Personal

Requiem for a Hellsite

I write this post knowing it could, at any moment, be rendered outdated in one way or another.

Twitter could crash entirely. Predictions are that it will sometime over the weekend, since there are apparently all of 3 engineers left.

Or, it could somehow survive. I’ve retained a hope that we’ll somehow manage to Roadrunner ourselves right off the cliff and onto a different plateau on the other side.

Either way, it’s all… concerning. And if you’re someone who spends most of your online time on Twitter, as I am, it’s been a very strange and weirdly painful few weeks.

We called it the hellsite, but it was our hellsite.

For all my complaints about it over the years — and my continued insistence that the internet peaked in 2007 — Twitter has been my home base for online community for a very long time. Many of its larger problems (ads, sponsored posts, the firehose of randos) were avoided by using Tweetdeck.

I say without exaggeration that my writing life would not be what it is without Twitter. I learned so much from following authors I admire and the craft threads they posted. I got windows into the publishing industry that just didn’t exist before — from agents reviewing queries and editors talking about the process. From other authors sharing their progress and pitfalls. I found my agent on Twitter. I found new conferences and conventions on Twitter. I found so many friends on Twitter.

If the site really does crash entirely, or loses so much functionality that there really is an exodus, I will mourn.

The big conversation the past few weeks has been: Where do we go?

People who are on Twitter — which, for all its outsized influence on media & communications on a global scale, is still a smaller platform than many of the other options — are there because we like words. We like text.

Twitter has always been easy to use. There’s a very low barrier. You don’t have to have graphic design skills. You don’t have to learn video editing. You don’t have to put on makeup and do your hair and have good lighting and figure out how to use a ringlight and set up a decent backdrop.

TikTok exhausted me. I gave it a good eight months, during which I was posting pretty much every day. Then, during camp season, I went cold turkey. And I discovered that I did not miss it. I think I’ve posted four times since the summer ended, and not at all since September. The idea of going back just makes me want to collapse in defeat.

Instagram? Well, it already has a bookish community, but it’s owned by another contemptible billionaire, and it’s also become functionally unusable in the last couple of years. I used to use IG a lot. But then they changed the feed so that literally every third thing you see is an ad or a sponsored post, and there’s no way around it like using Tweetdeck for Twitter. It’s also become impossible to get your posts seen without forking over cash — just like on Facebook.

Newsletters? Good for major updates, yes, but not good for conversation. No one wants their email inbox spammed with the little nuggets that Twitter was so great for.

I’ve seen some folks who are loving Mastodon, and I’m happy for them, truly. Some of them seem to really value having a smaller forum — especially those who had much larger followings on Twitter, because one of the definite downsides to that platform was that one you had a large following, you also attracted more trolls. So I can entirely understand the appeal of a cozy little common room where not just anyone can come yell at you.

The thing is… I don’t need Mastodon for that. If I want that, I already have it on a few small Discord servers, where I know and generally trust the people. Mastodon still has randos, and each instance is its own little fiefdom, and while they may seem cozy now… I’ve been around this here internet long enough to know what happens when those fiefdoms start to develop their own problems.

But it’s also just… too small.

I want the town square. I want the piazza, the plaza, the public green. I want the Forum Romanum.

This isn’t just about promotion — though that is an important component. Social media really doesn’t drive sales in any kind of direct way (publishers do that, when they choose to), but I think its indirect impact is larger than many people assume. One of the biggest advantages of Twitter has been getting to know other authors — and when my friends have books, I shout about them, and when I have a book, they shout about it. I’m more likely to buy a book my author-friends have shouted about. Twitter was a great place for us all to hype each other up and perhaps extend our reach a bit.

But the town square isn’t just about shouting. It’s about finding. It’s about wandering around and overhearing an interesting conversation. It’s watching the juggler, then meandering off to hear an activist standing on a soapbox, then joining a group all huddled around the same scandalous pamphlet.

That’s much harder when the conversations are silo’d off, as they are on Discord servers or Mastodon instances.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are in some way related to the publishing world, but I don’t think it’s a terribly large majority. I also follow academics — many historians, of a variety of eras and cultures; some economists; some poli-sci folks; even a stray volcanologist. I follow activists and community organizers. I follow experts in fashion and lingerie. I follow wildlife conservation organizations and researchers. I follow people who just really love dogs.

And these people lead me to other interesting people. At the moment I’m writing this, I’ve just been introduced to a fascinating thread on Viking golems, because a writer I follow RT’d it.

I gather that this sort of thing can happen on Mastodon, but it seems rarer. Discoverability is so low that you sort of have to already know what you want to see.

I didn’t know that I wanted to know about Viking golems!

I write this on Friday, November 18th, and I am, for what it’s worth, dug in on Twitter. Nothing else yet has sufficient appeal to pull me away.

At the same time, I am a little excited for what comes next. I just wish it had had a chance to build up before this too-rapid collapse. But the internet has calcified over the past decade, and I don’t think that’s been to its good, or ours.

My hope is that something new will rise from Twitter’s ashes: a site that, perhaps, combines short-form and long-form; that relies less on data mining and algorithms; that protects its users from hate speech and abuse; that shows zero tolerance for bigotry; that allows the piazza to flourish. Something that corrects Twitter’s flaws — because they were many, despite the good use many of us made of the platform. Something that recognizes (as Elon Musk is currently learning, or would be, if he had the capacity to acknowledge his own errors) that the humanities are crucial to the survival of tech companies, because people are not, in fact, machines. Something that allows us to be people rather than content.

Something new will come. I hope it will represent change in a positive direction, and that the next phase of the internet will be better than its current shape.

Yes; I’m an optimist.

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Cover Release & Pub Date: The Bloodstained Shade

The Bloodstained Shade, Book 3 of the Aven Cycle, will release on January 31, 2023!

And it has a magnificent cover, designed by ebook launch.

Isn’t that glorious? I’m madly in love with it.

You can pre-order The Bloodstained Shade now! On most platforms, at least. Kindle-only readers will, unfortunately, have to wait for release day, because Amazon does not play nice with other distributors.

In other news, I’m now on Substack! I’ve migrated my newsletter there, as Mailchimp was becoming too annoying to deal with, and I may end up doing other, more trivial communications there as well, if I end up liking it.

General

Giving Good Panel

With in-person conventions back (if often in modified form), I’ve had the opportunity in recent months to think about what makes a panel fun and interesting both to be on as a panelist and as an audience member.

If you’re attending cons as a writer, you’re selling yourself and your work. It can be a great opportunity to reach new readers and develop relationships that can be fruitful in the long term. The exact procedures and best practices can vary by con, as some are more formal than others, but on the whole, here’s my advice for giving good panel — which, for me, means being both engaging and considerate:

Practice (and tailor) your introduction

Introducing yourself at the start of the panel isn’t the time to go into your full CV or publication history. It’s not even the time to recite your full 100 word bio that’s printed in the program.

A good formula? “Hi, I’m [name], I’m the author of [most recent publication or series] and [something else relevant to your writing career]. I’m also [whatever your day job is, or if you don’t have one, mention a hobby].” Then, if there’s anything particularly relevant to the panel I’m on, I’ll mention that. I tend not to go into my background as a Shakespeare scholar, for instance, because that’s usually not directly relevant — but at RavenCon back in April, it was! I was on a panel called “Elements of the Fantastic in Shakespeare,” so it was good to establish my credibility to speak on that particular topic.

Keep the intro to your book or series brief — an apposition, just a short phrase. “I’m the author of the Aven Cycle, historical fantasy set in an alternate ancient Rome” or even just “I’m the author of epic fantasy series the Aven Cycle.”

Something else relevant to your career could be mentioning another book or series, particularly if you have a sizeable backlist. It could be mentioning that you’re a cosplayer, that you write for a fanzine, that you’re also a vendor, whatever. For me, it’s generally mentioning Worldbuilding for Masochists.

Practice this so that you know what you’re going to say before the panel even starts. You don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’ve written!

Two women in masks sitting at a long table
Me with Marie Brennan at ArmadilloCon 2022

Try to give actionable advice

If you’re on a writing panel, your audience is interested in the craft of writing. Many of them may be writers themselves, whether they intend to seek publication or not. So don’t just talk about what you’ve done; tell them how you do it. Break it down into chunks that could apply to anyone doing this kind of work, not things that are so idiosyncratic to you and your own work that they’d be hard for anyone else to mirror.

For instance, I was on a panel about creating magical systems. We had a question about what to consider when developing them. So I broke it down into three simple things: the source, the cost to the mage, and how it fits into the society around it.

All of those three things are places I can go a lot deeper, of course. Thinking about the source can mean deciding if your magic is divinely inspired, rises from nature, whether there’s a finite or infinite amount of it, whether it’s innate or can be learned. The cost might be literal or more figurative. The societal considerations might cause you to ask how common magic is, how it relates to religion, if a career can be built off of it, etc. And we did go deeper into some of those ideas. But when the moderator or an audience member asks “How?”, I try to keep the initial answer simple and brief.

That’s important because it keeps things nice and clear for the reader, but also because you need to…

Be mindful of time

Every panel seems to have at least one guest who talks for three times as long as anyone else. Maybe they’re arrogant. Maybe they’re oblivious. In either case, it’s not kind either to the audience or the other panelists.

So, be aware of how long you’re speaking! I know some panelists who prop a clock up in front of them, giving them an easy way to track how long they’ve been talking at a quick glance.

Don’t feel like you have to get everything in. You may have a lot to say! You might be able to fill the whole hour on your own! But that’s not the point of a panel. Be careful, too, not to belabor a point. You don’t need to reiterate the same idea four times in slightly different words; make the point, then stop talking.

If you’re nervous about going on too long, practice ahead of time. If you know who your moderator is going to be, email them and ask if they have questions prepped — or, just take a guess at what some questions on your topic are likely to be. (The panel description might help you out there.) Then, set a timer and practice answering. This can be helpful just to get you comfortable knowing what talking for thirty seconds, one minute, or two minutes feels like! (It’s not nearly as long as you think). And, really, that’s the range you should be aiming for.

In a fifty-minute panel, most moderators have six to ten questions prepped, though I’ve been on panels where either the conversation was good enough or someone bloviated enough that we only got through three or four. Rarely do you actually get to ten. So, let’s say six — Well, at least 5 minutes at the beginning and a few at the end are gonna be introductions and wrapping-up. If you want to get through six questions, that’s seven minutes per question, and at least one of those is probably going to be the moderator asking and explaining it. So, six minutes to divide between panelists. If there’s only two or three of you, you can go on a bit more. If there are five of you, less so!

A short, pithy answer is also going to be more memorable to the audience than a long meander.

Don’t give a full synopsis of your book

One way to make sure you’re not going on too long? When you’re talking about your own work, keep it brief.

You want to give the audience the flavor of your book, enough that it might pique their curiosity and make them follow-up by taking your card, following you on social media, or — glory of glories! — actually purchasing your book.

A detailed synopsis isn’t going to do that. They haven’t come to have a book report read to them. So don’t give them plot point by plot point. Don’t even give them the jacket copy. Give them major concepts and themes.

So, for example, when I’m talking about the Aven Cycle, I don’t get into the specific moves and countermoves that the characters are making; I talk about how the books explore power and agency in a complex world and about how I love the intersection of magic and socio-politics. Let the audience hear the big picture things that make you excited about your own work!

I also recommend not mentioning your characters’ names. For the most part, the audience is not going to retain that information. Just say “my protagonist,” “my antagonist,” “this great side character,” “the love interest,” etc.

Three authors sitting at a long table
Me with Lindsay Ribar and Mark Oshiro at Leviosa 2016

Spread the love

Don’t just talk about your own books. Yes, you’re on this panel because of your expertise, but it comes off as tedious and self-centered if you can’t seem to relate the topic to anything but your own work. Recommend other books that exemplify what it is you’re talking about. Pass along craft advice that you’ve received from other authors. Tell the audience where they can go to expand their horizons.

And, of course, I advise being mindful about who you’re recommending. I’ve sat next to a lot of older white dudes who don’t seem to have read anything new since 1990, so that’s all they can rec. It’s highly predictable, and it’s not really helpful for anyone in the audience hoping to be published. They need to be investigating the genre as it exists now. I intentionally recommend authors from marginalized communities as often as possible, and I try to keep those recs very current. I’ll only dig back in time if I need to talk about something that was formative for me or for the genre; otherwise, I go for things that were published within the last few years.

Listen to your fellow panelists

It’s super easy, when you’re on a panel, to fall into the trap of just waiting for your turn to speak, practicing your own answer to the question in your head. This is particularly true if you’re nervous. But do both your fellow panelists and yourself the solid of actually listening to them!

For one thing, they’re here for a reason. They’re going to say smart things, and you never know who might be your next great read, critique partner, podcast guest, or just good friend! And you won’t find out if you’re not taking in their words.

For another — and this is, admittedly, a paneling preference of mine — conversations are more interesting when there’s some interplay between the panelists. Now, not all moderators really allow for this. Some are very strict about one person answers, then the next, then the next. But the best panels I’ve been on have had some flexibility, and once everyone’s at least had a chance to talk, allow for some chitchat between panelists. I was on one at ConCarolinas where the conversation was so great that forty-five minutes passed and it felt like twenty.

It’s also wonderful to be able to refer to what someone else has said — and not repeat it! It’s always okay to say, “Yeah, I think [Other Author] summed that up perfectly” and then allow the panel to move on.

The panelists’ table is not authors’ alley

At many cons, authors and other creators will bring samples of their work to put on the table in front of them while they panel. It’s a mini-marketing opportunity, and it’s great if the audience can associate your face and words with your work right off the bat. Whether this is commonly acceptable or considered crass depends a lot on the con, though. I find that the more academic or professional the assembly, the less likely people are to do this. It’s a lot more common at fan cons, where it’s generally accepted that everybody’s trying to sell something.

What you don’t want to do is usurp the entire table with a display of all your books and other knick-knacks. This isn’t the vendor room, and chances are good that anytime someone bumps the table, something’s going to fall over.

I typically have one book and a stack of my postcards with me. I’ve invested in a couple of solid stands so that I’m not trying awkwardly to prop a book open. (I use these). And I usually wait to see what other folk are putting out before I do one, both, or neither.

Let them know where to find you

Most moderators will give all the panelists a chance to close out with a mini-pitch for themselves and their work. If you’re going to be on other panels during the con, it’s great to mention that; if you have a table in authors’ alley or the vendor room, point the audience there; if you’ll be hanging in the bar and are open to random folk coming to talk with you; if you’ll be at karaoke or a dance and want people to hang out with; if you’re leading a tabletop game — all of those things are great to mention! If the audience is digging you, you want to be able to build on that connection.

And, let them know where to find you post-con. I used to try to rattle off my website and socials, but now I just tell folk to come up and grab a card, since that has the QR code for my LinkTree on it. Then they don’t have to try to scribble anything down or memorize a handle.

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News for the Future of the Aven Cycle

This month, I have had the utter joy of returning to the world of Aven in a deep way for the first time in quite a while.

Since finishing drafting The Bloodstained Shade last September, I really haven’t done much with the story. Not much new, anyway. I did some polishing on From Unseen Fire before the relaunch back in the spring, but that wasn’t deep work. In May, however, I set to the task of finding a developmental editor for Shade (Cameron Montague Taylor, whose praises I intend to sing quite thoroughly whenever I can, and whom I heartily recommend to self-pubbing authors in need of editorial services), and a couple of weeks ago, I received her notes on the manuscript and editorial letter.

I have so much enjoyed digging into them. The tribulations of the past year have been, I have to confess, somewhat disheartening, but getting feedback from someone invested in and excited by the book has really re-energized me. I’ve remembered how much I love this world and its characters!

I’m hoping I’ll be able to announce a release date for The Bloodstained Shade soon, once I’ve assessed how long I think the remaining work will take me. There’s less to do than my anxiety feared, I think, but a fair bit of heavy lifting will be required to strengthen the bits that currently droop and to maximize the potential of some character arcs. Once I figure out how long that’ll take, I’ll announce a date, get a cover made, and set things up for pre-orders!

What I can definitely announce now is…

The Bloodstained Shade will not be the end of the Aven Cycle.

“But Cass,” I hear you inquire, “I thought this was a trilogy?”

Well. Yes and no. It was initially acquired by DAW as a trilogy, but even before From Unseen Fire was out, we were talking about expanding it to at least four books. My second editor wanted to call it the Aven Quartet rather than the Aven Cycle for that very reason. The contract for the fourth never manifested, however, and y’all who’ve been following me know what else followed (and those of who you follow the SFF publishing industry closely may now also have a clearer idea of why). With the reins firmly in my own hands, though, I get to make the choice! And that choice is definitely that The Bloodstained Shade is Book Three of Four.

The biggest reason for this is that it allows The Bloodstained Shade to be a stronger book on its own. Cramming in conclusions is something I actually tried, early in 2021. It was a mess, and it made me miserable. So I stopped! I wrote a book that tied up some major arcs but left some threads dangling for my future use. After getting feedback from my new editor, though, it’s clear to me that I need not only to tie those threads up, but to let readers of Shade know that Book Three is not the end.

I will be upfront with y’all now: I have no idea when Book Four will come out. I have pieces of it blocked out in my head, but I have not written an actual word of it (beyond bits that were initially stripped out of earlier books and will get reconfigured). I haven’t even started a Scrivener project or anything. I’m working on an entirely different manuscript that I will finish before I turn my mind back to drafting anything new for the world of Aven.

The good news is that I am feeling fresh, reinvigorated, and ready to put in a lot of work on my entire writing life. I’m also going to be starting a new full-time job in August, and I’m so excited for that transition. While on the one hand, full-time work might seem like it would leave me with less time for my writing career, I genuinely think it’ll be a boon. I’m going to have stability that I haven’t had in ages, and the job itself is one that I expect to keep me engaged with my creative side and in touch with my imagination. I’m hoping to get all my gears aligned to be more generative in the coming months than I’ve been able to be for a long while.

Thanks to all of you who have loved this story! I look forward to giving you its continuation.

General

The Queen’s Ball: A Review

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Bridgerton Experience: The Queen’s Ball! And while I enjoyed myself, I…. also have Notes.

While there are a lot of highlights, I confess that I don’t really feel like I got my money’s worth. If you’re thinking about going, well, maybe this will help you decide. I went to the DC location, and I am someone who also works in immersive theatre, so my observations are coming from that perspective. Some of the things I would do differently would also cost more money — but considering how much Fever is raking in from this, I think their profit margin would still be fine. Other things are easy fixes that would cost literally nothing.

Please note that there will be lots and lots of spoilers below. If you would rather attend the Queen’s Ball entirely unspoiled, click away now!

Location

The DC location was… not great. It’s at a sound studio in the middle of a warehouse district. When that news broke a few months ago, people questioned it, and the Bridgerton Experience IG assured us that it would be beautiful. Something about “easier to build up and create something new”.

They… sort of did that. There are lots of stage elements that look great. The wisteria walk going in is as beautiful as it looks on social media. But it’s impossible to avoid the knowledge that you are in a giant black box. The floor is unimpressive. The walls are unimpressive except for the few spots where they’d draped curtains or put up a set piece. The lighting is really not very flattering, which is odd for something where you know people are going to want good pictures of themselves.

My group paid for VIP tickets, which got you a prosecco and a special seating area. The seating area is only for the floor show, however, and they’re not actually great seats — you’re really far from the action. I didn’t use it at all. I wish we’d had access to it earlier, though, because juggling a purse, phone, ticket, scandal sheet, gloves, and drink got very challenging for all of us. Just having that little table to put things down on while we explored would’ve been great.

The location is also 15 minutes from the nearest Metro stop, through a part of town that would not be great or easy walking even if you weren’t wearing a ballgown. You pretty much had to either drive yourself — which, driving in DC, no thank you, plus we were all in from out of town — or pay for a Lyft. (They had valet parking for people who drove, but I have no idea if it was included in the ticket price or not, since we didn’t do that).

This all meant that there was not a real sense of occasion as you approached. I feel like more could’ve been done to spruce up the entry area, but really, I wish this was in a hotel like the LA and Chicago versions of the event. This just felt cheap. The moment of entry — and, for that matter, the process of re-entry to the real world — is an important component of crafting an immersive experience. This one misses the mark.

You can’t do it all

For something billed as an “experience,” I expected more time to soak it all in. I would’ve loved the chance to luxuriate in a lush fantasy atmosphere.

Instead, we found ourselves chivvied along every step of the way. We arrived about five minutes after the doors opened but ten minutes before the show officially “started.” As soon as we stepped into the wisteria walk and started trying to get photos and video, one of the event staff was trying to shoo us along. It wasn’t like we were holding up a line — the walk was plenty big enough for all the people who wanted in at the time we were there.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see why this staffer was being pushy. She was trying to communicate that there was not enough time to do everything in the room itself. But that, in itself, is a problem, and feeling rushed right at the start did not help me feel like I was sinking into the world.

A group of women in fancy dresses

One of my easy fixes would be to print the schedule of events for the evening on the Lady Whistledown Scandal Sheet that you get handed as you come in. It would be so easy and cost literally nothing, and it could’ve clued us in to the fact that you really do have a very short amount of time in the first room, which you don’t get to come back to once the floor show starts.

We got in and first decided to stand in line for another photo op. I sort of wish we hadn’t — it wasn’t that great a photo op, because the hanging beads obscure everyone’s faces, and standing in line there was time we could’ve better spent elsewhere.

Know that if you go, you will likely have to prioritize what you want to do. I prioritized the scandal scavenger hunt and dancing, which meant I missed out entirely on getting a fancy portrait, and I had no real time to look at any of the costumes from the show that were on display. I had friends who stood in line for the portrait, so I know how long a wait it was. They told me later that the set-up there seemed inefficient, too. There’s only one person taking the portraits, and then you go to an “easel” to customize it — but if you take more than one shot, like a group shot and and individual, you’re taking up two easels rather than sending both of your pictures to the same one. This is, I’m guessing, why the line moved so slowly.

As for the scavenger hunt… honestly, that was a big let-down. I love things like that, but this one felt severely underbaked. You followed a set of clues, starting with the Whistledown scandal sheet. Each clue sent you to a new card with a different symbol on it, in a different part of the room. Well. Sort of a different part of the room. Most locations actually had multiple cards at them. The idea was that you’d ping-pong back and forth, I guess?

A card with clue information on it, stuck in a false window

But by that point I was catching on to the idea that we were short on time, so I just… took pictures of all the cards at each location and was going to assemble them in my head, rather than wasting time running back and forth. Except then I figured out pretty quickly which was the last card in the sequence. It tells you to go to a certain location and give a password, which I did — and the lady there just…. revealed another card essentially saying “good job.” It would’ve been a lot more satisfying if they’d had, like, little enamel pins or something for people who got to the end of the clue-chain.

Partway through this block of time, the Queen enters and everyone has a chance to make their curtsey or bow. This is when she starts selecting potential Diamonds. Those who impress her get handed a card as they leave. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do to impress her with your curtsey, because none of the five women in my group got a card! I even tried twice, because Lady Whistledown’s sheet suggests it! — but no dice. She was having none of me. There’s a Lady-Whistledown-esque voiceover narrating things, which is pretty funny to listen to. The Queen doesn’t speak at all, which is a bit boring for someone used to Renaissance faire interactions.

Eventually a Lord Something-Or-Other appears to show off for the Queen, then he leads a short Regency dance. Unfortunately, while I desperately wanted to participate, I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. If you weren’t one of the couples at the top of the line, you just sort of had to guess and try to follow along as best you could. This seems like an easy fix — the Queen was no longer watching curtseys at that point, so why not have the not-Whistledown voiceover give the dance instruction? Then everyone would actually be able to hear it.

After this (and I think this was about at the halfway point of the evening, so 45 minutes in that room), the Queen exits and focus shifts to the next room. We realized then that we hadn’t gotten the drinks included with our VIP tickets, so we dashed to the bar cart to claim those — and there were, again, event staff getting really pushy with us to get us into the next room. We didn’t realize until later that you couldn’t go back to the first room once you left — I guess they started cleaning and resetting for the second performance of the day then. I wonder if we would’ve felt so rushed along if we’d attended the later time.

The floor show

This is absolutely spectacular. The performers were beautiful dancers, full of life and personality.

Dancers at the Bridgerton Ball

I liked that this portion of the evening alternated between “watching” and “doing.” It was really great to watch super-talented people creating something beautiful! But I am also someone who likes doing — particularly in an immersive environment! That, to me, is sort of the point. I’m not there just to observe; I’m there to be a part of things. So I was delighted that there were group dance portions, too.

The dance was simple, more modern than Regency but still with some historical flourishes, and, this time, I could actually hear the actor calling it. No idea if people further down the line could, though, but she was doing her best. And I’ve done that, at Ren faires and special events and conventions. It’s hard. It takes a good sense of the rhythm, an ability to give directions crisply and quickly, and unflagging energy. This woman had just danced for several minutes herself and was about to dance several more, so major kudos to her for managing to also lead us through something fun.

Lady Whistledown’s sheet advises anyone who hopes to be the Diamond not to be shy on the dance floor, so if that’s something you’re aiming for, get out there! Participate in the group dances, claim a moment in the center when that opportunity arises, and look like you’re having a good time.

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here

All the parts of the floor show together lasted about half an hour, I think? Then the Queen named her Diamond and it turned into a dance party.

For fifteen minutes.

And then the event staff were back to chivvying us. I totally understand why! They needed to clean and reset for the 9pm show. But it was still less-than-optimal. Getting pushed along by guys in black polos just doesn’t feel special, y’know? And an immersive experience should feel special.

This is another place where the location is a let-down. At a fancy hotel, you could continue your evening! Stroll through the lobby, get drinks at the bar, wind down while still feeling fancy. Instead, we were in a dimly lit parking lot having difficulties securing a Lyft driver.

In summary:

This might’ve been worth the $45 regular ticket. It was definitely not worth the VIP ticket. My biggest wish is that the event was just longer. Honestly, three hours would’ve been great. You could have music playing for more of the time but also allow for more exploration.

Honestly, I’d have loved if the scavenger hunt were more involved and more difficult, too — like if there were other actors you had to get information with, or puzzles to solve, not just following a series of cards. You could also use that, frankly, to push people to the other places to spend money! Have certain clues that you can only get by talking to the bartender or the modiste, and I bet people would buy more while they were there.

General

Newly Amended and Improved

Today’s the day! It is Rome’s 2,774th birthday, and in honor of the Eternal City, today is the day that the new e-book editions of From Unseen Fire and Give Way to Night are released into the wild!

You can acquire them from your favorite purveyor of digital fiction* at the hot-hot price of just $2.99 each.

*The Kindle version may be slow to appear, because AMZ chooses to be difficult if you upload through a third party rather than through them, but it will be there soon if it isn’t at the moment you see this!

Why am I calling them “newly revised and improved”? Well, it’s mostly a joke. Early modern books would put that on the cover to sell second editions of their quartos. Sometimes the revisions really were substantial, as when Q1 Hamlet became the version most people know today. Sometimes… enh, not so much.

What’s the case for the Aven Cycle? Well, From Unseen Fire most definitely is amended, augmented, and, I think, improved! I trimmed over 6,000 words from the final draft! And… you won’t miss most of them. A lot of that was tightening verb forms — getting rid of extraneous “had/were/was” constructions — and trimming clutter. Amazing how much of that bloat there can be in a manuscript!

I would remiss not to mention the software that helped me do all of that, AutoCrit. It is genuinely such a helpful tool to help a writer think about choosing the best, strongest words. I’m really loving it, and I’m looking forward to using it on my books in the future!

I also did trim a few full paragraphs out of From Unseen Fire. Not many, but there were a couple of places where I bounced into the head of a character who I once thought might’ve had potential to grow, but who never ended up developing into a full POV, or where I foreshadowed something that will never come to fruition. It happens! And one of the advantages afforded to me by these strange circumstances is the chance to go back and tweak, which many authors never get a chance to do.

So, like I said, it’s probably not anything you’ll even notice if you read the first edition of From Unseen Fire and decide to revisit the story in the new e-book edition, but I hope it will make for a more satisfying experience, even if subconsciously. Give Way to Night, I pretty much left alone, as it was a tighter book to begin with. I learned a lot between 2011 and 2018, as it turns out!

I would really love for these new editions to have a solid re-launch, so if you have $2.99 to spare, or even $5.98!, I would be thrilled and delighted if you bought a copy.

Thanks to everyone who’s been so supportive as I’ve careened my way through these rough waters!

General, Personal

A Turn in the Road

Hey, everyone! So, I have some news that is big and a bit scary, but also holds in it, I hope, the seeds of new opportunities.

DAW Books and I are parting ways.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and while I can’t share everything, I do want to discuss what I can, to let my readers know what’s going on, to give a heads-up about what the future of the Aven Cycle will look like, and to provide a glimpse into the often-foggy path of publishing. This is a bit long, but there’s been a lot for me to process.

What’s going on?

DAW Books is an editorially independent publishing house, but they are distributed by Penguin Random House. This means that while DAW makes its own creative decisions, PRH controls a lot of purse strings. Recently, it seems they have been tightening those strings. I am not the only DAW author affected, and some others have publicized their own experiences, as it’s hit different authors in different ways.

It is good for authors to remember that publishers are businesses, not our friends. They make business decisions. A series of business decisions led to this point.

First, the business decision to release Give Way to Night in hardcover during the last week of 2020, promoted by a tweet and an Instagram post.

Next, the business decision, somewhere in the following weeks, to release Book 3 of the Aven Cycle in ebook format only. No print release. I have been told that Give Way to Night’s poor sales were the reason for this decision. I received this information in February of 2021, so the book had been out for about six weeks at that point.

In traditional publishing, marketing and publicity are part of a publisher’s job. Marketing tends to decide what books will sell well. I knew this as a bookseller before I knew it as an author, since I worked in an indie shop for a long time: you quickly notice a correlation between the books that do well and the books that publishers are pushing hard. It’s no guarantee, in either direction; a book with little marketing support can shock everyone by catching inexplicable fire, and some things that get pushed hard still flop. But, generally, more publisher-driven marketing = more sales. That’s part of a publisher’s job: using the tools at their disposal to move their products.

Nothing an author does in that regard moves the sales needle in a significant way — something of eternal frustration to authors, who still feel the pressure to try. But real movement comes from things authors quite literally cannot do: negotiate with Barnes & Noble for prime placement on tables, as just one example. It’s not only not an author’s job; it’s not within an author’s capability.

An author’s job is to write the best book they can. I did that. I love Give Way to Night. I think it’s exciting and shows my growth as a writer. I did my job.

It was not easy. There’s a lot under the “I can’t talk about it publicly” banner, some of it in my personal life and some of it not, that stalled the book’s development and release — and, of course, from March 2020 on, all of it was happening under the psychic weight of a global pandemic. But I gritted it out, I got through it, and I wrote a book I am so proud of.

But publishers look at numbers. And, six weeks after the book’s December 2020 release, the numbers were disappointing. They made a business decision.

Writers look at numbers, too. We’re creative professionals, but we are also our own businesses, and we also make business decisions. So, when my agent and I first got the news about Aven 3 being slated for e-only release, we tried to negotiate something that would be in my best interest.

I was still drafting the manuscript at the time. By spring of 2021, it was our understanding that my publisher had made the business decision to have Aven 3 go straight to paperback. This was perfectly fine with me. Hardcovers are more prestigious but also more expensive to produce and more difficult to sell; I get that. Plenty of series move to paperback after the first book or two. I’d rather have a better chance of selling more books than have the glitz of a hardcover. So, happy with that compromise, I went on writing.

I delivered the manuscript in September. A couple of weeks after that, we learned that Aven 3 was still slated for an ebook-only release.

Hm.

Thus followed a lot of back and forth between my agent and my publisher. The end result is this: My agent and I no longer have confidence that DAW is the best place for me, so we have made the business decision to have the publishing rights for the Aven Cycle revert to me, and DAW has agreed.

So… what now?

Book 3 of the Aven Cycle, The Bloodstained Shade, will be self-published in ebook form. I suppose that will officially make me a hybrid author.

I will be frank: Self-publishing has never been a goal for me. This was never the path I wanted, but one of the things I have learned in my 36 years on this planet is that when you are faced with an untenable situation, it is healthier to choose a path you never intended to be on, even if it scares you, than to stay your course right into a ditch.

This is no disrespect to self-publishing, by the way. I know it works wonderfully for many people. But it’s a lot of work, and I already have three jobs. There are a lot of up-front costs and responsibilities that I’m anxious about shouldering. It will be challenging, but I very much want to see this story and these characters through to the end of their arc, so, I will take on those challenges.

And I am looking forward to some of the opportunities that this will afford me. Self-publishing does have its advantages, like being able to set my own prices and offer flash sales. (Keep an eye on BookBub!)

This will also allow me to continue the story of Aven past what I was contracted for with DAW. Once you read The Bloodstained Shade, you’ll see that, while some arcs wrap up, others have open ends. Self-publishing means I’ll have the freedom to chase those down at some point in the future. I don’t know when, because I do still want to pursue traditional publishing for the new projects I’m working on. But it will be an opportunity afforded to me.

I am, in all honesty, trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation. The vagaries of the publishing world are many. Lots of authors have very bumpy paths. I can know that, intellectually, and still be Feeling Some Feels about it all. It’s a difficult thing to face, feeling like, after getting through those hurdles and gates to launch a writing career, I have to start over again.

But I must remind myself that I am not starting from scratch. I have a Hugo nomination to my name, which is no small thing. From Unseen Fire earned out its advance in quite respectable time. Give Way to Night has chugged along with surprising tenacity, despite its unceremonious entry to the world. I have grown as a writer, and that is something to be proud of. I believe my agent will be able to find a good home for my next manuscript. I am not starting from zero.

What does this mean for readers?

From Unseen Fire and Give Way to Night: Get ‘em while they’re hot!

No new hard copies of From Unseen Fire or Give Way to Night will be printed, so if you want a print edition, I suggest you acquire it now.

The current ebook version of From Unseen Fire or Give Way to Night will cease to be available. I’m not certain when, but at some point, those will get pulled from ebook retailers.

I will be re-releasing both books in ebook form soon. How soon depends on, well, how fast I figure out how this works! I am beginning the somewhat intimidating process of figuring out formatting, cover design, and all those other elements of self-publishing, but it is certainly my hope and intention for there to be as little of a gap in availability as possible.

Later, The Bloodstained Shade will be out in ebook form.

I hope that it will be within 2022. There’s still a lot of work to be done: it needs editing and cover art and all of that, on top of figuring out the formatting and distribution. I will publicize a firmer release date as soon as I have one.

The Bloodstained Shade will still have an audiobook edition!

My Audible contract is separate from my DAW contract, so there will still be an audio edition of The Bloodstained Shade. I don’t know when; that depends on both when I feel the manuscript is in decent enough shape to send to a narrator and what Audible’s production schedule looks like. Again, I’ll let you know as soon as I have something firm to share.

It’s a great time to join Patreon or Ko-Fi!

If you’re not already a member of my Patreon community, this would be a truly wonderful time to join up, either there or on Ko-Fi! It would benefit us both. As I mentioned above, self-publishing comes with a lot of up-front costs; having more steady membership income will better enable me to shoulder those costs.

For members, I’ll be chronicling this new, wild journey! You’ll get sneak peeks of the book and of all the various steps along the way. If you like me and want to see me succeed, joining Patreon or Ko-Fi will give you the inside view. (And hey, if you don’t like me and are only reading this post to revel in my strife, I’m reasonably certain there will be some missteps along the way, so you’ll have a front-row seat for those!)

Patreon and Ko-Fi will also be where I’ll explore my options for continuing Aven after The Bloodstained Shade is out in the world. I may do some experimenting! Vatinius Obir and Merula might get a serialized spinoff where they solve crimes. Or cause them. Who knows? Whatever Aven-related novels, novellas, novelettes, or short stories follow, I’ll likely take them to Patreon and Ko-Fi first, so if you’re interested in the ongoing story, that’s the place to be.

Okay. I think that’s all the pertinent information for now.

I really want to thank everyone who has supported me on this journey so far. I am grateful to all my readers, and double to those who have taken a moment to recommend From Unseen Fire and Give Way to Night to others. Y’all are why I am determined to see the story out.

I am grateful, too, to know so many wonderful writers. Since beginning my publishing journey, I have found a community and made some truly amazing friends. I will weather this change with their support and by their excellent examples.

As I write when I sign books, audaces Fortuna iuvat — Fortune favors the bold — and so it is with boldness and perseverance that I will go on!

Personal

What I Learned at Summer Camp

As many of y’all know, I spent this summer working for Plato Learning, a company that runs mythology-themed summer camps all over the country. They’re inspired by and somewhat based off of the Percy Jackson series, none of which I had read before applying for the position. (I’m ten books in now). My job, as Quest Director and Chronicler, was to immerse the campers into the mythological world of Camp Half-Blood.

The whole experience was wild, and I loved it so much. Even when it was stressful, even when I was tired, even when it was 95 degrees and 99% humidity outside (which was every day except one). I’ve never worked with that age group (7-13yos) in so much depth. We’d occasionally do middle school workshops at the ASC, and sometimes I’d have tours for elementary schoolers, but most of my work there was with high schoolers and college students. My K-5 work at the science museum was very hit-and-run, 45 minutes with a class and then out. So this was new for me, but a lot of fun, because I actually love this age group. They’re old enough to be somewhat independent, they don’t need constant hand-holding, but they’re (mostly) not so old that they’ve abandoned make-believe. (This varies by kid, of course; some are 40 years old when they’re 5, whereas I, obviously, have never actually outgrown fantasy play).

Blonde woman in an orange racerback tank; her hair braided with dandelions

So here are some things I learned at summer camp:

Kids Make Friends So Freaking Easily

Seriously. This is a skill children have that adults have forgotten. Put kids together in a group, and they’ll immediately sort out a social hierarchy with the ruthless efficiency of a pack of hyenas. Like a bunch of stray protons, neutrons, and electrons, they gravitate into molecules. It takes basically no time.

Established units can be hard to break into, mind you. If two kids came already friends, they sometimes needed nudging to branch out and include other people. That happened more with our sets of girls who came pre-packaged than with, say, sibling units — who were often perfectly happy to be separated.

But it’s just amazing to watch these total strangers figure out, in the space of a morning, who they share interests with, who they like to play with, who they want to be on a team with. It was brilliant to watch the older campers who were willing to take on a mentorship role with our itty-bitties.

Kids Worry Too Much about Being Cool

Okay, some adults do this, too, but there were so many times this summer when I wanted to take a kid aside and just be like, “Look, you can keep trying to be ‘cool’, whatever that’s even supposed to mean, or you can lean into the story of what we’re doing here. I promise you will have a better time if you lean into the story.” Every single camper that didn’t enjoy camp was a kid more worried about being cool than having fun. A few campers fell into a really interesting place, where I could tell they were on that cusp — old enough to start to feel that worry, but they could still be lured into forgetting it. Who they were around mattered a lot — those social groups they instantly formed weren’t always a good thing.

Take this one kid. Let’s call him Eric. Eric, week one, paired off super fast with another kid, who we’ll call Trey. Trey was a mopey zoo lion. He had his own problems with divorcing parents and being hyper over-scheduled — not a bad kid, but he tended to become A Problem because he was just absolutely not in the headspace to enjoy this camp. This camp has a fairly high level of buy-in necessary! You have to be willing to play make-believe. And Trey did not have the spoons to spare for that. Eric did. Eric wanted to be into it. Not always in the best ways — he was one of our murderbeasts who frequently had to be reminded of heroic conduct during swordfighting — but he wanted to be in the world. Unless he was hanging out with Trey. When they were together, they got into this awful feedback loop which led them to be disruptive, bully other kids, deride all our activities as “so cringe,” and generally make me want to dunk them in the lake.

Trey phased himself out and stopped coming to camp. And when he wasn’t there, Eric was so much easier to handle. Still a wildly energetic little murderbeast, but one who was playing the game. Playing it so hard that we almost had to tackle him sometimes, but also — in a moment that made me so proud I could’ve cried — the first kid to put down his sword and show compassion for one of the monsters the campers needed to befriend rather than attack. Once he let himself go and stopped worrying about how other people were judging him, he was fully immersed.

So many times during camp, I was grateful that I realized very early in life that cool was never going to be an option for me. I had to lean into weird, and I did so with gusto.

The Buy-In

Mind you, once you get the kids to buy-in, they do so whole-heartedly. The kids who were there for the game — even though they were plenty old enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality — went all in. These were my favorite kids, honestly. The ones who wanted to unravel every riddle. Who were convinced every single thing they found in the forest was a clue — not just the things that were part of the Quest, but, well… Litter. Broken twigs. Park signs. Bird feathers. Mortals.

Yeah, kids. You reject that reality and substitute your own. Go for it.

GIF: Pocahontas jumping off a cliff into water, captioned "I regret nothing"

What’s particularly wonderful is the ability they have to terrify themselves once they get into it. I was most proud of this with my monsters the last week, which were as creepy as I could make them on a budget. And the kids did not want to fight them. They were petrified. I had never heard them so quiet as when they were trying to sneak past these ghoulish creatures.

I remember that feeling, where the boundary between reality and imagination blurs. Where you manage to psych yourself up and actually feel the thrill of fear, the heart-pounding exultation of Being On A Quest. I miss it, not infrequently, but you hit a certain point of adulthood and it just gets harder and harder to summon. Getting to be the person who built it for someone else, though? That was fun.

Pratchett Was Right

I mean, he generally is. But what I said above about the murderbeasts? I’m thinking specifically about when, in Hogfather, Pratchett wisely tells us:

Most people forgot that the oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than to the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quote keen on blood provided it’s being shed by the deserving*), and then wondered where the stories went.

*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with kids.

I’ve always been vaguely aware that, yes, this is correct. But it came into sharp focus when I realized I was spending a significant amount of any given day telling the campers that, no, they could not sacrifice one of their number to the gods. No, they could not sacrifice me, either. No, not their counselor. No, you may not catch a lizard and sacrifice it. No, you may not sacrifice a mortal (our term for the mundane folk wandering the park, often quite oblivious to our chaos). No sacrifices, I swear to Juno, if I have to tell you again!

We also tried to steer them away from language of death and killing when it came to dueling, whether each other or the monsters and villains that showed up during Quest Day. The idea is to defeat them, stun them if you have to (which is what our foam swords are designed to do), but murder is not heroic. (Never mind the example set by… Well, basically every Greek hero in the traditional mold. And most of the Celts. And the Norse. It’s been 3000 years; we’re supposed to have evolved from them — and several of our Quests did include things like Odysseus and Perseus apologizing for all the morally questionable things they did back in the day). We were more successful with some kids than others.

GIF: Theoden, raising his sword, screaming "DEATH"

Also, Cults

This, I knew instinctively and from my own youthful experiences, but these kids verified it for me. Leave a group of children to their own devices long enough — and it won’t take long — and give them liberty of imagination, and they will inevitably start a cult.

We had at least three in in four weeks, that I was aware of. One was to a pig-god of their own invention. One involved T-posing. (I’m still not really sure what that is; I am assured it’s a TikTok thing; no, I am not asking for further information.) One was dedicated to the turtles in the lake. They came up with chants. They performed summonses. And, of course, they wanted to perform sacrifices, because what good is a cult without sacrifice?

They’re Here; They’re Queer; I’m Jealous

I think one of the things that surprised me the most was that we had a few queer kids in every week. Some were very certain of themselves; some were still exploring, testing out new names or pronouns, trying on new identities. Which is fine, by the way! “It’s just a phase”, okay, so? That’s how kids discover who they are. They try things on to see what fits. Let them. I really love that camp was a safe place for them to do that. There were a few who wanted us to use one name with them during the day, but not use it in front of their parents.

What gobsmacked me, though, was how comfortable most of them were with it. The ideas weren’t baked-in for everyone. I overheard — and monitored — several conversations about what “trans” and “nonbinary” mean, but I didn’t hear any meanness about those things. Confusion, lack of awareness from some, yeah; but once it was explained, they pretty much all just shrugged and went on with the day. And so many kids already had that language. That was what astonished me! This one little boy, in discussing who his “godly parent” or patron might be, talked about Apollo. And he went on about different things, liking music, liking to be out in the sun, and so forth. Then he quite casually adds, “Plus, he’s bisexual and I’m bisexual, so that’s cool.”

Ten years old. Just pops out with that.

I was fully eighteen before I was able to reconcile that within myself, even though in a lot of ways it should have been staggeringly obvious well before then. But I didn’t have the language, and I didn’t have the comfort. I only knew a few people who were openly queer in some way (then; many have turned out to be in the course of time), and it was still much more furtively discussed. The counselors, who aren’t that much older than these kids, but enough to be just slightly more towards youngest-Millennials/oldest-Zoomers than these late-Zoomers/early-Alphas (is that really what we’re calling the post-Zoomers? Ugh), were also astonished. In just a few years, the awareness and acceptance has radically accelerated. (Representation matters, y’all).

A Week Is Long, But Not Long Enough

It’s amazing how much you can get to know a kid in a week, even at just a day camp like this one. Their personalities are so open, so much on display, and at that age, they’re so eager to tell you who they are and what they like!

But there’s a difficult side to that, too. A week is long enough to get a glimpse into their lives — and to see which kids, like Trey, are having a rough time. Or the kid with anger management issues and a lot of self-blame about them, who I had to talk down out of a couple of shame spirals. Or the hyper-competitive daughters of Nike whose bullying behavior could, I figured out, be traced to and in no small part blamed on a sports coach that appears to be an absolute monster.

I can learn those things in a week. But I can’t fix them. A week — or two or three, even, since we had some campers join us for more of the month — just isn’t enough time to dig in and really deal with the hard issues. I was surprised at how rough that was on me, and it made me realize that if I were to have a job where I was with kids full-time, like an elementary school teacher, I would just be perpetually emotionally exhausted. And I’m not a therapist or anyone else with actual training in dealing with those issues, anyway. I’m just a person who’s dealt with her own share of bad stuff and has developed some tools to deal with it.

The best I could do, I realized, was just… try to be a counterpoint in their lives. An example of something other than what they’d been taught by toxic influences. To show empathy and compassion, to say some words that I have found useful and meaningful in tough times, and to hope they remember that later.

GIF: Cinderella, "We must simply have courage and be kind, mustn't we?"

So those are the things, by and large, that I learned at summer camp.

It was awesome. I want to keep doing this. Yes, a lot about it was challenging, but I loved being responsible for building a fantasy world, and these kids are fascinating and just so much fun.

Personal

Twenty Years

It’s taken me a year to write this post.

I knew it was coming, of course. Last year was nineteen, so this year is twenty. Most years, I spend the eleventh day of September engaging with social media very tentatively. I mute a lot of terms. I don’t like the reminders.

Part of me hates that I’ve written this at all.

I was nine days shy of my sixteenth birthday, a junior in high school. I went to a magnet school, and that year we had transferred into a newly renovated building, so everything was so very shiny and new. I was still getting used to the layout and the fastest way to get from one class to another. I hated the “ergonomic” seats, which were oddly balanced and kept snagging my hair. That morning, I was in physics class, at a table near the door. We were doing something — I don’t remember what. It was still early in the year, but we were running some activity in small groups, maybe on velocity. The teacher wasn’t lecturing, I know that, because I was near enough the door to hear when another teacher came in and whispered to mine that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. ‘My gods,’ I thought, ‘what a terrible accident.’

If I’m remembering correctly, that class period ran from roughly 8:30 to 9:45. I may be off by five or ten minutes; it’s been a while. It’s been twenty years. I can’t line up exactly when we knew what early on, but by the time class ended, we were aware that it hadn’t been an accident, that there had been a second plane hitting the second tower. That happened at 9:02am. I think it had happened already by the time we heard about the first one, but information was filtering down to us in layers, you understand. Someone not teaching who had a radio or tv on heard something, and went to tell someone else, who went to tell someone else, and at that point, no one was telling the kids anything. We were overhearing hushed conversations and then whispering amongst ourselves.

Those whispers turned into a roar when the classes changed. The kids who’d been in study hall, and thus able to use computers during that hour, started spreading what they knew. And that, I think — and it seems so strange now, that certain moments of this day are embedded in my memory, and other things I can’t quite piece together — was when I heard that, at 9:37am, a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.

I sat down in my next class — 9:50am? Or thereabouts? — and began, very quietly, losing my shit.

My father, I knew, was on his way to the Pentagon that morning.

He worked in the Department of Public Safety in Virginia, and it was very normal for him to have meetings at the Pentagon. Not an every day or even every week occurrence, but nothing out of the ordinary. He was part of an anti-terrorism task force. He worked with the FBI and CIA and generals and Cabinet Secretaries. It was normal.

He had dropped me off at school, because I was still nine days away from being able to drive myself, and he was on his way to the Pentagon, and now a plane had hit the Pentagon.

Now, had I been in my right wits, I would have done the math. There was really no way he could’ve made it from downtown Richmond at 8:20am and been at the Pentagon by 9:37am. But it was nearly 10:00am by then, which was plausible if still unlikely, given I-95’s weekday traffic, and I don’t think I was sure then exactly when that strike had happened. We were all confused and frightened, and a fifteen year old’s brain is only but so well equipped to handle the onslaught of emotions and stress. So I was freaking out.

My creative writing teacher — the incredible Bear O’Bryan — walked into our room, always kept gloomy with low lights, wearing a stormy expression. He switched the radio on to NPR, said “Take notes,” and sat down. And that was it, for the next half hour or so. We mostly didn’t even talk. We listened, horror-struck, as the North Tower collapsed. (The South Tower had, I think, fallen during the change between classes). And then we heard that a flight had gone down in Pennsylvania.

I think that was when I really started losing my shit. Shaking and trying not to cry, because I was suddenly so afraid for my father. And Bear, wonderful, empathetic teacher that he was, noticed. He came up behind me and very quietly said, “Is there someone you need to call?” I nodded; I couldn’t even speak, because if I did, I was going to start sobbing. “Go.”

So I rushed to my locker — which seems so quaint now, when I think the battle to keep cell phones out of classrooms has been entirely lost. Back then, we weren’t even supposed to have them in school, but my parents insisted, and as long as I kept it switched off and in my locker all day, who would ever know? Well, I switched it on and dialed my father in a state of absolute panic, just daring someone to come find me in the hall and tell me I couldn’t have it. (Bear would have had my back; I knew that for certain).

My dad was fine. He’d been turned around halfway up 95 and was with the governor, back in Richmond. I think that was the first time in my life I knew what it was to be “sick with relief.” Everything that flooded through me then turned my stomach. Dad didn’t know when he’d be home — and my mother was in New Mexico for a conference, so I’d have to take care of my sister (then nine years old) tonight. Could I do that?

I guess? I had no idea. I was nine days from having a driver’s license. I promised him I would. There was really no choice. I’d have to try.

I don’t remember most of the rest of the day until I got home. I’m sure I spent lunch with my usual set of drama club friends. We must’ve been in the drama room; we always were, when we could be. I had Bear again, for AP Lit, after lunch. I can’t remember what my last class of the day was. Maybe Latin? Yes, I think it was Latin. After-school activities must have been cancelled, or else I would’ve had drama club. Or did I skip Fall Festival prep to go home to my sister? I can’t remember.

My sister was in the fifth grade. So I got to explain terrorism to a nine year old.

Mama had instructed me to stay online, because she and Dad would use email to be in touch. This was before smartphones, but they had Blackberries. The cell phone networks were jammed and unreliable, though. I hadn’t heard from Dad since calling him during 4th period. I made Cait do her homework and take a shower. I think we ordered pizza? Mama also told us not to watch tv, and while I obeyed her in that, I was getting a constant stream of information online.

I didn’t go to school the next day. Henrico must have cancelled, and since my nine year old sister couldn’t be left home alone, I stayed home, too. I remember being angry about that, because I wanted to hug my friends. It took Mama days to get home, because the airports were still shut down, so she and her colleagues drove back to New Mexico from Virginia. And Daddy was busy with the governor.

Over the next few weeks, I remember being torn between getting swept up in the patriotic fervor that seized the nation, and being terrified there was going to be a war.

Sweet summer child.

At some point that fall, my dad packed a cooler full of MREs and told me if something happened in Richmond — they were very worried about the Federal Bank being a target — I should take my sister and drive west. (He claims to have no memory of having done this, but it sure made an impression on me).

Trauma is ongoing. A lot of this story and how it touched my family for many years afterwards, and continues to, isn’t mine to tell. A lot of it is the stuff that touched my entire generation, all of us who were old enough to remember but not quite adults yet. And the fallout went on for years, is still happening. I remember opposing the Patriot Act, wearing black ribbons to school. I remember Colin Powell trying to sell the UN on falsehoods to justify a war. (The local news came to my AP Gov class to get our reactions; we were underwhelmed, unconvinced, unimpressed. I seem to recall they didn’t use a lot of our interviews in the actual broadcast, but relied just on the B-roll they took of us watching attentively). I remember the security theatre that mushroomed up, the trading of liberty for security that happened in increments, all of us boiling frogs.

Part of me hates that I’ve written this. Part of me hates dredging up the memory of adrenaline. A lot of me hates how it all gets flashed about every September, and I know it’ll be so much worse today, all over the media that I’ll be dedicatedly avoiding. So why did I? Why am I contributing to that public swell of tainted nostalgia?

I don’t know. I’m a writer who loves history. Marking important events and how they’re perceived later on is an instinct. It felt important to remember, even if I hate remembering, in more detail than I’ve allowed myself to do in a really long time, and to record that remembrance.

Many of my students weren’t born yet when this happened. None of my campers were. This day is something that has shaped their lives, but they’re a step or two removed from its reality. They have no memory of a day that is in some ways so vivid in my recollection, and in some ways a blur, or even a void. (Trauma is weird). I wonder what context they have, what connections they see. They didn’t experience firsthand how that day changed what “patriotism” meant in a fundamental way, how it became a poison and a weapon (not for the first time; certainly it long has been for some communities, but in a way that seems more all-consuming, more a total paradigm shift). They didn’t live through the steps that took us, inexorably but not inevitably, from 9-11 to 1-6.

I don’t know why I wrote this, and so I don’t know how to end it. I suppose with a reminder that dissent is patriotic, that the best thing you can do for a nation you care about is hold it to account, and that my optimistic heart still believes it’s possible to change course from the one that fear put us on twenty years ago.

General

Patreon Special Offer!

Hello, everyone!

Running my Patreon for four years has been absolutely incredible. With nearly 700 posts and new material 2-4 times a week for everyone at the Patricians+ levels, this project has taken on a whole life of its own!

If you haven’t checked out my Patreon before, I invite you to watch my new introduction video! This will tell you a little about who I am, what I do, why I love Patreon as a platform, and what benefits members get.

This Special Offer will run from today, April 21st, Rome’s birthday, until May 13th, the last day of the Roman observance of the Lemuralia — because that’s the kind of nerd I am.

White text on purple background with laurels: April 21 - May 13 | Patreon Special Offer | patreon.com/cassrmorris

So what does this Special Offer entail?

1: Anyone who is a Patron as of May 13th will get a special social media shout-out!

I want to offer this to thank all of my patrons, no matter how long you’ve been with me! Any patron (who chooses to participate) will get a personalized shout-out from me on Twitter.

This can be for you yourself and/or for a cause of your choice — a charity you support, a GoFundMe you’d like to see fulfilled, a Kickstarter you want to see funded, a convention you want to draw attention to, anything like that. Or hey, if you want to make like it’s 1990s radio and have me dedicate a shout-out to someone special in your life, I’ll do that, too!

(Fine print: I do reserve the right not to shout-out causes I find morally repugnant. I’m pretty that no one who would support such causes would also be supporting me, considering I am Not Shy about my politics and moral compass, but I include this note for clarity’s sake).

After the Special Offer closes in May, I’ll share a Google Form so that you can let me know how you’d like your special thanks directed.

2: Special, limited-time sticker set!

Any new member who joins up between today and May 13th will get mailed these brand-new stickers I’ve designed to celebrate the world of Aven, as will anyone who increases their current pledge level in that time!

The first is based off of Rome’s unofficial motto, S.P.Q.R., which stands for “the Senate and the People of Rome”. It’s been used at least since 80 BCE to represent the government of Rome, and you can still see it all over the city on everything from money to manhole covers. It seemed reasonable to me that Aven would have adopted the same concept.

The second is of my own devising, for the Aventan mages: per nobis pro gentem means “through us, for the nation”. I played around with a few different mottos for them, but I landed on this one both because it’s nicely balanced and reflects common motto-structure, and because it reflects the civic responsibility that those blessed by the gods are supposed to demonstrate. (Although as readers of the Aven Cycle know, not all of them are as pious as they ought to be!)

3: If this Special Offer helps me cross my next Patreon Goal, I’ll design two more stickers!

They’ll also go to all new members and anyone who increased their pledge, and they will be rhetoric-themed! I’m not sure yet what they’ll look like — but maybe y’all will make me find out. 😉 

Teasers and Temptations

Want to see some of the posts you’ll get if you pledge at the $5+ levels? Here are a few samples!

Audaces Fortuna iuvat,

Cass