Fiction Fragments: Michael Burke

Last week, I spoke with Gabriela Vargas about feminism, poetry, and why you should submit your work for publication. And this week, I am happy to welcome comic book aficionado and speculative fiction writer, Michael Burke.

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Michael Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts. His love of books was sparked by finding his father’s stash of pulp hero novels at a young age. The lurid, frenetic art of Frank Frazetta captivated his imagination and he needed to know what was happening to the characters behind those covers.

A Spider-Man comic book purchased for him by his father was his steady companion as he taught himself to read. This effort was not only rewarded by finally discovering what happened to those pulp heroes but also with a lifelong love of the comic book medium.

He co-founded the comic book store, Comicazi in 2000. It has won several Best Of Boston awards and in 2017, won the prestigious Eisner Spirit Of Retail award. Michael is also a licensed pharmacy technician. He has had all manner of jobs in his life ranging from painter to photographer to bouncer to roadie to office work to construction. He still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up but he’s enjoying the ride. Through it all, he has written and told stories. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the best story he’s ever been a part of.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Michael. Comic books have a reputation of being one of the first forms of fiction children become connected with as readers. Comics have obviously had a positive impact on your life, how have they influenced your writing? What titles would you recommend to kids who are reluctant to pick up a book?

MB: Hi Michelle. Thank you for having me. Comic books have definitely impacted my life in a positive way. My dad saw my interest at a very young age. I had found a shoebox full of his paperbacks. Conan, Tarzan, Executioner, Doc Savage. In the late 60s, lots of those pulp-era characters had been reprinted by publishers. The covers captivated me. He fostered that interest and got me a Spider-Man comic book. He and my mom helped teach me to read when they could but I was ravenous and forged ahead on my own.

That early exposure to comics helped my reading comprehension at an early age and propelled my interest in seeking out all manner of reading material. My formative years were spent with my head buried in books and comics. I’ve loved the comic medium my whole life. I started writing my own stories in third grade; they were very much influenced by the comic characters I was reading. When I was ten-years-old I even created my own superhero complete with origin and costume design and mailed it off to Marvel Comics. I never made a copy of that, darn it! On some level, I feel that I’ve always written with that certain measure of bombast inherent in comics. Well, super-hero comics. As I got older and my tastes expanded, I saw that comics could tell even more stories.

One of the reasons comics are great is that they’re unique in that they have always both influenced and reflected popular culture. I daresay that I would not have read half as many of the books that I have if it weren’t for comics. And, of course, my passion for comics lead me to co-founding a comic book store. We focus our efforts on building and maintaining community and welcoming all with open arms. Some of my favorite recollections of time in the shop are of speaking with new fans of the medium and of talking with kids.

There are scores of comic titles to recommend to kids today. Far more choices than there were for me as a kid. Our shop has a large all-ages section we keep well-stocked. Lots of families come in and kids from pre-school to teenage come in. I’d recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kabuishi; any of the books by Raina Telgemeier (Guts; Smile; Sisters; Drama; Ghosts); Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Bone by Jeff Smith. There are plenty of Star Wars Adventures digests for younger readers because, let’s face it, most kids like Star Wars at some point. There’s always an audience for the standby titles like Disney characters and Archie and Classics Illustrated. There’s really no shortage of comic titles that a kid can get started reading.

GMM: Tell me about your fragment. Who is Ahanu, and where will his journey lead him? Can you share a synopsis of the story without giving away too many spoilers? What inspired this story?

MB: My excerpt is from a novella that I’m writing. It’s called A Parliament of Owls. It’s a sword-and-sorcery tale with horror elements and influenced by Native American folklore. I struck upon the idea last year and wrote it as a short story for my writing group. I got tons of constructive feedback and with that, plus the notes I took, I realized that this was a longer story. I’ve been sitting on it for a bit, letting it simmer in the back of my head, as I worked on other things. But it’s ready to come out now.

The inspiration for the story is very much from my love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. My dad’s old paperbacks were definitely the fuel for this. Sword-and-sorcery is a subset of fantasy; it has elements of the supernatural present and the tales are often fast-paced, placing the protagonist in a personal struggle. They’re often set in a semi-mythic realm, although there can sometimes be some historical aspects present. The stories do not deal with earth-shattering problems and epic dangers like Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy sagas.

Ahanu Foxcloud is a young man, barely twenty, and an orphan. His mother was a powerful witch with a mysterious past. This fact put her at odds with the elders of her tribe. Ahanu wants to know more about his mother but feels stymied by the village council. He also feels like an outcast among his own people. There may be a reason for that and some of that may be his own insecurities. There’s a young girl in the village, Halyn, that he sees as a sister. She keeps him on an even keel. Ahanu often butts heads with authority and is frustrated by the traditions his people follow when he imagines a larger world beyond his own.

The world makes itself known as even larger than he could have imagined when Halyn and other children go missing. Ahanu scoffs at the explanation given to him for this and sets out on his own to discover what happened. That confrontation will expand his horizons and teach him a thing or two about growing up.

I plan on writing several short stories about Ahanu and his adventures. I’m starting to flesh out the world I want to have him populate and having fun doing so. Looking into more Native American mythology to help influence further adventures has been very interesting and I look forward to adding more of these components. As I move forward with Ahanu, I plan on teasing out facts of his mother’s past and how that ties in with the character that I want him to become.

GMM: You write speculative fiction, but what genre is your favorite to read? Write? Why do you feel drawn to that genre? Is there a genre you enjoy reading but haven’t written in, and why?

MB: Oh gosh, that’s tough. I’ve followed a general pattern through my life. It started with my dad’s Conan and Tarzan books. Those lead me to other books by those authors, of course, but after that, I read other fantasy and adventure books. From there, I moved into science fiction, then horror. Back to fantasy in the nineties when there was no end to those multi-book high fantasy series. Then it was urban fantasy and science fiction. Then mystery and horror. Those were the big beats and I tried other things that struck my fancy at the time. I’d have to say science fiction is probably my favorite to read. It’s a sprawling genre that hits many of my buttons. What I like about science fiction is that element of social commentary. When I was younger and reading works by Ursula K. LeGuin and watching Star Trek reruns and didn’t know the term “social commentary”. I liked thinking about the lesson it put forth.

My favorite genre to write is the first one I was exposed to. I’m having fun with Ahanu’s sword-and-sorcery tale. It just came a lot easier to me than other pieces I’ve written. Maybe because it’s been with me for so long. I love horror and science fiction, too, but I think I struggle a bit more with those genres.

I’ve read a lot of detective/mystery stuff. Parker’s Spenser; the Burke series from Andrew Vacchs; the classic authors of the genre: Chandler, Hammett. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I’m really digging Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill character right now. I like a lot of it but I’ve never attempted to write a mystery. As I travel along my writing path, I’m beginning to find the value in outlining my stories. Typically, I imagine a scene/idea and just write. A friend of mine calls it “discovery writing”. I know there are writers who do it that way and there are writers who outline and there’s probably a number who fall somewhere in between. There’s no right or wrong way to write your tale. But I don’t think I’ve tried my hand at a mystery because I feel that it would require more of an outline style than my discovery method. Perhaps as I settle into a writing method that works best for me, I’ll give a mystery tale a shot one day.

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A gibbous moon filled the sky, its eerie half-light falling between the canopy of branches above Ahanu’s campsite. The air had only cast off some of the day’s humidity; the night was close and thick. Low sounds echoed throughout the forest as nocturnal creatures stalked. The campfire sputtered low. Ahanu sat with his back to a big stump and gazed into the dying flames, worry gnawing at his gut. The past day filled his mind. Anger and fear continued their hold on him as images of Moki and the elders sneered at him. His mother had always been at odds with Moki and he knew, just knew, that they had it in for him.

Dim remembrances of his long-gone mother replaced the angry visages of the tribal leaders. Feelings, more truly. A sense of comfort. He was so young when she was taken, it was all he could do to keep her face in his memory.

That melancholy flowed into the reason he was out here in the woods. He had to find Halyn. She had been gone too long. And she was little older than he was when he lost his mother. She was as a sister.

Grim thoughts stayed with him as his head lolled. His eyes drifted shut and the fire sparked its last.

An indeterminate time passed. The moon kept its counsel. All was tranquil.

A feminine trill whispered through the darkness. The night fell quiet. Ahanu breathed deeper but did not stir.

Again, that soft sound. Kijiru awoke and snorted, head and tail high.

“Easy, girl,” Ahanu opened his eyes. “What is it?” he clambered to his feet, grabbing his axe from the ground as he rose. He walked to the mare, all the while his amber eyes darted. He whispered reassuringly to the horse but she was uneasy.

The fire had died but the high moon cast more than enough light, albeit the effect through the trees made it appear some manner of spectral plane. The heavy, humid night air leant a certain lethargy to Ahanu’s movements. His head was still fogged with sleep. He stood beside Kijiru, slowly brushing his hand through her brown mane.

A long, low rasp sounded. It sounded very much like a sharp blade being dragged across a stone. Ahanu started, tightening his grip on the axe handle. Kijiru shuffled her feet. He moved from the horse, looking about. That sound worried at the edges of his memory but he could not recall the context. He moved about the site in a slow circle, eyes trained into the dark.

A short, vibratory song called next, almost as if a caged bird were nearby. Ahanu saw nothing. The fine hairs on his arm stood straight and he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.

“I bid thee greetings, O man” a soft voice came from the dark. It seemed to come from all directions at once.

Ahanu whipped his head about left and right, trying to ascertain the voice’s origin. “Who goes there?”

“Just a wanderer of the wood. I saw your fire and thought to avail myself of a fellow wayfarer’s kindness,” the voice crooned. It seemed to come from his left.

Ahanu’s thoughts felt sluggish. He stood a moment, determining if this were a dream. He shook cobwebs from his mind and glanced at the ashes of the campfire. It was dead.

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

“Do you not offer hospitality to another traveler, then?” The voice was now behind him.

Ahanu whirled, his knuckles white on his axe handle. “Step forward, woman, if woman, you be, and not some damned forest spirit!”

A slight glimmer of motion rippled in the corner of his eye. He turned to his right and took a step in that direction. Kijiru whinnied nervously. Ahanu’s eyes widened as a face materialized from the dark. Ice-white tresses cascaded in a silvery frame about a beautiful face. Eyes darker than arboreal shadows regarded him coldly. Ahanu stopped, awestruck.

He stared, enrapt, following the bodiless face as it moved about the campsite. He dimly noted that it was odd how the face would sometimes change in height as it moved. Almost as if it were a bird alighting on branches.

“No forest spirit am I, but a woman.” A note of anger sounded deep in her voice. “And you would do well to accord me respect.”

Ahanu retreated a step, superstitious fear driving him back. He considered his next words but held his tongue. The face had not moved. It hovered, ghostly, in the moonlight.

“Well? Boy.” The word dripped from cruel lips.

The tableau held for several moments until Kijiru let loose with a loud snort. Ahanu blinked hard and in a fluid motion, hurled his near-forgotten axe at the apparition.

A horrible hiss sounded and the lovely visage winked out like a blown candle flame. Ahanu heard heavy wings and could swear he glimpsed a dark form take flight. He shook his head in an effort to clear his dazzled vision.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Todd Sullivan

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jessica McHugh about YA fiction and how horror and humor come together in her stories. This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Todd Sullivan.

image0 (2)Todd Sullivan teaches English as a Second Language, and English Literature & Writing in Asia. He has had numerous short stories, novelettes, and novellas published across several countries, including Thailand, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and Canada. He is a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial arts, kumdo/kendo, and has trained in fencing (foil), Muay Thai, Capoeira, Wing Chun, and JKD. He graduated from Queens College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camps. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and looks forward to studying Mandarin.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi Todd, welcome to Girl Meets Monster. After reading your fragment, I wondered what inspired the story, as well as what specific genre it fits into. There are young characters, so I thought YA and since there’s magic, I placed it in fantasy. Do you normally write YA fantasy, or do you write within other genres and subgenres?

TS: I wrote this story while teaching at a Language School in Seoul. One of the students was fond of drawing, and he was also a poor student academically. He was under a lot of pressure to do better in his classes, and soon he was going to take entrance exams for a boarding school in China.

This real-life scenario became the genesis of Test Amongst the Shadows, wherein a teenager, who happens to be a mage in the world of humans, has to pass an exam that is important to him. The narrative follows the different methods he employs to cheat since he knows he cannot pass the test on his own.

Test Amongst the Shadows is YA urban fantasy fiction, and eventually I’ll develop the idea into a novella series.

I also write across genres, including horror and light science fiction.

GMM: The interaction between your characters also reminded me of Japanese manga and anime stories. Do you enjoy anime? How has it influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite anime series or characters?

TS: I love anime, and it has had a significant influence on my writing. I remember the first time I saw Akira, which is the first major Japanese anime film many people around my age saw. This was in the 90s before the popularity of the internet when it was hard to find anime on American television.

One of the big differences between anime narratives and western narratives is that there are usually no purely evil characters. Westerners base a lot of their worldview on scripture: Heaven and Hell, good and evil. There is God, and there is Satan. There is a hero, and there is a villain.

Anime characters tend to be more flux in their alignment. Usually, the characters simply have objectives. Sometimes this objective brings great harm to one, or many, and that person will be the bad guy. The character with an objective that happens to include stopping the great harm to the one, or many, will be the good guy.

In Akira, there is no villain. There is a teen boy full of angst who accidentally achieves great power he cannot control. And there is his friend who must stop him, in a way out of friendship, out of knowing that the boy is in torment even as his power wrecks havoc upon the city.

In Dragon Ball Z, one of my favorite animes, Vegeta starts off as a central villain to Earth. He does so because he wants to escape the tyranny of one of DBZs purely evil characters, Frieza, and on Earth he thinks the means to do exists. Vegeta changes throughout the series, going from villain to anti-hero to hero.

Then there is Goku, a character whose goal of protecting the Earth conflicts with his overwhelming desire to improve his fighting abilities. This obsession Goku has indirectly causes great harm and misery to others.

The characters I write are similar to these Japanese figures. With few exceptions, my characters are not purely good, and they are not purely evil. Sometimes one of them will have a goal that brings suffering to others; and sometimes, another of them will have a goal that brings them into direct conflict with the first, and thus the suffering of others can be alleviated.

GMM: How long have you lived in Asia, and what aside from teaching English and Writing made you decide to move there? What cultural barriers have you experienced as a person of color living abroad? How have these experiences shaped your writing?

TS: I’ve lived in Asia ten years. After a three-week winter semester class where I studied Japanese authors in Tokyo during my MFA at Queens College, I knew that I wanted to come back to this part of the world and learn more about the people and the cultures.

Many Asian societies are homogeneous, so the presence of foreigners acts as a bit of a shock to their system. I think that being a foreigner in a homogeneous society is a good case study of how humans might react to the presence of aliens from outer space. There is simply a difficulty in processing the reality of that which is standing in front of you.

Writing-wise, I think this difficulty is best expressed in my fantasy novella series, The Windshine Chronicles. This series centers around a dark-skinned foreigner living in a fantasy version of Korea called South Hanguk. The series’ narrative is multilayered, but one of the themes is how the people of the country interact with foreigners, and how the foreigners struggle to exist in a country that isn’t their native home.

In The Windshine Chornicles, the idea that the human race is “one whole” is constantly put to the test.

From Test Amongst the Shadows, by Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her…

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Jeff Carroll

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it’s been a year since my last Fiction Fragments post, which featured black female horror writer, R. J. Joseph. In the time that has past since the last post, a lot has happened. I published my debut novel. I published two short stories in horror anthologies (Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos and The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women), and wrote a bunch of other blog posts for Girl Meets Monster, Speculative Chic, and Medium. I attended my first Necon and sold all the copies of Invisible Chains my publisher brought to the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival, and was finally able to answer the question: Am I a Real Horror Writer? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes.

But, that’s enough about me. Today, I am thrilled to share a fragment by Jeff Carroll with you. I met Jeff Carroll a few years ago at StokerCon, but I didn’t have a chance to pick his brain and talk about his writing. So, I’m excited to have him as my first guest in this second season of Fiction Fragments.

Jeff C low res 2018Jeff Carroll is a writer and a filmmaker. He is pioneering what he calls Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. His stories always have lots of action and a social edge. He has written and produced two films, Holla If I Kill You and Gold Digger Killer which won BEST Picture at the International Hip Hop film festival. His short stories have appeared in both The Black Science Fiction Society’s anthology and their magazine. He is also is the Hip Hop dating coach is a leading voice of Hip Hop reform and his book The Hip Hop Dating Guide is used by public schools and community groups nationwide. Jeff Carroll is also the author of the non-fiction book The Hip Hop Dating Guide. When he is not writing Sci-Fi stories he enjoys speaking on Healthy Dating to college and high school students everywhere and goes by Yo Jeff. He writes out of South Florida where he lives with his wife and youngest son.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jeff. Tell me about Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. How do you define these genres? What characterizes them as having a Hip Hop element? And, when did you begin developing these genres?

JC: I started calling my works Hip Hop horror in 2003 when I was promoting my movie Holla If I Kill You. The movie had some basic differences from many of the other films. It wasn’t just Black people in a horror film it was a different type of character behavior. Hip Hop Horror and sci-fi are stories that have the energy of hip hop subculture. They are multicultural, urban and young type of stories. Hip hop horror and sci-fi are based in hip hop culture and not the music only. However, I did write a hip hop story. Rasheeda the Zombie Killer is the closet story I have to a Hip Hop music influenced story.

GMM: Why speculative fiction? What draws you to these genres? What stories influenced your writing?

JC: I was drawn to speculative fiction because I am a big dreamer. I am also a futurist at heart. I love thinking about the future and solutions to the problems of the world. I loved “What if” stories like The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Planet of the Apes. Those stories influenced my Harlem Shake series. Stories like L. A. Banks’ (RIP) Vampire Huntress Legend series motivated my first horror book Thug Angel: Rebirth of a Gargoyle. I enjoyed the urban setting and the real world connection. I remember reading Street Lethal by Steven Barnes and was blow away about the freedom of sci-fi.  You could destroy the world and reshape it in any way you want. And finally, my favorite sci-fi book Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers by the late William Simms showed me how revolutionary a Black imagination could be. My book Welcome to Boss Lady’s Planet was more like Star Wars and Serenity than Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers because I thought I needed to lay off the Black story lines to get a publishing deal.

GMM: Do you have any new film projects in the works? Can you tell us about it?

JC: Yes, I have a movie coming out this winter called The Death Pledge. It tells the story of a group of pledgees that have to spend the night excavating an African burial ground. It features my first monster like Jason and Freddy.

Excerpt from The Programmable Man, by Jeff Carroll

Lonely Love

Sometime in the not too distant future a girl waited for a booty call. Stacey Maplewood a single independent woman who is the head pharmacist and the only female in charge of a drug store in the city. In her bedroom the smell of jasmine flavored incense filled her candle lit room as Stacey lay in her bed. Her arm dangled off the side of her bed holding a glass of wine. On a well-decorated table not far from her bed was another wine glass, which was empty and next to that was a bottle of 1978 Merlot. The décor was straight out of a Rick James song. On the same table was a plate of scallops wrapped with prosciutto crudo (raw ham) with small cubes of aged cheddar cheese and wheat crackers. Her bedroom was decorated in a dark red and white matching the wine. Inside the wall opposite from her bed a clock said 12:00 a.m. Dressed in a red silk nightgown with a matching red waist clenching garter belt skirt and red net-laced stockings, which came right above her knees Stacey looked like a French can-can dancer. Not wearing any panties on she let her hand slide between her spread open legs and lightly massage her vaginal hairs to the soft tunes of her classic love music mix with all of the import old school singers and groups. She mixed groups like Journey and Foreigner who song Feels like the first time is her favorite. She had singers like the two Barry’s Barry Manilow and Barry White and of course that British singer Maxwell whose album runs from beginning to end with no interruption. She drifts into a semiconscious slumber. She listens to the words of the love from all of the crooners.

“That’s right love me baby” she says under her breath. After being single for so long she had become a skilled pro at pleasing herself and in fact she had gotten so good at it she was scared she had ruined herself. Maxwell’s music had become her regular stimulant. “Damn they don’t write songs like this anymore” Her hand moves with melody and her back starts to arch. Her eyes close and her body temperature increases. As her natural body fluids start to mix with the jasmine incense, she lets out a soft sigh. Her sigh reminds her that no matter how good she is she can only make up half the feeling that a real bedroom partner can give. I can’t believe I have to do this to myself again and whoever said the hand is mightier than the sword never had a good sword she thought.

Stacey is a child of the early years of music, which she refers to as the second golden age 1980’s and 90s. She feels nothing has changed since then. Men are still dogs and it’s still hard for an independent woman. Even though the 80s was decades ago things haven’t changed. To her it was weird how man had solved so many problems with science but still doesn’t have a clue how to deal with man to woman relations. We could create a man for a cell of another man in something as small as a Petri dish but we can make one who knows how to treat a woman. Bullshit future. People in the 80s use to dream about the future flying cars and stuff but with no man who gives a fuck about a flying car. Stacey would rather go back to riding horses when a man only traveled around in his village. Shit of it weren’t for selfsex she would have surely slipped into a permanent depression. She was so close to marriage with her X two years ago. So, close she could taste it.

Damn she thought Martin was going to be the one who was a break from the norm. He was fine. She met him filling a prescription for Vicodin. He was recovering from knee surgery after a basketball accident. He even came to her spinning class with her. For the life of her she could not figure out why he wouldn’t call her when he was running late. She had been dating him for only two weeks and he had given her just about every excuse for coming late to their dates. He had such interesting conversations. He was her African prince. He talked about how his father had three wives and he never wanted to be like him. He had gained her trust. Maybe he was different than American men. She was still willing to give him a try. Waiting for him always made her mind wander. She would not let her head drift into fully out distrust because once she went there breaking up was the next thing to happen. So, she focused back on her handwork to take herself to a place where her thoughts could not penetrate.

“Excuse me ma’am” the voice made Stacey jump interrupting her magic. It was a mechanical voice. One Stacey had gotten used to but in this moment any voice would have startled her. She quickly moved and sat up so fast she spilled her wine. She looked at the clock and it was 1:00 a.m. She covered herself with her gown. A human like robot stood outside her bedroom door and continued “I have finished washing the dinner dishes and bagging the garbage”. Spike’s metallic finish was clean and sparkling like the day she bought him. “May I stand by the door until your date arrives?” he continued.

Damn these men she thought. Turning the music off she says, “Thank you Spike.” Taking a deep breath, she finishes “Sure stand by the door and let Martin in when he arrives.” She rolls over and takes a sip of her wine finishing it.

“As you wish ma’am” Spike says as he turns and walks down the stairs.

Spike was the treat she bought herself after she heard of her X boyfriends wedding. She ordered the male Z200 home protection model. She named him Spike after the bulldog on her favorite old school cartoon Tom and Jerry. Her personal robot made her feel secure guarding her house at night and charging itself during the day. The Z200 is very life like it looks just like a human. The come in male and female versions for the comfort of the owner. In a short time these robots have become a staple in almost every household. They provide both security and assistance replacing both domestic help and home security systems. Many people like Stacey have gotten so comfortable with their laser red eyes that they have allowed them to replace even pets.

Stacey grabs a small remote and pushes a button labeled Digi screen. The entire wall lights up and a woman standing in Times Square in front of a women next to a male robot.

“That’s right We’ve heard from hundreds of satisfied customers. So, why should you be unhappy and lonely. Let The Ultimate Companion fulfill your needs.”

That’s it I quit. Martin is just like every other man. I should have never given him my number. Why do I keep believing Jennifer when she says he’s nice? Stacey thought.

The picture on the wall changes to a man throwing a Frisbee in a park with a dog running to catch it in the air. Then the picture changes to an old man playing chess in the park with a robot man. “There are limits to what your dog give you.”

Paying no attention to the infomercial Stacey turns the channel to a lifetime movie and slowly falls asleep.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster chats with Lucy A. Snyder. Do you have a fiction fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: David X. Wiggin

74962_812727281055_1850019726_nLast week, David Day visited Girl Meets Monster and talked about genre as a means of choosing what to read as opposed to what to write. This week, I’m joined by David X. Wiggin. David and I have never met face to face, but we belong to Facebook group of weirdos who enjoy dark humor and laughing at our own shortcomings. I’m thrilled to have David as my guest today.

David X. Wiggin barely escaped Brooklyn with his life, though he still occupies New York City. You can find his most recent fiction on Pseudopod and in Black Treacle Magazine.

Three Questions

GMM: Tell me about this “mechanical manbody”. It’s sounds intriguing and creepy. What is it and where did you come up with the idea?

DXD: So, to answer the question a little bit of background first: the idea for this story came from a photo-collage I once saw that depicted a furious dog in a military uniform (it was in an issue of the Paris Review iirc.) That image really stuck with me (as well as some dog-men that appeared in a hallucination scene in an early episode of the TV show “Millennium”) and I wanted to write a story about this furious dog-man (this is usually how a story starts for me, by the way: a particular image or song or mood germinates in me like a seed until it starts to grow branches.) As I worked on the story other ideas started sprouting about this world of anthropomorphic animals and out of that came ideas for two more races: one that was a species of humanoids that managed to be beautiful in unconventional ways (the “Ill-Mades”) and the other was birds (the “Avians.”) I’ve always been fascinated by birds in general and in trying to dream up visualizations of humanoid birds I hit on the idea of them being normal, but highly intelligent and articulate, birds that walked around using cleverly contrived puppet bodies that gave them hands, legs, etc. Think like giant robots with pilots, but clockwork and, well, human sized.

Anyway, there was something kind of decadent about that idea and birds are almost always floating above the rest of the world so I thought it made sense to make them the rulers of this world. It’s also a nice metaphor for how they’re manipulating everyone else and making others do all the work for them

GMM: Based on the strangeness of the characters, my assumption is that your story is either set somewhere in outer space on another planet. But, I don’t know what the time period is in relation to our own past. present, or future. When is this story set? Do you prefer writing about invented times and places, or do you also write about alternative Earths?

DXD: It’s another dimension, more specifically, like Narnia or any number of fantasy worlds. I was messing around with an idea that it’s a world specifically hidden within our language, but unfortunately that idea was both too complicated and pretentious for me to pull off in the end… part of the reason this remains a fragment. As for when it’s set… well one character’s name is a pretty clumsy distortion of a historical figure from our world so I’ll leave it at that.

I’m a huge fantasy nerd so I love world building, but I’m not necessarily married to stories set in made up worlds. I published an alternative earth story a while back called “The Apollo Mission” about the ancient Romans developing space travel, but I haven’t done much with alternative earths otherwise. Maybe worth considering though!

GMM: There’s clearly a political or caste structure in your story. Is it primarily between species, or is it a bit more complicated than that? The dog-like creature is a decorated military man, so I assume that there is a hierarchy within that system, and I assume that there have been wars. Do you draw any parallels between what’s happening in this SFF story and what’s currently happening in our own time on Earth?

DXD: The hierarchy is pretty basic: the Avians have tricked the rest of the world through the power of their eloquence into letting them run it. The Bestials –which the dog-like creature belongs to, and all more or less look like humanoid versions of earth animals- are the “middle class” of the world (which is called Lexis.) They do all the dirty work for the Avians. Finally, at the bottom of society are the “Ill-Mades” who are unclassifiable but come in any sort of shape and size. The Ill-Mades are the serfs and the slaves and are considered to be no more than beasts. None of this hierarchy is legitimate or based on reality, mind you. It’s all a great big trick the Avians have pulled, pitting races against each other and making them think they’re inferior. Thilter, the dog-creature, is the only one to see through this big lie and, being a power-hungry megalomaniac uses this knowledge to lead a revolt of Ill-Mades against the Avians. Which, as we can see from the opening paragraph of the story, has obviously failed.

Does this story have any parallels with what’s currently happening on our own Earth? Well, I started this story a long time ago (maybe 10 years?) so obviously it’s not based on anything specific happening right now, but yeah I’d say there are a lot of echoes with a lot of hierarchy-heavy societies throughout history — where some people are given greater power and influence than others for basically arbitrary reasons. Some people live in mansions and eat caviar for breakfast because they can move numbers on a screen around while others starve and suffer because they can’t. Or even worse some people are better off than the color of their skin. That seems no crazier to me than a world where birds are in charge because they’re birds! So yeah, obviously this story reflects a lot of my feelings about the world, but it’s not in reference to anything specific. “The world is just awful, usually for stupid reasons” is about the gist of it — whether it be our world or a world run by birds and beasts.

Lexis, by David X. Wiggin

He wanted her to kill him.

Galatea understood what he was asking –demanding-, though they’d bound his muzzle shut with thin bands of steel fused together in a flawless web of metal.  That hadn’t stopped him from trying to reason with, beg from, and curse her every one of the countless miles they had traversed.  He struggled, but despite his seven feet of height and the hundreds of jangling medals on his chest that proclaimed his martial prowess, with his arms and legs manacled and chained he was no match for her.  His furred face was a froth of frozen snot, spit, blood, and mud and his yellow eyes burned with a heat that had in the past had typically preceded the death of thousands.  He frightened her, broken and bound as he was, as he had always frightened her.  Still, she would not surrender to his will as she had in the past.  For his crimes, he didn’t deserve death.  He deserved far worse.  They both did.

On the icy slopes of Mount Tattaghata, twenty thousand feet above the earth, whipped and nipped by the spirits of cold and wind, the two figures struggled against the elements and against each other.  One was a Bestial –a giant dog-man dressed in the rags of what had once been a beautifully tailored military uniform and fifty pounds of thick chain- the other an Ill-Formed-Woman.  Though most of them were hidden beneath her heavy coat, thousands of arms of every size grew from her back and her neck like the tendrils of an anemone.  Under her spider-fur hat, a head of thin hair-arms squirmed.  Had there been anyone to see them in this desolate corner of Lexis they would have been flabbergasted by the sight of a low caste Ill-Formed treating a decorated Bestial general like a prisoner.  No doubt it would have looked like a sick joke.  And there was no question, Galatea reflected, that was precisely what it was intended to be.  Prince Owlbert was known for his cruel ironies.

It had been her first time to see the inside of the Court (she’d been in the Castle of the Moon where the Avians held their winter sessions, but that had been after Thiltre’s Phoenix Brigade had purified it with flames) and after years of black jungles and scorched earth, the jade fountains, gilded floors, and occidental perfumes drifting through the air were almost unbearable.  Though Thiltre had had to be forced to his knees, Galatea had prostrated herself with an instinctual ease that terrified her.

They had conditioned her well.  She had experienced for herself the cruelty with which the Avians had repressed other races, stripping away their freedoms of mind and body to make pliant servants.  They had built their empire upon the bloodied backs of her people.  She knew all about their petty natures and pathetic hypocrisies.  She had seen first-hand just how mortal they were.  And yet… she had entered the court shaking, not from fear of the punishment that awaited her, but of being in the presence of her masters.  They had taken so many things from her.  Things she had never had to begin with.

Prince Owlbert had leaned down from his perch atop the neck of his mechanical manbody and studied them with blinking black eyes.  Followed by the faint whistle of spinning gears and winding strings the manbody raised a jeweled hand in an elegant gesture of greeting.

“Salutations.  Be welcome to the Court of the Sun, General Thiltre,” the prince murmured sleepily.  He spoke so quietly everyone in the hall had to lean in to hear.  “It is a glory to be presented with such a stimulating novelty in our paradigmatically dull chamber.  It has been unrelenting eons since we have had a suitable divertissement.  Is that not unequivocal?”  He looked to his courtiers: cardinals, parrots, ravens, peacocks, chickens, and blue jays; a brilliant mosaic of colored heads bobbing eagerly.  Then he turned back to the prisoners.

“You have given us sufficient of provocation over the past few turnings of the sun, General,” he mused.  “Karxxango, Dell-Where, and Tompiq conquered in a fortnight.  Approaching half a million Bestials and Ill-Mades aggregated from every corner of Lexis to stand beneath your tangerine banners.  You collected victory after victory over our Silver Legions.  Those squadrons of child soldiers- Nursery Killers, I think they were called-, were they of your own inspiration?  Delightful.  Your resolution to depart the court to lead this rebellion was a veritable disappointment. You could have ascended higher than your father.  He hung himself from shame when he heard that it was you leading the rebellion you know.”

Thitlre had snickered from behind his muzzle.  His cunning yellow eyes scanned the court.  Even then he had still considered himself undefeated, imagining that his devoted followers would come rescue him, and was taking catalogue of what precious things here he would claim for himself and who he would keep alive to torture on dull afternoons.  To his credit, he had returned from worse defeats.  This time, however, he had not counted on the extent of his second-in-command’s betrayal.

Next week, writer and climbing enthusiast, Ryan DeMoss, joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a story you’re dying to share with the world (or at least the few people who read my blog)? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: David Day

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Before I even begin talking about my fellow Seton Hill University Alum, David Day, I’m going to brag about the fact that we both have stories in this political horror anthology due out later this month from Scary Dairy Press, so pick up a copy.

Last week, Kenya Wright stopped by and talked about the responsibility female writers of color have to include deeper issues like racism, classism, and sexism in their writing, even if they are writing about vampires with double penises. This week, David Day joins Girl Meets Monster to share his thoughts on genre and how it should be considered an analytical tool rather than a creative one. His thoughts on horror fiction and the connections he perceives between horror and romance raised some serious emotions for me. I’m not crying! You’re crying!

headshotDavid Day believes the future is a paradox, simultaneously representing beautiful hope and terrible possibility, and that we are on an ever-constant journey to resolve that paradox into the now. David received his MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in June 2011. He is the author of one novel, Tearstone, as well as several short stories. Find out more about him at his snazzy but woefully neglected website: http://www.davidlday.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Your fragment has a lot going on. Initially, I felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but then I got the sense that we’re in a post-apocalyptic world or, at the very least the story isn’t set in the here and now. There are clear references to a past (or recent present) that are familiar to contemporary culture, so maybe not too far in the future, but the habit of Cassiopeia to fade out of reality tells me this is an alternate reality at the least. How would you categorize this piece? What genre or genres do you typically write in? When you sit down to write, do you have a genre in mind, or do you simply set out to tell a story?

DD: I’d place this one as science fantasy. There are, of course, some dark elements to it, but nothing I’d qualify as horror specifically. It’s meant to have a fairy tale quality to it, and you’re right about the post-apocalyptic setting. The main characters are among the last surviving humans who are either being culled or killed, depending on a few key qualities of their personality that come out much later in the story.

I write among the subgenres of speculative fiction, typically horror, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and dystopian. My inclination is toward horror and the supernatural, and those elements usually surface in every piece, but I have been known to write a story or two that don’t have any horror in them.

Every new story is a unique endeavor for me, and I don’t try to pin it to a specific genre at the outset. My goal in writing a short story is to try and elicit some nugget of human experience. The inclination toward horror and darkness comes from a belief that we are often most human in the darkest of places. Sometimes that darkness draws out the good in us, sometimes the bad. And sometimes the story just falls flat and I move on to the next one. Novels, however, I do try to pin to a genre up front. I’m okay if it changes when working on the first draft, but novels are such an investment in time and energy, and selling them is such a market-oriented activity, that to write a novel without knowing the target readership ahead of time feels a bit backward.

GMM: I know that you write horror fiction, because your work has been published in horror anthologies, but how do you define horror? There was quite a bit of discussion in the writing program at Seton Hill about whether or not we should adhere to the strict, traditional definitions of specific genres, or simply write stories that contain elements of multiple genres, which often feels more natural. Which side of this debate do you fall on? Do you consider yourself a horror writer? Why or why not?

DD: Delineating genres is difficult, in my opinion. Horror can be especially tricky to pin down, due in part to the rash of slasher films in the 80s. Last weekend I sat on a panel on horror at the Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, KY, and one of the attendees asked if there were critical or essential elements that need to be present in a horror story. After a few seconds of silence as the panelists thought, a few spoke on how horror isn’t about this or that specific element, but about the characters. And then the conversation took off.

Horror is about emotions, not tangible things, and for those emotions to surface in writing, the story must be oriented toward the characters. Broadly speaking, horror is all the flavors of fear: helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, worried, inadequate, inferior, worthless, insignificant, excluded, persecuted, nervous, exposed, threatened, weak, rejected, insecure, anxious, etc., etc. Horror uses circumstances to bring these feelings out in the reader, and the best way to get a reader to feel something is through a character’s emotions. For me, horror is not only about those emotions, but the conquering of those emotions, and I believe the most satisfying horror stories are survival stories, where the characters involved are able to push through those emotions. Horror is about dwelling in the darkest of places and reemerging again transformed into something more resilient.

As for adhering strictly to genre, I call bullshit. When it comes to art, there are two kinds of tools: creative and analytical. Creative tools help the artist make something meaningful. Analytical tools help categorize and describe a work after it’s been created. Genre is an analytical tool that helps readers find works they may be interested in reading. Every story should be about some aspect of humanity, and to portray humanity properly requires showing a spectrum of emotions. Every story is a love story, a horror story, a mystery, a fantasy. Imagine going to a concert only to have the musician play a single note over and over. I’ll be generous – imagine them playing a single refrain repeatedly. How long before you get up and leave? I give you ten minutes, tops, unless you’re at a Phillip Glass concert, in which case maybe twenty. Stories that hammer on a single note tend to feel flat. Stories that show the complexity of human emotions necessarily draw from multiple genres. Genre labels help sell fiction, and can help a creator understand what the market potential is for their work, but genre is not very useful during the creative act.

Am I a horror writer? I grew up an avid reader of horror, science fiction, and poetry. I’m largely influenced by the works of Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark, H.P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, Isaac Asimov, and e.e. cummings. If that makes me a horror writer, cool. But if my works appear on a shelf under Contemporary Fairy Tales or Dystopian Victorian Techno-Romance Spy Thrillers, and those labels help the readers who might like my stories find them, then extra cool.

GMM: There are hints at romance, or at least, unrequited love in your fragment. Do you often include romantic relationships in your stories? What inspired the relationship between the narrator and Cassiopeia?

DD: When I was at Seton Hill, I developed an appreciation for some similarities between romance and horror in terms of the focus on character and emotion. I’ve come to believe the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear, and isolation as an intense precursor to or flavor of fear is a highly effective trope in horror as is demonstrated in this awesome montage of “No Signal” clips.

Notice how most of the movies cited are horror movies. I don’t necessarily try to include romantic relationships in stories, but I do try to use love relationships such as family bonds or even intensely tight friendships as a foil to isolation. As a writer, I believe having characters move across the love-fear spectrum gives a more complete view and increases the effect on the reader.

As for what inspired the relationship, I’m not sure I can point to any particular experience. Both the narrator and Cassiopeia suffered through a lot prior to their world going to hell. Sometimes we find strength when someone else’s well-being is at stake, and sometimes just having a hand to hold can make the most difficult of times more bearable and give one the will to persist.

Untitled Fragment, by David Day

Cassiopeia stumbled on a red pine’s thick root, her pink locks fluttering across my face like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. I tried to catch her, but she slipped from my grimy, sweaty hand and fell to the forest floor in a boneless heap. She lay still and silent, as if sleeping, her breath shallow and faint.

Her fugues grew worse with each day.

Something large shuffled through the woods, too far away for me to get a good fix on it, yet too close for our safety. I stretched out on the ground, spooned up against Cassiopeia, and placed a hand over her mouth to guard against any sudden outburst. Sweat covered her bone-cold skin, the faint smell of old heroine oozing from her like thick, cloying perfume.

“I think I hear one,” I whispered, more for my sanity than for her benefit. “Keep quiet.”
She moved her head slightly, the semblance of a nod, no doubt a tremor, but I wanted to believe otherwise. I stared up through the trees at a sky darkened for months to a confusion of shadow and light, never night or day, but always somewhere between, as if the earth had become stuck between dreaming and waking. Smudges of light riddled the fabric of the sky, stars barely discernible from the slightly darker background of space. I gave up on trying to see them, closed my eyes, and listened.

The steps echoed regular and heavy, the clip-clop of a trotting horse, their staccato rhythm heading our way.

Cassiopeia struggled a little, probably frightened even in her current state. She squirmed against me, groggy and weak, hopefully coming back around, but if we moved, if it found us…

I clamped down a little harder, enough to quiet her without hurting her.

I shifted and by some ill turn of fate caught a glimpse of the juggernaut through the trees as it paused, a great pillar of mahogany skin stretched over thick muscles, massive rubbery wings folded against its back, a thin barbed tail curled in a smooth s-shape, knees on the wrong side of its legs. It bent slightly backward and pressed its thick, clawed hands into the small of its back.

I managed a breath, then the creature took off again, galloping with surprising speed and agility. I waited, frozen, gulping thick breaths, then, listening as the last of the hoof-beats faded from earshot, slipped my hand from Cassiopeia’s mouth.

She rolled over to face me, awareness in her eyes for the first time in hours, pink strands of damp hair plastered to her forehead.

“I want to go with them.”

I brushed the threads aside, heart thumping a little harder as I fought the urge to draw her closer, envelop her entirely. Instead, I laid a palm across her cheek then rose and pulled a bottle of water from my tattered pack. I offered her a hand, which she accepted with a blatant scowl that sunk my heart further. I sipped from the bottle to mask my hurt, savored the lukewarm liquid before swallowing, and passed the water to her.

“Welcome back.”

She accepted the bottle, shrugged, and as she sipped she flickered like some grainy art-house film. The bottle fell through her hand and landed on a bed of decaying white oak leaves, water spilling like blood. She solidified, whimpered, then retrieved the bottle before it could bleed out.

I could relate to her spells of delirium, having floundered through withdrawal myself, but this flickering of hers, the slipping out of reality like some half-forgotten dream, unnerved me almost as much as the devil in the woods.

She handed the bottle back, nearly empty. “This the last one?”

I nodded, rubbed her shoulder, reassuring her of our safety, reassuring myself of her existence.

“We’ll find more soon. I can smell the saltwater on the air. We’ll head north when we hit the ocean, and we should come across a town before long. Felt like we passed through one every ten minutes driving to my grandmother’s cabin as a kid.”

I told a half-truth, unsure if I smelled the ocean, but Cassiopeia looked comforted. We walked in silence until our bodies could take no more, hours it seemed, and while the smell of the Atlantic was stronger with each step, we did not reach it.

Even if she didn’t talk to me, I was thankful Cassiopeia stayed with me. Though her episodes were more frequent, she appeared more sentient than she had in days. Maybe her system was finally expelling the last remnant of her backslide from before.

We stopped at a small pond to bathe and, once clean, we settled down to sleep, each of us bone-weary and spent. We curled up between two worn comforters stolen from a child’s abandoned bedroom in Skowhegan, back-to-back. I listened to the slow, steady rhythm of her light snoring, wishing for more intimacy, knowing she would never feel the same, hanging on each beat of her breath like a totem of sanity.

It took more than an hour for sleep to find me.

Next week, David X. Wiggin joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a piece of fiction hidden under your mattress that might benefit from a second look? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: Alicia Wright

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had the pleasure of talking with Michael Arnzen. This week, Alicia Wright joins us to talk about space operas and when she loves writing science fiction and fantasy for YA audiences.

AliciaWrightI decided to write books about ten minutes before graduating law school. I’m now an Atlanta attorney, but I moonlight as author, electronics junkie, and secret superhero. With degrees in computer science and a healthy diet of fiction, I love all things high-tech and unreal. I write fantasy and science fiction for young adults. Currently, you can find my work under the name Alicia Wright Brewster, but additional books are coming soon under Alicia Ellis. Visit Alicia’s website and follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/writeralicia

Three Questions

GMM: I enjoyed reading your fragment. What was the inspiration for this piece, and why do you think slavery is a recurring theme in Science Fiction and Fantasy? Do you think it’s important to continue to write about slavery despite the fact that many people think it is no longer relevant to discuss it?

AW: I can’t be sure what inspired this piece. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera, and I think one day, I decided it would be cool to write about space pirates. And then this story grew in my imagination.

Is it important to write about slavery? Yes, history is important. I wasn’t consciously thinking of history or trying to make a point when I wrote this. But to a significant degree, the plans I had for this story deal with colonialism, and there’s a historical link between colonialism and slavery. So when I needed a way to return Jax to Ren’s life and simultaneously make the Company look awful, slavery seemed like a good way to go.

GMM: What attracted you to the SFF genres? What was the first book, movie or TV show that caught your attention? Why?

AW: I love science fiction and fantasy because it’s simultaneously real and unreal. It’s different from the everyday, and thus it provides an escape. At the same time, SFF explores real-world joys and problems. I had no choice really; my father raised me on Star Trek and Star Wars, and I loved every minute of it.

My very first favorite book was science fiction, although at the time, I didn’t know what “science fiction” was. My copy of The Girl with the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts, was thoroughly battered after traveling with me during at least two (probably three) household moves. It remains my most-reread book, although it’s been decades since I’ve last read it. Perhaps it’s time for reread!

GMM: Is it easier to write for a young adult audience? What are some of the challenges? Do you struggle with subject matter in terms of what’s appropriate for young adults? Do you worry about how you audience will deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations in your fiction?

AW: I wouldn’t say it’s either easier or harder to write for young adults; I’d say it’s different than writing for adults. I love writing YA because the protagonists move me. They are passionate and reckless, and for them, everything is life changing. I can get a young protagonist into a lot more trouble than I can with an adult protagonist, because teenagers are allowed a wider range of mistakes. They mess up and they learn, and as readers, we allow them to do so without questioning their sanity. And when big moments occur, teenage protagonists are filled with excitement or devastation because they are experiencing things for the first time. And that’s why I write YA.

A challenge is that, obviously, I am no longer a teenager. I remember what I was like as a teen and what my friends were like, and that goes into my writing. But it’s important to stay in touch with teenage life to some degree, so that I don’t have teenagers in 2018 behaving as if they are in 1998. Clothes have changed. Schools have changed. Hangout spots have changed. Politics have changed. I need to know what’s happening now for teenagers, and sometimes that’s tough. It actually helps that I write SFF because, often, I make the world so I make the rules. But still, SFF needs to be grounded in reality.

Do I struggle with subject matter in terms of what’s appropriate for teens? Honestly, not much. YA can get pretty real and dark these days, so there’s little that I want to write about that’s out of bounds. I’m sure there are topics I wouldn’t touch, but I have yet to come across any in my own story ideas. Sometimes, I worry about cursing too much in my writing, but that’s largely about being acceptable to adults who choose books for teens. With that in mind, I tend to limit, but not eliminate, cursing. Basically, I save it for emphasis rather than sprinkling it everywhere.

End of Life, by Alicia Wright

CHAPTER 1

I hadn’t shot him in a vital organ. It didn’t call for all that screaming.

“Shut him up.” I gestured with my gun at one of his shipmates, a tall woman with a dark ponytail.

“You didn’t have to do that.” She pressed her hands against the hole in his leg and whispered in his ear, her tone soothing.

“Yes, I did.”

When a sixteen-year-old girl asks a crew to hand over its cargo, they rarely agree—even when she and her team have already ripped open the side of that crew’s spaceship. So I solved that problem. When I shot someone with a fifty-pound gun, they got obedient fast.

It made things easier.

The man’s howls quieted to whimpers.

Weaponless, my shipmate Kye examined the screen on his comm. “Batteries,” he told me, his tone flat.

“Could you put a little energy into it?” I whispered.

He and I stood at the edge of a dining hall. A long metal table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by sixteen plastic chairs. Four members of the crew had occupied those chairs when we peeled their ship like a tin can. They’d jumped to their feet, and two others had joined them from elsewhere on the ship, thanks to the commotion.

Behind us, a hole gaped in the wall. It led to a retractable tunnel attached to our ship. Before we left and took our tunnel with us, we’d advise them to seal the hole so they didn’t get blown out into space. We weren’t monsters, after all.

Louder, I said, “Where are the batteries?”

The four remaining crew members—other than the man I’d shot and the woman calming him—had clustered on the far side of the table. The largest of them stepped forward and pushed two of the others behind him.

“What batteries?” When I didn’t shoot him right away, he raised his voice. “We don’t have any batteries.” Brave.

Kye read from his screen. “One hundred fifty polynium-nitride batteries of various sizes. Estimated value of sixteen thousand universal credits.”

It would have made my job easier if he at least pretended to be mean. Kye was the nicest boy a knew—Granted, most people I knew were pirates. But between his six-foot-plus frame and shoulders twice as wide as mine, it would have taken little more than the occasional sneer to wrap up these jobs more quickly.

I pointed my gun at the brave man’s face. “You heard him.”

His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Useless.

“Somebody here knows where the batteries are. Or maybe they’re not on the ship—in which case, we might as well make an exit.” I turned my weapon toward the wall and flicked the ammunition switch from bullets to explosives. “This way, perhaps?”

The drug my crew took to survive hyperspace had some pleasant side effects—strength, speed, agility. Even as a Traveler, though, I couldn’t survive in outer space for more than five minutes, but these people didn’t know that.

The woman who’d been soothing the injured man shot to her feet. “There are no batteries. Our orders changed.”

“What are you carrying?”

Her face reddened. “Slaves.”

I glanced behind me at Kye for confirmation.

He offered an almost imperceptible shrug.

“Show me.” To the rest of them, I added, “No one leaves this room until I get back.”

Kye leaned against the wall and stared down at his comm. “I’ve got this under control.”

Even without a weapon, he could take them all down—probably. It worked in our favor that no one outside the Travelers knew the limits of the drug. These people wouldn’t risk their lives by confronting Kye—not for cargo they’d have to turn over to the Company anyway.

I followed the dark-ponytailed woman down a narrow, spiral staircase. My combat boots clanked against the metal steps. We stepped off it onto the dusty floor of the cargo bay. The space held a single item, a cage, barely large enough for the four people inside.

I turned to head back up the stairs. I’d confirmed her story, but we didn’t trade in slaves. There was nothing for us here.

“Ren?” a familiar voice called.

I spun back around.

While the other three slaves slumped on the ground in the tight space, a teenage boy leaned against the front bars, his arms propped against a horizontal rung. His dark hair hung over his forehead. Dirt streaked his face and clothing, but when he smiled, his teeth shone as white and perfect as ever.

“Jax.” I cursed silently at the flipping in my stomach. Why did he still affect me?

“You’re going to leave me here?”

I ignored him and started up the stairs. If anyone deserved slavery, it was Jax.

“I know what happened to your sister,” he shouted when I’d made it halfway up.

I ran back down, shoving the woman aside at the bottom step. I stopped in front of the cage, three feet away from him. The only way he’d know about my sister was if he’d been there. The information wasn’t out there—not in the gossip, not in the official record, not on the black market. “You’re a liar.”

“That’s true. But not about this. You want justice, right?”

I wanted justice more than I wanted those batteries, more than I wanted out of my Travelers contract, more than I wanted my next breath. But the last time I’d seen Jax, I was watching his feet walk away from me as I bled out on the floor. “You’re going to get it for me?”

“Let’s say I’m lying,” he said. “You take me with you, question me, and when you get nothing, I go back to the Company. What’s the loss?”

He had a point. I hated it when he had a point.

“Get him out,” I said to the woman still waiting for me on the staircase.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster gets a visit from across the pond. Stay tuned, and send your fragments to me at chellane@gmail.com.

Fiction Fragments: Matt Betts

Last week, K. Ceres Wright joined Girl Meets Monster to talk about how writers of color can foster support for other diverse writers and become mentors for young writers. This week, Matt Betts is here to share a fragment, talk about his influences, and the benefits of writing fan fiction.

40645515_267465454090059_5099031125666299904_nMatt Betts grew up on a steady diet of giant monsters, robots and horror novels. The Ohio native is the author of the speculative poetry collections Underwater Fistfight and See No Evil, Say No Evil, as well as the novels Odd Men Out, Indelible Ink and his latest, The Boogeyman’s Intern. Matt loves to travel and speak at writer’s conferences and workshops. He lives in Columbus with his wife and their two boys.

He can be found at www.mattbetts.com, on Twitter as @Betts_Matt and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mattbettswrites/.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome, Matt. So, tell me about your fragment. What was your inspiration?

MB: This is a story I wrote a little over ten years ago. It’s a SciFi western that I really enjoyed writing. It was called a few things, but the final title was “Where It All Went Wrong.” This involves a ship with a crew of three, rather than the larger crew of the Serenity, but as the writer, I was really into Firefly and other space westerns at the time.

GMM: I love Firefly! So that totally sounds like something I would read. Why did you abandon it?

MB: Well, I’ve always meant to come back to it and rewrite it now that I feel a little more sure of myself, so I guess I can’t call it abandoned completely. But whenever I’ve circled back and reread it, it feels so much like Firefly fan fiction. Funny thing is, the story was accepted by two different magazines/webzines, but both went out of business before the story made it to print. I got a little scared it was a jinx and worried anyone I sent it to would fold as well. But I still really enjoy it and maybe I’ll consider expanding it, and cleaning it up, into a novel one day.

GMM: There’s often a certain level of stigma associated with writing fan fiction, but sometimes writing fan fiction can help you overcome writer’s block on another project, and in the highly improbable case of E. L. James, fan fiction can turn into a series of best-selling novels. Have you written fan fiction that you later developed into an original work of fiction?

MB: Writing fan fiction can certainly help with writer’s block, but it can also help with writing in general. I mean, if someone wants to get started as an author, but has no idea how to do it, writing fan fiction can help. With fan fiction, a writer already starts with characters they know, background, and a familiarity with the genre. Writing stories based off of that would be a great start for any aspiring writer. The pressure to create certain elements is off, so they can write character sketches, backstories, whatever. I’ve often heard that writing is like a muscle in that the more you work out (or write) the stronger you get. Any novice writer should practice writing in any way they can. Their work will improve and eventually, they might want to strike out and feel confident to do their own original work.

I’ve never done any fan fic myself, not knowingly anyway. The scrap I’ve provided today really ended up feeling like Firefly, but I never felt it until the story was done, edited and submitted. I didn’t set out to write about Mal and Jane and the crew of the Serenity, I set out to write a space western, and that’s what came out. I think since then, I’ve found my voice and style as a writer and I can avoid inadvertently drifting into someone else’s territory, or properties, a little better. Early on as an author, I tried to write in what I thought was Stephen King’s style, but the stories were my own originals, not based off of his stories or characters. And they were terrible. It took a few years for me to feel like I wasn’t copying off someone else’s paper as a writer.

I guess I’ve never tried to write fan fiction, really, and it might have helped me to learn story and structure a little sooner if I had. I can see how writing Star Wars or X-Files stories would have set me up for better storytelling earlier. Both have science fiction tropes, action, and strong characters — all things which play a prominent role in my work today.

Where It All Went Bad, by Matt Betts

Mason stared at the keypad next to the barn’s side door. The readout showed the security system was disabled and he hadn’t even touched it.

“Boss? We’re holding at the safe point, but we haven’t got a lot of time. What’s going on?” Bess’s voice came through his earpiece. “Are you inside or what?”

He pushed the door and it swung open with a creak. He sighed. Alarm turned off and door wide open? “Yeah. I’m in. Give me ninety seconds to start the roof’s retraction sequence and bring it in.”

“Can do.”

On a job like this one the unexpected was never welcome, especially after they had planned it so well. He pulled his sidearm and closed the door behind him. He paused next to a crate to let his eyes adjust to the low light.

Outside, the thumping of small explosions suddenly filled the air. “Looks like the town folk started their celebration a might early.”  Bess’s voice again filled Mason’s ear.

“Who can blame them? The festival of fruit only comes once a year,” he whispered.

Bess laughed. “Harvest celebration, genius.”

“Right.”

Mason scanned the building for any sign of life and found nothing; no movement, no sound. He could see a few crates here and there, some frames on the walls, a set of fuel pumps and, of course the ship in the center of the building that he’d come to take. He darted to the other side of the ship where the door control console was and began tapping in codes.

“On the way.” Bess said.

The crack of the overhead door coming to life drew Mason’s gaze upward and the light of the night sky began to creep in, punctuated by the occasional flash of fireworks. In the new illumination he could see his target much more clearly. The ship had been through a lot, and showed the scars of its long years of service; a scorch mark here, a cracked panel there. It was only about eight feet tall and three times as wide, it was designed as a one-man explorer, but two could fit in it easily.

“Thirty seconds.” Bess was right on time. “Secured yet?”

“Working on it,” Mason said “Take it easy.” He holstered his gun, walked to the nearest wing and set the lifting rigs before moving to the other wing and the craft’s nose. He took a minute at the front to lay his hand on the ship and feel its cold metal. He ran his hand along the letters that spelled out the ship’s name – Palomino. He smiled and nodded. “Nice to meet you.”

The retractable ceiling door clanged open to its limit and again, Mason’s eyes drew upward. He saw the clear night sky momentarily before it was blotted out by the underside of his ship.

“We’re here,” Bess said.

“No kidding?” The bay door of the ship opened and Mason could see the silhouette of the third member of their crew, Eli Fisher, feeding out the winch lines.

“Hey boss!” Fish’s voice yelled through the speaker in Mason’s ear. “Any problems?”

Mason grabbed the first line as it made its way down to him and attached it to starboard wing. “Not a one.” He attached the other two lines and checked them carefully. One last look around the barn made him marvel at how easy it had been. His stomach rumbled a little. “Not a one. Haul us up.” He stepped onto the ships ladder and grabbed hold of a rung for dear life as the Palomino was pulled up roughly off the ground.

“Sir?” It was Bess. “There seems to be a large crowd of angry folk headed our way in a hurry. We’d better move out and finish hauling you in later.”

Mason looked down at the building that was rapidly moving away from him. He’d nearly cleared the roof and could see the open sky. A flash nearby made him wonder if the fireworks were still going on, or if someone was shooting at them. The Palomino began to twist on the lines and Mason squeezed the rung tighter. “Uhm. Are you sure we don’t have time to haul me in?”

“Don’t be yellow. We’ll be to safety in two shakes. Fish? You may want to strap yourself to something.” Bess said.

Mason’s stomach churned again. “Wait! If he needs to strap in, what about me?” It was too late. Bess had already steered the ship sharply back in the direction it’d  come. More flashes burst nearby “Just fireworks. Just fireworks.” He hugged the craft and pressed his face against its cold exterior.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes a mystery guest. Stay tuned!

Fiction Fragments: Jessica Barlow

Last week, Sara Tantlinger stopped by to talk with Girl Meets Monster about H. H. Holmes, and this week Jessica Barlow is here to share her love of superheroes. Jessica is a member of my Tribe, the cohort I graduated with from Seton Hill University. We’re a tight group, but we might let you sit at our table if you have a dark sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Author Photo BarlowFreelance author and comic book enthusiast, Jessica Barlow graduated with a Masters in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and currently resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is currently writing about LGBT superheroes and magic.

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: Thanks to Marvel’s film franchises and maybe even DC’s Wonder Woman and Justice League, superheroes have become mainstream. Do you think mainstream audiences are ready for LGBT superheroes?

Jessica: Yes. I think mainstream audiences are open to superheroes that reflect different aspects of our society. There are already LGBT superheroes to be found in the pages of the comics, but with the success of Marvel’s Black Panther and DC’s Wonder Woman, mainstream audiences proved they are ready to see heroes that don’t fit into the stereotypical white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, male superhero mold. It helps that there have been public cries about representation on social media, for instance the “Give Cap a Boyfriend” campaign on Twitter in 2016.

Girl Meets Monster: Aside from Captain America, which superheroes do you think would fit easily into a story about LGBT characters, and why?

Jessica: There are plenty of cannon LGBT superheroes in the comics that I’m betting audiences would really take to, however, if you mean any superheroes made common by the movies, then I would say the Thor characters. Norse mythology is full of LGBT heroes and heroines and villains. Loki himself has given birth to several of his children in lore. Thor has worn women’s clothing and felt comfortable and the Valkyries are an all-female section of Norse society, much like the Amazons.

It would be easiest to start with characters who are already mired in such stories and are more advanced – in the movies and comics – than we are at the time this response is being written. It helps that Loki’s pansexuality and genderfluidity is coming to the forefront in comics recently. If anyone is interested, check out Loki: Agent of Asgard and Young Avengers vol. 2: Style Over Substance. If you want young LGBT characters, check out Young Avengers, or Runaways which just had a show premiere on HULU. If young heroes aren’t your thing, check out DC’s gay Superman and Batman: Midnighter and Apollo or Batwoman. There are so many characters to choose from and I sincerely hope we get to witness some of them on screen!

Girl Meets Monster: I enjoyed reading your fragment. What stopped you from finishing it, and do you have plans to continue writing it?

Jessica: I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it! I stopped writing it because I wasn’t confident in the idea yet. I don’t have all the characters or the society as fleshed out as I would like yet either. I’ve set it on the back burner for now. I will finish it one day. This story is in my bones and I’m certain I will be ready to tell it.

Super Hero Project, by Jessica Barlow

It was the costume that made it hit home.

He’d seen it on the news. He’d watched Spero dart across the screen and envelope the explosion in an orb of black energy. Watched the energy condense into a ball the size of a dime. Watched as the crowd’s cheers melted to screams as the swirling, black mass expanded outward to engulf the city. Spero shot skyward and the following explosion wrenched the camera from the news crew. His sister. His twin. Gone.

She’d saved a city. She was a hero.

Still gone.

The rain beat a heavy, staccato rhythm against the ruddy ground as they lowered Spero’s body into the dirt. The coffin was sedate, covered in black lacquer, only the large gold star in the middle differentiated it from thousands of others already filling the cemetery. No one had cried that morning.

Superheroes weren’t allowed to grieve. Not in public.

The black band around the arm added a somber note to the otherwise blinding collage of colorful costumes adorning the stage.

The press had been respectful and quiet, save for the flash and click of the occasional camera.

The government was still wary of superheroes, but city officials showed up anyway. Everyone loved Avainti. She knew how to work a camera and always stopped for interviews, even for the fashion bloggers and gossip mags.

Bentonville had shut down. Every inhabitant had come to honor their fallen champion. They’d buried Avainti in uniform; the way she wanted it. The magenta and gold straps of her costume weaved a dizzying pattern across her brown skin. Their parents would have had a conniption, if they’d been here to see it.

The United Legion of Heroes had been the perfect for Avainti. She kept them endeared to the public.

Emilio observed the wall of muscle and color for a few minutes and closed his eyes, suddenly glad Avainti wasn’t here. She’d have complained about all the black in the crowd. They’d both known it would happen someday. It was literally in the fine print. Fighting aliens and trans-dimensional parasites and whatever else the Legion fought, came with a disclaimer tag, but she’d gone into super-heroing like she’d gone into everything else in her life; head first and eager to help.

Stupid.

He stroked absently over the folded letter in his pocket and concentrated on the up and down inflection of the pontificating official. A highlight reel had been printed in the program. Since they couldn’t have the projector in the rain and the city had insisted they hold the public service outside. They hadn’t anticipated the downpour and he’d thought he would have a say in how and where his sister was buried-next to Mom and Dad-preferably, but no. There was no mention of him. The Legion paid for the funeral. Hadn’t reached out to him to ask what he wanted.

The only way the government would leave the vigilantes to fight the good fight was to register your powers, name and likeness, sign them over to the government. And so promotions and commercial endorsements covered with his sister’s likeness were scattered throughout the crowd on TVs and posters and cutouts. A few kids clutched dolls and action figures to their chests, some crying, others confused.

Emilio’s stomach rolled and clutched, hot and tense. He breathed deep. He had to do something to make a difference. Not squander his power. It was the last thing she’d asked for in her letter. The ring on his finger pulsed. He stroked his thumb across it, spinning the tiny piece of metal around.

One word and he could do it. One word and she’d sit up in her coffin and crack a joke.

Cancer. She’d said.

What the hell kind of superhero got cancer?

He could have healed her. He knew he could. His fire could be life as easily as it was death. He could do anything. She’d always told him that.

He slipped the ring into his pocket and cleared away the burning knot at the back of his throat. This was what she’d wanted. And if she could give her life, the least he could do was accept her sacrifice, but what was he supposed to do now? She was the smart one, the fun one. The college graduate. He’d never been as good at channeling the power as Avainti. He hadn’t done a damned bit of community service in his life.

The ULH members stood, stone-faced behind the speaker. The rain pelted Hyperion, turned his golden hair brown, but the halo of molten light intensified around him. It spread to encompass the rest of the heroes. A shiver worked its way over each member the light touched. Hyperion alone allowed his face to convey his sadness. What did it mean that the alien in their ranks was the only person expressing himself?

The official stepped from the podium and turned the microphone over to the Legion. Shriek stepped away from the wall of color. He cleared his throat and just that small sound resonated with the microphone. The feedback noise vibrated against Emilio’s teeth.

Shriek leaned away from the podium and tried again. The crowd stepped back a bit, ready to split if the supersonic waves of his voice carried through the microphone. Shriek winced and rubbed the back of his neck in a sheepish gesture that said he didn’t have much public speaking experience. “Sorry ’bout that, y’all,” he said.

Next week, J. L. Gribble will join me here at Girl Meets Monster. Would you like to share you fragments and thoughts about why writing projects get abandoned? Drop me a line in the comments below or send me a message at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: The Wood

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Hello dear readers! Welcome to the debut post of a new blog series I’m rolling out today here at Girl Meets Monster. This new series, which I am calling Fiction Fragments, will have new posts each Friday. So…Fiction Fragments Friday is totally a thing now.

I’ve been writing for many years, and at some point along that journey I came to terms with the fact that not every project has a clear path or end. Sometimes, you get an idea in your head and you start drafting a piece and then you just stop. Maybe you start working on something that has a clearer purpose, or maybe you’re juggling too many other projects, or maybe it never really was a fully formed idea to begin with. For whatever reason, you started writing something, maybe you wrote 200 words, maybe more, maybe less, and then you set it aside and just never came back to it.

Hands up if this has ever happened to you.

I should see a lot of hands right now.

At least, I’m hoping to see a lot of hands, because not only will I be sharing my own fiction fragments, but I’m hoping to enlist some of my amazing writer pals to do the same – poetry, short fiction, chapters, etc. I want to see projects that people began and abandoned. And, it might be cool to ask them a few questions about their writing process, why they chose to submit a certain piece, and if they ever plan to finish their fragment.

So, without further ado, here is the first installment of Fiction Fragment Fridays. I hope you’ll come back to read more, and better yet, I hope you send me your fragments.

The Wood, by Michelle R. Lane

When I was a child, I knew all of the flowers, plants, four-legged and winged animals of the Wood by name. I spoke to the Spirits of the Wood, and they answered. I slept in the trees, bathed in the brooks, and ate bramble berries off the bush. I walked through the Wood all day until my legs grew tired and then at dusk I would make my way back to the small house at the edge of the Wood where I lived with my family.

My parents were an unlikely pair. My father was a prince, banished from the Moorish Empire, and forced to live far from his Muslim brothers. He wandered the European countryside for years, making his way from Spain to the heart of the Black Forest. He liked the Wood, the magic was strong there and food was plentiful. For weeks he camped in the open air, then decided to make the Wood his home. He hunted wild game, butchered the animals for meat and cured the pelts to sell in the open air market of the village nearby. He saved enough money to buy the tools he needed to cut lumber and build a house.

As a huntsman, he made a comfortable living, but he was lonely. Sometimes he would venture into the village and drink the honey mead the village was famous for in those parts, and he would listen to the villagers talk and tell stories of the past. But, he rarely engaged in conversation with them, because he was seen as an outsider. His dark skin, his strange way of speaking, and his manner were odd to them. Aside from trading pelts and wild game, and the odd drink in the tavern, he kept to himself.

Then, one day, while selling pelts in the market, he overhead a crowd gathering in the town square. There were warriors from the Northern lands of ice and snow, a tribe of people he had encountered in his younger years as a soldier, selling captured people from other lands as slaves. As he approached the auction, he could see that there were men, women, and children of all ages and hues, bound with rope, and looking underfed. Among the people being sold that day, there was a young woman with a mane of wild red hair trying to chew through the ropes binding her hands. She cursed and kicked and spit at her captors. Bondage had not quieted her spirit. She continued to fight. He liked that about her. When the auction began, he decided he would buy her and give her her freedom that day.

She was a wild creature, but she could sing beautiful songs, tell haunting stories, and she could speak to the Spirits of the Wood. Among her people she was a healer and a caster of bones. A young woman wise beyond her years. He taught her to hunt, skin animals, and butcher the meat, and she taught him the names of all the herbs, mushrooms, and berries that were safe to eat in the Wood. They became good friends and built a partnership in which they shared everything equally. She sold healing balms and tisanes in the market while he continued to make a comfortable living as a huntsman.

My father told me he fell in love with my mother the first time he saw her, but it took her a few years to realize how much she loved him. Once she opened her heart to him, it wasn’t long before they brought me into the world.

I’d like to think that this fragment could become the beginning of a short story, or possibly the first chapter of a novella. Who can say? Maybe this will become my next WIP.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment and, if you have something to submit, I’m happy to see what you’ve got. Comment below or contact me at chellane@gmail.com. Your fragment doesn’t have to be polished, just interesting. And, if you have a reason for why you set it aside, I’d love to hear about that, too.

Write on!

10 Things That Made Me Happy While Taking the #100HappyDays Challenge

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Back on January 23 I started a #100HappyDays Challenge. The homepage of the site asks you, “Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” I believe most rational people would probably say no. And, if like me, you suffer from chronic depression you’d be even more skeptical.

The second question the site asks you is, “You don’t have time for this, right?” Again, most of us would agree that we don’t have time to make an effort to be happy every single day for 100 days. But is that true? Why don’t we have time? Is it because we don’t believe we’re worth the effort? Or is it because we don’t believe that you can find happiness that easily? Or maybe, and I know this sounds a little crazy, we don’t really understand a) what makes us happy, b) what happiness really looks and feels like, or c) how to begin to find happiness in our everyday lives.

The challenge itself is simple. Each day, for 100 days, you simply take a picture of something or someone who made you happy and then follow the steps on the site.

So first you register in the challenge >here<, then choose your favorite platform for submitting pictures. Here you can decide yourself on the privacy of your participation & happy moments:

  • Share your picture via Facebook, twitter or Instagram with a public hashtag #100happydays;
  • Come up with your own hashtag to share your pictures with to limit publicity. (Don’t forget to tell us how to find your pictures though)
  • Simply send your pictures to myhappyday (at) 100happydays.com to avoid any publicity.

The 100happydays.com site claims that “71% of people tried to complete this challenge, but failed quoting lack of time as the main reason.” Studies have shown that most people are not just busy, but overwhelmed with responsibility – work, housework, school, family, and other social obligations – that keep them running nonstop and afford little time for anything else. People typically don’t make time to take care of themselves, or just check in to see how happy they are with the life they are living.

Believe me, I get it. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time. I’m a part-time writer trying to become a full-time writer, which means I write fiction in the hopes of being published and farm myself out for freelance projects because my day job doesn’t pay enough. I’m not currently dating, but I have a fairly active social life. I rent, so I don’t have a lot of home repairs to tend to, but there’s still housework, errands, cooking, and child rearing. To be honest, housework doesn’t get done very often, but we always have clean laundry and dishes, and my son never misses a meal. My son is involved in activities outside the house, and he has behavioral/emotional issues that we manage through therapy and other strategies. I’m not going to win any awards for my parenting skills. However, I make a point of showing up and being present when my energy and own mental health issues are balanced. I’m actively seeking employment, because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stay in my current job after June. So, yeah, I’m busy. Like mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly busy some days. Depression has been an ongoing issue for me since I was a kid. I was diagnosed in my teens and have sought the support of therapists and medication on and off throughout my adult life. I’m not just busy. Some days are harder than others. Some days I have #zerofuckstogive. Some days I consider it a win if I get out of bed, get dressed, and make it to work.

Despite all the challenges I face day-to-day, I managed to find something to be relatively happy about for almost every single day of the 100-day challenge. I chose to post my pictures, thoughts and reflections on social media – Facebook and Instagram. Each day, beginning on January 23 and ending on May 2, I posted a photo, a meme, or simply an observation about that day and what brought me joy.

100happydays.com also asks the question, “Why would I do that?” Good question. I’m sure lots of people would ask that question. Well, here are some answers.

People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:

  • Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
  • Be in a better mood every day;
  • Start receiving more compliments from other people;
  • Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
  • Become more optimistic;
  • Fall in love during the challenge.

Need help figuring out what makes you happy? Here are the top 10 things that brought me happiness during my #100happydays challenge (in no particular order). Perhaps, you’ll recognize some of the things that make you smile too.

  1. Booze. Let’s face it, adult beverages are delicious and when they are drunk responsibly, they can have amazingly curative properties. When I was younger, I was hell-bent on self-medicating. I drank too much and too often. I also was careless about mixing drugs with alcohol, and usually in questionable company. That’s a story for another day. At this point in my life, I don’t drink very often. I keep some booze at home, typically bourbon, which is my favorite liquor. Occasionally, I’ll drink rum. Booze appeared in my social media feeds on Day 1 of the challenge. It was a rough day. And, booze played a role in bringing me happiness 4 out the 100 days, 5 if you count the codeine cough syrup I drank when I was sick. Fun fact: Because of my love of bourbon and booze in general, I gained roughly 20 new followers on Instagram who are either bars with specialty cocktails, bourbon aficionados, and distillers of small-batch spirits. So, I guess you could say that booze has the ability to make me popular and interesting.
  1. Coffee & Tea. I don’t know about you, but caffeine is 90% responsible for keeping me conscious most days. It’s no secret how much I love coffee, but I also enjoy drinking tea. Coffee and tea have been staples in my life since childhood. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 70s and 80s, and my grandmother didn’t see a problem with putting iced tea in my bottle when I was a baby. I drank my first cup of coffee when I was five. But don’t worry, she cut the bitterness by adding a tooth-decaying amount of sugar to it. Essentially, my grandmother was my first drug dealer. She hated alcohol. Most likely because her father and one of her brothers were alcoholics. People who drank alcohol pissed her off, but she was the poster child for coffee, sugar, and cigarettes. When I was a poor college student and couldn’t afford to maintain my cigarette habit (I smoked between the ages of 14 and 35), my grandmother would either give me money or buy my cigarettes for me. By the carton. In fact, when I was a junior, studying abroad in England for a year, her biggest concern, aside from my safety, was that cigarettes were so much more expensive there. She sent me care packages on a regular basis, and I could always count on finding at least one carton of Camel Lights in the box of goodies. In a related story, after my first week of living in England, I discovered that I was getting headaches almost every day and was feeling lethargic even though I was drinking between 6 – 10 cups of tea a day. Eventually, I realized that I was suffering from dehydration. Basically, I lived on tea, beer and cider, scones with clotted cream, packets of cheese and onion crisps, and Camel Lights. Once I figured out what was wrong with me, I kept a plastic cup near my sink and I would drink 2 – 3 cups of water before going to bed and upon waking. By the way, I had purchased the cup with Camel Cash, and the cup featured an image of Joe the Camel wearing a leather biker jacket, circa early 90s.
  1. Food. I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat. I see food as something beyond a means of nourishing my body. Food conjures memories of childhood. Food comforts me. Sharing a meal with family and friends is one of my favorite ways to interact and be social. Learning a new recipe is akin to learning a new spell. Food is a perfect marriage between magic and science. Cooking allows me to express myself, get creative, and heal myself through healthy foods. During the #100happydays challenge, food appeared in my social media feeds 34 days out of 100. Foods that appeared the most were fruit salad and tacos. A lot of the foods were healthy and involved my crockpot and meal prep that allowed me to cook once and eat for several days in a row. Some of my most popular posts dealt with food and the recipes I featured, and these posts got some of the most comments, including requests for recipes. Food is the glue of cultural and social interaction. The healthier I eat, the happier I am.
  1. Friends & Family. I have a small family. For the most part it’s just my mom, my son and me. I also have aunts, uncles, and cousins. For the most part, I am close with my cousins. We’re all around the same age, grew up in the same generation with access to the same elements of popular culture. I saw my cousins during the summer at family picnics most of the time when I was a kid, and now I make time to see them when I can. I spend a lot of time with my cousin Tara. I think of her as a best friend and sister, not just a cousin. She’s 1 of 4 kids and I’m an only child. Her sister and I are the same age and get along well too, but we don’t hang out as often as I’d like. Tara and I have similar tastes in music, movies, television shows, art, food, and enjoy mean jokes at the expense of others. She’s a talented artist, a supportive and loving person, and she can always make me laugh or think more clearly about something happening in my life. I will happily tell you that I am blessed with an amazingly diverse and interesting collection of friends and acquaintances. One of my best friends, Pat, has been my friend since we were 14 or 15 years old. He has an uncanny ability to zero-in on what is at the source of the negative feelings I might be feeling about any given situation. Sometimes it’s spooky how well he knows me, but I don’t know what I would do without his friendship. His ability to make me laugh never ceases to amaze me and he is always brutally honest with me when I find myself in crappy situations. He’s usually the first to tell me that I can a) overcome the problem, and b) if I look at a situation a little differently and take full responsibility for my own actions, 9 times out of 10, things will be just fine. I have other amazing friends, like Sarah and Isabelle who have been in my life as long as Pat has, and I have newer friends, like Stephanie who I feel like I’ve known just as long. And, I can’t forget my friend Danielle. She always has a way of making sure I’m taken care of, even if it’s just getting together to talk over dinner. Friends and social occasions really make a difference in my life. Typically, I prefer one-on-one interactions or small gatherings, but every now and then I attend larger events. I have a touch of social anxiety, so that’s where my good friend Booze comes in to play again. Out of 100 days, 31 of my posts were about friends and family.
  1. Film & Television. I’m obsessed with popular culture and have long-loved the escapism of watching movies and TV shows. My preferences for genre tend to be Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Black Comedies, Historical Dramas, Mysteries, and Romance, but usually the Paranormal variety. I love vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night. And, I love superheroes. Marvel’s film franchise has provided me with hours and hours of happiness. And, I’ve been known to fall in love with fictional characters. Here’s a short list: Loki, Magneto, Wolverine, Captain America, John Constantine, Elijah Mikaelson, Hannibal Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, Damon Salvatore, Simon Bellamy, Lucifer, Preacher, Lawrence Talbot, Rupert Giles, Spock, John Mitchell, Captain Ross Poldark, Spike, Doctor Who…well, you get the idea. In fact, if you’ve read my blog before, you’re familiar with my obsessions and may even share some of them. 12 of 100 posts referred to films or TV.
  1. Books. Reading is important to me. I don’t remember a time in my life when books were not available to me. Bookshelves filled with books, trips to the library and used books stores, talking about new books that a favorite writer had written – these were all common occurrences in my childhood. Before I could read, family members and teachers read to me. Once I could read on my own, I read as many books as I could get my hands on. Stories bring a certain richness to my life that I often can’t find anywhere else. My love of stories, books and words led me to become an English major in college. Why? Because I love to read and write (I’ll get to that shortly). I’ll read just about anything, but like my preferences in film and television, my taste in genre and to a certain extent literary fiction, are the speculative genres – Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. I also enjoy nonfiction. Over the past few months, I have been consuming Roxane Gay’s books, An Untamed State, Difficult Women, and Bad Feminist. Her writing speaks to me in so many unexpected ways. Not only does she show me the different parts of myself that would normally seem disconnected, but she also shows me how they relate to each other to make me a whole and complicated person. And, more importantly, she makes me want to be a better writer. Books appeared in at least 12 of my posts.
  1. Writing. Writing has been a part of my life almost as long as reading. Narratives have always been an important part of my life. Whether I was watching a Hitchcock film or favorite Western with my grandfather, an epic Romance or Soap Opera with my grandmother, “Creature Double Feature” or “Dark Shadows” with my mother, “King Fu Theater” or “The Prisoner” with my father, or enjoying the ridiculous premises you’d find in 80s music videos, and later an obsession with foreign language films, I consumed a lot of narratives in and out of books growing up. Stephen King’s books lined the bookshelves in almost every house in my immediate family. A year or so ago, my aunt bequeathed her Stephen King collection to me. I hadn’t read a lot of his books, but I had seen film adaptations of them. In the last few years, I took the time to read Carrie, The Shining, The Gunslinger, Misery, Salem’s Lot, and I just finished listening to Doctor Sleep as an audio book in my car. I tried reading IT at one point, but I couldn’t get past the clown. It’s weird. I can watch the film starring Tim Curry and I can’t wait to see the remake with Bill Skarsgård, but the book scares the shit out of me. One day, I will read that book cover to cover. Today is not that day. As much as I love Stephen King’s fiction, my favorite Stephen King book is On Writing. It is the only craft book that ever brought me to tears. I have two copies. A copy I bought to read while earning my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and the copy I found on my dad’s bookshelves after he died. My dad was a writer. He wrote a lot, but never finished writing his novel. I finished writing my first novel after his death in 2015. I’ve since started writing 2 more novels, and I’ve been writing poetry and short fiction since I was 12. I’ve only had one short story published, but I will have more of my work published, damn it. I owe that much to my dad. And, I can’t talk about writing without talking about Anne Rice. She is probably one of the biggest influences on my writing, and I must give her at least partial credit for why I write about vampires. Her novels gave vocabulary to some of the things I thought and felt as a teenager, and her vampires made me feel more alive than any characters I’d find in the fiction geared toward teenagers at the time. Thanks for all the good books, Anne. Your work gave me the courage to write about taboo subjects in a way that allowed me to talk about the beauty I found in them.
  1. Self-Care. Technically, participating in the #100happydays challenge is an act of self-care itself. Taking the time to pay attention and make note of the things that make you happy really is an enlightening exercise. In doing so, I found myself seeking out more ways to care for myself. I ate healthier foods. I spent more time in the company of people I love. I tried to develop better habits, like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and scheduling downtime so that I could do the things that recharge me and fill my brain with creative ideas. Don’t want to take my word for it? Try the #100happydays challenge for yourself and see what I mean. Self-care and self-love are not selfish acts. Doing nice things for yourself, taking care of yourself, enables us to care for the other people in our lives without killing ourselves to do so.
  1. Art. I’ve talked about several art forms/crafts in this post, namely writing and visual media. I’d also include culinary arts in that list. However, I also like to go to museums and galleries to check out the work of mixed media artists – painters, sculptors, ceramicists, collage makers, and several other mediums. During my 100-day challenge, I visited two galleries, CALC in Carlisle, PA, where my son had a drawing in one of the local student art shows, and Metropolis Collective in Mechanicsburg, PA, as well as The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In each art space, I got to see some wonderfully beautiful, disturbing, and thought-provoking art. I need to go to more museums, and I need to create more of my own art. Perhaps there are projects I can work on with my son this summer to get us both creating and spending more quality time together.
  1. Michael Fassbender. Laugh if you must, but Michael Fassbender’s work as an actor brings me happiness on a regular basis. I had enjoyed his work in films prior to last summer when I went to see X-men: Apocalypse, but for some reason, his portrayal of Magneto in that film struck a chord with me that caused me to not only revisit X-men: First Class and X-men: Days of Future Past, but I also rewatched Inglourious Bastards, and then began making my way through his entire body of work. I’m particularly fond of Shame, 12 Years a Slave, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Jonah Hex, Macbeth, Prometheus, Slow West, and I loved him in the TV show “Hex”. His characters make me laugh, cry, think, feel shame, and I’m not going to lie, ignite my desire. He is a beautiful and talented man. Eventually, I will see all his film and television performances. His Magneto breaks my heart, and makes me question right and wrong. After watching 12 Years a Slave, I went through a period of deep meditation and self-reflection based on my confused feelings of repulsion and attraction for his character, Edwin Epps. His Carl Jung left me feeling sexually frustrated, and his Rochester made me realize how many toxic relationships I have been in and examine why I keep returning to those doomed relationships. He is a master of his craft, not just a handsome face.

This was not my first #100happydays challenge rodeo, so I can attest to the fact that most of the claims made by the folks at 100happydays.com are true. Are they true every single day of the challenge? No. I don’t think anyone is happy every single day of their life. However, I will say that by taking the time to notice the things that do make me happy, I have a better understanding of my own happiness (or lack of happiness). I understand that happiness is a choice, and we are responsible for creating it for ourselves. And, like me, you might be surprised to find that happiness is all around us. All we need to do is take inventory and remind ourselves that happiness is not completely out of reach. In fact, it may be closer than you think.

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