Recently I was lucky enough to get an advanced reader copy of The First Stain, a fabulous anthology of short stories by Inked in Gray Publishing (see my review here). Within the pages, I found a wide variety of stories from different genres, linked by one central theme; what if the world wasn’t as black and white as we sometimes make it out to be. The stories in this book all offered thought provoking tales that lived in the gray area in between the extremes, though occasionally the gray was more charcoal than light fog.
Recently I had the chance to sit down and go beneath the gray hoodie with Dakota Rayne, founder of Inked in Gray to speak with her a bit about the anthology, as well as what projects they’re working on for the future.
Matt: Kota, nice to have you join me!
Dakota: Hey there! Thanks for inviting me.
M: Inked in Gray appears to have a very specific mission as an indie publisher. What was the inspiration behind starting your own publishing company, and why did you choose the specific direction that you did with regards to the stories you want to tell?
D: You go for the gut right off the bat, don’t you? How much time do you have? Long story short, my life was always quite the mess. Growing up...was a struggle. A bit of a shit show, if you will. But I survived. I didn’t take that path, as tempted as it was. And sometimes it seemed like the only one. And believe me, I wanted to. I had so much rage at what happened. Nothing a young child should have to go through. But despite it all, I was loved. There were people in my world who knew me, but didn’t judge me. There weren’t many. I battled suicide, depression, PTSD, anxiety...all of it. And for some reason, they saw through all that, and loved me anyway. Throughout my life, I saw the same prejudice I was subject to be bestowed upon others and I hated it, because it was like they were shitting on me too. People are so misunderstood. But we can’t do anything about it unless we listen to understand. So that’s what I strived to do. I became a social worker specializing in working with foster care, gang-affiliated, and transient individuals. I wanted them to know that they were heard. That someone cared for them and understood. Their stories are what inspired the need to start Inked in Gray. I want to shed light into all the dark corners of humanity and show the world that there is more to what we think we know. And maybe, just maybe, if we listen to these stories, we can open eyes and make real, lasting change.
So, I took my passion for helping people tell their story, found a few amazing individuals who share my passion of enlightening the world with stories that need to be told (CL Thomas, Sang G Crowe, Sam Hale, and Shea Ballard) and thus became Inked in Gray. If you’re curious for the more in-depth version of our origin story, check out my medium post Why Inked in Gray.
M: Tell us a little bit about The First Stain, the concept behind it, and where the idea came from.
D: We have a few authors developing their stories at the moment, so this would be our first publication, our first shout out to the world that “hey this is Inked!” So, we wanted the anthology to embody what we stood for. We had tossed around a bunch of concepts, but when we sat down to think about it, we really wanted to focus on that first moment. Everyone has one...that moment when they realize the world, their life, and/or their place in it, is not as black and white as they thought it to be. The First Stain is thirteen stories thought-provoking stories that showcase that ‘loss of innocence’ if you will.
M: You had a very eclectic group of writers in this anthology, and yet the stories all worked so well together as a whole. Tell us a bit about the contributors and their stories.
D: I love them all - the authors and the stories. As a whole, they are a wonderful and supportive group. I really enjoyed working with them! They all have a unique perspective to contribute, and that’s really what we were looking for when selecting the stories that would eventually be in the anthology.
“Krov” by Sam Hale addresses the aspect of survival in a world devastated by war and oppression, and the depths you may have to go through, and the choices you have to make if you are to survive. It talks about loss, grief, and sacrifice. Sam, as you already know, is my assistant editor at Inked. His writing has a distinct style and voice that I admire.
“Ritual” is a story about anger and revenge, and how much unhappiness one can bear before a choice must be made. It’s about acceptance, or the lack thereof, and how they impact who we become. It is a riveting story that is part of a larger world created by Ernest Solar. I loved editing this one because Ernest has such a powerful voice that speaks to you. You can feel the emotions on the page. If you’re interested he has other works that deserve a look as well.
“The Chain by Sam Hale” - Aw, man, that story! There is a lot of allegory and symbolism in that story. It is about how stories differ based on your perspective of them, and how a mission or life-long endeavor can be corrupted over time, and how no matter what you do, some will not always see the light, and the unfortunate thing about that, is there is nothing you can do to change their opinion.
“Just Deserts” - If you’re looking for amazing grimdark fantasy, Ulff Lehmann is your guy. Fucking amazing writer who weaves these intricate stories with only a minimal amount of words. This story is probably the most horrific (though there is no gore on the page) as it addresses what punishment is deserving of a pedophile - in second person point of view. It really puts you on the spot.
“For the Guild” by Jonathan Mette talks about loyalties and how they are tested. When you make your living through thievery, there is the illusion that there is no loyalty, it is each man for themselves. This story challenges that notion as well as the morally gray aspects of criminal institutions. Family is family, no matter the backdrop.
“The Offering” by CL Thomas talks about the lengths one is willing to go to save the life of someone they love. CL has many stories written, but this is the first one they’ve published. They did have a play that won a spot in a festival in Tennessee, so expect to see many more great things from this author.
“Beyond the Distortion” by KN Nguyen addresses the topic of addiction through a quest for knowledge and truth. The MC is addicted to a drug that lets you relive memories. What she was doing to escape soon turned into a journey for truth.
“The Burden of Sight” speaks about second chances and the what ifs. How powerful is our intuition, and what if it wasn’t Fate or Death, but really us feeling the tension between the two? I wrote that one to multiple burdens that are associated with being an Empath and struggle and regret that can be associated with making a decision to accept (or not) something that you don’t want, but ultimately cannot escape.
“The Aristocrat, The Arsonist” by NK MittzenMacher is definitely a story with a twist. It tells of how easy it can be to see the things we want to see, rather than come to terms with our own trauma. It’s a story that takes us down an unbelievable tale, that shows how easy it is to be manipulated by others and blinded by your own determination. This is also NK’s first published story, but I’m quite sure we will see more from him soon.
“Smells of Desperation” is about how love can be used to hurt others, but also how easy it is to want to love someone who is bad for us. Christina Romero has a magnificent voice that pulls us into a story that ultimately makes your heart bleed.
“Sirens” by Mileva A talks about legacy and how the pressure of following in a parent’s footsteps can lead to us making our own path instead. Mileva has published a lot of short story works in various publications such Flashback Fiction, Open Pen London, and Litro Magazine.
“Little Grays” by Shea Ballard is about how literally nothing is as it seems. We often ridicule and ostracise those that are different from whatever we consider the norm is and this story speaks to that. Shea Ballard has a novel coming out soon, first in a series, that speaks to this topic as well. Look out for that, we expect it to come out in the beginning of 2021.
“Desolate” by Clarence Carter is a perfect last story for the anthology. Clarence has other short stories out in other anthologies coming soon. His story highlights the trials one goes through in isolation, and how you have to adjust your expectations to different scenarios. Learning to be content in what we have, rather than reaching for unrealistic expectations.
It was a joy to work with all of the authors and go through the process with them.
M: I personally loved how the anthology began. The first lines of “Krov” by Samuel Hale really grab you and don’t let go. What was the process like of determining the order of the stories in an anthology such as this?
D: This actually was one of the easy things. It was really based on flow. We wanted the themes and stories to connect to each other in some way. We started with Krov because it really just hit the theme on the head and the opening lines really hooked the reader. We played to each story’s strength in the positioning. For example, Desolation has this feeling of finality, wrapping up the theme with its tone, so it was the obvious choice to finish off our collection.
M: It’s fair to say that I discovered a couple of new favorite authors in this anthology. As a fantasy writer, both J.A. Mette and Ulff Lehmann’s stories nailed my particular genre preference very nicely. Were you familiar with all of the authors and their work before you received their submissions, or did you get to discover some new favorites as well?
D: Nice! I’m glad that you were able to discover some new talent! I love that. Full disclosure? I’m a big fan of Ulff’s work and decided to reach out to him and ask him to submit to the anthology. Jon is a new author that I was acquainted with, but had not read his work, prior to submitting to the anthology. It is always a pleasure to meet a new writer and instantly have an amazing dynamic between writer and editor and I really hope I get to work with both of them again. It was such a wonderful experience. - And full disclosure as well, I think this needs to be said, that all the stories chosen for the anthology were not chosen by me, exclusively. There were some last minute changes, but the anthology contest and initial content was decided by an editor who was given the works anonymously and was asked to rate and choose from all of the submissions. I wanted to make it fair and transparent because I am familiar with some of the authors involved in the anthology.
M: Your own short story, “The Burden of Sight” was one of the more thought provoking tales in the anthology. What was the inspiration for your story?
D: Well fuck. You’re going to make me talk about myself, now aren’t you?! Alright fine. The Burden of Sight is...well, without getting too heavy or philosophical, but it’s an homage to the burden that Empaths have when we know the things we know. It’s about coming to terms with being the bearer of knowledge that no one else has, few others understand, and fewer believe us about. And what do you do with that knowledge? Why do we know those things? Where do those things come from? What if I fuck it up? All of those things were inspiration for The Burden of Sight. I used the medium of saying goodbye because I thought that was something many people could relate to. It’s something so simple that means so much. And what if you could bestow that gift upon someone else? It’s something so precious, in my opinion, that we often take it for granted.
M: In addition to being a writer, you’re also an editor. What’s your top tip for fellow writers when they are self-editing?
D: For self-editing? The biggest tip I can recommend is read your manuscript out loud or stick it in google docs or kindle to review it in a different medium than you are used to. Also, print it out, if you usually work on the computer. It seems simple, but when you change the medium, your brain thinks it’s interpreting something new. It’s a neat trick to look for things like flow, pacing, repeated words, redundancies, things like that. Another tip, that I think doesn’t get mentioned enough, is use the FIND function. Grab a list of commonly used words and phrases and see how many times you objectively use them in text. You may be surprised what your word is or how many times you use it.
M: The FIND function is my best friend. I use it to find my crutch words and eliminate passive voice all the time. So when can we expect more from Inked in Gray? And what about your own personal writing? Anything new on the horizon?
D: Inked has a ton of new things in the works, actually. We decided to close to general novel submissions on Sept 15th in order to switch gears into some of the other projects we’ve been developing. After general submissions close, we will be releasing the theme for our next anthology. We’re also working on two projects - I’ve been sworn to secrecy for now - that we will be issuing open calls for once we are far enough along on them. I’m really excited about all of them, honestly, and I can’t wait to share them with everyone.
M: Kota, thank you so much for joining me, and good luck with the anthology! Tell us where people can find The First Stain!
D: Thanks for having me! This was a fun time. You can find out more about Inked in Gray here:
The First Stain on Amazon
Inked in Gray Website:
Dakota Rayne on Twitter:
Inked in Gray on Twitter:
Inked in Gray on Instagram (IG):