On building a multimedia production/gaming rig.

computer

After several years of using prebuilt desktops and laptops, and three years of not having a desktop at all, I finally decided to build a PC for the first time. Verdict? It was unnecessarily intimidating, and I’m so glad I did it. My biggest concern was that I would throw everything together and it wouldn’t boot up, and I’d sit there for days wondering which component was faulty and in need of returning/replacement. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and I barely had to troubleshoot anything. Everything worked flawlessly, except for a few cases of rookie building error entirely my own fault. Now, I’m sitting on a PC of my own creation, and fully satisfied with my investment, and no longer anxious about getting my hands “dirty” with electronic components. I will never buy prebuilt again, nor allow my friends and family to do so.

For anyone thinking about building their own first PC, here’s an account of my experience.

Step 1: Researching and Purchasing the Components
To build a desktop, you basically need the following hardware: A motherboard, a PSU (power supply) a CPU (processor), a CPU cooler/heat sink, a GPU (video card), RAM (memory sticks), a hard drive, and a case (tower) in which to throw it all. Optionally, you might want to add an optical drive (DVD or Blu-ray), an audio card, and your operating system (don’t forget to budget for your legitimate Windows copy). And you’ll definitely want to make sure that all the parts you buy are compatible with one another. After you’ve set your sights on compatible parts, start deal hunting. I used the website PCPartPicker to check that my chosen components were compatible, and to find the lowest prices from various online vendors. I also checked the buildapcsales Reddit daily, to see if any of my chosen parts (or even better) were discounted somewhere.

After shopping around for two weeks, waiting for sales, I finally had all my parts before me, still in the boxes. Here was the shopping list for my build. You’ll notice a lot more than the “necessities,” such as the peripherals (monitor, keyboard, mouse, cam), the case speaker (most cases don’t come with one, so you need to buy one separate if you want to hear boot-up beeps), the thermal paste and the CPU cooler (I didn’t want to use the stock stuff that comes with the CPU as I intend to ride my rig hard), and the SSD for storage.

CPU: Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5 GHz Quad-Core Processor
CPU Cooler: Phanteks U-Type Dual Tower Heat-Sink CPU Cooler PH-TC12DX_BK
Motherboard: ASRock Z97 Extreme3 ATX LGA1150 Motherboard
Memory: Team Dark 16GB (2x8GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600
Storage: Kingston Digital 120GB SSDNow V300 SATA 3 2.5 Solid State Drive
Video Card: ASUS GeForce GTX 980 STRIX
Audio Card: Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX 7.1 Sound Card
Power Supply: XFX Pro Series 750W Power Supply Unit Modular
Optical Drive: LG WH16NS40 Super Multi Blue Internal SATA 16x Blu-ray Disc Rewriter
Case: Phanteks Enthoo Pro ATX Full Tower Case
Case Speaker: APEVIA Case Speaker
Thermal Paste: Arctic Silver 5 High-Density Polysynthetic Silver Thermal Compound
Monitor: ASUS PB258Q LED monitor, 25 in.
Keyboard: Rosewill Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with Cherry MX Blue Switches
Mouse: Redragon M901 PERDITION 16400 DPI High-Precision Programmable Laser Gaming Mouse
Camera: Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920, 1080p Widescreen Video Calling and Recording
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 10 Home Flash Drive

I had an old desktop in my closet, three years old, that I raided for parts before I went shopping. All I was able to salvage was the 1TB hard drive, which saved me from having to buy a new one, and the DVD drive (although I chose to spring for a BD drive anyway). I also had 2.1 speakers and an old 19-inch monitor, but chose to get the 25-inch 1440p to take advantage of my very pricey video card. Now I’m using both monitors, as you see above. I bought the SSD specifically to store my operating system and programs, as SSDs are much faster than regular hard drives. You do not need one, though. They’re quite pricey by comparison. Also, motherboards do have on-board audio, so you don’t need an audio card unless you value quality sound.

My build is meant for heavy-duty gaming and multimedia production (video, audio, image editing, coding, etc.). It’s not the highest of the high-end, but I suspect it should last me a few years before I start to experience some sluggishness. You’ll build and spend to your needs, obviously. Do research into what parts will meet your needs. When you’ve got all your parts, it’s time to get to work. I began my project at about 11 p.m., as soon as I got home from work and found the last of my Amazon purchases waiting for me.

Step 2: Breadboarding
I learned about breadboarding from the Tom’s Hardware forum. Breadboarding is when you put your components together, piece by piece, to make sure individual components work. I did this without the case, so that if anything was faulty, I wouldn’t have to take it all apart again. Here’s what I did:

1. I unboxed the motherboard, CPU, CPU cooler, and thermal paste. Before handling any components, I grounded myself by touching something metal to discharge any static electricity I’d built up. I performed this build on the carpeted floor of my bedroom, so I touched my chassis often, to be safe, though I never did build a charge.

2. I read all manuals, and followed the instructions to the letter. I first put my CPU in my motherboard, then installed my CPU cooler’s mounting brackets. I then “tinted” the metallic surface of my cooler’s heat sink (following the Arctic Silver instructions here for my specific processor) before applying a line of thermal paste to my CPU, and securing the cooler to it. Then I plugged the power supply of the cooler’s fans into the appropriate pins on the motherboard.

3. I installed the case speaker to the appropriate pins, so I could hear the beeps.

4. I unboxed the PSU (power supply unit), and plugged the appropriate power cables into the motherboard, then plugged the PSU into my surge protector. You can apparently short the power switch with a screwdriver or paperclip but I couldn’t pull this off, so I simply plugged my case’s power button into the appropriate pins and used that to turn on my motherboard instead. Here, also, was my first rookie mistake. I turned on the PSU, expecting to hear the long, singular “no memory” beeps, but the fan spun up for a quarter of a second, and then died again. Over and over. At this point, I was sweating. Was the board bad? Then I realized I’d neglected to plug in the 8-pin connector, which provides power to the CPU. I’d only plugged in the 24-pin connector, thinking this was all I needed. Lesson learned.

5. With all connections appropriate now, I listened for the long, single beeps from the case speaker, which is the motherboard’s way of telling you there’s no memory detected. So far, so good. I turned off the PSU so I could safely add the next component.

6. I inserted my RAM sticks, following instructions as appropriate to ensure I used the appropriate slots. I ran into the problem of my massive heat sink making the first slot inaccessible to my rather large RAM. This turned out to be a common issue, so I stuck the RAM into slots 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3. No problem. Then, I turned everything on again, and listened for the one long and 2-3 short “no video card” beeps. Success! So far, I’ve determined my motherboard, PSU, CPU, heat sink, and RAM were good-to-go.

7. Now, you can carry on like this, plugging in your video card, plugging your card into your monitor, and so on. You don’t need a case at all to build your entire computer. But I decided to stop the breadboarding process after I found my RAM was good. I was eager to put everything in the case and hope for the best.

Step 3: Put It All Together
1. First, I disconnected everything from the breadboard configuration. Then I took apart my case (per instructions) to give myself room to maneuver. The case I ordered (a full tower) was massive, and so perfect for a rookie builder, as managing cables was simple and forgiving. I followed the case’s instructions to install the motherboard, not forgetting about the standoffs, which prevent the board from touching the case and shorting out. My case came with standoffs already installed.

2. I next installed my PSU. At this point I did not plug anything into the PSU, so none of the cables would get in my way.

3. I then installed my video card, my audio card, my SSD, my optical drive, and my hard drive, and got to work plugging all the appropriate cables into the motherboard and the PSU. I ran all the cables through the provided openings behind the motherboard tray, which left everything looking nice and clean to the outside observer. I plugged all the case features into the motherboard.

4. With everything installed, I double-checked all my connections, plugged my monitor into my video card, hit the power button, and prayed to Cthulhu that I didn’t botch anything. To my astonishment, the monitor flickered to life, and the Windows 7 login screen appeared! Woah! Apparently, I had Windows 7 installed on the old hard drive I salved from my previous desktop, and the motherboard booted from there. It all worked! I threw the case covers back on, and proceeded to set up the software and peripherals.

Step 4: The End Game
My case is so massive it doesn’t fit under my desk, so it’s sitting between my desk and bed. Building the rig took about 3.5-4 hours. Getting the software setup took another 1-1.5 hours, because at this point I made my second rookie mistake. I plugged in my Windows 10 flash drive into a USB port, and accessed the BIOS to tell my motherboard to boot from it. Then, during the installation process, I created a 35GB partition on my SSD and installed Windows to it. Installation went flawlessly, but then I realized I couldn’t access the other 85GB of my SSD. In retrospect, I probably needed to make two partitions, one to hold the operating system and the other for the rest of the drive. But I only created one, thinking the remaining drive would be automatically available. So, I decided to reinstall Windows 10, but this time not mess around with partitions. I erased all partitions and formatted the drives, and then Windows 10 couldn’t use them anymore! It took me about 30 frustrating minutes playing around in the BIOS, trying to figure out how to make my drives bootable again. Finally, the Internet led me to my solution, and I installed Windows 10.

A third rookie mistake occurred two days later, when I realized the front case fan wasn’t spinning. I could’ve swore I’d plugged in both the front and back fans, but upon opening the case I found the front fan cable just dangling there. Woops. I plugged it into the motherboard, and now everything works perfectly.

If you want a desktop, and want it your way, don’t be afraid of building your own. It wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be, and instructions are generally clear to anyone willing to read them. I did get frustrated trying to figure out how to remove my case’s front and top covers, as the manual neglected to mention that they simply popped off. But a quick YouTube video revealed this secret to me, and I carried on. Now, I just need to save up a crap ton of money for Blu-ray playback software, since Windows doesn’t have native BD playing. Damn it. I guess I’ll keep using my PS4 to watch my movies, for now.

Since I know now how to build a PC from scratch, upgrading individual parts as necessary will be nothing by comparison.

Meteortown – The First Chapter (Second Draft – Locked)

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It’s been awhile since I posted, but I wanted to say that my personal deadline for the second draft of my novel Meteortown is October 31st. I’m making a lot of major changes to the story and rewriting several scenes from scratch. I even went out and bought a desk and an office chair to make myself nice and comfortable while I write.🙂

It’s coming along. I’m excited to have something worthwhile to show at the end of all this. Below is the latest version of Chapter One. If you’ve read the first draft version, you’ll notice that this version does more to establish Victoria Esposito as a character with an emotional journey ahead of her. As well, more foreshadowing! Yay!

Chapter One

Victoria

Sunday. 25 Days to Halloween. 11:15 P.M.

All of the city still smelled wet. The unlit buildings, the sparkling streets and the sidewalks, the dead leaves packed in the gutters like mud. When the storm came out of nowhere, the biker girl took shelter under a freeway overpass. There, soaked through her bones and shivering, she cut the engine to conserve what little fuel she had in the tank, withdrew her arms from the sleeves of her thin black hoodie, and hugged her core for warmth. She waited for the storm to pass, then continued her journey toward Home.

The fantasy is over.

At this hour, the unafflicted straights slept snug inside their homes under thermal comforters, wholly unaware that the dragon could awake at any moment to complete the doom he began one year ago. Already they’d forgotten what he’d snatched away from them. The girl had not forgotten. She remembered all the time, sensed the absences in her life as a ceaseless noise. The quiet never came for her like it seemed to come for the others. She still heard the sky cracking, one year later, echoing back and forth inside her brain.

He’d sundered the night with a brilliant flash like that of an atom bomb. The shockwave reduced the homes and trees nearest the crater to matchsticks, the sleeping people to clouds of red and white dust. They said it was a meteor, but she saw with her own eyes the beast in its hideous shape, descending from the clouds. His cursed blood corrupted the skies, unlike any meteor that’d ever come before. A red blight like coagulated blood blanketed an area six miles in diameter. How many assumed it was radioactive fallout, or that they’d been targeted by some awful biological weapon? Astrum somniferum, they later called the bacteria. Stardust pathogen. Everyone exposed to the skyfallen blight fell ill with the blood fever. Their corpses were piled three deep against the containment fence to await the weekly cremation trucks. Those who survived, like Victoria, became permanent carriers of the dormant pathogen. Starbabies. The blood-born children of the dragon who descended from the stars. During the early days of containment, before the completion of the Wall, the only company the dead kept were black clouds of rotflies and a little walking dead girl who’d lost everything.

There were still some afternoons she awoke in a cold sweat. Some meals she could taste the red rain on her lips. Some nights she smelled the rising embers, and felt the monster’s corruption coursing through her veins, ancient and immortal, dormant, for now. She would not let the infection define her.

She repeated this promise to herself all the time.

It was all Andi’s fault.

The fantasy is over.


The encounter with Tyler seemed like a blur now. He did most of the yelling, Victoria remembered. Eventually, she cracked like a porcelain girl. The verbal onslaught continued while she packed her belongings in her old schoolbag. When she retrieved Summerside from its secret hiding place under the mattress, he threatened to call the police. She’d hid his cell phone under the couch cushions by then, anticipating his threat. While he searched everywhere for it, she disappeared inside her helmet, which was green and black and made of the scales of dead dragons. It protected her from the world and, more often, she liked to think, the world from her. She stormed outside the house. The screen door slammed behind her. She mounted her bike and turned the engine over.

Tyler only followed her as far as the front porch. “Where do you think you’ll go? It’s the middle of the night! The fantasy is over. Grow up, Victoria!”

“You go to hell and you stay there!”

The engine screeched. She rode off toward the dead lights of Meteortown, rage burning in her eyes until the storm came and soaked her through and she remembered who she was. The one who slays the dragon and brings back the sun.

The fantasy is over.


The old schoolbag on her back carried most of her worldly possessions: a few outfits; a scorched paperback of Arthurian lore edited by Elisabeth Faulkner, who was a respected Professor of Medieval Literature at the city college–even before it was burnt, she’d reread the book so many times the pages were coming away from the spine; and Victoria’s green pills. Summerside, a razor-sharp short sword with a cruciform hilt and a dark green false leather grip, rested beneath the bag, strapped to her back, hidden and deadly. It was as much a part of her as her bike and her helmet. Had Tyler really called the cops?

After several aimless miles, the rebirth smell of rain was replaced by the lingering stench of clogged sewage lines and wet trash piles. She knew she’d left behind the safer, straighter neighborhoods and crossed the invisible border into Meteortown. Here, a few starving narco vamps lurked from their shadowy perches, or congregated inside defunct bus stop shelters, their eyes concealed behind stylish black Insomniacs or cheap antilux goggles just like hers. She accelerated.

Only she knew who was to blame for the blight. Andi, the old lover, the sinner, the whore. Then why did Victoria always return to Meteortown to face these memories, like reaching into a flame, over and over? Inevitably came the burn. What was it that attracted her toward Andi’s home, toward ground zero, like a moth to a crackling fire pit?

Bouncing over a set of railroad tracks, the girl discovered an area of Meteortown she’d never been. So many abandoned cars, firebombed junkers and rust heaps picked clean of their valuable parts, cluttered these desolate rainsoaked streets. In every direction stood barbedwire fences and gaunt grey buildings with closed truck bays and busted windows. Most of these factories and warehouses were shuttered within the first week of the quarantine. Industrialized districts were abandoned and claimed by the darkness that Andi had wrought.

In Meteortown, streetlamps blew and no one replaced them. The few that flickered with the last of their lux would soon die, too, and total darkness would follow. The vamps liked it that way. The darkness was home to them, and to the starbabies who were the original carriers of the infection. Photophobia, they called it. The chief symptom of the Regressive Stardust Syndrome. RSS. The dragon’s curse swam through the blood vessels of the infected, made its home in the brain and kidney and liver. She gripped the throttle and leaned forward, suddenly aware of the abject desolation closing in around her. Something low and black was following her, stalking her.

Bah-WOOP! BLIP-BLIP!

The siren wailed. Blue light washed over the street. The Ghost appeared behind her as if from out of thin air. The stealth police hybrids had a tendency to hide and then coalesce from the shadows like living inky masses. It had followed her over the railroad tracks. But when had it picked up her scent?

What was a Ghost doing this deep in vamp territory, anyway? Was this about Summerside? And how could they possibly have tracked her so many miles from Tyler’s house? No, this had to be something else.

The patrol car closed the distance, its intentions clear. She let off the gas and rolled toward the curb, halting behind the skeleton of a pickup truck suspended on concrete blocks. Most of the wreck–its console, seats, motor, side panels, tailgate–had been ripped off long ago by scrap metal carrion. The sight of the dead thing sent a shiver up her spine.

The Ghost whispered up behind her. The vibrations from its electric motor rumbled through her sneakers as she held her bike steady and lowered the kickstand.

When the blue strobe wound down, the headlamps seemed to burn deliberately brighter, forcing her to face away from the beams. Not even her visor was thick enough to protect her eyes. Two car doors opened, and two men exited the vehicle. Unable to turn her head, she could only listen. Doors slamming shut. The nearly inaudible drone of the engine. A man clearing his throat. A set of footsteps approaching. The issuing of a gruff command: “Get off the bike, kid.”

She obeyed, dismounted, squeezing her eyes shut.

“Take off the helmet.”

“I can’t, sir.”

A pause. He understood. “Boy, dead the lights.”

She heard the other man climb back inside the vehicle. The lamps dimmed. He climbed out again.

“Better? Now take it off before I take it off for you.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she lifted the helmet off her head, revealing a short brown pixie haircut and two amber eyes that glistered with hundreds of starlike points. Physical marks of the regressed pathogen. The multitude of tiny scars upon her forehead and cheeks were faded white and stood out defiant. The pattern of scars extended down her neck, and lower still. The cop parted his lips as if to speak, said nothing. She hung the helmet off the handlebar and found her antiluxes in her back pocket, and strapped them over her eyes. Then she straightened her spine and puffed out her chest to look more like a brave knight and less like a porcelain girl.

“I’m not sure what this is about, Officer—” she read the name engraved on his badge “—Locke. Did I do something wrong?”

“License and registration.”

“My wallet’s in my bag,” she said, shrugging the straps off her shoulders. Before she could find the zipper, Officer Locke seized the bag from her and tossed it over the hood into the waiting arms of his partner.

Hey!

“Be thorough this time, friend,” Locke said. He looked back at her. “You know your plate’s expired?”

She shook her head.

The other man quickly found her wallet and flipped through it. “Registration checks out. Her insurance lapsed about a month ago. She’s got a few bucks here, some clothes, a book. Huh, a half-empty bottle of green dissolvables.” She heard the bottle shaking. “Could be something?”

“It’s scrip. My doctor’s number is on the label. Doctor Kumail. Call him if you don’t believe me.”

“Don’t worry about Doctor Kumail,” said Locke.

“No caps here,” said friend.

She asked, “What’s that about caps?”

“SD,” Locke explained. Stardust. Pathogen-infused blood drops, the kind consumed by narco vamps. Then this wasn’t about Tyler at all. Why were they looking for stardust caps in her schoolbag? Did they not need probable cause for a contraband search? “No plates, no insurance, and no toll for the bridge,” said Locke. “That’s three strikes, kid. What’s your name?”

“My name- My name is…”

The other man supplied it from her license. “Her name is Victoria Esposito. Pretty name. Height, five-one. Eyes, blue. Organ donor. Blood bag, O-neg. Turned eighteen last week. Happy belated birthday, miss. Welcome to adulthood.”

“Thanks. Can I have my stuff back?”

“We’ll hold onto it for now. Relax. You’re not in trouble, yet.” The officer gestured at last toward the sword strapped to her back. “That’s some cutter you’ve got there, kid. You scar yourself up with that?”

She did not answer.

“Hand it over.”

“Why? I never hurt anyone.”

“Are you trying to get arrested? What kind of girl needs a sword? This isn’t feudal fucking England. You’re not trekking across Middle Earth with hobbits in tow. Hand it over, slow.”

She hesitated, then unbuckled the harness and eased the scabbard off her shoulder. Locke snatched it away just as he’d snatched her bag before. Unsheathing about four inches of the silvery blade, he traced a finger along its edge. He snapped his hand back, and sucked his teeth. Blood bubbled up on the tip of his finger. Summerside had bit him!

“Son of a bitch! Look at this. They come in all shapes in M-Town, don’t they?” He restored the sword, then chucked it, scabbard, harness and all, over the Ghost’s hood. The younger officer ducked out of the way as Victoria’s precious steel clattered across the sidewalk.

“That’s mine!”

“What’s a vamp doing in the warehouse district?”

Scowling, the girl turned her head and looked away.

“Well?”

“I’m not a vampire.”

“You’re not a vampire?” he said, mocking her. “I’ve seen junkies at ten caps a day with fewer stars in their eyes. You must be half-dust by now, kid. Hand over the caps you meant to drop tonight, as well as the address of your supplier, and we’ll send you on your merry way. Hell, I’ll even give you back your knife so you can cut yourself up some more.”

“You’ve got the wrong person.”

“That’s for me to decide. Glue your palms to the bed of that truck and spread your legs for me.”

The other man snickered. Victoria’s blood turned to ice water. She swallowed the lump in her throat and asked why.

“Because if you don’t cooperate I’ll charge you for illegal driving and wielding an edged weapon. That means we shred your license and drag your ass to jail. Your fancy bike sits here in vulture land until someone posts your bail or your day in court comes, and you pay your fines. How long before your bike’s picked clean, you think?”

After a deep breath to steady her nerves, she took a single step forward, and placed her palms on the dead truck’s cargo bed, which was still cold and wet from the storm.

As Locke positioned himself behind her, a woman’s voice crackled from the portable radio clipped to his belt. Situation developing on Cole Street. Request all nearby vehicles to support officers already on the scene. Victoria remembered passing the sign for the residential street not long before crossing into the warehouse district. They were the projects, hellbound. Would they release her and answer the call?

Locke switched off the radio as if reading her mind. She closed her eyes to keep from crying. Her muscles went taut like iron cords. He kicked the inside of her sneaker, forcing her legs farther apart. “Check the bike while I search the girl. Don’t forget under the seat, friend.”

Friend got to work taking apart her bike while Officer Locke snapped on a pair of latex gloves and got to mussing up what little hair she had for him to muss. Victoria had always cut her own hair, since the dragon came. Now she wished her hair was long enough to hide razor blades. He patted under her arms, down the sides of her torso, around to her belly, leaving dark smudges of his wickedness everywhere he touched her. Two monstrous hands reached under her hoodie then, pulling it, bunching it up to her throat, revealing a plain white tee-shirt underneath; the last layer of her armor, crumbling away. He seized her breasts. “Is your whole body fucked, or just your face?” he whispered in her ear. For several minutes he lingered there, pinching her, siphoning the breath from her lungs. She went somewhere else, to a castle in a time before, when her mother was still alive, before Andi broke the city, and when Victoria was more than a lie…

“–an old t-shirt and some tampons,” Locke’s partner was saying. The image of her mother dissipated, the click of her seat latching shut snapping Victoria back to grey reality. “And a toothbrush. No paste.”

“Sometimes they tie off the bag and stuff it in the tank.”

“Any luck over there yet, Bert?”

“Nothing substantial,” said Locke, finally releasing her chest; she inhaled sharply, at once able to breathe again. He turned out each of her jean pockets, extracting balls of lint, old gas station receipts, her cell phone…

“You’re dead now, vamp,” he said excitedly, for pinched between his thumb and forefinger was a small rectangular cardboard box. “This is your last chance for confession. The chapel doors are about to close in three, two…”

“It’s candy,” she said, barely audible.

When Locke shook the box, several tiny hard objects rattled inside. By his tenor she could tell he was flashing his partner that stupid ugly smirk she wanted to cut off his face, if only she hadn’t forfeited Summerside so easily…

You’re not porcelain.

The fantasy is over.

“Don’t open it,” she spoke up, the words choking her. “I know what you’re looking for. You’ll be disappointed.”

He opened the box anyway. “What the hell is this?”

“I told you.”

The box contained several red-tipped candy cigarettes, which Locke shook out onto his palm. He picked one out, licked it probingly. “Sugar,” he admitted. “Plain sugar.”

“Bike’s clean, boss. I think we nabbed the wrong chick.”

Locke hocked a wad of sugary spit at her left sneaker, which she moved barely in time. He must have perceived the evasion as an act of defiance, because the expression that flashed across his face then was one she recognized only because she’d seen it so many times before. Behind Locke’s dull brown eyes lurked more than the sadistic excess of a man empowered with a badge and a gun. Rage, now, was growing, boiling over. He despised the infected–he despised her–as a prisoner despises his gaolers. The quarantine was her fault, as far as the officer was concerned.

“Eyes front, vamp. We’re not finished.”

Victoria looked to the darkened warehouse at the end of the street, fixating on its broken windows and brick walls covered with a layer of gangland graffiti. Locke crouched low, patted her calves. When his hands wandered back up her leg, toward her thigh, toward the place that was hers and no one else’s, she had to remind herself to be brave.

She heard him remove his gloves…

… felt the calloused fingers against her bare skin, where the hole in her jeans exposed her kneecap. He moved inside.

“We gonna take her to the farm?” This from the nameless partner. The friend. Victoria felt the ground disappear beneath her feet at the mention of the farm. What was the farm?

Don’t let them take you to the farm.

“What do you think, kid?” asked Locke. “Think anyone would miss one more vamp?”

“They’ll look for me. I have friends.”

“I believe it. You people are legion.”

“She said she ain’t a vamp. What if she’s starbaby? One of the originals?”

“Pure blood,” agreed Locke. “Think there’s premium-grade stardust in this one? If she is an original, she must be one of the last. Vamps ate the rest of them. They go wild for the pure bloods. How much you think she’s worth, friend?”

“More than five vamps.”

“Twice that, at least,” said Locke.

Skritch! The hole in her jeans became wider. Through the growing slit, Locke forced first his wrist, then half his sinewy forearm. He felt like dry ice against her bare skin.

“One last check, kid,” he said, widening the hole in her pants as he shoved his arm in farther. “Let me know when you want to make a deal. Negotiations are open.”

Victoria bit her bottom lip until the taste of copper blew up in her mouth. If she were silently praying, she did not understand the language of the prayer. Only that she wanted the skies to break open again, like they did when Andi summoned the dragon nearly one year ago.

CRA-A-A-A-ACK!

The bang sent the three of them reeling. Victoria howled. A brick or a bowling ball or a handful of buckshot, something heavy, had crashed through the Ghost’s rear window, into the backseat. The electric Jeep from which the missile had been launched now squealed down the road. The hoodlums whooped and hollered as Victoria fell over and scurried under the dead truck for shelter. Locke and his partner hurried back to the Ghost and peeled silently away from the curb. From underneath the truck, she watched their tires screech off toward the direction of the Jeep, no sirens. Both vehicles turned the corner. Silence followed, like in outer space. She was alone.


Her clothes, still damp from the rain that’d caught her offguard earlier, now weighted her down like steel plate. She couldn’t tell for how long she’d been curled up underneath the truck, trembling, unable to look out for fear that the dragon had returned. She tasted the blood in her mouth. Her bare knees throbbed, for in her haste she’d scraped them across the grit of the road. And whether the cold soaking her jeans was a puddle of rainwater or urine, she didn’t wish to know.

Easing out from under her makeshift shelter, Victoria rose shakily to her feet. Pain lit up her legs, which she ignored as she staggered back to her fallen bike. The Ghost must have brushed against it when it pulled out. She seethed, and lifted it painfully to its wheels.

Daylight threatened. The shadows grew longer, fainter, were fading out, as the horrible sun crept toward the horizon. She exchanged her protective goggles for her dragonscale helmet, and groaned when she felt the absence of what had been taken from her. The schoolbag had held her wallet, her identity, her name, her money, her clothes… Summerside! She searched the location where Locke had thrown her beloved sword, but it, too, was gone. Why couldn’t they have taken her left arm, or a foot instead?

She started the bike’s engine, wanting nothing more than to find a hole and bury her shame before the sun cast its awful lux on her. Perhaps, this once, she’d skip her Monday session and disappear for awhile. Mr. Gibson would ring her cell, like he always did when she was late to her appointments. She wouldn’t answer. Meteortown offered thousands of nooks into which a porcelain girl like her could vanish without a trace… Who would miss her anyway? Besides Mr. Gibson, of course. But only because the city paid him to care about the starbabies, since no one else would. She revved the engine and turned the bike around to head in the direction opposite of the Ghost. She drove toward the heart of Meteortown.

Welcome home, dragonslayer.

On killing your darlings (with examples of manuscript editing in progress).

kill-your-darlings-luna-cinemas (1)As an aspiring storyteller, one of the books I breathe is Stephen King’s On Writing, in which he offers this advice: Your second draft should be roughly 10% shorter than your first draft (The Positivity Blog, “Stephen King’s Top 7 Tips for Becoming a Better Writer”). When you’re editing your manuscript, focus on conciseness. As the popular expression goes, you must kill all your darlings (Slate, “Who Really Said You Should Kill Your Darlings?”). Don’t grow so attached to your beloved words that you can’t sacrifice a few of them.

(While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. It’ll be one of the greatest investments you make as a writer.)

Another piece of advice King offers is to allow some time to pass between drafts. This allows the manuscript to cool, so that when you approach it again weeks, perhaps months, later, you’ll see it with a fresh pair of eyes. What works and what doesn’t work, what needs cut and what needs added, becomes more apparent after you’ve left your imaginary world for awhile. Regardless, the process can be painful. One of my contemporary literary heroes, Chuck Palahniuk, prepares for the pain of revision by shaving his head. “It’s like dying, and it makes me feel better about killing passages I’ve written and still love” (FlavorWire, “12 Things We Learned from Chuck Palahniuk’s AMA”). As I sit down to edit Meteortown (with a full head of hair), I’m eager to cut out as much as possible, but wary about cutting too much. I don’t want to cost the story its cohesion. Sometimes, absence is as wasteful as overabundance.

Here’s a few thoughts I’ve had so far about killing my darlings in Meteortown’s first chapter.

-1-

Backstory is best when it’s either implied or inferred.

Second Draft First Draft
“You’re living a fantasy,” Tyler shouted as she mounted her motorbike, which was green and black like her helmet. “Grow up!” “Don’t be a fool!” Tyler called after her, as she mounted her motorbike, which was green and black like a dragon, and had cost her all the money her family had saved in her college fund. “You live in a fantasy land, Victoria. It’s time to grow up.”

Before, I thought it was important to explain how Victoria had managed to afford a sport’s bike. (It’s meant to be a Kawasaki Ninja 650r, though I never refer to the brand. I avoid brands when I can.) Victoria is homeless, broke, and has only had her job at the supply depot for a few months when the story opens. Is it important to mention how she got her bike? Maybe, but not at this point. Perhaps I’ll bring it up later, when it actually makes sense. Here, it only distracts from the drama of the recent argument. Besides, the line is clunky as hell. I’ve also shortened Tyler’s lines. He’s meant to be shouting! People tend to use short bursts when shouting!

-2-

Trust the reader to feel a character’s emotions through their actions or words.

Second Draft First Draft
In Meteortown, when streetlamps blew, no one replaced them. The few that flickered with the last of their lux would soon die, too. The vamps liked it that way. The darkness was home. Photophobia, they called it. Chiefly symptomatic of Regressive Stardust Syndrome. RSS. In Meteortown, when streetlamps blew, no one replaced them. The few that flickered with the last of their lux would soon die, too. The vamps liked it that way. The darkness was home. It was far more comfortable than wearing those awful antiluxes all the time. She hated the way the goggles constricted her skull and left circular imprints around her eye sockets, but they had to be so tight to keep out the light. Photophobia, they called it. Chiefly symptomatic of Regressive Stardust Syndrome.

Instead of telling the reader here that Victoria dislikes her goggles (I mean, who would want to wear goggles 24/7, realistically?), I should demonstrate it by… simply not having her wear her goggles when she doesn’t have to, or by having her complain about them at some future time. Here, the line only distracts; I shouldn’t have to tell the reader Victoria hates something. The reader should be able to sense it, by her physiological disgust or discomfort. Besides, Victoria just got out of a fight! Her mind should be too preoccupied with her boyfriend and what she’s going to do about food and shelter, rather than whining about how uncomfortable goggles are.

-3-

Sometimes you have to add instead of subtract. That’s okay, too.

Second Draft First Draft
She restarted her bike’s engine, wanting nothing more than to find a hole and bury her shame before the sun cast its awful light upon her. Perhaps, this once, she’d skip her Monday session and disappear awhile. Meteortown offered thousands of holes into which a little porcelain girl could vanish.

So, I had to add an entire new paragraph, because when I added a prologue the other night, it had something of a ripple effect on the first four chapters. I had to bump up the chronology of the first two chapters to compensate, which meant I suddenly had to foreshadow the events of Chapter 3 in Chapter 1 because they were now only hours apart instead of a day apart. Sometimes, what makes sense in your head hasn’t been sufficiently translated to the page, so you must add for the sake of clarity. Despite the few additions and extrapolations I’ve made so far, I’ve brought this chapter’s word count down from ~3,500 to ~3,000. This has literally taken me all day, although, granted, I’ve been on and off social media and even watched half of a Frank Sinatra flick.

Now, to repeat this awful process for the other 29 chapters….

-4-

For the sake of your mental health, know when to let go.

I could spend the rest of my life aching over each and every sentence in this manuscript. Another vital aspect of editing is knowing when to let go. Something might never be as perfect as you want it to be. Very often you have to settle for good enough instead of perfect. After this second draft is good enough, I intend to stick it in a hidden folder and let it rest before I tackle the third. While it chills, I’ll begin work on my second novel. That’ll be a mashup of 1980s kids’ adventure films like E.T. and The Goonies and such demonic horrors as Event Horizon and the video game DOOM.

I’m eager to get started on that, but I don’t want to leave Meteortown just yet. I think I’ll spend just a few more weeks here.

If you’re curious to see, in its entirety, a side-by-side comparison of the first and second drafts of Chapter 1, head over here. Let me know which one you prefer, or if you think they’re both garbage!

On getting feedback for your first draft.

meteortownfirstdraftAs Meteortown enters its second draft, I’m grateful for the support I have from an old friend, who’s reading through the first draft and helping me find new threads to pull carefully and missed opportunities to explore. Her meticulous, story- and character-focused eyes are discovering flaws and shortcomings I would not have been able to acknowledge without someone to point them out to me. The most important aspect of moving from one draft to the next, far more than simple copy-editing, is having a second pair of eyes to read over your story and tell you what works and what could be made better. Too often with a first draft, you become attached to certain passages or concepts, and are blinded to the possibility of improved alternatives. I’ll say this to anyone who helps a friend polish a manuscript: Be truthful, look for what works and what doesn’t, offer your own insights! And to anyone who accepts criticism from a friend: Accept the good advice, be not too proud to scrap whole paragraphs and write new scenes, and thank your friend for their efforts! It’s not easy reading a work-in-progress. The next draft of Meteortown will be improved several times over because of her insights. I really hope you’ll all get to read it someday, when it’s as good and cohesive as I need it to be. Cheers.

On confronting the stigmas of depression.

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“Depression is a serious illness of which I and other patients should not be ashamed but this is hard to avoid. The stigma of depression is different from that of other mental illnesses and largely due to the negative nature of the illness that makes depressives seem unattractive and unreliable. Self stigmatisation makes patients shameful and secretive and can prevent proper treatment. It may also cause somatisation. A major contributing factor is that depression for those who have not had it is very hard to understand and so can be seen as a sign of weakness. Openness by depressives and education in schools could help” (Stigma of depression – a personal view by Lewis Wolpert, British Medical Bulletin).

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at the age of sixteen. I saw a therapist every week and was medicated. I was committed to adolescent mental hospitals on four separate occasions, once for a suicide attempt via overdose. I self-harmed. My family freaked out and couldn’t understand what had suddenly changed, so they blamed themselves. At the age of eighteen, I lost my support net. I fell off my father’s insurance, could no longer afford therapy or medication, and had to go off to college and play the part of An Adult. In other words, I was no longer allowed to be depressed. Over the next ten years, my life carried on, and I shifted in and out of depressive episodes like someone walking a wooded path that alternates between stretches of sunlight and longer stretches of shade. The miasma continued to thicken, and always I swallowed it, feeling unable to take the time out of whatever was going on in my life to focus on a long-term solution. I careened from one career pursuit to the other, and whenever things turned dark, I lit another match, and carried on as if it were broad daylight.

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do” (Stephen Fry).

I didn’t want anyone to know how difficult I found the most mundane tasks of adulthood, nor how often thoughts of suicide permeated my brain. I convinced myself that this was normal, a symptom of my generation. Surely, everyone who’s my age contemplates suicide several times a week. There’s nothing special about me, I told myself. Suck it up and carry on. Be an adult. You don’t have time for weakness!

“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced… It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different” (J.K. Rowling).

When Robin Williams committed suicide, there was sympathy, of course, but there was also a litany of voices, including voices close to me, who called him weak, who said he’d given up and had no right to take his life. How many people, who have never experienced clinical depression or mental illness, don’t understand the importance of mental health at all? It’s not a simple matter of having a bad day and deciding to overdose. Depression is a crippling, serious disorder, I wanted to explain to them. It’s not so different from a cancer. When someone succumbs to cancer, we don’t accuse them of being weak or giving up. We say, They fought as long as they could, bravely. That’s how I felt about Robin Williams. He fought his demons for as long as he could. In the end, he succumbed, as almost anyone else could’ve.

“Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive. When somebody dies after a long illness, people are apt to say, with a note of approval, “He fought so hard.” And they are inclined to think, about a suicide, that no fight was involved, that somebody simply gave up. This is quite wrong” (Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression by Sally Brampton).

As I now type out this confession, I’m distressed by the stigma associated with depression. I worry about how it will affect people’s perceptions of me, how it will affect my ability to find employment and advance professionally. But I also worry about how many people, like I, have felt compelled to ignore or deny their problems, rather than seek treatment, which is why I’m writing this post. Today I made a very difficult decision. I dropped out of the Advanced EMT program. In the Spring of this year, I earned my EMT-B certification, finishing at the top of my class. I’d told no one, save for trusted online friends, about how my old depression haunted me still. Before I embarked on an EMS career path, I’d convinced myself, if I force myself into stressful situations like those experienced every day by ambulance crews, my mind will adapt, and I’ll grow stronger, as one must grow stronger when one’s thrown into the wilderness with only a spear and a book of matches. Every day to class, no matter how sweltering it was outside, I wore long sleeves under my uniform to hide the self-harm scars, so that none of my instructors or classmates, who would, I hoped, be my future colleagues, would inquire about my past. I ignored the warning bells going off in my head every day. Over the summer in between EMT-Basic and Advanced EMT semesters, my mental health continued to deteriorate, my sanity maintained by the restorative and cathartic act of writing my novel and living the lives of fictional others. After the very first day of class, I drove home, surprised my mother by inviting her to have a few beers with me (I rarely drink), and got intoxicated enough to allow myself to be honest, both with her and with myself. I’d previously indicated to her that I was still feeling depressed. This night I admitted the extent of it. I couldn’t possibly survive in this career. I have to cut my losses and drop the program or I’ll end up killing myself. Maybe not soon, but in a year. Five years. Ten. This wasn’t a case of going through a wilderness and coming out stronger for having survived. This was a case of going naked into the woods only to be mauled by bears. Without taking the time to treat myself, I decided, I’m toast. It was difficult to accept that I’d met a challenge I couldn’t overcome, and that I’d made a mistake by pursuing EMS as a career-all the money I’d sunk into tuition, supplies, the lost wages-but I had to back out, and I did. Now, I feel relief, but also that familiar fear of what the future will bring, since I’ve strayed from the plotted path.

“Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be” (Notebooks 1951-1959 by Albert Camus).

I’m telling this story because I don’t want to fear the stigma anymore. Perhaps there are other people who feel overwhelmed by life, who are shoveling it all inside in the hopes it’ll go away, who are afraid to talk to their family or seek professional treatment, for fear of appearing weak or incapable. Maybe it will go away, for some people. For me, I lived with untreated clinical depression for a decade, and it never truly went away. It came, and sometimes went, but it always came back, like a heavy rucksack I can’t not carry. Call me weak, or a whiner, or a crybaby. I don’t want to succumb. If I’d been honest with myself in the beginning, I’d be in a much better place now. I’m going to seek options at last: buying health insurance, seeing a therapist at least monthly, beginning a medication regimen hopefully to balance whatever mysterious chemicals in my brain don’t want to cooperate. Something’s got to give. In the meantime, I’ll continue to write and promote myself as a writer, while fighting both the stigmas of depression and the stigmas of being a bisexual male. I only hope that no one who reads this thinks differently of me or my work because of this confession.

“There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing” (American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis).

Meteortown, the first chapter.

IMG_3482I’ve posted here the first chapter from my novel, Meteortown. In it, we’re introduced to Victoria Esposito, a spunky teenaged starbaby returning to the slums of M-Town following a split from her boyfriend. The story takes place eleven months after a meteor has obliterated a city’s suburbs and infected thousands with an addictive extraterrestrial pathogen. Since then, the city has been cut off from the rest of the world, and the infected, called starbabies, have been relegated to the slums and ruins nearer the impact site. As the first anniversary of the strike and, coincidentally, Halloween, approaches, Victoria will cross paths with a beautiful paramedic addicted to an alien narcotic, as well as a ruthless detective who will stop at nothing to end the growing starbaby epidemic.

If you enjoy this first chapter and would like to read the rest, feel free to drop me a message over at my official Facebook page and I’ll send you a free e-reader friendly copy of the completed draft. All I ask in exchange is your feedback to help me improve the novel in future drafts; and if you’re a writer with a fiction of your own you’d like to share, I’d be pleased to return the favor. Thanks in advance for the read!

On launching a writer’s platform.

This summer I finished my first novel. It’s called Meteortown, and it’s a science-fiction crime drama that’s also a love story between a homeless teenager and a paramedic addicted to an extraterrestrial narcotic. Before I can even dream of finding an agent or a publisher, I need to build a writer’s platform. In the word of John Hodgman, “Gross.” Unfortunately, self-promotion is a necessary sorrow on the path to becoming a published novelist. This blog shall chronicle one writer’s quest to hone his craft and get his stories into the hands of others.

As a writer, who am I? I’m Brandon James. Since high school I’ve considered myself a storyteller of negligible talent, whether the medium was illustrated storybooks, short stories, music videos, video games, fan fiction, or novels. At this stage in my life, my stories tend to revolve around characters who are non-heteronormative, and worlds that should be perceived amorally.

While I continue Meteortown‘s development and construct this rickety platform of mine, please enjoy a few of my older short stories. If you wish to support me, please like my Facebook page here and keep in touch! Thanks for the visit.