Friday, March 29, 2019


Last week the Romance Writers of America® announce the finalists in its annual RITA® contest for published authors. Amid the usual excitement and squeals of delight for and from the honored authors there came first a whisper, then a rumble, then a howl of outrage that, again this year, there were no authors of color (AOC) among the writers named. Not just no black authors, but no Latinx authors, no LGBTQ authors, and damn few characters representing these communities either. Again.

From these communities within RWA® legitimate anger and frustration was expressed openly, particularly in the Professional Authors Network (PAN) loop. And that’s when the trouble really began. Because some of the things said in response to criticism of the RITA® process only served to prove the point that there is an underlying structure of bias, prejudice, even racism and sexism within RWA®. (Here’s a thought: When entering a discussion on color, don’t start by saying, “I don’t see color.” If the subject is racism, don’t begin with the line, “I’m not a racist, but . . .”)

Not surprisingly, the online discussion rapidly degenerated into name-calling, self-justification and personal bullying, until the RWA® President was forced to step in and call at least one individual out.

I won’t address the larger questions of RWA®-so-white here except to say that the organization that was co-founded by a black author has seen a lot of changes since the 1980s, even since 2009 when I first joined. Not all these changes have been positive. This bigger, “more professional” RWA® is not more inclusive, or more open, or more encouraging to newer writers, or indies, or AOC or authors of any marginalized populations than it used to be. I see this as a loss, both for RWA® and for those authors and their readers, or potential readers.
RITA:Not so shiny now? Maybe some changes are in order.
At least the uproar over this year’s RITA® nominations did have one positive outcome—the President announced changes would be made to the way the contest would be judged in the first round in future years to avoid some of the worst of the biases we’ve seen in past years, biases that were painfully clear in some of the comments on the PAN forum. (See the President’s statement here.)

One person, for example, said for personal reasons, she only read books with the hero’s POV, never the heroine’s. She refused to read anything in first-person POV, either. Can you imagine this person as a judge? Many people said they couldn’t relate to a character of color, or a non-hetero couple. How could they be fair judges? And if this is their reaction to anything outside a narrow band of their own experience here on Earth, how open would they be to anything set on another world, or with otherworldly beings?

The problem is not necessarily that anyone who enters the RITA® must be a first-round judge. It is that untrained and inexperienced judges are given NO technical criteria by which to judge the books they are given. Judges must answer only three questions about each entry: Does the entry contain a central love story? Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic? Does the entry fall within the category description? Then the entry must be awarded a point score based on . . . whatever. If an individual judge has experience with judging chapter contests, s/he will use those technical criteria on characterization, plot, pacing, etc.  to make a judgment. If not, the judgment will be subjective and very open to individual bias (eg. I don’t read first-person POV; I can’t relate to black heroines. Aliens? Yuck!) Without any real criteria to go by, judges rely on cronyism, author popularity/name recognition and “what I like.” If we made the RITAs a reader-based contest, this kind of thing would only get worse.

Every year the contest organizers ask for our feedback; every year I’ve said we need to institute real technical criteria for judging. Even better, we need to train judges. We did that at my Virginia Romance Writers chapter, and VRW ran one of the most respected chapter contests in the nation, the Holt Medallion contest. It seems to me the national organization should look to its chapters for help as it reorganizes this contest.

Lest you think, as an indie writer or an SFR author, that this controversy has no relevance to you, I would ask you to consider just why, year after year, there are so few SFR titles nominated for RITA®, so few indie or self-published authors nominated. Peers should nominate peers, but the categories are constructed to force paranormal and SFR writers to compete against each other, rather than judge each other, as we should. Very few authors (or readers, really) read broadly across categories. So the cronyism works against little-known or “niche” writers like SFR authors. I continue to suggest, year after year, that SFR be split off from the paranormal category so contestants in these two genres can judge each others’ work. At least an author of vampire romances that require some world-building would be better placed to understand my novels than an author of small-town contemporaries.

But maybe this year, RWA® will be more open to suggestions like mine. I urge you, too, to contact the leadership with your own ideas as to how the RITA®s can be improved. Act now, before this contest goes the way of the late, lamented Golden Heart®.

Cheers, Donna

Thursday, March 28, 2019

We live in a very strange neighbourhood

<a href="">Free Vector Graphics by</a>
When I was a youngster we learned a bit of basic stuff about our solar system at school and, because I was a voracious reader, in encyclopedias. They used to be the hard-cover equivalent of Google back then. 😊

The solar system and how the planets formed was all very logical. The sun started as a spinning accretion of gas clouds that condensed until it kind of 'turned on' and started to produce light and energy as a fusion reactor. During this process it spat out concentric rings of material which in turn started their own cycle of condensation. The first planets, those closest to the sun, were comprised of the heavier materials. Thus we had Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. We skipped over the asteroid belt. I don't remember the explanation back then. Not enough material to coalesce into a new planet? Disrupted by Jupiter's massive gravity field? Then it was on to the gas giants – Saturn, mighty Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. Then, as an afterthought of left-overs, Pluto. They all danced around the sun in a pretty much flat plane and some of them had moons of their own. Back then the moonless planets were Mercury, Venus, and Pluto.

All this was a simplified view of the solar system, suitable for kids and people not interested in science and astronomy, which was just about everybody. That superficial veneer of uniformity drops off fairly quickly when start to look more closely. Venus and Uranus rotate in the opposite direction to all the other planets (ie the sun rises in the west). Venus's day is longer than its year. Uranus rotates on its side (ie the axis of the poles points at the sun). Pluto turned out to be a binary system with its large moon, Charon, and was demoted to a dwarf planet. Oh – and Pluto does not orbit in the same plane as its erstwhile siblings. Its orbit is at a 17° angle from the plane. It's also more circular, so sometimes Pluto is closer to the sun than Neptune. However, there's no chance of a collision between Pluto and Neptune because "for every two orbits that Pluto makes around the Sun, Neptune makes three, which prevents close encounters between them that would otherwise destabilize their orbits." [1]

We knew there were thick clouds blanketing Venus's atmosphere – but it wasn't until space craft visited that we learned that Venus isn't covered with lush jungles as depicted in many SF stories of the '50s and '60s. 

Another popularly supported myth, originating from Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who observed Mars in 1877, was the network of canals on the planet's surface. We now know that's not true. Mars might have supported water and life eons ago but not anymore. But that myth inspired writers like HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs to write his books.

We knew very little about the outer planets until the seventies when the Voyager missions visited. Astronomers found many, many more moons, marvelled at the rings of Saturn and the moonlets that acted as shepherds of the rings. We found out there are volcanoes on at least one of Jupiter's moons and that moons might have oceans. We learned that ALL of the gas giants – Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune – have rings. In the recent New Horizons visit to Pluto astronomers were astonished to find evidence of lava flows on the planet, since it's so cold out there.

Now we know Jupiter's famous Red Spot, a massive cyclonic storm larger than the diameter of the Earth, is shrinking. Over time Saturn's iconic rings will disappear. And an object (named Kiku) has been spotted in the solar system beyond Neptune's orbit that orbits in the opposite direction to all the other satellites of the sun. Scientists, as they say, are baffled.

There is so much more to learn.

I was delighted to hear Mike Pence say that the US wants humans to return to the Moon by 2024. [2] It's regrettable that the reason is very likely much the same as the reasons for the space race in the 'sixties – rivalry with Russia and I suspect more importantly today, with China. But it hardly matters. Space exploration has languished for too long. It has been forty-seven years since a man stood on the lunar surface and that probably has to happen before we even think about landing anyone on Mars. I'm glad I have a chance of being around when that happens again.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Seeing a Super Star...or Two

Sorry I'm a little late to get my blog up today, but we got home late last night from what turned out to be a pretty spectacular weekend. I'm definitely going to go off-SFR-topic this week and venture into the "fun and unexpected stuff happens" arena.

Super Senor - Photo credit Janis Smit
To explain how this all came about, let me first introduce our new Thoroughbred, Super Senor. That's Senor as in "Mr." in Spanish.

Now, that may sound like a playful name for a horse based in New Mexico, but it actually reflects this boy's pedigree.

He's a son of Kentucky Derby winner and champion sire Super Saver (where the "Super" part of his name comes from) out of a multiple stakes winning dam, who is the daughter of the great El Gran Senor (where the "Senor" part comes in).

So the name "Super Senor" actually reflects his lineage. (His full brother was named Super Accord, because their dam's name is One Accord.)

But we just call him Super, for short.

He's pictured in a photo our friend Janis took of him before a race at Sunland Park in February (just by chance!) before we owned or even knew about him. He won that race, by the way. :)

So, as I mentioned, Super is currently stabled at Sunland Park, which is a New Mexico track that is actually in a suburb of El Paso, Texas. And one weekend a year, there are two very big races held at Sunland; the Sunland Derby--a Kentucky Derby qualifying race--and the Sunland Oaks--a qualifying race for the Kentucky Oaks, which is like the Kentucky Derby for fillies held the day before the Kentucky Derby each May.

The Sunland Derby is a huge highlight for racing fans in New Mexico as this promo shows.

We'd always wanted to go see the race, but this seemed like the year to make the four-hour trip to Sunland for three very good reasons.

The first was we'd get to actually see and get photos of Super and discuss his progress and his prospects with our trainer. We claimed him sight unseen based on his pedigree and his race record. We own him in partnership with Vanessa Evans.

Secondly, one of my favorite up and coming Kentucky Derby contenders, Mucho Gusto, was entered in the Sunland Derby and he would be going head-to-head with our local superstar, Hustle Up, who has so far had a fabulous career in New Mexico, and just might be good enough to point toward the Kentucky Derby, if he could run well in the race. (I think he would be the first New Mexico bred ever to run in the Kentucky Derby, although New Mexico-based Mine That Bird did win the year Pioneerof the Nile ran).

But the third reason was probably the best. I heard the news a couple of weeks ago that super star Chasing Yesterday would be running in the Sunland Oaks, apparently after the recent fiasco that closed the track at Santa Anita. Who is Chasing Yesterday? Well, for one, she's the half-sister of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, being a daughter of the same dam, Littleprincessemma, by sire Tapit, rather than Pioneerof the Nile (who we just lost earlier this week. RIP).

But mostly, I've been following this girl's career since she stepped foot on a track last year, and cheering her on every race.

And she was coming to Sunland Park! I just hadda be there!

So, Bob Baffert is the trainer of both Mucho Gusto and Chasing Yesterday, as well as being the trainer of both recent triple crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify. Bob Baffert is a super star in his own right, and he was coming to Sunland Park with his horses.

Uh huh. We were so there! LOL

But New Mexico is a long way from Kentucky, the East Coast and California. So how do horses like Chasing Yesterday and Mucho Gusto get here? This is how...

Did you see them? (If you're not sure what they look like yet, there are photos below.)

So the horses had arrived and so had we: Sunland Park on Derby and Oaks Day!

In the early races, our trainer had a very good day on what they call the "undercard"--the other races that aren't the big feature races on Sunland Derby day. It was a highlight when Justin invited us into the winner's circle photo when one of his horses--Pendleton--won a race. (In fact, the two horses he had in the race ran 1st and 2nd). I can't share the photos with you just yet because we have to order them, but I can share the link if you want to take a peek. Pendleton Win Photo

As it got later in the afternoon, the Sunland Oaks finally came up as the ninth race on the card and I got to see my super star filly and take tons of photos. (Just wait, it gets better.)

Here are a few of those photos of Chasing Yesterday in the saddling paddock, during riders up and the post parade. She's an absolute beauty! I just love that lightning bolt blaze.

Chasing Yesterday in the Sunland Park Saddling paddock.

Photo of jockeys before the Sunland Oaks.
Among them Tyler Baze, Luis Contreras, Kent Desormeaux,
and Chasing Yesterday's jockey, Drayden Van Dyke. 

Chasing Yesterday with rider up, jockey Drayden Van Dyke.

Chasing Yesterday and Van Dyke headed to the track.

Chasing Yesterday in the Sunland Park Oaks post parade.

And how did the race go? It was a thriller! See for yourself.

Yes, she won even after that horrible start. She really is a super star. We were honored to be there to witness her amazing triumph.

The race between local star Hustle Up and one of Pre-Derby faves Mucho Gusto was Race 11. As you can see from some of these saddling paddock photos I took, the shadows were getting a bit long.

Mucho Gusto in the Sunland Park saddling paddock.

Local hero Hustle Up in the Sunland saddling paddock.

I was really hoping Mucho Gusto and Hustle Up would have a blazing stretch dual coming down to the wire. They did have their duel, but unfortunately, it was on the backstretch. By the time they got to the wire, they'd burned each other out with the lightning fast pace. Hustle Up faded badly to finish 7th though Mucho Gusto did hold on to take third after being passed by some "closers," so he captured at least some of the points for the Kentucky Derby, as well as a good share of the $800,000 purse. So it wasn't all bad. If you'd care to view it, here you go:

At the close of the Sunland Derby, we retrieved our vehicle from the parking lot and headed for the barns to see our new horse, Super. Not being familiar with the Sunland backside, we wandered a bit before we found our trainer's barn.

We got out of the car and walked inside--only to come face-to-face with Mr. Baffert himself!

As it turns out, Justin's father and Bob Baffert grew up in the same area of Arizona, so our trainer knows him well and for the last several years Mr. Baffert has stabled his horses in Justin's barn when he brings horses to Sunland for the Derby or Oaks races.

And not only was Bob Baffert in the barn, so was his son Bode (Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister was named in his honor), as well as Mrs. Baffert...and--holy heck!--Chasing Yesterday!

Chasing Yesterday (with Jill Baffert out of frame)

They were all wonderful! I was my usual tongue-tied self, but I did manage to blurt out that we'd made the trip especially to see Chasing Yesterday run, and that I'd followed her career closely. (Yup. Here's us. Just having a little chat with Bob Baffert while we visit with Chasing Yesterday. Just another day at the barn. *gulp*)

(Special thanks to Vanessa Evans for snapping this  keepsake photo.)

An absolutely lovely filly, Chasing Yesterday
gets plenty of attention.

I was so stunned I totally forgot to go get a close-up look at Mucho Gusto who was also in our trainer's barn. But, at least, we did remember to get photos of us with Super Senor. Here we are:

So yeah. Quite the weekend! Not one we're likely to forget anytime soon.

Hope you all have a great week, too!