World’s worst mom award

Max is the damaged one on the left.

Max is the damaged one on the left.

I felt terrible about missing the sunrise with my son, Max.
I’d brought him all the way to Utah for March break and still managed to neglect him.
So I did a few things.

  1. I’m a writer, so I wrote about it for the Medical Post here (

You have to sign in to read it, but it’s worth it to read the comments, including a thought-provoking account from a doctor whose dad was a workaholic another who says light-heartedly, Me too, and I hope I’ll can make it up with my grandchildren.

2. I decided to read up on families. I research other things that interest me, from cardiac ultrasounds to how to make applesauce without peeling the apples. Why not families?
I wanted to read about realistic families, not glamourized ones promoting a political and/or religious agenda.
So far, I’ve read these:
Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families. Not bad. I loved the idea of brainstorming about the qualities that make your family unique. Max and I had fun making up lists for up as individuals (for example, “environmental stewardship” is very important to me, but not to anyone else, unfortunately) and as a family, although I would never call it our family brand. I hope our little tribe is one of the few things in the world that’s not marketed and sold.

I also liked the research pointing out that knowing your family history makes kids more resilient, so I’ve made an effort to talk about basic things like how Matt and I met (“Oh yeah,” said Max, in a bored voice. “You needed a ride home from school, and someone said, ‘Why don’t you ask Matt Innes? He always has a car because he lives in the country.”)

I did try to play word games with the kids at supper time, because apparently parents dominate the dinner table, which is no fun for the kids, who learn verbal skills if you engage them. I thought it would be just as fun to concentrate on music, math, or another language too.

Neither the ideas nor writing style were earth-shattering, although it was nice to hear a guy struggling with the same sort of questions, and to learn that basically no one manages to have a date night. Most of the themes are encapsulated in this NYT article, and you can download Feiler’s toolkit for free here.

Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at HomeI thought The Happiness Project was pretty good, and this is much the same. Rubin picks goals of the month, based on some research, and reports up on how she and her family responded. I adored the idea of Wednesday adventures with her daughter. Imagine, every week, exploring New York with your kid. I was jealous, since a) my emergency room schedule varies every day/week/month/year, so I could never do this, and b) I don’t live in NYC. Yes, I could find adventures in my neighbourhood, but after a few months, we’d be scrapping pretty hard. Clearly,  having the time and money to do this would make us much happier.

Anastasia's musical adventure in NYC. More exciting than South Glengarry? You decide.

Anastasia’s musical adventure in NYC. More exciting than South Glengarry? You decide.

I was glad it wasn’t all picture-perfect. Rubin then suggested weekly adventures with her lawyer husband (whom she raves about earlier, how ideal he is), and he basically said nope, not interested.

I don’t think either of these books made me happier. To be fair, I’m a happy person anyway, and I’m not looking for extra cheer, just ways to prioritize my family.

Books I’ve already read on families

Bruce Brooks’s Midnight Hour Encores. God, I love this book about Sibilance T. Spooner, the 16-year-old world-class cellist, raised by the world’s coolest dad, and who decides to search for the mother who gave her up at birth. Sibilance has attitude with a capital A. I have to admit, when I read it as a teenager, I didn’t get the ending. It’s really about choosing her family and therefore her destiny. But I loved it so much I bought it, and when an acquaintance failed to return it a few years ago, I bought it again.

Katrina Kenison’s Mitten Strings for God: I almost didn’t read this because of the word God, but it was one of the first books I reached for during my maternity leave with Max. “Like Thoreau, I love a broad margin to my life,” Kenison wrote, and I felt like I could breathe again. No, I don’t want to work myself down to sinew and bone so I can buy a lot of crap. I want to write and love my family, thank you. Although when I tried her technique of just breathing with her son when he cried, Max sobbed, “I. Don’t. Want. To. Breathe!” and I thought, Yeah…I’m never going to attain this maternal sainthood. I also enjoyed the sequel, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, where her boys are teenagers and she’s struggling more how to reach them, plus loses her job and buys a broken-down house.

Karen Maezen Miller’s Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold. So funny and honest. I loved that she attended her school reunion and preened when guys marvelled how good she looked, and then she had her daughter and realized that kids just suck the juice right out of you. I liked Momma Zen a little better; I just find it hard to believe that me doing all my own chores is the path to nirvana.

David Sedaris’s The Man Who Mistook His Hat for a Meal. When I first heard this story, I laughed until I cried. My dad loved to eat questionable things, and so do I. Because it’s cheap, because it’s good training for Armageddon, just because.

I looked up books on family relationships, and I just wasn’t feeling it.

For example, Little Women comes up often on reading lists, but since I only re-read the parts about Jo and couldn’t stand Amy, it doesn’t seem like a family book to me.

Similarly, the Little House on the Prairie books, for me, were more about pioneer life (poor, perfect yet blind Mary! Pa eating watermelon even though he thinks he’ll catch malaria from it! Horrible locusts!).

I did love the All-of-a-Kind family books, but learned more about Judaism than about deep family relationships.

Maybe I’m super plot-oriented, but I was far more interested in Tom, Scout, and Jem than family per se in To Kill a Mockingbird. And I’m not planning to buy Go Set a Watchman because of the questionable role of the author’s lawyer, which is outlined extremely well in this Bloomberg article.

How about you? What does family mean to you, and do you have any good book suggestions?

Why should I go to a mystery convention? To prostitute myself, of course. Bloody Words, Part I.

I was very worried about losing money at Bloody Words 2014.

Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith had beaten into me that the surest path to success in writing is simply production. Sit in your garret and write, day and night, month after month, year after year. Your craft will improve, and once you have hundreds or thousands of items for sale, someone will take notice. You don’t need to go to cons and promote if you don’t want to.

But then I got this Facebook message from Steve Steinbock:

Melissa, I decided to come to Bloody Words this year. Here are seven (or so) reasons why you should come: (1) To push Terminally Ill, (2) to join me, Howard Shrier, and Ken Wishnia in a Yiddish cussing contest, (3) celebrate the publication of your short story in Ellery Queen (whenever it comes out), (4) administer first aid when I fall off the dais, (5) sign my copy of Terminally Ill, (6) buy a drink for the reviewer who plugged your book in Ellery Queen, and (7) be the final name on the attendees roster (beating out S.G. Wong).

How could I say no? I plunked down $190 for the conference fee. I’d already booked that weekend off for Yocomo, the Montreal yoga conference. But I’d go to Bloody Words instead. Maybe I’d sell a few copies of my book.

Then it started to haunt me. What if nobody bought my book? What if I spent $199 per night at the Hyatt Regency and just went into debt? I started calling my friends to angst about it. My friends Bob Jeschonek and Richard Quarry told me not to think about it like a return on investment, just go and network.

My friend Kandy said to have fun. “You get to go to Toronto. You’re getting away from your kids. You don’t have to cook or do dishes. What are you complaining about?”

“OH MY GOD,” said her husband, Vince. “You’re going to a con? GO AND PROSTITUTE YOURSELF, LIKE ANY AUTHOR.”

So I did.


This is me. On Pixabay. Obviously.

I drove myself to downtown Toronto and hurried to Scene of the Crime Books, the book dealer who would sell my books during the con. Right afterward, I realized that I had lost my phone. With cash in the case.

Aaaaagh! After worrying about losing money, I’d just lost an smart phone plus cold, hard cash.

I’ll save you the suspense. Someone had already turned it in. THANK YOU.

I don’t know what I would have done with myself next, since everyone else was saying “Hiiiiiiii! It’s so good to see you!!!!!!” and I was more like this tree:


Fortunately, I already had plans. I headed out to dinner at Aroma Fine Indian with my Medical Post editor, Carol Hilton. I tried the fiery Goan prawns, in honour of my most recently completed book, The Goa Yoga School of Slayers, sequel to The Italian School for Assassins. We talked about everything from medical politics to technology to travel. Kind of like the Medical Post, actually. Thanks, Carol!

Did you know that Carol has a degree in marine biology? Pretty nifty, eh?

Did you know that Carol (on the left) has a degree in marine biology? Pretty nifty, eh? And did you know that it’s hard to take a selfie in front of a window?

I hurried back to Bloody Words for Steve’s cool panel called The Sage, the Saint, and the Sleuth (religion, philosophy, and the “modern” sleuth). I didn’t want to rush up and mob him at the end, and it was possible he might not recognize me from my teeny Facebook photo, but he walked up to me, hugged me, and said, “It’s my newest best friend.”


Steve Steinbock & me, "Melissa Yi." The bag is medical swag because Mrs. Steinbock is a radiation oncologist who helped take care of Stephen King. And Steve interviewed Stephen King for Ellery Queen. I move among royalty now, people. Kings and Queens.

Steve Steinbock & me, Melissa Yi. The bag is medical swag because his wife is a radiation oncologist. Another fun fact: Steve interviewed Stephen King for Ellery Queen. I move among royalty now, people. Kings and Queens.

We ended up having dinner and drinks with Tanis Mallow, a Noir writer, co-host of Noir @ the Bar in Toronto, and a warm and funny person; John McFetridge and his wife Laurie, who would whip out appropriate props like his latest book, Black Rock, and the newest issue of Quill & Quire with John on the cover. (Wow!) I’d already Tweeted Rob Brunet, because he’s a fellow Canadian who had a story accepted to Ellery Queen, as well as many other markets—he tries to have a new story published every month, and his novel, Stinking Rich, will debut in September. Ken Wishnia did show up to offer some Yiddish swear words, but it turned out that his writing has also been nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Macavity Awards. Uh huh.


Rob Brunet & Steve Steinbock

Steve said these mystery conferences are like Brigadoon, a town springing out of nowhere. What I saw was a tribe of intelligent, crime-loving writers and super readers who enjoyed meeting like-minded people. One thing I find really sad about general North American society is that intelligence is undervalued. “You’re smart, aren’t you” isn’t always a compliment. Neither are the terms “intellectual” or “perpetual student.” Asian and Jewish cultures value scholars, but outside of universities, you’re a bit isolated. But here, you’ve got a bunch of people who like the same things you do! What a miracle!

I have to give a special shout-out to Steve Steinbock, though, and not just because of this, which I already blogged about here:

By a stroke of luck, all Bloody Words participants received this copy of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The one where Steve pronounces Hope Sze an "utterly likeable character." I'll just keep repeating that. When I'm on my deathbed, I'll be like, "utterly likeable character," and my great-grandkids will be like, Wot?

Steve signed this and wrote, “Thanks for sending me Hope!” Words cannot express the goodness of this man. By a stroke of luck, all Bloody Words participants received the July 2014 copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The one where Steve pronounces Hope Sze an “utterly likeable character.” I’ll just keep repeating that. When I’m on my deathbed, I’ll be like, “utterly likeable character,” and my great-grandkids will be like, Wot?

Steve is a walking encyclopedia, certainly of the mystery genre, but of Jewish mysticism and, I’m sure, other topics. He was embarrassed that I called him a scholar, but it’s rare enough to meet people who genuinely love learning. Not for a degree, not because of publications or prestige or money, but just to discover. Perhaps more importantly, he’s kind and caring. Rob Brunet said that Steve had taken him under his wing a few years ago, and Steve’s obviously doing the same for me. Most people have their group of friends and figure they’re busy enough, but Steve will recruit newbies and make sure they’re not just standing in the corner, looking agonized.

I did buy Steve a drink (he said I didn’t have to, but I spoke to the waiter), and ended up paying for his salad too, which embarrassed him again, and Steve and Tanis and Rob walked me back to my apartment, since I stayed at a lovely airbnb instead of the Hyatt.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.’

I have two things two say about this. Nowadays, most people lead lives of unseen desperation. They’re not necessarily quiet. They may be loud. Buy my book! I have a new car! Check out my abs! I am so smart! My cat is cute!

The problem is, it seems like no one else cares. For example, you may write a book, but no one reads it. Or they read it and tell you it’s terrible.

Steve read Terminally Ill. And when I asked him if he understood how the plot twists incorporated the idea of magic and illusion (one of the book’s themes is magic, and Steve is a magician as well), not only had he understood it, he told me the magical term for it: misdirection. He said that in the past, mysteries used to rely on plot twists more than an escalating body count, and he respected that. He told me that my greatest strengths were my character, the fascinating setting, and the plot. When I said, okay, so what are my weaknesses, he looked at me and said, “No weaknesses. Just keep working on your strengths.”

You can tell that, between medicine and writing, I’m always waiting for the left hook.

I respect Steve even more because, I, personally, would find it hard to listen to desperate writers blather on and on about their work. It would be easier to turn away and say, “Don’t worry. Have a drink.” And I’ve heard that many critics grow bitter, forced to read and review books they don’t like. So imagine Steve going to a con on his free time and surrounding himself with writers instead!

Steve Steinbock & Melissa Yi, without the medical swag. Why am I repeating our names? I heard it's good for SEO optimization. But I know it's annoying. Sorry.

Steve Steinbock surrounded by writer Melissa Yi, without the medical swag. Why am I repeating our names? I heard it’s good for SEO optimization. I know it’s annoying. Sorry.

To get back to the Thoreau quote, I’m generally cheery. My friend Yasmin once told me I was one of the happiest person she knows. But between medicine, writing, and life in general, I have tasted despair.

With Steve and the rest of my new friends, though, happiness wins.

And I loved how the people at Bloody Words were singing their song, loudly and clearly. The rest of the world may not understand or appreciate their writing or their weirdness, but they kept on singing.

I finally realized that Bloody Words was not about making or losing money. It was about friendship.

Also creativity and craziness. Like this.

What are these shenanigans?

Oy oy oy oy oy. Oy.

Why am I wearing a sign with my book cover? What am I doing to Ken Wishnia? Did I sell any books? How can a con inspire creativity? Tune in to my next blog post, Bloody Words Part II, for the answers.

Say Yes

My husband came home from guitar school with a lesson: never turn down a gig.

His teacher’s band was asked to play in some miniscule town.  Other bands had refused because of the expense to travel, minimal exposure, etc.  But this band said sure.

The local radio station promoted the hell out of this one band willing to travel in.  The band got continuous airplay, building up support.  On the actual day of the concert, a ripping audience of new fans screamed for more.

A decade later, they still travel back to that tiny town for their hard core fans.

They said, never turn down a gig.  You never know where it might lead.

In October, a major national magazine approached me.  The health editor had read my work in the Medical Post.  She said they’re looking for the next Dr. Oz to write articles and make “occasional media appearances.”

It’s a sample article.  It might not go anywhere.  But I actually hadn’t considered that the Medical Post, with its circulation of about 50,000 to a relatively specialized audience of doctors might lead me to a regular gig at a national magazine.  Which would create a platform.

A platform, my dears, is what makes agents and editors breathless.  It’s a built-in audience so the publisher doesn’t have to work so hard to sell books.  You can see why they like them, but for the average Joe/Josephine, the platform is mostly limited to blood relatives and friends.

As it stands, I have a lot of little publications scattered through magazines, books, journals, newspapers, and e-zines.  A small platform.  Maybe a diving board.  But this opportunity has opened my eyes to the possibility of reinventing myself as a brand.

To sell my books, I’d be happy to flog a book of doctor writing before moving on to my medical thrillers, YA, middle grade, picture books, women’s fiction, erotica, science fiction–oh, yes.  I have a lot of books that have not been published.  Some of them probably never will be.  But the rest of them need a home.

So I’m saying yes to this opportunity.  I want this gig and the next.

You have to weigh the risks and benefits, of course. All writing is good practice and I’m always looking to expand my writing income.  OTOH, between medicine, writing, and my family, I sometimes feel stretched tighter than a porn star.  So I sometimes have to say no.

You also have to select what format to say yes to. The article that started this off was a humor piece about patients telling me I looked too young to be a doctor.  I sent the 600-word story to Stitches, a medical humour magazine.  The editor accepted it as an anecdote and told me I wouldn’t get paid, but I’d get put in a draw for a stethoscope.  Now, my stethoscope works just fine and I like to get paid for my work.  So I added another 100 words, turning it into feature length, and he accepted it for the next issue at 35 cents per word.  Considering that a lot of fiction markets pay anywhere from “exposure” (nada) to the “pro rate” of 5 cents per word, me likee.

However, I never heard back from him.  Since I was too busy going back to work, raising an infant, and dealing with my father’s diagnosis of brain cancer (high grade glioma, for the medical types), I didn’t really pursue it.  At a continuing education course almost a year later, another doctor said, “I think Stitches went out of business.  I haven’t gotten it in a long time.”

Ah.  So that was why they didn’t answer my e-mails.

I looked them up and sure enough, they had folded.  Dang.

Next, I sent it to a respected medical journal’s humanities section.  That section is generally well-written stories about patient interactions or what it’s like to become a patient when you’re a doctor.

The editor told me she’d showed it to a physician and it passed the “laugh test.” She sent me a contract.  I read it.  They wanted global rights but made no mention of compensation.  I wrote back and asked.  She said “fame and glory alone, I’m afraid.”

I wrote to a few other journals and they also told me they didn’t pay.

C’mon.  Doctors are a huge market.  I have to empty my mailbox regularly because of all the free journals stuffed with drug ads, not to mention the occasional luxury car fold-out.  You’re telling me you’ve got nothing?

So I wrote to a few places, including The Medical Post.  They paid 20 to 30 cents per word.

The editor responded within a few weeks.  She wanted to buy it.  She published it within a few months.  I sent them some more pieces and so far, they’ve published a grand total of three.  Since my mail gets sent to my secondary hospital, I usually find out it’s been published because one of my undergrad or med school friends I haven’t talked to in years Facebooks me and says, “Good one!”  I even got fan mail from a doctor based in Thailand.

And now, a potential new stepping stone.

Like I said, I don’t know where this one’s going to go.  But I’m hankering for the ride.  Enough that if this one doesn’t pan out, I might take the initiative to ask other national magazines to take me on.

And although I won’t feel like I’ve “made it” until my name is on the cover of my own spanking new novel, there are side bennies to the nonfiction gig thus far.  For example, I have explained that I don’t do full-time emerg because I write and have a toddler. But to my sensible doctor colleagues, writing seems like code for smoking weed and eating corn chips if I don’t have a book with my name on it.  In the meantime, when my name shows up in their mailbox in the Medical Post, complete with cartoon illustrations, they take me a little more seriously.  Like, maybe they think I drink vodka and eat organic corn chips instead.

In general, my motto is to say yes.  Say yes and plums and cherries may drop out of the sky, along with the occasional hail storm, but that’s life, right?

Copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2009