School Writing and After – A Journey
As told by Christina Engela:
I started writing stories as a toddler, inspired by my father who was a writer, before I even knew how to write! 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! At story-time before bed, Dad and I made up stories together about Mr. Mann and the Three Jolly Yum-yums – and from the start I knew I wanted to be… a writer!
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, particularly by ancient Rome. 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 anything like what I write today!
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 which I called “The Roman Eagle”. I had started this project 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.
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. “The Red Star” was redrafted to become “Galaxy” by sometime in 1987, and again to become “Galaxii” in 1990. In the end, the redraft became the basis for various different stories in the Galaxii Series as it is today.
Having a wide field of interests, I was torn in so many different directions – music, writing and art – and I was good at all of it. On top of everything else, my dad (who was also a writer and my inspiration to become one myself) died on 16 August 1985. In 1987 I even tried my hand at illustrating “The Red Star” as a comic for my high school newspaper – remember, I was 13! I was eager, and it was a lot of work. Stationery supplies such as fine markers were also very expensive and after the first set of panels below, my markers were exhausted and I couldn’t continue.
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.
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.
In 1987 I wrote “Ballad For A Nutter”, “Dark Planet” and “The Curse”, very short stories that were used for school essays. “The Curse” was later rewritten and became “Static“, book one in my Panic! Horror In Space series (2017).
In 1988, I wrote two more shorts – “Code Red” and “U.F.O”. Later in the same year, I started writing a story called initially “Over The Edge”, which became “Skorpiad”, named after the fighters flown by the characters in the story. This particular item dates from 1988, when I started a graphic novel based on the original Galaxii story “Galaxii”. Below, a set of pages from “Skorpiad”, illustrated by yours truly. The few pages below that I finished showed promise – if you consider I was 15 years old and pretty much confused about everything in my life at the time! I filtered and enhanced the images in 2012, and added overlaid text and speech bubbles to make them readable before posting them here for your enjoyment. (To enlarge, click on each image.)
The only parts of this story that got used since, was the part about the Starbase being attacked in “Blachart“, and the name of the aero-space fighters – Skorpiads. In the bottom panel of the cover page for “Over the Edge”, you can see the Starbase destruction scene from “Blachart“. I might still use the written version of this story again in future, in another book.
In 1989, I wrote another composition, “The Sickle Is Sharp” and “Villa Of Terror”, a ghost story in one-act-play format. Although I wouldn’t dream of publishing any of these today, I still appreciate them as steps along my journey to becoming the writer I am today.
Although I’d already written several poems in 1986 at the start of my high school career, which were mechanically sound, but I hadn’t yet developed a ‘feel’ for poetry. They had simply been written because I’d been given assignments to write specific sorts and styles of poetry. In 1989, something inside me ‘clicked’ as the saying goes – and one night, for fun, I wrote the first poem of my own that I really liked, beginning a stretch of poetry spanning almost 300 items. Some of them were rather naughty, and some of the less explicit ones ended up in my poetry compilation, “White Picket Fences & Other Fairy Tales” in the early 2000’s.
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 by any publication. I was very proud, as was my mother, naturally.
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 items are still lying somewhere on my “to-do” list! At the end of that year, my high school year-book included an English poem of mine about the then topical German reunification.
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 still didn’t get very far with it. I kept getting side-tracked with all the planning, background features and story design that I’d been told were essential to writing good stories. The dynamics kept changing.
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, or search or spell-check etc – oh no, it was all hand-written and I still remember very well the feeling of numb fingertips at 3 am 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 (much later) become the basis for “Harm’s Way“. You see, while at high school, I always wanted to write ‘a love story with a difference’ – and that led me to writing about a cop, who was a witness in a big case against an industrial robotics giant, who would fall in love with an android assassin (the Assassinator) sent to kill him – partly because she was made to resemble his recently deceased girlfriend. What also helped this along is the detail that, in order to make her a more effective killer, she has been programmed with some of her memories! “Harm’s Way” is still in progress, and has been for some time!
In the early 1990’s though, I dabbled once again in the ‘black art’ of sketching – and produced the following stretch of 3 pages of unfinished material, having another “robots take over the world” concept in mind, but doing a different take on it. This basically untitled piece was set in a future where machines had taken control of world society away from their Human creators, relegating Humans to the status of talking cattle, servants who exist to maintain the machines – and of a rebellion to overthrow this dystopian world order. The Assassinator was to have approached and rubbed out the main character within this context, but I think the reason why I didn’t go on with this project was because I preferred the original setting of the story – a more contemporary modern type of setting, as I will use in the final product – one day.
After high school came the end of my childhood in the form of the dreaded and inevitable conscription into military service. In January 1992, I went off to the army and began my adult life, wherein I would be confronted rather harshly by my experiences in coping with gender dysphoria.
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” as well. While today that first story still remains an incomplete draft, it provided 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 prequel to the whole thing – and prod me to finish it.
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).
I was very good at writing short stories from high school right up to then – but at that stage I struggled 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 intervening years that had passed had gifted me with slightly more maturity and experience than before – and somehow things finally fell into place. In early 1998, I finalized the last hand-written redraft of “Blachart“.
In 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. Also in 1999, I began working towards my gender affirmation and started my transition in 2000. Most of the next few years were consumed by that drama and upheaval, leaving little if any time to write more than a few poems on the subject.
One day in 2003, once things had settled down again, my mother encouraged me to ‘do something’ with my writing. She suggested I type them on a computer so that they could be stored and processed digitally. I did. In spare time at the office, I began to slowly and reluctantly copy-type “Blachart” into Word – simultaneously editing and improving it as I did so. Something seemingly miraculous happened – as I was pushing myself to complete “Blachart“, something just ‘clicked’ inside me …and suddenly everything changed. The story began to flow, my brain seemed to hum with power as the story played out in my minds eye, and my fingers translated it all into words on a computer screen! Writing was so much easier on a PC! In fact, I put down my pen right then, and every story I wrote since then was executed on a computer.
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.
Initially I published my poetry collection “White Picket Fences & Other Fairy Tales” (pictured with it’s successor “The Upside of Sadness” , right) together with the first edition of “Blachart“, then my only completed novel.
Seven different generations of cover for “Blachart”.
In 2005 I listed with the New York Literary Agency in the hope that they could help me get my foot in the door at a traditional publisher. Unfortunately they never made any progress, and then, about a year or two later, went the way of the dodo.
Ever eager to get my father’s works known as well as my own, I scanned, edited and published the first edition of his collection of short stories “African Assignment” through Lulu in 2005. I was rewarded with inquiries from the South African National Library, who later bought a copy for their archives!
I published the first edition of “Space Sucks!” a collection of my short stories on Lulu in 2005. (above right, a later edition cover.)
Nevertheless, some things were still lacking in terms of my own writing – and it wasn’t just a little more maturity or more life-experience – it was the perfect setting. Up to that time, my writing scope seemed to be unfocused. In terms of settings, my stories had no anchor. All my earlier attempts at writing novels – “The Red Star”, and even the first few drafts of “Blachart” – were set primarily and almost exclusively on starships, which left very little room for real life references so that the author and reader could relate in some way. Whenever I thought of a planetary setting, or even a city (such as the Corsair city in “Blachart“), things got a little iffy…but things were about to start changing.
Mid-way through 2005, I again had something of an awakening experience – something clicked as I began work on a new story called “Black Sunrise“. Suddenly, and with a shock, I realized that I’d found the perfect setting for my stories – a crazy little planet called Deanna – and it gave me a license to abandon the rigid notion that my sci-fi stories HAD to be absolutely and completely scientifically accurate all the time! It freed me instead to explore the values of emotive content, humor, storytelling and humanity in ways I had never before thought possible!
“Black Sunrise” caused something of a snowball effect – For more than a month, I wrote obsessively and compulsively like a creature possessed by a muse! At any given time, I was already thinking 5 pages ahead of the words I was typing! Very soon, I realized that the scope of the story that had begun to unfold before me would be impractical to squeeze all into one cover, so I whittled out about a third of the first typed manuscript and put it into another file. That would become a sequel, “The Time Saving Agency“. After finishing “Black Sunrise“, I worked on “The Time Saving Agency“, and again found myself separating parts of that story to make yet another sequel, which became “Dead Man’s Hammer“. In the meantime, I’d been having so much fun writing these three stories that the creativity had just flowed and flowed – until I’d completed what became version 1 of all three books in just under 3 months! That’s literally one book a month! I’d 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 shortly after completion, all the while I hoped that a “real” publisher would take note of my work – but none ever did.
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 had to order three of my books to take along – as gifts for three lucky readers!
Later, as I refined and revised my books into their second editions and so on, there were cover updates and changes. I did all the cover designs, layouts and editing myself and learned the skills I needed along the way – as I still do today.
In 2007 I published “Bugspray“, a how-to book about VW Beetles, also on Lulu (original below left). The second edition was re-released in 2016 via LightBearer Publishing, and then again in 2017 via Lulu (new edition, below right).
In 2007, I completed “Loderunner“, which was actually based on a board game a friend asked me to design and 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 different characters.
Seven different generations of cover for “Loderunner”.
I dedicated “Loderunner” to my friend Kae Colley and her son Michael. “Loderunner” first edition also went up on Lulu in 2007, Tragically, Kae died in 2012 following complications after surgery, and her son Michael also died just two years later from appendicitis at the age of 18.
Six different generations of cover for “Dead Beckoning”.
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! The cover on the extreme right is for the coming audiobook version.
A mere day after publishing “Dead Beckoning” on Lulu in 2014, I was offered a contract with a so-called ‘traditional publisher’ – and ended up taking all my titles down from Lulu in order to keep the publisher happy. That was a big mistake, and one I should never have made.
Between 2008 and 2011 I became very active in human rights activism, but while this was all terrifically noble a pursuit, it was a thankless endeavor which only served to separate me from my writing. Aside from the activism itself, several books also resulted from that, which addressed topics such as LGBT equality, persecution and religious freedoms, dominionism etc.
While Unchristian Action” (out of print) went almost unnoticed, “Bricks & Mortar – talking back to the bigots” (also out of print) made quite an impression in local South African politics in the run-up to national elections that year. “The Pink Community – The Facts” has had well over a thousand free downloads and is now in its second edition as of 2017, while “Satanism: The Acid Test” (2013) is a peer-reviewed and accredited academic paper over 400 pages long I wrote for the Alternative Religions Forum. It has since played a key role in the demystification of occult religion as well as having become a vital tool in debunking “satanic panic hysteria” and “satanic ritual abuse”, and I am both proud and humbled to have written it.
Back To Writing!
In 2010 I entered a writing competition with a short story titled “Homecoming”. The work won this competition, 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”.)
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.)
In 2015, “I, Mac” was selected by a panel of judges to be included in “The #Coinage Book: Journal Of New South African Writing”.
I Caught A ‘Traditional Publishers’ 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 via 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 (including South Africa, where I live) – 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). For a time, all they seemed to do was anthologies for their profit while writers complained that their books weren’t getting any attention.
Short stories of mine 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” – foreword also by me) and “Wiggle Room” (“M v F: Death Personified”).
Moreover, staff members (all of whom were also writers), pushed their own works ahead of their contracted authors, and their *cough* ‘marketing department’ seemed to put far more actual effort into promoting those, while the rest of us were told to ‘market you own books‘ and ‘that’s how the industry works‘. Book sales and royalties were completely obscured by the publisher, and my repeated requests for sales statistics, documentation and transparency – or even as much as a monthly screen-shot of sales from Amazon/CreateSpace – were ignored or laughed off.
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 own works in 2016. On the side however, I’d decided to republish several of my titles myself again – and in order to do this without violating my contract, I split the Galaxii Series down the middle! The first three titles would remain Galaxii – while the subsequent four (which were technically many years apart from the first three in terms of timeline anyway) would become the basis for the Quantum Series, but by the time the news of termination came from the publisher, I still hadn’t got as far as publishing them.
In the meantime, the only thing that still came out of the publisher, was my father’s book “African Assignment” – which was published in March – just before our association ended. “African Assignment” was taken down from CreateSpace in May 2016 without (to my knowledge) ever selling a single copy!
The third Galaxii title, “Dead Beckoning“, was supposed to be released near the end of 2015, but time after time, was continually shifted to the right – even well after the editing process was completed – right up to May 2016. when 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’, albeit a small press!
Back To The Freedom Of Indie Publishing!
After having taken down seven of my books from the Lulu site in 2014 in order to satisfy my “traditional publisher”, I found myself essentially ‘dumped’ by the same just two years later! After two years of waiting, querying, begging and nagging, I 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 charged in, guns blazing, and went back to indie publishing with a vengeance! The two Galaxii titles were republished almost immediately – within days in fact, with the same covers that had been provided (and released) by the publisher! The four titles of the Quantum Series were ready soon enough, and with a little hard work, mostly fueled by pent-up frustration, anger and outrage, I had all my previous titles back up on my old platform (Lulu.com) revised, edited and made-over with new covers!
I published the second edition of “Space Sucks!” in May 2016, and “Dead Beckoning” (First Edition) on Lulu in July 2016, immediately after revising and re-releasing “Blachart” and “Demonspawn”.
Later in 2016 I also released a couple of new titles, such as “Space Vacation” (out of print, but the story appears in “Life Signs”), “Bang, Splat!” and “Other Kids Are Kids Almost Just Like You”.
Meanwhile, in January 2016, before I knew what my then “traditional publisher” was up to, and dissatisfied with the lack of promised progress in getting my books back out on the shelves under their brand, an old friend and I teamed up to start our own label. We called it LightBearer Publishing, and my book about VW Beetles “Bugspray” was revised, revamped and released as a second edition via CreateSpace by February 2016.
In the meantime, I put what I’d learned through my interaction with the publisher into practice, and also went into editing. In November 2016, a revised edition of “African Assignment” as edited by me, was released by LightBearer. Due to various personal reasons – mostly relating to getting paid, since CreateSpace proved absolutely useless to a small-scale press in South Africa, LightBearer was put on hold. I took “African Assignment” and “Bugspray” down from CreateSpace – and lost every penny we couldn’t get into the country from sales. I immediately re-published them on tried-and-true Lulu.
Since 2016 I also edited and published two more of my dad’s books (“A Way Of Life” and “Shakandazu Valley”), and two of my mom’s (“Op Vreemde Weë” and “When Day Is Done”). In 2018 I began publishing via SmashWords as well, and embarked on a revamping project that saw new editions of all my contemporary titles released – starting with the Galaxii Series (2018) and the Quantum Series (2019) and Panic! Horror In Space (2019).
Between June and August 2019, a total of eight new short stories were released as free previews and promotional items via Lulu and Smashwords and their distribution networks.
Current & Future Projects
Some of these include sequels for the Quantum Series, short stories for the second sequel to “Space Sucks!”, and book 4 in the Panic! series. I’m also busy with book 4 in Galaxii, “Sentinel”. There are also several standalone titles, namely “Where Darkness Softly Treads”, “Sabertooth Dreams” and “Harm’s Way”. I still have quite a lot to do! I’ve also recently started a new sci-fi series called Threaders.
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!
The most important thing for me as a writer, is that my readers enjoy my work – and perhaps, that it makes some positive, helpful difference in this world of ours!
Cheers! And keep reading!