A Tiny Piece of Dialogue For You

From the Work In Progress, a post-colonial Space Opera that I SWEAR was in progress before I’d even heard of Ancillary Justice.  I’m not, like, super proud of it or anything.  It’s just that I can’t get the words out of my head, so they appear here in hopes of exorcising them.


“You didn’t just destroy our world. You suppressed our culture.  You robbed us of our language, all but a handful of our literature and music.  You took from us everything that made us what we are.”

“And yet,” the Empress drawled, “you are still human.  Fractious, rebellious, impatient.  We gave you our language, our literature, music, our structure–we gave you our Empire.  And you have rejected it.

“And so now we reject you.”


And now I foolishly go to play dodgeball against a bunch of students.

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Horses I’ve Known…

Ages ago, my friend Alex said she’d like to see me write on the horses I’ve been involved with.

To say I grew up on horseback is only a slight exaggeration.  I was born in Redwood City, California, but when I was five years old, my adopted family moved me to Napa, California, a tiny town of (at that time) some 30,000 people  (I recognize that’s not “tiny” compared to some, but Napa always felt like a much smaller town than it actually is).  We lived in the slightly more affluent east side of town, in a house that is modest by Napa standards, but it had a pasture, and we were allowed by our neighbors, who had a larger pasture, to use theirs as well.

Our first horse was a tiny Shetland pony, which was named Patches.  Patches was a very patient, and very slow, pony, which was good as I was only 7, and I did not like galloping at all.  She was a lovely bay, with a black main and tail.  I loved brushing her, but I hated getting her ready for rides–she knew when we were coming after her, and she made every single ride an exercise in first cornering her and then bridling and saddling her.

We also at that time had a black stallion named Midnight (I don’t know what breed he was, but my dad claimed he was a thoroughbred), a dark bay quarterhorse named Easy Rider, and a palomino quarterhorse (I think) named Amigo.

Midnight was hell on legs, and we didn’t keep him long.  My father couldn’t seem to get him acclimated to us, and ended up selling him to a friend who had more time to spend training the beauty.  I was sad, because that horse was amazing to me, and I longed to get up in the saddle.

Amigo was my mother’s horse, but when she lost her sight a few years later, she sold him; I never really got to know him.

Easy was the most idiotically-named horse I have ever known.  He was fairly young when my dad bought him, and he was a fiercely partisan animal.  Only my father could ride him.  He wouldn’t let anyone under ten even get on him, and I never saw anyone but my father stay on him for more than a few minutes–either he’d scare the crap out of them and they’d quit, or he’d throw them.  He caused a few injuries, but my dad loved that horse, so we kept him.  He was my dad’s primary mount while he was in the local Sheriff’s Posse, and performed in many parades and searches over the years.

When I was twelve, my parents divorced.  My dad took Easy with him, and we had only Patches.  My mom sold her pretty quickly, and it was traumatic watching the new owners pull her unwillingly into the horse trailer.  I wept as she drove off, because even though I was getting almost too big for her, I loved that pony.

My mother, my siblings, and I left Napa not long after, and thus began my first period without a horse.  It was the shorter; I lived “in exile” from my hometown for only a year before I moved back to live with my dad.  After I arrived, my father and my stepmother made an announcement one morning:  They had bought a new horse, an Arabian papered horse called Baja’s Magic Star (we called him Baja, or if we were feeling stupid, Baja-ha-ha), for my father.

Then they informed me that the horse they had already bought, which I’d met briefly, was to be mine.  This was not expected, and I was floored.  The horse was a Mustang Stallion who had been captured by the Bureau of Land Management and whom we’d adopted.  He was untrained, so I would be learning to train a horse, and my teacher would be my stepmother.  His name was Sage, and he and I became pretty close, but I never got to ride him due to my stepmom’s personal issues, which necessitated my leaving their household before he was ready for riding.  He got to where he liked me, and would let me saddle him, but he wouldn’t let me mount.

In the meantime, since I didn’t have a horse that was ready for riding, my dad informed me that Easy would also become my horse.  He was having a harder time getting up on Easy, and he felt the horse was better suited to me.

I was terrified.  Remember, Easy had never even let me on him, and he’d thrown everyone but my dad I’d ever seen ride him, except for the few who’d taken the hint and gotten off quickly.  But I wanted to impress my dad, and so I steeled myself and mounted.

And he didn’t even try to get rid of me.

We rode for a few hours, and as I’d long since learned to love speed, we galloped and loped all over the place.  He was brilliant and awesome.  When I got off, I was sore and slightly unhappy with myself–I hadn’t ridden a horse in over a year–but I was sold on this horse being mine, and I curried and rubbed him down happily, and gave him a treat for being so welcoming.

The next day, my dad asked me if I minded if he rode Easy one last time. Of course, I didn’t.  So we saddled him up–and he wouldn’t let my dad even get his foot in the stirrup.  He stood perfectly still for me, but any time my dad or my stepmom tried to mount, he’d shy away from them.  When we cornered him so my dad could mount up, Easy just sat there.  He didn’t buck, but he wouldn’t move, either.  My dad laughed, gave Easy’s nose a rub, and said “Ok, I get it.”  After that nobody else rode Easy.  He was mine, and I was his.

Sadly, it was only a few months later, just before school resumed, when my dad had a stroke and my stepmom convinced him I should be sent to live with my aunt.  It was sold as a temporary thing, and I chose my classes in my new school accordingly, taking a class in animal management that focused on ranch animals so I would be better prepared when I returned to Napa.  Alas, I had been deceived, and I never returned to Napa except to visit.

That was 1986.  I’ve ridden a few times since then, but not often, and I’m pretty certain my skills have atrophied.  I have barely seen a horse since then except when I’m driving by one, but I always stop and feel western saddles when I see them in antique stores when I’m traveling the central valley, and I still love cowboy boots and actually miss wearing them even though I have no need of them anymore.  I love the smell of leather horse tack.  When I attend the county or state fair, I always go to the animal exhibits and endure my wife’s ridicule while I breathe deeply.  She hates it, but I love that smell.

It smells like home.

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Progress on book slowed, but not for long.

Classes at my school start at 8:20 and run until 3:08.  Usually, I get to work about 7:30, and I stay until 4:00.  This week, though, is the end of the first quarter, and a few things have put me behind on grading.  I’m still getting to work at 7:30, but I’m staying until 5:00.  I know others work longer hours, or work these hours more commonly, but it is what it is.

Then I go home and try to write. I’ve begun the big climax, but I’m only getting a couple of hundred words a night right now, some of which have to change because they’re bad.  But, it’s progress.

And progress is good.  But I do find myself wishing I could just do the writing full time.  Ah well.  The world has other requirements.

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I’m Raising a Monster, or, Why My Kid Rocks

Every morning, I take my daughter, just turned 7, to school.  We pull up to the door, she gives me a kiss and hops out, then blows me another kiss and goes inside, usually with an “I love you, dad!”

This morning was different.

As she was getting out of the car, she was acting as if she wasn’t going to give me a kiss goodbye.  I said, in my “Daddy is pretending to be sad” voice, “Don’t I get a kiss?” She rolled her eyes and said, in the most “aggrieved teenager” voice ever, “I’m not going to leave without giving you a kiss, dad.”  I repeat, she is seven.

As she got out of the car,  I said “I love you, sweetie,” and she ROLLED HER EYES AT ME.  AGAIN.

She immediately opened the door and gave me the most incredible “gotcha” grin ever.

Little punk.

Man, I love that kid.

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Discouraged whining? Writers don’t do that, surely!?

I’m honestly not trying to have a pity party, here, but someday this might be worth something to someone who is in the same place I am.  And, hey, I’m an over-sharer.  So:

Feeling pretty low today.

Since the new school year began, I’ve been very tired.  My insomnia doesn’t help–the last three nights I’ve had to take something to get to sleep before 1am (I have to get up at 6am; if I go to sleep after 1 I’m going to be useless the next day, and I can’t be useless as a teacher).

I’m not sleepy, I’m just exhausted.  My brain barely feels like it’s functioning, and what little juice it gets I give to my work.  So when I get home, and the Bun is in bed, and I want to write… I can’t.  Words just don’t come.

On top of this, I’m suddenly terrified that I’m writing drivel.  Not “bad prose that can be fixed,” but “oh my god please dig my eyes out with a spoon”-level work.  It’s a constant thought this week, and that makes me freeze up even more.

I keep telling myself that multiple respected writers and editors said I had something worth reading, and one even used the exact words “You’re a good writer,” but right now it’s really hard to take those statements as truth, even though I know the people involved had no reason to lie to me.

Last night I put my daughter to bed, then I sat down with my computer and tried to write. I couldn’t.  I know what’s happening in that scene.  I know what comes next.  But I simply couldn’t marshal the mental fortitude to put words on the page.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m not actually depressed.  I don’t seem to fit the pattern of actual depression, but I do have severe self-esteem issues (thanks, adopted family!); pair that with the natural cynicism my life has given me, and I am my own harshest critic.

So I fight back.  And that works… but I still can’t seem to get anything written.   But I’ll keep trying.

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Still plugging away

Last week I was all fired up. Only three more chapters until this, the rough draft, is finished. And they include a battle scene I’ve been planning for eons. No problem!

Alas, that enthusiasm is gone. I’m finding myself wholly unable to focus, unable to get any words on the page that even pass the “permission to write badly” rule.

And yet, I will not yield. Three chapters. Come on, Johnston. That’s nothing–a year ago I only HAD three chapters, notwithstanding the Great Disk Death of 2012, which destroyed the 3/4 done first version of the story. I was devastated when it happened, but really, it was very inferior to what now exists.

Anyway. Back to the comma mines.

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How to come home on a hot California day, Sacramento edition

1. Stagger in the door loaded down with your computer bag and your daughter’s backpack. Drop bags in the appropriate places.
2. Recognize the fact that your house is hot; turn on the air conditioner.
3. Fill a cup with a metric buttload of ice and your favorite drink.
4. Grab your kindle and your drink. Head out to the backyard and flop into the hammock.
5. Begin reading.
6. After fifteen minutes, realize it’s way too fucking hot for this shit and go back inside.
7. Collapse into favorite chair. Pull laptop out. Start writing.

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