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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Meteor Mags: Rings of Ceres – now on Kindle

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rings of ceres kindle coverIn 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.

This sixteenth short story in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches picks up immediately after the final scene in the Meteor Mags: Omnibus Edition.

Get Rings of Ceres on your Kindle now for only $2.99! Free to Kindle Select subscribers!

Inner Planets: a poetry audiobook

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An hour-long reading of fifty original poems selected from Anything Sounds Like a Symphony, Animal Inside You, and Never See the Night, along with two previously uncollected poems. Narrated by the author. This audiobook is now available on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. Plus, the text comes in a Kindle edition so you can read along!

amplifier

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amplifier

if we get separated you can find me
in front of amplifier stacks
dancing where music is
too loud and full of rage

i am the ink in your pen
the bullet in your chamber
and the catfight in your backyard
you won’t need to look far

when you’re made from electricity
it doesn’t matter if the grid collapses
we will always have lightning and the
sparks between your synapses

some things are indivisible
they will not fade with time
their bond cannot be measured
by clocks and watches

like photons we have only the singular moment
like stars we set the sky on fire
we have written our names on everything
like vandals it belongs to us

if we get separated you will find me
even when you don’t know where to look
the location does not matter
only the seeking

enemy

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This poem appears in the short story Never See the Night.

enemy

love is a lie
death is ecstasy

my eternal enemy
your seas have no horizon

your moons are scarred
from burning in the light

the craters of their eyes
will never see the night

—final transmission from the expedition to Gelnikov 14.

 

postmortem

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postmortem

over breakfast we discuss corpses
coffin births and stillborns
who never had a chance

how charles died
why it took so long
when we barely hang on

before lunch you choose a mercy killing
keep it to yourself for later
then surprise me

dinner’s a cadaver you
dress to the nines and
bathe like a lover

brush its hair and whisper
softly as a carving knife
then put to bed

maybe some things should remain unsaid
but we were never good at that
were we

our plates are all empty
piled in the sink
like mountains

just leave them

night

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when i dance it takes me
somewhere only made of music

tear down the night
we don’t need it

not for shelter
or cover for hunting

all we need is volume
and more of it

—from the diary of Meteor Mags; November 2029.

Nine Things Workshops Taught Me to Improve in My Writing

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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? As writers, we feel about our 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 objectively critical about them is tough, even though that’s exactly what we need to do if we want to take our writing to a higher level.

If you’ve ever attended one of my workshops, you know I mark up pages maybe more than anyone else in the city of Phoenix, and I have strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t. But you may not realize I am harder on my own material than I 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 accordingly.

I take every bit of feedback about 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’ve 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 and I 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. I think of it like sharpening a blade: a continual effort to achieve the perfect cutting edge. 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. I turned action scenes into bullet lists. 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 subjects and be more descriptive so action would not read like a soul-crushingly dull bullet list.

2. I overused the word “then” to the point where it was 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.

3. My “then” problem is symptomatic of a larger problem: overusing transitional words, mostly conjunctions such as “and” and “but”. It most likely results from a common author problem of thinking aloud about what comes next in the first draft, and failing to fully exterminate that mental chatter during revision. Once the story is on the page, the reader doesn’t need all these cues that events transpire.

4. No matter how much research I’ve done on weapons and space technology, it doesn’t 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 who helpfully point out obviously wrong facts.

5. I often 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” usually works. (Yes, other verb tenses have meaningful uses. But simpler is usually better and more exciting to read.)

6. My earliest fiction over-relied on verbal shortcuts for things I had not clearly visualized. Usually, they manifested in vague descriptions of action I didn’t have a clue how to show the reader. Feedback made me look for these in the revision stage, to decide if I took a shortcut because the narrator did not have a clue, as opposed to summarizing because the details were mundane or unnecessary. I internalized the feedback question, “What does that look like?” I also experimented with non-specific descriptions. For example, “His IQ was 27” conveys specific information, but “He was dumber than a box of rocks” conveys the meaning more entertainingly. The former is good for academic writing, but I prefer the latter in fiction.

7. Seeing my repetitive phrases or words is remarkably difficult, even when I read and revise my drafts half a dozen times. All writers have pet words they overuse without realizing it, and I’m no exception.

8. 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 the prose is dull, amateurish, overly verbose, or lost in a fog of passive verbs. So, even when I’m writing about ridiculous characters, I’m on a mission to make the prose style absolutely ripping. (I developed a personal checklist of one dozen style points to pay attention to when revising. Caution: it’s brutal.) 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. Sometimes entire paragraphs.

9. I skimped on 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 scene construction, 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. I also realized the value of drawing a map of a location to fix in my mind the space where events happen. It doesn’t need to be brilliant cartography; even a simple sketch will do.

 

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 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 one of them. In many ways, I still am. We must always consider that criticism without encouragement amounts to tearing people down instead of building them up.

Fortunately, my workshop group consists of people who genuinely care about each other’s progress. Our core members share a vision of helping each other produce the best works we 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 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. My only regret is that I did not start sooner. But to paraphrase an old proverb, “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 text-only Kindle edition of Inner Planets: 50 Poems is now available for $2.99. The hour-long audiobook edition is now available on AudibleAmazon, and iTunes.

 

My Father and the Guitar: A Brief Memoir

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dad and his alvarez acoustic guitar 001

 

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: playing the 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.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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