Putting Faith To Purpose: An Origin Story

Originally published on The Nerds of Color

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A great visionary by the name of Cindi Mayweather once said, “Embrace what makes you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable. I didn’t have to become perfect because I’ve learned throughout my journey that perfection is the enemy of greatness.”

My name is Dennis R. Upkins. I’m a speculative fiction author who writes urban fantasy, YA, and superhero fantasy. Storytelling has always been my calling, but sometimes fate has to put you on the path. The key is to be astute when the signs present themselves.

It was two years ago and I had a homecoming of sorts as I was back in Atlanta for Gaylaxicon/Outlantacon. The con was a smashing success but that was to be expected. What wasn’t expected however was the revelation I would receive repeatedly throughout the weekend.

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West of Sunset: My Love Letter To Black Women and Other Women of Color

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Recently I had the honor of penning a guest post for the exquisite ladies at Black Girl Nerds.

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When my debut novel, Hollowstone, was released a few years back, I had no idea how far the rabbit hole would go. What began as me publishing a YA novel that I completed during my inaugural NaNoWriMo challenge has resulted in endless opportunities (such as writing for Black Girl Nerds). It’s also sparked some most excellent discussions on diversity: race, LGBTQ, and gender.

I couldn’t be more humbled and honored.

Looking back, there was one thing I found to be a bit unsettling. Whenever white feminists commented on the female players of Hollowstone, they discussed (and praised) Neely at length. Understandable, given that she was a universal fan-favorite. While Abigail, and Brianna were examined, I noticed Cassidy and Ruby were ignored. This bothered me. Brianna was only in the first half of the novel as opposed to Cass and Ruby who were main players that appear throughout the entire novel.

The difference is that both Cassidy and Ruby are Black women.

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Putting Faith To Purpose

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So a few weekends ago, I had a homecoming of sorts as I was back in the Atlanta for Gaylaxicon/Outlantacon. The con was a smashing success but that was to be expected. I had a wonderful time reconnecting with my Outlantacon family and adding new additions to our merry band. This was also to be expected.

Enjoyed the panels I was on and the ones I sat in on. I had an incredible time and I didn’t want to leave, This too was  to be expected.

What wasn’t expected however was the revelation I would receive repeatedly during the weekend and the moment I returned from Atlanta.

In addition to the con, I also had the chance to catch up with my best friend, my brother, William. We caught dinner and caught up with each other’s lives and we both discussed the hardships of  the job-force. Our discussion forced me to ponder on what I’m doing with my life. Am I happy working the day job I worked? Am I content in my writing career? And as I expressed to Will, there’s more to life than the day-to-day rat race that we’re forced to endure.

A similar discussion emerged when I caught up with my other sibling and fellow storyteller, Amaya Radjani when she brought me up to speed on some exciting opportunities that she’s been offered. I found myself asking again, where am I? Where am I going? Am I happy? What am I going to do about it?

When I was younger, I swore that I was never going to become the guy who asked where did he go wrong in life and why is he stuck in a bad predicament. The signs kept pointing that there was something I had to learn this weekend, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Then the damndest thing happened. While I was in the hotel room, the movie Office Space was on. Of all the movies HBO could’ve played, they played the one movie where the protagonist was facing the same dilemma that I was facing at that time, that weekend.

I stopped believing in coincidences years ago. Call it Fate, call it God, call it some sophisticated probability, the message was being given loud and clear, it’s time to step out on faith and fulfill my purpose. I didn’t know how this was going to happen.

And no sooner did I return to work on Monday did some foolishness pop off and I knew right then and there, the time had come for me to move on and to fully embrace my purpose in life.

And what is my purpose?

I’m a bard, a storyteller. It is my art, it is my blessing, and the curse I’m burdened with. I have to write to stay sane. Whether it’s penning a blog entry for Livejournal, formulating an essay speaking out on the issues of minorities, utlilizing visual art to convey a story or share a profound truth, or writing another novel, this is my power. Like a shaman who uses his gifts, words are my tools to build, to aid, and in certain cases my weapons to protect. I share my story and the stories of others. I share our truths in an effort to make the world just a little bit better.

I had no qualms about working the dead end jobs while my writing took off but now I’m realizing that it’s time to kick it up a notch. I believe I’m meant to be doing something greater. And going forward, I’m going to attempt to restructure everything to work towards that purpose.

Regrets, I have none. As far as the past goes, I did what I had to do and I made the best decisions I was able to make with the information and resources that I had at my disposal at the time. Besides, I don’t think it was my time then. But I definitely believe my time is now.

I don’t know what all of this means or where I will end up but I definitely know that this is the path I’m  meant to be on. While I’m being mindful and wise about the choices I make, I’m not afraid and I’m not stressed out. For me, that’s saying something. That’s actually saying a lot.

I’m moving with purpose and stepping out on faith. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I get the feeling it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

Interview: Amaya Radjani

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To say that fellow Amaya Radjani is one of my favorite people would be a vast understatement. In fact we constantly joke that we’re each other’s sibling from another maternal figure. When her latest novel, Tainted, was released, I knew I wanted to sit down with her and have a long chat on her new book, her creative process and all that other geeky writer stuff. I knew the Middle Child Press co-founder would have plenty to say and everything said would be nothing short of brilliant.

DRU:  First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. Second of all, congrats on the new book Tainted. I’ve started reading and my God is it intense. Before we get to Tainted, let’s go back for a moment. Corruption, your debut novel. How did it feel having a title under your belt?

AR: It feels amazing; like I’ve sucker-punched a mountain or kicked a planet out of orbit.

DRU: Looking back on your journey from then to now, what stands out for you?

AR: Sometimes I can’t believe I wrote the book.  I re-read certain passages (usually near the end) and I tell myself that I sat down and I wrote it and I know I sat down and I wrote it, but it feels like someone else did.  In a way, that’s true, because when I’m under the control of the muse, I am not myself.  Or maybe I am who I truly am when I’m being directed and the person you’re talking to right now is the interloper.

What stands out for me is knowing that the book took a direction I didn’t plan and the muse abandoned me until I came to grips with certain things.  Once I did that, she returned and I finished the novel.  It was very cathartic and I knew that I laid certain demons to rest with Corruption.

DRU: Cathartic writing and laying demons to rest, I know exactly what you mean on that score. From Corruption to Tainted, how would you say your writing has evolved?

AR: My vision and scope have broadened.  I’ve become experimental with the arrangement and structure of my books.  I play with margins and fonts and spacings to emphasize mood, tone, flavor and atmosphere.   Books look the same once you get past the cover.  It’s the standard in publishing and that’s fine.  But I realized that I don’t have to follow those rules.  Owning my own publishing house frees me to do whatever the hell I want and with each passing day, I realize more and more how important that is to me.  I don’t have to conform to anyone’s standard; I just need to satisfy my muse.  And trust me; it ain’t easy satisfying that bitch.

DRU: Were there any lessons or experiences you learned from Corruption that you applied towards producing and promoting Tainted?

AR: I learned that I’m more likely to write my books in the early part of a calendar year and publish them in the latter half of the same year, and from there I developed a cycle as a way to keep track of my progress.  For Tainted, I learned how to make a book trailer, and it was a fun experience.  It helped me to visualize the book in a different light and focus on what I thought were the most significant aspects of the stories within.

DRU: So for your sophomore project, were there specific objectives you wanted to accomplish?

AR: Not particularly.  I just knew it would be different, but I didn’t know how much until things started coming together in the ways that they always seem to do.  But when I knew the book was done, I was satisfied that I did everything I needed to do.

DRU: Do you feel you accomplished said objectives?

AR: Yes.  I work and work until I hear the muse say “Stop.”  And I stop.  I have to be satisfied with everything at that point because touching the manuscript after I have been directed to stop will ruin it. I’ve made that mistake before and one time was all it took.

DRU: So shifting over to Tainted, tell us about this incredible book, who the players are and what’s at stake.

AR: It’s a definite deviation from Corruption, that’s for sure.  There are three poems, two stories, and one central set of characters.  There are pictures and bios of six stunning sistahs who represent the female protagonists, a rock band named Pink Cage.  The poems are songs written by members of the band, and the stories feature the women in different perspectives.

The first story, which is actually a trilogy, is about Sereyn, who is Pink Cage’s manager.  Sereyn is a woman who is having a majorly epic identity and midlife crisis.  Someone from her past, present and future comes to help her sort everything out.

The second story, “Mezzanine,” is the central story in Tainted; the reason why the book had to be written.  I say “had” because I did not have a choice.  When the muse dropped that sweet little psychotic bombshell on my head, it was with one directive: WRITE NOW!!! RIGHT NOW!!!

“Mezzanine” focuses on Pink Cage as a rock band and as a family; the sistahs of Pink Cage are actually sisters.  Kemme Thornton, aka “Charm Pink,” has embarked on a whirlwind rebound romance with Keith Marshall, a goofy-looking geek inventor and rollercoaster designer.  As far as Kemme is concerned, Keith is the perfect man and an even more perfect husband…until she stumbles upon his little secret, which forces her to face who she truly is.

DRU: What inspired this story?

AR: I mentioned in my The Next Big Thing blog hop interview that “Mezzanine” is the result of several things clashing at once: the badassery of Alexis Brown, frontwoman of the metal band Straight Line Stitch; the awesomeness that is Massive Attack, specifically, their album and track of the same name, Mezzanine, which I listened to about 200 times; and a renewed crush on a musician I loved as a little girl.  Everything marinated subconsciously and then one day, the muse shat the book on my head.  There is simply no other way to describe how it happened.

DRU: Now Tainted is a far different beast than Corruption. The most obvious is that its spec fic. But it’s also darker and more sexual. Was this a conscious choice or an edict from your Muse?

AR: I should point out that I personally don’t think that Tainted is speculative fiction, which is a term I hate, by the way.  Tainted’s got a sci-fi/supernatural component, but the majority of the book is contemporary.  But to answer your question, it was an edict from the muse.  She said go hard and that’s just what I did.

I am interested in readers’ reactions, especially to “Mezzanine.”  With that story, I went H.A.M.  I’m wondering if people will react the way I think they should.  Probably not, but I haven’t gotten any reviews as of yet, so…

DRU: In your opinion, what is Tainted bringing to the dance that is lacking in fiction?

AR: Ooooh…well…it’s kind of hard for me to be absolute about this, as I haven’t done much outside reading lately.  I can tell you this: everything in Tainted is connected; the poems, the pictures, the stories, the imagery…it all links and loops and forms one cohesive whole.  It has an all-Black cast, most of which are women.   These women are musicians, and they’re not your standard Black girl singing group.  I deliberately made them dark-skinned rockers who wear funky pink hair and bad-ass costumes because that’s not something I personally have seen.  There’s also the personnel component; I introduce you to the sisters of Pink Cage—Zora, Grace, Leseda, Kemme, Torii & Raz—via “chapter” breaks.  There is a chance that I will be visiting them again in the future, and readers may as well know who they are now.  Pink Cage is awesome.

With this book, I tried to explore the abnormal side of love, or love as it is perceived and received by minds less…*ahem,* fixed …by convention and normality.  I also wanted to examine the nature of identity—who we are versus how we are perceived and where and how that line blurs.  I can’t say with certainty that all of this is lacking in fiction, but I can definitely say I’ve never written anything like this before in my life…and I’ve written a lot of stuff.

DRU: So Middle Child Press seems to to be amping it up. You just released Tainted and your partner in crime Ankhesen Mie just released the Selo and Inya series. Was this random happenstance or part of a master plan to take over the world?

AR: Well, of course we plan to take over the world…but as far as the production of these projects, they were completely random.  Tainted wasn’t planned, and neither was Selo & Inya.  But Ankh and I feed off each other’s creativity; we inspire each other and we support each other.  That, my friend, is a blessing, one every true writer needs. I know you feel me on this.  So don’t be surprised if you see an increase in Ankh’s & my production this year.  We’re both writing serials now.

DRU: What’s next for you?

AR: Right now, I’m working on two separate serial projects: Nightingales & the Velimir novels.  I just finished the Nightingales pilot, CRASH!!!, and I’m currently drafting the first episode, cool airCRASH!!! will probably be published this summer, but I’m not 100% sure of this.  I can say with 100% certainty that it will be published this year, and if the muse is kind and God is able (which she can sometimes be and He is), cool air will be as well.

I’m also rewriting the first half of Blade Dancer, the first of the Velimir books.  It became necessary to wrest Sheila and K’avir completely away from anything remotely resembling their fanfiction origins, so they are going to get a completely new and different genesis.  This means restructuring the entire book and introducing new ideas and subplots.  I hope that their fans appreciate my efforts, but I’d like to assure them all that Sheila & K’avir themselves have not changed.

DRU: Any parting shots?

AR: To all of my new fans, followers and readers, and to those who have been with me since LJ and ff.net, thank you so much for your support.  I am honored and humbled for all the love I’ve received.  I hope that you continue to support and enjoy my future efforts, and feel free to visit me in the Dark anytime.

And to you, Denny, my friend and creative sibling…thank you for this wonderful opportunity.  Your support means EVERYTHING to me and I’m proud to know you.

DRU: Back atcha sis!  😉 

You can learn more about Amaya and her writing at the following websites:

http://www.amaya-radjani.com

http://amayashorties.blogspot.com

http://pinkelegance.blogspot.com

http://middlechildpress.blogspot.com

And Amaya’s books are available here and here

The Craft: Author vs. Writer

So my good friend and fellow novelist, Corruption author Amaya Radjani, recently penned a most brilliant piece about when a writer becomes an author based on a previous discussion she and I had.
 
You should definitely stop by and show her some love.
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By Amaya Radjani
 
During a discussion with Denny Upkins, author of Hollowstone, the subject of what we do came up, as it tends to since we’re both published authors. The text of the conversation is as follows…

Me:  “I understand how refreshing it is to connect with like minds.  It’s rare.  Ankh and I are storytellers, which is why we get along so well.  Through her, I met you, and you’re a wordsmith just like us.  It’s so great because we can talk about certain things.  I wish I knew more real authors like us.  I know plenty of writers, but very few authors.”

Denny:  “Girl you ain’t never lied. One of my friends was talking about this.  She’s critiquing my next novel and she stated something that really struck a chord. She said she loved critiquing me because my objective is to tell a great story and not be known as a great writer. Because there’s a huge difference.  I think with us, we’re working towards something more meaningful in our narratives which is why we strive to be great authors because we’re serving an ignored audience that is black women, women of color, POCs and LGBTQs.”

Me: You’re so right.  So right.  Soooooooo right.  I’m more concerned with telling a balanced, solid story than I am with being portrayed as a good writer.  The second can’t happen unless the first does.”

To which Denny co-signed.  This was also a subject addressed in part on the Blasian Narrative as well.  I also discussed this to some extent in my interview At the Bar. After Denny’s and my conversation, I decided to define for myself the difference between an author and a writer.  Now, under no circumstances am I an expert in anything, but I am qualified to express my opinion on my blog.  You may disagree, and that’s fine too. Educational discourse is always welcome.

An author begins as a writer, but then somewhere along the line, the vision changes and becomes all-encompassing.  I knew I was going to be an author by age eight because I saw my name on the spirals of books, and I could imagine what my book covers would look like, and even who would be my publisher (Viking, Scribner, Random House…hey, I was eight).  I illustrated my stories and bound them in 3-ring binders or loose pages glued together with rubber cement.  I included copyright pages and stuff like that because I studied books by other authors.  It was about the story, but then it became about the story and letting the world know about it.  I knew that it would happen one day and I never had a moment’s doubt.

But it was always the story itself, first and foremost.  How to make the words on the page match the images in my mind?  How to interpret what I was seeing into the vocabulary (albeit extensive) of a kid?  How to finish what I started?  How do I end it?  How do I end it?  How do I end it?  These aren’t easy questions when you’re a novice.  You want the words to be perfect when you first put pen to paper. It just doesn’t happen that way.   Nor will you pen a 250-page novel your first time out.  As with all things, the key to getting better is consistent practice and learning who you are as a writer.  I kept writing (and reading) to improve my overall understanding of how to tell a story to completion, and all I wanted to do was get better and better at keeping up with my muse; who if I allow free reign, will always see me through to the end.

Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback, but make sure it’s from reliable sources.  You’ll want to find someone willing to edit your work, and here I stress the need to find another writer who’ll do it (especially if it’s reciprocated).  Do not be afraid if the feedback isn’t positive.  Feedback is essential, and people need to understand the nature of it.  When I wrote my fanfic, I got a lot of “good job, keep going,” responses. I also got a lot of, “This is horrible; you should never write again,” replies as well. Those comments do absolutely nothing for authors.  We have to know specifics: what’s good about the story, what’s bad about it, things of that nature so they can be addressed. And negative feedback is still feedback.  The reviewer may not have liked what we wrote, but what we appreciate is when they can tell us in detail what it was they didn’t like, and what they did like.  Such commentary is what gets us to our next book.  And for authors, there’s always a next book.

The point here is to keep writing, keep practicing, keep making attempts to get better, including doing research on your subject, characters and plot specifics. Writers write what they know, but it is a measure of growth if you make serious attempts to move out of your comfort zone.  For instance, I never wrote anything other than black women paired with black men because that’s what I knew.  But I branched out and wrote a Blasian novel, and I learned so much; enough that I know I’ll continue down the Blasian path, as well as branch out into other genres like steampunk, mystery, sci-fi & dark fantasy. It requires a wealth of research, but the endgame for me is always a solid, readable novel, and so it’s worth it.  You also need to know the audience for which you write because everything isn’t for everybody.

To this regard, I’m also making a concerted effort to branch out with character orientations.  Never have I read a novel with a LGBTQ protagonist, and Denny assures me that there are very few books (good or bad) with such characters.  I’m heterosexual, and I’m always concerned about authenticity in my storytelling.  My characters believe in having sex, and so intimate encounters are a legitimate concern of mine.  I know that I can do it, but research and time are required to make it believable.  The last thing I want is for a LGBTQ consumer to read my novel and say, “A straight woman wrote this shit.”  The last thing I want for anyone reading my novels is to question their authenticity and/or call them shit.  So best believe I will use every resource available to get it right, including, but not limited to, conversations, interviews and reading books by LGBTQ authors.  I’ve also made a serious attempt at writing slash in some of my fanfic, and have been mightily encouraged to keep going by fans of the genre.  Baby steps, y’all, baby steps…

Another topic is the issue of book covers.  Before I talk about this, I have to make an important point; one which Denny pointed out.  Authors who sign with standard publishing houses typically do not have control over the cover their book receives. The author is at the whim of the publisher, who may decide to use an absolutely horrendous cover that does no justice to the book itself.  The idea that someone else can decide how my book is presented to the world horrifies me enough that I will strive to always maintain creative control.  For those of us who self-publish, this is completely possible.  So I will limit my discussion on artistic book covers to us.

There is a continuous debate on the Narrative about book cover quality.  Since a lot of people (me included) decide whether we want to read a book based on its cover, it behooves the author to produce a quality book jacket.  It’s not enough to photoshop random images and throw up a title…what you oftentimes get is a hot visual mess that detracts from what may be a really good story.  Take a look at some of the book covers on the Narrative and you’ll see what I mean.  Denny has also touched on this very same topic.  

 
When I invest years into the writing of a novel (Corruption took a year; Blade Dancer, 2 ½; In the Pale Moonlight, 3), I will not slack off by getting a weak-ass jacket to wrap my baby in.  I will invest money into getting a beautiful and appropriate cover by a professional graphic artist or a superlative art student.  If you’re a true visionary, you already know how you want the book to look and this last part is fairly easy.

Under no circumstances am I dissing writers.  Absolutely not; I started out as one. As far as I’m concerned, the internal switch that turns a writer into an author does not go on for everyone.  And there is nothing wrong with writing for yourself, which I think most writers do.  I’ve met quite a few who are honest about their desire to write for themselves and only themselves.  They haven’t made efforts to publish because the endgame for them is seeing the story in their head put to paper.  I’ve also met writers who claim to be authors, but are not serious about the craft.  They produce stories, but can’t handle constructive criticism about their work, even though they’ve put it out there for others to read.  They haven’t made strides to protect themselves.  When I ask about specific attempts at novelization or publication, I always get some kind of bewildered or bullshit expression; as if penning the story itself takes care of everything, including sales of the book. Again, somewhere within, that switch hasn’t yet turned on, or probably won’t.  Being an author is about far more than just writing a story.

Review: Corruption

Synopsis: Mahogany Carroll is a unrepentant cougar; Jordan Yoshito is a precocious cub. Jordan’s struggling with finding his way in the world, and Mahogany’s struggling with needing more than just great sex. Mahogany likes her men young and Jordan prefers his women experienced, thus the relationship they enter is supposed to be no more than temporary. But people have a way of leaving their mark on one another long after encounters have ceased, and these two are no exception.
One of the things I like about this story is that while this is a romance novel, the characters are real, flawed, complicated, and organic. Both Jordan and Mahogany are people who I would know in real life.
One thing I enjoyed about Mahogany was that she was a strong woman who never lost her strength or edge once she fell in love or had sex.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that trope played out with female characters, ie: they can’t handle their emotions or that other sexist bile.
Even later on in the story when she faced some serious challenges which would’ve broken most, she soldiered on and you couldn’t help but respect her.
Her relationship dynamic with Jordan was also refreshing and unique. Mahogany was the dominant one in the relationship and was still feminine without being emasculating or a ball buster or the other sexist pitfalls that happen to too many female characters. Jordan was the laid back one who was the beta in the relationship but he was still masculine and was his own man. In short, it was refreshing to see Mahogany portrayed as an unapologetic dominant powerful woman in a positive and respectful manner.
What’s more is that Radjani explains why both characters have the demeanors and outlook on life that they possess.
Another thing that was refreshing was that neither character was looking for a significant other to “complete” them or fix their flaws. Both had successful lives and were living them well and this is a story of how an unexpected encounter with two extraordinary individuals can enrich each other’s lives in a most profound manner when neither expect it.
One could argue age and socioeconomic status but I don’t think those were really factors. Both characters were strong enough in themselves not to allow themselves to be easily influenced by said factors.
Radjani also uses this novel to give a voice to black women as she tackles issues about what they want and what they’re looking for. Too often in the media, black women are on the receiving end of rebuke and denigration and everyone has an opinion and hardly anyone asks black women their thoughts on their lives and their existence.
In Corruption, Radjani makes no apologies in shattering myths about what black women (and for that matter women in general) want.
Women enjoy food. Women like to have sex. Women like to have a lot of sex (as the novel illustrated time and time and time again). Women like to play video games. Many women don’t want to get married. Some women want to get married. Some might be open given the right guy and the right circumstances. Some want kids. Some don’t want offspring under any circumstances. In short, what women want isn’t that different than from what men want.
I also love the escapism. It was nice to read a story about intelligent black women who are successful and prosperous and well cultured. And ultimately that’s not fiction. That’s reality. There are legions of beautiful successful black women who are rocking their careers and enjoying their lives.
While the ending was bittersweet, to me it was fitting and it made sense. I won’t give anything away but it went back to some of the other themes throughout the book: sex, food, love, relationships, romance, friendships, video games, the arts, career, the past, the future: LIFE.
Corruption was ultimately about life. Living it to the fullest, never taking a moment for granted and appreciating every moment of it.
Slim page count and a fast read, Corruption is definitely a novel worth checking out.