Heroic Sacrifice

This weekend, here in the U.S., we celebrate Memorial Day. It is a day of remembrance, when we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country; when we pay tribute to all the brave men and women who have lost their lives in armed conflicts over the years. Most of us know someone (or many someones) who we thank and honor for their service on this holiday, whether we spend the day itself visiting national monuments, leaving flags and flowers at cemeteries, or just spending time with those closest to us.

It may seem strange to honor fictional characters as well as real-life heroes, but I often think about the fact that literature and pop culture act as both mirror and tribute to the real world. Books, movies, and TV give us access to stories we might not otherwise be exposed to, and teach us lessons about ourselves and the world we live in. Through stories, we learn to be brave, to be selfless, to fight for the things we hold most dear, and to always stand up to injustice. We spend this weekend honoring and remembering real-life heroes, but here are a few of the most poignant and selfless fictional sacrifices in literature and pop culture that have inspired me also.

(No big spoilers for anything released in the last 3 years.)

Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities

Sydney Carton is a brilliant but depressed drunkard, full of cynicism and self-loathing for his wasted life. He falls deeply in love for Lucie Manette, but she marries Charles Darnay, Carton’s client and eventual friend who bears an uncanny likeness to Carton. When Darnay is imprisoned and set to be executed in Paris during the French Revolution, Carton smuggles himself into Darnay’s cell and swaps himself for Darnay, ensuring he will be executed in his place. I was always deeply touched by this dissipated character who trades his own life for the happiness of a woman who could never love him.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There were many sacrifices on this series *coughSPIKEcough* but none which brought on the waterworks like Buffy’s death in Season 5. In order to prevent the hell-god Glory from murdering her younger sister in ritual sacrifice, Buffy realizes her greatest gift is her ability to die for her friends, her family, and ultimately the world.

“She saved the world. A lot.”

Hodor, Game of Thrones

In one of the most affecting episodes of Season 6, we finally learn the background and history of Bran’s sweet but simple-minded ally, Hodor. When wights led by the Night King attack Bran’s hiding place, Hodor bravely holds the door to save Bran, losing his life in the process. But his heroic gesture ripples through time and space, and we discover it was this harrowing event that broke his mind many years ago.

Donna Noble, Doctor Who

Donna had one of the most inspirational character arcs as the Doctor’s companion, going from a spoiled and self-centered woman to a compassionate and empathetic time traveler. But when she develops near-godlike powers, she poses a threat to herself, the Doctor, and the world. Her mind must be wiped of all her memories with the Doctor, and all the growth and learning she did on her journeys. While Donna doesn’t technically die, her mind, personality, and growth are all erased, returning her to the person she was before she met the Doctor.

Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

Star Wars has a number of heroic sacrifices to choose from, but Obi’s always struck me the hardest. In order to give his protégé Luke time to escape, Obi-Wan faces off against Darth Vader, ultimately letting Vader kill him. Obi willingly gives his life for the greater good, but Luke has to lose his friend, guide, and surrogate father in order to achieve his destiny, which is always a heartbreaking moment.

“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Lily Evans, Harry Potter

Another series with so many sacrifices to choose from! Yet the selfless sacrifice at the heart of these books is the one made by Lily Potter on the night Voldemort came to murder her infant son. Her willingness to die in Harry’s place works such powerful magic that Voldemort cannot harm him. She saves her son’s life, nearly kills He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and sets off one of the most iconic stories of our time, all with the power of a mother’s love.

The Iron Giant

*deep breath* I’m getting a little weepy just thinking about this one.

A lonely boy meets an enormous robot who is being pursued by the military. As their friendship unfolds, Hogarth explains to the metal behemoth that he doesn’t have to be the villain the army paints him as–he can choose to be a hero instead. So when a nuclear missile inadvertently hurtles toward their small town, the Giant says a heartfelt goodbye to his young friend before flying into the sky to intercept the bomb. He forces the missile out into space, and it begins to detonate, smiles and whispers:

“SUPERMAN.”

Who are the heroes you honor on this Memorial Day? Real or fictional, let me know in the comment section below!

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History and Storytelling

The Pantheon in Rome

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of visiting Italy with my husband. Although I travelled fairly extensively through Europe in my twenties, somehow I never made it to the land of wine and pasta (with the exception of one short stopover in Sicily where a raging storm kept me and my friend stuck in our hostel for three days straight). It’s been on my travel list for years, so when the opportunity arose, I flung myself bodily upon it.

It was an amazing trip. But one of the reasons Italy has now bumped itself near the top of my favorite-places-in-the-world list came from a somewhat unexpected angle–one that felt more than a little salient to this blog. Italy felt so rich with history–and therefore, stories–that I almost didn’t know what to do with myself.

Who needs armor when you got dat booty?

While I’m no historical scholar, I do know my way around European history. But while touring the various cities we visited in Italy, I found myself nearly overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of history steeped into every inch of the country. In Rome, two thousand year old Imperial ruins abide beside Renaissance basilicas and glossy designer stores. In Tivoli, the rococo grandeur of Villa d’Este stands mere miles from the ancient pleasure palace of Emperor Hadrian. In Umbria, we stayed on an olive-producing estate whose owners once protected Via della Spina, a major arterial road connecting Rome to the Adriatic, used from Etruscan times through the Byzantine Empire. In Venice, the very canals seemed to whisper the astonishing story of a city founded by peasants fleeing Attila the Hun, which would someday become one of the world’s greatest ship-building and mercantile capitals.

Byzantine Mosaics in Ravenna

I don’t write historical fiction. I don’t even really write historical fantasy, although most of my other-world fantasies are in some way informed or inspired by our world’s history. But everywhere I turned in Italy, I felt as though I was touching the edge of some great, palpable history, and I hated that I could only discover so much about each story. Etruscans settling the hills around Rome; the growth of a vast, tumultuous empire where slaves could become emperors; a dissolute, gilded bureaucracy beset by “barbarians”; popes and princes and art and music; a modern legacy of food and fashion and incredible wine. For me, all those periods and stories felt layered on top of one another–a palimpsest place, with fading years etched like ink upon its face. I wanted to read every single line, even the ones lost to time.

As a storyteller, that much history felt incredibly inspiring. I tried to take in as many of those histories and stories as I could–I can only hope that one or several will take root inside me and begin to grow. And if not? I certainly enjoyed the wine, pasta, and sunshine along the way.

Where have you traveled that inspired you with its history or stories?

How I’ve Been Refilling the Well

My forthcoming novel DIAMOND & DAWN (AMBER & DUSK book two) was not only the first sequel I ever wrote, but it was also the first book I wrote under contract–meaning the manuscript wasn’t written at the time my publisher decided to acquire the novel. I’d written five complete, full length novels at the time I signed the contract, so I wasn’t really worried about the fast turn-around and bracing revision schedule my editors requested.

I maybe should have been.

I wrote D&D from scratch to relatively polished in the space of 4 months, over the holidays no less (and I am NOT a fast drafter). I completed the first revision in three weeks, which included cutting over 20k words and restructuring the entire manuscript. The final revision had to be finished in one week, earlier this month. And that’s when I realized I’d been on deadline for the better part of 6 months!

Part of me wanted to jump right in with a new plot bunny I had simmering on the brain. Another part of me wanted to sit on the couch and do literally nothing for the foreseeable future. I confess, I opted for option number 2! For the past week or so, I’ve tried my best to refill the well, with good books, interesting TV, and a few high-profile movies. Here’s what I’ve been doing to refresh my creativity!

The Magicians, FX (available to stream on Netflix)

Okay, I am officially this show’s new #1 mega fan, and I can’t stop talking about it to anyone who’ll listen (and even those who won’t). I watched Season 1 when it came out a few years ago, but wasn’t blown away. I more or less forgot about it until I stumbled across Season 2 on Netflix, and then…I couldn’t stop watching. People, this show is weird AF, and I love it so much it’s hard to put into words. It’s like Harry Potter had an R-rated baby with Narnia, and then that baby got stuck in a time loop and maybe did some drugs. No, I’m not making any sense. Yes, you should watch it anyway.

Enchantée, by Gita Trelease

I heard of this novel sometime around the release of A&D, and automatically had an attitude towards it based on some superficial similarities to my own book. But I’m truly glad I wound up picking it up! Ms. Trelease has crafted a vibrant, romantic, brutal vision of peri-revolutionary France, complete with magic, love, idealism, glamor, and even hot-air balloonists! I devoured this book like candy, and would absolutely recommend it to fans of YA, history, and fantasy.

The Umbrella Academy, Netflix

Everyone on Twitter was talking about this show, so I decided to give it a whirl. I finished the season, but if I’m honest, it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. I enjoyed the premise, some of the off-beat elements of the world, and a few of the characters (I’LL DIE FOR YOU KLAUS). But I anticipated nearly every twist in the plot, and had a hard time connecting with several of the character beats. I’d download the soundtrack, but I probably won’t watch Season 2.

Vanity Fair, Amazon Prime TV

I’m only a few episodes into this one, so I can’t speak to its entirety. Now, I love the 2004 Reese Witherspoon version of Vanity Fair as a guilty pleasure–it’s ridiculous and over the top, but the costumes are fantastic and Witherspoon is a delight as a truly wicked Becky Sharp. This adaptation takes a different tone. This Becky Sharp is still smart, ambitious, and cunning, but the creators of this show give us a much better sense of Becky’s milieu–the social stratification of her world that forces her to go to such lengths to take what she believes she deserves from people who loathes everything she represents. It paints her as, dare I say, a slightly sympathetic anti-heroine. I look forward to seeing how her character sharpens over the course of the series!

I think I’ve nearly reached the end of my self-enforced writing hiatus–today I had to fight the urge to open up a new document and start on that project (I stopped myself because I need to at least pretend to outline first). But I’m glad I took the time to refill the creative well–consuming new stories in every medium helps my brain look at my own work with fresh eyes!

What have you been watching, reading, or otherwise enjoying lately?

Forgotten Origins of Valentine’s Day

Oh, Valentine’s Day. We’re not on the best of terms, you and I. Don’t get me wrong–I’m one helluva hopeless romantic and I see nothing wrong with a holiday meant to celebrate love in its many forms. But your shiny balloons and hallmark cards and candy hearts and prix-fixe menus aren’t really my thing, if I’m being honest.

But guess what? St. Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been chubby cupids and paper doilies. So if you like your romance with a dash of ritual sacrifice, execution, and martyrdom, you’re in luck! Keep reading to find out some of Valentine’s Day’s oldest and darkest secrets.

The Festival of Lupercalia. Between conquest, orgies, and public stabbings, the Ancient Romans knew how to have a good time. Lupercalia —-celebrated on the Ides of February, between the 13th and 15th of the month—was one of their brutal revels. Believed to be inspired by the wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, Lupercalia was primarily a celebration of fertility. Young men ran naked through the streets, swatting women with the flayed hide of a sacrificial goat. There was also a love lottery that, ahem, coupled people for the duration of the festival. I hope swiping left was allowed…

The REAL St. Valentine. The Christian priest who is the namesake for the holiday lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, who banned young people from getting married. Supposedly, Valentine passed letters between couples in love and even married them in secret, before being jailed, martyred and hastily buried. Only problem is, Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. And history has forgotten which of them —if either —was the elopement-friendly padre whose day we celebrate.

Confused yet? Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day (which had gained popularity along with Christianity) with Lupercalia, which was still celebrated. The new festival was still a drunken revel, but the Christians managed to keep their clothes on. Around the same time, the Norman’s celebrated Galatin’s Day, which loosely meant “lover of women.” Galatin was likely confused with Valentine, since they sound pretty much the same when you’re at a drunken fertility festival.

Thanks, Shakespeare. Both Shakespeare and Chaucer romanticized the holiday in their work, bringing it more popularity than ever before. By the Victorian Era, the holiday inspired handmade cards, love letters, and posies of violets (which supposedly grew outside St. Valentine’s jail cell in Italy). In 1913, a little company called Hallmark Cards began mass-producing Valentines, and the holiday began to transform into the glittery, sugary festival of mass consumption we know today!

Well, whether you plan to celebrate with chocolate hearts, secret elopements, or a good old-fashioned drunken orgy, I hope you tell those you love how much they mean to you! Because that never goes out of fashion. Happy St. Valentine’s Day, everyone!

How to Stay Sane on Deadline

Here’s a fun fact most of you probably already know about me–I’m a champion procrastinator. I developed a knack for procrastination in high school, then majored in it in college, pulling papers and midterms and finals out of my you-know-what like it was my job. Sure, cramming sucks, but doing things ahead of time like a responsible human means you have to give up essential pastimes like reading, watching TV, spending hours on YouTube, going down Wikipedia research holes, and googling infinity Nic Cage gifs.

Procrastinators, you know what I’m talking about.

But here’s another fun fact: you can’t write and edit an entire book in one night. As a writer, I’ve had to learn to actually manage my time to some degree. But no matter how good I am with my time, it never seems like enough, and when deadlines come knocking, it always feels like a mad rush to get things done. As I fight through that latest push, here are my tips on surviving any deadline with sanity intact.

Don’t stop moving! It can be really tempting to plunk your butt in your chair and glue your face to the screen and stay that way until…whenever your thing is due. But try sticking to whatever your normal workout routine may be–exercise has been proven to raise endorphins, lower stress, and improve sleep (even if that doesn’t happen until 3 am). If a sweat sesh isn’t in the cards, taking a break for a five minute walk, a quick stretch, or a few jumping jacks will bring blood flow to your brain and improve concentration.

Put things in perspective. I have a pretty vivid imagination, which means when my anxiety gets out of control I start picturing really extreme worst-case-scenarios that are totally unrealistic. Sometimes, thinking through the real-world consequences can be calming. If I don’t turn in my manuscript on time, will I die? Nope. Will a surprise meteor destroy life on Earth? Doubtful. If you can’t talk yourself down from a cliff, try to figure out who will. My husband and my literary agent are both pretty practical people. Now, whenever I start to spiral I’ve learned to reach out to them for realistic advice and feet-on-the ground guidance.

Separately yourself from distractions…by force if necessary. So y’all know about my smartphone addiction. Add to that a seasoned procrastinator’s ability to turn anything into a distraction, including but not limited to Netflix, Hulu, Wikipedia, Buzzfeed, E! News, etc. I’ve now downloaded apps to my phone, my laptop, and my desktop computer that separate me from my addictions. Figure out what your fix is, and nix it.

Stay fueled, but be smart about it. Snacks and beverages and regular meals are a must. But as someone who has done their fair share of bingeing on coffee and Trader Joe’s Key Lime Tea Cookies while on deadline, I cannot recommend it. Sugary drinks, treats, and caffeine might feel like boosts in the moment, but once the roller coaster goes the other way you’ll inevitably start to feel worse. Healthier fuel, like fruit, popcorn, sparkling water, and the occasional square of dark chocolate will serve you better in the end!

Take breaks. This one is really hard for me. When I’m on deadline I tend to feel a lot of guilt for “neglecting” my work. But I’ve learned that taking genuine breaks (not #3 breaks) does wonders for my productivity. Just make sure it’s relaxing, reviving, or reinvigorating. My favorites are a brisk walk with the dog, a bubble bath, or a few chapters of a book outside my genre (I’m partial to Regency romance!)

Give yourself a break. You’re doing something impressive and amazing and hard! Don’t forget everything you’ve accomplished, are accomplishing, and will accomplish. Be kind to yourself–you deserve it.

You can do this! I promise.

Starting Fresh

I know, I know, fellow Scribe Liv just wrote a post about New Year’s resolutions. But it’s that time of year when we all look back on the old year and welcome in the new, and I’ve been doing a fair amount of reflection on the things that have served me that I want to welcome along with me, and how to say goodbye to the things that didn’t.

2018 was a big year for me! Most notably, it was my publishing debut year. That came with a lot of incredible firsts for me. My first glimpse of the cover artwork for my book, which coincided with another big landmark–my 30th birthday! I signed nearly twenty thousand copies of the book for a total of six (!!!) different book subscription boxes, and then had to keep that fact a secret for nearly six months. I got my first trade reviews, including my first run in with the dreaded Kirkus monster. I got my first glowing peer reviews, and then I got my first scathing peer review. I corresponded with my first “fans.” I tried to ignore being tagged on social media for one-star reviews.

I laughed. I cried. I tasted each sugary high and bitter low and tried to savor them both, because they were all part of this crazy dream coming true at last. But now–just over one month after release–I’m looking into 2019 with a few new intentions, while also trying to bid farewell to a few old habits that are no longer serving me.

Overcoming the sophomore novel slump. Oh, friends. Let me tell you, the sophomore jinx is real. I’m not allowed to give any details about the book I’m writing yet, but I will say that it is breaking me. I was warned about this by friends, fellow writers, even my agent, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t believe them. “But I’ve written five-full length novels before!” I said, carefree and cocksure. “How could this be any different?”

Well, it feels super different. But I plan to keep reminding myself that this book begins with a first line, and ends with a last. I’m the same person who wrote my debut and all those other books before it, and that means that I’ve only gotten better than before. I have to keep trusting myself and my writerly instincts, and putting in the work until the thing is done.

Breaking up with my phone. Hi, I’m Lyra, and I’m an addict. It’s gotten pretty bad, people. I feel like I’m constantly reaching for my phone in every spare moment, scrolling mindlessly through my social media feeds or swiping dully at Candy Crush or some other dumb games. I really really want to cut down on phone time, so if anyone has any genius tips or apps (ironic, I know) to help cut the proverbial cord, let me know!

Inviting more ambient creativity into my life. Somehow, along the journey of turning my writing into a profession, I forgot how to create for fun. I used to draw, and sing, and write bad poetry, and read for pleasure. Now it seems like I’m either grimly plugging away at a book or story I’m trying to sell, or dicking around on my phone (see above) while watching Netflix. I want to pick up a pencil and doodle. I want to journal again. I want to try my hand at a Bob Ross tutorial. I want to join a choir. I want to write something no one else will ever see, in long-hand.

Sometimes I feel like by becoming a writer, I opened a front door of creativity but then closed all the windows. I want to open those windows again, to let some of that light back in.

What are your intentions or resolutions for the New Year? Let me know!


The Road So Far

This Tuesday marks just one week until my debut novel, AMBER & DUSK, hits shelves! I couldn’t be more terrified thrilled to share this book with the world, but with that release day on the horizon I’ve been thinking a lot about the road that got me here. When I first started on this crazy journey to traditional publication, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But if there’s anything I’ve learned along the way, it’s that nothing happens over night, and the only real secret to success is perseverance. So–just in case it’s useful to any of you out there pursuing your own traditional pub deal–here’s how I got from scribbling story ideas in the margins of my college notes to seeing a real live book on shelves.

I’ve written my whole life, but it never really occurred to me that I could be a writer until near the end of undergrad. I started fiddling around with half-baked story ideas, and even wrote about 20k words on a very bad novel, but wasn’t super serious about it. The year after college, when I was living outside of D.C. and bartending 50+ hours a week while sending my resume to every non-profit in town, I bonded with my roommate at the time (erstwhile Scribe Emmie Mears) who was writing pretty seriously and beginning to send their work out to literary agents. I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, but a spark ignited inside me. What if this was something I could do, like for real? As a job? As a career?

In 2011, I moved to London where my fiancé was finishing grad school. My visa meant I wasn’t going to be able to work for at least 6 months, so I made a challenge to myself–treat writing like a job, and see if I could really do this. And so, 7 years and change from today, I started writing seriously. Buoyed by delusions of grandeur, I gleefully penned my first few short stories, and then I wrote my first novel, a deeply derivative YA fantasy set in a mythical Ireland. But it was my first novel! I had arrived! Visions of sugarplums (or more accurately, six-figure book deals) danced in my head. I sent out a deluge of query letters full of vague stakes and rhetorical questions (for a primer in how not to write a query letter, see below). I got back a corresponding torrent of form rejection letters. 

I am seeking representation for my young adult fantasy, DARKLING, complete at 88,000 words. DARKLING is Lloyd Alexander meets Holly Black, rooted at the crossroads between the contemporary world and ancient Celtic mythology.
Kyla didn’t ask for uncontrollable dark power for her 16th birthday. She got it anyway.
Orphan Kyla Quinn has built a happy, ordinary life–her biggest worry is whether the track star will ask her to prom. But when she ignores a headache in favor of a night of dancing, Kyla unwittingly awakens her hidden powers and blasts her carefully constructed normalcy to pieces. Guilt-ridden and haunted by memories of that night, Kyla spirals into a self-destructive depression.
In a last-ditch effort to save Kyla’s sanity and soul, her guardian moves them both to an Irish country retreat. In the land of her ancestors Kyla discovers that her destructive power is mysteriously linked to a fallen race of long-forgotten immortals known as the sidhe. Her very life hangs in the balance as she seeks the truth of her identity hidden deep within the myths. Will fickle warrior-prince Tam help her find the answers she needs? Or will he betray her to the shadowy figures stalking ever closer?

I had such unwarranted high expectations, and received only rejection in return. Little did I know, that would be the name of the game for the foreseeable future. I sometimes wonder–if I had known how hard the road to traditional publication would be, would I have stuck with it as I did? I like to think so, but sometimes I don’t know.

I’m still not sure what made me jump back in the saddle. But I did. I participated in my first #NaNoWriMo, and wrote the precursor for what would be my second novel, BLOOD KING, a YA urban fantasy set in London. I queried it through 2013 and early 2014, with no better results. After nearly two years of querying two different books, I hadn’t gotten so much as a partial manuscript request from an agent.

I then wrote my third novel, REVERIE, a YA genre-bender set in a futuristic world where dreams were banned. After several months of unsuccessful querying, I was fortunate enough to be accepted as an alternate in #PitchWars 2014 (the following year, they nixed alternates, so this still seems incredibly lucky to me). My pitch received positive attention, and I received my first partial and full manuscript requests. After an R&R (otherwise known as a Revise and Resubmit) that took me nearly 6 months, I finally got an offer of representation from an agent. In May 2015, I signed with my amazing agent Ginger Clark. 

It felt like such a big step forward. And it was. But despite all the times I’d told myself, “If I can just get an agent I’ll be happy,” it turned out signing with an agent was just the beginning of a new road, and not its end. After more revisions, we went on submission with REVERIE. While the feedback was positive, no one wanted to take a chance on it. We went on a second round of submission early 2016, with similar results. 

Autumn 2016, we went on submission with my fourth full length polished manuscript, AMBER & DUSK. No dice. I’ll be honest–this was the first (and hopefully last) time I seriously considered quitting writing for good. After 5+ years, four novels, countless short stories, and about a million bad words, I just didn’t think I could handle the soul-bruising stream of rejection anymore. I felt like I was pouring my heart into these books, and industry professionals either couldn’t tell or didn’t care. It was starting to hurt,and I didn’t think I could take it.

In early 2017, we got the news that Scholastic Press wanted to acquire AMBER & DUSK. I remember missing a call from my agent, then seeing a text from her that read, “GO CHECK YOUR EMAIL.” I broke out in full body shakes and had to sit on the floor for a while. But it was finally happening–my book baby was going to be on shelves! I was over the moon.

And I still am. But just like signing with an agent, publishing a book wasn’t the end of the road. In fact, I’m quickly beginning to realize it’s the very beginning of a whole different road, one that will hopefully be much longer than 7 years (albeit with a little less rejection along the way). 

I know a few authors who published the first novel they ever wrote. I even know a few who got there with their second. But nearly every other author I know with a traditional pub deal has a story very similar to mine–3, 5, 7 or even 10 trunked manuscripts and years’ and years’ worth of rejection. And on the flip side of that, the only writers I know who didn’t someday fulfill that dream are the ones who gave up. 

So carry on, my wayward sons and daughters.

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Questions? Comments? Condolences for my wasted youth? The comment section is always open!