More Holiday Reading Fun!

Last year I made a Ten Holiday Reading Recommendations post, and I thought it would be fun to do something similar today. The biggest difference – other than the numbers on the calendar – is that last year’s post appeared in mid-December, so I’d had a couple more weeks to get some holiday reading in.

Since Thanksgiving, I’ve only read three holiday books, so I can’t really do a top-ten list. They’re all wonderful stories, though, so I figure I’ll start with them and see where we end up. I’m also taking part in the Rainbow Advent Calendar giveaway, so I’ll post a link to that near the end. (Because you know you want a free read every day in December, right?!)

Here’s the first of my holiday reads….Mr Frosty Pants by Leta Blake. Oh my goodness! This story! It’s so good! Though it’s not the kind of thing I’d generally think of for a holiday read. It’s a full-length novel, as opposed to a warm&fuzzy little novella, the kind I can knock off in an evening. The story digs deeper, too, demanding both characters fight through real issues to reach their happily ever after. 

Yeah, there’s angst, but the ending got me all choked up, in the best possible way! 

My next holiday read was Mr. Winterbourne’s Christmas by Joanna Chambers. This one has a little backstory; a few years ago, blogger Susan Lee put together an anthology that is (sadly) no longer available. The anthology began with Introducing Mr. Winterbourne, and with all due respect to the other authors who contributed, that elegant little story was my favorite in the collection.

(And that’s saying something, because the second story was KJ Charles’ The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh, the beginning of her amazing Society of Gentlemen series.)

Anyway, Mr. Winterbourne’s Christmas picks up 18 months after the first story ended. I was a bit nervous about whether it would live up to my memories, but no worries there. It’s a wonderful, satisfying follow-up, and I recommend you read them both to get the full effect! 

The Holly Groweth Green by Amy Rae Durreson is just about my ideal for a holiday romance. It’s not long, but the author does a lovely job of giving the characters space to develop. The atmosphere is appropriately Christmassy, and I loved the way the fantasy elements are woven into the story.  Technically this one came out last year, but it’s been sitting on my TBR since then and I’m so happy I finally read it!

There are a few more holiday books on my TBR pile, including The Probability of Mistletoe by EJ Russell, Unwrapping Mr. Roth by Holley Trent, The Winter Spirit by Indra Vaughn (which some friends of mine have really loved), and Crossroads by Garrett Leigh. That should pretty much carry me through till Christmas, and then it’ll be time for Kris Ripper‘s annual New Year’s book.

And if you haven’t read Ripper’s Scientific Method series, you’ve been missing out. Just know that while there are very few sure things in this life, xer New Year’s book is at the top of my list of auto-buys.

Final thoughts for today….December 1st is the start of the Rainbow Advent Calendar Giveaway. Here’s a link to the Facebook Group  – join up so you can get notices when new books are posted. There are a lot of fantastic authors involved, and it’s all FREE! Happy Holidays!

My Advent Calendar contribution will be The Christmas Prince. It’s a sequel to my Steampunk-lite novella The Clockwork Monk, and I had a ton of fun playing in that world again. Monk is still available for FREE – jump here for a copy – and you can keep an eye on my website for more information about The Christmas Prince. Or, you know, join the Advent Calendar Facebook Group. Merry Merry!

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Mushy Middle: The Mid-Month NaNo Slump

I know you’ve probably read hundreds of NaNo blog posts, so, here’s another one! YAY!

So right now we’ve hit the middle of the month on this little experiment and you’ve been killing it. Hitting par every day, you’re watching those word counts go up and up. You’re feeling like a gotdamn writer. Right? And then BAM! You hit the middle wall.

The beginning of a book is exciting and fun, it’s something new with new characters and new worlds and new, made up words only you know the definitions to. It’s so pretty and shinning and new! And you totally know the end of the book, you know if the good guy or the bad guy wins. You know if the world ends or if your rag-tag bunch of misfits saves the world at the last minute. You know it so perfectly well that you can see it like the epic climax of a movie scene. It is seared into your brain. You just gotta get to that part of the book.

And what is between you and the exciting end? The middle. 

I promise you, whether this is your first book or your fiftieth, the middle is The Worst for everyone. The action seems to slow, you’re starting to wonder if it’s any good, and if you can’t get through the writing of the middle, who in the world is going to be able to read it.

I can make you another promise: it’s not as bad as you think. The middle always feels terrible when you’re in it and writing it but when you go back and read it later, you’ll wonder why you hated it so much. Oh, it’s gonna need some work, it’s gonna need some rewrites and some editing, there’s no doubt, but you’ll find that you wrote what needed to be written. You’ll find some exciting bits that make the action rise and fall naturally–after all, it can’t all be rise. You just gotta get through it.

If you find yourself slugging through you can do a few things to make it easier. You can outline if you haven’t. A lot of people new to NaNo tend to pants their writing but when you get to the middle you realize you’re not sure where to go. Take sometime to plot out the next few pages, or even a full chapter so you have something to guide you for the next couple of days. If you’re really stuck, just skip to the end and write scenes out of order. The only thing you need to do to win NaNo is submit a full 50,000 words–the website doesn’t know if those words are in order, just get the words down and in December you can go back and fill in the middle.

That second option is a little scary, I know. When I get to a scene I don’t feel like writing I’ll just change the font and do this: AWESOME LOVE/FIGHT/ESCAPE SCENE HERE and then, when I come to it in review I can just add the scene in. 

Just don’t give up. Remember, you’re not alone when you’re doing NaNo and you’re not the only one who totally believes the middle part of their book straight up sucks. It doesn’t, or at least, it won’t. Just put the words on the page and come back to it later.

Also, BACK UP YOUR WORK. I email myself at the end of every day so I don’t lose my work. Yesterday, I emailed myself twice because I had 2 large writing sessions. BACK UP YOUR WORK. I have lost work when my computer went into critical failure. I lost tens of thousands of words because it had been a couple of weeks since I emailed myself. NEVER AGAIN.

In the Mood for a Holiday Read? Try a Christmas Anthology!

So, a Christmas anthology that I’m  part of, Tangled Lights and Silent Nights, was just published this past Sunday. I’m really excited because I’ve wanted to be part of an anthology since I was a teenager and read Return to Avalon, an Arthurian anthology. It always felt like it would be such an honor to be asked to write alongside others in your field, and it is! I don’t normally write short, but I challenged myself and managed it – hopefully well. You can be the judge.

There are several cool aspects to this anthology:

  1. All of the stories tie into previously published books by the authors. So, for example, mine is about Victoria Woodhull and crew, who are featured in Madame Presidentess.
  2. It is multi-genre, so there should be something in there for everyone. We have women’s fiction, crime thriller, fantasy (epic, urban and contemporary), historical, romance (contemporary and dark), mystery (cozy and general), humor and LGBT stories.
  3. All proceeds benefit Life After, a charity dedicated to educating about and helping those who suffer from suicide, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

My Story: A Vanderbilt Christmas
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull made history by becoming the first woman to run for president of the United States. But four years earlier she was still struggling to overcome her shameful past and establish herself in New York’s high society. She has finally secured an entre into that glittering world by way of an invitation to Christmas Eve dinner at the home of railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. But when her uncouth family crashes the party and threatens to send her social status spiraling, it will take a Christmas miracle to recover her reputation and keep her dreams on track.

My story is a tie-in to my biographical historical fiction novel Madame Presidentess. Victoria Woodhull may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas story, and I agree. Actually, she wasn’t my first choice. I had two drafts of stories involving Guinevere from my Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy Arthurian legend novels. But given our strict word limit, I was having problems explaining the Celtic winter solstice rituals and telling my story in the allotted space. Anything winter solstice or even early Christian Christmas is so different from what we know today that I didn’t want to risk not doing the stories justice. (For example, in fifth century Christianity, there was no Advent season yet and the Christmas celebration actually included three different Masses, each with their own symbolism and meaning.)

Then I remembered that one of the scenes I deleted from Madame Presidentess took place at Christmas. (It involved Cornelius Vanderbilt asking Victoria’s sister, Tennie, to marry him, which really did happen. She had to say no because she was already married to a gambler who abandoned her. Seriously, history is stranger than fiction.) This was a much better choice because the Victorian period is when some of our most beloved Christmas traditions became popular: Queen Victoria made Christmas trees a widespread thing, Christmas cards began being sent in the mail, and Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol.

As it turned out, the story I submitted was totally different from the scene I started with, but it got me on the right track. And I had a lot of fun researching what was served at Victorian Christmas dinners, what people wore and what the decor would have looked like. If you want a sneak peek into my brain, check out my Pinterest board on the story. (That hideous plaid dress is what Victoria’s mom wore to the party.)

I ended up placing the story right when Victoria and Tennie were starting to become comfortable in their life working with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria is ambitious as always and she sees her coveted invitation to Christmas Eve dinner at Mr. Vanderbilt’s mansion as a way for her to get a foot in the door with the New York elite, whom she longs to be a part of. But as happened so many times during her life, Victoria’s low-class family comes along and nearly ruins it by inviting themselves to the dinner. You’ll have to read the story to find out how, but it involves a brawl, a fire and some stolen Christmas gifts…

As usual, when Victoria’s family is around, trouble is sure to follow.

Order your copy today! But hurry, the paperback price goes up next week! Remember, all proceeds go to charity.

Amber & Dusk First Line + Giveaway

I can hardly believe it, but we’re only one month out from the release of my debut novel, Amber & Dusk! I’m so incredibly thrilled to be sharing this book with the world and I can’t wait for you all to read it.

(If you’re only here for the giveaway, scroll down to the bottom of the page. I promise I won’t be too mad.)

I’ve talked a lot about my publishing journey both here at Spellbound Scribes and elsewhere. I’ve talked a little about the inspiration for writing Amber & Dusk, and likely will write up a nice long post about all the research and media that inspired the book next month. But today, I want to talk about that one magical sentence on the first page of the first chapter. You got it–The First Line!

I think first lines are magical. I have a running list on my note app with my favorites, and I return to it often for inspiration (“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane;” Nabokov). I actually even have some first lines memorized from books I didn’t even read (like Pynchon’s epic “A screaming comes across the sky.”) Yes, yes, you could say I’m a little obsessed. So it will come as no surprise that my obsession extends to my own work.

I spend a lot of time crafting the first lines of all my books, and Amber & Dusk was no exception. But what was unique about this first line is that it stayed exactly the same from the very beginning. The name of the main character changed (twice), a ghost king appeared and then (thankfully) disappeared, countless scenes were cut and reworked and added and revised. But the first line–it stuck! And so, to celebrate the 1 month countdown (technically, 33 days) here is the first line!

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And because I’m feeling extra celebratory, here’s an exclusive opportunity to win a signed hardback copy of Amber & Dusk, with character artwork, a personalized note from me, and an amber pendant reminiscent of the one worn by my main character! To enter, follow the link for ways to enter, such as commenting on this post and following me and the Scribes on social media. Good luck!

Click here to enter via Rafflecopter!

Reflections on 19 Years and a Wild Dream Achieved

(Warning: I’m going to talk about myself in this post. A lot.)

This Saturday is a momentous day for me. Not only does it mark the publication of my sixth book, Mistress of Legend (Guinevere’s Tale Book 3), and a single-volume compendium of The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy, it is also the end of an era.

You see, 19 years ago Saturday is when I first heard Guinevere speak in my head. (Yeah, I’m one of those authors – wouldn’t have it any other way.) I tell the whole story in the Author’s Notes to Daughter of Destiny, the first book in the series, but for now suffice it to say she told me she wanted me to tell her story and that it would be unlike any written to date. I’ve always loved Arthurian legend, and Guinevere in particular, so I thought, “why not?”

That afternoon when I got home from school (I was a sophomore in college at the time), I sat down at the computer in my dad’s bedroom and began to type the words Guinevere was saying in my head: 

I am Guinevere.

I was once a queen, a lover, a wife, a mother, a priestess, and a friend. But all those roles are lost to me now; to history, I am simply a seductress, a misbegotten woman set astray by the evils of lust.

This is the image painted of me by subsequent generations, a story retold thousands of times. Yet, not one of those stories is correct. They were not there; they did not see through my eyes or feel my pain. My laughter was lost to them in the pages of history….

It goes on for a bit longer, but you get the idea. That prologue is mostly intact in the published version of Daughter of Destiny (though it was shortened a bit). I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote the first few chapters of the book (it was in the double digits for sure) as I learned to find my own voice as an author and developed a plot and style that was doing more than simply aping The Mists of Avalon (which was the book that inspired it). But somehow, Guinevere’s words remained.

(Some of you know this story, so feel free to skip down if you have heard it before.)

I never thought I would become a published author. For the next 10 years I played around with the book when I had free time from college, then grad school and my first two grownup jobs. But it was just a hobby.

Then in 2008 I started taking my writing seriously. The catalyst? Twilight. (Shut up.) By that time I was about halfway through what would become Daughter of Destiny and realized I had something worth reading on my hands. At this point, I still thought the book would be one doorstop of a volume (which is why I’m publishing the compendium). Upon researching the publishing industry, I realized it would have to be trilogy.

Fast forward another 10 years – past an agent, countless rejections (okay, I counted, it was like 40), three damn-near book deals with Big 5 publishers, self-publishing and three Book of the Year awards – and here we are, on the precipice of the final book being published. And I have to say I am very, very proud. It may have taken me two years to finish this book (much longer than I know my readers wanted to wait), but I think it was worth it.

I set out to give Guinevere back her voice and give her the fair shake I never thought she had from other authors (at least the ones I had read). In my mind, she was a full-fledged woman with hopes, dreams and desires, not the one-dimensional adulteress we usually see. In order to show that I set out to tell her whole life story, not just the part that involves Arthur. That meant dreaming up a youth for her in Daughter and imagining her heading into old age in Mistress of Legend. I feel like I’ve told the best possible story I could and did as much as possible to redeem her from the stain of sin past literature has laid upon her. 

Apparently others think so as well. I sent an ARC of Mistress to my friend and fellow author Tyler Tichelaar so he could review it on his website. He liked it so much, I ended up using the opening of the review as a blurb on the cover. But the part that brought tears to my eyes was this line: “She has given back to Guinevere, an often overlooked and derided figure, her dignity and endowed her with a true personality.” Mission accomplished.

Completing a trilogy is no small feat. There were years upon years where I wondered if I could do it and feared I could not. I remember burning with jealousy the day one of my friends completed her first series. But now all I feel is tremendous accomplishment and pride. I want to jump up and down and yell “I did it!  I did it! I did it! I did it!” 

More than that, I feel like each book on the series got better as I grew as a writer. One of my biggest fears was that my story would end up like so many other trilogies and peter out or go totally off track in the last book. (Breaking Dawn, anyone?) In fact, I feel like this is the strongest book in the series, and early reviews are indicating the same.

Now I face for the first time in nearly two decades a future without Guinevere. (Well, not totally. She’ll be one of the point of view characters in Isolde’s story whenever I get around to writing that.) I will  be forever grateful for all she as done for me. She was meant to get me started in my career, and I know she will gracefully cede the stage to the characters who come next. I just hope this trilogy is repayment enough.

PS – If you want to catch up, Daughter of Destiny and Camelot’s Queen are only $0.99 for a limited time…

PPS – For those who know of my obsession with the band Kill Hannah, the reference in the title of this blog to “a wild dream achieved” comes from their song “Believer.” 

Characters: Creation or Inspiration

Most writers will admit that their characters are, in some ways, mirrors of themselves. You’ll give your main character (MC) your likes and dislikes, like, say your preference for how they take their coffee, a distaste for foods you hate, their clothing choices reflect your own, etc. etc. Many author’s first books’ MCs are basically their ideal version of themselves.

Then, as your writing progresses, you’ll branch out and make your MC’s tastes the opposite of your own. Do you like cream and sugar in your coffee? Well, then your MC takes theirs as black as their bitter heart. So deep, so different.

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But really, it’s totally cool to let your characters like the things you like and hate the things you hate because you can really put some real feeling and depth into those descriptions. But have you ever found yourself being influenced by your characters rather than the other way around?

If you’re doing your job, you’re creating fully formed, fleshed out people when you develop characters. Which means giving them preferences, skills, and hobbies that maybe–probably–you don’t have. But to make it real, to make it good and believable you need to learn a lot about those skills and hobbies.

I have done this with a fair share of my books. I know a lot about how vaccines are made now that I had to research it for my Ash & Ruin Trilogy. I know quite a bit more about different magic systems as I developed my own for the Matilda Kavanagh Novels. I learned a lot about ancient Judaic beliefs as I wrote The Brimstone War Novels for my pen name. When I write a witchy book in winter, they inevitably brew hot chocolate and bake goodies and you know, within hours of a writing session, I’ll be in my kitchen doing the same even though I don’t really like to bake. But somehow, these characters make me do these things.

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And now, with the New Book, research has turned to cards.

The women in my family have always read Tarot, but I never seemed to get the hang of it. I read a few spreads for friends in high school and didn’t do too bad, but the idea that I with BOTH dyslexia and dyscalculia could ever memorize the meanings of 78 cards–upright and inverted–and all the different types of spreads and what the card placement in any given spread means was just too impossible a task. But I knew, in my gut, that this MC was going to be a gifted Tarot reader. So it was time to pull my decks back out and try again.

It took a few weeks but I finally gave myself permission to not memorize 156 card meanings and just use my books and note pads to keep track so I could interpret the spreads without the added stress. And you know what? It works for me. And I don’t think I would have tried again had it not been for this character. Which is kinda cool. I’d always wanted to carry on this tradition and felt crappy that I hadn’t. But here I am, thanks to a character influencing me rather than the other way around.

Of course this witchy chick is also going to be pretty good at playing cards too, which, if I do say so myself, I happen to be. So, it’s definitely a two way street.

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How about you? Have you ever created a character so real that you find yourself taking on their hobbies beyond just research? Have your characters changed some aspect of you life you weren’t expecting?

Do Writers Have Worth Beyond Their Debut?

Are debut novels magical?
(Source: Adobe Stock)

It has long bothered me that the publishing world gives massive attention to debut authors. I know it is in keeping with they “hey look, shiny and new!” mindset of Hollywood and the world in general, but I feel like it is disingenuous to all other authors. Last weekend’s New York Times Book Review really irritated me because they devoted an ENTIRE issue to fall’s debut authors.

Oddly enough, the New York Times itself addressed the issue of the attention given to debuts in 2016. One of the contributors writes, “A debut novel is a piece of the writer’s soul in a way that subsequent books can’t ever quite be.” I don’t agree with that. Yes, the debut author was able to tinker with it without the pressures of business looming (more about this below), but I don’t think just because it is your first time doing something that means it has more of your soul. I care deeply about each one of my books, and each one is a part of me, no more or less on my sixth than on my first. If that ever changes, that is the day I need to stop publishing.

Why does the attention to debut authors bother me so much?

1) It gives the impression that only debut authors matter. Yes, we all like to know what/who is new and up-and-coming, but there is a reason wisdom comes with age and experience. Rare indeed is the author who hits it big with their first (or even first published) book. Even publishing industry insiders admit they have no idea what will hit and what won’t. From the same NY Times article: “It’s impossible to know for certain whether the top picks will become huge stars or disappointments who never fulfill their extraordinary promise.” So why to they persist in that model? Her answer boils down to (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Hey, life isn’t fair. No one said publishing was a meritocracy.”

I get that. But still, the constant trumpeting of debut authors leaves everyone else in the shadows. “Oh, this your second/fourth/seventh/twelfth book? Yeah, no one cares…Who’s the hot new debut?” is not a mindset that helps authors who may have not been struck by lightning the first time around and had to write their way into learning how to produce fantastic novels (which is 99.5% of the authors out there).

Take F. Scott Fitzgerald for example. His best-known book is undoubtedly The Great Gatsby. It was his third book. If he had been one of the chosen debut authors today, he would constantly have had to live with This Side of Paradise, his debut, as the measuring stick by which all of his other books were judged. Paradise did well, but it wasn’t a huge money-maker. By today’s standards, it may not have earned him a second book, much less that fated third.

2) It puts enormous pressure on those debut authors to succeed. If they did well enough with their books to get major media attention, chances are good they also have large advances to try to earn out, which is enough stress. And honestly, especially in the area of literary fiction, most of those highly-touted debuts were meticulously workshopped in MFA programs, which gave the authors a chance to revise, revise and revise again, something they won’t have once they are under contract. To take an example from popular fiction, look at Veronica Roth. Divergent was FANTASTIC and it was her MFA book. The next two books paled in comparison. And she was one of the lucky ones who attracted enough of a following who stuck with her.

Many of these OMG prodigies disappear after their debut or second or third book because they were either dropped by their publisher when the next book(s) didn’t do as well or they burned out from all the pressure. Harper Lee is a great example. Now, I don’t know her story well, so maybe she was only ever intending to publish one book, but it seems more like she was stifled by her own success, a theory that The Telegraph seems to espouse. “Much more common is the writer who is effectively destroyed by a single huge success. The burden of fame and acclaim weighs down particularly on the creative faculties.” Or as my mom would say, “if you start out on top, there is nowhere to go but down.” Honestly, I feel sorry for these authors.

3) It gives the impression that your first book is the only one that will matter or is the best you will deliver. I don’t know about anyone else, but my books get better with each one (if I do say so myself). That is because I learn and grow and change and expand my skill set with practice. I mean, Daughter of Destiny was good and won a lot of awards, but when I read it now, even I can see how much my writing has changed and strengthened. I am grateful I didn’t have someone presenting me as the greatest thing since sliced bread back then because I wasn’t. I’m still not. Maybe someday I will be. But one thing obscurity has done for me is allowed me to make mistakes and grow and change at my own pace.

These highly-publicized debut authors don’t have that. They will always have to measure up to the bar set by that first book. And that bar often is not set by how good the book is, but by how skilled its publicist is. If they blow a crappy book out of proportion, then the author has to hope they will do the same for the next however many it takes for their work to not be crappy. Whereas if the same debut was treated like any other book, they would only have to live up to or surpass a realistic standard.

Don’t get me wrong – some debuts are totally worth all the press. Take J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter for example. But I don’t know that I would want my debut to be considered my masterpiece. If it is, then what else is there to strive for? What is the point of the rest of your career?

I could talk to the New York Times until I’m blue in the face and they wouldn’t listen. But I think the focus on debut authors is a relic of the old model of publishing that is daily proving itself in need of an overhaul. The same writer I argued with at the opening of this blog also noted, “Sometimes it is the case that a novelist, debut or otherwise, writes a great book that doesn’t reach the right readership and fails by sales standards, which makes her less appealing to publishers next time around. That’s a dangerous model.”

It’s an irony of the industry as well because as many new authors (and several of our Spellbound Scribes) can attest, publishing houses are reluctant to take on debut authors for the simple fact that they are unknown and untested. But yet, when they do, they make a big deal out of some of them being the next big thing. I know it all has to do with making money, but it makes no sense, especially in an age when we can choose to publish our debuts ourselves.

I have no answers. I just wanted to get this out there. What are your thoughts on the subject?