now in print: Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition

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Get ready for asteroids, anarchy, and excessive ammunition, because Meteor Mags and Patches are back—bigger, badder, and louder than ever!

On the asteroid mining frontier of the near future, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat rage against the forces of law and order, “liberating” cargo and racking up a massive body count—until they come face-to-face with an alien invasion!

Join Meteor Mags and her criminal crew, the hard-rocking Psycho 78s, in fifteen tales of interplanetary piracy and total destruction. Run for your life in the tornado that wipes out Ceres! Thrill to the savage mating rituals practiced by the evil space lizards! Learn how to smuggle cigarettes and shoot pool with the solar system’s number one dancer! Witness the unearthly energies of the machine that transforms Patches the cat, and merge your mind with a telepathic space kraken!

From rescuing a pirate radio DJ in a hail of bullets to dancing naked with a tribe of Russian space monkeys, Mags and her outlaw friends rock the Belt. But how long can they survive when everyone on Earth wants them dead?

Now Available on Amazon as a 588-page paperback featuring black-and-white art plus Asteroid Underground articles and interviews with the crew. Also available in a text-only version for Kindle for $9.95, or get the Kindle for free when you buy the paperback.

Also available for iBook, and on Barnes & Noble in paperback and Nook Book. The sixth volume collects and updates all the material from the first five volumes, plus three new stories. 183,000 words.

 

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Ten Things I Learned to Improve about My Writing from Workshops

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Do you want the good news or the bad news first? The bad news: I’ve made every single amateur writing mistake that can be made. The good news? Thanks to local workshops and critique groups, I’ve improved. Now that I know to check for my shortcomings in the revision stage, I hardly ever hear about them when workshopping new material. But invariably, when I’m having problems with a scene and take it to workshop, a few things I constantly struggle with pop up.

Why is it so hard to see flaws in our own writing? I suspect it’s because as writers, we feel about our conglomerations of words on the page as we would feel about our babies. We love them, we work hard for them, and they come from within us. We’re emotionally attached to our creations, even the flawed ones. Being objective and critical about them is tough, despite that being exactly what we need to do if we ever hope to take our writing to a higher level.

If you’ve ever been to one of my workshops, you probably know I mark up pages more than almost anyone else in the city of Phoenix, and I have strong or even extreme opinions on what works and what doesn’t. But you may not realize I am harder on my own material than I ever am on anyone else’s. My own markups of my first, second, third, and fourth drafts are absolutely ruthless. Even brutal. Two years of workshopping have made me look at my drafts and anticipate what my fellow authors would say about them, and mark them up accordingly.

I take every bit of feedback and criticism of my work completely seriously. I will go back and revise something I wrote five years ago if I realize it suffers from problems uncovered in a workshop on a current piece. I write down every snippet of verbal feedback people give me. I learn from it, work to clarify and perfect my prose, and apply it to future works. In workshops, I’m not on a mission to have my ego stroked about how nice my writing is. I’m on a mission to root out everything keeping it from being awesome, and relentlessly exterminate all those things.

Maybe people in my groups wish I wasn’t so hard on their manuscripts. But I’m only doing what I wish someone had done for me twenty-seven years ago when I started out. It would have eliminated years of struggle. Then again, maybe seventeen-year-old me would have thought current me was an overbearing, hypercritical jerk, and struggled anyway.

It’s hard to say. When I was twenty-three, an editor of a local music magazine asked me to rewrite a band review I submitted. I responded with a scathing letter about how he didn’t understand music, art, writing, or anything else. See? I told you I had made every amateur mistake, didn’t I? Never do this to an editor. I realize now he was right, and the piece I submitted would have been greatly improved had I taken his advice.

While my academic writing is consistently graded at 95–100% by my professors, poetry and fiction are areas of perpetual growth for me. Hell, before I publish my academic works, I still go back and edit them for things my professors missed. Yes, I am that intense.

Fiction has been especially difficult, because I have long been the worst storyteller on the planet. Having only started fiction in July 2014, I have had more struggles than you would believe, and I still go back to my earlier works to revise them maybe once or twice a month. I mentioned I was intense about this, right?

Maybe it’s because I see perfection not as a noun, but a verb. No perfect state of being exists, but we constantly work to perfect our art. Perfection is a process, not a final state. It’s a target we aim for as writers. I think of it like sharpening a blade: a continual effort to achieve the perfect cutting edge. Regardless of whether we ever reach it, the process is how we learn, grow, and improve.

I promised you a list of mistakes I’ve made which have been uncovered and vastly improved by workshopping, so here it is.

  1. Don’t use the word “sound” when you could describe the sound. (Thank you, Jacob Shaver.)
  2. Don’t turn action into a bullet list. In my earliest fiction, I used short, declarative sentences to communicate the immediacy of action scenes. While this is essentially correct, I screwed it up by using the same subject for sentence after sentence. “She did this. She did that. She did something else. She did more stuff.” I learned I needed to vary my sentences and be more descriptive so action would not read like a soul-crushingly dull bullet list. (Thank you, Jeff Smith).
  3. I overuse the word “then” to the point where it’s dull and amateurish. “Then this happened, then this, then some other stuff.” I learned most sequential action doesn’t need this word to be clear to the reader. (Thank you, Jeff Smith.)
  4. My “then” problem is symptomatic of a larger problem of overusing transitional words, mostly conjunctions such as “and” and “but”. It most likely results from a common author problem of thinking out loud about what comes next in the first draft, and failing to fully exterminate it from final drafts. Once the story is on the page, the reader doesn’t need all these cues that events transpire. (Thank you, Jeanne Hall.)
  5. No matter how much research I’ve done on weapons and space technology, it isn’t enough to prevent me from getting factual and scientific details wrong. Unlike deleting “then”, this one is tougher. Fixing this requires researching stuff I don’t realize I need to research! Fortunately, I have people in workshops to help me by pointing out obviously wrong things. (Thank you, Don Dorr and Jeff Duntemann.)
  6. Often, I summarize or explain events that previously happened, whether prior to the story or just prior to the action described in a sentence. When I do this, I add “had” to my verbs so often it pulls readers out of the flow. Usually, using a simpler verb form communicates just as much information; for example, “destroyed” as opposed to “had destroyed”. (Thank you, David Schroder.)
  7. My earliest fiction relied far too much on verbal shortcuts for things I had not visualized well enough. Usually, it manifested in a vague description of action where I told the reader something because I didn’t have a clue how to show it. Feedback made me slow down and look for these things in the revision stage, to decide if I took a shortcut because the narrator did not have a clue, as opposed to merely summarizing because the narrator found the details unnecessary. I internalized the feedback question, “What does that look like?” (Thank you, David Sargent.)
  8. Seeing my repetitive phrases or words is remarkably difficult, even when I read and revise my drafts half a dozen times. Every writer has pet phrases they unconsciously overuse without realizing it, and I’m no exception. (Thank you, just about everybody.)
  9. In fiction, my current mission is to exterminate useless words to achieve maximally crisp language. Some people love stories so much they don’t mind if the prose style kind of sucks, so long as they like the plot and characters. But I can’t get into a story at all if I find the prose dull or amateurish, or overly verbose and lost in a fog of passive verbs. So, even when I’m writing about ridiculous characters such as a cat with the cliché name Patches, I’m on a mission to make the prose style absolutely ripping. I’ve developed a checklist of two dozen style points to pay attention to when revising. But no matter how tight I think I’ve made the prose on a scene I take to workshop, people always find words, phrases, and whole sentences I could cut. Now that I realize it, I’ve improved in this area, but the mission is not yet complete. Thoughtful exterminations of wordiness always help develop my prose style into the crackling, energetic perfection I aspire to. (Thank you, Lorraine Hawley and Tony Padegimas.)
  10. Setting. Real estate workers have a saying: “location, location, location.” In my earliest fiction, I focused on action at the expense of describing location. My scenes were like comic book panels with figures but no backgrounds. By observing how my fellow authors approached a scene, I learned the importance of what filmmakers call the “establishing shot”. This made me think more deeply about how locations influence action, and the resulting rewrites more effectively brought characters to life by showing how they interacted with their environments. (Thank you, Barbara Schroder.)

 

Before I started workshopping locally and built a new workshop from the ashes of another group which died off, I thought I was pretty awesome at writing. But two years of workshopping revealed to me just how far I had to go, and also instructed me on how to improve. I understand how critique can be disheartening to novice writers who don’t realize how much room they have to grow, because I was once one of them. We must always consider that criticism without encouragement amounts to tearing people down instead of building them up.

Fortunately, my group consists of people who genuinely care about each other’s progress. Our core group shares a vision of helping each other produce the best works they possibly can. I’ve learned a lot from them, and their feedback has been inexpressibly valuable to my growth as a writer.

Two years ago, I felt like something was holding me back from achieving the artistic level I wanted to as a writer. By connecting with other authors and being completely open to everything they told me, I grew at a pace that would have been impossible on my own. I only regret I did not start sooner. But as the old proverb goes, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”

A huge thank you goes to the local workshop groups without whom I would have never achieved the quality of writing I aimed at for many years. Your support, encouragement, and honest critique has made a world of difference.

endless learning and the accidental kindle

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inner planets cover kindle.jpgI didn’t set out to make this Kindle book. My mission was only to create an hour-long audiobook version of 50 original poems that work well when read aloud. But when I went to set it up on Audible, I realized I forgot one important thing, something so important that I need to revise my article on Ten Things I Learned from Making My First Audiobook. To create an audiobook on Audible, you need to have either the print or ebook version already listed on Amazon.

Oops! Fortunately, it was pretty easy, since all but two of the poems previously appeared in Kindle books. Mostly it was a copy-and-paste job from earlier files, and a little re-formatting. Plus, I needed to take my audiobook cover, which was formatted at 2400×2400 pixels, and recreate it in Kindle-friendly dimensions.  Since I had saved the original source file with all the image elements and text in separate layers, it took only minor brain surgery to reshape it.

Kindle got their version listed on Amazon in less than 24 hours after I uploaded files, which is pretty amazing. Then I could carry on with the audiobook setup. But the event reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my oldest and most commercially successful artist friends last week. He ran into all sorts of unexpected technological problems with a current project, and he encountered major frustrations with contractors he’d enlisted to do some of the work.

After a little venting and commiserating, we realized no one tells you something very important when you decide to create art: you will need to be a hell of a lot more things than an artist, and learn about many more things than only what you need to know to create in your chosen medium.

You’ll need to learn how to manage projects involving other people. You’ll need to learn marketing principles if you ever hope to get your work in front of other people. You’ll need to learn tools and technologies to create and sell your work. You’ll need to become a researcher.

We agreed the research aspect is especially universal, whether you write fiction or build mosaics, and even if you work entirely solo in a cave and don’t need to learn project management. You’ll research software, practical techniques and theory, ways other people have already tackled your subject, vendors who might supply you, how to ship art to other countries, potential online platforms to sell your art, and a million things that make a comprehensive list impossible to compile.

My friend does a ton of research to create physical objects, and you would not believe the multitude of things I’ve researched to write fiction. From Asian gangs in San Francisco in the 1990s, to gambling and horse racing in the American colonies in the 1700s; from how gunpowder works, to the mathematics of gravity; from the history of launching animals into space, to octopus biologysometimes you set out to write a simple scene and learn nothing is quite so simple as you assumed.

Maybe the worst advice I ever hear given to new writers is, “Write what you know.” What we know is such a tiny fraction of all possible knowledge and experience. Writing what you currently know, or only making art you currently know how to do, is a surefire way to make sure you never grow. Better advice is summed up in the title of the short but insightful book, Writing to Learn. If I stuck to what I knew at age 20 in 1993, I’d still be stapling together photocopied pages of hand-written poems. I wouldn’t have a clue about why gunpowder works in a vacuum. I wouldn’t know a thing about the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order that lies at the heart of recent headlines about net neutrality.

And I wouldn’t know a thing about using audio and graphics software to produce this collection of 50 poems, which was the original point of this post. Am I now the expert on all things? Absolutely not. But I learned a hell of a lot and vastly expanded my skills and knowledge, so much so that people now come to me for consultation on producing their own works. Do I have room to grow and improve? Undoubtedly. There are so many things I am not as good at as I want to be. But with every project I tackle, from painting mountains to doing a book cover to writing a poem, I’m on a mission to learn and improve.

Sometimes it’s painful to look at earlier works and see how many things I could have done better. But that’s a good thing, because it means I learned something along the way. At age 44, if I had any one piece of advice to give younger artists and writers and musicians, it would be this: put your ego aside and be open to criticism, and be willing to learn and improve, because your journey as an artist never ends. The horizon is forever receding, and the only way to keep up with it is to keep learning.

The Kindle version of Inner Planets: 50 Poems is now available for $2.99, and the audiobook should be available by the end of the month.

 

My Father and the Guitar: A Brief Memoir

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My father died two years ago today, after a long bout with cancer that spread from his spleen to eventually his brain and his whole body. Dad and I did not agree on most things, and my teens were times of conflict, to put it mildly. But in my twenties, we were able to put most of that behind us and just hang out.

Dad never understood my love for playing guitar until I was in my thirties. Then one day, he started sending me emails asking about mandolins—and I’m an easy target for anyone and everyone who has questions about music theory and stringed instruments. I don’t know exactly what turned him on to the mandolin, but soon he got into guitar. Our relationship reached a turning point after he got his first guitar and told me, “Now I get why you were into this.”

All I could say was, “It’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?”

By then, we were separated by great geographical distance. But when I would visit, Dad stocked the refrigerator with beer and tuned up his growing collection of guitars, and we would play together for hours. I would show him a few techniques and answer his theory questions, and we played from charts he had for country and worship music he liked.

By the time I got into my forties, Dad’s arthritis made it increasingly difficult for him to play. But he still loved buying guitars, and trading them in later for other models, and getting on Internet forums to discuss gear, and trying new types of strings. He often performed at his church, accompanying his impressively deep bass voice with his ever-growing arsenal of acoustic guitars.

It was a massive about-face from his discouraging attitude toward my love of something which, for twenty years, had basically defined my entire life: the love of playing guitar. He eventually told me why he was so antagonistic toward my interest, and the reason is probably too personal to blog about. The important point is this: he eventually changed his tune.

Perhaps my fondest memories of Dad are the ones we created over a 12-pack of beer and 12 vibrating strings, jamming in unison. He never got to the level he wanted to with the instrument, but he kept trying and learning and improving. At the age of 44, I can tell you that journey never ends. One day, you pick up the axe, and something changes inside you. You’re never the same afterwards.

It was a pleasure jamming you with, Dad.

Rings of Ceres: preview

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Here’s a preview of the next short story in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. This is the first of two parts, and it picks up where Hang My Body on the Pier ended in the Omnibus Edition.

In Rings of Ceres, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat return to a decimated asteroid civilization to rescue friends and kick ass, but they get caught up in violent riots between the desperate citizens of Ceres and the mercenary security forces guarding the mining corporations.

A note about the title: Voyage of the Calico Tigress described how rings formed around Ceres after the tornado in Blind Alley Blues destroyed the Ceresian water-processing facilities. The storm shot the water into space to freeze in rings, along with lots of industrial wreckage and human carnage.

***

PART ONE: THE MASSACRE

November 2029: Svoboda 9.

Patches held the gecko firmly under her forepaw, preventing his escape without squeezing the life from him. It seemed only right that all things smaller than she should die. But his struggles caught her attention. Detachedly observing him, she took a moment to consider his perspective.

Her telepathic merger with Meteor Mags and the mother octopus in September gave the murderous calico the points of view of two additional lifeforms, neither of which was her species. Events of November propelled life forward at a breakneck pace for her pirate crew, but the fearless feline had found ample pause to consider her mortality and her place in the universe.

Was the lizard so different, she wondered. He or his recent ancestors were born on Earth, like her, and transported to the populated regions of the Belt on merchant ships. He, too, found himself farther from the sun than any of his kind. Like her, he wanted so dearly to live. To eat. To run free.

The gecko detached his tail, but the wriggling scrap of meat failed to distract his captor. He changed colors to match the floor’s metal surface in the Hyades’ cargo hold. It granted him no reprieve. In vain, his skin cells sought to mimic the tri-colored coat of the paw pinning him down. Out of options, he ceased struggling and pretended to die.

His heartbeat made a liar of him. Patches felt his life pulsing through her paw pads. She lifted her paw slightly, but his squirming excited her. She pressed him back down, and her invincible claws sank into the deck around him like a cage. His limbs stuck out between the bars.

Then Patches did something she had never done with her prey. She let him go.

He scampered across the deck as fast as he could, ran straight up the wall, and sat huffing nervously at the top. His tiny tongue flicked as quickly as a hummingbird’s. Like a bolt of lightning, he shot across the wall into an impossibly narrow crevice and disappeared.

Patches licked the gecko’s scent from her paw and casually rolled back on her haunches. As for the several hundreds of dragons and humans she had helped Mags terminate since 2027, she felt no remorse. If anything, she felt proud to have ended their lives, not as evidence of her skill as a huntress, but because they had clearly been her enemies.

For the minuscule reptile she had just released, she felt something else entirely: empathy. For a moment, she felt an animalistic kinship, as if he was her cub—something more than a source of food and entertainment.

Her ears flicked back and forth. Whether she heard Mags’ voice or was only aware her best friend needed her right away, she could not say. She shot from the cargo hold like a fur-covered rocket onto the surface of the asteroid.

***

“You can’t be serious,” said Mags. “An aquarium?”

“Hell yes, tía. Check this out.” Alonso stood with her before a drafting table he had set up by a side entrance to the massive freighter they stole nearly three Earth days ago and relocated to the newly named Svoboda 9. After piloting the ship to the asteroid, Alonso elected to stay with Mags’ new friends: a swarm of telepathic octopuses and an intelligent tribe of macaques descended from lost Soviet space monkeys.

In no time at all, Alonso picked up his guitar and started jamming with this unlikely menagerie through a mental link the octopuses created. But while the interior caverns now looked like a band’s practice space, with posters and empty bottles and cables running in every direction, the area around the Hyades had become a construction site.

Sawhorses, toolboxes, and tables covered with power tools from the Hyades’ maintenance crew proved Alonso’s determination to create. Piles of equipment and supplies lay all about, carried from the Hyades by the monkeys—or, as he liked to call them, the Svobodans, though he included himself and the cephalopods in that.

With a wave of Alonso’s hand, the drafting table lit up and hummed. It projected a three-dimensional model of the Hyades in luminous green outlines floating above the table. With a blue penlight, Alonso highlighted sections of the ship as he discussed them, rotating the model for a better view.

Mags asked, “Where did you get all this stuff?”

“Port Authority’s got everything. Now look. We take the Hyades rec room. It’s huge. We wall it off with Plexi, with a backup layer in case the barrier breaks, and an auxiliary water supply. The unused living quarters can easily be gutted to hold an expanded tank. Then all we need to do is—”

“You are a bloody madman.” Mags puffed on a stolen cigarette. “Then what? Take my baby octos on a musical tour of the solar system?”

Alonso turned his palms upward. “Of course! With the monkeys to crew the ship—”

Mags’ laugh cut him short. “You want to take the little Stalinists with you?”

“Why you gotta hate on the monkeys, yo? They’re solid peeps.”

The smuggler let out a sigh that could have filled the sails of a frigate.

“They fuckin’ love you, tía. I see it in their minds when the octos bond us. You’re like a goddess to them. A red-haired goddess of the conquering motherland, you know what I’m sayin’? With sweet-ass tatts, and a totally fine rack, an’ a ass as big as a—”

Okay, Lonso.” She sharply waved her hand. “I got it.” Her obsidian irises moved over his face like mysterious moons in orbit. “I have one question for you.”

He patted his chest. “Bring it.”

“If you’re so stoked about making a band out of my octos and astro-chimps, why haven’t you invited me on the tour?”

His smile glowed brighter than the model. “You’d really come with us?”

Mags flicked her ash onto the Svobodan wasteland. “You really think I’d let you out of my sight with my babies? You’re crazier than I thought, ese!” He raised his fist, and she bumped it. “Now,” she said, returning to the model, “Patches and I need to make a few changes.” She plucked the blue penlight from his hand. “Number one, we need a playhouse—here. With scratching posts, and a basket of pillows. Plus a luxury bathroom with multiple shower heads and a jacuzzi, right here. I need a gun safe, and it’ll take a big chunk out of your rec room plans. Then over here…”

Alonso took notes. He enjoyed watching his old friend take over as manager, just like she had on the Sterile Skins’ first two West Coast tours in the days before the Musical Freedoms Act. Auntie Mags, as he had known for years, might have been crazier than a shithouse rat, but he definitely wanted her on his side in a fight.

Touring the solar system would take one hell of a fight.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Mags. “What about weapons? We retrofit the Hyades with these guns I got in the job on—god-fucking-damn-it! What now?!”

Mags pulled a black box the size of a postage stamp from a pocket in her bra and scowled. At the touch of her thumbprint, the device played a message. Her frustration turned to concern.

KZZZT no fucking idea what it was but the shop KZZZTotally destroyed. —eople lying dead in the streets and KZZZTrobably can’t even hear this, Mags. But if you can, we could really KZZZT your help right now. KZZZeet at the—ike we used to. —ove you.

Alonso asked, “Who is that?”

“Tinta,” said Mags. “She’s on Ceres.” The pirate covered her face with one hand. “Curse me for a fucking papist. With everything that’s hit the fan, I forgot about poor Tinta.”

“What did she say about eating at the what?”

Meeting. Like we used to. Where’s Patches?” But no sooner had the words left her lips than the cat was at her feet, rubbing against her leather boots and leaving strands of indestructible hair like calling cards. Mags scooped her up. “Are you in the mood for adventure?”

Alonso pursed his lips in disbelief and scratched his temple. “Every federale in the System is on your ass! And you want to fly back to a disaster the size of a planet?!”

Dwarf planet,” Mags corrected him. “And the pigs can kiss my lily-white arse. My friends need me.”

“Word,” said Alonso. “You need some backup, tía? You know I got you.”

“You always did,” the smuggler assured him. “But we’ll be fine.” Patches mewed in agreement. Mags rubbed one calico ear between her thumb and forefinger. “Ceres is in total chaos right now. That’s where Patches and I do our best work.”

“You see any MFA, you put a bullet in their brains for me. A’ight?”

“I’ll aim for vital organs instead. They don’t have a functioning brain cell in the lot of them.” She kissed Alonso on the cheek, pausing so Patches could nuzzle his face before they headed back to Plutonian’s ship.

Mags powered up the vessel as Patches perched on the console to enjoy the view. “Just between you and me, dear, we probably should have taken him up on that offer. Now. Let’s go see what kind of trouble we can get into.”

Patches purred like a thunderstorm rumbling on a desert horizon. The ship they had borrowed carried the felons away from Svoboda and toward the asteroid whose destruction they had both so recently witnessed—and barely survived.

***

“This shit is beyond fucked up,” said Mags. “Can you believe this?” She aimed a fingertip at the remains of industry and civilization. “That was a water-processing plant. Shit will be jumping off here right quick if they run out of water and clean air.”

She steered through the disgruntled Ceresian atmosphere. Mags thanked the goddess of pirates the vessel had not been described in recent warrants and amendments against her. To the swarm of disaster-relief crews from Earth and various mining colonies, the ship was just another ship. They had enough to worry about on the ground.

But not all the organized activity was benevolent.

Fifty meters below, a crowd pressed against a gate in the center of a fence enclosing private property. Inside the enclosure sat a ship and supply depots. The property belonged to a mining corporation, and the buildings upon it remained standing, hardly damaged.

They owed their survival to the collapse of a factory next door. Its massive pile of twisted debris formed a shelter from the wind and heavy objects the cyclone had picked up and turned into deadly missiles.

CeresIronCorp staffed the facility with a private security force. Corporations liked pleasant phrases such as “private security”. Accountants cheerfully entered them in ledgers as “independent contractor expenses”. But the contractors were far from cheerful or pleasant.

A more disparate group of killers-for-hire could hardly be found anywhere in the Belt. Three things gave them a cohesive group identity: the standard-issue .45-caliber pistols on their hips, in addition to whatever weapons they personally preferred; the blue-black uniforms, each decorated with a patch bearing the white-on-blue CIC logo of CeresIronCorp; and their eyes as cold and firm as day-old corpses.

Veterans of a thousand wars, they rarely served as enlisted soldiers. They earned their livings from the blood of conflicts which had nothing to do with them, serving whichever master paid the most.

More than one hundred mercs controlled access to the CIC facility, including its medical supplies, food, water, and transportation. But the crowd of Ceresian laborers and their families called that control into question.

Some say society is only three days without food from a total revolt. Many people from the destroyed settlements had already gone without food and clean water for two.

Hundreds of injured, starving, and now-homeless citizens stormed the gate, trying to batter it to the ground and climb over. Mags picked up their shouting on the ship’s microphones. It filled the cabin with riotous tumult—until gunfire drowned it out. The mercs had opened fire on the crowd.

Mags arrived in time to see the massacre begin. Though her plan involved moving quietly without drawing attention to herself, anger took her to a different destiny. She cursed with an intensity that invented several phrases the English language had never known. Instead of passing over the melee, she spun the wheel and forced the ship to make an abrupt about-face.

Plutonian’s vessel was hardly armed at all compared to Mags’ Queen Anne, but she had wheeled aboard a gun safe and made a few modifications before leaving Vesta—just in case. At her command, the ship hovered over the mercenaries, but far enough to the side that Mags could aim a weapon into their midst.

While the Queen Anne had a door that lowered like a ramp for wheeling stolen goods aboard, Plutonian’s side door went upwards into a slot in the hull. The result was an open section like the side of a combat helicopter.

Mags popped in a pair of ear plugs and raised the door to reveal an M2 Browning machine gun whose tripod she had bolted to the deck. Her notorious sharpshooting skills were not needed to deal with the security goons below. Grouped in a tight formation, they only required a steady flow of ammunition. The M2 fired .50-caliber rounds at a maximum rate of nearly 600 per minute, making it one of Mags’ favorite tools for taking out the trash.

Mags tossed out a few grenades then sat in the open doorway, straddling the machine gun from behind. She swept the weapon back and forth like a painter filling in the background on a canvas of annihilation. Her sharp eyes took in every detail of the carnage. Armor-piercing rounds rammed into lungs and vital organs, obliterated faces, and sprayed the mercs with the entrails of their comrades.

Mags needed little provocation or sense of justice to fuel her massacre. CeresIronCorp was a subsidiary of GravCorp, and Mags considered anyone associated with GravCorp deserving of execution. After all, the company had stolen what was rightfully hers: the science of gravity control. If the greatest thief in the solar system hated anything, it was having her own things taken.

At the fringes of the clustered mercenaries, a few gathered their wits and returned fire.

“Fuck!” Her antagonists’ bullets ricocheted off the interior walls. Mags rolled back from the doorway and covered her head.

Patches howled in her face, a wrathful noise muted by the earplugs. But the cat’s eyes told Mags everything.

“Go!” Mags yelled. “Tear them a new one!”

The killer calico leapt from the ship into the fray. What torments the mercenaries suffered on the receiving end of Mags’ bullets paled in comparison to the agonies unleashed by her friend.

Patches got personal. She sank her teeth into throats and raged through the mass like a whirlwind, slicing tendons and mutilating genitals so quickly the mercs never knew what hit them. Their delicious blood drove her to new heights of slaughter.

Mags crawled from her hiding place and resumed her position at the Browning. “Fuck yeah, baby kitty!” Knowing her cat could not be hurt by bullets, she fired indiscriminately.

The murderous felines’ assault turned the tide. The Ceresians outside the gate pressed the advantage. Beating down the enclosure, the crowd surged over it like a hungry wave devouring all in its path.

Over the Browning’s fury, Mags shouted, “Patches, get to the roof!”

In her rush to open fire, Mags had ignored one detail: the anti-aircraft gun atop the roof of the CIC building. Now manned, it pummeled the vessel with a barrage of explosive rounds. The weapon roared, and the ship caromed this way and that.

Mags slid across the deck and smashed into a bulkhead. The ship heaved and threw her in the opposite direction. Her head slammed against a wall. “Enough!” Using handholds built into the walls for zero-gravity maneuvers, she pulled herself forward to the cockpit as the vessel was violently tossed about.

At the helm, she steered the ship to hover directly above the gun. With a maximum angle of eighty-five degrees, the offending weapon could not fire straight up. Mags used the reprieve to switch the ship to auto-pilot, stuff its remote control into her bra, and run back to the door. She unsheathed her boot knife and leapt out.

The gunner pulled his sidearm and squeezed off one shot.

Mags’ combat boots met his face. His spine snapped backwards like a dry twig. The impact ripped his head free from the body. A spray of blood from his neck coated the back of Mags’ legs and soaked her skirt.

She landed on all fours. The severed head hit with a splat. It rolled away with a look of surprise.

Brandishing her knife, Mags prepared to spring on her opponent, but the fight was over. She tossed her ear plugs aside. She considered aiming the anti-aircraft gun at the mercs, but the conflict had become a sporadic mix of Ceresians and their oppressors, with no clear targets for a weapon that big.

The crowd swarmed the supply depots, hoping for plunder. The CIC ship on the ground drew the throng with its promise of escape. Until Mags’ aerial assault, the mercs had guarded it while the crew unloaded supplies, but the chaos left it unmanned and unlocked. People clambered aboard the ship, but arguments broke out over who could go. Presented with a means of escape, and cleared of one enemy, the crowd turned on itself to fight over limited resources.

Men punched each other in the face. Adolescents brandished homemade shanks and threatened anyone who got close to them. A woman leapt onto a man’s back. She pummeled his skull with her fists, and blood stung his eyes. Her three children attempted to surge past and board the vessel.

Patches weaved between legs and pressed through the clamorous crowd like it was nothing. Anyone who obstructed her advance got perforated by terrible claws. She dispensed only minor wounds to encourage Ceresians to make way, but opened a dozen mercenaries’ arteries. Blood soaked her fur by the time she arrived at the facility’s main entrance.

She jumped through a broken window and entered the building. Patches sought the stairwell to the roof, and many CIC employees died from her slashing claws before she found it. She ran up ten stories of stairs to burst through the roof’s doors so loudly she made Mags jump.

Patches wailed.

Heedless of the cat’s gore-covered exterior, Mags scooped her up. They surveyed the chaos. “No, they won’t all fit on that ship. Nor ours, even if we offered.”

Patches whined.

“Sure, we could take some. But not all. How do we make that choice?”

Their chat did not last long, for the crowd followed closely behind Patches. Rumbling footsteps in the stairwell alerted the felons, who got a headstart back to the ship. A mob poured through the double doors to the rooftop. Dozens led the charge, and a hundred surged behind them, pushing forward.

Mags pulled the remote from her bra and commanded the ship to descend. She shouted as she ran, cradling Patches with one arm. “No no no no no!

Patches leapt from the embrace onto the deck. Mags jumped in behind her and whirled about to face the oncoming crowd.

In a flash, she drew a Desert Eagle from her garter holster. She flicked off the safety, chambered a round, and snapped the nearest person into her sights.

Reason halted her instinct. She thumbed the safety into place and holstered the pistol. She sprang for the cockpit like a lioness, and her calico tigress filled the co-pilot’s chair. Mags lifted off the roof as fast as she could.

It was not fast enough. People jumped at the rising ship. They grabbed the edge of the open side and the landing gear. A few found handholds as the vessel pulled away from the building, only to lose their grips and fall to the jagged concrete rubble.

Like the gecko Patches captured hours earlier, the humans wanted so desperately to live. To run. To escape.

Mags cursed them loudly. “The fuck are you doing?! Get off!” Her jaw set in a mask of resolution. Below, bodies struck the ruins and turned into crimson sprays and meat with bones sticking out at tragic angles. “You damn fools.”

Once the ship veered away on its new course, Mags’ façade broke. She smashed her fist on the console. “Goddamnit!” A tear ran from her right eye and traced a path down the curve of her pale cheek.

Patches jumped into her lap to comfort her.

“We can’t let this go on, Patches. These poor fucking people.” She wiped her eye and sniffed. “We need to get them help. This is bigger than you and me. But we need to do something before the mining corps and their piece-of-shit merc squads establish martial law down there.”

Patches stepped onto Mags’ chest and shoved her nose against the pirate’s cheek, marking it with a smear of human blood.

“Love you, too, Patches.” Mags pulled the tiny black square from her bra, pressed her thumbprint to it, and said, “Dial. Rosie.”

Unbeknownst to her crew on Vesta, Mags had been in contact with Kaufman’s secretary Rosalia since before the woman applied for the job. Rosalia’s real mission in the administrator’s office had been to influence his first contact with the smuggler, then keep an eye on him.

Although Rosalia considered Mags a friend, she felt a deeper affection for the underground resistance on Mars. This was, at least, one secret the two women did not have between them. It was the reason Rosalia had agreed to Mags’ request to immerse herself in the bureaucracy governing Mars: to be on the inside and the outside.

The orbits of Mars and Ceres were, that month, close enough for communication between them to experience only a slight delay. It was almost as good as real-time.

Rosalia’s voice came thru the tiny speaker in Mags’ hand. “Ahoy, beautiful.”

“Ahoy, kitten. I’m in the midst of a trauma. Got a minute?”

“Three and a half.”

“Close enough. What have you heard about Ceres and this freak tornado? I don’t mean the garbage on the newsfeed.”

“I heard it was no accident. It was deliberate sabotage of the atmosphere cleaners.”

Mags’ ears perked up. “By locals?”

“Hardly, dear. The smart money expects a statement from a group claiming to be the Martian resistance within thirty-six hours. They’ll take credit for the catastrophe on some ideological basis.”

“Your goddamn resistance almost killed me with that tornado!” Mags strung together a sequence of obscenities like increasingly profane beads on a necklace. She nearly blurted out, “You almost killed Kaufman,” but she stopped.

Rosalia had not mentioned Kaufman. Mags suspected her co-conspirator did not know the official had abandoned his post to join Mags’ merry band of outlaws. “Where the hell is your boss? I need to talk to him.”

“He disappeared,” said Rosalia. “His wanted poster is all over the Belt. I last saw him on Mars, a day before the tornado.”

“You saw him? Doing what?”

“He had a painting delivered to his office in the morning, and he did not seem like his usual self. He left to pick up his son to take a holiday, and that was that.” Rosalia said nothing of how she saved Kaufman’s life only moments before his departure from the red planet.

Mags sensed a partial truth, but she pressed a different point. “Why are your people on Mars fucking about with Ceres? We’ve got plans for Mars. Are they trying to piss me off?”

“There are some people on Mars,” said Rosalia, “who object to the oppression on Ceres and will do anything to end it. They think they need to—”

“What they need to do,” Mags interrupted, “is stop destroying places where people live, and start sending some help to these poor motherfuckers! What were you idiots thinking? I have friends on Ceres!”

“Mags. The people who did this are not the resistance. They’re a radical splinter group.”

“The bloody resistance is a radical splinter group! Whoever fucked those atmosphere cleaners is a fucking maniac! I will beat the life out of them with a rusty shovel if I ever—”

“Mags. Mags! Calm down. I have people working on this. Good people. I won’t let you down.”

“Good,” said Mags. “Good. These people need food and water. Medicine. Shelter. Whatever you can make happen with the resistance or the Port Authority, I would appreciate it.”

“Are you there now? Is it as bad I heard?”

“Worse. Do me a favor, Rosie. Call me every twelve hours until I say otherwise. Leave a message if I don’t pick up.”

“Absolutely.” The line went silent.

A sinking pit formed in Mags’ stomach. Rosalia’s words stank of disinformation, but Mags had not been entirely forthcoming, either. “She’s lying about something, Patches. The only way we’ll get to the bottom of it is a trip to Mars.” She lit up a smoke. “I’d rather drag my vag through broken glass than go to Mars right now. The ‘resistance’ or whoever they really are can sod off until after my birthday.”

Patches plaintively mewed. She showed the tips of her tiny white fangs and pulled back her whiskers in a chatter.

“That’s about the size of it, baby kitty. First, we save our friends. Then we worry about saving the worlds. Let’s find Tinta.”

END PART ONE

 

 

Why Minimalism? A Personal Reflection.

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Why Minimalism? A Personal Reflection.

A year and a half ago, while workshopping poems for my collection Anything Sounds Like A Symphony, I received game-changing advice. For reasons I can’t remember, I had been capitalizing the first letter of every line. But two folks told me that since my free verse closely resembles prose, I should punctuate and capitalize it as such.

I take workshop feedback very seriously, so I reformatted all my poems. It also made me realize much of my poetry from 2012–2016 read like bullet lists. Maybe it was my training in technical writing that led to that. I don’t know. But the feedback helped me rewrite and improve a body of work I was mostly happy with, but which had problems I couldn’t quite resolve. Symphony was a better work because of it.

When I was done, and Symphony was published, I had this inescapable feeling I could go even further. The experience made me wonder just how much punctuation and capitalization was necessary to convey meaning.

As an editor and a writer who produces essays on public policy, I need to be the master of grammar, punctuation, and all the formal mechanics of writing. The things I work on professionally and academically need to be technically perfect, and that is no small task.

But just how much technicality is required to convey meaning, emotion, and imagery? This question made me reevaluate my approach to poetry. What if I could get rid of all the mechanics and focus only on words? Is that even possible?

I gave it a shot to see how much of the mechanics could be removed during the Poetry of the Planets group project earlier this year. Using nothing but line breaks and spaces between stanzas, could I make meaning absolutely clear? Could I toss out capitalization and punctuation altogether?

It turns out: I could. But it wasn’t instantaneous, and my first few efforts required a period or two for clarity. Also, I granted an exemption to apostrophes to show possessive words and contractions.

As possibilities became realities, I worked to construct lines which never needed periods. It became a poetic mission, the kind of artistically satisfying personal obsession that makes you terribly boring at social gatherings. “I’m working on exterminating punctuation to reveal the beauty of words. Let me show you.” Right. Good luck with that line at the next office or holiday party.

Oddly enough, it worked. I put the new poems in front of workshop groups which included amateurs and academics and everything in between, and they drew the exact interpretation I wanted. They unequivocally got the meaning. The only exceptions were when I had made narrative errors, not mechanical omissions. Those exceptions forced me to rewrite poems until people drew my desired interpretations.

I also discovered a weird thing about line breaks. Without a period to stop a sentence, I could create double meanings depending on where people assumed the sentence began or ended. The first confirmation of this effect happened when author Judy Cullen sent me a beautiful reading of my poem, Jupiter.

The poem has two ambiguities in it. The first happens at the line, “love me for an hour then leave / traces of your orbit…”. Judy read this without a pause between “leave” and “traces”. Read with a pause, it says, “Love me for an hour and then leave,” as in, “Let’s get it on and then you go away.” It’s a cold line, read that way.

But if you extend it without a pause, as Judy did, it’s a line encouraging your lover to love you then leave traces of themselves, which is an intimacy the former reading stops cold. I wrote it that way to set up multiple possibilities between coldness and intimacy—something standard punctuation never accomplished.

The poem’s second ambiguity happens in the line, “until all they know is mystery like a fool / i would keep you to myself”. When Judy read it, you can tell by her pacing that she chose the first meaning: they know only mystery, like fools. But a second possible interpretation exists. You could end the sentence after “mystery”, and read the next part as “Like a fool, I would keep you to myself…”

Which interpretation is correct?

Like the first ambiguity, both ways of looking at it are right. As the author, I can tell you the correct interpretation is to simultaneously hold both interpretations in your mind, despite the contradictions. In the first case, both the coldness and intimacy are intended; in the second case, both the foolishness of others and the foolishness of the narrator are intended.

Those simultaneous but contradictory meanings were never available to me in more conventional forms. Stripping out punctuation between sentences made it possible to mean two things at once.

In most poems, I want the reader to reach a definitive meaning. But having the option to reach two possibilities, either of which is correct, and both of which are more correct when taken together—that was simply impossible in my previous style.

I respect poets who work in forms with guidelines about meter, rhyme, structure, and other formalities. In nearly three decades of composing poems, I’ve dabbled in countless formalisms. But my current minimalist approach to free verse has unlocked a freedom of expression I felt was inaccessible before.

This is not a minimalist manifesto, nor an insistence that my current approach is right or wrong. All wordsmiths need to find solutions to their own unique concerns about language. I would not produce fiction, essays, or technical manuals using this philosophy.

But when I need to unleash myself from the mechanical constraints governing my non-poetic work, and delve into the potential beauty of the spoken word, throwing convention to the wind and relying only on line and stanza breaks opens a whole new world of possibilities.

witch’s brew

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This October’s witchy brew was my first home brew: a gallon of mead. At less than 30 days from start to finish, it came out sweet, clear, strong, and absolutely delicious. Cheers!

mead 1

At first, it was too cloudy and, because I had tried to jumpstart it with extra yeast when I thought it had stopped fermenting after a week, it tasted way too yeasty. But I watched a video on clarifying it with bentonite clay, and that method cleared it right up by pulling out the offending yeast particles.

It goes great with homemade cinnamon-sugar donuts made from deep-fried buttermilk biscuit dough straight out of a can. Couldn’t be easier.

donuts

No black cats this month, but here’s a black guitar. This road-worn axe from 2000 was feeling sad, so I stripped off her hardware, taped up the neck, and sprayed her with flat black auto touch-up paint. Oddly, the sound improved once I had her back together.

repainted guitar

Then I tried my hand at more mountains, but with a spacier vibe. Here they are in progress, while waiting on a coat of highlights.

mountains in progress

October 31 is a good day listen to Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. Enjoy!

octopus ring

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If you pay attention to this site at all, you know I have grown to love octopuses, especially the telepathic space octopus variety. It all started innocently enough, when I came up with the idea in 2015 that Meteor Mags and Patches would encounter a giant mutant octopus in an asteroid cavern and forever have their lives changed as a result. But that crazy idea resulted in tons of research into octopuses and a genuine fondness for these freaky sea creatures.

So, I was thrilled to discover these handmade rings on Etsy.

doctor gus octopus ring

My ring arrived weeks ago and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I have fat knuckles that are wider than the rest of my fingers, and that usually prevents me from wearing rings. But this one was adjustable, so I gave it a shot. It turned out to be the perfect solution, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

The creator of this cephalopodic masterpiece has his own site plus a site on Etsy, so go check them out.

If you are looking for a book on octopuses that is full of scientific knowledge but still accessible to a non-biologist, you will enjoy Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate. If you want something a little more horrifying and science-fictional, rock my short story Never See the Night.

Maybe you need some bad-ass octopus music? I recommend the neo-psychedelic song Octopus Ride by Harvey Rushmore and the Octopus, and the epic slow jam blues album Under a Black Moon by Electric Octopus. Or, if you want some visual splendor, do what I did and commission Joe Shenton to draw some space octopus madness.

You should also get a copy of the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition, which features mutant space octopuses in the stories Red Metal at Dawn, Daughter of Lightning, Voyage of the Calico Tigress, and Hang My Body on the Pier. I’ve got big plans for the telepathic space octopuses in Mags’ universe, including a tour of the solar system hell-bent on revolutionizing human consciousness through music.

Just don’t order calamari around me if you want to be friends. I’ll take it personally.

 

cat-o-lantern

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cat-o-lantern 2017

My cat-o-lantern is carved on a 6-inch tall pumpkin and is based on a clip-art image I pulled from the web. The small size made it tricky, since even my smallest kitchen knife was too big to cut the tiny shapes. I went with an X-acto knife for cutting and a miniature screwdriver for scraping.

Audiobook #2: Never See the Night

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never_see_the_night_cover_for_kindleMy short story Never See the Night is now available as an audiobook on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. It’s science fiction with a double-shot of action and horror, and the grisly scenes with the telepathic space octopus are not for the faint-hearted.

I’ve had positive response to my article Ten Things I Learned from Making My First Audiobook, and my workshop group made good suggestions that have now been incorporated into it. If you’re wondering if you can produce your own audiobook, I encourage you to read the article, then give it a shot!

My biggest lesson from Never See the Night came not from producing the audiobook but from writing the original story. It taught me that having a cool idea is easy, but plotting is hard. Maybe that’s not news to you, but I only started writing fiction three years ago. So, when I first had the idea for this story and drafted the opening scenes, I got stalled immediately. Several things about the original draft made my desired plot points completely unworkable.

The draft ended up on the shelf for an entire year. Now and then I would come back to it, try something different, and realize that didn’t work either. It was so frustrating!

Oddly, that frustration helped me identify with the characters. They struggle to solve problems, and their efforts are repeatedly thwarted. My feeling of being “locked out” of this story put me in the same position as the characters who are locked out of the lab. Their struggle became mine. In the end, I think it’s a better story for it, with deeper characterization than I had in the early drafts. Despite the challenging hours that went into plotting, the story became less about the plot and more about the people.

The people and, of course, the octopus.

 

Ten Things I Learned from Making My First Audiobook

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The_Baby_and_the_Cry_Cover_for_Kindle

My short story The Baby and the Crystal Cube is now available as an audiobook on Audible and Amazon. I published it in ebook and paperback formats earlier this year, but other authors keep asking me about audiobooks. So, I made one and got hands-on experience working with the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) platform that distributes to Audible and Amazon.

Before I tell you what I learned, let me offer you a free copy. ACX sent me promo codes you can use to get the audiobook at no cost. Send me an email, and I’ll hook you up. I have codes for Audible’s USA site and its UK site. Tell me which one you need.

So, what did I learn?

First, you don’t need a million bucks to do this, or even a thousand. I do know some professional audiobook talents who built soundproof studios in their homes, stocked with expensive microphones and Pro Tools audio software. If you’re making a career of being voice talent, that’s the right thing to do. But if you are an author with a DIY philosophy and a limited budget, you can get a decent headset mic for $30, download Audacity software for free, and get started.

Second, Audacity has a noise-reduction tool I never used before. With a little trial and error, it helped me eliminate background hum. ACX has strict limits on the decibel level of background noise (“room tone”). I learned I live in a sea of electrical hum! Plus, my first recording efforts took place during rush hour—a terrible time to do this on a busy street like mine. I had much better results recording super late at night when all is quiet.

Third, keep a pen and paper handy while recording. Jot down all the times when you mess up or clear your throat, or when a noise interrupts you. When you edit the recording, start at the last time you marked, and work backwards. If you start at the beginning and snip out mistakes, then the subsequent times are no longer at the place you marked them, but earlier, because you’ve shortened the recording.

Fourth, listen to the whole thing after editing. I was over-confident in my editing the first time I submitted files. I sent one where I missed a major mistake involving cursing loudly and re-reading a botched paragraph. Don’t count on ACX’s quality review team to catch mistakes. They do not listen to every second of your recording. Fortunately, you can upload corrected files, but it’s slightly inconvenient. Do yourself a favor and listen to the whole thing before you submit files!

Fifth, if you have multiple email addresses, set up your ACX account with the same one you will use to email the ACX support team. They absolutely will not lift a finger to help you if you contact them from a different email address. I learned this the hard way. ACX is linked to my Amazon shopping login, which is also my Kindle Direct login, so I needed to change my email address at Amazon. Not a huge deal, but a little inconvenient.

Sixth, the ACX platform and ACX staff really are friendly and easy to work with. I don’t blame them for my failure to use the right email or upload the right files. Once I got my act together, everything with ACX went smooth as silk.

Seventh, the ACX book cover requirements are unique to them. If you already have a Kindle cover, or Smashwords cover, or paperback cover—guess what? You need to make yet another cover! I admit I was a little annoyed by this. As a result, I probably didn’t put enough effort into modifying my existing book cover to fit the ACX size requirement of 2400 pixels by 2400 pixels. Now that I know, I can plan ahead when I design my print and ebook covers.

Eighth, for as much effort and brain surgery as it takes to produce a decent hour of voice recording that meets quality standards, the process is fun and exciting. I may not have the perfect voice, but I do know how I want my own work to sound: the emotional tone, the inflection, and the pacing. Besides the total creative control, reading your own work aloud gives you a more intimate connection with it and understanding of it. You also gain the satisfaction of having your work in a format with even more of your personality in it than the printed page.

Ninth, what works on the printed page doesn’t always work in a reading. I discovered that although my written dialogue makes it absolutely clear who is speaking without excessive speech tags, I needed to throw in a few extra “he said” and “she said” tags in the audio version. Maybe if I had tried to work out different voices for characters, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But I haven’t got that far yet. And how silly would I sound if I did a fake female voice for female characters?

Tenth, I had no say in the audiobook’s price. This isn’t a deal breaker, but with Kindle, Smashwords, and Createspace, I control the price and can even change it after publishing, so long as it meets minimum pricing requirements. With my first audiobook, I wondered, “Where do I set the price?” Answer: I don’t! See the ACX pricing page about how your book’s length determines its price. What do you get paid? The ACX royalties page explains how giving them exclusive audio distribution rights earns you 40%, and a non-exclusive deal earns you 25%. “Non-exclusive” means you could sell the audiobook through other channels of your choosing.

To sum it up, you can make your own audiobooks at a low production cost if you learn the ACX requirements, and if you know or can learn basic audio recording and editing. It’s a bit of work, but creatively satisfying.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! In fact, my second audiobook should be available in the next week or two. I will keep you posted!

quarterly report

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Quarterly Report: AD 2017, September.

Part 1: Talk Like a Pirate Day.

My late father had a weird hobby in the 1980s. He spent his evenings in an isolated room, talking on a radio to people from all over the world. He was an amateur ham radio operator, and he picked up all kinds of shortwave stations from the Soviet Union and different places. He was in on the very first developments in packet radio, which was a forerunner of packets of information transmitted over the Internet today.

I never got into ham radio, no matter how many antennae I helped Dad install on the roof to wreak havoc with the neighbors’ television reception and phone lines. But later, I got into public radio at WCBN-FM and KAOS-FM in the 1990s.

Climbing on the roof with Dad was fun as an adolescent, but I have even more adventurous memories of my public-radio days, none of which I can share with you out of a sense of common decency and legal liability. My memoirs from the pirate station in Arcata, California in the early 2000s are even less printable, and that’s one of the everlasting joys of my life.

These days, you don’t need a radio transmitter to talk to people all over the world; you just need the Internet. I loved public and pirate radio, but no one in Europe or Australia or Japan or South America talked to you while you did it. 1990s college radio was local. The Internet is global.

My favorite Internet-based communications group is one I affectionately call my story hour group. They have read stories in live, voice transmission from across the country and globe for more than a decade now. Many of those stories inspired my own poems and fiction.

I got a microphone recently, which only seems amazing to readers who have followed me since 2013 when I sold everything I owned. A few of you understand how lean that year was, and how lucky I am to even be alive to post utterly irresponsible blogs in the middle of the night to you right now. Thank you if you bought some comic books and art that year! I wouldn’t be here without you.

Anyway, to celebrate “Talk Like a Pirate Day” on Tuesday, September 19, I read Hang My Body on the Pier for a group that connects via the Internet to read stories to each other, and it was fun. Reading out loud for a solid hour is more challenging than you’d think, and I was thankful my new mic had a mute switch for when I needed to clear my throat, cough, or gulp another beer.

Okay. I might have gulped beer a few times in their poor little ears. But that is only fitting for “Talk Like a Pirate Day”, and may they all suffer the wrath of a thousand hells if they squandered a single ration of rum that night. Sink and burn me.

I enjoy reading my stories aloud, so I recorded my two most recent short stories and submitted them to Audible to release as audio books. They are currently in the quality review process, because Audible has specific requirements about decibel levels for peaks and room noise. We will see if I got them right the first time, or if I need to try again.

Part 2: Kickstart My Heart.

Don’t tell UK-based artist Joe Shenton, but I backed his recent Kickstarter with ulterior motives. His artwork is the kind of thing I wish I could do. Since discovering his work on Reddit, I could not get this thought out of my head: “He is the guy who should be illustrating my science-fiction series, not me.”

I could spend the rest of my life trying to draw space stuff and aquatic animals the way he does, and not even get close. His drawing arrived last Saturday and is now framed on my wall. He asked about themes or subjects his contributors like, and I told him, “I like space, pirates, and octopuses.” He sent me this glorious 6×8 ink drawing.

joe shenton ink drawing 003

Just between you and me and the world-wide web, I’m pondering how to make it worth his while to draw telepathic space octopuses, calico cats, cybernetic electric eels, armored space lizards, and psychedelic rock-and-roll visions from the year 2029.

painting

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Working with color has always been a challenge, because I have a form of red-green colorblindness. According to a recent test, my specific variation comes from weak green receptors. Green isn’t the only thing affected; I have trouble distinguishing some purples from blues, light pinks from white, browns from greens, and many more. But guess what?

paynes grey mountains (1)

Mountains; acrylic on canvas, 24×30

I love playing with color anyway. I still see it. My world isn’t black-and-white. That would be an even more extreme colorblindness. Mine is like color “confusion” compared to that. But because color remains a challenge, I was thrilled to learn Bob Ross recorded a landscape painting demonstration designed just for colorblind artists. It’s very much like his other work, but all in one color: a grey tone mixed with white to create lighter values.

paynes grey mountains (2)

I watched it twice in a row, utterly mesmerized, and then tried my hand at his techniques on a much larger canvas with acrylic paint. Ross used oil, and many of his techniques don’t translate to acrylic. Acrylic dries faster, so you don’t have the luxury of blending as smoothly as Ross did with oil.

paynes grey mountains (3)

On the other hand, you can do a few things with acrylics that Ross never did with oil: layers of color washes, splashes, and other “wet” effects you get from making a mess with water and paint. My art teacher loved Payne’s Grey and first suggested it to me as a color for painting the mountains in Sedona at night, just at the end of sunset. I love it too, and when the little tube she gave me ran out, I bought 250ml of the stuff. Payne’s Grey is the only paint I used in this piece, plus white: an ultra-white interior house paint (semi-gloss) from the hardware store.

paynes grey mountains (4)

Ross uttered an especially memorable line in his monochromatic demonstration of building mountains: “All you need is a dream in your heart. And an almighty knife.”

Watch and learn!

mirage

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mirage

later we recall the memory in a dream
leaving us uncertain
how much of it was real

every time we dream it
you seem farther away

like heat waves bending the
asphalt horizon in the summer
forever receding

something always comes after starlight
but tonight i can’t remember what

The Thunder Lizard Returns: Dinosaur Books by Ted Rechlin

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The Thunder Lizard Returns: Dinosaur Books by Ted Rechlin

 

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I began reading dinosaur books in the late 1970s, and back then, we had a dinosaur called Brontosaurus: the iconic Thunder Lizard! But the beast I grew up with would be revealed, in my adulthood, to be a complete fraud. Brontosaurus was nothing more than a hoax perpetuated with the bones of the real animal: Apatosaurus.

 

Just like my generation needed to reconceive of dinosaurs as having feathers, lifting their tails instead of dragging them, and living as endothermic animals instead of exothermic reptiles, my generation accepted the disappearance of our beloved Brontosaurus.

 

But it seems we were wrong about being wrong. Recent examinations of the fossil record have shown both Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were real animals: structurally similar, but differentiated by their skin. The Thunder Lizard has returned!

 

Author and artist Ted Rechlin couldn’t be happier about it. His graphic novel Jurassic puts Brontosaurus back in the spotlight. When a baby Brontosaur is separated from his mother, he gets swept up in a journey through the perilous landscape of a forgotten North America, encountering all sorts of species of dinosaurs Rechlin renders in gorgeously colored illustrations. Through the young Bronto’s eyes, readers take a tour that is both educational and exciting.

 

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Despite a few violent dinosaur fights, Jurassic keeps the gore to a minimum, focusing instead on the drama. Rechlin doesn’t try for the existential terror of Jim Lawson’s Paleo and Loner, nor the biological brutality of Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles. But like those comics, Jurassic tells a thrilling story about animals in the natural world.

 

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Just between you and me, the Brontosaurs may have been the main characters, but they were not the superstars of the story. That honor belongs to the incredibly awesome Allosaurus who rages through this book, a massive female fighting machine storming the countryside with a pack of smaller Allosaurs at her side. Rechlin renders her with savage, majestic beauty, and she totally steals the show.

 

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Rechlin doesn’t get heavy-handed with his natural philosophy, but the final scene with the big female Allosaurus puts the entire story in a different light. Throughout the book, you sympathize with the baby Bronto’s separation from his mother, and you hope he will be okay. The female Allosaur and other carnivorous creatures are threats to our main character. But at the end of the day, the murderous Allosaurus is shown to be an attentive mother whose primary concern is feeding and caring for her own babies.

 

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The interdependent struggle of all animals to survive, eat, and rear their young is a tale that echoes Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, and it’s a consistent theme in dinosaur comic books. Eat or be eaten. Jurassic‘s triumph is how subtly Rechlin handles this theme and communicates it without getting excessively graphic.

 

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Brontosaurus, Allosaurus, and many more dinos also appear in Rechlin’s coloring book Dinosaurs Live! This innovative work combines drawings of dinosaur skeletons, educational and entertaining captions like a comic book, and full-page spreads of the dinosaurs in all their fleshy and feathery glory.

 

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Rechlin isn’t afraid to convey science in casual, conversational language that uses humor to memorable effect. You will learn from his coloring book, but you will laugh, too. Like Jay Hosler’s Clan Apis, which teaches about honeybees, Rechlin’s coloring book is strong on biology without being a stuffy textbook.

 

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No, I can’t bring myself to color these beautiful pages. I would feel like I was defacing a black-and-white dinosaur comic book such as Epic’s Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Guide by Charles Yates, or Tyrant by Steve Bissette. I might need a second copy so I can color the pages guilt-free!

 

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Also on my wish list is Rechlin’s other full-color dinosaur graphic novel, Tyrannosaurus Rex.

 

Below is a list of where you can buy these books on Amazon, and with links to purchase directly from FarCountry Press, the distributor who kindly sent us review copies and images. FarCountry has many animal, nature, and history books, and other exquisitely drawn coloring books featuring flora and fauna of national parks.

insect

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Click to hear a reading of the following poem.

insect

for 80 million years she crawled
flightless as her arthropod ancestors

she grew wings in the devonian period
and flew away faster than six legs ever carried her

no flowers bloomed or scented her flight
no brutes with torches or electric moons

she flew in a night without fire and she dreamed

remember her under your porch lights
in your desolate parking lots at 3 a.m.
in your isolated rooms where sunlight
never penetrates

remember her millennia of yearning
for a place to swarm and burn completely
and in that brief flash before dying
tell an ancient story written with buzzing wings

outlined with keratinous hairs
segmented like carapaces into paragraphs
stories you could never understand
until you too had lived in darkness

now in print: The Baby and The Crystal Cube

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The_Baby_and_the_Cry_Cover_for_Kindle

Two lucid dreamers meet in recurring dreams, fall in love, and conceive a dream baby; but the unreality of the dream world leads them to distrust each other—with nightmarish results.

A paranoid exploration of two minds dreaming the same dream, and fighting to control it.

On Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

On Barnes & Noble in paperback and Nook Book.

On Apple iBooks.

drone

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Click to hear a reading of this poem.

drone

near the end
you chose the monotone

you had your fill
of chord progressions
bouncing like billie

or children playing in the grass
chasing soap bubbles
until they burst

all you wanted
was a steady drone

a placid ostinato
oscillating in the background
like hummingbird wings

or a rothko canvas
consuming your vision
with one fundamental color

 

 

now in print: Never See the Night

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never_see_the_night_cover_for_kindle

An interplanetary biologist locks himself in a fortified research lab with an alien octopus, stranding his teammates outside in the path of a ferocious hurricane on a water-covered world. The animal already killed one of them, and the scientist-commandos must get inside to confront it, or die in the storm.

But the octopus has plans of its own, because it just discovered a new species, too: humans.

This short story is accompanied by five recent poems from the Poetry of the Planets project.

Now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. On Barnes & Noble in paperback and Nook Book. On Apple iBooks.