A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story

I’m honored to have an essay in one of my favorite online magazines, Cosmic Double. “A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story” is about how I discovered the joy of queer transformations in HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

“A Monstrous Little Mermaid Story” is free to read on the Cosmic Double website here:
https://cosmicdouble.com/2023/01/08/a-monstrous-little-mermaid-story/

I originally created this essay as something of a writer’s statement for a short story called “Don’t Eat the Fish.” The story is about the uncanny space at the intersection of queerness, disability, and economic precarity, but I also think it stands on its own as an unsettling work of body horror. I workshopped this story for years as I slowly developed my skills, and I worked hard to polish the narrative voice and sharpen the genre effectiveness while also being as honest as I could about the nuances of my own personal experience.

I generally try to keep overt identity politics out of my writing, which isn’t a value statement as much as it is a personal preference. It’s not as though my stories aren’t informed by my identity or social environment. Rather, both my identity and my environment constantly shift and change, and my stories generally aren’t about myself to begin with. Still, because this particular story was so strongly informed by my positionality, I spent more than a year submitting it a series of literary magazines dedicated to raising the voices of queer, disabled, and economically precarious writers.

Unfortunately, every single magazine I submitted the story to was like, “Oh damn, that’s truly upsetting, and this story is not Positive Queer Representation™ enough.” Usually, when I have a story rejected, I’m lucky enough to get a personal note from an editor along the lines of, “This isn’t a good fit for us right now, but we all enjoyed this piece and would love to see more work from you in the future.” With this story, the response was inevitably: NO.

I therefore wrote this essay as a way of processing what my story and its literary influences meant to me. I’ve long since accepted that the story itself will never be published, but I’m truly grateful to Cosmic Double for being willing to publish an essay that may not be Positive Queer Representation™ but still attempts to represent what I believe is a very real aspect of nonbinary (and trans!) queer identity. That takes courage, and the essays I’ve been reading on the site led me to believe that the editors are open to an earnest investigation of what it means to feel “monstrous.” If you’re interested in well-crafted essays from unexpected points of view, please check them out!

Bad Writing Advice

One of the more frustrating aspects of being a writer is receiving outdated or irrelevant feedback. Here at the end of the year, it’s important to reflect on the good things – but also the things that didn’t work so well. I’d like to share some advice I saw on various Discord servers that didn’t match my own understanding of the realities of what it means to be a writer.  

Craft

Advice: Delete adverbs to create a streamlined flow.

Reality: This is an extremely useful piece of advice given to screenwriters, but the conventions that apply to spoken dialog don’t necessarily translate to prose fiction. Prose writers can’t rely on cinematography to direct the reader’s attention, so we have to use words to create a sense of focus through pace, which will sometimes be slower and heavier.

Advice: Open your story with an action-packed intro hook.

Reality: Many readers find this sort of decontextualized opening explosion confusing and exhausting, and it’s not appropriate for every genre. This style of storytelling became common during the YA fiction boom of the 2000s and is still frequently used in screenwriting, but it’s not as ubiquitous as it once was.

Practice

Advice: Write 2,000 words every day, no exceptions.

Reality: Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes you’ll find yourself writing many more than two thousand words in a day. Still, it’s important to write at your own pace and allow yourself to rest. When it comes to professional writing, it’s also important to respect wordcount limits instead of charging ahead with the “more words are better” mentality that many writers pick up in high school or college.

Advice: Only write what you’re passionate about.

Reality: Passion will only carry you so far. Famously prolific writers from William Faulkner to Chuck Tingle have argued that discipline, persistence, and a good-natured willingness to occasionally make concessions to market trends are much more important in the long run.  

Career

Advice: Apply to an MFA program.

Reality: MFA programs are expensive, and you also have to take the cost of living and the opportunity cost into account. Meanwhile, week-long writing workshops and retreats often have financial aid available and may be more accessible to people who aren’t interested in pursuing an academic career.

Advice: Be active on social media.

Reality: Many agents and editors have made it clear that they don’t take a writer’s social media presence into account, and the days of being signed because of a viral tweet ended several years ago. While it can be useful to pay attention to calls for submissions on social media, especially Twitter, it’s not necessary to have a lot of followers (or even a public account) in order to find a venue for your work.

It’s important to note that a lot of this advice isn’t “bad” so much as it is “not generally applicable.” For example, the “write 2k words a day, no exceptions” maxim makes perfect sense for a professionally established novelist under contract to produce three manuscripts every two years. If you’re given the opportunity to be that sort of novelist, “2k words per day” is what you need to do. Nothing controversial about that. Still, the extent to which this advice has transformed from a specific professional practice to A Gospel Truth About Writing can be frustrating.

If you’ve been subjected to any similarly “bad” writing advice, please feel free to leave a comment. The end of the year is a good time to vent and get it all out so that you can start the new year fresh and energized.

. . . . . . . . . . .

A version of this post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership is open for 2023 through January 16, 2023. The community’s content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.

At the End of Everything: A Night in the Woods Fanzine

I’m excited to have a story in At the End of Everything, a fanzine celebrating Night in the Woods. My piece is a series of connected vignettes about the subtle uncanniness of daily (and nightly) life in Possum Springs, and the atmosphere is pure Rust Belt Gothic heavily based on my own experiences in rural West Pennsylvania. Preorders for the zine are open until November 30. In the meantime, please feel free to check out the free wallpapers available on the zine’s Carrd site. 

🍂 https://nitwzine.bigcartel.com/
🍂 https://nightinthewoodszine.carrd.co/

Quiet Haunting

I moved to South Philly toward the end of the pandemic. My landlord raised the rent, and it was cheaper to buy a house. Granted, it’s not a big house, nor is it particularly nice. The floors are uneven, and the ceiling sags. The kitchen is like a set from an old movie, and the basement is infested with house centipedes. But it’s affordable, and it’s quiet, especially since no one lives next door.

Recently, however, I’ve started to hear things moving on the other side of the townhouse wall. The noises aren’t loud or frequent. It’s mostly soft shuffling and light tapping, usually right before dawn and just after dusk. To make matters even more curious, someone has been watering the plants in the house’s back yard. Two leafy fig trees have grown from small sprouts to extraordinary heights over the summer.

Earlier this evening, I noticed that the house’s back door was open. It was just a crack, as if someone had forgotten to close it. The opossums that live in the alleyway that will come inside and eat your trash if you let them, so I figured I’d be doing someone a favor if I closed the door. I climbed over the crumbling cinderblock wall and maneuvered through the foliage. When I put my hand on the knob, the door surprised me by swinging open.  

The was nothing inside, just uneven floors and sagging ceilings like my own, but I could hear a beeping sound emerging from the basement. I peeked down the stairs, where I saw an older man in a colorless cardigan sweater sitting on a metal folding chair. He was flipping through an issue of National Geographic that he’d taken from a sagging cardboard box filled with old magazines.

I froze in alarm, but he looked up and met my eyes before I could back away. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I apologized. “I live next door, and I heard the beeping. I was worried something was going to explode.”

“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “It’s just an oven timer. I figured I’d give it a few more minutes, but I might as well turn it off.”

I felt awkward, like I couldn’t just leave, so I asked him why he was sitting in the basement with an oven timer.

“They pay me to look after the place,” he answered. “You know, rattle a few chains, make some thumping noises in the night. Feed the spiders, maybe put a bloody handprint on the window, that sort of thing. It keeps the property values down.”

I realized that I could see the back of the chair through the man’s sweater. This didn’t bother me as much as perhaps you’d think it would. I’d seen stranger things in the neighborhood, and the man seemed nice enough. “I haven’t really heard anything from next door,” I admitted. “Do you want me to be more scared?”

“Don’t sweat it. They’re not paying me much, and I haven’t gotten a raise in years. My heart’s just not in it these days.” With a sigh, he closed the magazine and tossed it back into the box before disappearing in a thin whisp of smoke.

I left the basement, closing and locking the door behind me before returning to my own house. I guess the post-pandemic economy has been tough for everyone. All things considered, I don’t mind living next to a haunted house. Like I said, it’s affordable, and it’s quiet.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This illustrated short story was originally published in the Philly Zine Fest 2022 Anthology. This year’s Philly Zine Fest was held at Temple University on Saturday, November 5. Despite a giant political rally happening right across the street that afternoon, it was a very chill and relaxed event with lots of good vibes and creative energy. It’s been my dream to table at the Philly Zine Fest for years, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. Here’s to many more celebrations of independent artists and writers in years to come! If you’re interested, you can find the Philly Zine Fest website (here), and it’s definitely worth checking out their parent organization, The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library.

Also, I should mention that I really do live next door to an abandoned funeral home. True story! I posted a photoset on Instagram (here).

Review of Japanese Role-Playing Games

This past summer I was given an opportunity to review an academic essay collection titled Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG. The work the two editors did for this collection is incredible, and every single essay is fantastic. Here’s a short excerpt from the book review that I published in the journal Asian Studies Review:

Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG is the first English-language collection of essays focusing entirely on a genre of Japanese games known for their complex stories and rich worldbuilding. The fourteen essays in this collection cover the construction of the JRPG genre, the formation of transcultural gaming communities, and the representation of issues such as nationality, gender, and disability.

Japan Studies scholars with varying degrees of familiarity with the specific titles used as case studies will find a wealth of information and resources in these essays, which briefly summarize the games while explaining why they are representative, important, and connected to broader currents in Japanese history and society. Meanwhile, Game Studies scholars will find approachable yet intellectually rigorous discussions of culture and national origin, which have thus far been relatively few and far between in the field outside of the work of a few specialists.

If you’d like to read the full review, you can find it (here). I understand that not everyone has institutional access to academic journals, so I’m also hosting the PDF on my own website (here). In addition, you can find Japanese Role-Playing Games on the publisher’s website (here), and you can follow the journal Asian Studies Review on Twitter (here).

Spooktober Fifteen Day Challenge

I’m thrilled that my work has been published in The Oracle‘s first issue, an anthology of horror-themed flash fiction and art. My piece, “Spooktober Fifteen Day Challenge,” is a creepy little story told in the form of a cursed social media game.

I recently read an article in Rolling Stone (this one right here) about the Momo Challenge, and this Halloween-themed story is inspired by the idea that a monster might prey on children through a series of social media challenge prompts. Although the format is nontraditional, my goal is for the reader to gradually get a sense of the loneliness and anxiety of the “you” to whom the prompts are addressed. 

The “Fright Flash” issue of the zine is very short, but it’s lovely to look at and quite spooky. If you’re interested, The Oracle is (here) on Twitter, and you can download a free digital copy of the “Fright Flash” issue via Google Drive (here).

An Unfound Door, Chapter Eight

Agnes and Fhiad meet in the library on the morning after the summer court opens. Agnes wakes before dawn out of habit, while Fhiad has been up all night reading. Fhiad left the library to get tea, and he returns just as Agnes is studying the books he left on a desk. They sit down together, and he apologizes for snapping at her and making wild proclamations.

When Agnes asks Fhiad if he would truly destroy Faloren if he found Soreiya’s Tear, he explains that doing so would be impossible, as the cost for performing magic on such a large scale would require an unimaginably high cost. Magic is taboo in Faloren, so Agnes knows nothing about how it works. Fhiad gives a demonstration. Agnes is so amazed that she asks a clueless question, thus chilling the warmth of an intimate moment. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is the beginning of what Jessica Brody (of Save the Cat fame) calls the “fun and games” section of the novel. This section constitutes the bulk of Act Two. While the opening and closing of a novel should ideally follow a set formula that helps to guide the reader, the middle of the story offers much more freedom to the writer.

I’m going to use this freedom to indulge in all of the narrative tropes I enjoy, and this chapter includes one of my favorite narrative devices: An intimate conversation in a library helps the protagonist and her foil understand that they should be friends. At the beginning of this chapter, Agnes is characteristically blunt and ready to fight, but she and Fhiad manage to establish a common ground by virtue of the fact that they’re both giant nerds.

In this scene, Fhiad begins to show his true colors. He’s much more socially polished than Agnes, but he’s essentially a gentle person at heart. In fact, most of Fhiad’s trouble has resulted from him being something of a pushover. Although he gets in a few good jabs at Agnes, Fhiad also submits to her multiple times during their conversation in this chapter.

I was recently reading an academic book chapter about gothic fiction, and the author was saying that the erotic charge of the narrative is primarily generated by the question of whether a wild and mysterious man will sexually assault the heroine who fears him yet is still attracted to him. This sexual fear turns to romance when the heroine realizes that the man’s menacing aura is a result of his violent passion for her.

I unapologetically appreciate that sort of character dynamic, but it doesn’t fit what’s going on with Agnes and Fhiad. Agnes isn’t fearless, but her extreme pragmatism drives her to behave as if she were. Meanwhile, Fhiad is competent and talented in his own way, but he really has no business being “wild” or “menacing.” In a reversal of the classic gothic gender dynamic, Fhiad needs Agnes to push him forward, while what Agnes needs from Fhiad is his patience and kindness.     

Mainly, however, this chapter is about doing magic in a cool library. The next chapter is also going to be about magic and libraries. And the chapter after that? More magic and libraries. I love libraries and magic, what can I say. This is my story, so I write what I want.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Seven

Fhiad leaves the court and walks through the halls of the castle as he reflects on the circumstances that have brought him to Faloren. Guerig, the king’s secretary and acting regent, enthusiastically granted Fhiad permission not only to study the castle, but also to live there while supposedly doing research on the building’s architecture. Fhiad curses himself for being drawn into a complicated situation, but he has few resources and fewer choices. As he wanders, Fhiad’s thoughts reveal that he did indeed once study architecture, and that Faloren Castle is an architectural monstrosity whose continued existence almost certainly relies on powerful magic.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

An Unfound Door is written in limited third-person perspective, and this is the first chapter that focuses on Fhiad. As the B Story character, Fhiad represents the “upside-down world” of Act Two, which begins when the A Story character’s status quo is disrupted. Fhiad is the catalyst for this disruption, but his arc is also a mirror of Agnes’s character development. Fhiad and Agnes ultimately want the same thing – the power to choose the direction of their own lives – but their initial motivations and goals are drastically different.

Fhiad may have told Agnes that he intends to destroy Faloren, but what he truly wants is to understand what happened to him. He’s suffering from severe trauma that he hasn’t been able to process, and he alternates between distraction and intense anger. He attempts to distract himself from his grief by tasking himself with a quest. Meanwhile, his anger has no outlet save for Agnes, who became his target simply because she’s the only living person he knows. Fhiad is doing his best to survive, but he’s a hot mess.

More than anything, this chapter establishes how and why Fhiad is now living in Faloren Castle. It also provides a second perspective on the characters and setting.

What the reader is able to see through Fhiad’s eyes are two things that Agnes takes for granted. First, Agnes is subtly shunned by the members of her court; and second, Faloren Castle is impossibly large and labyrinthine. These two observations help justify the “fun and games” portion of Act Two, which will involve Agnes and Fhiad hunting for a hidden relic. In other words, Fhiad’s observations hint that Agnes is free to search the castle precisely because she doesn’t have many social obligations, and that her search is going to be interesting because it isn’t going to be easy.

Something else Fhiad has noticed is that there’s something suspicious about Agnes’s cousin Galien. This is fair, as Galien is hiding a number of unpleasant secrets. Still, Galien is no more a villain than Fhiad is. An Unfound Door is a “gothic fantasy mystery,” which means that everyone has secrets. This is why, at this point in the story, the main task of the characters is to learn how to communicate with each other.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Six

The summer court opens with a celebration attended by the wealthy families and nobility of Faloren. After the ailing king retires for the evening, Agnes is introduced to Fhiad, who claims to be a university student from Cretia studying architecture. Fhiad has altered his appearance and accent, and he pretends not to recognize Agnes. Later, when Agnes escapes to a shadowy corner for a moment of quiet, Fhiad approaches her. He initially seems kind but quickly becomes cruel and insulting. He tells Agnes that his homeland of Erdbhein has been destroyed, and he declares his intention to take revenge by visiting the same ruin on Faloren.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This chapter is the transition between Act One and Act Two. Fhiad, the B Story character, has returned, and he establishes himself as an antagonist. He states his goal to uncover Faloren’s magical artifact with the intention of destroying the kingdom. In Chapter Eight, Agnes will state her own intention to solve the problem he represents by opposing him. Fhiad’s anger is not the real problem, however, and this is the wrong solution.

It’s always bothered me when a villain is angry about something legitimately upsetting, but then the writer has them kick a puppy to show that this anger is bad. What I mean by “kicking a puppy” is that the villain will do something excessively violent or disturbing that is either entirely out of character or framed in such a way as to make their actions seem irrational and done solely for the sake of being evil.

A villain typically represents a challenge to an established order, especially an order built on arbitrary divisions that inform a strict hierarchy. In the case of fantasy especially, there is often a class of “monsters” who are sentient yet still positioned as being okay to kill. When a villain wants to establish an alternate power structure in which “monsters” are not killed, it’s only natural to wonder if they might not be justified in doing so. The villain must therefore be shown kicking a proverbial puppy so that we do not begin to feel sympathy for them. Based on my observations of various fandom discourse wars, a surprising number of people take this puppy kicking very seriously as an indication that a villain is irredeemably evil.

It’s important to me that Fhiad is portrayed as a legitimate antagonist, at least at first. In this chapter, he proves himself to be two-faced, manipulative, and more than a little creepy. He invades Agnes’s personal space, physically threatens her, and mocks and insults her. He verbally attacks her at a vulnerable moment, and he says horrible things that are all the more hurtful because they’re true. Even worse, he’s cruel to Agnes precisely because he knows she can do nothing to stop him. In addition, the curse laid on him is still active, and it’s implied that he may no longer be entirely human.

Still, the root cause of Agnes’s problem – the decline of her kingdom – is not Fhiad, nor is it anything he’s said or done in the past or the present. Rather, this problem is a direct result of a horrible atrocity committed in the past by Agnes’s ancestor. I therefore had to make sure that what Fhiad does at the beginning of Act Two is upsetting but doesn’t fall to the level of puppy kicking. In other words, I attempted to create tension by means of the antagonist’s bad behavior while still being fair to the complexity of his character and his experience of justified anger.

The Best Witch of Her Generation

I’m excited to share another short story I wrote for Goddess Reborn, fanzine celebrating the female (and nonbinary!) characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can download a free digital copy of the zine on Itchio (here), and you can read my full story on AO3 (here).

A Link Between Worlds is one of my favorite games in the Zelda series, mainly because I find the characters so charming. I’m especially fascinated by the figure of “someone who wants to be a hero but isn’t the fated Chosen One,” a character trope the series plays with but never fully explores. Groose from Skyward Sword is a good example, as is Ganondorf from The Wind Waker. There are several such characters in A Link Between Worlds, and Irene is my favorite.

Irene is the granddaughter of the Potion Witch, and she serves as the game’s fast-travel mechanic by flying Link around on her broom. She seems to be modeled half on Hermione Granger – she calls proudly herself “the best witch of her generation,” a play on Hermione’s famous epithet – and half on Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like Hermione, Irene sees herself as a hero; but, like Kiki, her character arc involves her journey to understand and acknowledge her own specific set of talents.

What I wanted to capture was a moment of Irene’s life in which she’s happy and confident of herself as the protagonist of her own adventure. Irene understands that what she’s doing is just as important as Link’s quest, and she’s absolutely correct. Although the player may see Hyrule through Link’s eyes, the female characters who surround and support him are absolutely vital to Hyrule’s history.

While writing this short story, I wanted to get as close to the tone of “early-reader fiction” as I could. I’m not used to this style of writing, so it was a fun challenge. I was aided immensely by the story’s illustrator, Leh Latte. Leh helped me with the diction and rhythm, as well as with structure and balance. She also showed me what it means to work with page formatting in mind. Although the story itself is short and simple, it’s the product of a few good conversations during a collaboration between me, Leh, and Aven Wildsmith, the zine editor.

Leh and Aven are both fantastically talented and creative people who work in a variety of media. You can find links to all of Leh’s social media accounts on her Carrd (here). Aven’s website is (here), and you can find links to all their socials on Linktree (here). And again, Goddess Reborn is free to download on Itchio (here). There’s a lot of love on every page, and this zine is really something special.