Some Awesome Stories From 2017

Every year I swear I will keep up on short fiction, and, as usual, I never quite manage to read as much or as widely as I’d like. This is far from an exhaustive list, because I simply didn’t get to read everything I wanted to this year. That said! Here is a list of some of my favorite stories I read from 2017 (short stories and novelettes; I’ve not gotten to longer form fiction yet).

It is alphabetized by story title!

A Human Stain by Kelly Robson (, January 2017) [novelette]

Lesbian gothic horror that builds to a slow, horrifying climax. Wickedly delightful and creepy. You’ll never look at teeth quite the same way again.

Helen had first seen the nursemaid’s pretty face that morning, looking down from one of the house’s highest windows as she and Bärchen Lambrecht rowed across the lake with their luggage crammed in a tippy little skiff. Even at a distance, Helen could tell she was a beauty.



Bear Language by Martin Cahill (Fireside, May 2017)

The voice is perfect in this bittersweet and fierce story about family and strength and survival. Plus, Susan is such a good bear—and one should never get between a bear and her cubs.

I crawl out from under the covers, shivering at the memory of his anger, and go to the door. The house is dark; ghosts made of sunlit wallpaper peek through curtains and down hallways. It smells like pine needles and mud.


Caesura by Hayley Stone (Fireside, November 2017)

Grieving her brother’s murder, a girl develops a neural network AI that becomes self-aware—but it’s how she learns to reconnect to the world and her family, and her AI, is what gives this such heart. Language is used with incredible precision and perfection.

She should probably be documenting this. Taking notes. Instead, she fidgets on her desk chair, adjusts the mic absently. “And what, what’s the organ’s name?” she asks. At the same time she opens another window, hits the letters L and then I, highlights the word life from a list and deletes it.


Don’t Turn On The Lights by Cassandra Khaw (Nightmare, October 2017)

Brilliant and unsettling, this horror story shows you just how much stories change, depending on who tells it. And sometimes, it’s far worse than you imagine.

Sleep wasn’t in the cards, though. Hell, I don’t know if she ever slept again. I know I wouldn’t be able to. Because when Sally finally walked all the way to her room, pushing past co-eds in their flower-printed pyjamas, she found police tape and policemen.


Every Black Tree by Natalia Theodoridou (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 2017)

Haunting, beautiful and intimate, this story looks at loss and ghosts and family. How do you rebuild a life taken apart? One day at a time, with ribbon and whispers and learning how to live again.

“So did someone hang you from my blacktree, or did you hang yourself?” she asks, placing a cup of hot tea in front of him. She’s still mad, but he hears something soft in her voice now.


Fandom For Robots by Vina Kie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

This story is pure joy. Computron, stuck in a museum, discovers a TV show and begins writing fanfic—and in turn, makes friends and discovers he is not alone.

The Simak Robotics Museum is not within close proximity of a black hole, and there is close to no possibility that time is being dilated. His constant checking of the chronometer to compare it with the countdown page serves no scientific purpose whatsoever.


The First Stop Is Always The Last by John Wiswell (Flash Fiction Online, December 2017)

A charming time-loop story about cute lesbians! Two women on the same bus, repeating the same few hours, bond and learn how to move forward into an unknown future.

Selma got an itch in her brain. She asked, “How many times have we talked about this today?”


The Ghosts of Europa Will Keep You Trapped in a Prison You Make for Yourself by Matt Dovey (Escape Pod, May 2017)

Heartbreaking and raw and honest, this story shows us the grief of loss, and one woman’s revelation at what has been and how she can bring peace to the one she loves.

Amira knew that for a lie. Degradation took years of bit decay, even in Jovian radiation. The synaptic data was remarkably resilient to corruption. Even in virtual form, the brain found new pathways to work around any damage.


The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant by Rachael K. Jones (Lightspeed, December 2017)

Deliciously disturbing and messed up, Jones’ story about cyborg cooks trying to earn stars for her newly opened restaurant is hilarious and gruesome in turn, and has sharp (knife-like) observations about humans. And food.

Humans were helpless, mewling children, so utterly dependent that they couldn’t even feed their meat without a steel fork to guide the process. And what were cyborgs, except meat-wrapped steel pressed into the service of lesser creatures? But now the forks were rebelling.


If We Survive the Night by Carlie St. George (The Dark, March 2017)

What happens when the horror movie is over and everyone who’s not a Final Girl is dead? St. George’s horrific and unsettling story is about dead girls, the subjection and judgement women endure, and the power of stories. And revenge.

Harper makes Abby a cup of tea. It’s a soothing liquid, the universal sign for calm the hell down, and Abby thinks it’d be a lot more successful if the girl who made it hadn’t taken a fire axe to the back exactly one year ago.


Listen and You’ll Hear Us Speak by A. T. Greenblatt (Flash Fiction Online, September 2017)

A small, perfect gem of a story: no one is ever truly voiceless, even if they do not speak.

My aunties always said there’s a market for everything in the universe. They said, watch out, everyone has a price.


Maybe Look Up by Jess Barber (Lightspeed, April 2017)

A charming, understated time travel story that explores the relationship between two people who have the power to change the past. But what they do with this power is where the heart of the story lies.

The list lives in a little palm-sized flip notebook, plastic purple spiral holding it together at the top, glitter-outlined unicorn on the front. An Li claims the notebook is a metaphor for the risks of nostalgia. She brandishes a pink gel pen that smells like plasticky strawberry foam.


The Moon, the Sun, and the Truth by Victoria Sandbrook (Shimmer, July 2017)

A gritty, fierce, sharp postapocalyptic western about rebellion and sacrifice. Tyranny can’t last when there are people who will speak the truth.

“Fleet of foot and light of heart,” he said.

The truth-rider salutation only made her stomach turn. She touched her hat and turned the horse toward the next town.


Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree by Nibedita Sen (Anathema, August 2017)

This fantastic, charming, delicious story is about food, ghosts, and lesbians. Reading it makes me hungry!

My search had finally turned up two promising results: a temple in Rajasthan and another in Gujarat. Both still performed exorcisms for the princely sum of five thousand rupees and three boxes of chickpea-flour-and-sugar sweetmeats. The money was supposedly for the priests, and the sweets for the gods, but I had the sneaking suspicion the sweets, too, would end up going down the priests’ gullets the way the pret had gone down mine.


Presque Vu by Nino Cipri (Liminal, November 2017)

Gorgeous, queer, and filled with longing and ghosts. Hauntings connect people and give them hope for closure and a future.

The postcards were vintage, with terrible puns and bland innuendo: the one he’d seen had had a naughty librarian with stacks of books propping up her cleavage, Interested in a thriller? On the other side was a spidery scrawl of words in faded brown ink.


The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017) [novelette]

Bot 9 is SO FRICKING CUTE I CANNOT HANDLE THIS PERFECT LEVEL OF ADORABLE. This is a delightful, hilarious, charming story about bots!

The Ship had not actually told it what was in cargo bay four, but surely it must have something to do with the war effort and was then none of its own business, the bot decided. It had never minded not knowing a thing before, but it felt a slight unease now that it could neither explain, nor explain away.

Skins Smooth as Plantain, Hearts Soft as Mango by Ian Muneshwar (The Dark, August 2017)

Food horror is my jam, and this story is ripe with gorgeous descriptions and mouth-watering detail that will make you hungry…maybe not in the best way.

He ate a heaping forkful of the pie. It was wonderful: the goat was soft, savory, fatty; the salt and animal juices and hot water crust all came together on his tongue. The beast pushed up, stretching open the base of his esophagus, unfurling its own eager tongue.


Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017) [novelette]

An #ownvoices (sans the vampire part) story about a gay trans man who’s bitten by a vampire and deals with the after effects of being turned. Raw, sharp, and so often unbearably human, Szpara examines many axises of marginalization and the trials and joys inherent in living in an imperfect world.

But vampires who break the law, who feed from un-certified donors, who steal blood bags, or drink without asking first, are put on the Blood Offenders Registry, which is basically a hit list for corrupt cops and stake-wielding bigots.


Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld, April 2017)

Brilliant and subversive, the story examines how colonialism destroys environments and people alike. Also OCTOPI. ❤

I am going to meet Pebblesmooth. Pebblesmooth, who doesn’t have all the answers, but who has the best questions. Once I am there, I will ask, “Pebblesmooth, can a dead human affect the field?”


The Sound Of by Charles Payseur (Nightmare, May 2017)

This story has haunted me since I first read it. The story shows a dystopia that is all too real, too believable, and will chill you. It has no happy ending; this is a horror story and the tragedy comes from the wrenching understand that sometimes, we cannot endure everything.

He checks his friends, makes sure no one is saying anything that could possibly be viewed as a violation. Just to be safe, he unfriends a few people who knew him back in college. His fingers stop when Ren’s profile comes up. He hovers, weighing his options, then swallows and closes the app.


The Whalebone Parrot by Darcie Little Badger (The Dark, October 2017)

Ghosts. Dead whales. Colonialism being interrogated and resisted against. The voice is perfect, the structure and mix of narrative and journal entries firmly grounds this in time and setting, and it builds to a slow, excruciating and unsettling conclusion. Wonderful horror-fantasy!

“Not especially.” It was only a partial lie; Loretta’s married name still sounded like it belonged to a stranger. When Emily was summoned to the island, Loretta asked her to be discreet. Tell nobody that we are sisters.


There has been so much excellent fiction published this year; the wonderful field of SFFH is growing and diversifying and shining with amazing gems. I’m so excited to read more breathtaking stories in the future!


ETA: I had one more story in this list which I mistook as a 2017 publication, when it was 2016. Still keeping it here as a postscript because it’s SO good.

All the Colors You Thought Were Kings by Arkady Martine (Shimmer, December 2017 2016)

Gorgeous, riveting space opera on an epic scale that still remains deeply personal. Radiant with imagery and intense with emotion.

Even barefoot in gauze, your Tamar looks dangerous. You could die of pride if you weren’t half planning to die of something else first.





Awards Eligibility 2017

So, this year was pretty damn good in terms of stories published. For people reading and nominating for various SFF awards, such as the Nebulas, the Hugos, and World Fantasy, I would be honored if you considered any of my work! ❤


Short Stories

Monster Girls Don’t Cry (Uncanny, January/February 2017)

Longing For Stars Once Lost (Lightspeed, September 2017)

For Now, Sideways (Diabolical Plots, August 2017)

What the Fires Burn (PodCastle, August 2017)

The House At the End of the Lane Is Dreaming (Lightspeed, December 2017)


Later, Let’s Tear Up the Inner Sanctum (Lightspeed, February 2017)


Interactive Fiction

This Is A Picture Book (sub-Q Magazine, November 2017)


Other Short Stories

These are not available online yet, but I am happy to email a copy of individual stories in your preferred format. Just ping me and let me know (via the contact page). 🙂

Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn (Humans Wanted, ed. Vivian Caethe, August 2017)

Fathoms Deep and Fathoms Cold (Submerged, S.C. Butler and Joshua Palmatier, September 2017)

Thrice Remembered (The Death of All Things, Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson, September 2017)

Two Reflections At Midnight (Gamut Magazine, September 2017)


Happy New Year and here’s to a better 2018 for us all!

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 9–Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells This Story?

Additional Parts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9 (you are here)


(With thanks to the Hamilton musical for being so quotable!)

Gather ’round, my peeps, for today we are talking about narrative choice and authorial intent!  [I’m specifically going to focus on written/sole-created narratives. Just for ease of this post.]

Everything You Choose Is Deliberate

In fiction, the author is all-powerful. Each choice the author makes–in particular, conscious decisions–reflects on the author. Power carries responsibility. So. When you have complete and total power over the story you choose to tell, what are the responsibilities that come with that?

Equally important: what are an author’s responsibilities when it comes to choosing not to make specific decisions, include specific elements, and otherwise wield their power in a exclusionary way?

When I talk about exclusion, an authorial choice not to include specific elements in a story, this can be literally anything. It can be choosing not to include rape culture or scenes of sexual or domestic violence. It can be choosing not to have any swearing in the story. It can be choosing not to include potatoes.

Exclusionary choices are not inherently bad. They are, like inclusionary choices [what you DO put in a story], simply a spectrum of authorial deliberation. However, as an author, what you do not include is just as important as what you do include. An author must own the responsibility of their choices.

(We’re not going into external meddling–such as editors, executives, elder gods, etc. This focuses specifically on what the author created, and assumes that there is no external pressure to add/subtract/change specific elements.)

Sometimes these choices can arise from unexamined or unknown bias. Sometimes they arise from ignorance–whether to include or exclude specific elements or people from a narrative–and sometimes not.

Does the story include dragons? Fantastical elements? FTL drives? Superpowers? Does the story feature any queer, trans, disabled, POC, elderly people, minorities, women, or other demographics found everywhere in the world?

If you have dragons but no People of Color, what does that say about your choices? “Historical accuracy” is a false claim when it’s not actually historically accurate. Does a spacefaring worldship harbor only cishet white people? What does that say about your perspective?

Look at it this way. You choose a POV (point of view) character(s) for your story, just like you choose whether it’s written in first-, second-, or third-person (or maybe all of them!), and just like you choose which tense to use for the narrative. Those are deliberate decisions made in order to shape the story.

The content of that story is no less deliberate.

You have the power to choose what you write about, who you write about, and for whom you write. Your responsibility is in how you use that power.


Making Choices: Who Lives and Who Dies

The novel has very strong thematic questions about power, responsibility, and what we owe each other and ourselves with our actions.

It’s also got a lot of action and drama. The plot focuses on authoritative powers who want to destroy things, and the protagonists are caught in this fight and must decide how it ends.

It would be so easy to make this book tragic. It would be so easy to kill everyone off for ‘dramatic effect’ in the ending; to have the characters die in order to succeed. Maybe that would be “edgy.” There is set-up that could allow for the resolution to go either way (victory and life, or victory and death). All I can say is: FUCK THAT NOISE.

There will be no queer tragedy in this book. Damaveil and his husband live and are happy; Rajosja and her wife live and are happy; Bane lives and is… getting there; it just takes a little longer before he is happy again. The non-binary characters live and are happy.

Do people die? Sure. Lots of them. Past and present. This is a dark book; a lot of terrible things happen. That does not mean it must end badly for all the queer and trans characters who exist within.

Death is not the default ending. 

unapologetic happy ending



Making Choices: Who Tells the Story


So, when I wrote the first draft of this book (*cough*timeago*cough*) I did not actually know I was ace/aro. (Ace = asexual, which means I do not feel sexual attraction to other people. Aro = aromantic, which means I am not interested in romantic relationships with other people.) I had inklings about being a somewhat outlier circle on a Venn diagram mapping out human axises of sexuality, but it would be nearly two years after this draft was written before I encountered vocabulary for defining myself.

RoAnna Sylver has a tweet thread about ace/aro representation in media that is spot-on and utterly fantastic, and I urge you to read the whole thing.


Bane is asexual. When I picked up this draft in order to revise, that jumped out at me like a neon sign. (He’s also neuroatypical, which is also something I did not have words for, or consciously realize about myself, when I was writing.)

When I realized this, it made me so happy. And I knew him being ace was an element I would not change. Not for any reason.

I, as a reader and consumer of media, want to see more representation (positive!) on various axises; ace, aro, neuroatypical, queer, trans, non-binary… to name but a few. So I feel it my duty, as a writer, to do what I can to include characters that reflect the vast, amazing, kickass aspects of humanity. I will not always succeed, and not every story will contain every multitude of people. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. ^_^

A protagonist is one of the many lenses through which we experience story. A protagonist, often, has a large amount of page/screen time. Who you give this time, energy, and presence to in your work says something. You, as the author, choose what it is you’re saying.

Bane has flaws, and also a lot of goodness. He’s empathetic, compassionate, and strives to help people. He has strong friendships without needing romance or sexual relationships. He can save the world when others would ask him only to destroy it.

And he can have a happy ending.


 So, creators, keep in mind your power and your responsibility. When you mess up, you will be called on it, and how you respond is equally a choice. You can do better if you want. You can try harder. Work better.

(I actually have an unfinished post that examines authorial power/responsibility in more detail, and will aim to finish that up and post–it might be more useful to people as a stand-alone article.)

I’d love to hear from you folks, too: what decisions do you make in your creative work? What do you choose to include or exclude?


Coming up next… Merc has no idea, because they need to get back to the ‘fill in all the gaps from the revision outline’ drafting phase! xD So stay tuned…

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 8–A Little Night Music and Stick Figures

Additional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1Part 2Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 (you are here)


I love creating playlists for different projects. It’s not procrastination if it helps me focus, and music* is really good for stimulating my brain cells when I’m creating things.

Screenshot 2016-07-26 14.02.57
A selection of this novel’s playlist–it’s still growing…
*By this I mean carefully selected music that I like and have picked out and am familiar with. I can’t listen to the radio or most streaming services because there’s too much unpredictability.

What goes into the process of selecting music? Ahahahaha, I wish I had a scientific and logical answer, but it’s really “what sounds good, mood-wise” which is as subjective as words themselves.

I’ve chosen a mix of songs that vary in mood, theme, sound–generally nothing super fast-paced; instrumental or solo vocals with some choral; lower down in the playlist there is a lot of Two Steps From Hell tracks (from the album Batlecry), because they make epic music that is highly cinematic without being specifically linked to individual movies. So, because I am also a very visual writer, I like music that sounds like it’d be from a epic fantasy soundtrack, but without being associated with a movie I like/have seen.

For the tracks from albums or soundtracks that I’m familiar with (you will notice music from Hero and Dragon Age Inquisition: Tresspasser, as well as musicals and other films), the music is usually tied to a specific emotion or association–for example, songs by Rammstein (shown here are “Ohne Dich” and “Spring“) evokes tragedy and creepiness (respectively).

And then, after all that careful work to arrange them in an order I’m pleased with, I still tend to hit shuffle and go with it. >.>



A couple days ago, I had one of those ‘OH GOD EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE AND EVERYONE WILL JUDGE ME’ moments when thinking about the gender breakdown of characters in the book.

stick figures to illustrate how characters and places are connected…

The majority of secondary, minor, and referenced characters are women or non-binary, aside from some token characters whose only purpose is to die, in which case, all those are men.

The POV characters are Bane (demi-male), Rajosja (female), and Winterblade (male-coded). The principle antagonists are the human queen (a woman) and the fae Winter Lord (coded male).

So where I hit a mental snag and flaily panic-state (brains are useful like that /sarcasm) was realizing that Bane, for a good third of the book, has almost an exclusively male support circle: his mentor, his mentor’s husband, and then Winterblade. Which is not to say only boys show up–like I noted above, the majority of secondary and minor characters are women. The most powerful mage in the country is a non-binary person. Most of people in power are women. There are definitely lots of ladies present, talking to each other, having their own lives that are completely unrelated to the males on scene.


But, even with Bane having two excellent gay men as his mentors/father figures (and a psychotic fae prince as a BFF), the fact that it takes over a third of the wordcount to give him prominent women allies/friends, made my brain panic that UR DOIN IT WRONG ZOMG.

So then I made a flowchart! (It’s actually very soothing; I got a pad of easel paper–25in x 30in– so I had lots of space to work with, and just plopped it on my kitchen table and broke out the markers.)


Did it help? Actually it did calm me down (as well as talking it out with friends). I’m still not sure if the doubtroaches are valid or if this is just another tactic to derail me from working. What I count as a win is the conscious awareness of what I’m doing–I can see how the patterns work, and will choose what to do about them going forward.

(That’ll be the focus ot the next post–narrative choices in action.)

Plus, I mean, I did get some adoable stick figures out of this exercise…


Coming up next: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

New Story, New Year, New Resistance

Welcome to 2017. I’d like to help kick it off with a story about dismantling the patriarchy, resisting oppression, and fighting for what matters. It contains monsters.

Monster Girls Don’t Cry 

Cover art is “El Arpa” by John Picacio

It’s free to read online at Uncanny Magazine, alongside a knock-out table of contents by other stupendous authors. There’s also an interview with me, conducted by Julia Rios!


So, a new year. Resolutions. Resistance. Renewal.

I started out building bookcases and organizing my books. It’s soothing, and it inspires me to tackle this year with fierce and unyielding passion and determination. I will read more. Write more. Support my friends and my communities. Stay strong. Live.

In 2017, we shine brighter than ever before. Our existence is, in itself, an act of defiance towards our oppressors. We will not be silent or stop. We go on, we fight on, we create and we live and we love and we stand together.

Write your stories, my friends. They will always matter; now more than ever, the world needs to hear our voices. Let us shake the foundations of stone and sky with our words and our breath.  Live. Resist. Write.

Patreon and New Stories!

September launches with a few exciting updates from your friendly neighborhood Merc!

Shimmer Issue 33 is here! It has gorgeous fiction from Fran Wilde, Lora Gray, Ryan Row, and me! “What Becomes of the Third-Hearted” will be available online 9/18/16–and of course you can read it right away in the ebook (along with a bonus interview).


Diabolical Plots has released a lineup of Year 3 fiction, and I am delighted to have a story slated for next summer: “For Now, Sideways” is about the costs of war, grief and coping, and also has mechs and ghostbirds.

And finally, I embark on a new and shiny adventure with Patreon! If you become a Patreon backer, you can access a free ebook copy of my novelette, Hero’s Choice. There are all sorts of details on the official page, with a welcome video coming soon. 🙂


Merc Is Creating Stories, Comics & Essays!

I hope you all have a good weekend!

THE GENTLEMAN OF CHAOS + author interview published at Apex Magazine!

Thrilled to share my dark fantasy story about a trans guy assassin who plays the long game to get what he wants.

The Gentleman of Chaos

Apex Magazine issue 87, ed. by Jason Sizemore – coverart by Marcela Bolivar

It’s up at Apex Magazine, along with an interview with me conducted by Andrea Johnson! This issue has a fabulous TOC and I am honored to be a part of it! ❤

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising A Novel, Part 7–Gaming the Process (part 1)

HELLO AND WELCOME! 😀 This post is more about my craft & process in writing. It ties into the series of novel revision posts, but is going to tackle a wider variety of examples. ^_^ It’s very long, so I’m splitting it into two parts. This is part one.

Oh yeah, and I pulled out the Wacom tablet to make some illustrations. *drumroll*

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.41.56
from “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” by A. Merc Rustad


Additional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1Part 2Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 (you are here) | Part 7.2  | Part 8

I’m drafting a lot as well as revising.

I’d like to define how I’m using specific words in the context of this project (The Collars We Wear) and these blog posts.

Drafting = New words, scooped raw from the mines, hauled in keyboard-shaped containers and stacked in the shipping yard known as The Draft.

Revising = Previously-mined words, already organized in containers (sometimes called ‘scenes’ or ‘chapters’) are sorted into categories of “good” or “needs repair” or “delete.” Containers get hauled around by forklifts and rearranged according to the Overseer (also known as an Author). Sometimes containers tip over and spill words everywhere, resulting in the need for clean-up crews and hazard tape to mark off the area. In this stage, big picture restructuring, organizing, ripping out or replanting of words for The Draft occurs, with smaller clean-up done as needed–fixing up a broken container, sweeping up stray words, etc.

Editing = The Draft, now renamed Revised Draft, is shipped whole to the Edit Plant. Here, dozens of polishing drones scrape and smooth and shine the words–now properly organized, patched up, dusted off, and arranged into aesthetically pleasing structures–until the Overseer deems it satisfactory. Sure, sometimes a drone malfunctions and misses a spot, but in general, the Overseer decides the Revised Draft is ready to be Seen when it’s enticing, clean, shiny, and looks good on the Overseer’s resume.

Summary:  draft is new words; revision is fixing those words into coherent form; editing is making those now-coherent words shine like dragonflies in the sun.

That said, because–as noted previously in this series–I’m still doing a lot of drafting, I wanted to reawaken a series of thoughts I semi-articulated awhile back about how I visualize things when I’m writing.

You Enter the Dungeon And See a Dragon Sleeping. What Do You Do?

When I was at 4th Street Fantasy in June, I tweeted some rambling thoughts about how I visualize narrative, scenes, and how different elements are constructed (or deconstructed) in my brain when I’m writing.

The Storify is here.

Tweets are screencapped below as relevent for ease of reference.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.37

I’m going to use my short story “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” as a reference for the illustrations, since you can read it free online, and also it has dinosaurs. ^_^

Anatomy of a Scene

Each scene needs to accomplish something: plot, characterization, excuse for dramatic music, etc. Whole books have been written about scenes, and what they do, and how to create them, so let’s just assume that scene = something happens/changes to move the story along.

A scene is a unit of measure in writing but it has no specific size requirements, and can be as short or long as needed. The length, however, tends to lend itself to pacing and can be used for dramatic effect. A long scene in which two principal characters talk about Plot might give the reader a breather after three short, punchy scenes in which characters run from a horde of bloodthirsty gerbils and are now holed up in the cafeteria of the local middle school.

In “The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie,” the first scene is exactly three words long.

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.37.57.png

Why? Well, I wanted to establish that something dramatic had happened and changed things (the world, in this case, being EX-702’s surroundings) in the fewest amount of words possible.

The second scene begins with EX-702 wakes up from the above mentioned explosion, and finds a dying mother Deinonychus. EX-702 decides to adopt and care for her eggs, since they hatch into adorable baby raptors, and this pushes the rest of the story forward:EX-702 is an android programmed to preserve human life, so first it must find any human survivors of the apocalypse.  EX-702’s choice in the second scene–to care for and raise the baby dinosaurs–reflects the thematic tension in the rest of the story (what is consciousness? what is life and why do we wish to save it?).

Screenshot 2016-08-01 14.40.46
Anubis and EX-702

The second scene is much longer than the first, because it requires a slower build. EX-702 is waking up to an entirely strange new world, in which extinct species are emerging and evolving rapidly.

Scenes after that vary in length depending on what they need to accomplish.

Near the end, when EX-702 receives a virus from its creator that will destroy it for failing its mission, there are several scenes that are short, but roughly the same length. They are ramping up the tension–will EX-702 survive? Can its raptor family save it from human shortsightedness?

How does this end?

When writing, and then working on edits after Mothership Zeta editors Mur Lafferty and Sunil Patel bought the story, I visualized this a lot like a page in a graphic novel.

illustration by Merc Rustad

You’ll notice that the panels are not the same as scenes, but rather, they are components of the scenes. There are close-ups on EX-702 and Anubis, because close-ups signify importance and emotion. When you want to hone in a specific emotion or highlight something integral to the story, getting in close can be effective.

(Also, if you just saw this without reading the story, it may be ambiguous about what Anubis is doing. That’s ‘coz I am not very good at drawing, you guys. xD)

There is a cutaway of Anubis typing on a keyboard, which shows her trying to stop the virus. The largest panel is of EX-702 during the shutdown sequence. Then there’s blackness, when EX-702 goes offline. The last panel is a single word, “Unit?” which acts as a hook to make the viewer turn the page to find out wha happened.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily translate into words as clearly. That’s the tricky part about adapting a visualized medium into a written medium: they are both story but they are not identical in how they are presented.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.45

What I do is look at the effect I want to achieve. If I’m filming and I want a strong emotional reaction–say, fear–then I consider how effective an extreme close-up on the actor’s face will be for this shot. Can she express terror with most of the frame being just her eyes? (Eyes are stunning things, when you think about just how much you can convey with looks.)

When writing, I have to translate my visual instincts into a different style of storytelling. What details can I write that will convey the emotion I want? How does the fear feel to this character? Do I describe something, perhaps a physical reaction? Is this a case where I need to dig into POV and internal reactions for the character? Maybe both?

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.13.56

Bones Of A Scene

As far as determining how to structure scenes, I tend to start with a generalized outline:

X, Y, and G need to happen. Somehow.

(Don’t get me started on past!self writing vague and incoherent plot notes that consist solely of ‘something cool happens here’. WHY, past!self, whyyyyyyyyyy.)

It’s kinda like archeology. So you find a bunch of bones, right? And you might be able to see where joints connect and things match up in a general skeleton shape. [Disclaimer: I am not an archeologist. I’m sure it’s much more complicated and awesome than this analogy.]

Then you maybe hand over a sketch to the conceptual artist in your brain who designs the skin and scale and feathers for your skeleton, so you can see what it might have looked like. Then the scientist in your brain has a brilliant idea: LET’S CLONE THE DNA AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS! So you concoct a bunch of SCIENCE in a lab, and create a creature. Victory!

Maybe that creature is an adorable fuzz-covered herbivore who wants to cuddle.

Or maybe it’s a giant carnivore who, oops, is a lot smarter than you and why did we think this was a good idea oh god it’s escaped ruuuuuuun–

The point is, working off an idea of the scene can result in unexpected things. Or it might come out just as you intended. Maybe your outline is much more detailed, a series of scene beats that map out exactly what needs to happen and you just fill in the blanks.

Whatever works! It’s cool. (Just be careful of the raptors. They’re clever.)

When I’m drafting a scene, I definitely like to have a general aim for the drama. What needs to happen here?

Who’s involved?

Why does it matter?

I wrote awhile back that I needed to pause in drafting Winterblade’s POV in order to write a scene where he and Bane meet. I wanted to break that down and illustrate it as an example of how I visualize things akin to comics or video games, so that post is will be Part Two (coming soon).


An intriguing problem I’ve come across in my novel The Collars We Wear is how the three POV characters handle fear.

Winterblade cannot feel fear (it was taken away from him) and that’s precisely why he wants it back. Bane is terrified of just about everything and doesn’t cope well with that constant exhaustion. Rajosja keeps her emotions tightly locked down due to trauma and it is not helping her relationship with her wife. All three need to face what they fear most (even, in WB’s case, he can’t actually feel it–so there are other emotions and reactions he can indulge in when faced with what he is running away from) and they do so in different ways.

Showing this in prose? That’s tricky.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.14.05

Bane has a lot of physical reactions and body language, coping mechanisms and strategies both external and internal that show how he deals with fear. He’s the POV character who is able to actual think in terms of ‘I am afraid.’

Rajosja just tries to shoot everything, because it’s effective and gives her an outlet for repressed emotion that is not reacting in fear. (Her supervisor is really not happy about the paperwork that results in.) Her POV is one that relies heavily on negative space, on not saying things, and allowing the reader to infer what it is she’s dealing with. Which is a hard balance to maintain, especially when female-ID’d characters are so often held to ridiculous double-standards. (I say fuck it, she can do what she wants.)

Winterblade, uh…resorts to creative means of feeling anything. His POV the most trippy and disturbing because he’s acutely aware of what he’s missing, what he is, and what he’s capable of doing to get what he wants.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 13.14.14

If this were all visuals, I would be considering shot design, color palate, how the actors move, the dialogue chosen, the editing choices…

…which I also have to do in prose. It’s more of a translation issue from my brain onto paper.

How much of the wardrobe do I describe, and which details are important to the POV? (Bane will notice clothing in relation to how it denotes class and danger. Rajosja will notice it in terms of practicality and if it gives her clues to her investigations. Winterblade…doesn’t really notice beyond how it inhibits, or doesn’t, body movement.)

I noted in this post that I have a series of ‘flavor’ words for each story. This is equivalent to my color palate and lighting design when I’m filming. What is the mood I want to convey? How does the character voice reflect compared to other POVs? (I prefer each to be as distinct as I can manage so they contrast when there are multiple point-of-view characters.)

Writing a story involves a lot of style choice–which words you use (vocabulary), the sentence construction, what details are given prominence and which are ignored, how the voice of the character and/or author reflect in the prose and narrative choices, maybe the type of font you draft in.

I’ve thought a lot about the narrative choices I made in this novel. I’ll discuss those in a later blog post when the revision is further along.

And Now, Because This Post Is Getting Too Long…

Does all this sound like a massive amount of stuff to keep in your head all at once? THAT’S COZ IT IS. o.O At least for me!

But! There is totally hope. Depending on your process, maybe you need to know everything before you start. Maybe you wing it as you go along. Maybe you get the bare bones down and flesh it out in revisions.

Whatever works for you is awesome. Don’t let someone else tell you that to succeed, you need to craft words The One True Way. It’s bullshit because there is no ‘one right way’  to write. 🙂 

The beautiful thing about words is that they can change. You need a draft to be able to change them, sure, but this is not carving marble. You can swap and change and tweak and polish and discard and create as many words as you need, as you like, in order to create the story you must tell.

Words are malleable. Stories are mutationous little things, changing and evolving and sometimes developing superpowers to launch a comic & movie franchise.

You still need to have content, words on a page, in order to manipulate them to your whim.

I mean, hell, I’m drafting an additional 30k words or so because I realized they were missing from the initial draft. However, I wouldn’t have known that if I didn’t write that initial 60k draft. IT’S LIKE A TIME LOOP.

The point is, naturally, draft the thing. You can make it shiny (or shinier) in post. But you need to have a draft on which to hang the revision decorations.

Be aware of your choices, because they reflect on everything.

PART TWO breaks down a scene in illustrated form to better explain how my visual-to-prose mental translation happens.

(Bonus! Faint, echoing wails from Merc as they wonder why the hell they decided to do illustrations in the first place… xD)

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 5–Recharging Batteries for Fun and Profit

Additional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 (you are here) | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9

Welcome back! I’m delighted by the responses to these posts so far, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.  🙂

BATTERIES, or, Refilling Your Creative Tanks

I love horror movies. Good, bad, hilarious, terrible–it’s all entertainment, and it’s all narrative. I believe visual/audio mediums are a perfect vehicle for horror stories. I just watched [REC] and the terrifying sequel, [REC]2. (As I said on twitter, these are a grand blend of zombie possession found footage.) On the queue I have a selection of movies pulled from this list.

I’m also listening to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (on Audible), and I have the latest issues of Nightmare Magazine and The Dark on my Kindle app.

Why so much horror, when I’m writing/revising a kinky, lyric fantasy novel?

Narrative recharging.

Screenshot 2016-07-14 18.25.37
Screencap from the abridged version of What Monsters Hide Beneath (a short film)

Similar to when you use any electronic device that runs on battery power, sooner or later you need to plug it in and recharge. Or it stops working. (And if this is a horror movie, you really do not want your flashlight or camera batteries dying on you in the third act.)

Brains have electric currents in them, and I mean, HOW COOL IS THAT? There’s also a creative component. For people who are focused on narrative construction–telling stories–we run off the storytelling batteries wired deep in our minds and hearts. We operate the story-apps, create new narrative, sketch artistic mediums into existence, and we do all this by pulling energy from ourselves. We use those batteries. So eventually we need to replenish what we used.

Everyone has a unique way of powering up again after depleting their store of energy. Everyone’s charge time until full is different.

Maybe you read a lot, or binge-watch a show on Netflix, or go hiking, or hide in a dark cave and hibernate until unwary adventurers disturb your crypt and unleash an ancient, terrifying evil into the world.

For me, I love watching horror movies.

Regardless of quality, they generally satisfy my three main criteria for battery-refueling:

  1. It has a narrative. Even if it’s one I’ve seen a hundred times, even if it’s barely there, even if it’s choppy and WTF, there is some semblance of story construction going on.
  2. It provides stimuli. Visual and auditory, often with a textual component since I tend to watch movies or shows with subtitles or Closed Captioning [CC] turned on. (It takes a lot of pre-planning and emotional prep to see a movie in theaters, because there is a thing as too much stimuli, so most often when I binge watch horror, I do so from the comfort of my couch, with headphones on and lights dimmed.) I’m a filmmaker as well as a writer, so I’m looking at the composition, the pacing, the lighting, the sound design, the makeup. My brain then subconsciously runs a translation program wherein it digests the visual/auditory input and churns out a low-frequency running commentary in my mind, wherein I’m narrating the story as I see it to myself as I watch. This translation process takes much longer with purely written text, and I’m a slow reader; but I can, comparatively, watch a movie in about two hours, and receive many of the same benefits from narrative deconstruction as I can from written fiction. I get prose-level feedback from reading (I’m consciously or unconsciously analyzing the specific words, placement, layout, etc), while I get craft-level feedback just as well from visual storytelling.
  3. It’s not the broadly-catagorized genre I’m writing in. Does The Collars We Wear have horror elements? Of course! It has some creepy as fuck imagery and ideas going on. But it is still not structurally or aesthetically horror. (I can also watch action movies in the same headspace as horror movies.) It has a specific feel for fantasy, to me, which is why, at the moment, I have a difficult time reading or watching straight-up fantasy to recharge. I need the distance of genre or aesthetics or trope-wrangling when I’m recharging. Once I am done with this project, I will happily devour more fantasy in all forms–shorts, novels, movies, art. Until then, when I need recharging, I turn to one of my favorite categories: horror.


Screenshot 2016-07-14 18.30.05
Obligatory cuteness

Thursday was my day off this week, and after I got up and fed Bucky (pictured above), I was about to open the laptop and do some words. But there was a very specific feeling of tiredness knotted around me. I recognized this.

Since Sunday, I have written–between blog posts, synopses, and fiction–9,500+ words. That is more than I have written in months.

REMINDER: There is no “right” speed at which to write. Fast, slow, interdimensional–what is right for you is valid, acceptable, and does not need to be compared to anyone else. There is no “right” way to write, either. You do not have to write every day to be a writer. All you need is to write. How, and why, and when–those are personal details. You do what works for you. That’s all that matters.

Okay? Okay.

I used up a lot of batteries this week. Blog posts are just as much work a brand new fiction, for me. 🙂 I love writing them, but they are not easy. So between all these words, I was getting low on battery.

In an attempt to be a smart!Merc and not wreck myself as I have too often in the past by trying to press through to unachievable goals or comparisons with others, I took the day off from fiction.

I watched horror movies, I listened to more of The Haunting of Hill House, and I took a nap.

You need energy if you want to run the various functions in your brain and produce creative output. It’s okay to take a break when you need it, to refuel and recharge.

I mean, even Energizer batteries run low eventually. (Don’t let the commercials lie to you.)

Whether you are writing new words, revising old ones, or running from zombies in a quarantined apartment building*, it is okay to take a break.

Rest. Recharge. Play games or read books or watch shows or take a walk or sleep or [your choice activity here]. Whatever works for you.

Burning out is, unfortunately, a thing that happens to everyone at some point. It sucks. If you feel fragile, if you feel depleted, if you feel down–it will pass, if you let yourself take the time you need and be kind to yourself if it’s not instantaneous. Self-care is a revolutionary act for many of us.

No, it is not always easy. Often, it is hard for so many reasons. Hard and impossible are not the same word, even if at times they seem indistinguishable.

I believe in you. ❤ I want you to take care of yourself, and it may take many different forms. I can’t tell you what to do on this front. It is as personal as the stories you tell. It may not look like anyone else’s version of self-care and recharging. (I mean, so long as you’re not a serial killer or something like that.)

You take care of your mental health needs, you recharge your batteries the best way that suits you, so you can continue to share your stories with the world.

*Maybe don’t stop and take a break if this is the situation. It might not end well.

So what’s next? Well, personally I plan to watch another horror film or two and then go to bed. (Hai there, anticipated WTF dreams… o.O)

After that? Well. Tomorrow I think I will feel more refreshed, more recharged, and can dive back into organizing sections into a Scrivener file and adding new words into the novel.

❤ ❤ ❤ to you all! Keep those batteries well-charged.

NEXT: [Merc gives up trying to predict the next topic in an ongoing series of blog posts at this point] WE’LL HAVE TO SEE, WON’T WE.

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 4–Speedbumps and Flexibility


K.M. Szpara is chronicling his process from getting an agent to novel revisions on his blog, and I encourage you to check it out–he has a kickass novel and the revision tactics (and gossipy stories) he shares are really cool. 🙂

Other posts in this series:

Part 0Part 1  | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 [you are here] | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9


I’ve tagged writing updates with #MercWritesABook on twitter, for those interested in following along!


Screenshot 2016-07-13 11.18.01
Progress page!

(I really like myWriteBuddy for tracking goals.)

So once I was about 3k into new material, I ran into a snag. While I know that a critical scene is in Bane’s POV, and needs to be there, I have not written it yet. It is a compilation of several different scenes in the first draft, and needs to be pulled together and fleshed out to serve its true purpose.

My original intent had been to write all of Winterblade’s scenes first, sew them into the draft, and then revise the whole thing. But it turns out that won’t work. If I don’t have this pivotal scene in place (where Bane and WB meet), then I don’t have a good frame of reference for how future scenes will unfold.

There seemed to be two options: 1.) write extensive notes and power through, potentially making more work in the long run, or 2.) make a detour to avoid the construction backup, and thus continue to make good time on this writing-trip.

There were definitely periods of younger!Merc’s life where they would have chosen option 1 out of pure stubbornness. And probably some convoluted rationale that would just provided more headaches later on.

Now!Merc, however, is much more interested in getting things done fast with as little stress as feasible.

I want to make this as easy on myself. So I decided to be flexible.

Step 1: Acknowledge that there is a traffic jam in the process. 

In my case, I know what I need (words!) but there are obstacles to getting what I want (…words).

I want to keep up my momentum (which I find easier to do when immersed in a specific voice), but I don’t want to add to the workload of having to rewrite massive sections of material a second time around–not when I could get it right the first time.

Time to strategize.

Step 2: Plot a new route.

Here’s what I did: I made a nifty bracketed scene holder in the middle of my ‘Winterblade POV’ document (I’m writing in a plain text file for minimal distraction) that looked like this.

pretty typical bracketed note for me…

Fortunately, I have enough sticky notes in my printed manuscript that guides the direction of this needs-to-be-added scene. So I’m not worried about losing the voice while switching POVs.

And when I get back into WB scenes, I will have the benefit of knowing what the hell I wrote in the meeting scene so I can move forward easier!

Step 3: Scrivener

I’ve dabbled with the program Scrivener before. I’ve heard many people extol its virtues, have also heard from people for whom it does not work, and have now decided to put it through its paces on assembling novelage. Because there will be a bunch of rearranging going on (per my To Do list in Part 1 of this series) I need a program that can handle large amounts of text, organize it, and allow me to shuffle it around as needed…without me getting entirely lost.

(Fun fact: I used Scrivener to organize a ‘found footage’ style superhero novelette I sold to Lightspeed earlier this year–and lemme tell you, “Later, Let’s Tear Up the Inner Sanctum” was an epic exercise in originational formatting! That test gave me faith that Scrivener could handle the workload.)

So I created a new project and made a bunch of folders. Then came MISSION: LABEL ALL THE THINGS!


(I love labeling things.)


A reason I like drafting in plain-text is that it forces me to focus on words, not the shiny formatting I could apply to them. >.>

So! With a Plan (write the necessary sections, as needed, to keep the flow, as well as organize chunks of text into better flow via Scrivener project) I will now dive back into the word abyss.

I’ve been so energized and excited about this project all week. It’s awesome, this feeling of genuine joy and flailing-about-with-eagerness. Allowing myself to be flexible when I need to change things up on the go vs. stressing about it not Fitting The Original Plan has been soooo helpful in maintaining that energy.

It did take most of a day (while at work) for me to realize what I needed to do, but that 10-hr shift was super useful for creating a definitive break in writing vs. thinking mode. (Also? I GOT TO BE THE CAMERA OPERATOR FOR A SHOW. HAVE I MENTIONED I LOVE MY JOB.)

Just changing physical space (from where I was writing to where I work) allowed a different set of brain-patterns to kick in and sift through various random thoughts until I settled on what was needed to keep up the enthusiasm, the energy, and the knowledge in this revision.

Guys, I’m just so pumped about this book. 😀