Red Flags of a Fractured Mind

Courage defines us

Courage defies us

What does it mean to be human anymore?


Give blood

Spill blood

We don’t listen anymore.


A nation in trouble

People confounded

Is there a solution anywhere?


Anger brings violence

Blinders bring idleness

We have been broken at the core.


Now we are crying

Now we are vying

We are desperate for reform.


But where will it come from?

What will it lead to?

Will it save us from ourselves?


As you may have guessed, this poem came to mind one night as I stared at the TV and watched the horrific details surrounding the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Again, and again.  Year after year.  I remember Columbine, I was a freshman in high school. That was 19 years ago and here we are again.  Here we are again, and again, and again.

We shed tears, we are angry, we cry and hold up signs.  Students are now holding “die-in” demonstrations—I commend them for their determination.  I listen to people talk about the root problem—attackers are called cowards; conservatives blame the actions of the attackers on the degradation of family morals, violence in video games, violence in music.  Some suggest teachers be armed, which sounds absolutely ludicrous to me. If we head in that direction, we might as well just revert to the gun-toting mentality of the wild west—which honestly feels like where this nation is going. The fastest draw wins.  Never mind the innocent bystanders.  Make yourself scarce at high-noon. I’m not trying to satirize a very serious problem; I’m only feeding off the opinions of certain politicians.

My humble opinion is that the root problem stems from two major issues: insufficient gun-control laws and a lack of mental health resources.

I suspect some share in my opinion, especially in the former.  I obtained substantial perspective in the latter after my own brother faced a mental health crisis.  And it really made me understand that the mental healthcare system of the United States is truly in desperate need of reform, as are gun-control laws.

This is not entirely my story to tell. The majority of it is my brother’s, but in light of this recent tragedy, I will share my perspective.

Your brother is missing.

That’s the text message I woke up to one morning. My brother had never been diagnosed with any sort of mental health disorder and all of a sudden, at 25, my family went through the hell of witnessing him unravel into a paranoid, destructive, suspicious, aggressive version of himself.

I immediately got a flight from Los Angeles to Portland, OR. I arrived to find my disheveled brother had returned home, he was playing a Mario video game in the living room and had removed his glass eye. He claimed the glass eye was part of a government conspiracy, or that he received the injury to his real eye when an animatronic character at Chuck-E-Cheese attacked him. Pasqually was the culprit, if I remember correctly. The two stories often melded into one.

My mom was beyond exhausted, afraid, and desperate for help. She had taken my brother to a psychiatric facility the day prior. He was given medication but it could take up to three days to control his symptoms. While at the facility he had apparently scaled the building and entered either the second or third story through a window where he bumped into a nurse and told her that he was told to follow her. He was returned to my frantic mother and sent home with the medications.  Three days, we just had to make it through three days.

Part of the problem was that my brother wasn’t sleeping. He might sleep for a couple hours but in the middle of the night, he would leave the house and wander. Prior to my arrival, on the night he went missing, police had spotted him at a closed Taco Bell.  There he pounded on the windows, insisting that there was someone inside he needed to speak with. But my brother left and so did the police. He went on his way and they went on theirs.

So my main objective was to stay with him and keep him away from harm. To let my mom, step-dad, and step-sister sleep, because they still had work and school to attend. I would go to sleep when my brother did and wake minutes to a couple hours later when he woke. I could barely get my shoes and jacket on fast enough before racing out the front door after him.  Usually, I didn’t even get my jacket on. He would storm ahead of me, ranting and raving about whatever his fractured mind decided was pertinent. At night, he was angry and often spoke of violence. I always attempted to re-direct conversations. I tried listening earnestly, but it was often impossible to follow his thought process. Whenever I tried to re-direct conversations, it was an effort to ground him in reality, I never consented to the hallucinations or fears surrounding him.  One of our nightly escapades took us from the house, through neighborhoods and fields, to a diner called Shari’s. We arrived at the restaurant at dawn. He wanted to get food. I had no money on me but I did have my phone. Once we were seated, I called my mom and step-dad, they joined us for breakfast. I think by this time I had been up for over 24 hours. When the waitress brought my plate, I could only stare at the eggs, hashbrowns, and toast, beyond nauseated from sleep deprivation and anxiety. My brother was concerned that I wasn’t eating. All of a sudden, he was concerned about a lot of things. It was a trend I noticed, during the night he was angry and destructive, during the day he tended to be more agreeable and empathetic, and he had no recollection of the night personality during the day and vice versa .

There was a psychiatric crisis line for my mom to call. One night, as things were taking a bleak turn, she called the number. Both my mom and I thought that maybe nurses would come out, some 24-hour emergency service associated with the psychiatric center, but police came to the house instead. My brother was upstairs in his room, angry. He hated the world, he hated himself. He hated everyone. When my mom went out to the police, she asked if they would use deadly force. Their reply was: if they needed to. My mom sent them away. She was frightened by the idea of my brother resisting or even contesting the police—trapped in a world we can’t rationalize or imagine—he might think they are monsters, government conspirators, who knows. Her greatest fear was my brother ending up dead for being mentally ill.

Anything that could be used as a weapon—guns, knives, hammers—in the household were hidden or given to family friends to safeguard until the crisis was over.  My brother knew this, and he seemed to be okay with the fact that he wasn’t allowed to have any weapons. He was more about ranting and wanting people to listen to him. I briefly tried to help my sister with her algebra homework and that triggered a rant session that went on for most of the night. But there were moments when we got scared.

Three days. 72 hours.

We counted the minutes, waiting for the medication—which my brother willingly took—to kick in and start to control the mania we witnessed. We knew we couldn’t infringe upon his rights. We couldn’t force him to stay in the house, we couldn’t force him to do anything. We had to wait. Twice while I was there, we went to the same psychiatric facility that prescribed my brother his medication. These doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, and psychiatrists weren’t seeing my brother at his worst—they wouldn’t listen to family members. They only spoke with my brother. And that was frustrating because in my brother’s mind, he was fine.  We were all the ones that were sick and insane. My mom broke down in tears several times because she felt like they weren’t really helping him. Come to find out, my brother never really saw a doctor, he mainly saw nurses and PAs. A psychiatrist evaluated him once. I understand the burden they are under, but it was agonizing to feel so helpless. My brother was prescribed another medication to help with the nightmares he was having which apparently were what kept him awake at night. While we waited for the medication in the psychiatric facility’s pharmacy, he told me about how much he hated the pharmacist—a man he didn’t know—and how the pharmacist was giving him dirty looks and wanted to harm him.  People that passed by were making comments about him. I sat there, reassuring him that the pharmacist was not a bad person and that no one was speaking against him, over and over again.  What he heard and saw were not the same as what I heard and saw.

On my third day there–up for over 48 hours–we sat in the living room and watched a movie. I couldn’t tell you what movie it was. My eyes were open and I was fixated on my brother, but my mind had shut down. At some point, my sister went outside where my step-dad was doing some light yard work. I had closed one eye. My brother went out with them. My sister’s friend came over—a boy named Justin—he wanted to borrow a frame for his photography class. They were talking just outside the open living room window. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my brother sidling up behind Justin. Synapses were firing, muscles were slow to respond, but I knew I had to get out there. In a flash, my brother threw out his arm and caught Justin in a headlock. I leaped to the window and nearly fell out of it—there was no screen. I shouted at my brother: STOP! He let go of Justin before anyone really had any idea of what was happening. My sister and Justin were in shock, my step-dad was just coming around the corner of the house, and my brother stared blankly at me. My brain had to rationalize for him. I told him that Justin had an expensive camera hanging from his neck (which he did) and to be mindful of others and their possessions. It all seemed to make sense as my brother grinned and gave the lanky teen a slap on the back, then apologized.  My step-dad made a light-hearted comment, telling my brother that Justin was basically his brother, a brother from another mother.  A blank expression returned to my brother’s face. I asked when he last ate—it was something he was supposed to do, eat every 6-8 hours—he couldn’t remember. I told him to walk with me to Subway, which was just down the street and across an intersection, so we could get sandwiches for everyone. He seemed to like the idea.  As we walked down the street, my brother said: Wow, I just found out I have a brother. Recalling my step-dad’s comment, I replied: He’s not your actual brother. I’m your sister. Justin is a metaphorical brother because you’ve known him since he was a little boy. And then the conversation suddenly went dark as my brother said: I think he tried to kill me. I shook my head and said no. I tried to reassure him that he was just a kid and that he possessed no means to do harm. Then my brother started to rant about malicious intent. He said that they had gone into the forest, to practice sword combat—my brother studied bujinkan ninjitsu all throughout high school and into his early twenties—and that Justin knew he was blind in his left eye and repeatedly tried to attack from the left. This was apparently malicious intent. It suddenly dawned on me that there was a student from his dojo that he would often train with who shared the name Justin.

We walked and my brother began to grow increasingly agitated. He wanted to kill Justin because Justin posed a threat to the safety of children. He would use a Jack Sparrow costume to get close to kids. This meant that we had to gather a group of friends and go kill him before he killed us. I calmly told him that we are not killing anybody and that if he really feels Justin is a threat to anyone, he needs to call the bujinkan instructor. Every time I mentioned the instructor’s name, my brother would calm down and agree that that was the appropriate course of action. But as soon as he would calm down, he would fire up again. We crossed the intersection to him naming off people we could get to help us kill Justin. I was trying to remain calm and collected but inside my fatigued brain was freaking out. Was this it? Was this the moment that my brother would bolt off—of course I would chase him, but he was far more athletic, I would have to call the police—I had to ground him. I told him that we needed to get sandwiches and at the moment, I needed his help to carry everything back home. Soliciting his help seemed to bring him back to reality, giving him something to do. It didn’t last. While in line at Subway, he began showing me pictures on his phone. Obviously of Halloween costumes, but there was a young man dressed as Jack Sparrow and this was Justin in disguise. My brother ranted and raved at Subway, I witnessed people collectively back away. I tried to keep him under control, reiterating that we would call the bujinkan instructor as soon as we got home. I know the man behind the counter saw the distress on my face, he worked as fast as he could to get my order ready. At the cashier, I paid and gave my brother the cups to fill up. A task, a much-needed task. He’d start to do as I asked then rant, put the cups down on random tables. He even took a cup from a family’s table. The kid stared up at me, unsure what to do. My brain was failing; my logic was fleeting. I pulled my brother over to the fountain, we filled the cups, grabbed straws and left. The pace home was quick, my brother’s paranoia about Justin killing him was gaining momentum. When we got to my mom’s house, we placed all the sandwiches, chips, and drinks in the kitchen. My brother went around and shut all the curtains and blinds so Justin couldn’t get us, then he was momentarily convinced that Justin had already killed him and was in his body. He gathered all the food we had just bought, piled it on the floor in the kitchen and began to devour it like an animal. I leaned against the counter and could only stare. My brother continued to rant. Finally, he called the bujinkan ninjitsu instructor and the first thing he said was that he just found out he had a brother.

After the phone call, he went upstairs and took a shower. I called the bujinkan instructor and informed him of what we were dealing with. He said he would try to help my brother in any way he could.  When my brother came back downstairs, he began to prepare a duffle bag. He was putting random things in it, he dumped out my little bottle of Listerine and threw the empty bottle into the bag. I tried to find out what he was doing, he said he had to go. I tried to ask him where he wanted to go, but he wouldn’t tell me. Eventually, he got mad at me and went up to his room. My dad was on the way from Montana, it would be several hours before his arrival since he was driving. But I hoped that once he got there, my brother might listen to him. We were approaching 72 hours and there was absolutely no sign of improvement with the medication. Things seemed to be getting worse. Now my brother was preparing to leave again. I only had a couple more days before my flight back to Los Angeles and I just wanted to see my brother start to improve. My family and I managed to keep my brother from leaving and when my dad arrived around 2:00am, my brother was happy to see him and wanted to go out and get Mountain Dew and chocolate donuts. Dad told my brother that he needed to go to the emergency room because he wasn’t sleeping. My brother listened to dad. (Small detail I forgot to mention earlier, my brother was distrustful of women because of our ovaries—I have no idea where that came from as with most of what he said). We drove to the nearest emergency room and there my brother consented to treatment for not sleeping. While he was there, doctors witnessed him conversing with himself and “people” who weren’t there. My brother was the only one in the room. They put a hold on him and a social worker from the state arrived.  Doctors gave him an IV cocktail of meds that should help him sleep for a solid twelve hours, minimum. My brother woke after only four and was transferred to a lockdown unit where mentally ill patients were temporarily held until they could be relocated to a psychiatric facility. By this point, I had been up for over three days with only fragments of sleep, nothing restful. My stomach felt grated and raw, twisted in knots, I was shaking, and the stress diarrhea was unreal. My mom and my dad took shifts staying at the hospital, waiting for my brother’s transfer and updates from doctors and staff.  It was supposed to happen at 4:00pm.  I went home and managed to sleep a few hours but returned to the hospital to wait alongside my mom and dad.

When my brother was willing, up to two people were allowed to sit with him in his room. His empty 4’x6’ room with nothing but a hospital bed. There was nothing allowed in the room. We were able to bring him magazines and food but we couldn’t leave anything behind for him.  My mom and I stayed with him in his room until 4:00pm.  The transfer didn’t happen as we were told, it happened at 10:00pm. I’m glad we stayed with him.

And that might be the end of my perspective but the story went on for months and even years for my mom and my brother. It was a real struggle to get my brother on the right medications—he was actually overmedicated for several weeks with a medication that should have been tapered down, but no one bothered to deliver those instructions. He went through crippling depression as the drugs stole his artistic abilities, he couldn’t draw or paint. He felt like his life had been stolen. He still grappled with the concept of being mentally ill.  Self-confidence had been lost, he couldn’t get a job. Meanwhile, family members, aunts and uncles, would make comments like: all he needs is a good ass-kicking. He’s lazy. All he wants to do is play video games and watch movies.

Such things are beyond hurtful, especially coming from people that really have no idea.  They didn’t chase after him, they didn’t work tirelessly to get him care, to keep him out of harm’s way. There’s such stigma surrounding mental illness and how to “handle” it.  My brother actually stopped playing video games and watching movies because they contributed to hallucinations.  He wanted to work but was often embarrassed to tell an employer that he would need certain days or hours off because of appointments.

Once my brother was stable, he didn’t want any of his weapons back. They remain with friends and family. He has considered going back to bujinkan but mainly for meditation.

Now he is doing well and has integrated into society once more and would be looked at as “normal”, slightly odd maybe, but he is an artist—he draws and paints again.  No one would ever know unless they were present when it all went to hell a few years ago.  It took a lot of effort and determination from a family, especially a mother, to get my brother back—if he didn’t have that then he might be one of the countless homeless wandering the streets, or in jail somewhere. It’s gut-wrenching to think about the “what if’s” which I tend not to do.  But every time one of these tragic, senseless shootings happens, I read about the attacker. They are often troubled, disturbed, mentally ill.  I’ve even read some things about shooters that remind me of my brother—red flags of a fractured mind lost in a society that struggles to treat mental illness.

I’m sorry that this is just a story and doesn’t really offer any ideas for solutions.  I am glad to see some progress as urgent care centers specifically for mental health are beginning to become available.  I hope the resources only grow and that mental illness falls to history, just as I hope gun-law reform sweeps across this country and America becomes less scary, especially for children in their classrooms.

Who and what exactly are those clinging to their assault rifles afraid of?

red knight small

(The Red Knight–one of the first paintings my brother completed after recovery)


Rant from a Veterinary Technician: The Ultimate Question

While this isn’t the rant I was planning on posting, it feels pertinent because of something that happened at work recently.

We had to let go of a patient.  And while this isn’t terribly uncommon, it just hit me hard as the occasional case does.  Most of the time, we can view humane euthanasia as the ultimate gift—the ability to relinquish pain and suffering.  A body crippled by cancer, heart failure, renal failure—these are probably the most common ailments that ultimately lead to a beloved pets’ demise.  There are others too but these are the ones that are often affiliated with quality of life questions—when is it time?  The short answer: you will know.  If you happen to be wondering how we might guide someone to know when it is time, usually it’s when the pet stops engaging, stops eating and drinking, retreats to far-off corners or unusual places.  There is no cookie-cutter answer, every case is unique, but that is a fairly standard reply when dealing with a chronic, debilitating, and ultimately fatal condition.

But when you have a young life in your hands, one you’re trying to pull through shock and trauma, it can be a rollercoaster ride of emotion.  One minute, everything looks promising and it seems that the patient is going to recover.  The entire team has rallied and is working hard—the patient is fighting and has that dynamic will to live then it all falls apart.  Everything starts to unravel quickly when the patient gives up.  Despite all our intervention, all the advancements in medical technology, the new drugs, and new techniques, once that will is lost, it’s pretty much over.  And while humane euthanasia does alleviate suffering, when we let that little one go on Wednesday, I felt like a failure.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to work with (human) pediatric patients in critical care, those medical personnel must have the world’s best coping skills.

In the veterinary field, when we see a patient rapidly deteriorating, it often and unfortunately leads to one of the hardest phone calls or conversations—the recommendation for humane euthanasia.  Which often leads to us being asked the ultimate question: how are you able to do it?  The short answer: it’s never easy.

Humane euthanasia is never easy to witness but isn’t always tragic.  One case that stands out in my memory was a very old kitty with Squamous Cell Carcinoma in her sinuses that had most likely metastasized to the brain.  The family knew it was time; the kitty was ready to go.  While we delivered the injection (I was the technician holding for the vet) the kitty was purring contently.  The entire family was there and everyone had a hand on her.  I’m so glad she went to sleep with her family right there beside her.

I always recommend that if you can be present, be there for your pet in the end.

When I had to humanely euthanize my own beloved pup, it was the most surreal feeling I’ve ever experienced.  And after having witnessed the gambit of emotions involved in putting a pet to sleep, I had never experienced it for myself.  When I walked out of the exam room, where it had happened, and into the clinic’s lobby, everything was blurry.  I knew there were people there but their voices were muffled.  When I walked out, I got into the wrong car (the door was unlocked).  Reality kicked in when I didn’t recognize the things in the car.  Later that day, I began to struggle to cope with the decision to end my pup’s life.

There’s The Rainbow Bridge poem ( a lot of people turn to in order to cope with their sorrow, but that did nothing for me.  One of my friends suggested putting together a scrapbook and while I’m not a crafty person, I went to Michaels to get supplies.  I was wandering around the store and then a song started playing.  I recognized the unmistakable voice of Enya, and I listened at just the right moment when the song lyrics went:

Come, sleep, close your eyes

Come, sleep, give me your sorrow

And I’ll keep watch for you

Until the dawn is breaking through.

Until the morning wakens you.

And I stood frozen—stupefied—in the middle of Michaels.  I came to understand that I had not decided to end my pup’s life—I had decided to take her pain as my own.  I suddenly envisioned the process from an entirely different perspective.  That she would close her eyes, I would take her pain, her sorrow—and watch over her, until she woke up on the other side, completely whole again and free from suffering.  Her pain was now mine to bear and I was content with that.

We’ve put many patients to sleep that we have all come to love—some we’ve watched from beginning to end, some we’ve only met in their final years, and it turns the atmosphere somber while we all grieve in our own way.  No matter how many times we do the procedure, it never gets easy, and I don’t expect it ever will.

*Rant Portion*

If you go to a vet clinic and ask what the charge is to humanely euthanize a pet then make the following comment:

But a bullet is only fifty-nine cents.

We will most likely want to punch you in the face then throat stomp you while you’re bleeding on the ground.  It’s one of the stupidest comments I have heard on way more than one occasion.  If you want to shoot your pet, keep that to yourself and talk to your therapist.  If you need a cheaper resource than a veterinary clinic or hospital, please contact a local shelter.  I’ve even worked at low-cost clinics and heard that comment a few times.  It always makes me see red.  And some jackass even mentioned it at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner, to which I promptly left.  Don’t be an insensitive prick.  Just don’t.

Our pets are the best and their memories are forever in the heart.  For veterinarians and their staff, this can include many of your pets too.       

Keep the Spirit Alive

We are creatives in a world where it can be difficult to keep the creative spirit alive.  I think we are more sensitive–more in tune with what’s happening around us–and that puts us in the strongest currents of emotional fatigue’s maelstrom.

I almost quit my day job as a veterinary technician. There are many reasons that I won’t divulge here (though I may soon do a rant post) but it had become overwhelmingly obvious that I had hit a wall.

Stress was the main reason–chaotic, non-productive stress.  I can’t write when I am stressed like that.  It fuddles my brain, turns it into a toxic soup, poison for the soul. Usually, I can rely on music to pull me out of such a state but even that didn’t have very lasting effects.  On top of direct stress from my job, there’s the stress of the world, from politics to natural disasters, another mass shooting.  More chaos.  And it turned me to introspection.  Which led to retrospection.

I thought about my childhood, it was a real struggle at times.  My world was much smaller then but my younger brother and I relied on our shared humor to cope.  Dry, sarcastic, witty–our babysitter was often none other than Monty Python on TV.  Despite our sometimes harsh reality, our creativity flourished.  Him as an artist and me as a musician and writer. It made me realize yet again that laughter is often the best medicine (except for treating diarrhea).  While not everything can be turned into a joke and shouldn’t be–there is humor to be found in a lot of little situations that occur throughout the day.  Situations that if allowed, could easily ruin a day.  Nearly two decades ago, one night as the family fell apart around us, we retreated to the TV.  Not to watch it–at least, not conventionally. We turned the volume down and performed our own impromptu voiceovers.  Our favorites were Japanese Anime (Speed Racer and whatever else played in the wee hours on Cartoon Network–before Adult Swim) and infomercials.  Today, my brother and I still share our own brand of off-kilter humor–part of it has even taken its own form in a comic that he mainly works on.  Throughout my high school days, he often left his illustrations all over the house.  Pieces of plain white paper with ink or pencil sketchings.  I began to illustrate a pterodactyl pooping on his creations. He later drew a robot punting my pterodactyl or squeezing it in a vice-like grip and this manifested into Bartok & Roboman, something I hope to see my brother unveil to the world one day.

(original sketches of Bartok & Roboman done by my brother many, many years ago)

Roboman and Bartok with PJ signature  (Roboman riding Bartok in a time-rift series he’s currently working on–the squirrels are a running joke) 

So to quote Victor Borge:

Humor - Victor Borge

And so maybe it is the ability to laugh, even at the bleakest times, that keeps the spirit alive.

Like the time a girl got all road-ragey on me and literally f***ed my car.  No, she did not f*** up my car, like damage it, she actually got out of her car while we were stuck at a traffic light and f***ed my car.  Oh man, I saw too much but did I ever laugh.  Los Angeles, have mercy.

Find the laughter, my friends.

Tall Mountain

Some days it feels like the whole world is falling apart. Rife with hate, anger, violence, destruction–it can be hard to find the good. Emotional fatigue sets in. Apathy. Depression. So I take breaks from social media and the news, stare out the window, watch the birds, go for a walk, eat ice cream, pet the dog. Anything to allow my mind to take a deep breath.

I’ve always found religion interesting. As a non-religious person, watching from the sidelines, it can be confusing, scary, exciting, amusing, and enriching.

But sometimes it is entirely frustrating.

One evening my social anxiety and contempt for religious dogma collided and as I grappled with insomnia, this popped into my mind:


I climb the Tall Mountain 

Camera in hand 

To photograph god(s) in all its/their/her/his 



It takes a lifetime to summit 

Decades of devotion 

Moments of damnation 




When I reach the plateau 

It’s not what I expected 

But still I set up my camera 

To show the world what I’ve witnessed. 


The cudgel came down first 

Bludgeoned my senses 

I’d managed one picture

One click of the shutter.  


Blood pools around me 

I fumble in darkness

The memory card is all that I need.  


In my mouth I place it

I give up my last breath

To swallow the card 

My only testament. 


My body is disposed of 

Sent back to man.  

Carrying my gift 

From the Tall Mountain. 


I hope the whole world sees it

My one picture

And comes to know it

And realize: 


How in all its/their/her/his glory 

How bloody and violent god(s) can be.  


Flying with Najsha

A Writer’s Analysis of her own First Page

Some days I look back at my youth and early adulthood days and fondly recall when writing was just for fun.  Then at some point in my late 20’s I was bit by the desire to be published–which threw me into an entirely unknown world.  A world that is monumentally overwhelming at first.  I might be slower than the rest of you but feel like it has taken me a good few years to finally begin to understand the way things work.

The Query

The Synopsis

The Opening Pages

All these things we must master as writers reaching for conventional publication.  The next step: obtaining an agent.  Here you will most likely enter the realm of the slush pile.

Slush.  Partially melted snow mixed with grit and mud, a grey, depressing mess that exists between the enchanting stillness of winter and the beautiful growth of spring.

So in that sea of grey, we must find a way to shine and that is to put together a stellar package from the query to the opening pages.

My first query submission round was utter failure.  So was the second.  And the truth is, while I thought I knew what I was doing– I didn’t have the first clue.  And of course, I submitted to some of my top tier agents.  So not only did the rejection hurt but knowing that I had blown my one chance of getting that agent to view my manuscript, was injury to injury.

And in the wake of the form letter rejection we are often left numb and wondering:

“Where did I go wrong?” 

Unfortunately, that’s not a question to which we often get an answer.  Agents are too busy and it’s not their job to tell us.

My first tip: invest in yourself as a writer–join critique groups, attend conferences, participate in agent-hosted live webinars.

The most valuable resource I have discovered are webinars.  I have participated in three so far (two on the query, one on the opening pages) and have learned so much.  A synopsis webinar is next on my list.  To me, the most valuable part, the part that makes paying worthwhile, is the agent’s critique.  Just a few words offer a trickle of light in the darkness.

And it is with what I have learned that I begin to prepare for my next round of queries.  New pitch, new title, new opening.

Here is the first page from my original draft that sunk in the slush pile:

Solus Bloodline First Page Draft ITo figure out where I had gone wrong here, didn’t require a webinar, just some time on the internet perusing one of my favorite agent’s Pubrants.

Not only does this page suffer from a critical cliche: opening scene in a battle.

It also suffers from White Room Syndrome– I have not anchored my reader in a time and place.

Onto a revision.  Second draft:

Solus Bloodline First Page Draft II

And fail.  Biggest flaw: Voice. Doesn’t match the rest of the story.  Not engaging.

One agent did give me feedback and said that it didn’t draw her in as she had hoped.  Drat. Back to the drawing board.

So here, here it is.  My current draft:

Solus Bloodline First Page Draft III My hope is that this draft, with a much improved query letter and synopsis (when required) will finally get me a yes.

There are two more “openings to avoid” in Kristin Nelson’s series and when they come out, I will be holding my breath as I read through them, like I always do.

Good luck, fellow writers on your journey!


A quote from Ms. Nelson on cliches:

“Here are things I can’t stand: cliche openings in fantasy novels can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my pet peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is). Opening chapters where a main protagonist is in the middle of a bodily function (jerking off, vomiting, peeing or what have you) is usually a firm no right from the get-go.  Gross.  Long prologues that often don’t have anything to do with the story. (So common in fantasy, again.) Opening scenes that are all dialogue without any context.  I could probably go on…” – Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary 

9 Story Openings to Avoid (7 out of 9)

Pitch WARS!

Pitch Wars – Blog Links

Pitch Wars – Son of A Pitch! – About

My first event prompted by social media.  How exciting!  Here’s goes:


Arcanum, Adult Fantasy  


Naomi is the best healer in all of Nevre’stra.  She shares a bond with the wolves, which heightens her senses and allows her to make a diagnosis based solely on the scent of an infection.  While scouting the wilderness to help those in need, Naomi encounters her greatest fear, a marauder.  She survives the brutal attack and permanently returns to her home in the city, forever scarred by the violent memories.

Nearly eight years later, the marauder, Delventrus, returns.  Now he wants Naomi’s daughter, Dana’lia.  He forces Naomi to choose between the life of her mate or relinquishing Dana’lia to him.  Naomi does not have time to wait for the city guards or the wolves to intervene, she must decide.  Yet unbeknownst to her, Delventrus has discovered a source of limitless power, and Dana’lia is the key to the source of the power.  Naomi’s dire choice potentially harbors drastic consequences for not only herself but also the inhabitants of Nevre’stra.

First 250 Words: 

Pillars of afternoon sunlight poured in through the tall, narrow windows of the barracks infirmary.  Naomi neTara, the healer, the Luparian, gently held the swollen, red hands of the little girl in front of her.  Clear humor trickled from open sores and black lesions made her pitiful hands grotesque.  The redness seeped up to her wrists but the black lesions were mainly on her palms and fingertips.  It was easy to see why the barracks healer, a former apprentice of Naomi, thought the girl displayed symptoms of Shepherd’s Plague.  Such would be the end of the little girl and disaster for the township she traveled from for help.  But Naomi did not worry.  She held her nose close to the little girl’s hands, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.  She let the scent of the affliction roll across her olfactories and settle on the back of her tongue.  Naomi inhaled again to be sure.

A wolf padded along the hidden deer-trails of the forest.  When he detected an enticing odor on the wind, he stopped for a moment.  It had been days since he had eaten, since he journeyed from his pack and family in search of his own territory and mate.  The odor on the wind was meat, rotting in the sun, not choice parts but entrails.  It didn’t matter, anything would do.  He sniffed at the entrance of a burrow but the scent of prey was stale.  The rabbits were long gone.


Cholera to Climate Change

I overheard a group of men talking about climate change being a hoax.  That the sudden emergence of rain in Southern California and the cold snap of weather proved their claim.  I found their laughter and mockery of scientific data obnoxious but instead of spouting any facts, could only quip, “It’s called global warming, not regional warming.”


That night, as I dwelled on the encounter, it made me think about the history of epidemics.  How humankind collectively has a tendency to be notoriously shortsighted.  We have rebound from every epidemic to hit us but most epidemics move regionally.  And, most epidemics throughout history were caused by pathogens, the plague, influenza, cholera— now, we can control or curb the spread of pathogens, mostly.  Weather, not so much.

So I thought:

Those who support climate change: if we are wrong, where is the harm in investing in renewable energy sources and attempting to preserve the planet’s resources?

Those who deny climate change: if you are wrong, then we’re all f***ed


Where am I going with this?  Pardon my rambling.  Let’s look to history.

I was perusing a friend’s book called Medicine: An Illustrated History by Albert S. Lyons, M.D. and R. Joseph Petrucelli, II, M.D. and when I came to the 19th century, I stopped at a couple pictures.  The pictures appeared to be efforts of public health advocates attempting to convey to people the importance of hygiene and disease prevention.  Skeletal apparitions loomed over children in a market and one even dispensed water to the public.  Cholera ravaged Europe and America.  In 1854, London, there were 14,000 documented cases and 618 deaths.  In America, three outbreaks swept across the country.

 (“A hint to the Board of Health on how the city invites the Cholera” (1864). Department of Health, City of New York and Satirical woodcut (1866) indicating that pollution was an acknowledged source of disease even before bacteria were discovered to be the cause.)  

When you think of the 19th century, you probably think of slums and soot, the Industrial Revolution, expanding cities with little room for refuse and sewage.

Before the discovery of bacteria, public health officials focused on sanitation, the dispersal of potable water and the removal of sewage and refuse from the streets.  Sanitation was (and still is) important in preventing epidemics.  But it didn’t necessarily catch on right away.  And Germ Theory was only that, a theory.

I can imagine 19th century naysayers spouting, “There is no definitive proof that microorganisms exist!  Humans have no effect on disease!”

The dominate theory at the time, which had existed for centuries, was Galen’s Miasma Theory.  That disease came from bad air, or night air, a poisonous vapor that spread from rotting organic material.  While not a terrible theory, it was the biggest obstacle for 19th century scientists to overcome.  Time for the 1,500-year-old theory to be put to rest.

Enter the scientific method.

Johann Peter Frank, a German physician, used statistics to produce a milestone accomplishment.  System einer Vollstandigen medicinischen Polizey (A complete system of medical policy), written from 1777-78 and first published in 1779.  It emphasized the importance of hygiene and public health, covering issues from public sanitation to sexual hygiene, maternal and child welfare, food safety, and prostitution.

Unfortunately, his work did not lead to a revolution in public health care and was considered influentially negligible.

However, Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-65) found Johann Peter Frank’s volumes informative.  While overseeing the obstetrical wards of the Allgemeines Krankenhaus in Vienna, he proved that postpartum infection was contagious.  He required physicians and students to scrub hands with soap and water and soak hands in a chlorinated lime solution before entering the ward and after each exam.  Over the next few months, his instruction resulted in a decreased obstetrical death rate, from 18% to 1%.  He reported his results to the Medical Society of Vienna but the majority of medical scientists and practitioners did not support him.  He completed a book in 1861, ten years after his work overseeing the obstetrical ward, but the profession hardly took notice and prominent scientists opposed his ideas.

I feel horrible for Ignaz Semmelweis, he died in 1865 in an asylum from a blood infection very much like the one he was trying to prevent.

He is credited with having created, for the first time, a system of asepsis— keeping germs away from patients— before germ theory was recognized.

In 1867, Joseph Lister, inspired by the work of Louis Pasteur, published a report showing antiseptic treatment of wounds prevented post-surgical infection from “disease-dust.”  Despite this, the majority of American and European surgeons refused to recognize infection coming from something foreign introduced during surgery.  At least the idea of antiseptic treatments began to take hold.

Louis Pasteur, in 1851, was the first to discover bacteria and its behavior.  He viewed Anthrax bacillus and its reactions on two different tartaric acid crystals.  He proved microorganisms grew anaerobically and aerobically and were responsible for fermentation.  In 1870, after returning home from vacation, found cultures of chicken cholera organisms that he had left out.  When he injected the cultures into healthy hens, no disease was produced and when he injected the same hens with virulent cultures, they were protected from the disease.  Pasteur set out and treated bacterial cultures until he discovered microbes grown in a particular temperature range became harmless and could protect from disease.  In 1881, he proved his results to the public by injecting livestock with a vaccine for anthrax.  When exposed to the pathogen, cattle that had been vaccinated survived and those that did not, died.

Bold Louis Pasteur even tackled rabies and developed the first vaccine for the fatal disease.  In 1885, he used rabies inoculations to save the life of a boy who had been attacked by a rabid dog.  Pasteur’s success resulted in public accolades.

From then on, bacteriology and immunology flourished.  Germ Theory was finally recognized as relevant.

What does this have to do with climate change?  To me, the struggle of Germ Theory’s recognition is a robust example of the shortsightedness of humankind, an inherent stubbornness to cling to old ways and reject reform, even in the face of scientific evidence.  It makes me worry that man’s effect on the climate will only be universally recognized once it is too late.  The biggest difference is that we could recover from the dark ages of public health but I don’t think the same will be true for climate change.


We are at the end of an era.  What we do today will have an effect on us tomorrow.



Life is Strange

It is ironic and sadistic and twisted and somehow beautiful.  It is a struggle  and a different struggle for different people.  I often wonder how people do it all.  Or don’t.  But regardless, life is strange.

I have been working hard trying to get a literary agent.  My query has been through so many revisions, I have lost count.  One agent requested my material but sadly my opening pages didn’t draw her in.  They should have.  So I am back at the drawing board there.  She did say that I have good prose.  I at least have that going for me.  Then one day I get an unexpected email from an agency that wants to represent, distribute and promote my  music.  Ha.  Once upon a time I had a Myspace page for my music under the alias Vienna Gulbransen.  That was my composer name and unless you hung out in Portland, Oregon from 2003-2007 and were involved in some obscure indie film projects then I wouldn’t expect you to know me.  Anyway, the Myspace page apparently still exists out there and that is how the agency found me.  I immediately deleted the email as I am 99.95% certain that it is nothing more than a scam.

According to the agent there has been a “resurgence of interest” in my music.  So that being said, I posted quite a few of my live piano recordings on Soundcloud and will eventually post rejected cues from my brief stint as a film composer.  The cue that supposedly garnered attention was my synthesizer experiment called “Clocks.”

And here it is:

I hope you enjoyed that 🙂

Whatever you’re doing out there, keep at it.  You’ll get there.  Endure the struggle, put up the fight.  Let the fire forge you.  Pull yourself through the mire, climb out of the pit, don’t stay down too long.  And be wary of the unscrupulous.


A little poem, about a bug I adore, fell into my head early this morning– or late last night.  Here it is:

There you sit, so tame on my hand

To let me study you. 

But it’s easy to see that you are not tame. 

(You are too smart to be tamed!)

Too cunning and wily a bug. 


While I observe you,

It’s fair to assume

You equally do the same.


A perfect blend of strength and precision

A camouflaged beastie and artful hunter. 

A keeper of balance

A keeper of flowers

A fearsome predator

Who devours. 


An omen of dread

A partner at lunch

An intricate piece of art

A prankster that imitates a buzzing cockroach

A flicker amongst the brush. 


While I suspect I will never know

what you think of me

I relinquish you now, back to the tree

For you are wild and free. 


Go now and master your domain

You perfect, little beastie. 


This poem didn’t manifest entirely out of nowhere, it was inspired by an encounter yesterday.  On my lunch break, I noticed a stunning praying mantis with striking markings on the sidewalk in front of the building I work at.  Of course I picked it up.  How could I leave such a creature on Ventura Blvd. to be easily trod upon?  Far too busy a place.  My coworker and I held and admired it for a few minutes then took it to a nearby park where I found a tree that the mantis seemed to have been made from.

Why do I adore mantids as I do?  Shortly after I had moved out on my own, my younger brother would come and stay with me on the weekends and over his breaks.  On one of these visits, he decided he wanted to raise a clutch of praying mantises.  The internet was  a far cry from what it is today.  We set out and stopped at a gardening store where much to my brother’s delight, there were some mantis eggs for sale.  One of the workers told us each egg would hatch 20-40 mantis nymphs.  So we set up a small terrarium and the day they hatched we were astounded by the amount of nymphs.  I’m confident that it’s safe to say there were over a hundred between the two eggs.  We scrambled to try and stop them from eating one another and released them into a nearby cluster of bramble.  To eat and be eaten but at least not be trapped.  However, my brother and I kept a few of the nymphs, to raise.  We set each nymph up in its own little bowl with some leaves, a few sticks and a place to collect water.  For the covers, we bought the cheapest pair of pantyhose we could find and cut it up then used a rubber band to secure a piece of pantyhose over the mouth of each little glass bowl.

It was an experience to watch the nymphs grow.  At first they were fed fruit flies and other small bugs, graduating up to crickets and larger insects when they became adults.  One mantis developed a tactic to catch the crickets.  It would hang upside down from the pantyhose cover and snatch the cricket right off the ground, eliminating the cricket’s greatest defense in stealing its ability to jump away.  Another would often rip the head completely off of its prey, holding the decapitated head in one claw and the body in the other.  Quite gruesome but an effective predator, none-the-less.

There were two behaviors I really enjoyed watching with our mantises and one was the way they groomed themselves, much like a cat, actually.  And the other, the way they drank water.  It was the first time I’d ever noticed such behavior in a bug.

While I didn’t happen upon too many wild mantises in Portland, I do see them often here in Los Angeles.  And as I did with the one I found yesterday, I always pick them up.  Sometimes I find them and sometimes they find me.

An omen of dread

I’ll never forget the mantis that flew into my condo one night, a couple years back.  It was a strange ghostly color, almost white and its eyes were red.  It landed on the open sliding glass door and just sat there.  I took a picture of it because I always do when I see a mantis and a camera is handy.  Then about an hour later, the building right next door, not twenty feet away, caught fire.  It was a horrific event to witness and lives were lost.


A partner at lunch

On a much lighter note, I fondly recall a sprightly green praying mantis nymph that joined me for lunch one day.  While I sat outside, writing and eating.  It did the same.  Well, not the writing bit but the eating bit, yes.  It even ventured across the table and walked onto my wrist.


An intricate piece of art


The artistry of nature never ceases to astound me.  Each and every praying mantis looks different.  The one I found yesterday was one of a spectacular pattern.

A prankster that imitates a buzzing cockroach

Regrettably, this I do not have a photo of.  About six years ago, I was studying chemistry at the kitchen table.  I lived on the third floor of an apartment building and had the sliding glass door wide open.  While I was focused on creating a graph, standing over my chart, a bug flew into the apartment and proceeded to fly around my head.  Alarmed, I took to running around the small living room, convinced that it was a big, brown American cockroach (they fly, you know) buzzing my head.  My dog, then a puppy, chased me and bit at my legs while my husband– brave as he might be– grabbed a frying pan from the kitchen intending to smack this thing, flying around my head, right out of the air.  Finally the bug landed, the chaos ended, and it was then that my husband and I realized it was no cockroach, nothing of the sort, but a brown praying mantis.  Much to my relief.

I hope you enjoyed my poem, photos and stories.  If you see a short woman carrying a mantis around Los Angeles, it could very well be me 🙂  But I imagine I’m not the only one.  Mantises are too cool a bug.



Writing Contest: Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novels –> Open Until November 10th!

There is a writing contest going on right now.  If you have a finished adult Fantasy or Sci-Fi manuscript then you should submit!  Here are the details:

Welcome to the 26th (free!) “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest on the GLA blog. This is a FREE recurring online contest with agent judges and super-cool prizes. Here’s the deal: With every contest, the details are essentially the same, but the niche itself changes—meaning each contest is focused around a specific category or two. If you’re writing any kind of fantasy or science fiction novel (for adults), then this 26th contest is for you! The contest is live through end of day, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. The contest is judged by agent Mike Hoogland of Dystel & Goderich.


E-mail entries to Please paste everything. No attachments.

(This contest went live a few hours before the e-mail was created, so several people who submitted early had their work bounce back. Apologies if this was you. As of early October 26, 2017, this e-mail address is up and running and fine. Submit! Thank you. All is now well.)


The first 150-250 words (i.e., your first double-spaced page) of your unpublished, completed fantasy or science fiction novel. You must include a contact e-mail address with your entry and use your real name. Also note your city of residence (i.e. — the city you live in, not your full address). Submit the title of the work and a logline (one-sentence description of the work) with each entry. Self-published novels are not eligible.

Please note: To be eligible to submit, you must mention this contest twice through any any social-media. Please provide a social-media link or Twitter handle or screenshot or blog post URL, etc., with your official e-mailed entry so the judge and I can verify eligibility. Some previous entrants could not be considered because they skipped this step! In short, simply spread the word twice through any means and give us a way to verify you did; a TinyURL for this link/contest for you to easily use is

An easy way to notify me of your sharing is to include my Twitter handle @chucksambuchino at the end of your mention(s) if using Twitter. If we’re friends on FB, tag me in the mention. If you are going to just use Twitter as your 2 entries, please wait one day between mentions to spread out the notices, instead of simply tweeting twice back to back. Thanks. (Please note that simply tweeting me does not count. You have to include the contest URL with your mention; that’s the point. And if you use Twitter, put my handle @chucksambuchino at the middle or the end, not at the very beginning of the tweet, or else the tweet will be invisible to others.)


screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-11-29-25-pmMike Hoogland joined Dystel & Goderich after completing a foreign rights internship at Sterling Lord Literistic. Before pursuing a career in publishing, Mike studied at Colgate University and graduated with a degree in political science and the intention to work in government. He interned with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but soon realized his interests and passions were better suited to a career in the publishing industry. After Colgate, Mike went on to gain a valuable education at the Columbia Publishing Course and discovered his passion for the agenting side of the business. He is seeking: sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, upmarket women’s fiction, and some children’s books (picture books, MG, and YA), as well as a wide variety of narrative nonfiction, including science, history, and politics. He is particularly interested in seeing thought-provoking, realistic speculative fiction.

What a wonderful opportunity, I bet this will be a fun contest to judge.  I’ll be submitting my first page 🙂  Good luck to all my fellow writers out there!

tree-hart Image Link