And It Rained: A Poem

Slake my thirst,
Dirty green of desert oaks,
Grey like ash,
You brittle clouds,
Waiting to break.

Tear in the sky,
You will sing
Against my psalms.

I open
My hands
To you.

 

 

Here in Paso Robles, it doesn’t rain a lot. But I was born and raised in a different part of the country, where rain is as integral a part of the daily routine as breakfast. I love it. And so when I felt the first drop of water against my outstretched hands on Saturday night, wandering drunkenly about the town with friends in tow, I almost couldn’t contain myself. The poem I wrote in my head that night faded as quickly as the alcohol did from my blood, but I got these few short verses out of it. This isn’t the poem I meant to write, but it’ll do, at least until the next time. 

Dear Society: Stop Telling Me To Have Kids

“You just haven’t met the right man yet.”

“Your clock will start ticking one of these days!”

“I know it seems like you don’t want kids now, but just give it time.”

“You’re too pretty/smart/nice NOT to have kids.”

“Trust me, you’ll want kids one day.”

“You’re going to be such a great mom!”

“Women who don’t give birth have higher rates of ovarian and breast cancer, so you should probably use those organs before it’s too late. You don’t want to get cancer, do you?”

Kind and well-intentioned statements, all, (well, okay, maybe not the last one – and I’m not making that one up, either) that nevertheless have been met with something less than gratitude on my part. I have never dealt especially well with people telling me what I should do and how I will feel, and I am even less happy about the continual insistence that I have virtually no free will on a matter of such import as whether or not to have a child.

When I was 19 and just beginning to discover my identity as a ‘woman’ rather than as a ‘girl’, a man told me that “A woman’s Everest to climb is having children.” A few beats before that, he’d said, “Men choose their own destinies.” Those around the table nodded their heads in agreement, while I sat seething, gnashing my teeth in anger. The implication was clear. Men decide who they are; women get to be moms. My reaction to the sum total of these statements was pretty simple: Fuck. That.

How dare you rob me of the ability to choose my identity? I wanted to ask.

My own personal reasons for not really wanting to have kids are pretty simple, but they’re also personal. What’s astonishing to me is how very few people seem to respect these reasons. How many times have I explained that aside from the fact that I am, plain and simple, terrified of pregnancy, there’s also the added weight of bringing a child into a world that really doesn’t need any more homo sapiens sapiens? How many times have I explained that being a mother was something I never aspired to, a goal in life I never needed, a role I don’t necessarily want to play? How many times have I repeated that while I love kids, I just don’t really see the need to make my own? And how many times have these legitimate justifications been met with the statements I quoted above, dismissing my rationale and acting as though it’s not my choice to make?

It is, I’ll grant, entirely possible that I’ll be a good mom (SHOULD I CHOOSE TO ACCEPT THAT POSITION IN LIFE). It is entirely possible that once I do have kids (SHOULD I CHOOSE TO DO SO) I will be a wonderful, caring mother. It is entirely possible that when I turn thirty my body will magically decide that I must have a baby right then, and that I will decide (EMPHASIS ON MY DECISION) to get pregnant and have a child. Or several. But that is my choice to make. And I don’t need the whole of society telling me that some preordained biological destiny will one day change the entire course of my life.

I mean, hell, wasn’t that the point of most of civilization: to set ourselves above the whimsy of our biology and obtain greater control over ourselves as thinking beings?

It is high time that we acknowledged that it’s no one’s decision but my own. That biology has no say in whether or not I’ll be a better parent than the father of my children. That we acknowledged that society has no say in whether or not I decide to adopt, or make my own babies, or foster children, or decide that the challenges and tribulations of parenting simply aren’t for me.

Until the day I make that decision, my body is my own. Don’t tell me what to do with it, don’t lay claim to my identity, and don’t judge me for the choice I make.

It’s not your decision.

Cultivating Your Writing Voice

At Jess West’s behest, I’ve written this article on what ‘voice’ is in writing, why it’s important, and how writers can cultivate it. Jess has written a post on the same subject, though we both tackled the issue from very different perspectives. Please check hers out as well. You can find it here.

At its most basic, writing is simply a combination of symbols that, together, evoke images, forms, or ideas. We think of pictographs or cuneiform as writing at its simplest – symbols that represent images which, together, take on more complex meanings. But at its most sophisticated, the act of writing becomes more than just a depiction of static forms. Through words, we tell stories, paint pictures, describe cultures, and create new worlds.

By stringing words together to make sentences, writers create their own distinctive and identifiable style of narration. This is called “voice”. It’s basically a different way of saying “style”, one that’s more particular to writing than the other arts (with the exception of music, obviously).

Here’s an example.

Robert Jordan saw them there on the slope, close to him now, and below he saw the road and the bridge and the long lines of vehicles below it. He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything. Then he looked up at the sky. There were big white clouds in it. He touched the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay and he touched the bark of the pine trunk that he lay behind.

That’s Ernest Hemingway, from For Whom The Bell Tolls. You can tell, if you’ve read any of his works, that it’s his, just by the way he doesn’t use any commas, how he lists things somewhat repetitively, and how he lays these actions out so bare and raw without any adverb or emotion.

Here’s another.

In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.

That’s Cormac McCarthy, from The Road. McCarthy draws some influence from Hemingway, and you can see it in the taut, terse quality of his writing. But he’s more expansive than Hemingway is – he takes more liberty with his vocabulary (“pilgrims” “flowstone” “granitic”) and though his sentences are still tight, they’re more fluid, less constraining.

By contrast, here’s a writer who’s almost defiantly self-indulgent when it comes to his words:

Starting with the mysterious and continuing fall of acoustic ceiling-tiles from their places in the subdorms’ drop rooms, inanimate objects have either been moved into or just out of nowhere appearing in wildly inappropriate places around [Enfield Tennis Academy] for the past couple months in a steadily accelerating and troubling cycle. Last week a grounds-crew lawnmower sitting silent and clean and somehow menacing in the middle of the dawn kitchen gave Ms. Clarke the fantods and resulted in Eggplant Parmesan for two suppers in a row, which sent shock waves.

This is the exuberantly verbose David Foster Wallace, from Infinite Jest. Note the way he writes casually and not always properly (“for the past couple months” instead of “couple of months” and “fantods”) and uses far more words than he really needs (“wildly innapropriate” “steadily accelerating and troubling” “silent and clean and somehow menacing”). In this case, the hyperbole makes the passage funnier, and contributes to the absurdism he’s trying to pass off as realism.

All three of these writers’ voices are so distinctive it would almost be possible to tell them apart in a sort of blind literary tasting. Give a long-time reader or a literary critic a passage from each of these writers and ask her to identify which writer authored which passage, and I have little doubt she’d be able to hit the mark all three times. Their voice are strong, unique, and charismatic. We want to follow the path they’ve written out for us.

So how is an aspiring writer to set about developing a voice of his own?

As I see it, developing your own writing voice is a bit like growing a garden.

First, you have to have strong, rich, healthy soil. This is the foundation upon which your voice is built. The soil is the organic matter you’ll till into your own distinctive sound. The soil is books – books by other authors, authors you respect and admire, whose writing styles you wish to emulate and capture. It doesn’t have to be just one person – in fact, it’s far, far better if it’s not just one writer. By synthesizing the sounds and words from many different writers, playwrights, poets, or screenwriters, you’ll be able to create a more innovative and distinct style of your own. If you try too hard to imitate just one person, you’ll end up sounding both unoriginal and dull – after all, the style you’re working so hard to perfect has already been perfected. Just as compost doesn’t work if you only feed it tomatoes, so your voice will wither if you only feed it Faulkner.

Then, you have to have hearty, diverse seeds. These are your own works. You have to invest in lots of them – from the very big to the very small – in order to make your voice strong universally. You should experiment with all sorts of different forms of writing, from flash fiction to poetry to novellas to one-act plays. These are your seeds, and as you plant them and begin to write them, you’ll learn how to turn all those works you’ve read into a strong and distinctive voice.

And of course, you have to sow your seeds, train your plants, water them, and weed, before you can harvest the fruits of your labor. This is work. This, as you might expect, is the hard part. In order to cultivate your voice, you have to write, and you have to write a lot. Those short stories, poems, plays, and novellas you started out with? You have to finish them. You have to revisit them and critique them and ask yourself how can this be better? before you can begin to harvest anything from your garden. You have to write. A lot.

There are some people, I suspect, who were born with words springing from their fingertips like Athena sprung from Zeus’ forehead. I might hazard that F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of these people, whose first novel was published at the tender young age of twenty-four. Or Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was published when she was merely twenty years old. The aforementioned David Foster Wallace had his first novel, The Broom Of The System, published when he was twenty-five. There are others, I’m sure, who meet the same criteria. But for the rest of us mortals, cultivating our voice(s) is a more arduous process. It demands work, careful attention, and patience, much as does tending to our gardens.

It’s not easy. But the reward, I guarantee you, is worth the struggle. So go, till your garden, turn your compost, plant your seeds, and grow your voice. I’ll be working right alongside you.

 

Between Two Mountains: A Poem

I never thought I’d be the silly writer
Who would dare to utter the cliche
‘Your lips were the color of sky’.
But here I am,
And to say otherwise would be a lie.
The sky tonight for perhaps a minute and a half
Was the same color as the gunmetal chill
Of your lips
In the cold water between two mountains
We’d been promised.

‘Your lips were the color of sky.’

It’s a strange thing to say, because
We tend to think of lips as red
Or pink or, on rare occasion, lilac.
But blue is death’s hue
Frozen solid, inimitable.
The swath that carved itself into the cheeks of the wind
That bit the moon’s lip
As she played a tremulous song
Jazz, perhaps–
In the cold water between two mountains
We’d been promised.

Black and white the keys
The chords that rippled across the lake
The music I heard so very few hours ago
In the cold water between two mountains
We’d been promised.

Help Me Join The #NoPantsClub!

Today is awesome!

Today is awesome because you can do two awesome things today. First, you can get me out of my pants by buying my book, THE SOWING, while it’s discounted to $0.99, thus making it more likely that one day in the future I’ll be able to forever forsake alarm clocks and join the perpetual #NoPantsClub. Second, until Sunday night at midnight, you can get both THE SOWING, Book One of the Seeds trilogy, and THE PRELUDE, a novella of the Seeds trilogy, for $0.99 each. And if that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

Cover with Seal

Why is today so awesome? Today, BookBub, a book recommendation site with over a million subscribers, is featuring THE SOWING on its advertisement page. Today, Remy and Vale’s story has the chance to reach hundreds or thousands of new readers. Today, Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), Donna Tartt, John Green, and Gillian Flynn all happen to be in the ebook bestseller list, which means that K. Makansi could race them all up the bestseller charts on Amazon. Today, my mom, my sister, and I have a real shot at achieving our dreams of writing fiction for a living. Today is just basically a fucking awesome day.

COVER

I’d love to be able to say that, just for one day, THE SOWING sold more books than a New York Times bestseller. I’d love to be able to say that, just for one day, I outsold J. K. Rowling.

So today, follow along with Remy and Vale’s story, and above all, help me out of these damn pants. (You know you want to.) Get your copy of THE SOWING or THE PRELUDE (or both!) for $0.99 and, for the price of a single dollar (or two), help put this young writer a step closer to achieving her dreams. If you’re one of the cohort of astoundingly awesome people who have already bought the book, I’d be immensely grateful if you’d help spread the word throughout your networks.

Besides, pants are so last year. Join The Resistance, where pants are always optional.

 

Ode To The Summer Solstice: A Poem

Solstice, dearest, come and gone,
I’ll wear you like a crown
I’ll carve your name into the moon
And let her blood drip down

Solstice, dear, thy hours long
Oh, daylight fades to grey
You dance with me ’till longing’s gone
And disappear come day.

Like a lover, known but once
You greet me in the night
But morning comes and tides are won
You’re gone without a sight.

Oh, Solstice, love, thy magic holds
As quickly as it fades.
And though I know you’re gone too soon
I’ll dance with you ’till day.

The summer solstice is my favorite day of the year, every year, and like Christmas, I feel as though I spend all year waiting for it and then time crushes up like an aluminum can as the day finally bears down on me. The day itself seems to last about a half-second, more powerful both in anticipation and in retrospect than in the moment itself. The harder I try to slow down and just enjoy it, the more quickly it seems to slough away. I wrote this poem a day or two after the solstice, wishing, as with so many other things in life, I could get it back. 

In case you’d like to hear it read aloud, here’s a recording I did last night.

Four Ways To Avoid The Trope Of The ‘Strong Female Character’

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the role of women in literature and film from an article called “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters To Trinity Syndrome”. Published last week by Tasha Robinson, the article primarily argues that screenwriters are providing cop-out “strong female characters” who appear at first glance to be empowered leading (or at least secondary) ladies, but who ultimately turn out to be mostly helpless, passive characters without much to do but offer the occasional word of advice as the protagonist (male) achieves his goals (and wins the girl).

“Strong Female Character” is just as often used derisively as descriptively, because it’s such a simplistic, low bar to vault, and it’s more a marketing term than a meaningful goal.

As Robinson very effectively argues, the trope of the Strong Female Character has become more an avoidance tactic than anything else. It’s a clever way to sidestep the problem (I’m still not sure why it’s a problem in the first place) of having to write female characters who do more than just beat up would-be rapists and bat their eyelashes at their love interest hero-figure. By creating Strong Female Characters, screenwriters can appeal to a broader population base while claiming they’re supporting gender equality.

As a writer myself, and particularly a writer with what might be called a Strong Female Character as one of the protagonists in my first novel, this article alerted me to some potential problems with my own character development that I want to try to avoid. In THE SOWING, Remy Alexander is a gun-slinging, take-no-shit female character with a hearty thirst for revenge. Like so many Strong Female Characters, she has something to prove: that she’s totally over Valerian Orlean, that she can and will avenge the death of her sister, that she can run as fast and shoot as straight as any of the boys on her team in the Resistance.

But in THE REAPING, the second book in the series, Remy’s character arc deepens. She’s proved she’s tough enough, now, and can handle the physical trauma of what’s been thrown at her in life. Her story must become more emotional. Yes, she thirsts for revenge, but can she learn to see beyond that? Yes, she’s proved herself to be strong, but what does that mean for her? What will define her once her goals have been achieved? It’s important to us that Remy be shown as more than just a killing machine, a gunslinger with a jaded heart, because no one can be that way for long – and besides, it’s just not that interesting. Keira Knightley’s DOMINO proved that once and for all.

One of my favorite examples of a Strong Female Character who is both strong AND many other things is the character Pearl in THE WIDOW’S WORK, J. Edward Paul’s short story contribution to the Whiskey & Wheelguns world. Although Pearl takes shit from the Sheriff and his band of outlaws for being a woman, she not only holds her own in their midst but also takes action in pursuit of her own goals despite their attempts to prevent exactly that. Similarly, Charlie Nobunaga in ZERO ECHO SHADOW PRIME by Peter Samet is as un-cliched as they come: even in four different incarnations, Charlie is a driving force behind the action in almost every scene of the book. She is at times hesitant, weak, unsure, confused, and demure, and at others intelligent, cunning, noble, and, defiant.

So with all that in mind, here are some questions I’m asking myself as we edit THE REAPING, and these are things that I think will be generally helpful in avoiding the trope of the Strong Female Character.

1. Does your Strong Female Character take meaningful action beyond violence?

It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking of Remy as a hero simply because she’s good at hurting people. In the Resistance, she’s trained as a military-style fighter, complete with sharpshooting skills, extensive fitness training, and lessons in how to use sonar and explosive grenades. But that’s not enough to make her interesting. In THE REAPING, we’re expanding Remy’s role out of military acts and into a more communicative role. My model for this type of character arc is Hermione from Harry Potter – Hermione is not only excellent at cursing her enemies, she’s also a negotiator: in THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, she unifies a group of friends and acquaintances as Dumbledore’s Army, and in THE GOBLET OF FIRE, she acts as a go-between for Harry and Ron when they’re fighting, and for the different schools who are taking place in the Triwizard Tournament.

2. Does your Strong Female Character exist as more than a foil for a more prominent male character? 

Remy and Vale have competing and contrasting storylines, and in the first book it would have been possible to make the argument that Remy’s storyline existed for the sole purpose of forcing Vale to challenge his assumptions. She’s also not a particularly ‘active’ character – a lot happens to her, but very little of it is of her own initiative. In THE REAPING, Remy will take her own initiative, strike out on her own, and, for better or for worse, learn to take charge of her own destiny and identity.

3. Does your Strong Female Character have more attributes than just ‘strong’? 

A lot of people seem to think that the way to make female characters more generally appealing is to make them more like men. This tends to mean ‘more like men’ in the most superficial way possible: giving them the ability to physically dominate other men. It’s a reduction to the most Neanderthal of human relationships, and it doesn’t do female characters justice. It strips them of complexity. As Sophia Mcdougall points out in an article for the New Statesman, when you think about Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet, two of the most interesting and frequently-reproduced characters in literature, the first thing you think about isn’t strength. In Holmes’ case, it’s intelligence, or his attachment to drugs, or his astonishing ability to alienate almost everyone around him. In Hamlet’s case, you think about his manic self-doubt, his indecisiveness, the wild ups and downs that drive him nearly to the brink of insanity. With THE REAPING, I’m using Katniss Everdeen as my model for embodying complex traits, both feminine and masculine: while Katniss struggles to show her emotions and worries about being seen as ‘weak’, she also cries when Rue dies, protects Peeta at the potential cost of her own life, and displays a compassion towards her younger sister Prim that can only be described as motherly.

4. Does your Strong Female Character take action of her own in pursuit of her own goals? 

A lot of female characters in literature and film fall into the trap of being Strong without any particular reason beyond simply looking good in a skimpy outfit or proving to the world that the filmmakers really do respect women, we promise! Carol’s character in Star Trek: Into Darkness is a perfect example of this, as is Arwen in the movie adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. Neither characters have goals of their own beyond their respective love interests; neither provide the story with much other than more weaponry and svelte good looks. Neither character has any development arc to speak of. In THE SOWING, Remy definitely has goals of her own, but she doesn’t really take many steps to pursue them. (In her defense, we didn’t give her too much opportunity, at least not in the first book.) In the sequel, Remy will step out of the passive role as a person-to-whom-shit-happens and become a person-who-makes-shit-happen.

Answering these four questions affirmatively is probably a pretty good way to confirm that your Strong Female Character is doing more than perpetuating the cliche. But it’s important to remember, too, that ‘strength’ isn’t the only way to bring female characters into your story. Women and men both can be weak and vulnerable without either falling into the trope of the Damsel In Distress. And in many cases, weakness, not strength, is what makes a character sympathetic and powerful.

Self-Doubt

Last week, I was practicing reading one of my poems aloud by recording it on my iPhone and then listening to the recordings. I did a few I thought were pretty decent, and decided to set them aside so I could listen to them later with an unbiased ear. Maybe I’ll put one of them up on a blog post, I thought.

Several hours later, I plugged in my headphones and listened to the recordings again. My first reaction? “Goddamn. That fucking sucks.”

I hit delete on both recordings without a second thought.

I do that sometimes with poems I write. I do that sometimes with passages I’ve written. I do that sometimes with entire chapters.

“Goddamn. That fucking sucks.” Highlight. Select. Delete. 

Every writer, I imagine, is prone to bouts of writerly self-doubt. Art in general is such a tenuous thing – striking the right balance between vulnerability and confidence, emotion and skill, power and finesse, is astonishingly difficult – that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the work you’re doing is shit.

Highlight. Select. Delete.

The trouble is that, as any artist knows, loads of the time, the work you’re doing IS shit. How many words have we cut from our first-draft manuscripts? How many times have we painted over that canvas? How many times have we practiced those chords, that piece, failing a thousand times along the way? Practice makes perfect, they say. What they don’t say is how frustrating it is to practice a thousand times to get it right once.

The joy is, though, that once you get it right, you’ve got it.

I am not an artist, or a musician (though I wish I were both). But I am a writer. And I know there’s nothing more debilitating than that crush of self-doubt, that sense of failure, that anxiety that accompanies a vicious feeling of inadequacy. You read over a chapter you wrote a few weeks ago and say, “Dear GOD, did I write that, or was I temporarily possessed by evil typewriter-monkey demons from Argentina on cocaine?” You hope for a split second it was the latter. Because if it was the former, that means you really did write that. And that means you probably suck a lot at writing.

And that thought is unbearable.

But I like to think that, as fucked up as this self-doubt is, it’s also helpful. It encourages us to be better. It pushes us to read more, so that we will better know what truly good writing is. It forces us to revisit our passages again, and again, and again, to be sure of every word, every idea. Self-doubt, that nagging voice of insecurity at the back of your head, is what keeps you moving forward.

As long as you keep it in check.

Because if you let it get out of hand, it’ll consume you. If I allow myself to believe that because one poem I wrote sucked, every one of them from now until forever will also suck, I’ll never write a poem again. If I believe that because I sound like shit on one recording, all my recordings will always sound like shit, I’ll never have the courage to read any of my poems out loud. And if I allow myself to believe that just because the first draft of my book sucks, and will never get any better, I’ll never publish another book again. Because, after all, what’s the point? It’s always going to suck.

But that’s just straight up not true.

I might not be able to play Chopin’s Preludes today, but if I let that stop me from ever practicing again, I’ll never play them. I might not have the authorial voice of Cormac McCarthy or Anne Rice today, but if I let that stop me from writing, I never will. I might not sound like Garrison Keillor, but if I let that keep me from ever practicing another poem, I will always and forever sound like a toneless robot on Xanax.

Your manuscript might be shit today, but that’s okay. In fact, it’s good that you know it might be shit. That means you have the necessary knowledge to make it better. Just don’t let it stop you. Because if you do, it will always be shit. But if you keep working on it, there’s a half-decent chance that one day, maybe, it’ll actually be, well, pretty damn good.

At The Fading Of The Light: A Poem (Updated With Audio!)

At the fading of the light
a little while ago
I went out for a walk at night
to murder my shadow.

He’d dogged me several weeks or more
promising relief
in his tender hopeless form
and sighs of disbelief.

I found darkness in his arms
A crumbling dismay
Emptiness with all its charms
Held bitterly at bay.

But as the sun caressed the tide
Beneath horizon’s shade
I cut my shadow from my side
with a jagged blade.

And now I hope, when morning comes
The light will shine on me
To warm these bones so still and numb
From distant apathy.

 

UPDATE: I have recorded a version of this poem spoken aloud. I’ve probably botched it and sound horribly boring – my deepest apologies if I’ve ruined it for you. But because one can only improve with practice, and with criticism, I’ve posted it here for you all to tear at with your fierce little teeth. 

 

#MakeKensDay: The Ken Mooney Book Bomb

Amira K.:

Love writing? Love doing good things? Love being generally awesome and making people happy? #MakeKensDay by buying Ken Mooney’s books today. After a rough few weeks of seizures and brain surgery, we’re doing what we can to make this writer’s life a little bit better. Read Ryan Williamson’s post for more, and be sure to head over to Amazon to purchase your copy (only $1.69!) of Ken’s fantastic novel GODHEAD.

Originally posted on Prose Before Ho Hos:

Ken Mooney

Nicest Guy in the World

Hey folks, I want you to meet Ken Mooney. He’s the nicest guy in the world. Don’t believe me? Just check the dictionary. His picture is right there in black and white. Can’t miss it.

Ken is the author of the cracking-good Fantasy novel, Godhead, and is a lover of tattoos, comics, beards, and great music. I’m listening to one of his writing playlists right now on Spotify. It. Is. Epic.

By day, Ken masquerades as a TV ad-man, which is a fitting cover for the Nicest Guy on the Planet. By night, on weekends, and during official government holidays, he rips off his pinstripe suit and bowler hat and writes fiction that makes the gods weep. Literally.

I want you to meet Ken, because he’s my friend, and because for the last two weeks he’s had a bit of a rough spell. A fortnight ago he had a…

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