My #Podcast for #Readers and #Writers is up! Episode 1: #Raybearer by #JordanIfueko

Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve officially got the first episode of my podcast done and done. To help celebrate Wyrd and Wonder–and because it’s just been recommended so gosh darn much–I chose to start with Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out together.

I hope you enjoy this sip from the story with me. Any feedback on the podcast itself will also be greatly appreciated, as I hope to make this a weekly thing. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: #StoryEndings and #LooseEnds (Also, a Defense of #EarwigandtheWitch)

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Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!

Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:

I’m talking about the little Middle Grade fantasy Earwig and the Witch.

And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.

However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?

Adapting.

Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.

After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?

I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.

They. Didn’t. Matter.

Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.

Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.

So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”

The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.

“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig.
The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.”
“Nonsense!” said the Matron.
“But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.”
Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.”
Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.

I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.

Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.

Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.

Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.

For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.

Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.

The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.

[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.

After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:

“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”

Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.

THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?

Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?

Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.

Aren’t these illustrations by Paul Zelinsky a scream?

It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)

When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.

She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak,
“Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.”
Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”

When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.

But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?

A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.

So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.

And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.

~STAY TUNED!~

Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.

Just look at the drama packed into these characters! xxxxxx

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#AuthorInterview: #indie #fantasy #writer @miladyronel discusses #writing #upsanddowns, #redflags in #publishing, and other journeys spurred by #books.

Put that Wisconsin snow globe down already!

Hello hello, fellow creatives! I hope you are well and safe where you are. As a friend of mine said on Facebook, Wisconsin seems to be stuck in a snow globe that some cosmic child keeps shaking.

Winter may be magical, but I think we’re all up for a different kind of magic, wouldn’t you say? Let’s add some fantastic wonder to our writing and reading lives with the help of the ever-magical dark fantasy author Ronel Janse van Vuuren.

Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts, Ronel, as well as your stories. I see you’ve got a stunning free ebook available for those who sign up for your newsletter. You describe Unseen as a trio of stories that dive into folklore about the mistress of the veil. I love how deep you dig into folklore and mythology to craft unique stories for modern readers. What kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Thank you. I get an idea for a story. Then I flip through one of my folklore books (whichever one catches my eye that day) and I’ll read through the entries until something clicks. Then I’ll go and research whatever I found on sacredtexts.com where all the books about folklore and mythology that have lapsed copyright live online. To keep everything organised and backed up, I’ll create a blog post about it (even if it’s something that has to be scheduled for two years from now) and look at how the thing was used recently in books, movies or games. It takes about two days to do all the research for a blog post and to write it. So, for example, for “Once and Future Queen” there’s the background of the Rift, Faerie, Seelie and Unseelie Courts, Solitary Fae and magic (all which already have their place in previous books and are all fully researched with blog posts written). But the Season Courts and the Elementals were only vague ideas when I planned this book. So four days for the folklore.

But I also used acid attacks, pottery, police procedure, and gardening in the book. I didn’t have to do much research on gardening – only the meaning of flowers – or any research on police procedure (know enough from personal experience). Which left acid attacks and pottery. Both subjects can pull you down the Pinterest rabbit hole. For the acid attacks, though, I just stick to following @stopacidattacks on Instagram because there are so many resources – and heart-breaking photos.

So for “Once and Future Queen”, I took a week to research everything I needed to know before writing. Plotting is a whole other beast!

Noooo kidding. I was just working on a synopsis for a new trilogy, and worldbuilding the hazy bits is EXHAUSTING. Do you consider plotting to be the toughest part of your artistic process, or would it be something else?

To stop dreaming and to start doing. I create all these stories in my head, talking to characters for hours – and then I remember that I can’t plug a USB cable into my head and download the story to my computer, I actually have to type it. And my head works a lot faster than my fingers (despite typing at a crazy speed that means replacing my keyboard three times a year).

Heavens, that’s a lot of keyboards! I wish I could type that fast, but I get distracted by kids learning from home…or a phone call from the principal when they’re at school. (Sigh) That just does my creativity in. What is your writing Kryptonite?

Shiny new ideas. And stationary! Weird, but these can keep me distracted from what I’m actually working on. I shouldn’t be left alone anywhere that notebooks, pens or anything else deemed “stationary” can be found. I even have a Pinterest board about stationary… https://za.pinterest.com/miladyronel/got-to-love-stationary/

Ha! This is why I can’t hang out in used bookstores or at library sales. I’m always distracted by the possibilities! You mention another big struggle with focus, though, regarding your ADHD, especially after you published your first book. How did publication change your process of writing?

Yes! First, I had to rein in my ADHD. It meant that I had to change the set-up of my writing cave (desk faced away from windows, drapes drawn during the day, internet access hidden until nightfall, phone set to aeroplane mode, etc.) to optimise focus. Then I had to work out an editorial and a writing calendar. It took some time, but I finally have one that is flexible enough to be changed if I have sick days (I hate getting flu because someone two streets away sneezed) or if I get the chance to join an online writing summit (the Women in Publishing Summit the first week of March every year is well-worth attending). I’m usually six months ahead with my work. Before I made this shift, I would jump from project-to-project never finishing anything – I still have folders full of half-finished ideas that I’m turning into amazing stories.

I have quite the list of half-finished ideas, too. Heck, some of them are even on this site, if one wishes to check out What Happened when Grandmother Failed to Die. 🙂 Would you say writing energizes you, or does it exhaust you?

Planning, plotting and researching are energising phases, mainly because it’s all new and shiny – and I can do it in any order which suits my ADHD quite nicely. Writing, on the other hand, is exhausting. Not only does it require me to slip into the mind and skin of the character, feeling what the character is feeling, experiencing what the character is experiencing, and going through time at hyperspeed, it also takes a lot out of me mentally, emotionally and physically to be in that mental space for hours at a time (and it’s painful on my carpal tunnel, leaving me with swollen hands at the end of the writing day). For example: after writing one complete story line in one sitting in “Once and Future Queen”, I was in tears à la Joan Wilder in the opening scene of “Romancing the Stone”. Yeah. Hopefully readers will have the same reaction.

I think we all hope our books pull at something deep within our readers, just as other books have done to us. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel and why?

“Ushig” by Annemarie Allan is my favourite novel that seems to be invisible on Goodreads. I bought it a decade ago on an online store (as a paperback – I love paperbacks!) and it was so dark and thrilling I just had to read it again to figure out whether I liked or hated it. It introduced me to the Celtic water horse, the ushig, and made me want to learn more about the different types of water horses across cultures.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Unfortunately, yes. For a long time, almost a year, I struggled to read. I pretended that it was because of bad grammar or something silly story-wise that pulled me from the book, but it was as if I just couldn’t read. Then I found this amazing series about faeries by another South African author and it was like coming up for air. Maybe the books are better in my head than they actually are, but after reading three (there are nine primary works and three companion books) I felt like I loved reading again. So I space reading the books out in case reading becomes dull again (it took me two years doing it like that to read the entire series).

Click here to read my reviews about the “Creepy Hollow” series.

Thank you for the recommendation! Such books really motivate us to find the settings that inspire their authors. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

I’ve done virtual pilgrimages to New Orleans (vampires, am I right?), several locations in France (the Bastille, anyone?), and Bath (Jane Austen knew her stuff). My first literary pilgrimage happened by chance when I was a tween: I read this amazing book I had borrowed from the school library (can’t remember the title, though it had something about running in it) and it mentioned a local stadium. A few weeks later, my primary school had a sporting event there and I could see the characters from the book competing in their final sprint. It was absolutely amazing. One day I’d like to do those virtual tours in person so I can experience the physical and imaginary spaces meet as I did that day when I was twelve.

YES–I’d love to visit the lands that inspire my favorite stories. Folks, if there is a place you would love to visit on a literary pilgrimage, please share it in the comments below!
Now, back to writing. You write a good deal of fantasy, both in series form and as standalone stories. Series writing is often the “hot” thing to do from a marketing perspective, but let’s face it–a lot of stories can be told in one book! Can you describe your process for choosing whether a story requires one book or more? 

With my current on-going series, the decision was made to do several short books as it isn’t conforming to any publishing norms: the first book (for free on most online retailers) has a couple of flash fiction pieces (defined as a story shorter than a thousand words) followed by the folklore from original (very old!) sources. It serves as an introduction to the series. The second book, exclusive to newsletter subscribers, contains three connected short stories followed by a bit of folklore. Books three and four are flash fiction collections, books five, six and seven are short story collections, books eight, nine and ten are novellas, and the last five will be even longer as they connect storylines from all the books before them.

Readers will either love or hate this way of telling the story. But with so many storylines and characters that tell the bigger story, it was the best way for me to tell it and for readers to consume it (in bite-size pieces). I’ll probably release a box-set when all the books are done (hopefully by the end of this year!).

But for other stories, I stick with one escalating problem per book. In “Magic at Midnight”, Amy saving her pegasi no matter the cost was the core problem, everything else just sort of happened and anything that would have dragged the story beyond one book was cut. There might be more books set in that universe at a future date, but then the series will be connected through a shared universe, not because Amy’s story was dragged out.

Personally, I like to look at TV series to see when they’re dragging a thing out too long. For example: “The Vampire Diaries” ends perfectly at the end of season four when Damon and Elena end up together. The point of the series was to get her to choose her true love between the Salvatore boys, and when she chose the Salvatore I liked, it should have ended. Torturing Damon in season five, Elena being removed from the series in season six, mama Salvatore coming to town in season seven, and the Sirens in season eight were all filler until Damon and Elena end up together anyway. The point? Know what your story is about and cut anything that doesn’t belong.

Excellent advice! There are many traps for writers aspiring and established alike, and we all fall into them at some point. What are the worst you’ve seen?

Most traps are set in “everyone knows” or strongly believing something because it is “what everyone says.” As you move deeper into the writing world and especially the dark side, as Mark Dawson calls indie publishing (he’s a big-name indie author, FYI), you learn that you have to forge your own path and do things your own way. But here are the biggies that is especially prevalent among South African aspiring writers and I believe everywhere else:

  • Believing everything Stephen King says in “On Writing” to be gospel. (It’s a good book, but there are other great books about writing, too. See my Goodreads shelf for inspiration.
  • Believing that being published through a big publishing house is the only right way to be published.
  • Believing that having an online presence as an author shouldn’t be done until a publisher tells you to do so.
  • Being so desperate to have that publishing deal, that they’ll sign their rights away without thinking twice.

These are definitely major assumptions we’ve got to work on changing. Considering your experience in writing and publishing, what would you say is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

There are several. Some I even fell for as a newbie author. To be absolutely safe, I suggest checking out “Writer Beware” run by Victoria Strauss.

Two I would warn about, though, as they aren’t talked about enough.

  • Reviewers asking for money. It happens. It’s even acceptable in some places. Even on BookSirens (the best place to find reviewers in one spot) has good reviewers asking for a fee. But here’s the thing: Amazon doesn’t like paid reviews. And if a reviewer contacts you because “they love the blurb and the cover is so gorgeous” you shouldn’t feel flattered: just delete the email. This was a costly lesson. Not only didn’t the reviewer deliver on her end (despite shining testimonials and seeing all the proof that it is money well spent), she got my surname wrong. Building your own review team organically is the best way to get honest, proper reviews for your books.
  • Sponsors of competitions offering more services for your book. Look, at first I didn’t think twice about it. I knew nothing about indie publishing and thought the amount the “self-publishing with support” company was asking to convert my book into an ebook was reasonable (the prize of printed books I’d won was worth more than twice that). The promises of promotion and all the other things that sound good (getting your book into a brick-and-mortar store) didn’t happen. And despite telling them what the price for the ebook should be, I found it for five times the price on the (only) store they’d published it to. With Amazon, you can easily convert your own ebooks (with Kindle Create) and your paperbacks (either with Kindle Create or with their templates) for free, you can hire freelancers on Upwork to do it for you, and you can format your ebooks easily on Draft2Digital for free. It doesn’t have to cost as much as the printing of a couple dozen books – for an epub “that you can load to Amazon” (tip: Amazon prefers mobi or Kindle Create (kpf) files).

Thanks you SO much for taking time to chat with me, Ronel! Let’s wrap up with a little marketing advice that helps fellow indie authors avoid those unethical practices and helps them connect their stories to readers. What have you found to work with marketing your own books? 

Being authentic. Readers want to connect with the person behind the words. It’s not always easy. I mean, going through the process of your furbaby dying is excruciating enough without sharing it on Instagram, but sharing those real moments in your life help readers to feel like they really know you. The same with sharing a new haircut. Some things are off-limits, like the parts of my life connected to others who don’t want to be on the internet, but I share enough without over-sharing. It works a lot better than doing cover reveals, blog tours and all the other “must-do” marketing things put together. (Though I still love doing cover reveals and blog tours.)

Thank you for having me.

Anytime, Ronel! Folks, I hope you can check out Ronel’s site and all her amazing books.

~STAY TUNED!~

A random library selection has taken me down some new roads of worldbuilding. I hope you’ll join me as I ride the rails and roads through some fantasies of other-wheres…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#LessonsLearned from #JohnLeCarre: Always #Write a #Setting of Quality.

Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.

Tales of action and adventure have been long been a part of my life, and Bo’s, too. James Bond is a mutual favorite–the suave rogue against impossible villains, constantly in daring chases across the world, winning all the women and destroying all the doomsday devices. That’s what spy films are all about, right?

And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.

Image from Bond on the Box. Click the link for more information on a fascinating debate between Anthony Horowitz and David Farr about the spy-worlds crafted by Fleming and Le Carré.

The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.

In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.

Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.

In the spirit of SJ Higbee’s Friday cover comparisons, let’s see a few covers. while I love the ornateness of the Q, isn’t it a shame the back color is a drab white? The gold is practically lost to it.

We begin.

Chapter 1: Black Candles

The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.

“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.

And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?

“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.

This cover tells me I am in a school, but that’s it. The font for title and author are equally vague. Blech.

And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.

They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…

Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.

But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂

For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.

Crosshairs! Well now, that is exciting. 🙂 But why the pea green?

We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.

…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.

Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.

“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.

Carne isn’t the only gloomy place

in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.

Who the bloody hell designed this?! There are no mysterious men in sunglasses, no sexy dames with their thighs hanging out. Just because a spy is in the novel doesn’t make it a spy novel! You are a very stupid boy, Tomkinson!

Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.

This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:

“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”

“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.

Now this one I rather like. The red threatens, the long shadow looms. The boy on a bicycle looks to the side as if worried (as he should be). The text size and color aren’t ideal, but they do stand out without detracting from the boy.

Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:

“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”

It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”

Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.

[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.

We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.

Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.

~STAY TUNED!~

Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Indie #AuthorInterview: @SavyLeiser Discusses Tough #Storytelling, the Importance of #OwnVoices, and the Joy in #Writing #RealStories of #RescueDogs in @FureverBooks

Happy December, one and all! I think we would all love to enjoy some stories with our morning dish of treats, wouldn’t you say?

Luckily I have just the thing.

As I was researching the murky world of network marketing (aka, multi-level marketing) for my short story “The Hungry Mother,” I came across an indie author who spreads awareness of networking marketing’s scams while also writing YA novels and books dedicated to rescue dogs and funding rescue shelters. My friends, please welcome Savy Leiser!

Let’s jump first into how hard you help promote other writers and voices. I was deeply moved by your June video on OwnVoices and Diversity in fiction. You emphasize the vital role sensitivity readers play in bringing a story to bookshelves—and how publishing companies need to pay more attention to them. Have you noticed any shifts in the publishing world to be more inclusive, or no?

Thank you! I’m glad you liked that video. From my perspective, I’d say yes, there has been a shift to be more inclusive. However, I’m always cynical regarding big corporations. A lot of the pushes for diversity by larger publishing houses seem to be performative. I recently posted a video called “Books I’m Reading for Bisexual Visibility Day,” and after reading A LOT OF BOOKS, I noticed a consistent pattern: the books that were self-published or published by small presses had way better representation. I think a lot of times, big publishers study and adapt to market trends (which is reasonable from a business perspective) but a lot of the push for inclusion comes from indie authors writing what they want to write and putting it out there, not taking no for an answer. I’ve talked about this in other videos too; sometimes I worry that publishing houses are scared to publish m/f romances with bisexual characters because it’s easier to box something into the market as a “LGBTQ+ romance” or a “straight romance” — but indie authors are doing a great job with that already.

It definitely seems to make a big difference when indie authors have that extra creative control. I remember you saying something about a neat new way readers can get a hold of awesome indie reads. What was it, again?

Yes! Another YouTuber, Amara Franklin, just launched an indie books subscription box! It’s called the Indie Bookworm. Here’s the website: https://theindiebookworm.com/

Ah, that was it–thank you! Let’s peruse your own books for a bit. You first published The Making of a Small Town Beauty King back in 2016. This coming-of-age novel brings to life many family struggles in a small-town setting many of us can relate to. What inspired the seed of this story to take root in you, and how did publishing Beauty King change your process of writing?

My original inspiration for this novel was the town where I went to high school. Most people know I’m from Chicago (and still live here!) but when I was younger, my family moved to rural Pennsylvania for a few years, and I went to high school in a Philadelphia suburb with a town fair. Our fair had a beauty pageant, where a few of my friends won awards over the years. I always considered entering but I was never good at adapting to traditional beauty standards. As a teenager, I had that constant conflict of what empowerment for women meant; did it mean a lack of pressure to adhere to beauty standards, or freedom to adhere to those if you choose? (This is a theme I explore in Sculpt Yourself as well.) When I was in college, I decided to explore these feelings in a screenplay for a class, and after I graduated I decided to turn it into a novella.

As one who helped care for her grandmother during her last years suffering dementia, the premise of your novel One Final Vinyl really struck a cord with me. Does this story have roots in your own life? What inspired the road trip your protagonists (a teen and a ninety-year-old woman) take?

Yes! This book has two main inspirations: my own grandmother and another 86-year-old woman I met and never saw again. My grandmother, Kasia (my parents recently adopted a new dog that they named after her! And I’m planning out a big tattoo of her name to get on my arm soon) was one of my primary guardians during my early years. When my mom was working 4 shifts, I spent most of my time at my grandma’s house, so she and I were really close. She started showing signs of dementia when I was in high school and she passed away when I was 19, which took a huge toll on me. A couple years later, an 86-year-old woman appeared at my front door in the middle of the night. She had driven away from her retirement home and gotten lost, and she also seemed to show signs of dementia. While we waited for her daughter to come get her, she and I spent the evening having Christmas cookies and tea while she told me about her childhood in the Great Depression. I’ve never seen her since then, and I’m not sure if she’s still alive, but that kind of interaction, where two people randomly cross paths like that, hit me really hard emotionally, especially since she reminded me of my grandma whom I’d lost recently. Sometimes I’d ponder, what would happen if I’d spent more time with her? What would’ve happened if someone randomly met another person like this and ended up on a road trip? Eventually, the pieces for the story came together for me.

You work damn hard taking readers into places they may not have been ready to go on their own, but through your characters they can tackle issues like self-worth and body image. Sculpt Yourself is a powerful example of this. As a writer, how do you balance telling a good story while also sharing an important message with readers?

I like to think of writing as my way to normalize a more equal world. We all have specialties and our own strengths we can use to make the world better. I’m not going to change laws; I’m not a politician or a lawyer. But I AM a writer, so I can use my storytelling abilities to get someone to think about an issue through a new perspective or to portray a world where those ideologies would be possible. To strike that balance, I focus on the characters and their relationships to one another first. In Sculpt Yourself, the focus is much more on Amber’s relationship with her sister and with her new girlfriend than it is with the sci-fi elements of Lipamorph’s development. I tried to create well rounded characters with a variety of viewpoints that could discuss these topics in an authentic context; that way, it feels like a story, not like I’m hitting the reader over the head with a message.

And thank you for that! I’m all for having an important message in a story, but not at the cost of telling the story well. Would you say writing energizes or exhausts you?

Both, LOL

HA! Fair enough. I know I’ve gone through those same spells where I can get a rush from a flurry of writing only to want a nap a few hours later. (Not that my kids would ever allow that, but I digress.) Establishing a creative atmosphere has been a HUGE challenge with the twins remote learning this year. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?

Being lonely. I’m a hardcore extrovert. I used to do my work in public, at coffee shops, or at random places throughout Chicago. But now there’s a pandemic going on. I also used to sell books primarily at events, like conventions and art fairs. But now there’s a pandemic going on! The pandemic has been REALLY rough on my business and my creative process and I’ve had to adapt a lot.

I could loan you my kids for a week if you’d like to re-create the hum of social noise, lol! Even reading can be a struggle sometimes. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Definitely! I go through periods where I’ll read like 12 books on my Kindle in one day, and then go months without reading anything. My reading habits definitely aren’t consistent.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

I read the book Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan for Pride Month in 2018. That book uses POV in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen: a combination of plural first-person POV through a Greek-chorus style setup, combined with an omniscient third-person POV of all the main characters. That book sticks with me because of how much it made me reflect on how authors can use character points of view to their advantage in storytelling.

What is your favorite childhood book?

I loved the American Girl books, and that company was actually a huge inspiration for the model I followed with Furever Home Friends. (Books and toys combined to help kids learn!) I loved the series about Molly from World War II. I have my doll of her displayed on top of my bookshelf.

Oh my gosh! I looooved the American Girl books, and I still have my Kirsten and Addy dolls. I learned so much about life in the 1800s and the struggle to build a new life after traumatic experiences. I’ve dabbled with writing historical fiction with my own novella Night’s Tooth, but I threw enough fantasy into it that the history’s a bit, um, loosey-goosey. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

That depends a lot on the book. For the 4th Furever Home Friends book, Kringle’s Christmas, the research was completed in one afternoon when I interviewed the owner of the shelter where he was living all about his story. For #SavvyBusinessOwner, I talked mostly about my own personal experiences, so I just launched into that book without a whole lot of research. It depends a lot on the project.

What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers?

Twitter!

Darn tootin’. I have to set a timer for myself so I don’t fall down the social media rabbit hole. It’s so tempting when we tell ourselves “but that’s where the small presses are! I could query!” Then here we are, two hours later, still reading reaction tweets about DC comics or something. As an indie author who has launched her own books as well as recently signed on with an indie press, what do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

That’s hard to say. The industry is vast and includes a lot of different types of companies, writers, creators, and readers. I don’t want to publicly trash talk any specific publications right now, but I do have a problem with the barriers put up to keep small businesses from achieving success on the level of the established big 5 publishing corporations. For example, if your book gets published with a big press, you’re more likely to get reviews in established periodicals that schools and libraries receive in the mail and use to make their purchasing decisions. Some reviewers will only accept books sent to them by publishing companies rather than individual authors.

I suppose that’s partly why you do a LOT as an indie writer when it comes to maintaining and building your platform. Could you share at least one method of marketing that, after three books and your awesome new #SavvyBusinessOwner: A Book for Small Business Owners!, you’ve found to be effective?

Thank you! Honestly, my YouTube channel has been the most effective form of marketing for me. With the internet being such a prevalent force in people’s lives (especially during the pandemic!) people are more likely to become fans of content they can receive for free. I think of all the webcomics I read for free online, and then went on to buy that creator’s book when they released one, or the YouTubers who created entertaining videos, who I eventually bought merch from or joined their Patreon. My YouTube channel is at almost 10,000 subscribers, which happens because I gave people video content for free. As a result, 10,000 people now know who I am and are AWARE that I have books out, even if they’re not interested in them. The hardest part of marketing is making people aware you exist. I talk about this process a lot in the “Screaming into the Void” chapter of #SavvyBusinessOwner.

Now I may be going out on a limb here, but if I were to guess your writing mascot, it would be your dog. One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was I LOVED the drive behind your book series Furever Home Friends. Please share what this wonderful series is about—and how there are matching comfy dogs and accessories that would make perfect presents for the dog-lovers in our lives!

Thank you! Furever Home Friends is my biggest, longest-running project, and I’m really proud to see this business growing.

For some background, Furever Home Friends is a series of picture books, stuffed animals, toys, and accessories based on real rescue dogs. Each book tells the story of a dog’s journey to adoption and includes a photo of the real-life dog in the back.

For each of our main book characters, we have a plushie friend of that dog that you can “adopt” on our website (that’s just a cute way of saying you’re buying the plushie, LOL) and accessorize with little dog-sized accessories that I created on a 3D printer. We donate 10% of our profits to animal shelters.

Thank you so much for sharing your incredible stories, Savy! I can’t wait to see what your imagination creates next. For those excited to check out Savy’s work, visit her YouTube Channel for a hub of her social media links as well as her Furever Home Friends series.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m determined to visit with you all before December ends because by golly, Christmas is my favorite holiday and I MISS YOU ALL. I want to talk about music and holiday storytelling, AND I’ve almost won Bo over to the idea of baking a Christmas Pudding. We shall see!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Indie #AuthorInterview: @KMAllan_writer discusses #magicalrealism in her #YA #Fantasy series

Hello, you amazing creatives, you! While I fuss about with preparations for my new teaching responsibilities as well as the launch of my new novel, I want to introduce you to an awesome YA fantasy writer who has a flair for bringing magic into the everyday world. K.M. Allan is a stellar indie author who loves sharing tips on writing and “authoring” on her website, and I’m thrilled to have her share some of her lessons learned with us.

Even though I’ve loved writing all my life, I still feel like I’m a newbie to this whole writing thing. What would you consider to be traps for aspiring writers?
Never knowing if you’re good enough. All writers have a level of Impostor Syndrome, but as an aspiring writer, it can be very crippling. You’re constantly looking for others to validate your work and tell you if it’s good enough when you should learn how to judge that for yourself. Another common trap, and one that I learned when I was first starting to query, is thinking you need to pay to have a submission professionally edited or assessed before sending it out. While you need to make sure what you’re sending out is as polished as you can make it, and definitely have it read by someone else to see if the writing works and there aren’t any typos, but it’s unnecessary to pay for these things.

That’s a great point! I have a short story submission I need to finish tweaking without stressing about it. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m writing and it’s going well and the ideas are flowing, it’s very energizing. If I’m editing, especially the nit-picky type of editing like looking for weak words to remove, it can be very exhausting.

Uuugh, the editing! I had to lock myself in a room to force myself through those final edits of my novel. Hands down, editing is the hardest part of my writing process. What would you say is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Definitely motivating myself to write. I love writing and always enjoy it when I do, but sometimes the motivation to sit down at the keyboard, especially when there’s a huge task ahead, can be hard to do. I think the fear of writing perfectly also hinders the artistic process. I definitely have ideas for how I want a scene to play out, and getting the words to create that same picture so others can see it too, can be difficult.

Selecting the right character for the focal point of the story is one of the crucial decisions a writer makes as they craft a story. Your Blackbirch series follows a male teen protagonist. Can you explain the process that led to the choice of choosing a male lead and not a female?
This is a bit of a hard one to answer. The writer in me has always considered one of the female characters, Kallie Jacobs, to be just as much a lead as Josh. She’s in the first scene of book 1 with him and is one of the first characters the reader meets. Book 2 is mostly her story and contains a scene where she saves Josh, which is what gave me the initial idea to write the series. From a reader’s perspective, though, the story of Blackbirch starts with Josh Taylor and what happens to him, so by default you could say Josh is the lead. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part to choose a male lead over a female; it was just how it ended up being once the plot came together on the page.

I’m a sucker for worldbuilding studies, especially when rules for magic are involved. Can you walk us through the process of the magic system in your Blackbirch series?
The source of Blackbirch’s magic (or magick, as it’s referred to in the books) comes from an ancient form of power. Eve Thomas, the book’s self-proclaimed witch, tells the MC, Josh Taylor, that the magick used to belong to ancient gifted humans but it became too much for them and was shared into every living thing, tainting and weakening the magick. There are some, like Eve, who believe greater sources of the power exist and are hidden in magical objects like crystals. She believes that if you find them, you can harness the power for yourself. What Eve doesn’t know is that Josh possesses the power Eve has been searching for. How he got that power and what he does with it is a big part of the first book in the series. In the second book, he learns more about the magick from a girl named Kallie who also has power like him. In that book, it’s revealed the power gives special abilities or gifts to whoever has the power, and these gifts are unique to them. If a witch dies, then whatever gift they possessed and their magick is gone forever, making it a rare and dangerous thing to have. 

Magical Realism is a very unique niche in the urban fantasy sub-genre. What was it about the worldbuilding process that made you feel this was the right direction to take your story as opposed to something in a different time or place?
I didn’t know Magical Realism was the genre of my book until I started looking at what I needed to categorize it as when I was first querying, and then later picking the right category for self-publishing. I wasn’t aware it was a unique niche, so correct me if I’m wrong hehe. When I first started writing this series I was inspired by TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell (the original TV series, not the reboot) and the YA books I’d always read. These were all set in modern times, so it made sense that my series was also written in a modern-day setting. It never occurred to me to write it in another time or place because that’s not what I like reading or watching. 

As a little preview for readers here, would you like to share a favorite exchange, description, or moment from your latest Blackbirch installment?
Yes, I would, thanks. This exchange is from book 2, Blackbirch: The Dark Half and happens right around the time Kallie Jacobs is first pulled into the world of magick when she witnesses the death of a friend. Kallie has always had a natural ability to see the future, and that comes into play when a witch named Melinda uses it to help Kallie—with fatal consequences.

“Don’t move,” a woman whispered in Kallie’s ear. “And don’t scream.”
The hand dropped from her mouth, followed by the arm around her waist.
“My friend,” Kallie’s voice cracked. “He’s hurt.”
“Your friend is dead.”
Kallie shook her head, as if it would somehow erase the truth.
The woman’s hand returned to her, fingers combing through Kallie’s blood-tangled locks. Who was the person trying to comfort her? The lined face and long blond hair weren’t familiar.
The woman tilted Kallie’s face toward herself. They didn’t know each other, yet the lady’s blue eyes trained on her like she was staring at an old friend.
“Surely you knew about the boy. You foresaw it.”
“How… how do you know about that?”
“I was watching the two of you when you entered the forest.”
“Why didn’t you help us?”
The woman glanced over her shoulder; in the direction the man had run. “I can’t interfere.”
What kind of bullshit was that? “Who is that man?”
“It would be better for you if you didn’t know.”
“It would have been better for me if you helped!” Kallie scrambled to her knees. The woman grabbed her wrists, holding her in place.
“Don’t ignore the things you see, or you will lose everything.”
Heat rushed to Kallie’s cheeks. “Are you threatening me?”
“You threatened yourself. And that boy’s life.”
Kallie twisted her hand free, slapping it across the stranger’s face. “I did not kill Jerry!” She flexed her wrist, her stomach sinking as finger shaped welts surfaced on the woman’s cheek.
The lady touched her reddened skin. “When we don’t ask for our gifts, they’re hard to accept.”
“I didn’t ask for anything.”
The woman nodded, the deep lines around her mouth sagging. “But you still have it.”
Her hand reached back to Kallie’s blood-stained hair and Kallie flinched, worried the woman was going to slap her back. Instead, her touch tapped across Kallie’s forehead. How did this woman know about the pictures she saw in her head?
Kallie yanked herself away, spying a tattooed wrist. Black ink in the shape of a witch’s pentacle stained the blond woman’s skin.
“You’re the witch! You did this!” Kallie clenched her hands. “I didn’t see anything real until you started watching me.”
“I started watching you because you began to see what was real.”
“No! You made this happen. You knew Jerry would die, that’s why you’re here.”
“You knew it too.”
“My vision of Jerry wasn’t real. It didn’t feel like the others.” Her usual visions came to her like snapshots, surfacing in her mind without any effort on her part. The image of Jerry in the water had been different, forced, jammed inside her head like an intruder. Like it was placed there… “By someone else,” she whispered the end of her horrified thought out loud. “What did you do to me?”

Many thanks to K.M. Allan for sharing her time, tips, and story! You can catch her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve got some bonus posts on the way to celebrate my own novel’s release!

I want to share the inspiration for my new antagonists, music for those moments of action and tension, and more. My first novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, will also be on sale during the last five days before Chosen‘s release.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writerproblems: Expectations and Payoffs in #Storytelling Done Right (or, #writingtips from #YouLetMeIn by @millacream)

Nothing grinds my storyteller-gears like set-ups that go nowhere. As writers, we don’t want to be too predictable, but we also know that subverting expectations is a HUGE risk that does not always pay off. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams is notorious for his “Mystery Boxes,” a method where one establishes several plot questions and mysteries early in the story to hook the audience and keep them riveted. Do Mystery Boxes have a place in storytelling? Of course. The problem comes when the content inside the Mystery Boxes fails to meet expectations.

(Darnit, I never did get to talk about Rise of Skywalker! Let’s tag that onto 2021, I guess.) For some, the Mystery within disappoints and unravels all the joy leading up to that moment. But then there are other Mystery Boxes that intrigue us from afar, that enchant us with every step we take to get nearer, that compel us to study it, to puzzle its workings until at last, it is time to open it, and what we discover within answers the Mystery while still leaving us searching for more.

And you do want to know, don’t you? Want to know if those stories your mother told you are true. If I really killed them all. If I am that mad.
This is the story as I recall it, and yours now too, to guard or treasure or forget as you please. I wanted someone to know, you see. To know my truth, now that I am gone.
How everything and none of it happened. (17)

The marvelous S.J. Higbee recommended Camilla Bruce’s suspense-filled tale of dark fantasy…or horror-fantasy? I’ll call this a suspense-fantasy with a taste for blood. Anyway, Sarah highly recommended the novel, and her recommendations do not come lightly. When my copy came in at the library, I tore through Bruce’s narrative in just a few days. It wasn’t for the world-building, mystery, or drama–all of which were aces in this book, for the record. Actually, it was Bruce’s work paying off expectations that really impressed me.

Let’s start on the very first page, a prologue of sorts in the form of a newspaper clipping detailing renowned writer Cassandra Tipp’s disappearance.

She has a history here, Officer William Parks Jr. said. The officer is no doubt referring to the trial following her husband’s violent death 38 years ago, where Cassandra Tipp was a suspect. The murder and its aftermath launched Mrs. Tipp’s writing career; her fame partly due to her therapist, Dr. V. Martin’s book about the case, “Away with the Fairies: A Study in Trauma-Induced Psychosis”, which briefly climbed the bestseller lists.

Woah! So this famous romance novelist was suspected of MURDERING her husband?! We haven’t even started the story yet, but we are intrigued. As readers, we picture what we think a romance novelist is like. Tipp presumes her nephew wonders the same thing as he and his sister embark on the directions Tipp’s lawyer gave for the two to inherit their mysterious aunt’s money: “How could a childless widow write so much about romance and love?” (15). The two find a manuscript in Tipp’s house, the final manuscript she will ever write. The lawyer’s directions to the siblings were clear: the manuscript must be read in order to find the code word needed to access the inheritance. When the two read the above excerpt from page 17, we readers are now wondering whether or not we’re entering Unreliable Narrator territory. After all, there was a doctor who said this Tipp lady was psychotic. And not just any psychotic, but a psychotic writer, which means Cassandra Tipp isn’t going to simply tell it like it is. Oh no–this character’s life comes in a fragmented sequence, shifting about in time, alluding to people and things in different eras of her life so you are always curious about something.

Take the opening of the next chapter on page 19. Tipp describes her husband and what he was like.

Who doesn’t love a redeemed villain, an angel with the alluring taint of sin? I never was so blind, never wanted him for being dangerous; I already had a dangerous lover–already knew the taste of sin. No wonder the ladies were cross, though, when his gorgeous body was found in the woods.
But I’m moving too fast, we’re not there yet. A lot of things happened before that.
One thing you must know: I was never a good girl.

As you can see, Cassandra Tipp is not going to “spill the tea” so easily, which means Camilla Bruce isn’t going to give away all this story’s secrets so quickly. This moment contains an example of something Bruce–and thereby the protagonist Tipp–does to “set up” the readers and stretch their expectations: she alludes to the promise of telling it all, and then diverts readers with something else, be it another experience or the introduction of a new character, like the Faerie named Pepper-Man. The promises are shared frequently throughout the book, such as two chapters later, when Cassandra Tipp interrupts her experiences to address her niece and nephew from within the manuscript:

This isn’t the story you expected. You were expecting a repenting sinner’s last confession. Expecting me to cry on the page, admit my wrongdoings and beg your forgiveness. Instead you et this: childhood memories. I am sorry about that–sorry to disappoint, but the truth of it is, I cannot recall a world without Pepper-Man in it, and him being in it was the beginning of it all.
We will get to the bodies eventually. (33)

Not just “body.” BodIES. Don’t ask about those bodies yet, though, for we have been promised to learn “eventually.” The word choice here hints to readers that whatever explanation will come about the bodies is a long way off. At this point, however, I doubt many readers are complaining, for now there’s this Faerie companion to try and understand. Camilla Bruce does not completely open Pepper-Man’s Mystery Box, for protagonist Cassandra Tipp is given multiple “claims” from the Pepper-Man on how he came to be in her life. All that matters is that he is in her life, changing as she changes both mentally and physically. As a girl, Cassandra is in constant conflict with her mother, a woman who hates nature and wild, unkempt creatures. The fighting is often violent, and results in Cassandra spending most of her time locked in her room.

I would think back on this time of ceaseless fighting later, when I was the one who had to fight–in vain–to make a teenage girl see reason. It’s as hard as catching a slick fish, the way she skitters and twirls out of reach. (53)

WHAT?!

Please keep in mind, Cassandra Tipp is telling us on page 53 that she “was the one” fighting with a teenage girl–that is, that Cassandra Tipp is a mother. Yet didn’t we hear in the very beginning that she was childless?

Indeed we did. Another Mystery Box has been set before us, one just as bright and intriguing as the murdered bodIES. Is Camilla Bruce going to keep presenting these boxes, or is she going to start opening some?

Considering I don’t want to open all these boxes before you get a chance to read the story, I will allow us to peek into a couple, just to prove that You Let Me In isn’t the Dark Faerie version of The Force Awakens.

Recall how the prologue alluded to the murder of Cassandra Tipp’s husband and her place in the case. Camilla Bruce sprinkles the promises that Tipp will tell us at various places in the first 100 pages, each promise revealing just a smidge more new information. Take this excerpt of a conversation between Tipp and her psychologist Dr. Martin:

“I did kill him, T-; I mean, but that was a long, long time ago.”
“You see, we disagree about that. I remember very well meeting you and T- at your house, and he seemed very much alive to me. Very much flesh and blood. Very much a man.”
“He was supposed to appear so,” she said patiently, as if I [Dr. Martin] were a child. “But it wasn’t really real, you know. When the spell finally broke, his body would just be twigs and moss again.”
“That is not what the police found in the woods.” I kept my voice calm. “They found several body parts. All of them were human.” (69)

Oh…so, we are not just dealing with a body. We are dealing with “parts” in the woods. This sounds vicious, cruel, inhuman.

But that is all we are given. So we must read on.

And now, my young friends, it’s finally time to talk about Tommy Tipp and what happened to him in those woods. (83)

….

You would be confused at this point, I guess. This all happened long before you were born, yet you have met Tommy Tipp many times. He was my husband for over a decade, so how could he have died at twenty-four? Tommy was not what you thought he was, but then I have told you that already.
If you keep turning the pages, I will tell you just what he was. (102)

You see those page numbers? Almost 20 pages go by, and Cassandra’s truth about Tommy Tipp is still not complete. Camilla Bruce carefully paces the information so that as one Mystery Box is slowly opened we are constantly distracted by a different Mystery Box, such as Cassandra Tipp’s aforementioned “teenage girl.” Cassandra Tip rarely mentions her in the first 100 pages.

“Denial, my dear,” Dr. Martin said. “Denial is a powerful drive.”
“Mara says that you are the one in denial, and that she will leave a token on your pillow tonight to prove it.”
….
Mara said later that she had indeed visited the doctor that night leaving half a leaf and acorn by his side. Dr. Martin never mentioned it, though, so either he had not seen it…or maybe–just maybe–he too was in denial. (76)

It is not until after Cassandra’s wedding to Tommy Tipp–and that Mystery Box, as it were, was fully opened–that Camilla Bruce lets us pay more attention to Mara.

“A faerie bride,” she whispered. “That is what my mother is.”
“A faerie child,” I whispered back. “That is what my daughter is.”
~*~
I guess that through all this you have started to wonder about Mara. Who is this person so dear to me, yet absent from your mother’s memories, this woman who draws me to the mound and calls me Mother? The young girl I have been fighting with–and warning you about, though perhaps not strongly enough?
I’ll tell you about Mara, and how she came to be. (121-2)

This is a section where readers’ wonderings about an unreliable narrator strengthen. Dr. Martin’s study of Cassandra Tipp becomes more scientific, more “expert” in matters of the mind and how it copes with trauma. Cassandra herself gives us two different tales of what happened to her body as a teenager. Camilla Bruce does not direct readers one way or the other. All readers know is that questions remain, and the answers to those questions are rarely easy. Or safe.

…questions about what happened later–those other deaths that occurred…I guess I owe you some answers about that. The “family tragedy.” The violent end. Somebody ought to know what really happened.
And so I keep writing–and you two keep reading. (137)

I’ll end my analysis here, so as not to ruin any more surprises for you. Obviously I highly recommend You Let Me In for an unsettling, thoughtful read to pass the time on a chilly autumnal day. But I recommend this book even more to my fellow writers, for we all can use a good reminder of what it means to pay off those expectations. No matter how much our Mystery Boxes sparkle with magic and intrigue on the outside, the inside–the payoff, the promise, the end–must be just as unique as that which enticed readers in the first place. If not, then our stories will be forgotten beneath the tattered scraps of expectations our readers throw away.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another lovely interview with an indie author coming up! I’m also hoping to share some highlights from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen as we grow nearer to its release later this month.

Throw in the twins’ virtual schooling and my promotion to full-time teaching at the university, and we’ll have an interesting October, indeed. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#IndieAuthor #Interview: @SJHigbee shares #bookjoy with #reading and #writing delightfully #adventurous #sciencefiction and #fantasy

Welcome, Friends, to yet another splendid interview with a beautiful indie author soul! I am thrilled to pause all this chaos of teaching, parenting, and preparing my own novel for publication so I may introduce you to the cosmic dreamer and eternal adventurer, S.J. Higbee.

To call you an “avid reader” feels like a huuuuge understatement. Can you share a little of your reader’s journey with us? That is, can you tell us what inspired you to take on book reviewing with such gusto, and your process for choosing the books you do for reviewing?

Visit her at @sjhigbee & her website sjhigbee.wordpress.com.

I’ve always been an avid reader. Once I got to school and realised the power of words and how stories could take me away from where I was and to different worlds – that was it. I was away…

I originally started reviewing for SFReader.com, a forum for science fiction and fantasy readers and writers from 2006-09. However, I soon had a hefty backlog of reviews stacking up, as I thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing down my thoughts after reading a book. So once I started my own blog back in 2009, it made sense to mostly review books on it. I stumbled across other book reviewers, almost by accident.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

The late, great Terry Pratchett. There aren’t many authors whose complete output we own, but we have all his books, including Where’s My Cow? We also own all Lois McMaster Bujold’s books and I’ve read nearly all of Jo Walton’s output. I am the ultimate mood reader, however. While I do get a steady stream of books from Netgalley, I take care never to overdo it, so I’m forced to sit down and read something that I really, really don’t want to.

Hmmm, I bet those moods can put a damper on the book joy at times. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Yes. When I’ve forced myself to trudge through a book that isn’t speaking to me on any level. So I don’t do it, anymore. If I don’t like a book, I DNF it – and that includes Netgalley arcs. I generally don’t mention DNFs on my blog, because I have strong opinions and specific tastes and while I cut loose when discussing book covers and in my private notes about books I’ve disliked sufficiently to stop reading, I don’t think it’s fair to share those views with a wider audience.

I know you’ve recently moved out of the classroom, but as a fellow teacher, reader, writer, and parent (well, I know you’re also a grandparent, but I’m not there *yet*, thank Heaven!), I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can spread literacy awareness among children today.

I’ve taught children with specific learning difficulties and the secret is always to find what motivates them – be it rulebooks for computer games, cookery recipes and in one case building suppliers’ lists, and use those to spark their interest in reading. Above all MAKE IT FUN! Words games… silly voices… reading a word each… And always stop before the child becomes fed up, so they are left wanting more. Little and often is far more effective than longer stints twice a week, which is why so many children don’t learn to read effectively at school.

Amen to that! When we turn reading into a treat, we know they will ALWAYS be ready for that treat. Rather like cookies, don’t you think? I wonder now if the publishing industry could be doing more to promote literacy.

Children’s writers do a fantastic job in promoting literacy by visiting schools and talking about their characters. But I would LOVE to see more serious imagination with regard to interactive programs to aid literacy. In fairness, I don’t think the publishing industry should be responsible for promoting literacy skills – but governments certainly should. What about a game like Fortnite actually using wordgames, punning, jokes and literacy games, in addition to all the cool graphics, driving music and action scenes, as part of a national reading scheme? It shouldn’t be the only way to reach children, of course. But certainly ought to be part of a range of resources to target children who spend a lot of time on their screens.

Now, let’s talk about your writing. You’ve written a number of slick Sci-Fi novels, including the YA Sunblinded trilogy, the Arcadian Chronicles, and the standalone Netted. What draws you to science fiction more than other genres?

I love the fact that when I open the cover, I never know exactly what I’m getting. To ensure that’s the case, I very rarely bother reading the blurb in advance, either. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a struggle to make sense of what is going on – especially if I’ve crashed midway into a series, but as long as the worldbuilding and characterisation are sound, I’ll generally make sense of what is going on. It’s the genre I love reading the most – and when it goes well, the tingle factor is off the charts… Fantasy is right up there, too.

I never get tired of that tingle! I must admit, though, I cannot crash into the middle of a series as you often do. 🙂 In an age where publishers are eager for stories that smack of potential franchise, what do you consider to be the strengths of a standalone novel?

Sometimes, there is a story I want to tell that is only the length of a single book. If that’s the case, then I don’t want to elongate it into something more drawn-out. I think most stories have a natural arc length – and part of the skill of the author is figuring out exactly what that length is. Some of my best reads, ever, have been standalone books.

You have certainly written your share of both series and standalones as well! Does writing energize or exhaust you?

It depends. If it’s going well, I find a high that I don’t get anywhere else. If it isn’t, then it’s both exhausting and depressing.

I love how you don’t peg yourself into writing a specific kind of character. Running out of Space’s Lizzy and Mantivore’s Kyrillia are both adventurous heroines, while Netted’s Kris is very reticent to take on the responsibilities the story quickly demands of her. Would you say each story helps you shape the characters, or the characters come to you and the story shapes around them?

Oh, it always starts with the character and an initial scene. Often I have dreamt that starting scene. However, the characters don’t leap onto the page fully formed and it is often a question of trial and error as to how they react to events around them that help me figure out exactly who they are. Up to now, I’ve been a pantser, but I’ve just started planning out my stories – and the main success has been in nailing the narrative arcs of all the main characters – it has made such a difference to the writing process.

World-building is HUGE for my writing process. If a story-world’s rules aren’t clear, then it’s a lot harder for readers to fully appreciate the plot’s stakes, let alone care about the characters. Science Fiction is no “easy” genre to write for—not only do you have to create a realistic place, but it also has to feel possible to reach in our future. Can you share a step or three in your world-building process?

I think anyone who writes SFF with any measure of success has to care about worldbuilding. The first rule has to be that it makes sense. I studied History at college, for which I’m constantly grateful. That perspective on how humans behaved in the past is really useful for extrapolating as to how they’d behave in the future. And if they doing something completely different from anything that has happened before, there has to be a solid reason for it.

However, all of that has also to be balanced against my personal loathing for pages of long-winded explanation in some nebulous authorial viewpoint. So readers often don’t get to know exactly what is going on all the time in all the corners of my worlds, because my characters don’t. I’m quite comfortable with that – though I’m aware it bothers some readers. It’s one reason why I use language as one of my main tools for worldbuilding – the slang and swearwords also denote issues like being overrun with pests, or melting icecaps without my even mentioning them.

Blech, I am not a fan of long-winded explanations, either. They exhaust me to read, let alone write…not that my kids give me oodles of time to write, anyway. Their moods are something of a writing Kryptonite for me. What would you consider to be your writing Kryptonite?

Becoming too tired. My instinct is to try and sprint, which is a problem as writing a novel is a marathon. I’m also one of those people who tends to hurl themselves, body and soul, into whatever they are doing. It has many rewards, but the cost is that I can get exhausted. And when that happens, I become ill. I have quite a lot of different calls on my time, which again, I really enjoy. I am lucky to have a lovely family and a range of wonderful friends, but there are times when it would be awesome to also have a writing clone I could shut up in an attic with a computer and never let out until she’s finished the book…

Let’s end on some help for aspiring writers. What’s a common trap you see them falling into time and again, and how can they avoid it?

Dialogue is often a surefire way of working out how experienced a writer is. Don’t use someone’s name if there are only two characters, unless one character is being hostile or arguing. When there are two people, they generally don’t call the other by name unless they are making a point. Don’t have your characters talking for too long – we generally bat a conversation back and forth between us if the power dynamic is equal. And rather than have a dominant character drone on for ages (as they often do in real life) have them, instead, constantly interrupt the subordinate character. Remember to include the thoughts and feelings of your viewpoint character, as they are on one end of a conversation.

YES! Thank you so much for sharing your reading and writing journey with us, Sarah, and for helping us find ways to better our own writing. This issue with dialogue is something I still struggle with, even as an editor when I was tidying up Fallen Princeborn: Chosen.

Arlen sets the bear cub running towards the thicket. “Come along, all of you. Dorjan and the others are waiting.”

But She-Bear does not move. “Why do you wear his weapon?”

Liam remains still on the shore where Charlotte and Arlen placed him, his speckled curls limp, his bruises painting what must be an abridged story of the pain he felt in the nets. So Charlotte answers, “The dagger worked for me in Dissecto-Library-Horrorland .” Charlotte grips one of Liam’s arms and hoists him to his feet.

The She-Bear bares her teeth, but Arlen’s hand upon her head silences her. “You…you worked land magic underwater?” he asks.

“How do you think that one mer-dude’s face got melted?”

Liam’s hand, as mottled as the rest of him, opens and closes as Charlotte wills. Her fingers press his own tightly about his own weapon.

Leather, iron, blood. Then comes the touch of Charlotte—sparks rip through his frame. No more the beaten boy.

“Try it now, Liam. C’mon, get some heartburn goin’. Blood firin’. You know. Flame on. Ppppffffooow.”

Liam closes his eyes and feels his inner wings stretch to blot out the past, if only for a few moments. He wraps his other hand around the base of the blade. The dagger takes its blood, as always.

This time, it pays back.

The blade crackles as it lengthens, its feathers smoldering. The blood sword shines as it did in the forge so long ago, when Liam’s ambitions burned their brightest. He brings the blade close to his face to taste old victories in its heat. He sees the world in melting waves, as he did so often after striking the earth, commanding it to swallow armies and villages whole.

There are no armies now. No villages. Only Charlotte dripping like a botched painting. Arlen halved on one side of the dagger; the beast halved on the other.

The beast, whom he was meant to kill. A mother and her child so…cared for…by…

“Who is this, Arlen?” Liam’s question rumbles slowly out of his lips.

No more evasion.

~STAY TUNED!~

While Autumn creeps its way slowly through Wisconsin’s forests and farmlands, I will continue to share more and more of my coming sequel with you. I’ve also got some interviews waiting in the wings as well as music and analyses to share. Thank you all once more for traveling with me through these unknown lands of indie publishing. You are each and every one of you a blessing to be thankful for.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

A #writer’s thoughts on boundaries in #magic. Plus a #CoverReveal and #ARC access to my new #YA #Fantasy #Novel!

Wisconsin’s upper half is filled with roads like this:

Narrow strips of asphalt and concrete wind their way through woods of towering pines, oaks, and birches. Turkey, deer, ravens, and squirrels keep a mindful watch of the roads we meager humans travel, feeding in the nearby grass and trees, unafraid to cross what little land we claim for our own. The North Woods may have its cabins and towns, but make no mistake–it is a wild place of bears and coyotes, wolves and cougars. It is not a place for wandering off the known paths.

Yet it is so very tempting, especially when someone has been there before…

I don’t know what it is about ropes, chains, and logs being used to mark a territory, but they always make me smile. I suppose it’s because they assume we Wisconsinites are polite folk adequately deterred by a rope. “Someone put up a rope? Well, I can’t go there, then.” It’s just a rope, not barbed wire. All it would take is a little slip under.

Not that my goody-goods of kiddos would allow it. “You can’t go in there, Mom!” Blondie says. “It says no trespassing!” Bash says. “Can I call the police now and tell them what your’e doing?” Biff asks. This then devolved into who would get to talk to the police officer, who would get to sit in the driver’s seat of the police car, who would get to use the radio, aaaaaaaand I didn’t get to cross over. Probably for the best–I don’t want them wandering off where wolves will happily greet children with toothy grins. But oh, my friends, that desire to explore was so very strong, for magic buzzed among the cicadas and dragonflies that day. And who doesn’t feel the magic when surrounded by trees so tall the sun only greets your face at midday? Who doesn’t follow the herons’ call as they soar overhead? Who doesn’t sit upon the lakeshore to watch the eagles swoop across the water to pluck thrashing fish with their talons? Who doesn’t feel their spirit glow green as the moss upon the rocks, eager for the North Woods to burn bright crimson, orange, and yellow in the coming autumn?

All it takes is a willfulness to cross into the forbidden.

It’s the start of so many beloved stories, isn’t it? The Father in Beauty and the Beast is a classic example, or Alice crawling into the White Rabbit’s hole in Alice in Wonderland. Many of Diana Wynne Jones’ stories involve crossing into new lands and/or worlds, be it Deep Secret, House of Many Ways, Fire and Hemlock…heavens, there’s a lot. The first that came to mind, though, was Enchanted Glass. The entire story revolves around Aidan and Andrew defining the invisible boundaries of Andrew’s “field-of-care” bestowed upon him by his wizard grandfather so they can determine who’s siphoning magic away for their own purpose. In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Agnieszka defies village law and enters The Wood, a place full of cursed, angry magic, to rescue her best friend. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call, Faerie re-define their own borders by surrounding the Emerald Isle in a timeless fog. Nessa and other youth must face The Call, that moment when they are transported into the Faerie realm, or find that access point to the realm first. The mound Nessa finds that marks the entry point reminded me of the mound Camilla Bruce creates in You Let Me In (a wonderful review by fellow indie author S.J. Higbee put me on to this dark adventure). The protagonist Cassandra has been involved with Faerie all her life, and in this moment she describes that initial crossing from “her path” to the Faerie path to the mound.

The shift was subtle, like the beginning of a rainstorm with oncoming mist. My trees gave way to strange ones, taller and wider, older by far, thick roots curling at their trunks. Their branches brushed my head as we walked beneath them, felt like fingers with very long nails. The path beneath my feet shone dimly in the faint light, scattered with fist-sized leaves, it was like walking on glass or silver, or on a frozen stream…the ground turned soggy and moist; the trees were drooping shapes with clusters of leaves brushing the ground…Finally, we came to a halt by a circular shape in the landscape, a grass-covered mound studded with jutting stones…They parted for us when we approached. Smiling faces, glimmering eyes. Hands that patted and touched.
Inviting me into their nest.
Into the dark, dark earth.

And then there are portals through boundaries so very ordinary that no one bothers to notice them. The wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes to mind. In Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, Will finds a typical looking knife that it is capable of literally cutting through the boundaries of time and space and into other earths. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, passages between the muggle and magical pieces of the world can be separated with very commonplace things, like a tavern or a train station’s wall. Recently I read the graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, where unlike the stop-motion film, the door to the Other Mother looks like any other door in the house. But we all know what looks can be, don’t we?

She walked into the drawing room and looked at the door. She had the feeling that the door was looking at her, which she knew was silly, and knew on a deeper level was somehow true.

In another Neil Gaiman novel, a town next to a magical border is literally named Wall.

Immediately to the east of Wall is a grey rock wall, from which the town takes it name. This wall old, built of rough, square lumps of hewn granite, and it comes from the woods and goes back to the woods once more.

There is even a guard who watches over the wall. Sure, those who live in Wall think that guard is crazy for thinking anything interesting could be beyond the wall, but the guard knows what lies beyond is not ordinary at all…

Such a wall became an inspiration for my own fantasy series, Fallen Princeborn. Readers first experience the Wall’s power with protagonist Charlotte when she’s stranded on an old farm with her sister. The farmer’s daughter, Jenny, trusts Charlotte to tell her about what it’s like to live in this unnatural place:

Chattering. Outside.
Charlotte looks out to see the full moon blanketing the woods in pale light. The Wall glows but for its shadows, and one in particular: a tiny shadow moving swiftly along the stones. The squirrel.
It stops. Faces them.
Jenny’s body seizes.
“Shit—” Charlotte blinks.
“Where’s my Charlie? My badge could use a shine.”
Charlotte blinks. What the—? Dad? No—
The squirrel, chattering.
Charlotte pulls the window shut and hugs Jenny to her chest. “Breathe with me, kid, one, two. Breathe with me, okay? Come on, he’s gone,” she lies, afraid of the squirrel’s chatter because it shouldn’t be able to create ghosts out of wishes and dreams—
A howl, long and furious. A swift black shadow runs along the Wall’s edge.
It leaps into the air toward the Wall and—with a streak of violet and shadow—is gone.
Charlotte waits for the squirrel to return, or that wolf, but nothing comes.
Even the stars seem to move and search the Wall, their light transforming the
clouds into fleeing ghosts.

Jenny’s face breaks from relief. “D can’t do much in the day, but at night he
chases the nightmares away.” She puts her head to the floor and listens.
Television voices keep talking. The hall floor doesn’t creak. Mrs. Blair never
heard them.
“But where do they go? Where do they come from?”


“The Wall.” Jenny crawls to one side of the sewing table while Charlotte positions herself on the other. Together, they can just see different pieces of the Wall exposed by moonlight. “My parents have never gone over it, and they’ve never talked about anyone living back there. It’s not marked as a nature preserve or conservancy or anything. It’s just… there. It’s been there as long as this farm. Longer.”
“Some wall, if it can’t keep them in.”
“I don’t think it’s about keeping them in so much as keeping us out.”
Autumn so often brings traces of smoke in the air from those who burn leaves or have final campfires. This evening there is a smell in the air, but it’s not leaves: it’s thick. Sticky. Persistent.
Hate.
Jenny pulls another sheet from her book, a page ripped out of a literature textbook. Jenny’s circled the four-line refrain over and over and over:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
“Yeats. ‘The Stolen Child.’ You think…” Charlotte has to pause, because to
say this is even possible… No, she couldn’t let this be possible. “You think those
animal things are fairies?”

Now, at long last, we can continue Charlotte’s story beyond the Wall, where another wall, this one underwater, awaits her crossing into the unknown…

It towers above them, surely taller than Rose House. Yet it stands incomplete: the wall runs about the width of Rose House, but the lake waters continue on either side. And directly in front of them there’s a large hole in the wall, as if it was built that way. Unlike the Wall above, this one allows life to grow upon it: seaweed, old and frayed as an ancient mariner’s hair, yes, but still, it is something growing upon the rock around that hole. The hole has a pull to it, a current that barely touches them with soft fingertips, but it is there, palpable, and Liam’s wings feel its pull. He has not known such a pull since traveling the Water Road so very long ago… “Where does that go?”
Blinkey sneers, steps backward. “Nowhere. Everywhere.”
“On pain of death, we’re bound by magic to remain within the Wall of River Vine—”
“Is that what you are afraid of?” Blinkey grins, displaying two solid rows of teeth shaped like little white Ws.
Charlotte feels the muscles in Liam’s arm tighten as he replies, “I am not afraid.”
“Think, Blinkey: your queeny can’t talk to us if these cursed tattoos kill us first.” Charlotte holds her right wrist up actually hoping the thorns will start moving. But they don’t.
Blinkey lazily twirls her spear as she steps out of the air bubble back into the water. The magic that reshapes her legs into a tail comes and goes, but the smile has not yet left her face.
Charlotte wishes it would.
Liam can’t take his eyes off the hole in the wall, or the seaweed that fails to sway with the current flowing through the wall. The seaweed is still. Resistant. It keeps all its fronds away from the hole. The water beyond the hole, it looks… dark, unfathomable.

Yup, this last bit is an excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, the second installment in the Fallen Princeborn series. Despite what happened with my publisher, you all encouraged me to fight the good fight and write on, so write on I did! Now at last Chosen is ready to be shared with you via ARC–Click here to access and get started. Come the week of Halloween, the ebook (and paperback, I hope!) will be ready for purchase.

The Blurb!

CHARLOTTE’S FAMILY MAY NO LONGER REMEMBER HER NAME,

BUT HER ENEMIES WILL NEVER FORGET.

Charlotte just wanted to start a new life with her sister Anna out of the reaches of their abusive uncle. When their journey led to Anna’s disappearance from human memory, Charlotte hunted for her sister and the mysterious creatures that took her behind an ancient Wall that hid a land of magic the world had long forgotten. Charlotte woke the Princeborn Liam Artair, and with his return the conflict between factions of the magical Velidevour turned cursed and deadly.

Now Charlotte must end this conflict before the land of River Vine and the inhabitants she’s befriended are consumed by Orna, Lady of the Pits, who is still very, very eager to see her beloved return. And Orna is not the only one who wants hold of the Princeborn Liam’s heart. These Velidevour come armed with firey wings, crimson claws, and pale fire, and like dead magic, they know no kindness.

The Bloody Days are soon returning, and they will not end until a choice is made, a choice that could tear the heart of River Vine apart.

Fallen Princeborn: Chosen is a direct continuation of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely, and Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury.

I am thrilled beyond measure to finally reach this milestone, and I cannot thank you again for encouraging me through all my doubts and fears. You, each and every one of you, are a blessing to cherish in this community.

Do you have a favorite story with a boundary into a magical realm, where a character willfully crosses into the unknown? Please share in the comments below!

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve got some fantastic interviews underway as well as music both cozy and creepy to get our autumn adventures started. I’ll also be sharing more excerpts from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and the sources of inspiration that helped create pivotal moments.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Publisher #Interview: #submitting #shortstories or #bookproposals to @SOOPLLC

Happy August, my friends! It is difficult to fathom that summer is already on its way out. The school supply displays are up–heck, I saw Halloween candy at Dollar General–and the fireflies have all but departed. And yet, time still feels frozen from the lock-down begun in March. Biff and Bash’s school will continue to be online until __insert random date because they’re all just “we’ll evaluate weekly” __, but unlike the spring, we’re expected to recreate the school day here at home, which means proctoring all these online lessons over the course of 7-8 hours while somehow doing my OWN job so I don’t, you know, lose it.

I know I’m not the only one in this situation. I know none of us would wish this situation on anyone else. Lastly, I also know that it is crucial to put as much positivity into the situation as we can because our loved ones feed off the feelings we share.

So, let’s focus on the chances for inspiring one another, telling stories to one another, and just being the spark that helps ignite another’s creative soul. Here’s a publisher that loves sharing authors the readers vote for: Something Or Other Publishing out of my very own Wisconsin. One of its directors, Christian Lee, was kind of enough to share his time with me so I could share a bowl full of SOOP here with you. 🙂

1. Let’s start with names. How did you come up with your brand Something or Other Publishing (SOOP)?

Our brand “Something Or Other” signifies openness to diversity and opportunity. When our Founder, Wade Fransson, was looking for avenues to publish his book, he envisioned a “full service traditional” publishing service which allowed creative control, a higher share of the royalties and direct access to decision makers in exchange for a willingness to share the responsibility of promotion and marketing. He realized that such a model could enable a diverse range of voices to be heard, on equal footing. Since there didn’t seem to be an appropriate label for this model, “Something Or Other Publishing” was born to serve these types of authors.

2.  I’d love to hear a little history behind the creation of SOOP–especially because you’re located in Wisconsin, my native state.

Madison’s Capitol Square, Photo via The Edgewater

Wade spent almost three years in Strategy and Operations for Deloitte Consulting, and then two years as an executive helping an expanding national company grow from thirty to 60,000 employees. During this time he gained extensive experience integrating emerging technologies with business strategy. He then left this corporate role to help launch an Internet startup called GoHuman.com, and it was around this time he met a woman. The startup failed, but that new relationship didn’t. After getting married and expecting their first child, they moved to Wisconsin to be closer to her family. Wade began to write his own book and realized that with the rise of self-publishing, print-on-demand, social media marketing, and other innovations, there should be a publishing model suited for authors who share responsibilities to market their books in exchange for higher royalties and more creative agency.

3. You have a unique system for your publishing company: Author-Driven Book Publishing. How does this work?

Instead of traditional submissions with a massive slush pile approach, all of our books start as a “Book Idea” where readers peruse the synopsis and vote to indicate they would read the book if it were published. This approach puts the author in the driver’s seat, allowing them the opportunity to get a publishing contract, so long as they build a verified following. Throughout the voting process SOOP works with the author to sharpen their understanding of the “Three P’s” of publishing: product, platform, and promotion. SOOPworks through these elements with the author as the book progresses toward publication. As a result, SOOP’s publishing process is a more collaborative process between author and publisher.

4. So, let’s say an author wants to submit a book to your site. What kinds of books are you looking for?

Primarily, we look for the right author before we look for the right book, so an entrepreneurial author who is eager to roll up their sleeves and collaborate alongside us is the ideal author and partner. In terms of specific genres, we publish a wide variety of genres, provided that they fit our editorial standards. For example, we recently published an anthology that was a mix of genres. We also have a particular interest in children’s books and just released a new one illustrated by Michael Gellatly, who did the maps for the Game of Thrones books. We have recently published a few books with religious subject matter, although we’re not a “religious publisher,” and we’ve also published a political book. In summary, we publish  a wide variety of authors first, and books second. We can always help an author improve their book. It can be difficult to make things work with an author with whom we’re not aligned.

5. As a publisher, I’m sure you’ve got a few peeves regarding what authors send your way. What should authors avoid when submitting to SOOP?

Our biggest challenge is addressing authors’ misconceptions on what the publishing industry really is, and how it should work so we want authors to keep an open mind to the process. With our Author-Driven Publishing model, we invite authors to learn about the business side of publishing as they go, with no initial commitment either way. Many authors underestimate the difficulty and expense of marketing a new work, and that the publisher needs the author to be on the front line, bringing their network and “platform” to bear in achieving initial, local success.  We provide many tools and considerable support, but the author needs to be behind the wheel and “drive” this up and through the initial book launch.

6. As an indie author, I’ve got to do, well, pretty much all my own marketing for my work. How do you and your authors work together to build a platform for your books?

Our voting system has platforming built in. Each vote is added to our extensive database of potential readers, which is a powerful marketing tool of ours. Closer to publication, we develop a three month marketing plan with the author, which we jointly execute on digital channels and “in real life,” to support key goals such as a successful pre-order campaign, becoming a #1 Hot New Release on Amazon, and being well reviewed.

7. What do you see as a major problem in the publishing industry? How is SOOP tackling that problem?

The Washington Post published an article in 2018 about the ongoing decline in leisure Reading that we’ve been experiencing for many decades. Simultaneously, there is an explosion of self-publishing that has greatly increased the supply of books. Add vanity and indie presses to this, and any business person can quickly see why the industry is in a kind of free-fall. This is why we have created a model that is completely different, one which curates works from motivated authors, to ensure that there is at least a minimal demand in place before we add to the supply. Traditional publishing relied on a few mega-stars as inspiration for the masses, to keep a steady flow of wanna-be’s lining up for lopsided contracts. Vanity publishing seeks to force authors to pay-in-full up front for the privilege of being professionally published. Self-publishing converts the slush pile into “books” that sink like rocks to the bottom of the ocean.

Our goal is to train authors before they get up to bat, and make sure they have a base hit, and are legitimately in the game. Where they go from there depends not only on the quality of their work, but on their belief in themselves, and their capacity to work diligently to build on the success our platform enables.

Thank you so much for sharing your unique publishing platform with us, Christian! I hope you continue to collaborate with authors and bring more powerful stories to our lives.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m preparing Fallen Princeborn: Chosen for ARC reviews! The ARC will be available by the end of the month. It will be available on Booksprout to review, and if you’re a book blogger who’d like to post a review on your site, contact me and we’ll work something out! The first chapter is still on my Free Fiction if you’d like to get a taste of what you’re in for. And if you’re interested in reviewing the first book of the series, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, feel free to ask!

Catching up to 2019 here. Better late than never! 🙂

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!