General

Newly Amended and Improved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General, Personal

A Turn in the Road

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

DAW Books and I are parting ways.

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

What’s going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hm.

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

So… what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for readers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bloodstained Shade will still have an audiobook edition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bits of Fun, General

False Starts

The theme this week over on the Deb Ball is “the manuscript in the drawer”, and I thought I’d expand a little bit upon what I wrote over there. I chatted about this on Twitter a while back, too. I have been, across my life, a prolific writer. Since the age of 11, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I’ve started scores of projects. Honestly, it’s possibly hundreds — but that just sounds ludicrous, and lots of them were, like, single-page vague concepts anyway, so I usually just say scores.

The point is that From Unseen Fire is my first book on the shelves, but it’s so far from my first book that I hardly know where to begin. Here’s just a sampling of some of the things I’ve worked on in the past twenty-one years: 

  • Age 13, a cyberpunk novel written at the behest of my 8th grade English teacher. We were supposed to write 50 pages of something over the course of the whole year. I turned in a 300-page novel. I’m pretty sure my teacher was both proud of my dedication and a bit dismayed at having to grade that mess. As I recall, the plot consisted of lots of spying and subterfuge to save a futuristic empire from a maniac warlord, or something. My parents read it and were alarmed that I knew what a concubine was.
  • Phantom of the Opera from the POV of the corps de ballet, cowritten with a friend. It was filled with every cliche trope you could possibly imagine — torrid love affairs, heroines struck down with blindness and/or tuberculosis, the Opera House catching fire, main characters madly in love with our not-at-all-self-insert OCs… the whole shebang. We role-played a lot of it out, too.
  • Something I started around age 14 that would have been sort of like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives — fantasy focused around a competition w/ rebellion knitted in. Hero’s journey with female lead, too. This is one I had completely forgotten about until I tripped over it while combing through old files. I feel like a lot of “I’ve started to read fantasy books yet am not finding myself in any of them because it’s all boys doing boy things, well, to heck with that” attitude fueled this one.
  • “Wings of Glory”, which was something with…bird people? I don’t even know. I wrote a few highly dramatic interpersonal scenes but had no greater plot.
  • “Fire”, a secondworld fantasy that actually held the seeds of what would become the magic system of the Aven Cycle. There was a princess who did a lot of questing. This one I actually finished, about age 16, I think?
  • Young CassSo. Much. Fanfic. Starting with a Star Wars series called “Days of the Alliance”, written and rewritten many times from ages 12-mid 20s, most recently with the characters as morally-grey Rebel SpecOps. My middle and high school friends got this distributed to them via inbox. I had learned a painful lesson about sharing anything to the Star Wars section of fanfiction.net, particularly if you had the nerve to be a girl writing these things, so I kept most of this closer to the chest — but I had the delightful experience of having friends begging me for updates!
    (Dear Disney: I’d still super love to write this for real; call me).
    Later on, through college, the fanfic was mostly Harry Potter based. I spent a lot of time exploring Bellatrix Black, Sirius Black, and Rowena Ravenclaw, in particular. The Blacks just fascinated me in a sort of Jungian “explore the dark mirror of your own nature” sort of way, while with Rowena and the other Founders, I was determined to write a more historically-appropriate version of the Founding of Hogwarts, since JK Rowling apparently can’t distinguish pre-Norman England from the 15th century. Then, post-grad-school, my attention turned towards Wizarding America, in concert with two of my besties, and we wrote a ton of material for a Tumblr Blog that was very successful right up until JK started trying to write America, which she does so poorly that it depressed us into giving up. (JK Rowling does. not. understand. this country).
  • A dystopia set in rural Virginia, also written and rewritten many times from about ages 16 on. In senior year of college, I re-envisioned it in my screenwriting class and ended up polishing it to the point where I felt willing to submit it to contests. It actually made it to the semi-finals of the Final Draft competition (a fairly large and well-known one) in 2011!
  • Map“Relics”, a rewrite of “Fire” in my early twenties that was somewhat better but still groaning under the weight of fantasy tropes. In this version, the questing princess had a bit more of a purpose: she had to go looking for the sacred relics that represented the eight magical elements of her world. (I told you it contained the seeds of the Aven Cycle’s magical system; I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time). This project was also a ridiculous worldbuilding timesuck. I’m pretty sure I charted the royal family tree back, like, eighteen generations. But, hey, if George R R Martin can get away with it…
    (Also, looking at that map helps me pinpoint roughly when my handwriting cemented into its adult form).
  • A Trojan War retelling from the viewpoint of (of course) the prophetess Cassandra.
  • Steampunk Camelot. Honestly this one never got much farther than that general idea. Might be fun to revisit as a sort of Celtopunk project instead?
  • A few false-starts at Regency romances. I figure I read enough of them, why not give writing them a try? Answer: I get too bogged down in the history.
  • An Aladdin retelling set in the pre-Islamic Sassanid empire. This one I’d love to pick up again at some point when I can do the grad school level research required.
  • A high tech Trojan War set in outer space, where Troy is a space station & its walls are impenetrable force fields. Also never got much further than concept.
  • A story of the Fae set in Williamsburg VA in the 1760s. Another one I’d like to revive. Maybe as a short story?
  • “The Antares Project”, a steampunk AU I’ve been dabbling with since ‘06. This is the one I blogged about for the Deb Ball this week. It has a great world (based on if the US lost the War of 1812) and fantastic cast that I adore and no plot. A lot of great scenes written. No coherent story. Sigh.
  • And then the two I’m *actually* working on now in addition to Book Two: the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera romp, and a secondworld fantasy with star-based magic.

And that list is so partial, y’all. Just the major things that sprung to mind. If I combed my files and old notebooks, there are so, so many more kernels. There are probably a bunch I have literally no memory of. Because I keep it all — I seriously never delete anything, and I’ve never thrown out a writing notebook. They’re all there, waiting, in boxes that are currently in storage. On my computer, the files are are all neatly archived away. But they’re there. Some of them I may never look at again. Some may only get glanced at with fond remembrance for the child I once was. Some may have good bits I can cannibalize and reconfigure. Some may actually be worth reviving.CMd4-9AUYAEmhZP

I don’t feel that any of them were wasted effort.

Because the thing is this: If you want to be a writer, write.

Write things that don’t work. Write character profiles you never use. Write stories that don’t get past the first page. Write down hazy ides that come to you in dreams. Write ridiculous self-insert fanfic.

Yes, you do have to finish something eventually, if you want to publish, but all the false starts have value, too. It’s all training.

I’m so glad I’ve spent so much of my life playing with words.


If you’re interested in seeing bits and pieces of some of these false starts, join my Patreon! I share snippets of them from time to time — even the embarrassing juvenilia! 😉 

General

What makes you choose a book?

With less than three months til From Unseen Fire‘s release, on a scale from “high-strung” to “nervous breakdown”, I’m currently approaching “basketcase” and accelerating. From Unseen Fire is starting to actually be read by other human beings. It’s up on NetGalley. There’s a Goodreads Giveaway going on. My publicity team is reaching out to reviewers and bloggers. And while they’re doing this, I’m working on page proofs and finding all of these teeny tiny errors that other people will see. Every error, I’m sure, will result in some hugely influential reviewer utterly trashing me because we didn’t catch that misplaced comma earlier in the process.

20180122_235507544_iOSMy fellow debuts are spinning in these same whirlpools of anxiety and shaken confidence. Those who came before me all warned me that page proofs would make me doubt that I’m even a native English speaker, and wow, they were not kidding. We’re all glued to Twitter and Instagram, seizing any opportunity to promotion. We’re Googling ourselves and our titles obsessively. Those who have reviews coming in on Goodreads and Amazon know better than to look at them but have difficulty prying their eyes away, convinced that a single one-star will forever incinerate their careers. Are we posting about our books enough? Too often? Are we engaging enough? Do we have enough “to-reads” on Goodreads? Are enough bloggers talking about us? Will we get a review from Kirkus or PW? If we do, what if it sucks? If we don’t, does that mean no one will ever know our names? Do our publishers still care about us? Are we asking them too many questions? Or not enough? We’re not supposed to compare ourselves to other authors and we know that, but why does her promo have more RTs??? Every single thing seems life-or-death, and we’re all flailing at each other for comfort, even though it doesn’t so much provide a balm as a momentary distraction from the feeling of impending doom.

And then a thought occurred to me that was oddly calming:

Writers are not normal people.

We’re just not. We do not live in a normal person’s world. Our heads are so deep in the industry that we no longer view books the way normal people do, the way that readers view them. The minutiae sending us into tailspins are possibly not things that a reader will ever be aware of. We freak out because it perhaps gives us a sense of control over an inchoate and unknowable process, but it leads to obsessing over what may turn out to be relative trivialities.

And so, I’m genuinely curious, and truly not for my own selfish promotional reasons, but rather to re-center myself and remind myself of what really matters —

What makes you, Dear Reader, pick up a book? An eye-catching cover? A recommendation from a friend? A good review? Where do you find out about new books and what convinces you to invest both time and money in them?

General

How Cass Gets “Unblocked”

20180110_155919032_iOS

Today’s prompt for #winterlitchallenge on Instagram was “Tips to beat writer’s block”, and I realized… I have some feelings about that.

For one thing, I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think if writers are honest with themselves, what they call “writer’s block” is really an excuse. If I’m not writing, it’s not that I’m “blocked”. It’s generally a lack of time or focus. Lack of time can’t always be helped: I’m a human with a life. I absolutely do not ascribe to the maxim that if you don’t write every single day of your life, you’re not a writer. I write or do something related to writing most days, but work, family, vacations, reading, self care — these are all important, too. Sometimes, though, I’m just not making the time, and I have to be honest with myself about that if I’m being avoidant.

When the real problem is a lack of discipline — being unwilling to sit down and do the damn work — that’s worth examining! If I’m reluctant to engage with a project, that’s usually a symptom of deeper problems that need working out before I can continue. See my thoughts on tossing out Book Two’s outline for an example of that. I’d gotten nowhere on that project in a year. Something was wrong. Fixing it meant being willing to rethink a lot.

But, the situation’s not always that dire. Sometimes I just have butterfly brain. So, how do I refocus myself? Here are some of my tips when my attention on a project feels scattered or when I’m having trouble figuring out where the story goes:

  1. Change POV: An excellent tactic for me, because my books are all multi-POV to begin with. There’s a scene in Book Two that I was excited about conceptually, but that I just couldn’t seem to get written. Then I realized: It shouldn’t be from Sempronius’s viewpoint. It was way more interesting through the eyes of his freedman, Corvinus. Voila! As soon as I tried that, 1700 flowed out of me in a single hour. I think this can work even if you’re writing a single-POV book, though. It might not be material you end up being able to use in your manuscript, but writing a scene or a monologue from another character’s viewpoint may help you find what you’re looking for from your POV character.
  2. Move to different scene, earlier or later in the narrative: This is, honestly, my primary tactic. I’m a completely non-sequential writer. It can be messy sometimes, but I cannot imagine trying to write a book in strict chapter order. If I’m not feeling a certain scene on a certain day, I bounce somewhere else. If you are a sequential writer, this may still be worth a try! Dive into a scene that takes place before your book opens or after it closes. Again, you may not use that material in the manuscript, but broadening your perspective may help you see the needed connective tissue in your plot.
  3. Listen to music that inspires you: I am a fanatical playlist maker. I have them for books, characters, moods, all kinds of things, and I often find inspiration in the songs. Sometimes it’s just thematic — I need to write an action scene, so I’m going to put on the Indiana Jones soundtrack. But sometimes I find something more direct. Recently, “The Greatest Show” and “Come Alive” from the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman have given me a wonderful new direction to spin my space opera in.
  4. Impromptu dance party: If you find yourself blocked in the middle of a long writing session, you might just need to move. I like spontaneous dance parties, but do whatever will get your blood flowing! Run around the block, throw a ball for the dog, go for a swim, whatever. Getting the physical fidgets out can help you refocus mentally and creatively.
  5. Take a shower: I mean, c’mon, we all get our best ideas in the shower, right? Step away from the computer and go somewhere your electronics can’t find you. Let the hot water wash over you and let your mind wander.
  6. Go for a drive: A lot of the shower advice applies here as well, though this can also overlap with listening to music that inspires you. I’ve worked out plenty of plot snarls and had scintillating character ideas on the highway. I talk to myself in the car a lot. I even act out conversations between characters, testing out the dialogue and cadence. Just make sure you can either keep it in your head till you get back home (a talent I’ve developed over the years — by repeating it a few times, I can keep about two pages’ worth word-for-word, when necessary) or that you have a way of taking verbal notes! Keep your eyes on the road!
  7. Write a myth/legend in your book’s world: Historical, fantastical, contemporary — we all have myths. They might be religious in nature, they might be urban legends or ghost stories, they might be , but whoever your characters are and wherever and whenever they live, there are stories in their lives, too. Take a step away from your manuscript and write one of those! Maybe even in the voice of one of your characters, as though they’re telling it to someone else. This approach helped me flesh out the world of Aven and its magic a lot. I’ve rewritten the founding myth of Romulus and Remus for Aven’s purposes, and I’ve worked on some of the other great Roman legends as well. The framework I used was Aula telling bedtime stories to her young daughter, Lucia, so I got some character work in as well, but it also helped me flesh out historiography of Aventan culture. (And — I’ll eventually be sharing those stories on Patreon!).

If the problem is that you’ve lost enthusiasm for a project, then you need to approach it a different way. Why isn’t it exciting you anymore? Because if it’s not exciting you, it’s sure not going to excite a reader. Is it the characters? The plot? Does it feel like a retread? You may well need to step away from it for a while to figure all of that out. I have an alternate history project I’ve been working on off and on since 2006, and this is the problem I keep reaching: I get “blocked” on it because I have great characters and a great world, but no plot.

Overall, I would sum up my advice on feeling blocked as doing one of two things: dig deep, or try something new. You either have something bothering you about the story that needs rooting out, or you just need to look at it from a different angle for a little while.

General

A message from DAW

Those of you who have already pre-ordered From Unseen Fire might have gotten an email today letting you know that the publication date has changed. Not to worry! I’ll now be debuting on January 2nd, 2018, and I’m terribly excited to have the chance to be “first out of the gate”, as it were, in the new year. 

Here’s the official word from DAW: 

We’re very excited to share From Unseen Fire with you! Our sales and promotional teams are just as excited, and they suggested moving the publication date back in order to give Cass’s novel the best positioning possible. The shift will strengthen tools like Advance Reader Copies and online preorders, and help this debut flourish in a competitive field. We want to give From Unseen Fire the best possible launch to build a lasting foundation for the entire Aven series.

It’s a bit longer to wait, but this year will still be full of wonderful developments. We should be doing a cover reveal soon, and we hope to have ARCs out by the end of summer.

Thanks, all!

General

Query Letter: A Success Story

I’ve recently had a few friends come to me for advice on starting the wild ride that is traditional publication. My advice: Step One is, of course, finish the manuscript. Step Two: Write a kick-ass query letter — which is harder than it may initially seem. Querying was the theme of today’s #17Scribes Twitter chat, and at the end, I flung down a gauntlet: for anyone brave enough to share the query letter that landed them their agent.

So, my own challenge accepted, here’s the query I sent to Connor back in 2013:

Dear Mr. Goldsmith,

An assassination attempt forces Latona, an elemental mage, to unleash her latent powers, demonstrating potential that far outstrips her training. When the dictator who threatened her family dies, she determines to take this opportunity to change the course of her life, but she quickly discovers that ambition has a high price.

The city-state of Aven is a place where elemental magic shapes the rule of the land as strongly as law and war. In the power vacuum left by the dictator’s death, the conservative old guard clashes with the populist liberal faction over the best way to shape the nation’s future. Latona and her sister Aula, a widow whose frivolous nature conceals a scheming mind, use charisma and cunning to manipulate advances for the populists. Their paths intersect with that of Sempronius Tarren, a rising politician who dreams of a vast empire growing from his beloved city. He believes that the gods have equipped him with the necessary skills and thrown down this challenge – but in order to achieve his goals, he will have to break some of his civilization’s most sacred laws. Custom dictates that no mage may attain the highest political offices, but Sempronius, who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. Aula sees in Sempronius a man with an extraordinary vision for their nation and the greatness to make it a reality, and she pushes her sister to cultivate an alliance with him. As their friendship blossoms, Sempronius encourages Latona to learn to wield the extraordinary magical power that is her birthright – but Latona’s husband objects to the idea and the alliance, and Sempronius’s secret could ruin them both and destroy their faction’s chance to reform the city.

Aven is a completed 106,000 word historical fantasy with series potential, inspired by late Republic Rome. I write professionally for the education department of the American Shakespeare Center, where I have worked since graduating in 2010 with an MLitt. from Mary Baldwin College. My undergraduate degree is a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. I blog both professionally and personally, and I am active on major social media platforms.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Cass Morris

There’s a lot that amuses me about this. For one thing, the idea of addressing Connor as “Mr. Goldsmith” is now pretty hilarious. He is now, definitely, “Connor” to me, “Agent Connor” if I have to explain who he is to other people but which does make him sound like special ops or something, and often but only in my head “Cooooooonnnnnooorrrrrrrrrr” if I’m having a flail. That initial word count is amusing, too. (The tale, as Tolkien said, grew in the telling). I can’t believe, in retrospect, that I didn’t mention having found him through one of his #MSWL tweets. Fortunately that didn’t seem to impair my chances; Connor got back to me within 45 minutes of my having sent this query, requesting the full manuscript. And, of course, the title’s changed, but y’all have been with me on that crazy ride. 😉

This was the thirty-first query letter that I sent out, and the letter did evolve over time — when the first ten or so didn’t work, I did some more research and rewrote a bit. Query Shark is a valuable resource, but I also learned a lot just from following agents on twitter and watching things like the #10queries lists.

And yeah, it was a frustrating process. For all the advice that’s available out there about writing query letters, so much of it is contradictory, making it hard to know if what you’re doing is right or wrong. Ultimately the whole process just seems like inscrutable sorcery — not least because so much of success may have less to do with the letter itself and more to do with that letter arriving in front of the right eyes at the right time.

But what’s super interesting to me is that, for as much as the book has changed over the past three years — and boy howdy has it — this query letter is still a fairly accurate description of the story. The main characters and their motivations are the same — but working with Sarah, I spent a lot of time turning up the saturation levels, so that those motivations are both clear and captivating. The revisions have also focused on what gets the characters from one emotional point to another — and a lot of that has meant upping the stakes in the action to match the dramatic language that catches the eye in query letters (and eventually on book jackets). So, so much has changed — but the heart of the novel has been constant.

General

A Title… Again!

With two years on sub, two years between sale and publication, an editor change mid-stream, and now this, the fourth title change, I’m beginning to think I might be the poster child for “don’t get attached, and nothing is certain until it’s in print” 😉

Book One of the Aven Cycle shall henceforth be known not as A Flame Arises, but rather as:

FROM UNSEEN FIRE

This was a possible title earlier in the process, and I quite like it. In fact, it’s even from the same De rerum natura quotation as the other title! But it’s the second half of the phrase rather than the start.

I know that to an outside eye, this might all seem ludicrous. How can the book’s title change? How can it change after information has been sent to distributors? Well, honestly, I don’t know much about the how on that, but my publisher certainly does, so I try not to fret about it. It’s all part of the complexity of the publishing world and the fact that surviving it takes as much patience as determination and talent. My father reminded me, when I got my book deal, that the achievement came with a condition: the book is no longer mine. At least, not mine alone.

It’s a slightly weird feeling, letting someone else not just hold your baby but dress it and feed it and decide what school it’s going to — but it’s also a feeling I’ve known was coming, have prepared for, and in many ways welcome. I knew I wanted to go the traditional publishing route rather than self-publishing because I wanted a team. I know I have a great one now, and I trust them. So when they say we need a change — a change occurs!

General, Uncategorized

“The selfsame name, but one of better nature.” – On evaluation, discovery, and improvement

I opined about this a bit on Twitter earlier today, and it remained on my mind enough that I want to expand on it a bit here.

I go through a process, periodically, of evaluating myself. I call it “having a Come-to-Proserpina moment” — although it might even better be called a come-to-Ma’at moment, because it’s about weighing and evaluating how my actions speak for me. To focus those thoughts, I try to answer these questions:

  1. What adjectives do I want to use to describe myself?
  2. What adjectives would I like other people to use to describe me?
  3. Do my actions currently lead to those qualities?
  4. How do I need to change or redirect my actions to lead to those qualities?

It’s about being the person I want to be. How close am I to that goal, to that image I’d like to have of myself?

maat-sarcophagus.jpgThe evaluation is not an easy thing to do. Or, perhaps, not an easy thing to do well and honestly. An unscrupulous person, with little self-awareness, could easily say, “Yes, of course; what I do fits exactly the kind of person I want to be, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t see me clearly”. Doing it well and helpfully, though, means taking your own ego to task. It means not assuming that your actions are correct just because you’re the one taking them. You have to be a little brutal and quite relentless. Your brain tries to squirm out of it, tries to shape excuses out of reasons. It’s like editing, a little, in a way — you have to pin down what isn’t working and be ruthless about it. And in doing so, you learn to cut away what isn’t helpful, what detracts from your strengths, and how to reshape the rest to better reflect the story you want to tell.

Every time I do this, I emerge stronger, more whole, more like that ideal version of myself. However discomfiting the process, the result is so empowering. It means that I can then feel more confident about my assessments and actions being correct — not just because I’ve made them, but because I’ve really questioned myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It’s important to ask those questions, even if the answer is yes, because that gives me a grounding and a sort of renewed dedication to myself. If I can say, honestly, that yes, my actions reflect the sort of person I want to be, then I can feel assured in going forth unafraid of what anyone else might say in spite or jealousy.

It’s not about not having flaws. The gods know I have those. Sometimes they’re inextricably linked to my virtues — my temper comes from the same place as my passion, for example. My stubbornness and my loyalty have similar roots. I will never eradicate the one without sacrificing the other, and I determined years ago that I was not willing to grey myself out in that way. But it does mean that I need to act in a way that supports my virtues more than my vices. It also certainly doesn’t mean I never backslide, never fail to live up to my ideals of myself. That’s why it’s important to keep evaluating.

I call it come-to-Proserpina or come-to-Ma’at because it’s a process of thinking of what those ladies would say of me, were I called to stand before them now. How do my actions represent me? What do they say that my tongue might not? If my heart were to be weighed against Ma’at’s feather, how would it balance?

In contemplating this for myself recently, I’ve realized that my main female protagonist is ending up doing this in her life. I didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s sort of what multiple rounds of edits are coming around to. She looks at her life, realizes it isn’t what her heart wants, and realizes that, if she wants things to change, she has to be the agent of that change. She can’t wait for the world to re-arrange itself for her.

Bits of Fun

Sisters, sisters…

So this has been on my mind for a while, but the recent #Ham4Austen meme, courtesy of @Drunk_Austen, has revived my desire to chatter about it.

2016-06-21
Kindly ignore my tragic misspelling of Bennett; I stand by this statement anyway.

As the deal announcement for my forthcoming novel stated, the backbone of the story belongs largely to three sisters: the Vitelliae — who are, in the creativity of Roman naming conventions, Aula Vitellia Prima (called Aula), Aula Vitellia Secunda (called Latona), and Aula Vitellia Prima (called Alhena). As I’ve discussed before, my inspiration for them came from a painting, but I think it’s slightly more than coincidence that much of the novel has been written and revised while I’ve had not just thematically-appropriate HBO’s Rome and the BBC classic I, Claudius running in the background (I am nearly incapable of working in silence), but also Downton Abbey, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Their relationships, with each other and with those outside the family, drive the story.

I wasn’t consciously adopting a pattern as I wrote, but nearly everyone who’s read the book thus far has commented on how the Vitelliae make them think of the Bennetts, the Crawleys, or the Schuylers. Sarah once asked me if it were intentional, and our notes back and forth are littered with references to Hamilton (not only because of the sisters — but a lot because of them). But it got me thinking just what the similarities and dissimilarities are, because my girls don’t align neatly to any of the characters they are, as a group, compared to.13516359_520496718154978_8947441272109785272_n

Pert, vivacious Aula Prima has the most in common, strangely, with Lydia Bennett — if Lydia Bennett had Angelica Schuyler’s political sense. She loves a good time, has a fondness for military men, and flirts with abandon — but unlike Lydia, she strives to keep her family out of scandal. Knowledgeable and adept, she hides a cunning mind and clever wit behind lively green eyes, pink cheeks, and bouncing auburn curls. In “a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich,” she turns her political ambitions towards her father and brother.

Editor!Sarah and I have a joke of referring to Alhena as “And Peggy”, but there’s really much more to her than that. She probably has the most in common with Mary Bennett, and maybe a little with Edith, though I think she’s a bit softer than either. She’s a more minor character than Aula and Latona, but she has a lot of room to grow and develop, but at the onset, she’s bookish, and almost painfully shy outside of her own family (with, you’ll learn, good reason).

And then my dear Latona, middle sister and primary protagonist. She’d get along sparklingly a dinner party with Mary and Sybille Crawley, Angelica Schuyler, and both Elizas Bennett and Hamilton, but I don’t know how much she has in common with any of them. She’s a slightly different type. None of the Misses I mention start with as much tragedy in their backgrounds as Latona. She feels Angelica’s frustration and ambition, shares Mary Crawley’s sense of responsibility and Sybille’s social justice, would appreciate Eliza Bennett’s wit, Eliza Hamilton’s yearning for a peaceful and prosperous domestic life… but she also suffers a repression that’s personal, not just societal, and it’s colored her deeply.

So what has made early readers feel such resonance with these sisterly sets? Something in the structure itself, I suspect. A sister is different than a friend. Friends, you can choose (and the Vitelliae have those as well, as I consciously did not want to create a world where women had no social connection outside their families). But sisters, you’re given.

I am a woman with a sister, myself. Just the one, so a smaller set than the families I’ve discussed above, and we’re about six years apart. I would take a bullet for her, but our relationship hasn’t always been easy. That age gap is a bit weird — too far apart to be real allies as children, too close not to feel competitive. When I was in my most troubled years, she was still in grade school; when she was in hers, I was off at college. I often had an older sibling’s exasperation with being expected to be responsible and set a good example, not retaliate when provoked, and irritation with what she got away with that I hadn’t or couldn’t (parental leniency with younger siblings being a well-noted tradition — at least among oldest children!). I suspect that she often felt held to a high standard because of me, that I was something she was expected to live up to. We were both probably a little right and a little wrong. We get along much better as adults, but it’s because we’ve both learned to be more thoughtful, less antagonistic, more empathetic. We’ve learned about each other, not just what we like but how we work, rather than just assuming a genetic bond would either function or not. (To our mother’s total lack of surprise, we often find that our strife has been caused by our similarities, not our differences).

I hope that particular aspect of sororal relations comes across in my writing in a genuine way. It’s one of the things I really adore about the Crawley sisters. While the Bennetts certainly don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s never any real strife among them. Even when Lydia disgraces the family, she shrugs it off with almost no consequences, and everyone else sort of rolls their eyes, and life moves on. Everyone seems far more concerned about how Lydia’s actions reflect on them than about Lydia’s well-being. Lizzy never gives Lydia the dressing-down she had coming, nor do the other sisters air their grievances. ClawJQdUoAAz3lQSaintly Jane never shows impatience or irritation with her siblings. Mary never explodes with frustration at the mockery she endures. The closest we get to real sororal trouble are the sniping between Lydia and Mary, and then the jealousy that Kitty feels over Lydia’s popularity and invitation to go to Brighton — but those are only side notes, the background chatter of the novel. The disconnect between Lizzy and her younger siblings is more glanced at than explored. The reader is meant to dismiss them as silly and pointless (one of the things I like better about the 2005 movie is that you see more soulfulness out of Mary Bennett), and thus not to feel much sympathy for them.

On the other hand, Mary and Edith spend a lot of time at each others’ throats, snarking and subverting and outright sabotaging. But when their tempers aren’t up, they know that they do love each other — and that one day, they will be all each other has left. “Sisters have secrets,” Mary says, at the end of the series, and she’s right — and those secrets are rarely tidy and cute. Their relationship is far less sanitized than that of the Bennetts, and far more real. The Vitelliae aren’t quite so contentious, but they don’t always understand each other. Their personalities are different, and there’s quite an age gap between the elder two and the youngest. They’ll make decisions the others don’t agree with. They’ll be unintentionally hurtful. They’ll worry and scare each other. An older sister accustomed to being in charge may seem bossy. A much-sheltered youngest may struggle to have her maturity recognized. And a troubled middle daughter may feel misunderstood and like she has nowhere to turn, even among people who love her.

I don’t know everything that will happen to them. Their relationships have grown more complex in Book 1’s revisions, and I expect those discoveries will continue. I just know I’m looking forward to the journey — and I hope you are, too!