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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
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.
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.
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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 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!
[ETA March 2021: My page statistics suggest that a lot of readers may be finding this article through searches they’re doing for school. Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re in search of other rhetorical resources, I’ve recommended some of my favorites down in the comments. I do want to caution all students, however, that this blog post is exactly the sort of thing that will turn up on your teacher’s plagiarism checker! I’m happy to be a source, but be sure to use good citation practices.]
First things first: This poem is so good that when I finished the initial rhetorical markup, I felt buzzed. As much as I love rhetoric, that dopamine/endorphin/adrenaline rush doesn’t happen every time. Julius Caesar‘s “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Richard II‘s deposition. Hamilton’s “Satisfied” and “Burn”. Every once in a while, the language is just so gorgeous that I swoon.
I will not have found every device worth noting in this poem. I imagine that for decades to come, I will be able to return to it and unfold a little more of its intricate beauty. Amanda Gorman has a delightful grasp of rhythm and imagery and the awesome power of our language’s flexibility and potential complexities. And she’s only twenty-two. Mercy sweet heavens, I cannot wait to see what else she gives us.
The dominant devices in “The Hill We Climb” are consonance and paromoiosis, both figures of repetition. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds;paromoiosis is a little more complex, the repetition of sounds between words of adjacent or parallel clauses or lines. It is partly rhyme, partly slant rhyme, but importantly the combination of rhyme and some level of isocolon, parallel structure. I usually look at isocolon as a grammatical device, but in this sense, we might also consider it a metrical device, where the parallelism lives in cadence in addition to or instead of in grammar alone. Paromoiosis is, broadly, that not-quite-rhyme sense, highlighted by parallel structure. It’s the crash of waves within the larger motion of the tide.
Paromoiosis is what makes the poem feel “lyrical”, but it isn’t only aurally pleasing. Like many devices of parallelism, it will help you hear the equations as Gorman builds them and will call your attention to the ideas she is linking together. I won’t point out every instance of consonance and paromoiosis, because there are so very many of them, but I will draw attention to the uses that have a particular impact.
One more note before I dive in: I’ve seen a few different transcriptions of “The Hill We Climb” out there on the internet, and there are some slight variations between them. I’m using this one, but it may well not be definitive, so forgive me any minor deviations between this and the official, finalized version, which I suspect we will see in Gorman’s upcoming book. (Have you pre-ordered? I have!)
Gorman opens with aporia, a question which asks the audience the best way to go about something. In this, she presents her central concern: how do we move forward now, at this moment in time, from a past that has often been so dark? The antithesis (arrangement of contrast) between light/shade and the metaphor of the day breaking are important to a rhetorical concept known as kairos: the idea of the moment in which a text occurs. Kairos takes into account the occasion, the needs of the moment, and the greater social/cultural/political context. Here, the day/light imagery places “The Hill We Climb” squarely within the canon of the Biden administration: consider Biden’s inauguration morning tweet or some of the music played during the evening’s “Celebrating America” event (Jon Bon Jovi’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” and John Legend’s performance of “Feeling Good” were my favorites). Certainly Biden is not the first president to wield this particular metaphor, nor does it guarantee a sunnier period of time to follow — consider Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign — but it is nonetheless both powerful in its own right and a thread that links much of the art surrounding this political moment.
The next two lines branch into other metaphors: there’s something interesting about “a loss we carry”, something that has weight and proves a burden through absence rather than presence. “A sea we must wade” also has conceptual curiosity inside it. A sea, after all, is not something you wade across. You might wade in the shallows, perhaps, but that’s not quite the force that the verb takes here. “Wade”, then, becomes meiosis, a reference to something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature. Gorman does not say “a sea we must sail” or “navigate” or even “swim” — but “wade”, suggesting that the problem is perhaps both greater and lesser than we imagine. Wading is something done slowly, your leg muscles pumping against the water and perhaps the undertow — but it is not something you can do if you are, say, drowning.
The next two lines introduce some of the figures of repetition we’ll see throughout the poem, notably the consonance I’ve mentioned already and the devices of anaphora, repetition at the beginning of lines or phrases, and isocolon, parallel structure, typically a device of syntax. Anaphora and isocolon often work together, as they do in “We’ve braved”/”We’ve learned”. The metaphor of “the belly of the beast” following the imagery of the sea made me think of the trial of Jonah and the whale; I’m not sure if Gorman intended that particular connection or not, but if so, it becomes anamnesis, a reference which calls to mind past matters or another author.
The next few lines contain a particularly gorgeous arrangement. “What just is isn’t always justice” has a few different things going on. The repetition of “isn’t always” from the prior line is ploce, unstructured repetition of words. We see conceptual chiasmus, one of my favorite devices, in “what-is-isn’t-justice”. Chiasmus is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a device which ties a knot, repeating either ideas or grammatical construction in A-B-B-A order. Sometimes that reflects a thorny issue, a character tangled up in a problem; sometimes it ties things off neatly, putting a bow on the issue. Here, I think we see a bit of both. America is a thorny problem, all over, but reducing the arrangement to its key words, “what is isn’t justice”, well, that does sum the problem up succinctly. It’s also very nearly antimetabole, which is a specific form of chiasmus repeating exact words in A-B-B-A order — and that takes us to the other clever wordplay that Gorman works into this arrangement.
“Just is” and “justice” are nearly sound-alikes, and Gorman links them by placing them in parallel position to each other (at the end of the lines and as balancing figures within the chiasmus) as well as through antisthecon, a device which substitutes a sound within a word. The harder “z” in “is” transforms to the softer “s” sound in “justice”. I would also argue that this transformation gives us an aural antanaclasis. Antanaclasis is a device which repeats the same word with a different meaning. A famous example is in Othello: “Put out the light, and then put out the light”, where the first “light” is literal, the candle or lantern he carries, and the second is metaphorical, Desdemona’s life. “Just is” and “justice” are obviously not exactly the same word, but the auditory effect is, I feel, the same. We are meant to hear them as equal, but not.
With “and yet the dawn is ours”, Gorman signals a move into the next phase of the poem, both recalling the imagery from earlier and stepping forward to acknowledge the present and future. “Before we knew it. / Somehow we do it” gives us the first paromoiosis, and I like that this one also shows us a progression from the past tense verb “knew” to the present tense “do”. The anaphora on “Somehow” carries us to the next thought, which similarly acknowledges that past/present/future tension in the comparison between “broken” and “unfinished” (syncrisis rather than antithesis, for the two items are not really in opposition to each other).
You may notice that I mark a lot of small omissions as either ellipsis or zeugma, and often I won’t comment on them. Ellipsis is a simple omission of a word or phrase easily understood in context. Zeugma is a device with multiple and sometimes competing definitions. The one I use is grammatical: one part of speech governs two or more others. From Cicero: “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.” The verb “conquered” is omitted from the subsequent occurrences. (This is why I consider it a device of Omission under my ROADS system, though you could certainly make an argument for Direction).
Another definition of zeugma, though, conflates it with syllepsis, which I consider to be a form of zeugma. In syllepsis, the governing word must be understood differently with regard to each thing it governs. From Alanis Morissette: “You held your breath and the door for me.” The verb “held” has a slightly different context as applied to “breath” or “the door”. It’s like antanaclasis, only you don’t actually repeat the word.
Anyway — here, “a nation” is the object attached to both the verbs “weathered” and “witnessed”. That I’ve marked it hypozeugma refers to the position of the governing word (here, at the end). Is it syllepsis? My instinct is yes, though I can’t quite unpack why I feel that we “weather” and “witness” a nation in different senses. Complicating the matter is that “nation” is synecdoche. Typical use of synecdoche is where a part stands in for a whole; here, the whole stands in for its parts. We cannot, really, witness a nation. A nation isn’t really a thing. It is always a sum of parts. What we both weather and witness, then, are the actions of the people who comprise the nation.
We see a form of zeugma again in the next line, “successors of a country and a time”, before Gorman moves into a short self-identification. She does this through enallage, a device which substitutes semantically equivalent but grammatically different constructions. Here, the use of the third person rather than the first. That substitution broadens her message: she is not only telling her own story, but a story in which other skinny Black girls might see themselves, too. The descriptions are short but powerful: “skinny Black” is simple enargia, a generic term for description; “descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” is appositio, the addition of a corollary, explanatory, or descriptive element. What makes it so rhetorically elegant, though, is the antithesis of “descended/raised” within that line, particularly since the contrast rests on secondary meanings of the words rather than only their strict function in the sentence. A small flourish, but the sort that I go absolutely giddy for.
The next stanza (of sorts; no transcription I’ve seen actually breaks the poem into stanzas, but I’m going to apply the term to where there are conceptual and lyrical breaks or shifts) echoes the prior, as the opening “And yes” forms paromoiosis with “and yet”. “Far from polished/far from pristine” has nice isocolon and consonance, but also strikes me as epanorthosis, an addition that amends to correct or make more vehement. “Pristine” is a more intense descriptor than “polished”.
The anamnesis to the Preamble of the Constitution inherent in “form a union that is perfect” is lovely. Gorman invites the listeners to think of the phrase she’s not-quite-quoting, but by leaving out “more”, she leaves herself room to explore the act of that striving —
–so that we get more nice repetitions echoing in the next line. Again, it’s syncrisis, ideas not precisely in opposition, but compared. We can never form a perfect union, between human foibles and the idea of what’s “perfect” always changing. But we can put in the work (and “forge” is such a great word there, invoking a craft that is so physical a labor) to create a society that has been purposefully constructed.
Gorman really lets the consonance off the leash in the next couple of lines, such that it becomes paroemion, where the consonance involves nearly every word in the sentence. The items in the series are taxis, a device which divides a subject (the country) up into its constituting parts (culture, colors, characters, conditions — all those things implied by the synecdoche of “nation” we saw before).
“And so” doesn’t quite pick up the “And yet/and yes” aural echo, but it’s still launching us into this next stanza. “What stands between us/what stands before us” is a lovely pairing of antithesis and isocolon, again hitting that idea of the present as compared to the potential of the future — a theme Gorman will open up more in the next few lines.
The conceptual chiasmus of “close the divide (action on a breach) – our future first (communal noun and primacy) – we must first (communal noun and primacy) – put differences aside (action on a breach)” is augmented by the consonance of f-sounds and the unstructured repetition of “first”, as well as the paromoiosis in “close the divide” and “differences aside”.
The next two lines give as fine an example of antanaclasis as you could ask for: “arms” as in “weapons” and “arms” as in brachial limbs. That balance is augmented by the isocolon of the phrases, the antithesis between “lay down” and “reach out”, as well as epistrophe, repetition at the end of the line (which I mis-wrote as epizeuxis in the markup there; ignore that). “Harm to none and harmony to all” has a similar balance to it, and again Gorman is playing with words. Rather than substituting a sound as in “just is/justice”, here she adds to the word to make “harm” into “harmony”; adding that sound is a device known as paragoge.
Notice, too, the anaphora/isocolon in the way each of these sentences begin: “We close”, “We lay”, “We seek”. This “we [verb]” pattern is one that Gorman returns to throughout the poem, stressing both the communal nature of what’s important here and the active quality.
Again we see synecdoche of a whole standing in for its parts: now the “globe” rather than only the “nation”. Then Gorman launches into a beautiful auxesis, a series which builds to a climax, augmented by isocolon, anaphora (“That even as”), and consonance throughout (grieved/grew, hurt/hoped, tired/tried). The last of those pairs is also another sound-shifting device, this time metathesis, transposition of letters within a word.
After three lines of parallel structure, the fourth is unlike the others, but connected through the “That” anaphora — and this is the line that gives us the climactic point, bringing us from the past to the future. We get a little bit of hyperbaton, syntactical disorder, a device common in Shakespeare but less so in modern English, as the usual phrase would be “we’ll be tied together forever”, but Gorman moves “forever” up, which better balances the aural quality of the line, I think. “Tied” transmutes the “tired/tried” pairing yet again, this time through syncope, the omission of a sound. “Victorious” is a small appositio, describing the condition of being tied together, and then Gorman follows up that addition with another, longer qualification.
Those next two lines are aetiologia, a figure of reasoning that explicates a cause for a given effect. If the effect is that “we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”, the cause is in the difference between defeat and division. Again, Gorman stresses that difference between a perfect union and a purposeful one. The lines are balanced through isocolon and antithesis, as well as mesodiplosis, the repetition of the same words in the middle of a line (“we will never again”).
The next section begins a new thought, but it’s tied to what came before through homoioteleuton, a device I am guaranteed to never spell correctly on the first try. Homoioteleuton is much simpler than it sounds: the similarity of endings in adjacent or parallel words: here, “division/envision”.
The “vine and fig tree” allusion is anamnesis on multiple levels. Gorman has acknowledged it as an easter egg for “One Last Time” from Hamilton; through that, it is also an allusion to George Washington, who used the phrase in his letters often, and to Washington’s original source, the Bible. Gorman thus positions herself in this literary heritage and positions this poem’s kairos as part of the ongoing American and human experiences.
“Own time” forms paromoiosis with “own vine”, which is a marvelously subtle way of transitioning to her next thought: “victory” picks up from “victorious” several lines earlier, through polyptoton, the repetition of a word in a different grammatical form.
Gorman echoes her “arms” dichotomy with the antithesis of “blade/bridges”. I absolutely love the phrase “promise to glade”. She elides a bit: “the promise we make to the glade” would likely be the full expression, but in condensing it, she’s given us something delicate and beautiful, like a seed to nourish. Too, she has personified the glade, that idea of the place of the vine and fig tree, as something you can make a promise to. Personification is known as prosopopoeia; Gorman endows the dual idea of the land itself and the vision of the future with human qualities.
Then, the poem’s title, “the hill we climb”, comes in through exergasia, the repetition of the same idea in new words. Much of this poem, really, is exergasia in a broader sense, but here Gorman immediately augments the “glade” with the “hill”.
The past/present/future progression continues in the next stanza, as Gorman imagines us not only receiving the past (“a pride we inherit”) but also participating in it (“the past we step into”). “Repair it/inherit” gives us another nice paromoioisis, underscoring that weaving together of history and modernity, which then brings Gorman to the immediate past.
Again, kairos is important. Though Gorman never names the insurrection or those who participated in it or prompted it, everyone watching knew exactly what she meant by “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it”. That awareness was heightened by her physical location at the time she delivered this poem: on the very west front of the Capitol, which two weeks earlier had been stormed by terrorists. Both verbally and visually, Gorman participated in a reclamation of that space for the America she describes as being possible, the forged union of purpose.
Zeugma carries the “force” down from the antithesis of shatter/share into the next line, “would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy”. The following line, “and this effort very nearly succeeded”, is almost jarring in its simplicity, lack of rhetoricity, and lack of lyrical connection to what precedes. That feels deliberate. It is a line meant to shock recognition into us, to remind us that the reclamation was by no means certain.
But, Gorman reminds us, “while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated”. Apart from the ploce of certain words, the consonance of th e”d” sound, and the paromoiosis, I feel like there might be a bit of anamnesis in here, too. The “delayed/defeated” phrasing and the general cadence reminded me of the legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied”.
I ought to have marked “in this faith” as exergasia on “in this truth”; together, they are part of a hyperbaton as well as a hypozeugma. There may be anamnesis there, too, as the form “in [blank] we trust” recalls the nation’s motto “in God we trust”.
(As a sidebar, could we as a nation please ditch the Red Scare era religiosity and go back to e pluribus unum? Such a better aspiration — and something which speaks to communal effort, not fatalism)
Another Hamilton easter egg follows in the anamnesis of “history has its eyes on us” (“on you” in the musical). This line personifies history (prosopopoeia again) and also gives us another chiasmus: “eyes – future (temporal state) – history (temporal state) – eyes”.
Gorman now start threading together many of her themes: the idea of what is just or justice returns through ploce; the common responsibility rises in “on us”, “we feared”, “we did not”; the past-future connection shows in “heirs”. We get homoioteleuton in “redemption/inception”, polyptoton of “inherit” from several lines back into “heirs”, and meiosis of “hour” to describe not only the very long day of the insurrection but this whole era of American history we must confront.
I really love the line “we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour”. That fear, I think, is a feeling many of us have had, whatever our age, when we have to confront the idea that this nation is not guaranteed. Democracy is not safe if left unattended. It is a fragile and delicate thing which requires so much hard work — but Gorman is optimistic about our ability to keep it going. Paromoiosis links “power” to “hour”, and she does one of my favorite things for a writer to do when she makes a metaphor about writing in “author a new chapter”.
These lines form a nice little capsule all on their own. We get antithesis of “once we asked” and “now we assert”, contrasting not only the past with the present, but question with declaration, and thus uncertainty with certainty. Then, antimetabole: “prevail-catastrophe-catastrophe-prevail”.
The “we [verb]” structure continues, as it has throughout the poem, in “we will not march”, and we have more antithesis between “march back/move to” and “what was/what shall be”. Gorman then describes for us what, exactly, shall be, in an act of chorographia, the description of a nation. (The whole poem, in a sense, is that, too, but here we have it in miniature). “Bruised but whole” and “benevolent but bold” I ought to have marked as syncrisis, since they are comparative but not necessarily contrasting terms. I love that she puts two “but”s in a row and then caps it off with an “and”; it makes a nice progression within the description.
The next few lines have neat little anaphora, this time not of a full word or phrase, but of the prefix “in-”. Gorman returns to the idea of “inheritance” again, this time thinking not about what we have been heir to but what we will leave for others. “Blunders/burdens” is another syncrisis, and once with a sense of escalation in it. A blunder is a mistake, a slip, an error, something that arises not through ill intent but through incaution; but it can create misery down the line, growing exponentially as it gets passed down if it isn’t (as Gorman noted earlier) repaired.
Her cadence is really starting to gallop here. It starts in the chorographia, and as we charge into the four lines beginning “If we merge”, the pace becomes relentless, and Gorman drives that home through the rest of the work. We have lots of little devices of repetition throughout these lines, as you can see: we also get a neat new one, anadiplosis, the repetition of the same word at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. Anadiplosis has a laddering effect, an apt device for a poem with much imagery of building and climbing. I think all the intertwined consonance augments that effect, too, one idea building upon the previous and laying the ground for the next.
“Legacy/birthright” hearkens to the past/future dichotomy again, as does the chiasmus of “leave behind-country-one-left with”. I know I go on about this a lot, but chiastic structure is so beautiful. I love what it does to cadence; I love how it ties ideas together. Chiasmus is satisfying; that bobbing in-and-out sensation feels secure, somehow. It lands in a way that echoes the confident optimism that courses through this whole poem. Because so many of these things aren’t certain or secure, of course — but if we “author the next chapter”, if we write them into the future, then they can become so.
“Bronze-pounded chest” is just a hell of a phrase. Turning the noun-verb pair of “bronze-pounded” into an adjective is anthimeria, another favorite device of mine, which transmutes a word from one part of speech to another. It recalls, too, the language of the “forge” from earlier in the poem — something that is a labor, that takes time and effort to construct. It calls up imagery of armor, a bronze cuirass protecting the heart. It calls up imagery of statues. And yet it has breath; it’s not something metal, it’s something that lives.
And then she kicks off an absolutely astonishing sequence that’s doing so many things at once. This is one of the places where I just about swooned. So many of the devices Gorman has shown us so far, she showcases simultaneously in this sequence.
So. She returns to chorographia, this time describing the nation in more detail, region by region.
There is syncope and paraomoiosis when “we will raise” turns into “we will rise”; there is anaphora in the repetition of “we will rise” at the beginning of successive lines, driving the point home.
There is auxesis, in that it will build to the climactic idea of “every known nook of our nation and every corner called country”; there is taxis in that it considers each region as a component of the whole.
There is prosopopoeia in “gold-limbed hills”, giving the west a body; there is enargia in the descriptions of the northeast as “windswept” and the south as “sunbaked”; there is appositio in further describing the northeast as “where our forefathers first realized revolution”; there is epitheton (a pithy descriptor, as in “rosy-fingered dawn”) in “lake-rimmed cities”.
Those descriptors then form a grammatical synchysis stretching across the lines, which is A-B-A-B structure (as opposed to the A-B-B-A of chiasmus). Gorman alternates the hyphenated descriptors with the single-word ones: “gold-limbed – windswept – lake-rimmed – sunbaked”. (Note that this is one definition of synchysis; another is less organized, taking hyperbaton to extreme disorder. In this use, however, the device is purposeful).
And then, not quite content with that big auxesis of the regions, Gorman embeds another one in “rebuild-reconcile-recover”, with the series augmented by anaphora/consonance.
She gives us no time to breathe, charging onward: the consonance in “known nook of our nation” and “corner called our country” recall phrases from earlier in the poem. Hyperbaton places “people” ahead of its descriptors “diverse and beautiful”, and then she adds through appositio/epanorthosis: “battered and beautiful”. One does not negate the other.
In the last part of the poem, Gorman returns to her opening metaphor and opening day/shade antithesis. It is not a question now, but an assertion, just as in the “once we asked/now we assert” lines. We will step out of the shade. In appositio, Gorman tells us that it is not just light but “aflame”, drawing even stronger contrast between the light and the dark. That also indicates that we are the source of the light — which I feel is a pretty big message! And she’s gonna hammer that home in her final lines.
The idea that the “dawn blooms” is catachresis, a misapplication of words that nonetheless makes a certain degree of sense. Dawn breaks; flowers bloom; yet somehow the words feel right together. It’s the sun, after all, that encourages the flowers to bloom. Notice that we are active here, too! Day comes “as we free it” — and that “free it” sets up the paromoioisis that makes her final couplet so strong and memorable.
The last three lines are epitasis, her summary of the message of the whole poem, neatly encapsulated. The last two lines rely on repetition, with only one word different. That difference feels like epanorthosis: a correction that makes the message more vehement and reminds us of our duty. It’s not enough to see the light; we must be it.
So! That is my initial analysis of this truly dazzling poem. As I said at the top, I imagine I will look on this again and see different bits of excellent wordcraft as I return to it with fresh eyes in the future. “The Hill We Climb” is a magnificent work, and I very much hope teachers are already making adjustments to place it in their curricula.
If you’ve enjoyed this rhetorical analysis, it’s the sort of thing I do every week over on Patreon! Pledging at $1/month gets you immediate access to the full Hamilblog, a breakdown of every song in Hamilton, as well as the ongoing Shakesblog, where I’m working my way through Romeo and Juliet, and any other works that I do in-between the primary projects.