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: K. Ceres Wright

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked vampires with Stephanie M. Wytovich. This week, Speculative Fiction writer K. Ceres Wright is here to share a fragment and talk about how you can support other writers and become a mentor.

K. Ceres Wright PhotoK. Ceres Wright received her master’s degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and her published cyberpunk novel, Cog, was her thesis for the program. Her short stories, poems, and articles have appeared in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler (Locus Award winner; Hugo Award nominee); Sycorax’s Daughters (Bram Stoker Award nominee); Emanations: 2+2=5; Diner Stories: Off the Menu; Many Genres, One Craft (Best Non-Fiction London Book Festival); The City: A Cyberfunk Anthology; The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom; among others. Ms. Wright is the founder and president of Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction, a support group. She works as a publications manager and writer/editor for a management consulting firm in Rockville, MD.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired the fragment you shared with us today? Is it a work in progress or an abandoned project?

KCW: There was a call for submissions for the TROUBLE THE WATERS: Tales from the Deep Blue anthology by Sheree Renee Thomas. I wrote a short story, but didn’t finish it in time for the submission. I finished the story later, but it got rejected at the outlets to which I submitted, mostly for the fact that editors wanted more. But I am unsure if I want to add to it, so it’s sitting on my computer at the moment.

GMM: As a woman of color writing speculative fiction – horror, science fiction, fantasy – do you feel that you have an obligation to support the work of other writers of color and writers from other diverse backgrounds? What advice would you give to writers looking to provide support or become mentors?

KCW: Yes, I do. I founded a writers support group, Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction (DWASF). We have an active Twitter page (@DiverseSpecFic), and a website (dwasf.org). We present on panels at local scifi cons, such as Capclave, AwesomeCon, BlerdCon, and BaltiCon. We also plan to publish an anthology of short stories next year.

As far as advice, I would say to start your own group with local writers you know looking to get support; write about your process on social media, especially on grammar, self-editing, and honing your craft; and, if you have the time, reach out to a local school and perhaps give a presentation on writing to the children there.

GMM: Why speculative fiction? What were your earliest influences and what makes you want to keep writing within this genre?

KCW: My earliest memory was of watching Star Trek when it first came on, and I remember appreciating the primary-color uniform shirts, as most men’s suits at the time were either grey or black, which I found rather dull. Later, I would read spec fic stories such as A Wrinkle in Time, Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and Chronicles of Narnia. Then Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. And there was Star Wars, of course, along with Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. But what made me want to write science fiction was the cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, by William Gibson. The book enthralled me, and that’s what made me attend Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction Program–to learn how to write a book. My thesis, Cog, a cyberpunk adventure novel, was published by Dog Star Books in 2013, and I’ve had several short stories, poems, and articles published, as well, in various venues.

I love how writers can use science fiction to comment on present-day society, as well as possible future society, and make you think about how the choices we make today will affect the generations to come. That’s what makes me keep writing.

An Exchange of Privilege, by K. Ceres Wright

It was always the poets–saturating pages with their blood over love, freedom, and peace–who touched Yemoja’s soul. Their words fashioned into brevity of wit and yearning amour stirred her underpinnings, which stretched to the ocean depths. Little else pricked her heart much, for she had borne witness to it all–Creation, the destruction of the leviathans, and the rise and fall of civilizations. She had carried the blood of slain Mali warriors down the Niger to be absorbed by distant shores. She had carried the Vikings on raids to European villages, guided Africans to South America, and stirred up the Spanish armada as it attacked England. She had borne the ships carrying slaves to the New World and accepted the bodies of those who had thrown themselves overboard, or who had been lost to the waves in a storm. She rusted their chains as quickly as she could to complete their release from captivity.

Then came the great wars, with new weapons and more bodies, both land- and ocean-bound. And she carried their bodies to the depths for her children to feed on, who would later be caught to be eaten. The savage circle of life.

Next were the radiation, mercury, oil, pesticides, and waste dumped into her ocean belly and tributary fingers. Chemicals ignited spontaneously and burned her shores, singeing her marshes. Garbage roiled in a whirlpool of waste, miles in circumference. Plastic choked her children.

Only poets could soothe her and offer promise of a tomorrow. If only she could find the right one, but she was afraid a poet would be insufficient. This far along, sterner measures would be called for. So Yemoja called her daughter, Oya, Orisha of the Wind, who swept in from the northeast, bold and brash.

#

“Exploit and pollute! Exploit and pollute! Give Dugan Chemicals the boot!”

Afua repeated the chant over and over as the Society for Clean Waterways marched along the Scioto River. The skyline loomed ahead, a colorful mix of white, brick, and grey buildings. The view, however, was spoiled by the stench of pollution. Most of it came from fertilizer runoff from farms, but they’d also had problems with raw sewage and slurry. Her grandmother used to tell her of when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 when sparks from a passing train landed on oil-slicked debris trapped between wooden frames. Publicity helped to pass the National Environment Policy Act. But environmental laws had been rescinded or defanged. And the Cuyahoga had caught fire again, this time from someone throwing in a lit match into the water. The next day, it became a call to arms.

Afua had skipped class at Ohio State to join the protests. Her mother would kill her if she knew, and Afua tried to duck the cameras as much as possible. She stayed close to the edge of the river, between the crowd and the media. Her mother’s voice rang in her head. “I’m paying for you to go to school, not to hang out with white folks protesting. They get arrested, it’s a slap on the wrist. You get arrested, it’s a different story. And don’t tell me it’s an experience you can put into your poetry cuz poems ain’t gonna pay the bills.”

At the moment, though, Afua wasn’t worried about jail. Given recent circumstances, the police stayed farther back than usual and no one had been arrested. At least not yet.

A gleam in the water caught her eye. It quickly passed, like a wink, but the day was overcast. There was no sun for the undulating peaks to catch, Afua thought. Perhaps it had come from—

A sudden gust of wind pushed her sideways. She stumbled, trying to steady her footing, but the wind battered her again and she fell into the river. The cold of the water shocked her and she strove to stand, but ropes of water and sand gathered at her ankles and dragged her under. The river muffled the screams and shouts of the protesters and obscured her view in the darkening depths. Afua kicked and struggled, but the cold rushed past her body, which meant she was being pulled down river. Panic rose within her, driving her heart to pound, forcing her mind to scramble for a way out. But as quick as the water’s gleam had been, a calm washed over her and in that frame of forever, someone…thing…spoke to her. Not in words, but with ideas and images. A river on fire, a collection of waste, dead fish, algae blooms, dioxin spills, sick children, and…an apology. And she understood.

#

Darius Papadopoulos hurried down the steps of Dugan Chemicals to his waiting car. The driver held the door as Darius climbed inside and settled within the heated seats. Having forgotten his coat, he was grateful for the warmth. His mind went to the scotch in the mini-bar and he helped himself to a large tumbler full. It had been a day, holed up in a room with lawyers reviewing a groundwater pollution case. The cleanup costs alone would hover around $1 billion. The stockholders wouldn’t stand for that large a payout, he thought. Hopefully, their argument that the statute of limitations applied would hold up in court. Who cared about a bunch of burnt-out meth heads, anyway? They were lucky he even hired them.

“Home, Stravros. I’ve got a date with a large steak,” Darius said.

Next week, Matt Betts joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fabulous fragment to flaunt? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Lana Ayers

Last week J.L. Gribble talked to Girl Meets Monster about time machines and cats. This week we have another gifted writer here to talk about time travel. Lana Ayers is another member of my Tribe from Seton Hill University and if you haven’t had the chance to read her fiction, you’re in for a real treat. If fact, Lana was kind enough to share a sneak peek from the sequel to Time Flash: Another Me. Enjoy!

lana author newLana Ayers is a poet, novelist, publisher, and time travel enthusiast. She facilitates Write Away™ generative writing workshops, leads private salons for book groups, and teaches at writers’ conferences. Born and raised in New York City, Lana cemented her night-owl nature there. She lived in New England for several years before relocating to the Pacific Northwest, where she enjoys the near-perpetual plink of rain on the roof. The sea’s steady whoosh and clear-night-sky stars are pretty cool, too. Lana holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, as well as degrees in Poetry, Psychology, and Mathematics. She is obsessed with exotic flavors of ice cream, Little Red Riding Hood, TV shows about house hunting, amateur detective stories, and black & white cats and dogs. Her favorite color is the swirl of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Visit Lana online at http://lanaayers.com/TimeFlashAnotherMe.htm

Three Questions

Girl Meets Monster: Welcome back, Lana! The last time you were here we featured your amazing horror poem, Alice’s Blind Date With Frankenstein’s Monster. How has poetry influenced your fiction writing, and vice versa?

Lana: Thanks for hosting me again, Michelle. That poem is very dear to my heart. Poetry is akin to a spiritual practice for me. I’m much better at sorting myself out on paper, then I ever have been speaking. In making poems, I can explore my connections, thoughts, and feelings, and make new discoveries. With fiction, my characters need to find their own best ways of communicating. In my romantic, time travel adventure novel, Time Flash: Another Me (Volume 1), the character of Jon Garcia is a man who is not always able to speak his feelings to his wife Sara. He expresses his emotions best through reciting lines from his favorite book-length poem, Piedra del Sol by Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

In truth, likely all my novels will contain a character or two who relate to poetry in some way. Poetry is such an important part of how I move through the world, it would be difficult to leave it out.

Girl Meets Monster: Time travel has always been one of my favorite tropes in genre fiction, but it often presents challenges for writers because of reader expectations and a backlog of fiction that informs those expectations. What challenges did you face while writing Time Flash?

Lana: A major hurdle with writing time travel was claiming authority as a woman writing a Science Fiction trope. Even though two of my favorite time travel novels were authored by women—Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976) and Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)—women are still often given short shrift by male peers. Much of the criticism from males in workshops I attended had more to do with my gender and thereby, a presumed lack of authority on the subject, than the content of the story or the quality of the writing. That fact that I have a Science and Math background didn’t seem to matter.

The challenge you mention, of reader expectation, is a huge one as well. There are really two basic approaches to time travel – you can affect changes in the past and future, or you can only observe and change nothing. From movie examples, this is the difference between Back to the Future and The Time Traveler’s Wife. In order to ground the reader, the writer must present their own specific system—changes possible or not—pretty much right away and remain logically consistent throughout the story. If the approach is not presented early enough in the story, you run the risk of thwarting reader expectation. In Time Flash, protagonist Sara changes the past, often inadvertently, screwing up so much, she gets her husband killed—twice.

Girl Meets Monster: Writing a series can seem a little overwhelming to some writers. What advice would you give other writers for planning a series and how to follow through with that plan?

Lana: I honestly didn’t start out thinking Time Flash was going to be a series. This is the book I’ve wanted to write my whole life, and I didn’t know if I had another one in me. But in the course of writing the novel, I fell in love with one of the minor characters—Murray—an antagonist who only appears in a couple of scenes. I realized Murray has quite a lot of complicated backstory that wouldn’t be appropriate to include. So that’s where the fiction fragment here comes from. Murray deserves his happy ending and I want to give it him.

When I realized I was going to have to write Murray’s story, I went back into Time Flash: Another Me and made sure there was just enough substance and uniqueness to his character that readers would be curious to learn more about him.

I believe to write a series, the author must remain passionate about the characters and the world she created. If the writer is passionate, readers will be too. Allow the series plan to evolve out of that passion. Don’t worry about anything else.

EXCERPT FROM: Time Flash: A Better Me (book 2 of Time Flash Series), by Lana Ayers

Chapter 1  Murray, age 39

Thursday, August 31, 2000, 4:30 AM

Murray O’Keefe’s apartment, Bedford Falls, NY

My goldfish Carl looks at me funny from his round bowl on the tiny kitchen table, like he knows something bad just happened. He floats in place staring, blowing bubbles, and waving his orange-gold fins. He must a heard me screaming before I woke up on the sofa bed and turned on the lamp.

My twin brother Mal says, Fish can’t hear because they got no ears, dumbass.

But I know Carl can hear ‘cause he nods at me a lot when I tell him about my workday delivering people to the lab.

I want to call Mal, tell him I just had the most awful dream of my life.

Worse than the nightmares I have all the time about the car crash that killed our folks when we was in high school.

But it’s 3 AM and waking Mal now would be like poking a lion.

I nurse a cola on the rocks and wait for the sun to come up. I don’t feel like watching TV, so I go look at the pictures hanging on the wall. I tore two of ‘em out of magazines.

I stand in front of the picture of breakfast that’s up over the stove in my postage stamp of a kitchen. It’s my favorite.

The glass in the frame is pretty smudged with grease, but that should add to it. Two rippled reddish-brown pieces of bacon all cozy with a couple of sunny-side up eggs. The yolks are like twin suns.

I know it’s only paper, but I sniff real hard and close my eyes. I want to remember the smell, but nothing comes.

I could whip a pan out, drop a couple of slices in, and turn the heat up. But it wouldn’t do any good. No better than the paper.

The best smells are gone. Not just the good ones. All smells.

Probably forever, Aunt Clare says. Happens in brain injury cases like yours.

But I keep hoping to get those good smells back.

Even in my dreams, I can’t smell nothing.

Next, I go over to photo of the wide green lawn hanging opposite my kitchen chair at the table. It’s half a step away. My whole studio apartment isn’t more than a couple dozen steps all around.

Fresh mowed grass is my second favorite smell. It used to make me feel full of energy, I think. At the far end of the lawn are bushes full of pink roses like the Georgetown Tea roses my mother used to grow. She won a couple of prizes for ‘em too. Those flowers sure smelled pretty. Like my mom and her perfume, Shalimar. I keep a bottle of the stuff in my bathroom medicine cabinet. Even though I can’t smell it, it makes me feel like she’s near, watching over me.

I have a photo on the wall I can see from my sofa bed. It’s a real picture of my mom and pop and my brother and me. Old too, back when Mal and I were little. Maybe eight. You can tell which one is me because I’m looking at my feet while Mal is staring straight at the camera. Even at eight, Mal looks angry. And I guess I was always looking the wrong way. Even before my brain was bad.

After I go read a few comics, it’s getting light out, but still too early to call Malcolm. He’s probably got a hangover. He hits the booze pretty hard most nights. Likes to have a good time, he says.

But me, I can’t drink like that. Makes me dumber than I already am.

I wish we still had the twin radar. Then I’d know whether he’s awake. But heck, that would mean he’d dream the same torture I did. Or worse, I’d feel his hangovers.

Used to be we could converse in our heads. Well, not whole conversations exactly, but we knew what the other one wanted. That all changed the day of the car crash.

I was asleep in the hospital a long time after it happened. I didn’t dream then, or if I did, I don’t remember. When I woke it was three months later and Aunt Clare told me the bad news about Mom and Pop being dead.

They didn’t suffer, she said. Died on impact. She told me, Be a big man, Murray, and don’t cry.

But I couldn’t help it. I bawled like a baby even thought I was almost fifteen.

The good news was that Malcolm was fine. Not a scratch on him even though he was sitting right next to me in the Pontiac’s back seat.

Brain trauma, Aunt Clare said to me, and she’s a doctor, so she knew what was what. A piece of the wrecked car lodged in my skull. Did a number on my head. I was never going to be the same.

At the time, listening to all that, ya know, I didn’t worry about my damage. I was too broken up about my folks.

But it turned out, I didn’t have the twin radar no more. I couldn’t hear Malcolm. Plus I didn’t do good in school. It was like all that science and math stuff went in one ear and out the other.  I wasn’t any good at baseball no more neither. Couldn’t get a hit or catch and throw the ball to save my life. It made me so mad cause I was gonna be a pitcher for the Yankees when I grew up. That or a hockey player. But I couldn’t hardly keep my balance skating anymore either.

I still felt like me, but not like me. I was me without Malcolm in my head, which was lonely. Still is.

Next week, K.W. Taylor joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about time travel and share a fragment of her speculative fiction. Do you have fiction fragments gathering dust? Do you have a new writing project you’d like to brag about? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. See you next week!

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!

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Life I Learned from InspiroBot

I’m not sure if you noticed, but there seems to be a surplus of inspirational platitudes out there to help us get through everything from bad break-ups to writers block to staying motivated while pursing our personal goals. Don’t believe me? Spend five minutes on Pinterest and let me know what you find. In fact, here’s the board I use to collect inspirational platitudes.

These tired, often recycled quotes that encourage us to keep our chins up and move forward, no matter how bad the reality of our situation might be, are for the most part well-meaning sentiments. However, if you’re a cynic like me, and have a dark sense of humor, or if you’ve simply been through some truly terrible experiences in life, traditional motivational quotes might piss you off. At the very least, they will inspire a need to mock them.

I’ve been going through some rough times lately. And, by lately, I mean for the past several years. As a divorced, middle-aged woman of color who is a single parent living paycheck to paycheck, I can attest to the fact that the struggle is real. This isn’t my first Everything is Going to Shit Rodeo. In fact, I have developed this uncanny ability to remain calm and keep moving forward in the face of every challenge that has come my way.

So far.

I have yet to curl up and die, but don’t assume that I’m a superwoman who doesn’t need anybody’s support to get through the tough times. That just isn’t true. I cry. I scream. I write.  I cry some more. And, I am blessed with an amazing network of people who want to see me succeed. Friends who want to help if they are able. Family who is always there for me. I’m not fighting these battles alone, but after a while, I get worn out from dealing with these challenges day in and day out. I’d like to be able to put down the plates spinning above my head without letting them shatter on the ground.

You may be asking yourself, “How does she cope?” To be honest, although my struggle is mainly the product of a lack of stability, I still have a roof over my head, enough money to pay most of my bills (my defaulted student loans not included), and as always, I have a back-up plan. Okay, one or two back-up plans.

There are people in this world, in this country, in my neighborhood, who are worse off than I am. Yes, I am struggling for stability, but I won’t have to go live on the street with my son, and I won’t have to do anything seriously demeaning to earn money. Like I said, I have a back-up plan.

As you might imagine, people who want to see me succeed have lots of kind words of support and encouragement, and yes, even platitudes. Again, all given with good intentions. And, I believe that people are sincere when they offer their words of support. But, the darker side of me, my cynical self, needs humor to deal with the struggle. Because, let’s face it, if I’m not laughing, I’m more likely to start shouting obscenities at people which only makes matters worse.

My taste in humor runs from absurdist to gallows. For example, last year around this time I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return and one of the funniest scenes in the series that made me literally laugh out loud, was in episode 11, in which Gordon Cole (David Lynch) makes the following assessment while staring at a man whose head exploded without explanation, leaving only the bottom half of his face: “He’s dead.” I replayed the scene three times and laughed over and over. Sometimes, gaping head wounds can be hilarious. In my opinion, overstatement of the obvious, especially in the context of the finality of death, can be extremely funny.

Around the same time last year, a good friend of mine introduced me to the AI inspirational meme generator, InspiroBot. Initially, I just laughed at the random  inappropriateness of the memes. But then I realized that this alternative to insipid, empty platitudes about finding happiness in the worst of times, was exactly what I needed in my life. In fact, I’ve been playing with InspiroBot almost every day since I became aware of it. And, I’m not the only one who’s enjoying the nearly Dadaist memes that range from the absurd to the eerily thought provoking to basic common sense. InspiroBot introduces itself like so:

I’m InspiroBot.
I am an artificial intelligence dedicated to generating unlimited amounts of unique inspirational quotes for endless enrichment of pointless human existence.

So far, InspiroBot has brought me hours of enjoyment, stimulated my own creativity, and reminded me that laughing at things that make most people uncomfortable is actually soothing to me. The memes it generates are funny enough, but the interface is also humorous in a scary science fiction sort of way. It reminds me of AI in films, like Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Skynet Corporation from the Terminator franchise, and David 8 from Alien: Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. The darkly humorous interface inspired Michael Walsh to write an article about InspiroBot suffering from an existential crisis for The Nerdist.

I don’t know if InspiroCorp©™® will be the catalyst for the destruction of humankind, but while I’m waiting to find out, I’m learning lots of interesting things from InspiroBot. As an agnostic who continues to search for meaning in the Universe, I’m open to finding meaning in places that might not make sense to others. At the moment, InspiroBot is one of my preferred forms of meditation. If meditation can be compared to a slot machine that generates bizarre Jungian Stream of Consciousness platitudes that either enlighten or confuse. Even if the path ahead for me isn’t clear, it’s clear to me that InspiroBot wants me to look at things differently. Here are five examples of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the AI meme generator.

Number 1: InspiroBot reminds us that our fear of dying alone may be the primary force that drives us to seek out romantic relationships. Marriage is the logical conclusion for most people who find love in this life, much like death is the logical conclusion to life itself.

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Number 2: Sometimes, you need to start with a clean slate. Which means, you need to learn how to not only accept the fact of change, but embrace it. Starting over can be scary, but it is often necessary to move forward to the next phase of your life. Whether that means quitting a job you hate, leaving a relationship that is sucking the life out of you, or literally setting something you’ve created on fire, like a short story or a painting, so you can begin again with a fresh perspective.

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Number 3: It’s okay to be weird. Being weird, especially in the company of fellow weirdoes can be an intense mood elevator. Getting together with like-minded people, whether they’re horror writers, furries, or goths, can really lift your spirits and remind you that you’re not alone in the world, and more importantly, you aren’t completely crazy. Unfurl your freak flag!

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Number 4: Life lessons aren’t always happy occasions. In fact, I often believe that the more traumatic the lesson, the greater the learning opportunity. People like to tell us to “move on,” or “suck it up,” or “get over it.” Bullshit. Embrace your bad times and learn from them so that you don’t have to repeat them in the future. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

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Number 5: The previous meme reminds us that we can learn from our mistakes. One of life’s lessons I have to keep relearning is to not chase after people who do not have my best interest in mind. I have a terrible habit of finding myself attracted to people who will most likely cause me harm. I mean, honestly, my love of monsters relates to both fictional characters and literal people from my past. The idea of seeking out a partner who will either consciously or unconsciously hurt you due to who they are, their life choices, or a history of bad behavior in romantic relationships is almost always a bad idea. Breaking this habit is an ongoing project for me. At least when it comes to real people. My love of fictional monsters will probably never go away. Vampires, werewolves, and Lucifer just do it for me.

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Inspiration can come from unexpected sources. Some people seek enlightenment through religion, others seeks answers in Nature. For now, my answers come from InspiroBot. Laugh if you must, but don’t knock it until you try it.

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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