Excerpt from My Newest Novel

So I’ve been working on a lot of stuff lately (…computer science projects and calculus homework…thanks college) – including a lot of music (I GOT A KEYBOARD FOR MY ROOM, GUYS!!!), which I’ll hopefully be posting on here soon.

Aside from that, I’m working on a new short story anthology with little snapshots into different parts of my universes…gearing up to enter them in competitions, because bragging rights and query letters – amiright?

In light of all that, I’ve sort of been…er, slacking…on my novels (giving myself a well-deserved break, okay?  Don’t give me that look).  But I’m back at it again, and I really like the opening lines for my newest manuscript, MARGINS FROM A NOTEBOOK, so I thought I’d share!  Have a peek!

 

The trick to not being found is to not hide.

Tia Ling doesn’t hide.  She doesn’t run, either.  She walks, every step measured, every step careful.  Smoke curls from her lips and spirals into the air and veils the stars like a curtain thrown across a window, gauzy, wafting in the wind, and she’s out in the open, uncovered.

The smell of cigarettes is intoxicating.  So is the touch of sandpaper-rough hands against lotion-softened cheeks.  So is the smell of sweat and soil mingling with rose hip perfume, the heat of asphalt in the summertime, the burn of winter frost, the bite of the wind, the blinding claws of lightning flashing from the sky.  So is the taste of forbiddenness, of rebellion, of disobedience.  Cigarettes.  Intoxicating.  Just as bad as vodka.  Heavy, thick, cloying…cigarette smoke reaches at your throat and grips your vocal chords with fingers like steel, makes your breath freeze in place, fills you with the sweet poison of tobacco.  Makes it hard to swallow.  Cigarettes are intoxicating – like love.

And like love, cigarettes begin with the lips.  Shards of dreams, shreds of reality rolled in bits of paper, pinched between the teeth.  Inhale, feel the taste; exhale, billowing smoke into the air.  It clings to everything – the wallpaper, the furniture, your throat, your lungs, your heart, your brain.  Like love, cigarette smoke is all-encompassing, swallowing you whole.

Tia’s never smoked before, but she lives in a world that does, and the stuff’s everywhere – vapors and fumes rising towards the sky in rivers of silver, clouding between the buildings and into the gray of the gutters.  The people here, the riffraff, blend into the smoke like ghosts, gaunt and skeletal.  They’re quiet, mostly.  They watch her with big eyes – the kind that make you feel as though you’ve been put under the lense of a microscope and pinned there overtime.  Like dozens of oversized magnifying glasses all watching her at once.

Skeletons walking in a city of light.

She breathes out, and in, and her throat rattles with a cough.  Harsh.  Cigarette smoke is harsh.  She likes it – the tang, the bitterness, the bite.  It’s nostalgic, somehow.  Romantic.  Like black-and-white movies from three hundred years ago.  Tia Ling has never smoked a cigarette before a month ago, but she’s never loved before, either.  All she’s ever known is the world in front of her eyes, like a papier mâché tower in a shop window.

It’s pretty.

She stops in the light of the cosmetics shop and watches her reflection blink in the mirror, watches the way the neon lights paint one half of her face blue and the other half bright pink.  The cigarette sits exactly in the middle of her mouth, at the place where her top lip crooks into a peak and her bottom lip pushes out into a pout.  She pinches it in her fingers, pulls it out, and it glows gently in the light as she breathes out, long, slow, easy.  Lazy.

There’s music.  There’s always music here, the kind that starts in the ground and vibrates up through your body and into your chest, flickers in time with the bright neons of the characters that dance against the storefront, in time with the rippling flags that read 欢迎关岭 three times on every side.  A girl brushes past her, bumps her shoulder, disappears inside the cosmetics shop, blue headphones balanced around her neck.

Tia flicks her eyes to the girl, watches the sway of her hips for a long moment, and then she turns back to her reflection again, presses the end of the cigarette to her lips.  She runs her hands across her body and swings her hips, fingers sliding against the dips and valleys of her skin.  It’d be easy, she tells herself for the millionth time, so easy.  She could just…and maybe her family wouldn’t be torn apart like this.  Maybe, with a little bit of extra money, with a little bit of help, maybe all of it would be okay.  Maybe she could fix them.  Fix everything.

Her mother told her not to.

conglomerate 3.2

There is a place in the shifting gold of the desert where skulls tower high like pyres, where sand whispers like a billion snakes slipping across stone, where the sun burns so hot in the sky it is impossible to look at.  There is a place where fires rise at night and fall away again by dawn, where the cave is a place of birth and the darkness is a world of light.  There is a place where the world has been turned upside down and set on its head, and that is the place where we stand, the world we have conquered – our kingdom.  Our kingdom, and none shall take it from us.

Noonya knows this.  Noonya knows, because she is one of us, and she knows all that we know.

Ai, the one called Clepsis murmurs, and the sound is soft like water, like the whisper of rain.  She turns, and her eyes are bright emerald and huge, and her lips seem to smile.  Ai, Noonya, me runye.

You do not know our language, but I know yours.  She tells us it is time to go.

I know, I tell her.  I know.  It is the time of birth.  If we are late, the fires will not be happy.

We will not be late.

The first thing I notice is the water.  It’s almost wherever I look.  I’d hardly seen any in the desert, but here, underground, it’s everywhere, a huge lake like a mirror that reflects my face perfectly.  It’s clear, but it goes down and down and down so far that I can’t tell where the bottom is, or if a bottom even exists.  It’s still, too, except when someone touches it, and then it ripples, all at once, starts at one point and spreads all the way to the edges.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so pretty before.  But it’s pretty in an eerie way.  Eerie – I’m not sure I like it.

“Don’t you think it’s nice?”

I look over at him, then back.  Nod slowly.  “I guess…that isn’t quite the word I’d use for it.”

There are torches at the edge of the water.  Fire.  It plays tricks on my eyes, makes me think there’s places where the water is ripped at the edges, almost.  Burning.  There are torches in the middle of the water, too, and they flicker like candles flames, far out, orange against the black glassiness of the liquid.

“We take boats out on the water, sometimes,” Jared says.  “You ever been on a boat?”

I shake my head.

“No shit,” he says.  “There isn’t much water to sail on, aboveground, anyway.”  He dips his chin towards the water.  “I didn’t want to show you the lake, anyway.  The lake doesn’t matter.  But if you take a boat and follow the lake around, sail to the opposite edge, you won’t find more land.  You know what you’d find?”

I raise my eyes from the water, stare at him.  He cocks his head at me, proud.

I cross my arms slowly.  “I don’t know,” I say.  “A castle?  A fairy tale land with houses made of candy?  A haunted mansion?”

“A portal to another universe,” he says, with a wink.

I roll my eyes.  “Bullshit.”

“Bullshit,” he agrees.  “But not quite complete bullshit.  You’d find caves, lots and lots of caves, not as big as this one but…labyrinths.  Mazes of them.  No idea how far they go, but they’re all full of water.  You just can’t reach them from above.  This is the only way into them, that I know.  If you sail there, you’ve got to take lots of torches with you, to be sure.  Maybe, way far out, away from our torches, the eena have got their lair nested in one of these caves.”

“No shit?”

He looks at me, throws his head back, laughs.  “Unlikely.  I mean, the world is fucked up.  They could be down here somewhere.  But we’ve been here tens of hundreds of years, and never found any of them.  If they’re here, they’re well hidden.  And they must be pretty fucking scared of our torches, or they would’ve mobbed us by now and eaten all of our souls alive, and this whole goddamn place would be one huge cemetery.  Or a city made of impostors – either way.”

“A city of impostors,” I say, slowly.  “D’you think something like that could actually exist?”

He shrugs one shoulder, lifts it up and down.  “It’s got to, Jo.  There’s too many eena out there for it not to.  There’s a shit ton of impostors, and we know the eena like to stick together – not exactly lone wolves.  So there must be someplace where a bunch of them are hiding out.  We just don’t know where.  We haven’t been looking, really.  We mostly just scout around and make sure they aren’t too close for comfort, fend off the ones that get too close to our flames.”

“But you’re just buying time.”

“Buying time is all we need to do.  If we can buy time indefinitely, we’ve got it made.”  He sighs, exhales slowly, turns so I can see the fires flickering in his eyes.  “We aren’t the only big junker city out there, Jo.  That’s the other thing.  We’ve got other fuckers working with us.  We all cover our own territory, eventually we press the eena mostly into hiding.  Cage them and corner them well enough, and someday we will be able to stop buying time, and start killing the little fuckers off for good.”

I stare.  I’m not sure I’ve heard half of what he’s just said.  I think I got caught up at we aren’t the only big junker city out there, Jo.

We aren’t the only big junker city out there, Jo.

“We aren’t the only big junker city?”

He shrugs again, and it seems even more offhanded this time, casual, like what he’s about to say hardly matters at all.  “No.  I mean, we can’t be.  I’ve seen junkers once in a while that come to this city, sneak around, and they don’t have any of the marks I recognize.  They stay a couple days and they’re gone.  Usually stay in the whorehouses.  It’s always a good place for strange men.  Nobody bothers to search a whorehouse.  Too hard to know what you see, when all you can see is a lot of sex and not many faces.”

“And these junkers are from another city.”

He frowns.  “Look…I can’t answer all your questions for certain.  But that’s my theory.  What’re the chances we’re the only ones?  It’s a big motherfucker of a universe.”

“Oh,” I say.  Oh.  I feel like a dumbass, like I should’ve guessed that already.  But it didn’t cross my mind.  I’d never really wondered about it.  All I’d ever thought of – all I’d ever had to think of – was the little narrow world I existed in.  My town, the junkers that raided it, my family and tomorrow’s food and where I’d get money to buy tomorrow’s food.  Nothing beyond that ever mattered, not until now.  Until now, living in a bubble had worked.

Jared smiles, but it’s a smile that’s mixed with a frown.  “You never thought.”

It’s a statement more than a question, but I answer it anyway.  “No,” I say, and I dip my head because I’m actually ashamed.  “I never thought.”

He turns away, kicks at the ground.  “Well,” he says, “it’s never too late to start.”

conglomerate 3.1

“You know,” I say to Jared as we walk, side by side, Thalay so far ahead of us that I can’t see her anymore, “I thought of something.”

He looks at me, eyebrows raised.  “Yeah?”

I nod.  “Yeah.  You know the day the undead ambushed us?  When the one was copying you, being an impostor.  Mariah told us guns wouldn’t work on the undead, but you pulled your gun out and shot it through the head and it…it just dissolved.  Like that.  Into a pool of…well, I don’t know.  Black ink, or some strange shit.  What was that?  If that’s what happens, why don’t we use guns all the time?”

He shakes his head, sighing.  “I was sort of hoping you wouldn’t bring that up.”

I laugh, cocking my head at him.  “No?  Why?  Because it was creepy seeing the thing posing as you?”

“No…well, yeah, that’s sort of creepy, but you get used to seeing that kind of thing out here, you know?  As long as the right version of you – the impostor – is the one that your friends turn on, and they don’t mix you up, it’s all good.  But the thing is more that…I screwed up that day.  With the gun.  You aren’t supposed to shoot them with the gun, because normal bullets don’t hurt them that much.  It can interrupt their camouflage, sure, but once they reform, they’re stronger than before.  Like they feed off of it.”

“But…wouldn’t it hurt?”

He laughs.  “Think of them as masochists, Jo.  They get stronger when they go through pain, I guess.  Fire’s the only thing that can hurt them but not make them stronger, but it doesn’t seem to weaken them much, either.  All the shit floating around about how to kill them is just speculation.  Guesswork.  Nobody actually knows any of the answers, and I doubt anybody will know any of the answers anytime soon.”

I raise my eyebrows.  “That sounds optimistic.”

“Hell yes,” he says, elbowing me teasingly.  “Also, I’m sorry about being so snappy that day.  I was kinda tense.”

“We all were.  And most of us didn’t have to kill an impostor that looked exactly like us,” I shrug.  It’s true – if I were in the same position, I don’t know if I’d have been able to put a bullet – or a fire-tipped staff – through the thing’s head.  I think I’d be too scared.  Creeped out.  Terrified.  Those things make my skin want to crawl right off my body.  It makes me shudder, just thinking about it.

We pass a stand of fresh fruit – how the hell they get that out here, in the desert, I’ve got absolutely no idea – and then we’re filing into a line of at least three dozen other junkers.  When I peer ahead, I think I can see Thalay’s spiky, black-and-white hair peeking up ahead of us.  I glance at Jared.  He’s noticed, too.  He calls her name, but she doesn’t move, doesn’t turn to look at us.  She just splits off into a smaller line ahead, and disappears from view.  Jared snorts, rolling his eyes.  “She’s sore,” he mutters to me, out the corner of his mouth.  “She’s always sore.  She gets sore easy.”

“I figured,” I mutter back, without looking at him, still craning my neck to try and catch a glimpse of Thalay.  “She can be a -”

“A bitch, yeah.”  We inch ahead in the line, and a few more junkers ahead of us split off.  “So…anyway, this is the garay.  Lots of security.  There has to be, because if the eena ever get past this point, we’re done for.  That’s why they have the guards checking everybody one by one.  Making sure no undead slip past as impostors.”  He winks at me.  “Remember, always look them in the eyes.  And don’t make your eyes look all funny, or they might think you’re undead and kill you.”

“Joke’s on you,” I grin at him.  “If I’m undead, nothing can kill me.”

“That we know of.”

That we know of is good enough for me.  Hell of a lot better than it is for humans.”  We reach the split in the lines and take the rightmost fork, nodding at the guard, waiting until he lets us through.  “I mean, there are millions of ways humans can die, right?  Maybe billions.”

“Billions,” Jared says.  “It’s got to be billions.”

He takes my hand, and pulls me forward alongside him, away from the guards.  There’s a place ahead of us, cordoned off by a wall of reddish rock, that opens up like a maw in between the buildings of the city, black and gaping.  A ramp leads down into it, sloping unevenly where it’s been cut away, and Jared lets me go slowly, because I’m clumsy and my feet keep slipping in the dust.  After a minute or so, he stops me, points ahead of us.

I stare.  A huge cave has opened out in front of us, burrowing tens of feet down from where we stand, the ceiling a good five feet above our heads.  When I look back, I realize the slope of the ramp is harsher than I’d realized – we’re already maybe twenty feet below ground.  At intervals around the cave, huge pillars of rock stretch up to the ceiling, and there’s a honeycomb of metal reinforcements in case the rock doesn’t hold up.  It’s loud, every single sound echoing like a cacophony, every single voice as if they’re shouting at the top of their lungs.  It’s beautiful in a strange way, too, lit by hundreds and hundreds of fire torches that cast dancing shadows on the walls, people and stalls and animals larger than life.

“So yeah, this is the underground,” Jared says, walking again.  He takes the slope easily, waits for me every few paces so I can catch up, as if he’s done this a million times before.  I know I’m going slow, but it’s not just because I’m clumsy anymore, or because my feet are slipping beneath me.  It’s because I’m staring at it all, still trying to take it in, still trying to see how big this place is.

I stop, turning around in a full circle, my mouth open.  “This is amazing,” I say, looking at Jared.

He grins.  “It is,” he says.  “But it’s not the best part.  Come on – you’ve got to see this, you’re going to love it!”

And then he starts running down the slope, and it’s all I can do to keep up without falling flat on my face.

conglomerate 3.0

The council’s that night.  We aren’t allowed to go, of course – only Mariah goes.  Thalay tells me that there are hundreds of junker groups in the city, using this place as their permanent base, their only real home.  We couldn’t fit them all in that room, no matter how big it is, no matter how tight they pack it.  Only the speakers.  One for each group.  That means that everybody in our group already had a mini-council, fought it out and decided on what Mariah was gonna say to the big heads, and without too much bloodshed, too.

(I’m kidding.  They didn’t shed blood, not really.  There were a couple black eyes, though, and little cuts and nicks where people tried using fingernails as weapons.)

Since we aren’t allowed in the council, Thalay has another plan for the night.

“The underground city,” she says, grinning at me.  “Everybody needs to go underground at least once.  It’s majestic.  I think you’ll like it.”

“Well, I think I’ll hate it,” I tell her, shaking my head.

“You little fucker.”

“I’m not kidding.”  I look at her, my arms crossed tight across my chest, holding her gaze levelly.  “I’m scared of the underground.  I always feel like it’s all gonna cave on me, you know?  That I’ll end up stuck down there forever.  No sunlight ever again.”  I’m hoping she’ll take pity on me and not take me down there – but no luck, of course.  My initiation must go on as planned.  She doesn’t take pity on me – just frowns at me instead.  Rolls her eyes.

 

“I know you’re scared of it,” she says, biting her lip.  “That’s why I called you a little fucker, ‘cause it’s true.  A real junker isn’t scared of it.  A real junker isn’t scared of much, except the real dangers.”

“Like what?  That your guy will cheat on you with another girl?”

Thalay laughs – a short, bitter laugh.  “Hell, no,” she says.  “Like the undead.  Stuff that can actually hurt you, kill you, fuck with your life.”

“I think if your guy cheated on you, it’d fuck with your life a lot,” I murmur under my breath.  She hears me, but doesn’t say anything.  Doesn’t rise to the bait.  I can’t shake the feeling that she’s still sore over what happened earlier, about pouring her life story to me.  Maybe she didn’t mean to tell me anything that personal, not yet.  Maybe I wasn’t supposed to know.  Maybe I pushed too far.

She just grabs her leather jacket – she’d taken it off – and walks out past me, through the door, out into the heat.  It’s sunset, and the sun is barely riding the horizon, but it’s still hot.  It’ll be hot even at three a.m.  We never use jackets for warmth.  Only for protection.

I wait for a second.  Then I follow her.

It’s funny, walking around and not being stared at.  I think it’s because of the tattoo.  Now that I’m marked, I’m no longer an outsider, no longer worthy of being stared at.  I’m just another junker girl wandering around the city at sunset with a friend.  It almost feels normal, like home, as if this could be me and Nimma, before she and her family moved.  She used to be my best friend, way back when.

I stay several paces behind Thalay the whole time, wary.  She doesn’t look back once, or say anything to me.  Probably for the best.  Honest, I’m not sure I’d want to talk to her right now, not when she’s in a dark mood like this.

We’re passing a stall selling guns when I hear a boy behind me call my name.  I’m not sure he means me, at first, because he says it funny – Zoanneh, almost – but after a moment he’s at my elbow, jogging to catch me.  “Joanna,” he says again, and this time it sounds closer to normal.  He doesn’t look out of breath, but a slick sheen of sweat covers his skin, plastering the fabric of his tank top to his body.

I recognize him.  He’s the one who was being copied by the undead, the day they gave me my staff and my gun.  The one who first told me about the impostors.

“I’m Jared,” he says after a second.  I can feel him watching me.  Staring.

“Nice to meet you, Jared,” I say.  It sounds plastic.  Artificial.  Like I’m saying it just to be polite, which maybe I am.

“Where are you going?”

I shrug.  “Underground.  Thalay insisted on taking me.  I don’t like underground much, though.”

He raises his eyebrows, glancing at Thalay.  When I look, she’s staring back at us, glaring.  He smirks, turns back to me.  “Thalay can be a bitch,” he says, out the corner of his mouth.  “You’ll learn that with time.  Anyways, if you’re scared of the underground, do you want me to come along?  I’ve got nothing to do tonight.”

Thalay’s still glaring at us.  She wants me to say no, I can tell, but I just shrug and nod.  “That’d be great,” I say, smiling at him.

He nods, crosses his arms, matches my stride.  “Got any questions?”

I look at him funny.  “What?”

“Questions.  You know, like when you ask -”

“No, I know.”  I shrug.  “Umm, er…well…why does everybody here talk normal so much?  Like…I’d thought they’d all be talking junker.  I mean, this is a junker city – the junker city -”

“You.”

I stare.  “What?”

Jared grins at me.  “It’s because of you, and people like you.  You didn’t think you were the only new recruit, did you?  We don’t usually recruit, but we’ve been doing it tons lately.  Undead and all that, we needed more people.  And most of them don’t know junker.  Most of them are like you.”

I widen my eyes.  There are more like me?  I mean…I knew Thalay was like me, from what she told me earlier.  Saved the same way I was.  But I guess I never really thought about the fact that of course we aren’t special.  We aren’t the only ones.  There’ve got to be tons of others here, kids like us who got rescued when the undead came looking.  I swallow.

Jared shakes his head at me, bemused.  “Didn’t think it through, did you?  Yeah, we used to do everything in junker.  The council’s in junker still.  But we couldn’t do everyday stuff in junker, not if we wanted the recruits to understand enough to keep their asses alive.”

I nod numbly.  He’s right, of course.  Duh.

He laughs.  “Don’t kick yourself too much, Joanna.  Our group doesn’t recruit, not much.  That’s probably why you didn’t realize.  You and Thalay are the only ones.  I was born into the group.  I think that’s why she doesn’t like you much, because she used to be the special one, you know?  But she isn’t anymore.  ‘Cause you came along, and now there’s two of you.  And…well, she’s Thalay, so she doesn’t like anybody that much, really.”

Thalay glares at us again.  I can’t help but think she’s been eavesdropping the whole damn time.  “Fuck off,” she says, and lengthens her stride.  “You two can find your way underground alone.  Have fun making out.”

Jared shakes his head at her.  “I know the way better than you do, dumbass,” he shouts to her back.  For a moment we stand there, watching her go.

Then he turns to me.  “Come on,” he says, and pulls me along by the hand.

Music (At Last!)

NEWS FLASH – I’m a musician!  Not just a writer!  (And I dance, too, if hips-don’t-lie-Shakira-dancing counts as dancing.)

I’m actually doing this mostly because I’ve had multiple requests to feature my music on this blog.  Which I totally understand – writing is good and all, but variety is nice, especially for someone who has pretty varied interests.  (Next up – 10 reasons computer science is hateful, and 10 reasons computer science is the best thing since sliced bread!)

(Okay…yes.  I’ll admit that this can get confusing.  Trying to be a computer science major, aspiring businesswoman and entrepreneur, musician, and writer all at once is a little bit of a long shot.  But a girl can still dream!)

Anyway.  I don’t have professional recordings or fancy music videos, but I do have a few little samples.  It’s not much, but I’m working on more, I promise.  And these are just drafts…so I will get better.

Here goes nothing!  For your listening and pleasure:

Nightmares (Querying)

Being a writer is hard.  You have to have a distinctive, original vision, and then you have to execute that vision perfectly – and there are so many ways it can go wrong.  Characterization, plot, pacing, prose, writing style, chapter length, on and on and on… the list never ends.  But that’s okay – if you’re a writer, you signed up for all of that by default.  You knew what you were getting into before you even started typing (or outlining, if you’re a plotter).

But being a salesperson, too?  I don’t think any of us signed up for that.  Or (for some of us, like me) we didn’t even realize it was part of the job description when we started out.

Query letters are annoying.  They really, honestly are.  Who the hell ever decided that a whole novel could be judged based off of one tiny synopsis?  Especially when that synopsis has to fit into a one-page query letter?

I haven’t done this for long, of course.  I’m really new to the industry, and I’m still in the query trenches – chasing after that elusive debut novel.  But I already (lowkey) hate query letters.  The thing is…query letters are actually really good practice.  I hate query letters, they’re infuriating, they undermine my self-confidence – and they are also really good practice.

I just admitted that.  I know.  Here’s why –

  • First of all, you have to be concise.  If you can’t write a concise query letter/synopsis…do you yourself actually know what your own novel is really about?  If the plot is so messy that you can’t summarize all of the important parts in a page…well, maybe you’ve got some chopping and pruning to do.  Your novel shouldn’t be written so that you absolutely have to include twenty characters, ten different subplots, and a whole backstory within the confines of one query letter, for your synopsis to make sense.
  • Second…you have to learn how to market.  I’m still learning about the industry, so it’s not like my word is gold, but from what I’ve seen, a writer has to be good at marketing, no matter what.  Whether or not you’re with a big, fancy publisher, or trying to go indie/self publish all by yourself, you can’t let other people do the work for you.  In the end, how successful you are is largely up to you.
  • Third – it’s a lot, lot easier to compare your novels when you have synopses written for each one.  Kinda tough to try and read through each from beginning to end and then judge exactly how similar they are.  A synopsis gives a quick look at the overall structure, message, and main themes, and makes it a hell of a lot easier to figure out if all of your stories are beginning to sound like the same recycled plot and characters done a million times over.

So query letters aren’t all bad.  Really.

(I mean, they’re actually a good thing.  As much as I hate to admit it.)

Which…doesn’t change the fact that I still hate them.  Almost as much as I hate that feeling when you see a “dear author, I’m so grateful that you thought of me, but your work wasn’t quite what I was looking for…keep in mind this is a very subjective industry -”

It’s okay.  We’ll all get there, someday.  It only takes one acceptance, right?

So good luck to all of you writers out there who are still fighting the battle of the query letter!  I’ll see you in the trenches!

College and Not Doing NaNoWriMo

Whew. I’m reallyyyyy behind on my posts, obviously, which is a bad thing (or is for anybody who actually reads my stuff!). So here’s a post to make up for it.

Things I’ve learned in my first few weeks of college:

  • UCLA is a very, very happy place. I’m not a happy person, but it’s a happy place.
  • Homework!
  • Some people are very close-minded.
  • Need to make more time for writing.
  • College is amazing for finding love.
  • I have the best roommate, ever.
  • I’m very lucky.

Things I’m finally getting around to:

  • QUERYING! I have four manuscripts ready, so, as Ellie Goulding says, what are you waiting for?
  • Blog posts. This. I’ve missed this (even when nobody reads it).
  • Web serial! Again, no idea if anybody reads, ever. But it’s still fun. And worth it.
  • Keeping track of my pitch contests and pitch parties. Because I’ve missed about three good ones in the last month, and I’m not happy about it.
  • Not doing NaNoWriMo.

I actually do want to say something about NaNoWriMo. I know a lot of writers live by it, and that it’s a pretty big deal for them. I tried it last year, and I get it – I respect their feelings. But for me, NaNo is occasionally a useful tool, and most times it’s unnecessary stress that leads to bad manuscripts. The truth is that I’m basically in NaNo mode year round, with short month breaks in between. In September, I wrote over 150k words in novels alone. I like doing my own, individual NaNo, without the pressure of finishing in their time span by their rules, and I don’t need NaNo when I’m usually writing that much anyway.

I’ve only used NaNo once. Last year. I’d stopped finishing novels for a good six months or more, and I had a very personal story that had to be written – shitty or not. NaNo was perfect for that. It built my discipline and my pacing for when I’m not doing NaNo, and it gave me a chance to experiment on a story I was never going to publish – and get it done in a timely fashion. I won’t speak of that novel or show it to anybody ever, but it did a lot to finesse my writing style and get me back in the groove.

So yes, I’m grateful to NaNo, but no, I won’t be doing it this year.

Or – another way of looking at it…I’ll do it my own way. Every other month, by my own rules, because I never play well by the rules of others.

Universe

There is a universe out there. It’s a big, beautiful universe, the kind you stumble on in your sleep, the kind you never expect to find until you find it – and then it’s there in front of you, and you’re left blinking in its brilliance, star struck. There are lights everywhere, and colors, and music you’ve never heard before pounding in your ears – languages nobody understands – people who are exactly like you, and completely different. It’s like stepping into a totally different world, not knowing where you are, but knowing you never want to leave.

And then you share that world with the people around you. You do everything you can to bring them into that universe, to share it with them – these people you’ve met, the cities you’ve visited, the amazing technology you’ve experienced. And it’s a struggle, the struggle of making it as real to them as it is to you, the struggle of bringing them into that world and giving them the full experience, every little detail.

At some point, it becomes too much, and you’re left wishing you could just step into that world and live in it forever, leave reality behind. But you can’t, because there isn’t an easy door into the world – if you want to share the experience, you have to pour every bit of your heart and soul and passion and imagination into doing so.

That’s my philosophy, anyway. It’s one of the biggest reasons I write. One of the biggest reasons I compose music and dance and dream of acting, too – all of it is about bringing yourself, and others, into a totally new, amazing, different place.

Welcome to the world of a writer’s imagination.

a home called Nowhere 2.3

She feeds me soup.

I don’t have a thing against soup, usually, because usually I never eat it. It’s hot out here, the kill me and send me to hell because it’ll be colder than this kind of hot that scorches you to the bone and has you wishing you could strip down to nothing – except you can’t, because then the sun would burn you so bad your skin would be the color of a radish. It’s hot, and soup is also hot, so soup is basically the worst food you could ever eat.

In my experience, anyway.

Of course, she could serve it cold. But that’d be even worse. So instead, I just wrinkle my nose and flinch and sip at the soup, trying to focus on anything except the way the liquid burns my tongue. My mouth feels like it’s on fire. I think she must’ve added chili peppers or some shit, because the stuff is spicy as hell, too. Spicy and hot. The best of both worlds. She’s doing this on purpose, almost like a test – I can tell from the way she smiles at every spoonful, as if she’s enjoying this stuff like it’s the most amazing thing in the world. I try not to roll my eyes at her. I need her help – at least for now.

“So,” I say, around a bit of meat with a bone poking out of it, “what gives?”

“Mm?”

I put the spoon down. It clinks, hard, against the bowl, and a bit of liquid splashes up. I think I’m barely a tenth of the way through the stuff. Don’t know if I can handle any more. “Your big secrets, all the shit you promised you’d tell me. What’s it all about? Why’re we here in this big fucking hellhole?”

“Oh, yeah.” She sets her bowl down, spins her chair and reaches over. “Wait…we need a soundtrack first.”

“A what?”

“Soundtrack.” It takes me a moment to notice the radio behind her, and by then she’s already flicking the switch on, and it sputters to life with a low growl – like an animal waking up from hibernation. The lights flutter and the screen buzzes with static, and then there’s a song playing from it, too loud, a man’s voice droning on about his girlfriend to the background of guitars and a heavy beat.

“Better.” She ignores my look, picks up her bowl again. “So, you don’t tell people I’m telling you this, ‘cause I don’t know if they’d like it much, trusting you. But I figure you have a right to know.”

“But the point of the tattoo -”

“Yes, but still.” She stirs her soup slowly. “This place, this isn’t a hellhole, ‘kay? That’s the first thing you gotta know. I’ll show you later, but it’s a hell of a lot bigger and nicer than it looks. It’s called the City, or i hangra in our language. It’s where all the junkers stay, once we’re back from our runs. It’s home base. It’s the safest place you can be – lots of people here, lots of guns.”

“Doesn’t sound safe to me.”

“Well, it is, and you’d better believe it. Second thing…our language. You keep wondering about it. Some guy invented it a bazillion years back as code, so nobody else would know what his group was saying. It spread to the rest of the junkers, began to broaden and get more complicated, so it was like a real language. You’ll learn it someday. Not now, though, we haven’t got time. For now, you’ll have to pick up bits and pieces here and there. It was supposed to be to keep us secret from humans, but now we use it as code around the zombies, too.”

“Zombies…”

“The undead.” She shrugs. “Undead isn’t really right, though, and zombie isn’t either. Eena is the neutral name. Thing is, these things aren’t quite undead, as you’ve seen, and they aren’t anybody’s idea of zombies. It’s like what Mariah always says – zombies are just an urban myth, undead are just an urban myth. Eena are real.”

I nod slowly. “So these…things…what are they? Where’d they come from?”

She clucks her tongue. “The eena? We don’t know. Still trying to figure that out, in fact. All we know is that they’re bad, by their own fault or not. But they’ve been taking over city after city, devouring all the people. Only i hangra is sure to stay untouched, at least for now. We’ve got enough fighters here to keep the eena scared. They’ve tried hitting us here, though. If they find the garay, we will be absolutely fuckin’ done.”

“Garay?”

“The gates. They go underground. Most of i hangra is underground.” She picks at her nails restlessly. Steam rises between us, from the soups.

“Underground?”

“We thought it’d be safer that way. Problem is, eena love the underground. They thrive there. Light and fire are their worst enemies, but the dark – they love it. There’s a lot of fire down there, of course, and light to live by, but down there they won’t have to worry about the sun, or the moon, or the stars, or the heat. So no matter what we try, we think the eena would overrun our people if they got past the garay.”

I swallow.

“I know,” Thalay shrugs, “it’s heavy stuff. Especially for a little girl like you. But you get used to it. Life is all about outrunning death. Surviving. It’s just the -”

“I’m not just a little girl, Thalay. I had more responsibilities at home than -”

Her eyes flash. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence.”

“…than you do here,” I say, in a voice so quiet it’s almost a whisper.

She shakes her head. Turns away. I think I see her eyes glint in the light, but I’m probably imagining it. “I had my own family to take care of, ishka. They died. All of them took by the eena. I lost them that day, same way you lost yours. But at least you only saw one die in front of you. Not the little baby or the momma. I saw everyone die. Daddy. Momma. My older brothers. The two little twins. They were just babies, no name yet, ‘cause we always waited two months to name them. Till we knew they’d lived long enough to earn a name.”

She doesn’t look at me. Just hunches over, shoulders heaving. I can hear the memories in her voice.

“I wasn’t Thalay then. I was Elisabeth. I was little Lissie and I was running, but I knew I couldn’t run fast enough, ‘cause the moment the undead caught sight of me they’d catch up and I’d be dead. But the junkers came first. Took out their fire wands and fought the undead. One of the junkers died in front of my eyes, Jo. The junkers aren’t bad people – they’re brave – that’s the first day I learned it.” She shakes her head. “I took on one of their names. Thalay, for lost. Because I was lost that day, and they found me.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. I feel suddenly horrible for all of the mean things I’ve thought, all of the mean things I’ve said about her.

“Jo is a name in our language, too,” she continues, her voice soft. “It’s a nice name.”

“Yeah? What does it mean?”

She swallows, looks around at me. Her eyes glint with tears…her voice is soft.

“Egotistical,” she says, and finishes her soup.

(i hangra does not mean the City. As Mariah tells me afterwards, i hangra means Nowhere. So the City is…well, it’s a home called Nowhere.)