General, Personal

Student Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you get over writer’s block?

First, by not believing in it.

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

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

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

How do you generate new ideas for writing?

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

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

Unconscious Rivals, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1898

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Yes.

How much do you write in a day?

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

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

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

Do you ever feel tired of writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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General

GIVE WAY TO NIGHT Release Round-Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Gender in Historical Context

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).

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Illustrations of Tiresias from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii (c. 1690) by Johann Ulrich Krauss

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.

General

Cover Reveal: GIVE WAY TO NIGHT

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So let’s talk about this cover!

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.

Give Way to Night releases November 10th! Pre-order now to return to Aven:

Bits of Fun, Images and Artwork

Word Cloud: Give Way to Night

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.

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Have any thoughts on this word cloud? Anything about it make you excited? Or scared? ;D Let me know!

General

Give Way to Night Pub Date and Buy Links!

GWtN-Promo

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:

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!