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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Mars Attacks trading cards

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For the eighth birthday of Mars Will Send No More on WordPress, and my forty-fifth on this planet, let’s have a look at some of the craziest Mars-based paintings of the twentieth century: the Mars Attacks trading cards!

mars attacks cards - cover

From the 1984 reissue set

Because Topps is still producing new sets and republishing the originals now and then, I won’t post my complete collection of scans of the original cards. But we can enjoy a few of the classics together.

mars attacks cards 40 high voltage execution

from the 1984 reissue set

As much fun as these cards are, doesn’t it sound better to have them all reproduced in a high-quality book with essays about the cards’ history? If you think so, too, avoid spending a fortune collecting original vintage sets, or even the 2012 reissue set, and pick up the book Mars Attacks: 50th Anniversary Collection on Amazon.

mars attacks cards 11 destroy the city

from the 1984 reissue set

If the originals aren’t enough to satiate your Martian appetite for carnage and chaos, the gory story continued with sequels: the Mars Attacks Revenge set, the Mars Attacks Invasion set, and the Mars Attacks Occupation set.

mars attacks cards - 41 horror in paris

from the 1984 reissue set

Not all reproductions of the original set include the same cards, and this has been a point of contention in many online reviews. I tried to find a guide to exactly which set you’d need to buy to get not only the original 55 cards but also the ones omitted from the set due to excessive nastiness. The result? A bloody headache!

mars attacks cards 50 smashing the enemy

Ouch my brain!

So, I ask you to post in the comments section with any information you have about which set is the definitive, complete, all-inclusive version.

mars attacks cards 65 naked and the dead

Maybe marketing these to children wasn’t such a great idea!

You might already know artist Norman Saunders painted many of the original 1960s cards, but reader Ed Dietrich tells me Norman also painted a 1966 series of Batman trading cards. Here’s a sample from Ed’s collection, with an appropriately horrifying giant spider! Big thanks to Ed for helping with this post!

norman saunders batman card 1966

Last but not least, a Dinosaurs Attack set was released on a terrified populace in 1988, and while rampaging dinos might seem well-suited to the fury and frivolity here at Mars Will Send No More, an awesome collection is already available for your viewing pleasure at http://dinosaurs-attack.blogspot.com/

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Fun for the whole family!

Despite its relentless, gruesome carnage and widespread destruction, Dinosaurs Attacks was clearly produced by cat lovers.

32 cat lady's revenge

I like most stories where cats win.

poems between friends

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One of my methods of developing fictional characters is having them write poems about each other. I’m currently working on a short story about two teenage girls who are best friends, so the following two poems are an exercise about them and their emotional bond. It was fun to step out of my personal poetic voice and let them speak in their own voices.

 

Friendship

We help each other all the time
but that’s not why we’re friends

That’s how we became friends
not why

We hang out all the time
trading stories, laughing,
sharing secrets, eating
but that’s not why we’re friends

That’s what we do
not why

Friendship involves action
but action is just the plot

Stories, like friends, are more than a plot
They are the feelings they give you

Something happens in your heart
and you never see life the same after

She’s my friend because of how I feel
when we’re together or even when we aren’t
She’s with me in my thoughts
and it isn’t a short simple word like love

One word isn’t enough
to describe what happens when music plays,
your heart sings with it, and for a few minutes
anything seems possible

Connected, not alone
Energized, not tired
Uplifted, not beaten down
Trusted and accepted

Maybe that’s why we’re friends
Or maybe it can’t be explained
like a mystery novel with the pages torn out
or how no two calico cats have the same markings

The world would seem empty without her
and I would feel
like a piece of myself
was missing

 

Daredevil

She’s always been braver than me
rougher, wilder, reckless
like a mustang on the open plains
running toward the fire instead of away

She never backs down from a fight
maybe she even looks for one

The world needs people like her
because so much is wrong with it and
someone
needs to do something about it

I imagine she could be anything
anything she dared or was willing to fight for

I imagine she will always be free
the way a trapeze artist escapes gravity for a minute
but the minute lasts forever

I’m here on the ground where things are safe
while she flies up there
inspiring me

making me feel like I could be anything, too
like I could be free
if I dared

the physicality of feeling

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I’m participating in a seven-day writing course this week, and one of the exercises involved communicating emotions by using the five senses. I tackled four emotions suggested in the exercise, making lists of what each one looked like, tasted like, and so on. We were instructed to turn each emotion into its own short piece of writing, but I modified that a little. I combined the two negative emotions into one short prose piece, and then the two positive emotions into another. Here are the results.

Despair & Anger

The next morning, you walk into the kitchen to find the shattered remnants of all your ceramic dishes broken on the floor, a thousand shards as sharp as knives. Right where you left them before passing out. The apartment windows have frosted over, and so has the windshield of your car.

The blue Honda is buried under white piles in an ocean of white to the horizon, broken only by smears of grey-brown ugliness where city snowplows pushed the icy blank death to the side and only further blocked you in. Sludgy, slushy shittiness you stumble through hoping not to fall. The roads and walkways have become traitors, slippery fiends who plot to betray you and leave you broken.

Why is everything so hard. Why do you work so hard to get somewhere you don’t want to be in the first place. Why you. Why anything.

The atmosphere looms heavy like a hydraulic press and its grey weight cares nothing for you. It doesn’t recognize you. It doesn’t know who you are. It only exists to slow time to a crawl, to turn your movements into painful sluggish drags like when you’re underwater struggling to surface.

Passing trucks poison the wind with exhaust and make you gag. Fumes mix with the burning tendrils of your last cigarette, and the trucks rumble past with the anonymous efficiency of a human resources drone saying they regret to inform you they’ve chosen someone else for the job you needed to pay your bills. You hate them like you hate words you can never take back, words whose memory aches like your hand after punching something that’s harder than you can ever be.

Nothing takes root in this frozen soil. No flowers flourish in this doomed expanse which never knew the sun.

People don’t live here. They just keep from dying.

Love & Hope

Before you make love, she feeds you. She shows up with tacos. Their warm oil leaks through the flimsy paper to soak the brown bag and turn it a deeper shade. The fragrant heat of a deep fryer and the spicy red energy of salsa. Steam escapes and drifts away to comforting nothingness under the kitchen fan.

You can taste the food before it enters your mouth, just like you taste the willingness on her breath when you kiss her, telegraphing the aroma of her skin on your face before she straddles you. Sink your tongue into her and drink. She engulfs you, swallows you up like the sea, and cries like a gull at once forlorn and ecstatic in her flight.

When she curls up next to you afterward, her pupils grow large like planets in a telescope. Her words and the unintentional song in her voice say you are somehow special, a lie you can believe because you want to. She runs a brush over your skin like a groomer tending a horse after riding. The mass of gentle bristles touches you in a way that might be love and might not, but you can’t tell the difference.

The next day, life is good. You ride your bike to the ATM. The air carries a scent of redwoods and the ocean washed clean by afternoon sunlight. Pure.

You stuff a wad of crisp bills into your wallet, filling it with their cloth-like, papery texture and confidence. You trade a few for rich foods: chocolate brownie cheesecake and a burger bursting with condiments and peppers until your belly swells. Back on the bike, you pop in your earbuds and pump your skull full of thick, fat, fuzzy guitar riffs, a living liquid energy.

You’ve forgotten whatever concerned you yesterday. Tomorrow might not be so bad. It’s a long time between now and sunset, so why bother worrying about it?

More Retrofuturistic 1950s Cards: Jets, Rockets, and Spacemen!

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Bowman produced these beautifully painted trading cards beginning in 1951: Jets, Rockets, and Spacemen! The “jets” cards merely showed normal airplanes with informative text on the back, but the rest of the series told a story about a fantastic space adventure, with each card as a chapter.

The slideshow below features some of my favorites. You can find a complete collection of both the fronts and backs of these cards, so you can take the entire journey, at http://www.lowellsplace.com/jrs/jrs_main_page.html

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Though I only heard about these cards this year, the series is clearly a direct ancestor of the Meteor Mags stories. Its conception of space involves pirates, cats, octopuses, and dinosaurs (flying reptiles, actually: pteranodons). That’s my kind of space adventure!

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Octopuses in space!

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Vicious cats on other planets!

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Space pirates!

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Interplanetary Dinosaurs!

I love keeping up with current developments in space exploration, but I guarantee you that interplanetary travel will never kick as much ass as it did in 1951! Tragically, this series stopped before the complete story was told. You can read more about its production, and why it was never finished, at https://www.psacard.com/articles/articleview/6976/psa-set-registry-1951-bowman-jets-rockets-spacemen-trading-card-thats-blasting-off-popularity

 

Retrofuturistic Topps Space Cards from 1958

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72 mysterious mars

Space travel ain’t what it used to be! Technology, design, and planetary knowledge have evolved since these beautiful Topps trading cards came out in 1958. But if you are like me and easily amused by vintage space art, these cards are worth checking out.

80 exploring jupiter

Below is a slideshow featuring a few dozen of my favorites. You can find a complete collection, including scans of the text on the back of the cards, at http://www1.coe.neu.edu/~dan/tsc/go.html

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23 meteor peril

Meteor Peril! Isn’t space travel exciting?! The only thing that could make it more fun is fried eggs.

77 mercurys amazing climate

Matthew Kalmenoff painted dinosaur postcards

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Ankylosaurus (Cretaceous period) - for web

Reader Ed Dietrich sent us these postcards as a follow-up to what we’ve shared of the late Kalmenoff’s artwork for The Golden Stamp Book of Animals of the Past and Sinclair Oil’s Exciting World of Dinosaurs booklet. Ed says these cards from publisher Dover bear a 1985 copyright date, which means they come from a book you can still get inexpensively on Amazon: Dinosaur Postcards in Full Color. The complete set contains 24 postcards. Here are five to whet your prehistoric appetite!

Brachiosaurus (Jurassic period) - for webBrontosaurus (Jurassic period) - for webPlateosaurus (Triassic period) - for webTyrannosaurus Rex and Ornithomimus (Cretaceous period) - for web

kiss

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kiss

in the dream
our lips meet
as if they’ve always known each other

later i get trapped in metal elevators
crushing me, suffocating
i struggle to break free

but that moment we spend together
is what i recall
upon awaking

Animals of the Past as Painted by Matthew Kalmenoff

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animals of the past stamps Book Cover

Today’s images come to us courtesy of reader Edward Dietrich, who recently discovered a 2012 post with my scans of a 1960s booklet, Sinclair and the Exciting World of Dinosaurs. Another reader had informed me that the artist was Matthew Kalmenoff, and Ed added that Kalmenoff did the full-color paintings on the stamps in a book I loved when I was a kid: The Golden Stamp Book of Animals of the Past.

The cover, featured above, has art by Charles McVicker. Ed sent the following scans of Matthew Kalmenoff’s paintings for us all to enjoy. He included notes about different versions of this book, of which there were many!

animals of the past stamps 001

Though the blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs has scans of some pages from a 1950s version of this book, the art was apparently recycled into many editions. Ed says he’s owned a third printing from 1968 (priced at 59¢), plus an eleventh printing from 1975 and an eighteenth printing from 1980 (both priced at 89¢).

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Most of Ed’s scans are not from the stamp book edition, but a 1961 version called Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals Trading Cards, and branded “Golden Funtime Trading Cards”. Instead of printing the artwork on sheets of lickable stamps to affix to the pages, this version presented the images on heavy cardstock and had oversized pages. This version only had 45 paintings, compared to the 48 in the stamp books, so Ed thoughtfully scanned the remaining stamps from the other editions.

animals of the past stamps 004

Some updates to the captions happened between the 1950s stamp book version and this 1960s trading card version. For example, the Protoceratops is clearly labeled as such in Ed’s scans, but was labeled “horn-faced dinosaur” in the 1950s version. Also, the Ichthyosaur is named in this edition, where it was labeled “fish-like reptile” in the 1950s book. “Winged reptile” got updated to Rhamphoryncus. Other captions changed, too, but why should I ruin all the fun of letting you find them?

animals of the past stamps 005

If you’re like me, you now want wall-sized prints of several of these gorgeous (if somewhat scientifically outdated) paintings. If you’re willing to settle for something smaller, I’ve seen some of them on Amazon repackaged into a 1988 book called Ready to Frame Dinosaur Paintings. I hope Kalmenoff got paid well for this artwork, considering how many times it was repurposed into different publications over the years.

animals of the past stamps 006

If you’re digging these paintings and want to see more of Matthew Kalmenoff’s vintage artwork, cruise back to the original post that started all this madness, because I updated it with more images and links. I was excited to learn about this connection to one of my childhood treasures via total strangers’ commenting on a post about a book I randomly found on eBay. Talk about going full circle!

animals of the past stamps 007

A big “thank you” goes out to Ed for taking the time to scan and share these images! This blog would be nothing without the people who have dropped by over the years to share my enthusiasm about dinosaurs, prehistoric animals, comic books, poetry, and mutant brains from outer space. Happy New Year to you, and may your dreams be filled with prehistoric mammals!

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The next three images are the ones from the stamp books that did not appear in the 1961 trading cards version.

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If I ever get around to recording another album of guitar instrumentals, it’s going to be called “Skull of the Uinta Beast”. Hell yeah!

animals of the past stamps Missing 002

animals of the past stamps Missing 003

Here are two images of the cover from the 1961 trading cards version!

Golden funtime animals of the past Cover close up

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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 Unlimited subscribers!

Inner Planets: a poetry audiobook

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inner planets audiobook cover -  resized for web.jpg

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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meteor-mags-blind-alley-blues.jpg

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. 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.