Saturday, October 22, 2016

Editing the Horror Story

Remember that story I blogged about a while back? The one I wrote with the goal of creating a gender-neutral/gender-undisclosed protagonist

Well, I submitted it to a literary magazine online, and it was accepted for their next anthology. 

The litmag is called Smoking Pen Press. For inclusion in their next anthology, I will receive a bit of money and a copy of the published book. I'll blog again when it goes live, I suppose. 

I've won contests and had submissions accepted before, but I'm writing about this one now because I've never done any of that with short stories. I don't consider myself very good at short stories. For the story I submitted, titled "River Road," I just had a whim to sit down and write a short story -- even gave myself a wordcount of 2,000-ish -- with the conceit of seeing if I could be deliberately vague about the protagonist's gender. When it turned out better than expected, I figured, what the hell? and submitted it. 

The acceptance came in the middle of a string of bad days. It was a welcome reminder that sometimes I write things that, for whatever reason, other people like. I'm not sure I consider it much of an accomplishment, considering how much the rest of my life resembles this box in terms of how well I'm keeping it together. And/or of how much you'd trust that box to behave like a functional adult. 

Image result for cardboard box held together

I've had a decent amount of success with poetry submissions and contests. If I cared enough and/or had enough money to burn on submission fees, I could probably do a lot better. (That would also require me to re-read my poems without wanting to die in a fire. Poetry is a bit...personal.)

But perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised that someone liked one of my short stories. Horror, after all, is the one short story genre I always seem to have liked and been OK at. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the power my short horror stories seemed to have over the imaginations of my friends. I have Poe and Lovecraft and Stephen King and a few other horror greats' collections. I like reading horror shorts more than most other genres. Horror presents a diverse array of tales but also provides a pretty solid framework which an incompetent plotter like me can work with more easily. 

Whether I'd class this one as pure horror, I don't know. It has a murder! A killer! Even a ghost. It feels more "ghost story" than horror, but again, you know, with the murdering. Even though the supernatural elements are minimal, it wouldn't feel out of place in a horror collection. 

In any case, I just completed the first round of revision requests from Smoking Pen Press, and I hope to finish the process soon. My attitude towards submitting was, "Meh," but the revising process had me in heaps and piles of nerves. I needn't have been so concerned. 

Anyway, that's my brag for the month out of the way. I wrote a thing. People liked the thing. Now the people who liked the thing are going to publish the thing. Woo-hoo. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review: Ghosts of War by Bennet R. Coles

I received Ghosts of War to read and review. It's the sequel to Virtues of War, my review of which was one of the casualties of the site change. (Still mad.)

Since this book deals with issues of mental illness, namely PTSD and depression, I'm including it in my Diverse Reads review series.


In Virtues of War, we're introduced to the Terran space military force and the crew of the Rapier, a small fast-attack craft. The team has interpersonal drama as they struggle to do their part in an inter-space conflict between Terran (Earth) forces and the Centauri colonies, who want independence. There's a war, shit goes down, everything sucks, and then they "win." Or at least, until the next book. 

Image result for ghosts of war coles
Can I just say, I love these covers. Totally badass.

Ghosts of War: Summary

After the Terran-Centauri conflict, the different crew members of Rapier have various levels of success adjusting to their new normal. The team is split up: Thomas returns to his socialite wife and a career track that will hopefully fulfill his ambitions; Jack endures facial reconstruction and physical therapy before being reassigned; Breeze happily throws them all under the bus for her career in intelligence; and Katja struggles with PTSD as she adjusts to life in peacetime. 

However, the threat isn't over. A Centauri assassin bent on revenge has his own plans for Earth -- and the crew of Rapier once more finds themselves entangled in interstellar conflict. 

Review: 4 stars

I think I'll give this one four stars. I actually liked it much better than the first book. 

Katja is the central character of Ghosts of War, and plays a more prominent role than she did in the first book. I struggled to like her in book one because the first thing we see her do is round up a bunch of civilians and shoot them in the head when they refuse to answer her questions. Virtues of War paints her as an insecure overachiever with daddy issues who often resorts to extreme measures (read: war crimes) in an attempt to live up to expectations. 

In Ghosts of War, she's less naive, less needy and approval-seeking, and more mature. She's also been pretty brutalized, mentally and physically, by her time in combat. She displays common PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, hypervigilance, and aggression. The description of her struggles isn't sentimental, which was a relief compared to other portrayals of PTSD I've read. 

Jack remains my favorite character -- but the presence of Thomas in this novel just made me want to gnash my teeth. He's still an asshole, still shallow, and still a character I can't muster the slightest bit of a fuck to give about. In the first book, he cheats on his wife with Katja -- a young, impressionable officer under his command -- and then throws her over for Breeze. He's such a slimeball that when Breeze blackmails him by threatening to accuse him of sexual assault, you almost want to cheer for her rather than feel sorry for him. (Almost. Breeze is a horrible person.) 

In Ghosts of War, he leads Katja on (while still married) and then goes and fucks her sister. This sends Katja further into a downward spiral. Practically all the interpersonal drama and misery that isn't caused by the war is caused by Thomas. Ghosts of War tries to make him into this sympathetic guy, but I wasn't buying it. 

As far as the action goes, it's heavy on intrigue, spy stuff, and secret plots. I found this more enjoyable than the first book, which included a lot of mind-numbing, tedious descriptions of How The Sci-Fi Stuff Works. I appreciated the attempt to make this hard sf, but I was bored. The science fiction aspects of Ghosts of War are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, rather than being shoved at the reader in the form of an infodump. 


If you like military scifi, this is the series for you. If you want to read more Canadian authors, this is the series for you. If you want a series with interesting female characters out the wazoo, this is the series for you. If you're looking for a decent portrayal of veteran PTSD, this is also the series for you. Worth mentioning that the author is a veteran himself. 

This series is also good about addressing moral complexities in its characters and the society it presents. In another series, the Terrans would be portrayed as the villains. Katja, for instance, is seen by the other side as the Angel of Death for her role in the war. The assassin is sympathetic. The idea that there's not necessarily a good or an evil side -- that what side you were born on matters more -- is a troubling concept that Ghosts of War isn't afraid to address.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Flash Fiction Challenge: Scary Story Part One

This week's challenge from Chuck at in 1,000 words or less, start a scary story. The story will be picked up by another person and completed the following week. 

Since several of my friends are involved in various productions of Shakespeare's Macbeth this October -- the "cursed" play -- I drew my inspiration from that. I also have to say that it's incredibly liberating to just start something and say, "Lol, have fun figuring out where this goes next! I'm out, suckers!"

Here it is, weighing in at 994 words. Enjoy. 


I edge into my light, feeling the heat on my face. I’m slouched and fearful, my character walking on eggshells around the dangerous maniac Macbeth becomes in the fifth act.

“The queen, my lord, is dead.” My voice carries to the last row. But my body, hunched, eyes pleading, makes the audience hear it as a fearful whisper.

I’ve been in this show three times. Most directors leave it at that. The queen, my lord, is dead. Boom. End of story. Cue the “Tomorrow” speech. But Dan Shelley, Artistic Director and Asshole Extraordinaire, wasn’t content with such a simple solution. It’s not enough that my line cues one of the most famous speeches in the history of drama. No, Dan Shelley’s production has to stand out.

“She should have died hereafter!” Macbeth roars, seizing me by the throat. I slam into the wall. The audience gasps.

Peter tops six feet and plays a violently unhinged Macbeth. I beat weakly at his forearms, making choking noises. I can breathe easily—his hands aren’t anywhere near my throat, and the angle hides the reality from the audience.

Still, the dude is scary. Peter’s pupils are dilated, his breath fast and hard on the top of my head. His eyes are wide, manic. As I choke and struggle, my fear isn’t entirely faked.

Peter abruptly lets me drop. I fall to my knees, gasping.

He begins the “tomorrow” speech.

Peter’s a big guy, and his hyper-masculine Macbeth spends most of the play shouting. But he plays this speech soft and broken. Compared to the over-the-top assault on my character, Seyton, it’s truly striking.

I rise to my feet, Seyton transfixed by the figure of the fallen king. Tonight, the audience is deathly silent. Something imperceptible shifts in the air. Peter’s voice gives out. He sinks to his knees, and to my shock, begins to cry.

The actor in me is impressed; I’ve never been able to cry onstage. But it’s more than that. My own chest grows tight and I find that Seyton pities the violent, broken man in front of him.

Macbeth’s last lines are choked out through tears. Dan Shelley is going to hate this, I know, but there’s something about it—something visceral about seeing a powerful man reduced to tears, a private grief on display for a crowd of people.

I approach, hesitantly, and lay a hand on his shoulder. Peter looks up at me. His face is streaked with tears. I offer him a hand. He takes it.

Macbeth rises to his feet, and applause bursts over our heads like rain.

After the show, Dan Shelley storms into the men’s dressing room. Something wicked this way comes. I turn away quickly.

“What the hell was that?” he fumes, slapping his program down in front of Peter’s mirror. “We didn’t discuss that!”

“Sorry, man,” Peter says. He’s still wiping stage blood off his face. “I just felt it in the moment, you know?”

“In the moment,” Shelley says scathingly. “You’re Macbeth, for Christ’s sake! You’re supposed to be masculine. Powerful! Not…weepy.”

“It felt right,” Peter says with a shrug. “I thought I could let the poor guy have a bit of humanity.”

“Humanity is not the point,” Shelley booms. “We don’t want to see humanity. We want to see a monster!”

“The audience liked it,” I say. Normally I try to stay out of Shelley’s way. I play Seyton and a dozen other small roles—including one of the infamous witches—and I have no desire to attract the wrath of the artistic director. Peter’s established around here; this community theatre would be lost if they couldn’t cast him every season. He can afford to step out of line. Me, I’m nobody. The new guy. Breaking into any social scene in a small Southern town is like pulling teeth. I don’t want to make things worse for myself.

But I can’t just watch Shelley tear Peter apart like that. It sounds corny, but moments like that—moments onstage that just feel right, where you sense the connection running from actors to audience—they feel realer than real life. That’s the kind of thing that makes people say theatre is magic.

And I, stupidly, felt I had to defend that. “I think it worked,” I argue. “Why do we watch Macbeth if we don’t care about Macbeth?”

Shelley puffs up like a balloon. His Tennessee accent, which he works so carefully to conceal, rears its head. “Not your show, not your place to say,” he snapped. “I’m the artistic director. I directed this show, which makes it my intellectual property! Any changes you make have to be approved by me. And I don’t approve this change.” He whirled on Peter. “It won’t happen tomorrow.”

“OK, Dan.”

Shelley storms out.

“Thanks, man,” Peter says. “You didn’t have to say anything.”

I shrug. “It was a good scene.”

That night, I walk out to my car with the swords. As it happens, I double as props master as well. Most props live at the theatre, but these swords are too valuable to leave out in the open.

I reach into my pocket. Damn. My keys. I must have left them in the dressing room.

Back inside, the lights are off. I shiver. There’s something profoundly wrong about an empty theatre. I flip light switches as I go down the hall, still holding the swords under one arm.

I turn into the dressing room and nearly scream. Someone’s sitting there in the dark.

“God, Peter,” I groan. “You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

He sits in his chair, facing the mirror, head bowed. I frown, concerned. “Peter?” He doesn’t answer. “Hey, man, you OK?” I wonder if Shelley’s words cut deeper than the big man let on. Tentatively, I reach out to touch his shoulder, strongly reminded of the scene from tonight.

Peter slumps sideways and falls from his chair, dead. This time, I do scream.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

What a Depression Diagnosis Means When Your Doctor Is Terrible

A while back I took an extended break from grad school for medical reasons. Many, many medical reasons, but chief among them being that I was constantly in pain, and exhausted from being in pain, and generally miserable all the time. And being in pain, having difficulty being fully load-bearing on one's feet, having limited motion, etc. is a bit difficult to get around in a theatre program. In the words of one of my advisers, the group would only be as good as its weakest link.

So maybe that was a pretty shitty thing to say to me, but I pursued medical treatment expecting...well...better treatment. Medically. From a professional who would take me seriously instead of insinuating that I was making the whole thing up. 

Ha, ha. 

I went to the doctor, who sent me to physical therapy (again). However, she was more adamant that I go to psychotherapy. This was because when asked whether I felt "down" or "depressed," I made the mistake of answering honestly. 

Of course I felt down, I said. I was in pain. Sitting in this chair hurt, but not as much as I knew it would to get back up. I was in pain and it was keeping me from doing the things that I like to do. And that's depressing. Who wouldn't be depressed?

Apparently I must have been speaking backwards, because she told me that no, I was in pain because I was depressed. And did I have any trauma in my past that maybe I wasn't dealing with?

I did agree to try a prescription of anti-depressants and go to a psychotherapist. The pills, surprisingly, alleviated the insomnia, which was awesome. But at the dosage required to be effective, they made me really nauseous. I was constantly sick to my stomach and missing work because of it, so I stopped taking them. While they worked, the trade-off was too much at that time. 

Therapy was similarly unfit for my lifestyle. It was expensive and yielded poor results, if any. I tried a couple of people, but I think I may be one of those people for whom therapy doesn't work very well. I find it intrusive and offensive to sit there and take it while a total stranger describes everything wrong with me based on 30 minutes of my rambling. (Also I hate feelings.) 

I went through this rigmarole to satisfy my GP, who held other treatments and referrals -- like allergy testing, sleep studies, physical therapy, and more -- hostage on the condition that I forced myself to continue a treatment that was, if anything, making things worse. I tried to go around her to find a place that wouldn't require a referral to a specialist, but I live in a rural area dominated by one major health group. To see someone in that group, you need a referral from a doctor already in that group. 

Finally, I was able to get a referral to the physical therapy that I desperately needed by simply lying to my GP and telling her that yes, of course I was still seeing that psychotherapist and taking my antidepressants. 

And guess what? My PT person was nice and listened to me. Physical therapists are the nicest kind of doctor, at least in my experience. Probably because their job requires them to listen to their patients. And have the best "bedside" (poolside?) manner. I was scaled back from land therapy to pool therapy, made some improvement, and was given a regimen to complete on my own at home. 

And because of the improvements resulting from that treatment, I started to feel less in pain and less depressed overall, like I told my doctor I would in the first fucking place. 

She left the practice because her family moved. At first, I felt bad that I'd thought badly of her. We got off to a good start, but our relationship disintegrated over time. I wondered if I'd done something wrong, offended her somehow, and that was why she didn't take me seriously. I figured she was trying to do her best. She did help me with some things, after all. 

But you know what? No. She could have helped me. Instead of insisting that my pain was all in my head or perhaps due to something in my past, she could have wondered, hey, maybe it's being exacerbated by your job as a cashier where you stand for 8+ hours a day. She knew that. She could have done something, like written me a note that said I was allowed a chair at work. Or more frequent breaks. My physical therapist at the time urged me to quit that job. And sure enough, when I switched jobs, that had a huge positive impact on my health. 

She could have done something, instead of throwing up her hands and trying to fob me off to a psychiatrist. 

But, I don't think she ever really believed I was in real pain. Because surely, if she had, she would have done something about it besides ask if it was all in my head. 

I could go on about this doctor and all the things I didn't like about her. Instead I'll just keep doing my exercises.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

So Apparently Audible Warns You About "Diverse Content"

I signed up for my free month with, Amazon's audiobook company. I like being able to listen to a book while driving or doing chores.

Plus, there's been a book on my TBR pile for a while: A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliot. I got it and finished listening. I'll review it here in a bit, but for now I'll say it was one of the best audiobooks I've ever listened to.

The thing that annoyed me was that once I got to the download screen, I noticed that contained under the book information was a little warning box. A warning about "diverse content."


A Wish After Midnight is the story of an African American girl from Brooklyn. One night, she makes a wish at a fountain and finds herself transported back in time to Civil War-era Brooklyn. There, she has to survive and get back to her own time.

Image result for a wish after midnight
Also, hooray for introverted protagonists, ordinary people, and others who don't normally make it into fantasy novels. Because they're pretty much all in this book.

It's pretty clear from the synopsis that the book contains some heavy issues, such as, I don't know...the Civil War and how black Americans are treated by society then and now. And Jenna is an African American girl, but her dad is from Panama, and her family also has Native American heritage, so the character is "diverse" in that sense. She and her boyfriend are also members of a minority religion. 

But I don't really believe that the "diverse content" sticker is supposed to warn you about all that. Anyway, are all those things we really need to be warned about? For fuck's sake, A Game of Thrones has a character eat a horse heart and ride around on dragons in fantasy-Asia -- yet we need a "diverse content" warning about a normal kid from modern-day Brooklyn? I don't fucking think so. 

I suspect "diverse content" is in place just to make sure you don't buy a "black book" by mistake. 

But if you'd looked at the cover, you'd know that A Wish After Midnight is about African American characters. If you have a problem with that, you probably haven't gotten to the stage where Audible warns you about it. (Which appears to be only after you purchase the thing, which is also weird.)

Or maybe it's a coded warning that "this book contains the n-word." But again, if you'd read the synopsis, you'd know A Wish After Midnight is about the Civil War. So even if you were offended by it, you might not necessarily be surprised. And if that's what they meant, then why not use a language advisory? "This book contains adult language and racial slurs."

This weird little content warning just seems like another gate kept by Amazon's mysterious censorship gods. Like, watch out! You might end up reading "diverse content" in books about characters different from you!

Different from you. That's the implication here that really bugs me, I think. The assumption that their audience is all the other things the characters are not (namely, white) and might need a warning so as not to be shocked. 

I know I put "Diverse Reads" tags on some of my book reviews. But, hopefully, I seem as though I'm trying to promote diversity, rather than warn about it. Doing the Diverse Reads series is an attempt on my part to read more widely and to let others know about more of these books. Looking at Audible's content warning, I really, really hope it hasn't come across in the wrong way. :P

I tried to see whether Audible puts "diverse content" tags on books with themes other than race, but the warning doesn't seem to pop up before the final stage (and I'm too broke to try and find a pattern). If I purchase Mind Games, which has a blind protagonist, a depressed protagonist, and a graphic depiction of a suicide attempt, will I get a "diverse content" warning?

Or is it really a race thing?

*squints suspiciously at Audible*

I think I'm going to try Nook Audiobooks for the time being.