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!
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.
Did you know? My supporters on Patreon get early access to posts like this, as well as weekly microfiction, explorations of rhetoric, behind-the-page shop talk, sneak peeks, and much more! Join for just $3/month to get access to the full feed!
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!
Last week, I received unfortunate but not unexpected news: RavenCon, my hometown SFF con, is having to cancel in 2021. Their dates are in April, and with a vaccine not likely to be available to the general population until summer, there’s really no way to hold the event safely; furthermore, Virginia is currently tightening strictures on large gatherings (as well they should), and there’s no telling when they might open back up. It’s the right choice; it’s the necessary choice; it’s an expected choice. It’s still sad, and I will miss seeing everyone in April.
RavenCon is one of the first conventions having to face the unfortunate reality of missing two years due to the pandemic, as their April date means they were one of the first to have to cancel in 2020. I want to make sure that we can come back strong in 2022.
That’s why I donated a story to the Corvid-19 anthology! Yes, you read that right; Corvid-19. Every story in this 210-page anthology features, in some way, the corvidae family of birds: ravens, magpies, crows, coughs, the whole lot.
This benefit anthology has just launched on Kickstarter! In addition to digital or print copies of the anthology, you can also claim benefits ranging from RavenCon buttons and stickers to Tuckerizations (getting your name in a published book as a character), writing critiques, or a bundle of the books which were nominated for the Webster Award.
My contribution to Corvid-19 is an Aven Cycle exclusive short story. The main character is no one you’ll see in the novels — though you may recognize her from the Mages of Aven microfiction series, if you’re a Patreon backer. Her story takes place before From Unseen Fire begins, and it also includes a rendition of the founding of Aven. Have you ever wondered why Aven is Aven, and not Rome? Well, here’s your chance to learn the answer!
I’ve also had a sneak peek at the other entries in the anthology, and they’re delightful. Drawing on ancient myths and modern science, exploring a variety of speculative styles, there’s truly a story in here to delight any fancy.
So I encourage everyone to back this Kickstarter! Not only will you be getting some smashing fiction, you’ll be helping a local con survive this pandemic so that we can gather together in 2022!
I started writing this post about societal gendered assumptions after JK Rowling, yet again, showed her TERFy ass to the world on Twitter. (And then JKR did like six other things in the time it took me to compose and polish this). It’s something I want to address, because these are concepts I’ve engaged with in writing Give Way to Night and the Aven Cycle as a whole, and they’re things I look forward to being able to depict from another angle when I write something that isn’t historically-rooted.
To begin: Things like menstruation and giving birth can be powerful manifestations of womanhood. They also don’t have to be. There are many cis women who don’t find value in those manifestations for any number of reasons, there are women who don’t have uteruses and therefore don’t have those experiences, and there are people with uteruses who aren’t women who have their own feelings about the intersection of body and identity. If they are meaningful for you and your relationship to womanhood, great! But these things are complex, and they don’t carry the same meaning for everyone. Sex may be a biological reality, but it has so many more ways of expressing itself than dropping everyone into either a pink or a blue bucket, and gender is a societal construct. (And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Bill Nye and his “smoking-hot abacus of sex”).
There are two scenes in Give Way to Night that deal with prominent-but-not-universal aspects of uterus-having life: childbirth and menstruation. My challenge was that the historical setting means I’m writing in a world that does not have the language we do for concepts of gender (or sexuality, for that matter, but that’s its own large topic).
The barrier of conceptual availability is frustrating, in this as in so many other aspects of writing historically-rooted fiction. The cultures of the ancient Mediterranean were rigidly gender essentialist. That manifested differently in different areas (witness Athens versus Sparta), and certain aspects did wax and wane over time, but the dominant paradigm of patriarchy encouraged definition. To the best of my knowledge and research, it would not occur to people living within those cultures that a man could menstruate or that a woman might not have a uterus or that someone (who wasn’t a god) might be neither man nor woman. There are very, very few extant examples of people we would now recognize as nonbinary or transgender in the Roman world. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, of course! But it’s impossible to know how they conceived of themselves within the boundaries and the language of their world, because we have so little even written about such people and pretty much nothing in their own words. I say “pretty much nothing;” there is nothing that I’m aware of, but while I am well-researched, I have not read All The Things That Exist. If anyone knows of a first-person account of a transgender or non-binary person from the Roman world, I would love to read it. The language of self-definition is powerful, and it’s something I try to get as close as I can to in all my research — but the silencing of so many voices is one of the great tragedies of history.
Too, the few written records about individuals who may have been outside the gender binary are… not complimentary. The language is that of aberration and transgression, particularly where male bodies adopting feminine traits are concerned. It was a patriarchal world; being seen as “giving up” manhood to adopt the subjugated state of femininity was considered disgraceful and worthy of a punitive response — an attitude our modern world has not entirely escaped, considering the treatment of and frequent violence towards trans women. The Emperor Elagabulus, who expressed the desire to live as a woman, is one of the most vilified, denigrated, and ridiculed figures in Roman history. Wearing the clothing of the opposite gender was permissible as part of Saturnalian revels at least in some periods, but the rest of the time, it was both punishable and punishment. There were some religious rituals, which migrated over from Greece, that involved gender-blurring up to and including self-castration, but those were considered well outside the bounds of everyday life, and the cults involved were not always favorably received. The writer Lucian posits the idea of someone “born a woman” but with “the mind and the desires and everything else of a man” — but Lucian is a satirist, and so it’s difficult to map his joke about the concept onto how people were actually living. Again, we have the dual barriers of conceptual availability in the time and the lack of first-person records.
Mythology doesn’t do any better; the gender-swapping of the prophet Tiresias is a punishment upon him and thus inextricable from misogyny. The tale of Iphis and Ianthe, where the gods transform a girl to a boy so she can marry another girl, might be read as transgender, and some modern interpretations have claimed it as such. Its point within its cultural context, however, is to reinforce heteronormativity and eliminate any transgressive element. (See Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which definitely reads like an anti-lesbian tract; I love Ovid’s way with words, but when it came to gender and sex the man was an absolute nightmare).
While the historical cultures informing the Aven Cycle were gender essentialist, I didn’t want the narrative to be. So I have tried to choose my language carefully, to illustrate that just because a character’s worldview has certain boundaries, that does not mean the boundaries are factual reality. In the opening scene, a female character is giving birth (okay, this isn’t a spoiler since she’s hugely pregnant in From Unseen Fire; it’s Neitin), and I initially informed the reader that, for the Lusetani, “this was the time of a woman’s greatest power”. Even with the Lusetani-specific disclaimer, though, upon reflection I still wanted to put a little more distance between those concepts. I changed the phrasing to “this was a time of great power”. Not the only time, perhaps not even a superlative time for everyone experiencing it, and — though the Lusetani themselves might not recognize it — not something necessarily belonging only to women. Later on, a male character refers to menstruation as a women’s issue, because those are the lines of the world as he knows them — and another character points out, explicitly, that the world is not always so neatly-boxed-up as he may prefer.
I’m anxious about those scenes. I should be anxious about them! This is important stuff, and I need to be mindful. It was important to me to include those aspects of uterus-having life and to frame them as powerful, because they are so often ignored, denigrated, or treated as a weakness, in reality and in fiction. That they are ignored, denigrated, and treated as weakness is inextricably interwoven with misogyny and with cultural perceptions of them as “women’s issues” — but that does not mean they are all women’s issues or women’s issues only.
I may well have gotten something wrong in trying to thread that needle, not least because no group is a monolith and not everyone will respond the same words the same way. I’m still learning how to be a better ally (to say nothing of a better writer), and I will keep trying to do better.
The WIP I’m working on now is in an invented secondworld, and that gives me a lot more freedom. I’m still figuring out exactly how I want that world to conceive gender and sexuality, along with the language they’ll have to express such concepts, but I know it won’t be strictly tied to a binary. It’s going to be a queernorm society, and while that’s so freeing in some ways, it also prompts me to do a lot more work thinking about the implications for everything from domestic life to the economy. Removing the patriarchy removes a lot of assumptions about how the world works. It’s the sort of thing we explore on Worldbuilding for Masochists, and a lot of what I’m trying in that manuscript was informed by topics brought up on the podcast. I’m really looking forward to writing a fantasy story that, while it has a historical aesthetic, will reflect modern understandings and be capable of celebrating more life experiences.
In short: uterus does not necessarily equal woman, trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary people, and no one gets to invalidate how someone else negotiates their relationship with their own damn body.
You may be noticing that the lady on the cover is very not-blonde. Give Way to Night brings Vibia — prickly, focused, suspicious Vibia — into sharper focus. While Latona and Sempronius are still the primary POV characters, Vibia claims the next slot. Much of this book is from her perspective, and I so greatly enjoyed getting into her headspace as a counterpoint to Latona’s. They are polar opposites in personality, but they share common goals, and much of the story of Give Way to Night is in how they learn to work together to protect the people around them.
Artist Micah Epstein did wonderful work in bringing Vibia to life. She’s much sharper than Latona, and I think her personality really shines in her face. She’s standing in a threshold, a place of power for Fracture mages. In From Unseen Fire, Latona had to learn how to embrace the power she had always been afraid of, because she’d been told she had more than was appropriate. Vibia’s sort of fighting the opposite battle; she’s always considered that she only has a touch of divine blessing — but she’s also had to keep tight-reined control over it, because Fracture can so easily lead to chaos. In Give Way to Night, Vibia comes to realize she’s capable of more than she’d previously considered.
And about that Fracture magic… I’m so delighted that we were able to keep the crackled-fresco look that we had in From Unseen Fire, and I love the added detail of that light bleeding through. What might that prefigure? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out, won’t you?
Also, green is my favorite color, so on a purely childish level, I’m very happy to have a green book.
Now that I’ve handed in copy edits, Give Way to Night is… pretty much done and dusted! The only thing left will be page proofs, and really all I can change there will be minor typos. This is, as you might imagine, simultaneously extremely gratifying and sort of terrifying. Letting go of a book can be a hard step for an author, because it requires a lot of faith in oneself. For a book I’ve been wrangling with as long as this one (thanks, Curse of Book Two), it’s especially difficult. But I have to remember: I have written the book I wanted to write. That has to be enough. Time to let it go and focus on the next one.
It being done, though, means it’s time for a new word cloud! I don’t think it’s wildly dissimilar from the last version, but there might be a few minor variations in which words are more prominent.
Have any thoughts on this word cloud? Anything about it make you excited? Or scared? ;D Let me know!
This article from The Guardian crossed my eyes the other day: A survey of authors reported that 63% said they could “hear” their characters talking, and 61% felt their characters had their own agency (although what, precisely, that means has a lot of variance).
“I hear them in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’,” said one anonymous writer. “They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way. I don’t usually answer back,” said another.
It links to something I read a few months ago that fascinated me — the idea that some people have no inner voice. No internal monologue? No ability to narrate everything you do? I literally can’t imagine it. My brain often has more than one audio channel running at the same time. I wonder if those people are better at meditation and yoga, because I’ve often thought the reason I’m so bad at them is because my brain is utterly incapable of being quiet. The internal monologue never ceases.
I am absolutely one of those who can hear my characters. Some have stronger voices than others — usually the characters who popped up without my having to craft them. If I’ve needed to build a character to fill a specific story need, the voice often isn’t quite as strong. But the ones who come naturally, those are the characters whose voices come through loud and clear.
In the Aven Cycle, it’s Aula who first occurs to me when I think about this. From the very beginning, her voice was so strong: I can hear its tone, its cadence, its tics and quirks. I almost never have to wonder about the words I write for her; the dialogue flows entirely naturally. Latona takes a little more finesse — not least because she is more likely to weigh her words and decide what she can or can’t say based on who she’s talking to, whereas Aula has fewer filters. Alhena, though, shy and reticent, has even more. I can also “see” most characters, as the article mentions — how they move, what their gestures are, how they interact with the environment. I’ve wondered how much of this is due to theatrical experience. I’m always thinking of what the “stage business” would be. All of these things add up to more than the sum of their parts: they help inform a reader about who the character is, what’s important to them, how they process the world.
I don’t experience what some of the authors in the article say, though, in terms of a character “talking back”. They don’t address me. They aren’t aware they’re being written; they exist in their world, and it’s one I can manipulate. When something feels off and isn’t working, it’s because I haven’t fit the pieces together properly. I operate more like what Val McDermid describes:
“I do not think they act independently,” McDermid said. “They have the life I give them and no more. … I don’t think I’m possessed by the characters; I just think my subconscious is good at processing data.”
I love that idea, because it ties in to what the article says about how people interact with each other in real life: our brains are constantly trying to make predictions, and they update their predictions based on newly-input data, all the time. Some writers’ brains, it seems, do the same thing, just with the people we’ve invented. Our brains collate and process that data, and just like we can tell if a well-known friend or family member is behaving oddly, we can tell if something isn’t working for a character when we play out an imaginary scenario for them.
This is yet another place where fanfic can be, truly, such amazing training for a writer — because what we’re talking about, really, when we talk about a character having their own agency or “talking back” or “refusing” to do something — is the idea of being OOC: Out Of Character.
With fanfic, when you’re writing established characters, you’ve got existing data to rely on: the characters’ words and actions in canon. If you’re writing fanfic for a movie or TV series, you get the added bonus of the actor’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms. Your brain can process all of that data much like it would a real person. It makes it much simpler to test the dialogue and actions you write against “what they would really do”. There’s a sort of answer key you can check your work against. It operates on a lot of levels — choices they make, actions, love interests, all sorts of things. But in terms of “hearing a character’s voice”, specifically, canon provides a basis for dialogue (or internal monologues) in fanfic. If you write something that goes against the grain of established vocal patterns, it’s going to feel wrong.
(That wrongness can also be used within canon for comedic effect: One of my favorite things in the MCU is any time Loki impersonates someone, because you get this wonderful tangle of another actor pretending to be Tom Hiddleston pretending to be Loki pretending to be someone else. Or in Harry Potter, there was the great joy of watching Helena Bonham Carter play Emma Watson’s Hermione pretending to be Bellatrix. Body-swapping scenes like that present a challenge for both writer and actor, but when done well, they are so good — I suspect in large part because of the mental jungle gym they give our brains to exercise on. And oftentimes the real actor for the character will play out the scene in rehearsal for the other actor’s benefit, giving them something to check against in much the same way that canon gives fanfic that mark).
Picking apart why dialogue feels OOC is great training for a writer, because that drills down into the nitty-gritty of how words work and why.What about these words is wrong? Is it about word choice — words that are either too complex or too simple for a character, or slang they would or wouldn’t use? Are you using too many filler words and verbal pauses (um, ah, look, well, etc), or not enough, or the wrong type? Is it the cadence — are the thoughts too long or too short, do they rise and fall in the wrong places? Is it more emotionally-based — something a character wouldn’t admit out loud, or at least wouldn’t in these circumstances? Is it too blunt, or too circumspect? How about the tone — is it too snarky, too earnest, too casual, too formal? Would this character use profane language or minced oaths? Do they think before they speak, weighing their words carefully, or do they speak without a filter?
And then, if you’re the sort of writer inclined towards original work as well as fanfic, you can apply these lessons even when you don’t have a canon outside of your own brain to check against.
In From Unseen Fire, I remember a scene that changed from a conversation between Latona and Rubellia to one between Latona and Aula. The information conveyed was the same, but I had to tweak the dialogue in a big way, because Rubellia’s speech patterns are not the same as Aula’s. Because I’ve spent so much time thinking about how words work (and rhetoric plays a big role in this), I can break that general sense of wrongness down further into granular parts: Aula uses more parentheticals, more terms of address; her flow is both faster and choppier, while Rubellia’s is more evenly-paced, with longer thoughts; Aula exclaims, while Rubellia does not. I had a similar experience working on Give Way to Night, in a group scene that involves all three Vitelliae, Rubellia, and Vibia. The original version of the scene was missing Rubellia and Alhena; adding them in changed the balance of conversation. I had to think more critically about who would say what when, who conveyed which information, and what words they used to do so. Alhena offers information more timidly than the others in the room; Vibia doesn’t waste words by cushioning what she says with platitudes or endearments. Small details, but they’re what can really sell a character — and help a reader to understand them, without having to spell every aspect of their personality out in the narration.
How about you? Are you someone who hears voices when you’re writing or reading? Does your brain process interpersonal data that way?
Big news! And it’s gone live on Goodreads and the buy links, so I am as safe as I can be in announcing that Give Way to Night: Book Two of the Aven Cycle will be released on November 10th, 2020!
This is all gods willing and the creek don’t rise, of course; the pandemic is already leading to a lot of shake-ups in spring and summer releases. It’s far too early to know if it will affect the fall — but right now, this is the plan!
Where to pre-order:
Your local indie store! Find ’em through IndieBound.
Barnes & Noble — which, at the moment, seems to have the hardcover on a discount!
Pre-orders are hugely important for authors, because they tell the sales people how much interest there is in a book, how many to order, what kind of placement to give it — and that can, in turn, affect publishers’ interest in an author’s next books. So give future!you a treat and make sure you’ll have Give Way to Night on its release day!