School Writing, And After – A Journey


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As told by Christina herself:

“I started writing stories as a young child, inspired by my father who was a writer. I started writing stories before I even knew how to write, to form letters, and I copied the shapes I saw and made up my own stories, drawing them into the shapes I made with old pens and crayons on sheets of scrap typing paper given to me by my mother. Dad and I made up stories together and from the start I knew I wanted to be a writer!

Primary School

When time for elementary school came, we were asked to write our news for class – instead, I made up stories, wanting to tell beautiful tales of emotion and excitement. News was too boring (and often still is). By the time I started junior school, called “Primary school” in South Africa, I was keenly inspired by sci-fi and history. I wanted to be a writer and an archaeologist, and a scientist (and probably like most kids – a space explorer, a vampire and a robot!) – and I wanted to make discoveries and to write about them… At primary school, my school friends called me ‘the Professor’, because of my keen interest in history, dinosaurs and fossils, steam engines, robots and rockets, and Roman and Greek culture! I remember trying to build a perpetual-motion device involving magnets, wire and bits of plastic… don’t ask! A school girl friend began teaching me Portuguese before she and her parents relocated to Johannesburg, and I was fully bilingual at the time between English and Afrikaans. I was also fully ambidextrous, which made writing and drawing interesting. Unfortunately, injuries I sustained in a motor collision in 1996 had the result that I now only write and draw right-handed.

Obviously, while I did make an effort to write fantasy and fiction at the time before high school, it’s hardly likely to be even remotely publishable!

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“The Friendly Vampire” – an attempt at writing a story, typed on my mother’s manual typewriter! Circa 1982, aged 9.

High School

Although I began making up and writing stories literally as soon as I could hold a wax crayon, I only really began writing short stories at high school. Since my first language is English, the majority of my works are in that language – however, I also wrote some short fiction in Afrikaans. Quite often, I would write a composition in English class on one day, and then simply re-write the exact same story in Afrikaans class, the next. Languages have always been my forte’.

By the time I reached high school at the age of 12 (1986), I had already made a first attempt at a novel – “The Roman Eagle”, which I had started and got quite far in by the end of 1985. In grade 8 (standard 6), I was bitten by the sci-fi bug good and proper as they say, and then started my journey to write a real full-length sci-fi novel.

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Some of my old notebooks. The pink one at left is from 1986, containing my first original draft of “The Red Star”, which eventually became “Galaxy” and then “the Galaxii Series”.

In 1986 I began working on “The Red Star” – it was appalling by my current standard – after all, I was only almost a teenager, but it was instrumental in my learning how to build characters, scenarios, to use plot devices, what worked – and didn’t work – and to plan a story line… which was redrafted to become “Galaxy” by 1987, and “Galaxii” by 1990. In the end, the redraft became the basis for various different stories in the Galaxii Series. I was torn in so many different directions – music, writing and art. On top of everything else, my dad (who was also a writer and my inspiration) died on 16 August 1985 and this set me back emotionally for quite some time. In 1987 I even tried my hand at illustrating “The Red Star” as a comic book – remember, I was 13!

Red Star comic

This comic-book version (they didn’t call them ‘graphic novels’ back then) also didn’t take, however, elements of ‘The Red Star” plot survived and were used in what eventually emerged as my first ever truly complete novel, “Blachart”, which I finished (pretty much) in 2003, and in its sequel “Demonspawn”.

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I often distracted myself in classes – let’s not say I thought they were boring, but where I found my mind wandering off 😉 In those days we didn’t have smart phones, and often while sharing desks for Poetry classes, a friend and I used to make silent commentary to each other in our text books – I kept this one for posterity.

High School Writing

A selection of some of my high school essays. The one at the back has an amusing comment from the teacher!

My school essay writing was unconventional and I often received compliments from my teachers – although I sometimes ‘creatively interpreted’ the instructions given in order to turn the essays I wrote into something either humorous or relating to sci-fi in some way. I detested convention and boring restrictions.

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A close-up of the sketch I did for the essay – note the amusing comment from a not very amused English teacher!

In 1987 I wrote “Ballade For A Nutter”, “Dark Planet” and “The Curse”, short stories that were used for school essays. In 1988, I wrote two more shorts – “Code Red” and “U.F.O”. In 1989, I wrote another composition, “The Sickel Is Sharp” and “Villa Of Terror”, a ghost story in one-act-play format.

In 1989 something inside me ‘clicked’ as the saying goes – and I wrote the first poem I really liked, beginning a stretch of poetry spanning almost 300 items. Some of the less embarrassing ones ended up in my poetry compilation, “White Picket Fences & Other Fairy Tales“.

At the end of 1989 an Afrikaans essay I wrote was published in the school year-book. This was the very first time anything I had ever written had been published.


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In 1990 I labored on three fantasy-based stories, called “The Beginning Of Nonsense”, “Natural Causes” – and “Hamockery”, which was supposed be a spoof of Hamlet. These are still somewhere in the “to-do” list! That year, my high school year-book included an English poem of mine about the then topical German reunification.

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Towards the end of 1990 I completed a one-act play called “The Traitor Loyal”, about espionage and intrigue in Nazi-occupied Paris. All through the following year (1991), my focus remained on Galaxii, although I didn’t get very far.

In those days I spent a great deal of time writing stories, and then re-writing them. Back in those days I didn’t have the luxury of working on a computer, being able to back-space, delete, copy or cut and paste etc – oh no, it was all hand-written and I still remember very well the feeling of numb fingertips at 3am as I tried to figure out where the night went…

At the end of 1991, during my matric second English exam in fact, I wrote a short story draft that became “Model 221: Assassinator“, which would become the basis for a later title in The Galaxii Series. After school came the inevitable draft and in January 1992, I went off to the army and began my adult life.

After School

In 1992 I continued working on a story titled “Galaxii”, which I intended to be my first novel in a series that would bear the title “Galaxii”. While today it remains incomplete, it provides the backdrop for all the stories that followed, even the ones I did complete. Perhaps one day, when I have sold a few million books, seen some of them turned into a movie and toy franchise, someone will want to see the prequels to the whole thing 😉

In 1993 I wrote my first commercially viable short story called “The Devils In The Sky“, followed by “A Really Bad Day In The Life Of Lance Corporal Thomas O’Blivion” (1995), and “Beyond” (1998).

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I was very good at writing short stories from high school right up to then – but it was when I tried to write longer items that I battled, and it was something I constantly chipped away at until finally, I re-worked several of my earlier hand-written attempts at novels, and the years that had passed had gifted me with more maturity and experience than before – and somehow things just fell into place. In 1998, I finalized the last written redraft of “Blachart“.

By 1999, I began a written redraft of “Demonspawn“, and even began a completely new novel I called “Dead Beckoning“, forming a trilogy in The Galaxii Series which I had started more than a decade earlier. In 1999 I began working towards my gender affirmation and started my transition in 2000. Most of the next few years were taken up by that upheaval, leaving little if any time to write more than a few poems on the subject. 

My mother encouraged me to ‘do something’ with my writing again, to type them on a computer so that they could be stored and processed digitally. I did, slowly and reluctantly at first… and then something happened. One day in 2003, as I was pushing myself to complete another re-write of “Blachart” – this time on a PC using Word – something just ‘clicked’ inside me …and suddenly everything changed. The story began to flow and it was so much easier on  a PC!

Indie Publishing

In 2004 I began experimenting with a new phenomenon called ‘Publish On Demand’ or P.O.D. I found a website called Lulu that allowed people to publish their own works, from where they could be bought or distributed in electronic and print formats.

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Initially I published my poetry collection “White Picket Fences & Other Fairy Tales“, together with the first edition of “Blachart“, then my only completed novel.

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In 2005 I enlisted with the New York Literary Agency, which has apparently long since gone the way of the dodo, and probably just as well – in essence, they didn’t help me diddly-squat.

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Ever eager to get my father’s works known as well as my own, I published the first edition of his collection of short stories “African Assignment” through Lulu. I was rewarded with inquiries from the SA National State Library that bought a copy for their archives.

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I published the first edition of “Space Sucks!” a collection of my short stories on Lulu in 2005.

But in my own writing, some things were still lacking, and it wasn’t just a little more maturity or more life-experience – it was the perfect setting. Later that year, I again had something of an awakening experience – something clicked as I began work on a novel called “Black Sunrise” – I found the perfect setting! It was a crazy little planet called Deanna – and it gave me license to abandon the rigid notion that my sci-fi stories HAD to be completely scientifically accurate, and allowed me to explore the values of emotive content, humor and humanity in ways I had never before thought possible.

Black Sunrise” became something of a mushroom effect – I was writing like a creature possessed by a muse! It became to complex and I was already thinking 5 pages ahead of the words I was typing (ironically on the very same keyboard I am using at this moment) that I gathered about a third of the typed manuscript and put it aside as a sequel, which became “The Time Saving Agency“. After finishing “Black Sunrise“, I worked on “The Time Saving Agency“, and again found myself separating parts of the story I felt should make yet another sequel, which became “Dead Man’s Hammer“. I had been having so much fun writing these stories that the creativity had just flowed and flowed – until I had completed what became version 1 of all three books in just under 3 months. I had spent nearly every waking minute working on these. Needless to say, I was exhausted, so I didn’t write much for a while after that. All three titles went up on Lulu as first editions.

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In 2009 I saw my work in print form for the first time. I was asked to speak at a Pride event in Cape Town at the Book Lounge on the topic of LGBT characters and my writing, and I donated three of my books as gifts for three lucky readers!

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Then, as I revised them, into their second editions and so on, there were cover updates and changes – all improvements as I did all the cover designs, layouts and editing myself and learned the skills I needed.

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The first edition of “Innocent Minds” appeared on Lulu in 2006.

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In 2007 I published “Bugspray“, a how-to book about VW Beetles, also on Lulu . The second edition was re-released in 2016 via LightBearer Publishing.

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In 2007, I completed “Loderunner“, which was actually based on a board game a friend asked me to make for her teenage son. I never finished designing the game, but the material inspired the novel! The game would have been rather interesting, sort of an interstellar Monopoly thing, but with my own distorted sense of humor… and through it, I ended up writing one of my favorite stories, also being a sequel to the “Black Sunrise” trilogy, but featuring new characters.

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I dedicated “Loderunner” to my friend Kae Colley who died following complications after surgery in 2012, and to her son Michael, who also died tragically in 2014 after a burst appendix. “Loderunner” first edition also went up on Lulu in 2007.

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Sometime during 2007, I started working on a title called “Dead Beckoning“, which completed a trilogy set with “Blachart” and “Demonspawn“. I didn’t complete it until September 2014 – seven years later – after another dry-spell in the writing pool!

A mere day after publishing “Dead Beckoning” on Lulu, I was offered a contract with a ‘traditional publisher’ (more about that later) – and ended up taking all my titles down from Lulu to keep the publisher happy.

Activism

Between 2008 and 2011 I became a very active human rights activist. Aside from the activism itself, several books also resulted, addressing topics such as LGBT equality, persecution and religious freedoms etc.

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Back To Writing

In 2010 I entered a writing competition with a short story titled “Homecoming”, which centered on a vampire character. The work won this competition, which was based on a public voting system, which was something of a surprise to me – and boosted my confidence. (This work was revised in 2014 for inclusion in a Halloween anthology for Halloween 2014, “Autumn Burning: Dreadtime Stories For The Wicked Soul“.)

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In February 2014, one of my poems was included in an anthology entitled “Words Of Wisdom“. (“Words Of Wisdom”, Lectio Publishers, ISBN 978-1-4305-4044-1 February 2014, poetry anthology compiled by Mpho Nkosi, Righardt le Roux, Phindi Radebe. Poem “Love Will Never Be The Same” by Christina Engela, pgs 6-8.)

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In 2015, “I, Mac” was  selected by a panel of judges to be included in “The #Coinage Book: Journal Of New South African Writing“. Although I was paid a handsome R500 for my contribution and told a copy was being mailed to me, it still hasn’t arrived…

I Caught A ‘Traditional Publisher’s’ Eye (Careful What You Wish For…)

In September 2014 I finally got a contract with what I thought was a “traditional publisher“, which although it was not one of those printing companies that expect you to pay ridiculous sums to just to have them print your books, more money to design covers, edit the content, and leave you to market the things for yourself – or charge you even more money to do that… left me disappointed and frustrated. They insisted that they wanted the entire Galaxii Series, which then included seven novels and one collection of short stories, and so I took these all down from my website – but the company only ever re-published two of those!

 

Blachart” was published by that company on October 20, 2014. The second title “Demonspawn” appeared in the first half of 2015. Marketing books was a problem – they were published on CreateSpace (Amazon) and that was that – they didn’t seem to do more than make a few posts on their private blogs and on Facebook about so-and-so’s new book. There was no author support in terms of registering books with international book seller databases so that paperbacks could be ordered by bookshops in countries outside the US – even after repeated requests, I was told they were not interested.

Meanwhile, the company’s staff seemed to become sidetracked with several Short Story Anthologies (including several of my works) as ‘promotional items’ (for which authors were contractually bound to receive no payment – but which the company (including staff who were writers and contributors) did. Short Stories included in their anthologies were:

Homecoming” (“Autumn Burning“), “The Thirteenth Ship” (“Inanna Rising“), “Space Vacation” (“Fearotica“), “Midnight Station” (“All That Remains“), “Beyond” (“For Love of Leelah” – and foreword also by me) and “Wiggle Room” (“M v F: Death Personified“).

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Moreover, staff members (all of whom were also writers), pushed their own works ahead of their contracted authors, and their ‘marketing department’ seemed to put far more effort into promoting those, while the rest were told to ‘market their own books’ and ‘that’s how the industry works’. Book sales and royalties were completely obscured by the publisher, and repeated requests for sales statistics, documentation and transparency – or even as much as a screen-shot of sales from Amazon/CreateSpace – were ignored or laughed off!

To make matters worse, staff exhibited unprofessional and even unethical conduct. A personal disagreement in a Facebook chat group boiled over into a bitter feud. A staff member – an editor and author – was fired for his liberal views which apparently offended someone’s friends – and then over the next two years, a public campaign of hate, slander and lies and all manner of drama was conducted against him on social media – up to and including threats, intimidation, influencing publishers to drop his contracts, and even conducting a hostile takeover of a small indie press that had hired him! Staff and house authors, and even followers of the label were admonished to ‘unfriend’ and ‘block’ the writer, and even bullied to comply if they did not obey. Being associated with such public childishness was becoming increasingly detrimental to my image as well as my stress level!

 African Assignment Cover

Further afield, frustratingly, aside from the company promoting the works of the CEO and staff, and the obsession with interpersonal drama – and compiling short story anthologies, no progress was made with my works in 2016 until my father’s book “African Assignment” was published by the publisher in March – just before our association ended. “African Assignment” was taken down in May without (to my knowledge) ever selling a single copy!

The third title in The Galaxii Series, “Dead Beckoning“, was supposedly going to be released near the end of 2015, but time after time, was continually shifted to the right – even after the editing process was completed – right up to May 2016 when it all came apart.

In May 2016, the publisher announced that it was only interested in supporting writers of ‘pure horror’ and that it would be releasing all other writers and their works from any contractual obligations. The books already published would be taken down from Amazon, the authors paid any outstanding royalties (!), and all business would be concluded. Needless to say, no further royalties from sales after the date of termination – or explanations or statements of sales, or in fact any communications followed. This effectively terminated my brief stint with a so-called ‘traditional publisher’.

Back To The Freedom Of Indie Publishing!

After having taken down seven of my books from the Lulu site in order to satisfy my “traditional publisher“, I found myself essentially ‘dumped’ by the same – and after two years, I once again found myself floating free with zero books published to show for it, and no publisher – and back at square one!

Instead of letting it get me down, I decided to charge in, guns blazing, and went back to indie publishing with a vengeance! With a little hard work, mostly fueled by anger and outrage, I had all my previous titles back on my old platforms, revised, edited and made-over with new covers!

Space Sucks! by Christina Engela

I published the second edition of “Space Sucks!” in May 2016, and “Dead Beckoning” on Lulu in July 2016, immediately after revising and re-releasing “Blachart” and “Demonspawn“.

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Since then, I also released a couple of new titles, such as “Space Vacation“, “Innocent Minds” and “Other Kids Are Kids Almost Just Like You“.

Further Afield

Bugspray by Christina Engela

Meanwhile, in January 2016, dissatisfied with the lacking performance of my alleged “traditional publisher” in getting my books out on the shelves, a friend and I teamed up to start LightBearer Publishing, and my book about VW Beetles “Bugspray” was revised, revamped and released as a second edition by February.

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I have also been editing. In November 2016, a revised edition of “African Assignment” as edited by me, was released by LightBearer. I am also editing a collection of poetry called “Vampyre Bytes” for LB, as well as a diverse collection of material for Riot Pink called “Embracing Justice“.

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I continue to write, and certainly have no shortage of inspiration. I still have stacks of old boxes and dusty lever-arch files containing old hand-written notes and hand-drawn sketches from my school days and just after, from days B.C. (Before Computers) which allow me to re-enter the field of inspiration that inspired me about them in the first place!

I’m currently busy with three new books in The Quantum SeriesProdigal Sun“, “High Steaks” and “The Last Hurrah“… there is also a new title in The Galaxii Series underway – some of which should be out before the end of 2017!

Since November 2016 I’ve also been working on making translations of my works available, starting with Afrikaans.”

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