A Sneak Peek at "Xinsheng"

Alyssa curled her thin arms and pulled her chin up to the bar. She let out a hot breath and allowed her body to drop. Her bare feet slapped against the chilled foam floor. One hundred. Her last set of the morning. She pulled a towel from the bars of the elliptical and dabbed her head and shoulders with it.

“The more you work yourself,” warned Herod, his voice booming from every speaker in the gym, “the more you’ll need to eat.”

“I have to stay in shape,” she said. “This isn’t vanity.”

“Your skeletal mass has decreased by approximately 12.2% since launch.”

“Exactly.” She swung the towel around her neck and walked into the observation bay. Overhead, Alyssa could see distant stars standing perfectly still, belying the fact that the colony ship Xinsheng was traveling at a little over 250,000 kilometers per second.

“Herod?” Alyssa asked.

“Yes, Captain Arreguin.”

“Time to destination?”

“Nine months, fourteen days, three hours, and thirty-eight minutes. All things remaining the same.”

A drop of sweat stung Alyssa’s eye. “How much do I have to eat in that time to survive?” She wiped her forehead and let her hand slide over her buzz cut, her sweat aerosolizing as the brown hairs snapped back. It would eventually become vapor, travel through the filtration system, and return to her as drinking water. One less thing to worry about. One less is all she could ask.

“Should I limit the parameters to meals including only those items you’ve included in your manual diet?”

“Yeah.” Alyssa thought about how fast she would have to run to break through the glass in the observation bay. Too fast was the answer. She’d have to throw herself at one of the panes at supersonic speed. She’d die, sure, but much of the ship would be vaporized with her.

“Approximately 82.9 kilograms. Assuming that you can hold everything down.”

Alyssa’s heart sank into her growling stomach. She had to drink water now. And she had to eat soon. The shifts before her—before the Xinsheng crossed the Einstein-Rosen bridge, carrying it over twenty light years from Earth—had all enjoyed access to the hydroponics bay. She’d awoken from stasis to find every plant in the hydroponics bay desiccated. Every seed irradiated. Colonel Rahmani, her superior officer, had been on duty. When Herod had awoken her, Rahmani been missing for two days—along with the logs and sensor data for that period of time.

The colony would be fine—their food was stored with other genetic samples within locked compartments in the stasis deck. Alyssa, and anyone who Herod woke up after her, would starve without a new source of food. And there’d only been one viable source of food left on the ship. As a volunteer, Alyssa had sworn to protect her crew. She had failed. Even if she succeeded in leading them to their new home, she knew she couldn’t stay with them. Not now. Not after what she’d done.

Read "Xinsheng" today by purchasing Dark and Dangerous Things III on paperback or Amazon Kindle.

So Much to Say, So Little Time: One Big Update

So much has happened, and I barely have time to mention it all. Let's do this step-by-step.

The 2016 OWFI Writers' Conference

The Oklahoma Writers' Federation (OWFI) had its annual writers' conference on May 12th through the 14th. I always learn a great deal at this thing. I've been going for three years now, and every time I come back inspired to get started on a project that's been rattling in my head.

This year, my writing group and I volunteered to serve as customer service at the registration desk and in the pitch room—where you can pitch your story ideas to agents, editors, or publishers and see whether they're into them. We didn't get to go to many sessions, which is traditionally where I learn the most. This year, however, I hung out with a lot of people. I had an opportunity to sit and chat and drink with acclaimed novelist Steven James and Noah Ballard, an agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. They had a lot to say about the writing and editing processes that really helped me to put into focus what I want to do in my second draft of Stormborn: Thirteen Hearts to Start a Storm, Book One of my new series.

The pitch room was pretty amazing, too. Noah Ballard and Dr. Uwe Stender, founder of Triada US, both talked to me and gave me insightful tips on getting my floundering novel Mister Kiefer to work. Thanks to them, I've been able to recapture the magic of starting that story.

I had awesome talks with Christine Jarmola and Mari Farthing, both of whom were instrumental in my becoming the new webmaster for OWFI. Mari in particular has been tremendously awesome, and I'm pretty sure that she'd be fine if I started calling her my friend in public. It turns out that she and I have a lot in common, with one exception; she makes setting look easy. Her writing is nothing if not vivid and engaging.

And who can forget Carol Johnson and Eric Reitan? I've known Carol for a while, and she's a deeply endearing person with a heart as large as a house. Eric is just cool. Apart from being a fellow writer, he also teaches philosophy at Oklahoma State University. He and I sat together and talked about Plato for a while. He, too, had ideas for a villain that exists in the Stormborn universe, though he doesn't present himself in the first book.

I returned to Tulsa excited and overwhelmed by all of the socialization I did at the conference. I needed rest before getting back to work, and I didn't get any. I've been hard at work finishing Thirteen Hearts to Start a Storm so that I can begin editing it into a more viable second draft. Then I have to get to work on Mister Kiefer so that I can query a certain agent with it. When I have some time, I'll have to make some new additions to my Friends page.

Becoming the OWFI Webmaster

This is probably the hardest volunteer job I've had in awhile, and it requires much attention. I have become the official webmaster for OWFI, and I created its new website with a lot of coding that I hadn't expected to have to do. You never know what problems you're going to need to solve when you're building a website until you come across them. Fortunately, I had some help.

Adrean, thanks for standing over my shoulder and telling me what's what. I needed that.

Mari and I are working on a couple of things on the site, including making it interactive enough that users will want to visit it when there's not a major OWFI event looming. Like this writing contest. It was nice to see the majority of the work done. There's still a lot of little things left for me to do on the website, but I'm taking a short break to catch up on other things while people peruse the new content.

The Award-Winning "Xinsheng"

I won three awards at the OWFI Writing Contest! My one first place award came in the science fiction/fantasy category for "Xinsheng," a story that was published in Dark and Dangerous Things IIIAccording to the people who have read it so far, I should warn people not to eat before or while reading "Xinsheng." It's got elements of horror, ergo why it fit in the anthology wherein it was published.

I also won an honorable mention for the poem "A Melancholy Gift" and second place for the novel Pyrrhic, which I'll be continuing to work on beginning in November, December, or January, as time allows. I gotta get a new Stormborn book out, after all. And my editor has me on deadlines that I must keep.

Stormborn

I finally finished the first draft of Stormborn: Thirteen Hearts to Start a Storm. Yesterday. I've had this problem for a while where I get to within one or two chapters of finishing a story before I get stuck. It's not writer's block. More like writing anxiety. Or work-finishing anxiety. I'm a big procrastinator, and finishing things gives me tremendous anxiety—anxiety that only the threat of a looming deadline seems to push me past.

But it's over. Now I get to think about other things while I edit this 32,000-word monstrosity.

Mister Kiefer for Young Adults

As I think about other things, Noah and Uwe both seemed to agree that Mister Kiefer would be better as a YA novel. I agreed with them both, and it's making the novel much easier to write. I spoke to Adrean about it, and I realized that I have to censor myself less when I write YA than when I write for adults. She suggested that it's probably because teens and young adults tend to be more OK with the expression of strong emotions. Adults are more reserved, and they tend to expect the same from others; whether the other is another adult or a child.

I agreed with her, but I'm curious to hear what others think.

I'm a counselor who works primarily with teenagers. Maybe I just relate to them more. I don't feel very mature myself, and being emotionally reserved feels like a little death is happening in my chest. I'm excited to write for this audience. Ultimately, I think I was really missing my target audience for that book, which is a huge problem. Knowing who I want to read my writing makes it easier to write for them. Mister Kiefer is definitely for people like its main character, Adam Al-Wali. Less for people like its eponymous character, James Kiefer.

I'll probably post more about Mister Kiefer as time moves forward. Since it's such a big project—with a target date for querying of January 1, 2017—it only makes sense to pause every so often to blog about it.

Visiting with the Oklahoma City Writers

Last, but not least, Nevermore Edits and I are going to Oklahoma City to speak with the Oklahoma City Writers about writing nonconventional characters. I'm focusing my part of the talk on minority races and ethnicities in fiction because, honestly, we're not evenly represented in fiction. I found this out while writing "Xinsheng"; the main character, Alyssa Arreguin, is Chilean. But because her ethnicity isn't mentioned, people tended to assume that she was a White non-Hispanic.

I winced.

It's an important subject matter. In Stormborn: Thirteen Hearts to Start a Storm, a large number of the characters identify as gay or bi. The characters who are straight don't identify. At a critique group meeting, one person mentioned that it was "unrealistic" that such a large number of gays happened to exist in the same story—after all, only about 3% of the population identify as being lesbian, gay, bi, or trans.

I didn't mention that in a heterosexist society, straight people don't tend to identify, and erasure of the bisexual identity means that bi characters tend to get lumped in as gay or straight depending on the gender of the person they're dating at the time. I didn't mention that 13.2% of my characters weren't Black and 17% of my characters weren't Hispanic. I didn't mention that 19% of my characters don't have a disability. I didn't mention that not a single one of my characters identified as Muslim.

I didn't mention any of these things because we have rules, and authors aren't supposed to speak when their work is being critiqued. Fortunately, Shannon Iwanski came to the rescue with a scathing critique of our society, as well as of an editor who suggested that there was such a thing as "too many gays," which any reasonable person should find at least as offensive as someone pointing out that a story has "too many Blacks."

I won't say anymore because this talk is gonna be awesome, and I want to try and record it for posterity. If I manage that, I might put it up on YouTube and embed the video here.

See you all again later!

"Light"

This poem wasn't written by me. I wanted to say that at the outset. Patricia Hutton is one of my very closest friends. She's a debut writer, and this will be her first time on the web. I have the honor of publishing her poetry on my site.


"Light"

by Patricia Hutton

And the Pattie said, "Let there be Light."
And the Picard said, "Make it so."
And so the Pattie went out amongst the Lights. The Lights came in Halogen, LED, incandescent, 100 watt, 75 watt, 60 watt, and 40 watt, blue hued, white hued, and yellow hued.
The Pattie chose some Lights and took them to her home.
The Pattie put new Lights wherever she found dark ones. And the Light was good. And the Picard said, "Good Work, Number One."

How Does One Make Poetry Accessible?

It's a question that Adrean Messmer no doubt asked herself as she wrote the following blog post, which is a masterful and thoroughly accessible dissection of the basic vital organs of poetry. I thought it was so worthwhile that it would be essential not merely to share it, but to mirror it. So here is the post in its entirety. See the original source here.


I originally presented this as a sort of crash course for my writing group over Hangouts. So, a lot of the examples were chosen because I knew members of Nevermore would dig them.

Robert Frost said a poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom". Now, don't misunderstand and think that means poetry should be, like, delightfully happy. That is definitely not what I'm saying.

But I am saying it should satisfying. That's the delight. I mean, let's look at Poe. He is, IMO, the master of poetic devices. He's all about the meter and the rhyme and... everything, really. Look at this excerpt from Annabel Lee. Read it. Read it out loud. Feel how these words feel as they fall off your tongue.

Oh, and spoiler alert, I guess, for a century-and-half old poem.

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

 It just feels good to read, right?

Pretty frequently, I see people treating poetry like it's some kind of magic. It's not. I promise. No matter how arcane or wonderful something is, you can learn how to do it. Even poetry. It's all about the bass. I mean literary devices.

Let's start with my favorite.

Alliteration and Assonance

Both of these things deal with the phonetic sounds of words. Alliteration is, basically, when the consonants in a word sound the same, assonance is the vowels.

Let's take a look at Mean by Taylor Swift.

You, with your switching sides
and your wildfire lies
and your humiliation

Alliteration! We've got it with the Ss in switching, sides, and lies. We also have the L in wildfire, lies, and humiliation. And for assonance, we've got the long I in sides, wildfire, and lies.

Let's do some more. Pretend like we're in high school and see if you can guess them before I tell you. Here's a bit from Contagious by Night Riots.

Don't be, don't be so cold
Bones rust, decay, and mold
Head first, it is what it is
Youth lost, kicks us to live

We've clearly got some rhymes here. That's technically a different thing, but we're going to ignore it for now.

We have an alliterative D in don't, decay, mold, and head. There's also the T in don't, rust, first, it, and lost, but it's not as noticeable.

The assonance is pretty strong with the long O of don't, cold, bones, and mold. There's also the short I in kicks, it, is, and live.

Make sense? Sorry, I can't hear you if the answer was no. So, I'm going to assume it was yes and move on. Feel free to ask questions, though. I'll answer them as best I can.

Rhyme

There are two main kinds of rhyme-- true and slant.

Looking at the Night Riots example, "cold" and "mold" are true rhymes while "is" and "lives" is slant. So, true means it's the exact same ending sound and slant is... close.

Check out Partition by Beyonce. She's all about the slant rhyme in there.

Every girl in here got to look me up and down
All on Instagram, cake by the pound
Circulate the image every time I come around

"Pound" and "around" are true while "down" is slant.

Everyone still with me?

Imagery

Okay. This one is pretty big and easy to miss. My best friend likes to harp on this one a lot. The imagery is how you're going to convey the theme and mood of your poem to the reader. Not all poems, and certainly not all songs have much concrete imagery, but if you can work it in, you'll make the piece at least 20% cooler.

Take another gander at Contagious up there. It's all entropy and death, culminating in the line, "Youth lost, kicks us to live". The next few lines are, "I am contagious, I am breaking down. Flesh of the fathers, I am no one's fault." Literally speaking, I have no idea what they're talking about. But the picture they're painting with those descriptions evokes depression and desperation.

If they'd just said, "We're sad and it's not your fault", the song might still be musically cool, but lyrically pretty basic and boring. It's all about making the reader see something that will then make them feel something. 

Blue October pretty regularly kills it in the imagery department, so check out this verse from Come in Closer:

Come dancing with devils
need not know their names
and we'll waltz like an army
for the fear of our pain
Our souls become useless
as the day they were born
in the rusted arm rocking chair
away from your storm

Again, if you look at the words literally, it's basically nonsense. Like, okay, these people are going to waltz with some random devils because if they don't someone will hurt them? And it renders their souls useless? But they're sitting in an old rocking chair (or maybe the souls are) while a storm rages somewhere in the distance.

If you listen to the whole song, there's a distorted voice near the end that says, "You cheated on me with another woman". I think, with that knowledge, it's pretty easy to read those lines to be more like temptation, ruin, and impeding consequences.

But you know what? Here's the part where poetry is kind of magic. With the imagery, maybe, for you, it isn't about the temptation of adultery. Maybe it's about running away, addiction, dealing with a difficult decision... the possibilities are endless. And what's even cooler is that it can change.

When I first listened to Come in Closer, I was playing a character in a World of Darkness game that prophesied to blah blah blah, whatever. The song felt like it was about him. Later, when life was kicking me in the shins, the song started to feel like it was telling me to just get out already.

There are so many examples of wonderful, evocative imagery that I could talk about this for hours. Sometimes I do, much to the chagrin of everyone I know who doesn't care about the deeper meaning of pop music. But whatevs.

If we don't want to be stuck on this for days, we should probably move on to...

Meter

A lot of the examples I've used so far have been songs. In a song, a singer can manipulate the words and warp the meter to be whatever they want it to be. But there are still some great meterists out there.

Like The Barenaked Ladies on Who Needs Sleep?.

My hands are locked up tight in fists
My mind is racing, filled with lists
of things to do and things I've done
Another sleepless night's begun

Okay, so now you might wondering wtf meter is. The easiest way I can think to explain it is this: meter is the rhythm of the words, formed by the stressed and unstressed syllables. When you look up words in the dictionary, you see something like this: an·oth·er - əˈnəT͟Hər. That not only shows you how to pronounce each letter, but also where the stress on the word is.

I'll admit, I didn't look up each of these in the dictionary to find out exactly where the accented syllable is. I just read it out loud and marked where it felt right. If you're completely new at meter, you might want to check, get a little comfortable with it. This should be about right, though.

My HANDS are LOCKed up TIGHT in FISTS
My MIND is RACing, FILLed with LISTS
of THINGS to DO and THINGS I've DONE
anOTHer SLEEPless NIGHT'S beGUN

What we have in Who Needs Sleep? is called iambic. That means it is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed. Iambic is the most common. It's how most people tend to speak naturally. It's easy to get into and easy to identify. There is a name for pretty much every combination of stressed and unstressed you can imagine. I'm not going to get into that because I want to do other things with my life and no one is paying me for this.

Not all poetry has meter. Those pieces are called Free Verse. However, meter is kind of like salt. Not everything needs it, but it's almost never a bad idea to add it. Even most cake and cookie recipes call for salt.

Robert Frost was kind of a master of this.

The WOODS are LOVEly DARK and DEEP
but I have PROMisES to KEEP
and MILES to GO beFORE I SLEEP

Poe also killed it.

ONCE uPON a MIDnight DREARy while I PONdered WEAK and WEARy
OVer MAny a QUAINT and CURious VOLume of FORgotten LORE

And, even One Direction can be pretty good at it...

WE're ONly GETting OLDer BABy
and I'VE been THINKing aBOUT you LATEly
DOES it EVer DRIVE you CRAZy
JUST how FAST the NIGHT CHANges

There's actually a pretty cool dissection of Night Changes by 1D on this podcast I really dig called Switched on Pop. I'd love to talk about the fact that there are no rhymes and what that means, but they already said a lot of it and I feel like this post is already running long. Which might be okay, except that my brain is starting to vibrate and I can't really tell where I should end sentences anymore and we still need to talk about the fact that...

Everything You Do is a Deliberate Choice

So, this is always true in writing, but especially so in poetry. One of my professors once said that poetry is telling a story in the least amount of space possible. Every word, line break, and piece of punctuation means something.

There's this Emily Dickinson poem called Wild Nights. I got into a pretty heated discussion with a classmate about it. I read it and immediately thought, "Oh, well, this is clearly about sex". But my classmate, she was of the opinion that Dickinson would never write about that.

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

Okay, sure. Whatever. Maybe it's a poem about reckless abandon on a little boat called Eden and then mooring... in... uh, thee. Which is clearly the dick--I mean dock. Right?

But seriously, for my classmate, this really was just a poem about a boat. And that's fine. That's what she saw. For me, though, this poem is bubbling with excitement. The exclamation points and the em dashes make it feel breathless and urgent. Sure, maybe that's because the narrator really loves rowing. Maybe the em dashes are meant to show the exertion of that very family friendly activity. But there are twice as many as exclamation points as there are stanzas.

When you're working with something as compact as poetry, everything must serve a purpose. Which sounds hard, but it's really just the same as writing. When you're doing prose and you want to describe the setting, you're also setting the mood for the scene. If you can write a scene, you can write a poem.

Dark and Dangerous Things Are Here!

The Purple Ink Writers' latest anthology, Dark and Dangerous Things III is finally here! I just purchased it on Kindle, and I've been enjoying reading the stories by all the not-me authors.

Dark and Dangerous Things III has just about everything. I really enjoyed spreading my wings and finally publishing something in the science fiction genre. Science fiction was my thing back in high school, when I spent my free time writing short stories about aliens and gods made of touchable photons.

My knowledge of physics was still light in high school.

But now I'm back! And I enjoyed it so much, I might just have to do it again soon.