little costumes and then taking pictures of them repeatedly.

He is the author of Tuning the Symphony, another novella in the Dissolutionverse.

Short Stories Explained — workshop

I’m teaching a short story workshop that’s specifically for people who are having trouble control length and structure.


When people are struggling to write short fiction, the problem usually begins with the idea. It often leads to a story that is too long, really the beginning of a novel, or is so simplistic that it is dull.

In this workshop, we’ll walk through how to create and structure a short story idea. At the end of the class you will have story seeds for multiple stories and an outline for a 3000-4000 word short story.

Classes will be taught via Zoom and Google Drive
Classwork will be uploaded to a shared Google Drive folder visible only to you and your classmates. The class will be divided between lecture and exercise. The class is capped at eight full-participation students, to create a class size that allows the most interaction, feedback and personal attention for each of you.

In addition to the full-participation students, the class also has seats for 40 lecture-only students. These students can ask questions during class, but will not be turning in homework or having their work critiqued.

Class requirements: You need an interest in writing short stories, but you do not need to have written or published anything yet. You also must be able to use Zoom on a computer. (Note: This is a free program. You don’t need a web camera, although they’re useful, but you do need a working microphone, the internet and some speakers so you can hear us. Tablets, unfortunately, have limited function in hangouts and will not work for the purposes of the workshop).

This is an intensive workshop, so do not plan anything else. I also recommend preparing your meals in advance.

Schedule (all times are Central time)
10am – 12pm
Plot structure. Plot homework

Post homework/meal break

Discuss plot exercise, unpacking, and outlining for short fiction. Outline homework

Post homework/meal break

Discuss outlines. Recap of plot structure. Final exercise.

10pm -11pm(optional)
Drinks and Giant Q&A


Q: What is Zoom?
A: Sort of like Skype but specifically geared for meetings. It is free to use and students will be given a login URL for the class. You will need to download the app. Though it does have a dial-in option, you will need to be able to see the screen for some exercises.

Q: What is the difference between a full-participation student and a lecture-only student?

A: A Full-participation student will be handing in homework, and participating in critiques with their classmates and the instructor. A lecture-only student attends the lectures and does not hand in homework or participate in critiques. They will be able to ask questions in class though.

Q: Will the lecture-only students be able to read the homework that the full-participation students are doing?

A: Yes. In order for parts of the lectures to make sense, they’ll need to be able to follow-along as we work. They will not be able to comment or critique however.

Q: What if I want to do full-participation, but don’t want anyone except the other full-participation students to see my work?
A: It is probably best to wait until I teach another small group intensive.

Q: Why are you doing this format?
A: This is an attempt to make the lectures accessible to a larger number of students for whom the pressure of the intensive might not be a good fit, or who are financially constrained from participating.

The Ghost Talkers Spirit Corps uniform, photographed by Lauren Zurchin

MRK in a replica of the Spirit Corps uniform from Ghost Talkers. Blue, with black velvet collar and a broad brimmed hat, trimmed with black ostrich feathers.

Lauren Zurchin came through Chicago and we had some fun doing a photo shoot. There are more photos, so this is just a teaser.

One of the interesting things about a lot of the volunteer groups in WWI was that they had to wear a uniform, but they also had to supply it. This meant that there was some variation in what people wore within certain parameters. The hat that I’ve got on? Someone who didn’t have Ginger’s means wouldn’t have trimmed it and she likely wouldn’t have worn it to the London Branch, but might have worn it to a hospitality tent.

Incidentally, the requirement to provide one’s own uniform was a not-so-subtle way of enforcing class lines. It meant that only a woman of means could join the Women’s Auxiliary Corps and kept out shop girls and the like. If they wanted to help with the war effort, they wound up in ammunition packing plants or doing heavy labor on the home front because they couldn’t afford to a) have a custom suit made and b) take unpaid time off work.

The WAC wanted only nice girls from good families. This kind of barrier still exists today as a way of keeping out undesirables while still being able to claim, on the face of things, that opportunities are open to all.

Arthur Conan Doyle! Talking about spiritualism.

The British Sound Archives has a recording of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about how he came to write Sherlock Holmes and his beliefs about Spiritualism.

This was recorded in 1930 and is fascinating. He relies on personal experiments to prove that it worked and sees Spiritualism as something that can exist side-by-side with other belief systems. He also talks about the “fraud and folly” that occurs in Spiritualism, too.

There are two recordings and its worth listening to both. Or at least I thought it was.

My Favorite Bit: Bishop O’Connell talks about THE RETURNED

Favorite Bit iconBishop O’Connell is joining us today to talk about his novel The Returned. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Almost a year after their wedding, and two since their daughter Fiona was rescued from a kidnapping by dark faeries, life has finally settled down for Caitlin and Edward. They maintain a façade of normalcy, but a family being watched over by the fae’s Rogue Court is far from ordinary. Still, it seems the perfect time to go on their long-awaited honeymoon, so they head to New Orleans.

Little do they know, New Orleans is at the center of a territory their Rogue Court guardians hold no sway in, so the Court sends in Wraith, a teenage spell slinger, to watch over them. It’s not long before they discover an otherworldly force is overtaking the city, raising the dead, and they’re drawn into a web of dark magic. At the same time, a secret government agency tasked with protecting the mortal world against the supernatural begins their own investigation of the case. But the culprit may not be the villain everyone expects. Can Wraith, Caitlin, and Edward stop whoever is bringing the vengeful dead back to life before another massacre, and before an innocent is punished for crimes beyond her control?

What’s Bishop’s favorite bit?

The Returned cover



I love magic, adore it. I don’t mean stage magic, though that can be cool too. No, I mean the “real” kind of magic: Harry Dresden, Gandalf, Merlin, Jane Ellsworth, to name a few. I’m also an old-school computer geek. Not quite punch cards old, but just barely. My first computer was a Commodore Vic-20, which I received despite asking for an Atari (my parents said I could make my own games on the Commodore, which in fairness I did). While my computer skills provided me a future means of steady employment, it also was the start of my fascination with tech and gadgets. It might seem that these two loves are at opposite sides of the spectrum, and never shall the twain meet. Sure, there is urban fantasy in books, a few different RPGs—Shadow Run, Rifts—but none of them really blended the two. The game Mage did with a specific group players could use, but I wanted more.

So in my second novel, The Forgotten, I introduced Wraith; a homeless teen, a genius at math and science, and her magic is based on quantum theory. Though I didn’t know the term at the time, she’s also a synesthete (from synesthesia). While other wizards in my world “feel” magic and control it through sheer mental focus, Wraith literally sees it all around her. Because of her scientific inclinations, she deduces that the symbols, numbers, and equations drifting around her are in fact the quantum information of reality. This lets her hack and modify that information with equations (spells) and cause all kinds of cool things to happen. She’s sort of a mashup of Neo, Will Hunting, and Scarlet Witch. I also introduced some basic level magical technology. It was mostly cobbled together bits—the kind of thing a homeless kid could collect—and looked very steampunk.

When I was writing The Returned, Wraith has had a year of mental stability and is more confident in her abilities. I wanted her to start using various bits of tech and modifying them. The most obvious choice was to give her a smartphone. I remember how important music was to me as a teen, so that would give her the chance to get into music (she’s a big Doubleclicks fan), but again, I wanted more. So I decided to have her modify the phone. As much as I’d love to give it all kinds of awesome tricks, I knew it needed to be practical and believable. When you’re a homeless kid, you don’t have extended periods of access to electricity; not reliably anyway. So she modified her phone to absorb energy in a myriad of forms: thermal, kinetic, radiation, and even dark energy. As such, her phone never runs out of juice. A smartphone also means apps, and it made sense that she would design her own, and that they’d have magical aspects to them. After all, her magic dealt in pure information, and what’s computer code but information? Why couldn’t spells in fact, be stored as apps? If she could see the quantum information of reality, there was no reason she couldn’t see the “information” behind the code. And since modifying one would naturally change the other, why couldn’t she work it from the other direction; change/create a program by altering the quantum information? Answer: there was no reason.

Holy crap, I blended magic and advanced tech!

That was when the computer geek in me make the next logical connection: magic based computer hacking. Yeah, I admit it, I had a little bit of a nerd-gasm at this point. Then I started figuring it all out. She wouldn’t even need a keyboard, a monitor, or any interface. She saw the information around her and could interact with it directly. Things like code protections and encryption would be useless against her as a quantum hacker. Since she could see the information that defined them, she would know what solution was needed to solve the algorithm and gain access, or decrypt the data she was after. This idea even altered the idea of data storage. She wasn’t limited to traditional media. She could copy the relevant information to quite literally, anything, modifying the destination’s information to match the source’s. And since this would be on a quantum level, storage capacity was no longer an issue, assuming each particle could be translated as one bit of data.

With the how and why it would work completed, I set out to writing the relevant scenes, and I loved it! I borrowed inspiration from my experiences playing Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, reading William Gibson novels, even some TV shows—anyone remember Wild Palms?—and movies. Chuck Wendig said that writing is a job, which means sometimes its work; ditch digging he called it. Well, other times, it’s freaking magic, with a little tech thrown in.




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Read an excerpt






Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, a consultant, writer, blogger, and lover of kilts and beer, as well as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Born in Naples Italy while his father was stationed in Sardinia, Bishop grew up in San Diego, California where he fell in love with the ocean and fish tacos. After wandering the country for work and school (absolutely not because he was in hiding from mind controlling bunnies), he settled in Richmond VA, where he writes, collects swords, revels in his immortality as a critically acclaimed “visionary” of the urban fantasy genre, and is regularly chastised for making up things for his bio. He can also be found online at A Quiet Pint, where he muses philosophical on life, the universe, and everything, as well as various aspects of writing and the road to getting published.

Are you missing a cipher book?

Sadie works on her ciphers

At WorldCon, as part of my roving book launch party, I had people solving ciphers and passing secret messages. After the Tor party, someone found this notebook, filled with a serious hardcore effort to decipher stuff.

Since there are things in the notebook besides the ciphers, I’d like to get it back to its original owner. If that’s you… use the contact form tell me about the highlighted list.

(Also, Sadie thinks you did excellent work)

My Favorite Bit: Beth Cato talks about BREATH OF EARTH

Favorite Bit iconBeth Cato is joining us today with her novel Breath of Earth. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation—the Unified Pacific—in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer wardens who have no idea of the depth of her power—or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.

When assassins kill the wardens, Ingrid and her mentor are protected by her incredible magic. But the pair is far from safe. Without its full force of guardian geomancers, the city is on the brink of a cataclysmic earthquake that will expose Earth’s powers to masterminds determined to control the energy for their own dark ends. The danger escalates when Chinese refugees, preparing to fight the encroaching American and Japanese, fracture the uneasy alliance between the Pacific allies, transforming the city into a veritable powder keg. And the slightest tremor will set it off. . . .

Forced on the run, Ingrid makes some shocking discoveries about herself. Her powerful magic has grown even more fearsome . . . and she may be the fulcrum on which the balance of world power rests.

What’s Beth’s favorite bit?

Breath of Earth cover


My new novel, Breath of Earth, is alt history steampunk fantasy set in 1906 San Francisco. I like to joke “Spoiler alert: there’s a big earthquake,” because the date and place (and the very cover) give away that plot point in a major way. That’s fine by me. The earthquake happens, yes, but the circumstances are a bit more complicated than a mere tectonic shift.

My heroine, Ingrid Carmichael, is a geomancer. I drew on history, science, and mythology to create my own magic system and unique earthquake. I’m a research geek, so this was absolutely my favorite bit.

For me, earthquakes are personal. I’m a native Californian. One of my earliest memories is being three years old and in the bathtub when the devastating Coalinga earthquake occurred nearby. We practiced earthquake drills in schools. Family trips to the coast meant crossing the very visible ridged line of the infamous San Andreas Fault.

As part of my worldbuilding, I had to figure out how to cause earthquakes–and more importantly, how to stop them.

My version of 1906 features technology that is powered by crystals called kermanite that store the earth’s energy like batteries. Geomancers like Ingrid are conduits. During an earthquake, geomancers don’t simply feel the rumbling–they siphon the magic of the earth and actually stop tremblors. This isn’t without risks. Earth energy causes a spike in body temperature that can kill them quickly unless they break direct contact with the ground or grab kermanite, which will pull the energy out of their bodies. Ingrid, being the heroine, is especially gifted–and cursed–by her incredible ability to hold and use energy.

Kermanite and geomancy are my fabrications, but when it came to the actual earthquake, I relied heavily on historical fact. There are tons of books on the subject, fiction and non, and movies as well. The data was overwhelming, really. I had to pick and choose what would reinforce my new version of history.

For example, Enrico Caruso is famous for singing in Carmen the night before the real disaster; in my world, there is a highly controversial performance of the opera Lincoln, which celebrates the president’s Emancipation Proclamation as well as his late life work on behalf of Chinese refugees. That’s because the Civil War ended early because of an alliance between the American Union and Imperial Japan–and in 1906, the two are still partnered in their efforts to dominate mainland Asia.

Plate tectonics–the genuine science–play a role in my novel, but there are also more fantastical elements. Mythologies around the world attribute earthquakes to entities like massive two-headed snakes or shifting turtles or a giant namazu (catfish) twitching in the sea. Ingrid’s mentor is obsessed with researching semi-mythical geomantic Hidden Ones. Unlike everyday magical creatures like unicorns or pixies, these Hidden Ones are so extraordinary, so deific, that people question if they still exist at all. Hint: there might be something to the old stories.

For all the media ballyhoo about when the next “Big One” will happen, no one knows. There is something terrifying, something magical, about that. Breath of Earth gave me the chance to explore a subject that has fascinated me ever since I was a scared three-year-old asking, “What happened?”


@BethCato on Twitter


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Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

My MidAmeriCon II badge was just suspended. That is awesome. This is why.

I am so proud of MidAmeriCon II and their safety staff. Why? Because I violated the Code of Conduct and they held me accountable. It would have been really easy for them to give me a pass because I’m “Someone” and to say, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter” for me. Even though it was stressful for them, they followed their procedures and it was a great, very respectful process.

In fact, that’s why I’m writing this post. I asked if there was anything that I could do to help mitigate the damage I’d done – not as a bargaining point, but because I’d screwed up. What we agreed on was that Codes of Conduct are really important, and that part of making sure that they are robust is knowing that everyone is held accountable at the same levels.

So what happened? I served scotch while I was on a panel. It’s something I’ve done before, but in this case, it violates the code of conduct because it potentially jeopardizes the con’s relationship with the venue. It’s something I didn’t think about.

The fact that my violation was accidental doesn’t matter.

As I said, I’m so proud of MidAmeriCon II for the way they handled this. I finished the panel. Two members of the concom took me to a private room where we could do an incident report. I told them what happened and… according to the policies and procedures, this means that they need to ask me to leave for the remainder of the day. It’s not a revocation of membership, or anything,  just a one-day suspension sorta like a time-out.

Again, it would have been easier for them to ignore it. I had a panel that I was moderating afterwards and that means they then had to restaff that. I have a fairly big footprint on social media so there was the fear that I might have thrown a fit and caused a firestorm. The violation was accidental – and… and all of those reasons have been used to excuse inappropriate behavior in the past.

In order to have robust and functional harassment policy – in order to make sure people feel safe, it is so, so important that a Code of Conduct is administrated evenly regardless of a person’s status.

I’m really sorry to have added to their stress and so proud of them and our community.

Decipher clues to win a one page short story, written by me.

So of you are at WorldCon and playing along with my roving launch party for GHOST TALKERS, I should probably tell you what you’re aiming for. Kinda important. In the Tor party tonight (9pm, Crowne Plaza, Ballroom), I’ll write a one page short story, on a manual typewriter, while you wait. Come, even if you aren’t playing to win.

Certainly, it won’t be easy to decipher all the layers of ciphers, passphrases, and live drops. Of course, I have faith that you can get through all five layers. Despite the fact that they get progressively harder… Each one is a type that I’ve mentioned on the blog, although, perhaps also in coded form in my blog posts about the roving launch party.

Mary’s roving book party and ciphers

Some of the code breaking from last night's launch party for GHOST TALKERS.Today, I’ve already had a couple of people come up to me with the correct passphrase for my roving launch party. Here is where I should make it clear that though I said the party is tomorrow, it’s actually all weekend. Except that tomorrow is the day that I’ll be in costume.

Perhaps it might be helpful for you if I talk about a couple of different types of ciphers and codes and the ways that spies passed messages back and forth. Okay…here’s an excerpt, which I hope you’ll accept as being out of context.

Mrs. Richardson asked, “Are there really codes based on the weather?”

Ben laughed, and a bubble of amusement floated up from Merrow. Ben said, “Th e weather. Fish. Th e number and length of pauses you take in a sentence. I once knew a fellow who could stammer in Morse code. It was quite impressive. Another woman used the length of stitches in her dresses to carry messages. I used to carry cigars that had onionskin paper tucked inside. Lived in fear of grabbing the wrong one and smoking my secret message.”

Merrow said, “Remember the baker, sir?”

“Right!” Ben rubbed his mouth, grinning. “We had a live drop who signalled that he had a message waiting by the number of pastries in the window. You had to let him know you were the contact by ordering a specific grouping of pastry. Damn good pastries. Pleasantest password exchange I’ve ever had to do.”

So what’s a live drop? That’s when you actually talk to your contact, usually through an exchange of passwords. Coming up to me and giving me the passphrase from the roving launch party post, will trigger an exchange. An exchange. Right. Delivering the passphrase means you’ll get something in return.

It might be written in plain text. Sometimes it’ll be a cipher.

A cipher is when numbers, letters, or symbols are substituted to create text that is unreadable except to someone who knows the key.

Common ciphers still abound in everyday use. One example, in use on internet forums today is rotational 13. Most people know that as rot13. Meaning that it’s a type of Caesar cipher in which the alphabet is rotated, in this case by 13 spaces. Once you rotate the alphabet A becomes N and so on. Now, you can do a Caesar with any number of rotational spaces.

Cracking a common Caesar is fairly easy to crack by brute force, which means that you just keep trying rotations until you run through them all. Above that in difficulty level is a “keyed Caesar” in which a phrase goes at the beginning of the alphabet. Every letter not used in in the key get rotated to the end. So, I was going to do one in which a rot7 returned “E tu Brute” and then if you said that passphrase to me, I would hand you the next code and say, “Caesar rot in hell.” As an example, the rotation then became INHELABCDFGJKMOPQRSTUWXYZ.  Rather sadly, as fun as that bit of verbal humor was, in trials no one got it.

Of course, there are also skip codes, book codes, columnar codes, double-codes like the Navajo code talkers who were writing messages in Navajo which was then run through a cipher as well. Kinda a there’s a ton of cool stuff, huh?

A code for GHOST TALKERS book release

To celebrate the release of GHOST TALKERS I am being sneaky again today — as if that is a surprise to anyone — and have once again snuck a code into a post. La! It is different from the previous ones. But with all the research I did into ciphers and codes for GHOST TALKERS I have found myself wanting to use them all. I know! So — if you can figure this one out then it will serve as a password for a deleted scene. Deleted! I do need to warn you though — it seems only fair — that this scene does contain spoilers. So many spoilers! So do not read it until you have had a chance to finish the book. I mean it! I hope that code itself is not too hard. Perhaps it is so — if you are really struggling then this link contains a blatantly obvious clue.


Ghost Talkers password attempt
Please use ALL CAPS

My Favorite Bit: Erica L. Satifka talks about STAY CRAZY

Favorite Bit iconErica L. Satifka is joining us today with her novel Stay Crazy. Here’s the publisher’s description:

After a breakdown in college landed Emmeline Kalberg in a mental hospital, she’s struggling to get her life on track. She’s back in her hometown and everyone knows she’s crazy, but the twelve pills she takes every day keep her anxiety and paranoia in check. So when a voice that calls itself Escodex begins talking to Em from a box of frozen chicken nuggets, she’s sure that it’s real and not another hallucination. Well… pretty sure.

An evil entity is taking over the employees of Savertown USA, sucking out their energy so it can break into Escodex’s dimension. When her coworkers start dying, Em realizes that she may be the only one who can stop things from getting worse. Now she must convince her therapist she’s not having a relapse and keep her boss from firing her. All while getting her coworker Roger to help enact the plans Escodex conveys to her through the RFID chips in the Savertown USA products. It’s enough to make anyone Stay Crazy.

What’s Erica’s favorite bit?



The protagonist of my debut novel Stay Crazy, Emmeline Kalberg, isn’t like most girls. That’s because she’s recently been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which makes it hard to distinguish fantasy from reality, a situation that becomes even more complex when she’s contacted by an interdimensional being who tells her that our universe is on the verge of annihilation. And she’s not alone.

Roger Cermak, Em’s coworker at the alien-infested Savertown USA, also has schizophrenia. Unlike Em, his psychotic experiences are not recent, and are totally controlled with medication and the passage of time. So when he too is contacted by the being called Escodex, he knows it’s real. Em, however, doesn’t trust him. Why would she? She can’t even trust herself. Here’s what happens during their first extended conversation:

“I’ll have a diet pop. It’s on him.” She narrowed her eyes at Roger in the dimly lit booth. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I want to talk about the voices you’ve been hearing.”

She frowned. “Come again?”

“Don’t play dumb. I saw the burn on your forehead. The same thing happened to me a few weeks ago. First I got a burn, then I started hearing voices.”

She looked out the window at the blocky facade of Savertown USA. “So?”

“You don’t think this whole situation’s a little strange?”

“Lots of weird things happen to me, mister. I’m a crazy person.”

“But this weird thing is actually happening.” Roger sipped at his own Diet Coke. “Listen, I didn’t believe it at first either. I thought I was hallucinating again. But the same thing happened to both of us and that proves it’s real.”

Em rolled her straw between her fingertips. “What do you mean, ‘again’?”

“I used to be schizophrenic. Haven’t had an episode in twenty years. Until now. But I’m not crazy, and neither are you.”

Em looked at Roger. “I think you’re mistaken about that one.”

It was really important to me that Em not be the only neuro-atypical major character in the book. While she didn’t always have schizophrenia (this book has been through countless “imaginings”), once I figured out she did, Roger’s character sprang up almost immediately, fully formed.

Their relationship isn’t easily defined. It’s definitely not romantic, it’s not even really friendship, and Em would rather die than call Roger something as sappy as a mentor. Yet, as they work together, Em sees a glimpse of her possible future. Roger is overweight and balding (two common side effects of antipsychotic medication), and she mocks his appearance out of fear. But Roger is also stable, and smart, and kind. Throughout the course of their uneasy alliance, Em realizes there’s life after her diagnosis. At the beginning of the book, she feels and to a large extent is totally alone: her mom doesn’t get her at all, and try as he might her therapist isn’t really equipped to deal with her. Roger becomes the positive model Em needs, even if she’d never admit it.

Roger is about twenty years older than Em, and developed his disorder in a time when people were even more misinformed about mental illness than they are now, especially one as serious as schizophrenia. And he’s been through a lot of crappy things: homelessness, jail, involuntary commitment. Just as Em sees Roger as a possible future, Roger sees Em as a window into his past, and he’s determined not to let her make some of the same mistakes he’s made, no matter how stubborn she is (and she’s really stubborn).

So often in books that feature a neuro-atypical character, there’s only one of them. I really wanted to do something different, something to show that two mentally ill characters can learn from each other, prop each other up, and most importantly, kick some alien ass.






Barnes & Noble

Apex Publications


Erica L. Satifka is a writer and/or friendly artificial construct, forged in a heady mix of iced coffee and sarcasm. She enjoys rainy days, questioning reality, ignoring her to-do list, and adding to her collection of tattoos. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld,Shimmer, Lightspeed, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, and her debut novel Stay Crazy was released in August 2016 by Apex Publications. Originally from Pittsburgh, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and an indeterminate number of cats.