General

The Aven Cycle Continues… Today!

Today’s the day! The Bloodstained Shade is officially out and in the world!

Book covers of FROM UNSEEN FIRE, GIVE WAY TO NIGHT, and THE BLOODSTAINED SHADE against a white marbled background

I’m so excited for y’all to read it. I’m incredibly proud of this book, not only for the determination it took to produce it, but also because… it’s really good, though I say it myself! I hope you find as much delight in reading The Bloodstained Shade as I did in writing it!

Here’s where you can get it: 

And yes, you’re reading that right — the book is available in both ebook and print format!

In case you missed the big announcement last week, the entire Aven Cycle (thus far) is back out in brand-new paperback editions, featuring their gorgeous new covers. The matched set is definitely lust-worthy.

Paperback editions of FROM UNSEEN FIRE, GIVE WAY TO NIGHT, and THE BLOODSTAINED SHADE, standing upright and overlapping on a wooden table

And if you’ve already ordered — awesome! Now help me spread the word to readers who don’t yet know how much they love the Aven Cycle.

Readers sometimes ask me where’s the best place to buy my books, if I get any more money from one retailer or another. In general, the answer is that it doesn’t make a ton of difference. The retailers with lower royalty rates tend to have higher volume, so it evens out in the long run. 

I will, however, always recommend asking your local indie bookstore to carry them, if possible. You can also request them at your local library! Or, use this Bookshop.org link — then I essentially get to double-dip, since Bookshop gives me a li’l somethin’ as an affiliate.

And, because I just can’t help myself, if you haven’t picked up the e-copies yet, I’m having a this-week-only sale on From Unseen Fire and Give Way to Night! Just $0.99 at all your favorite ebook retailers, for a limited time.


As I’ve been preparing for this release, I’ve been giving a peeks inside the process over on Patreon and Ko-Fi! Here’s a round-up of what I’ve been doing on those channels recently: 

  • Sneak peek of the print cover From Unseen Fire
  • First pictures of the proof copies of the print editions
  • Book-bub ad testing and geeky data analysis
  • Mages of Aven microfiction — we’re up to 250 snippets!
  • A look at using AutoCrit to assist with editing

You can join on either Patreon or Ko-Fi and get access to the same member-exclusive content! 

My wonderful supporters are, truly, what have enabled me to get The Bloodstained Shade into the world. Patreon and Ko-Fi funds allowed me to commission that wonderful cover art, to put the books into print, to hire my amazing editor, and to put effort into marketing and promotion. I truly could not be more grateful.

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.

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!

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

General, Personal

Student Q&A

Back in November, I had the great joy of getting to “visit” (via video chat) a creative writing class at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, VA — just south of where I grew up and currently live! They were participating in NaNoWriMo, and their teacher asked if I’d come speak as someone who had done Nano for a lot of years and was now living the writerly life. I was delighted to oblige.

Their questions were fantastic and thoughtful, and I really enjoyed chatting with them! With their teacher’s permission, I wanted to share some of those astute questions and my answers more publicly:

Did you start writing for fun or was this something you always wanted?

I’ve always been a storyteller, but when I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a novelist. Since then, there’s really been no stopping me. I don’t see writing for fun and writing professionally as mutually exclusive, though! I love the things I write professionally, but I also still write occasional fanfiction purely for my own pleasure.

Was there a particular teacher or friend or another person you knew personally that influenced you to become a writer?

I had several teachers who did a lot to boost my confidence. Bear O’Bryan, to whom From Unseen Fire is dedicated, was my creative writing teacher in high school. He was the first one to tell me that I could really, really do this. Actually, what he said was, “We’ll be studying you someday,” which I think is over-optimistic when it comes to literature classes’ general engagement with fantasy books, but! it was incredibly affirming to hear.

Do your parents support your writing? And if so, does that make things easier or harder on you?

This is an incredibly astute question from someone whom I am guessing has parents a lot like mine! Yes, my parents are incredibly supportive. They are my biggest fans and loudest cheerleaders. I am so, so grateful that for 24 years, they have believed in me and in my ability to do this. But it can be a weird sort of stressful, too! They love me so much that they can’t always understand why the rest of the world hasn’t caught on. I have to temper their expectations sometimes, which is hard when I also want to make them proud!

How do you get over writer’s block?

First, by not believing in it.

It’s like the Fae. If you name it, you give it power. If I’m having trouble focusing on writing, it usually means one of two things is going on: there’s something wrong with the story or there’s something wrong with me. If there’s something wrong with me — if I’m having a high anxiety day or a depressive fit, or if there’s something external with family or friends or work putting pressure on me, then I need to give myself room for that. Some days, the juice is just plain not there, and I can’t force it. If there’s something wrong with the story, then I need to figure out what that is. What pieces aren’t fitting together? What character is being railroaded into an action that isn’t right for them? Where am I going through contortions trying to justify a plot element?

So the better question is: How do I generate new words when I’m struggling and it isn’t a moment when I need to grant myself grace? When I need to buckle down but am having trouble doing so? There are a few things I try:

  • Change the scene: Sometimes I just need to jump to a new place in the narrative in order to reinvigorate my attention span.
  • Change the POV: Sometimes I’m trying to write a scene from the wrong character’s perspective — or I might have put them into a situation that’s wrong for them, an action that goes against the grain of their character.
  • Sprinting: This works particularly well during NaNo seasons, when there are word sprints on Twitter, but I can force myself to do it on my own using a good timing app.

How do you generate new ideas for writing?

Too few ideas has never been my problem. Too many is. I have to figure out what ideas are workable. That’s where the heavy lifting of being a writer comes in.

Where do I find inspiration? History and art. History is full of so many interesting stories, but what I really love is social history, how people have lived their lives throughout time. Art reflects that through a lot of lenses, cultural and aesthetic and political. I love looking at paintings and statues to see how artists represent themselves and the past, figuring out whether they’re presenting something realistic or idealized.

Unconscious Rivals, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1898

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Yes.

How much do you write in a day?

Utterly depends on the day and the kind of work I’m doing. During NaNoWriMo, the goal is 1667, and I usually do a pretty good job with that. Some days, I can go way past that, when I get into a really good flow. Other times, I might struggle to hit 200 in a day.

Editing is a different kind of work where the word count isn’t what’s important. I might be restructuring scenes, I might be condensing bloated scenes or plotlines, I might be staring at the screen trying to figure out what mystical ingredient I’m still missing that makes this perfect. That’s all work, too.

It’s important to remember, too, that “more words” does not always equal “better words”. A 2500 word day is not superior to a 200 word day if those 2500 words are self-indulgent padding or a pointless digression that I’ll end up cutting later on. The challenge is always finding the right words. I track my progress each day for the sake of accountability, to make sure I’m at my desk and focusing, but that can’t be the only measure I validate myself by.

Do you ever feel tired of writing?

I don’t think “tired of” is the right phrasing. I get frustrated with it, when I can’t figure out the solution to a plot problem. I get aggravated when the pieces aren’t coming together as well or as quickly as I’d like. And there’s a lot in the publishing realm that’s mentally and emotionally challenging in a whole different way, separate from the writing work itself.

There are times when I’m simply not in the right headspace to write. I have to acknowledge that and give myself room for it. When anxiety and depression are eating me, or when I have 80 papers to grade in a short span of time, or when, for instance, armed maniacs storm the Capitol and try to dismantle our republic, I have to give myself permission to have “off” days!

What’s the process for publishing a book and what’s necessary in order to get it ready for publication?

So, a caveat: This will look different for everyone. No one’s path is exactly the same as anyone else’s. I’ll also be talking about traditional publishing, which is different from the process for a hybrid author or a self-publishing author.

  • Write the book. Edit it. Get some beta readers — people who will read the book carefully and give you thoughtful commentary on it. (There are helpful guides online if you’re not sure what to ask them!) Edit it some more based on their feedback.
  • Query an agent. There’s a lot of advice out there on how to do this; broadly you want to make sure you’re choosing agents who are right for you and your book (ie, don’t query someone who doesn’t represent your genre) and you want to follow whatever guidelines are on their website. They may request either a partial or a full manuscript if they want to see more.
  • If you get signed, they may or may not take the book out “on sub” immediately. “On sub” means that your agent is submitting your book to editors at publishing houses. My agent, Connor, is an editorial agent; we did months’ worth of edits on From Unseen Fire before he took it out — and then we did some more when the first round of submissions didn’t land us a deal.
  • When an editor likes your book, they may still have to justify that to a board for approval. If the board says no, there’s still no deal. This happened to me; it happens to lots of authors. I mention it because it’s a part of the process that not many people talk about publicly, but it can be so nerve-wracking to wait for that news. I wish there were more resources preparing authors for being on sub the way there are so many resources for querying.
  • When an editor makes an offer, your agent will negotiate the contract. Connor got me a 3-book deal off of one manuscript and managed to hold onto audio and other rights so that we could sell those separately.
  • Then the editor has at it. You’ll generally have several rounds of editing, starting with developmental edits, which covers the big structural stuff — plotlines, character arcs, pacing, etc. There may be a lot or a little to work on there! From Unseen Fire still needed heavy lifting when it got acquired; Give Way to Night was already tighter by the time my editor saw it. Then, line edits, which addresses your word choice, sentence flow, the detailed stuff. Copy edits check for errors and consistency. Then, finally, proofreading makes sure the print copy is going to look exactly the way you want it to! (In theory; the occasional typo will still get through even if many eyes have been on it!)
  • Somewhere in there, you start talking about cover art, jacket copy, getting blurbs, and it’s all quite terrifying, because that’s when it starts to hit you that this is real and really happening and actual people are going to read it.

How long did it take you to write From Unseen Fire? How about Give Way to Night?

The drafting of FUF began in November 2011 (it was a Nano project!), and I finished it in June of the following year. Not every month was a heavy writing month — I feel like March and April I really slacked off because they were such busy months where I was working then. And then it took the rest of that year to edit into a shape that was ready for querying. Edits happened with both Connor and the DAW team, so it was almost six and a half years from initial drafting to on-the-shelf.

GWtN took longer to draft, even though the overall process was shorter. Some of that material was stuff that had been excised from FUF, so you’d think I’d have a head start — but so much of FUF changed during various rounds of editing that not much was useable as-is. I had to do a lot of alteration of that material to make it fit the new arcs. Then, I was also trying to write it during what was a very difficult year for me personally — and as a result, it took a long time to write what was not a very good book on the first try. The revision took about another six months, and that was much better, much stronger. I learned a lot through that whole process, with the result that I think Give Way to Night is an even better book than From Unseen Fire.

What’s the difference between writing the first book and then the second one?

Expectations. The first book, I wrote with a lot of hope, but with no one’s voice in my head but me. The second book, suddenly there are all these other voices. I was trying to make so many people happy — not just me, not even just my editor, but everyone who had read From Unseen Fire. I wanted to improve the things they thought were weak and give them more of what they thought were strong.

The problem, of course, is that not all readers agreed! I got really self-conscious about the things that readers criticized, but it was almost harder when there was, say, a character that some readers loved and others thought was pointless and boring. What do I do with that??The answer: Ignore it.

This is part of what took Give Way to Night so long to draft on the first go. I hadn’t yet learned how to tune out all that extra noise. I had to recommit myself to telling the story I wanted to tell.

I also learned my lesson about reading reviews. I don’t do it anymore. I have someone I trust look at them for me occasionally and send me the best comments.

Is it scary putting writing out there in the world and waiting for people to respond to it?

Yes. Horrifying. That in-between place when it’s done and dusted but no one’s read it yet is an absolute nightmare, because at that point, it’s out of my control. All I can do is hope I wrote a strong book.

Worldbuilding is a really big task and can be as detailed as an author wants. Where do you typically start when building a world (setting, character, theme, etc.)?

I tend to begin with an aesthetic. I have a sense of what the world looks like. That’s typically influenced by history. For the Aven Cycle, it’s late Republic Rome. For other projects I currently have on the back burner, it’s late-medieval Byzantium and early modern London. Then I start putting together characters to move around inside that world. I may still be designing the world at the same time! But I sort of build the dollhouse and the dolls simultaneously. One informs the other so much that it’s difficult to pull apart.

Cast of Henry V, American Shakespeare Center, 2015/2016; Photo by Tommy Thompson

Is it difficult to keep track of character development from one novel to another?

No. Not for me, at least. Other authors’ mileage may certainly vary. I know who my characters are. If I have one particular strength as a writer, I think that’s it. So I have a strong sense of who they are at any given point in time, how they respond to pressure points, how they developed as they grew older, what they’ll grow into in the future, all of that. I can manipulate the world around them and easily see how they’ll react.

Now — Keeping track of eye color, ages, things like that, yes, that can be rough, especially for the tertiary and functionary characters that I spend less time with. I have spreadsheets for that and I still screw it up.

How do you write about characters or worlds that you haven’t experienced yourself?

A lot of research. Never-ending research, really, because it’s not just research about one historical period or place; it’s research about people and how we live. I try to expose myself to new ideas and to stories outside of my own life experience, so that I get a broader view of what moves and shakes people. I read a lot, fiction and nonfiction. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I never want to stop learning.


Thanks again to the students of Clover Hill for such wonderful questions! I hope my answers were in some way helpful.


Did you know? My supporters on Patreon get early access to posts like this, as well as weekly microfiction, explorations of rhetoric, behind-the-page shop talk, sneak peeks, and much more! Join for just $3/month to get access to the full feed!

General

GIVE WAY TO NIGHT Release Round-Up!

Book cover showing a dark-haired woman in purple against a green backdrop; with text: "The multilayered politcs -- both mundane and supernatural -- will keep readers hooked. This is a satisfying return to the series." -- Publishers Weekly

Give Way to Night has been out for a month now! If you’ve had the chance to read it, be sure to leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, Bookshop, B&N, and/or StoryGraph. Every little bit helps to introduce new readers to the world of Aven.

And if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, I know lots of booksellers who would be delighted to help you procure it! One More Page Books in Arlington, VA and the Island Bookstore on the Outer Banks of NC both have signed copies, and they’ll ship anywhere — or you can use Bookshop and still support indie bookstores!

I’ve been busy with some interviews and guest blogs to celebrate Give Way to Night‘s release. These are truly so much fun! I love talking about writing, and while it’s not quite the same as having an in-person event or a empaneling at a con, it does have the advantage of being available anywhere, any time. In case you missed any of them, here’s a round-up:

I also did a full month of aesthetic posts and behind-the-page tidbits leading up to release, which you can find most easily through the #AvenCycle hashtag on Twitter or in the Aven Cycle highlight reel on my Instagram.

I am well into drafting Book 3 and hope to have that off to my editor relatively soon! Since January 20th, I dunno, it just feels like some massive psychic weight has lifted and I might be able to get some more solid work done? I certainly remember how I used to write, before 2016. If I can recapture that degree of focus, then the stories will start rolling fast and fierce!

"Full of strong female characters who are continuing to discover and use their strength" -- BookWyrm Reader
General

Corvid-19: A RavenCon Anthology

Last week, I received unfortunate but not unexpected news: RavenCon, my hometown SFF con, is having to cancel in 2021. Their dates are in April, and with a vaccine not likely to be available to the general population until summer, there’s really no way to hold the event safely; furthermore, Virginia is currently tightening strictures on large gatherings (as well they should), and there’s no telling when they might open back up. It’s the right choice; it’s the necessary choice; it’s an expected choice. It’s still sad, and I will miss seeing everyone in April.

RavenCon is one of the first conventions having to face the unfortunate reality of missing two years due to the pandemic, as their April date means they were one of the first to have to cancel in 2020. I want to make sure that we can come back strong in 2022.

That’s why I donated a story to the Corvid-19 anthology! Yes, you read that right; Corvid-19. Every story in this 210-page anthology features, in some way, the corvidae family of birds: ravens, magpies, crows, coughs, the whole lot.

Art of a raven; #BackTheRaven #BuyTheBook

This benefit anthology has just launched on Kickstarter! In addition to digital or print copies of the anthology, you can also claim benefits ranging from RavenCon buttons and stickers to Tuckerizations (getting your name in a published book as a character), writing critiques, or a bundle of the books which were nominated for the Webster Award.

My contribution to Corvid-19 is an Aven Cycle exclusive short story. The main character is no one you’ll see in the novels — though you may recognize her from the Mages of Aven microfiction series, if you’re a Patreon backer. Her story takes place before From Unseen Fire begins, and it also includes a rendition of the founding of Aven. Have you ever wondered why Aven is Aven, and not Rome? Well, here’s your chance to learn the answer!

I’ve also had a sneak peek at the other entries in the anthology, and they’re delightful. Drawing on ancient myths and modern science, exploring a variety of speculative styles, there’s truly a story in here to delight any fancy.

So I encourage everyone to back this Kickstarter! Not only will you be getting some smashing fiction, you’ll be helping a local con survive this pandemic so that we can gather together in 2022!

General

An Award and a Sweepstakes!

I am beyond delighted to announce that From Unseen Fire has won this year’s Webster Award, bestowed by RavenCon in recognition of “outstanding achievement in genre writing by a Virginia author”! Thank you to everyone who has supported this book and shared the love!

And if you haven’t read From Unseen Fire yet — you’re in luck! My publisher is currently running a sweepstakes!

Click through here to enter! There’s plenty of time to get caught up on the world of Aven before Give Way to Night comes out on December 29th. And if you have already read From Unseen Fire? Enter the sweepstakes and maybe you’ll win a copy to give to a friend! ;D