Character Intro: Meet Ben

It’s character intro week! I’ll be introducing some of my characters from NIGHT BLADE, Book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles. The lovely artwork is by Corinna Marie and used with permission.

BENJAMIN KELLEY

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Ben by Corinna Marie

Benjamin Kelley has been surviving on his own since he was thirteen, when his witch parents were executed for treason against their own coven. It’s been a grim sort of life, stealing for a living, but now that Ben’s turned eighteen it’s time to turn over a new leaf and try to keep things legal. If only his former crew would let him go…

 

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Would you like to win a full set of Night Blade character postcards? Once character intro week is over, three lucky names from my mailing list will be drawn randomly to receive Corinna Marie’s adorable artwork. All you have to do to participate is sign up for my newsletter.

Character Intro: Meet Raze

It’s character intro week! Over the next few days I’ll be introducing some of my characters from NIGHT BLADE, Book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles. The lovely artwork is by Corinna Marie and used with permission.

ROSA PIETROWICZ

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Raze by Corinna Marie

Rosa Pietrowicz, known as Raze, is the seventeen-year-old orphaned daughter of a witch and a werewolf. She was hidden away as a baby by the Guild of Saint Peter for safekeeping – except Raze has never been one to enjoy playing it safe. Climbing walls to sneak out at night? Now, that’s more Raze’s speed.

 

 

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Would you like to win a full set of Night Blade character postcards? Once character intro week is over, three lucky names from my mailing list will be drawn randomly to receive Corinna Marie’s adorable artwork. All you have to do to participate is sign up for my newsletter.

Night Blade: cover and sneak peek

I’m so excited to finally share the cover for NIGHT BLADE, book 2 in the Blade Hunt Chronicles! This lovely bit of prettiness was designed by the talented Tom Edwards. Check out the cover below, as well as the book blurb and a sneak peek from chapter 1…

I have more goodies up my sleeve to share with you soon: adorable character art by Corinna Marie for a few character intros I’ll be doing on the blog in the upcoming weeks. You can find the ones Corinna made for HEART BLADE here.

NIGHT BLADE will be soon be up on Goodreads and Amazon – keep an eye on my social media for updates.

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The vampire smiled at Raze. “How do you feel about a little undercover work?”

“Undercover work? What kind?”

“The dangerous kind. The sort of work that should suit Raze perfectly, since you’re so determined to leave Rose behind,” he said. “A challenge. You’re infiltrating a heist. I think you’ll make an excellent cat burglar.”

In the aftermath of the Heart Blade’s return, Del and Rose have different roads to follow. One leads forward, the other to the distant past. Rose is on a mission to infiltrate and double-cross the ultimate heist, and retrieve a game-changing prize. Meanwhile, as the Court of the Covenant prepares to meet, Del has a quest of her own. She must untangle her lost identity or risk her entire future.

With the Blade Hunt prophecy in motion, darkness threatens to rise, and a new sword emerges from the shadows.

Embrace the night.

          The motorbike raced along the deserted road, the engine a defiant roar in the dark. Bleak empty fields whipped past, the bright sparkle of Christmas lights left behind along with the last of suburban Toronto.

Raze tucked her cold face closer to the leather-clad back that rubbed against her cheek, tightening her arms around the lean waist as she screwed her eyes shut. The wind and the wild sang in her veins, tempting her, whispering. Let go, they said, join us. She smiled to herself — a grin that was all teeth and fierce pleasure — and ran her tongue over her chapped bottom lip.

She tapped his shoulder as they drew near, and the bike slowed and pulled to a stop underneath a towering elm tree, bare branches stark against the cloudy night sky. Raze climbed down, boots crunching on fresh snow. The driver killed the engine and pulled off his helmet, watching her as she tugged off her black woolen hat and ran her fingers through tangled curls. His name was Dave, or Steve, or something. She hadn’t really paid attention.

“So,” he said, “this is where you go to school?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

He was cute, dark-eyed and dangerous-looking. She moved closer, right in his face. He had a small scar on his chin. She ran a gloved thumb over it, and then leaned in and kissed him, hard and fast. Then she drew back, already turning away as she jammed her hat back on her head.

“Raze, you going to give me your number?”

She gave him a wicked smile over her shoulder. “Oh, I don’t think so.” Then she was gone, running through the ankle-deep snow to leap at the high wall, fingers and toes finding purchase where most people would see nothing but sheer stone. She climbed higher and higher, until she threw a leg over the top and sat there, watching the boy on the bike speed away.

Raze moved her other leg over and dropped. For one instant she drank in the thrill of falling. Then she shifted, clothes and skin and shoes and self turning to fur and packed muscle. She landed lightly and scented the night, the wolf’s senses coloring in everything that her human portion was blind to. And then she smelled him and froze.

“Raze? Is that what you’re calling yourself these days?” The vampire stepped out of the trees, his aura a faint red glow in the dark. She knew her own blue werewolf aura would be clinging to her fur like a cloud. She shook herself and shifted back, body prickling with cold from the sudden change in skin temperature.

“Alex,” she replied, aiming for casual. “I was just out for a run.”

 

NIGHT BLADE, BLADE HUNT CHRONICLES #2, OUT NOVEMBER 2017.

 

Five First Kisses

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Fiction, even the bloodiest and grimmest of bearded Viking fantasy, is a fertile place for romance. You can find love among the laser blasts, or heartbreak in the shadow of a castle siege. It might be vast and all-encompassing, or tiny and discreet – sometimes barely a hint – but it’s usually around someplace. Stories are about characters, and characters must necessarily relate to each other. Some of these relationships might include friendship, or hate, or camaraderie…or love.

Not all of my examples are from YA novels, but most are. This is because young adult fiction, in particular, is full of first kisses, which makes sense. After all, YA is all about teens discovering themselves and their place in the world around them, making difficult choices, and often saving the day along with all of that. Finding love (however ephemeral), and all of the heady emotions that follow, is often a key part of this experience.

Lila and Kell (A Gathering of Shadows, V.E. Schwab):

Schwab’s lovely characters share a bare brushing of lips in the first book, but their true first kiss takes place almost at the end of the second book in the trilogy. By now they’ve fought together, fought each other, escaped death and caused it to others, and this kiss is every bit as dramatic as their lives have been. You can just feel the pent-up passion and frustration jump from the page, and it’s everything that Lila and Kell (finally) deserve. They’re at a ball, at night, fresh off an argument – nothing unusual for these two – and Kell storms off onto an outside balcony. Lila follows to talk about the fight they just had, and emotions finally boil over:

            ‘They crashed into each other as if propelled by gravity, and he didn’t know which of them was the object and which the earth, only that they were colliding. This kiss was Lila pressed into a single gesture. Her brazen pride and her stubborn resolve, her recklessness and her daring and her hunger for freedom. It was all those things, and it took Kell’s breath away. Knocked the air from his lungs. Her mouth pressed hard against his, and her fingers wove through his hair as his sank down her spine, tangling in the intricate folds of her dress.’

The scene goes on, kisses that turn to biting, bodies pressed up against the wall. And ends like this:

            ‘He kissed her until the cold night fell away and his whole body sang with heat. He kissed her until the fire burned up the panic and the anger and the weight in his chest, until he could breathe again, and until they were both breathless.’

There. I think we’re all a little out of breath now, right?

Ronan and Adam (The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater):

After the longest build-up ever (seriously, it took almost an entire series for Adam to really see Ronan), fans of the Raven Cycle finally got their reward in book 4. I love this kiss scene for various reasons: the first is that, by the second book, Ronan Lynch was already my favorite character. Prickly as a hedgehog, but so vulnerable underneath, he absolutely deserved his happily-ever-after. I also love the way Stiefvater handled the scene. It’s quiet, understated, with no huge fanfare, but so beautifully intense. Adam is sitting on the edge of Ronan’s bed in broad daylight, holding a model car and thinking, when Ronan walks into the room. He sits beside Adam, and holds out a hand for the car. A moment later, he leans over and kisses him. What makes it such a great scene is what comes next:

            ‘Ronan let out a breath, put the model down on the bed beside him, and kissed Adam.

Once, when Adam had still lived in the trailer park, he had been pushing the lawn mower around the scraggly side yard when he realized that it was raining a mile away. He could smell it, the earthy scent of rain on dirt, but also the electric, restless smell of ozone. And he could see it: a hazy gray sheet of water blocking his view of the mountains. He could track the line of rain traveling across the vast dry field toward him. It was heavy and dark, and he knew he would get drenched if he stayed outside. It was coming from so far away that he had plenty of time to put the mower away and get under cover. Instead, though, he just stood there and watched it approach. Even at the last minute, as he heard the rain pounding the grass flat, he just stood there. He closed his eyes and let the storm soak him.

That was this kiss.’

Ahh. Beautiful.

Harry and Ginny (The Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling):

The Harry Potter books aren’t really known for their romance, but there are lots of great moments in there, nonetheless. And one of my favorites is Harry and Ginny’s first kiss. It’s so very much them. Harry’s character, for all that he’s the hero of the series, has an odd, quiet sort of passivity to him, possibly from years of trying to make himself invisible at the Dursleys. And Ginny is everything but passive. She’s one of my favorite Weasleys – the only girl and the baby of the bunch, who can give as good as she gets, and even out-hex her twin prankster brothers. So it makes sense that their first kiss would be all about Ginny riding the emotional high of a Quiddich win, and throwing herself into Harry’s arms – something he’d probably never get around to initiating himself. Ginny takes charge, and it’s every bit as awesome as she is:

            ‘Harry looked around; there was Ginny running towards him; she had a hard, blazing look on her face as she threw her arms around him. And without thinking, without planning it, without worrying about the fact that fifty people were watching, Harry kissed her.’

Pen and Espel (The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock):

Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy isn’t as well known as the other series I’ve mentioned here, and it really deserves to be. Check out my review here. The books are full of great characters and rich worldbuilding, and one of my favorite characters is Pen, a Pakistani teen from London brought up in a traditional household. In the first book Pen is sexually abused by a teacher, and later becomes terribly injured in a supernatural battle.

In this second book, she stumbles through to a mirror world where her face full of patchwork scars is considered the height of beauty instead of something freakish. When Pen finds herself attracted to another girl, it’s a shy, tentative thing – perfectly written considering where she’s coming from, and the issues she carries around. Their first kiss is equally tentative, and I love it for the way it reflects not just Pen’s uncertainty, but the uncertainty of most teenagers (and probably many adults) facing a first kiss with someone they like.

            ‘Pen put her hand over Espel’s temple and wound her fingers into her hair. She hesitated for a fraction of a second and kissed her.

Espel inhaled sharply. There was a terrifying, paralyzed moment, when Pen was certain that Espel was going to push herself away, and then that breath came out again and the steeplejill’s lips gave way under hers. They held the kiss for long moments, Pen’s heart loud in her ears, and then Espel stepped into her.’

You can just feel Pen’s relief when Espel reciprocates. Nicely done, and with very relatable feelings, too.

There are so many great kisses in fiction. These are just a few of those romantic moments that – however brief – can help warm a plotline and add character depth to a story. I promised five, so here’s the last; this one’s a little tongue-in-cheek (sorry! Sorry. Bad kissing pun…) but I just had to include it.

Buttercup and Westley (The Princess Bride, William Goldman):

I’m always surprised by how many people love the movie but have never read Goldman’s masterpiece. This book is so much fun, and worth picking up if you’ve never given it a chance. And here it is, the (alleged) best kiss in history (according to the author):

            ‘He reached out with his right hand.

Buttercup found it very hard to breathe.

“Good-by.”

She managed to raise her right hand to his.

They shook.

“Good-by,” he said again.

She made a little nod.

He took a third step, not turning.

She watched him.

He turned.

And the words ripped out of her: “Without one kiss?”

They fell into each other’s arms.

There have been five great kisses since 1642bc, when Saul and Delilah Korn’s inadvertent discovery swept across Western civilization. (Before then couples hooked thumbs.) And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy, because although everyone agrees with the formula of affection times purity times intensity times duration, no one has ever been completely satisfied with how much weight each element should receive. But on any system, there are five that everyone agrees deserve full marks.

Well, this one left them all behind.’

Easy as Pie

As I’m sure happens with all authors, I often get asked questions about my writing process. How long did it take you to write your book? How much editing work do you do? Who helps you revise? I thought I’d put together a rough recipe of how Heart Blade and Night Blade (Out soon in November! Shameless plug!) were baked, from pantry to table. Remember, this is how things worked out for me. Every author has their own way of doing things, and their own timelines, and so does each publisher. If you’re a writer, you need to figure out what works for you.

How to bake a novel (Juliana style):

1– First draft. Slow in the beginning, as I play around with ideas during a chapter or two, and then pause for worldbuilding, character development, and plot outlining. Picks up speed after a few chapters. Usually hits a lull at around the midway point, where I pull my hair out for a bit and despair of my writing skills. This ‘wall’ often means I went wrong somewhere, so when the way forward becomes suddenly murky, I find it helps to take a couple of weeks off to do nothing but read other people’s work and binge watch Netflix, while keeping things ‘on the backburner’ until I figure out where I messed up.

The first draft phase would probably take around 2 months condensed, but in reality it’s longer then that because writing gets paused for things like school holidays, day job stuff, other commitments, etc. Much as I love my made up worlds, real life is an actual thing!

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Working on the first draft of Night Blade

2 – Revision notes. While writing the first draft, I’m sending out individual chapters to my critique group and noting feedback. I’m also keeping a list of things I’ve realized will need changing or adding after the first draft is done. I don’t revise much at the initial stage of writing, so I end up with a huge pile of notes in my nearly illegible handwriting. Up to this moment, no one has seen the entire thing yet – there would be no point as the first draft is in part a brainstorming activity in itself, and I make a ton of changes afterward.

3 – First major revision/rewrite. I may have done smaller changes to the first draft along the way, saving each version under a new file name each time. But this is when I do a full read-through and revision. First I organize both my personal notes and the comments from my critique partners. Then I rework the entire thing. Now it’s ready to be seen…

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Organizing Heart Blade edit notes

4 – Beta readers. I send my manuscript to a few writing buddies who are kind enough to beta read the whole thing for me. They send me their feedback, which I consider and work into my manuscript. I dive into another round of edits, fixing things my beta readers have pointed out. Last read through, fixing minor details.

5 – Deliver manuscript. It’s time to hand my manuscript in. The novel is pretty much as tight as I can get it without further eyes on it. Now I wait for feedback from my publisher. Bite nails.

6 – Final revision. By now, I’ve received the official editorial notes. Anytime I get major feedback, I always read through it all and then give things a few days to sink in, and to come up with solutions to problems. Criticism is hard, but very, very necessary. No one wants to rip your work apart; they want to help take out the wobbly bits and build it stronger so the building soars. (And now I seem to have strayed from baking analogies to architecture. Oops.) Heart Blade, my first Blade Hunt novel, needed a full rewrite. My editor didn’t ask me for this, just for revisions, but I felt the changes I wanted to make went deeper than simple edits could handle. There was a lot of character building I wanted to work on. So it was easier to rewrite the entire thing from scratch, using the previous version as a reference, which I did over six manic weeks of non-stop work. With Night Blade, though I did rewrite a few sections entirely and added a chapter or two (and deleted another), I was on firmer ground, having all of the work I’d done on the precious book to guide me. This stage might include a few back-and-forths; Heart Blade went through three rounds with my editor before it was declared fit for consumption.

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Checking notes during final Night Blade edits

7 – Copyedits. Now the whole thing goes to the copyeditor, that saintly person who will make sure I haven’t done ridiculous things with commas, or named my Space Council different things on different pages. (Spoiler alert: there are no actual Space Councils in the Blade Hunt Chronicles. Or actual space. I mean, space is there, I haven’t erased it or anything.) After the copyeditor has had their say, the manuscript comes back to me so I can go over all the suggested changes and approve them. I thought this was going to be boring, but it was rather fun. And eye-opening! Once copyedits are approved, the almost-baked-book goes to my proofreader, who acts as a final set of (very sharp) eyes on the whole thing. Again, the manuscript returns to me for approval of changes.

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Going through Heart Blade copyedits

8 – Dish and serve. It’s ready! There’s nothing else for me to do, in production terms. Now it’s all up to my publisher, and next time I set eyes on my story it’ll be a shiny new ARC, and then an actual-factual book, fresh from the oven and piping hot. It’s time to relax, and enjoy. Easy as pie. A really, REALLY long-baked and complicated pie…

(I don’t actually have a book-pie image. So please enjoy a cup of tea and some sweet treats instead.)

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Night Blade, book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles, will be out on November 7th. Cover reveal coming soon!

Buy book 1, Heart Blade, here.

By the Sword: a writer’s guide

After I’d written my first couple of drafts of Heart Blade, the first book in my Blade Hunt Chronicles series, I thought it would be cool to maybe watch some sword action in person. Luckily for me, I found out there’s a school not far from home that teaches Historical European Martial Arts, with emphasis on longsword. I went for a one-off lesson, and was quickly smitten.

My instructor at Laurel City Historical Fencing, Christopher Valli, has been an awesome source of inspiration and research for Blade Hunt sword scenes, as well as being kind enough to revise all of those scenes when I got to the editing stage of Heart Blade and Night Blade (out in November – shameless promo moment!).

My mistakes in that early draft of Heart Blade got me thinking about all those sword fights in fiction, many of which are probably wildly incorrect and highly cringe-worthy to experts. I tossed a few questions to Chris, and here are his answers…

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Juliana: What is the most common #swordfail in fiction?

Chris: The biggest pet peeve of mine is the idea that European swords, particularly two-handed swords like the bastard sword or longsword, are heavy and unwieldy. As you’ve seen, Juliana, the average longsword is 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds and well balanced. Many authors and movie fight choreographers think of European swords as big heavy blunt objects, not the graceful weapons they are.

Juliana: Name a favorite book or movie where the sword techniques are accurate…

Chris: Well I may be a little biased as I was consulted, but I love the fight scenes in Heart Blade. I loved reading about a character practicing longsword using Joachim Meyer’s cutting square exercise; its one of our standard warm-up exercises at Laurel City Historical Fencing, and one I practice on my own regularly.

My favorite movie fight scene has to be the dueling sequence in The Princess Bride. I credit that movie as being a big influence on me, from playing with sword-shaped sticks as a kid, to starting to study Chinese swords and weapons through my teen years, to getting into HEMA in college.

Juliana: Which real life sword master do you find inspirational?

Chris: My favorite period sword master is Paulus Kal. Master Kal was a member of the Gesellschaft Liechtenauer, a group of sword masters in the German tradition. During the 15th century, Kal served Duke Ludwig IX of Bavaria as a sword and wrestling master, and also led a contingent of cannoneers in defense on a siege of the castle. He later went on to serve Archduke Sigismund of Austria (who by the way had one of the finest examples of Gothic armor!).

Over his career as a sword master, Paulus Kal left behind several manuscripts on the Liechtenauer tradition. His manuscripts covered the use of the longsword in and out of armor, sword and buckler (a small shield), large dueling shields, fighting on horseback, a duel between a man and woman, wrestling, and dagger. Copies of his manuscripts are still around today and I regularly reference them for our HEMA class.

Juliana: Please share three hot tips for writers planning on including swords in their work.

Chris: 1 – Research. Decide what kind of time period you’re looking at writing about, and what types of weapons would be used, then reach out to martial arts schools, fencing groups, reenactment groups to learn more about how the real sword would have handled. Maybe even try it out yourself! Take a class, try cutting some water bottles or tatami!
2 – Visualize the fight, make friends or family stand in and really imagine how a scene would play out.
3 – Remember, katanas aren’t magical items that can cut through anything!

Juliana: If you could own any fictional sword, which would you choose?

Chris: Amoracchius, one of the Swords of the Cross from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. In the lore of the Dresden universe, three swords were forged from the nails from the Cross and have been used over the centuries to defend against the forces of darkness. Amoracchius is the sword wielded by Michael Carpenter and is designed liked a medieval two-hander. The fact it can slay demons and vampires just makes it cooler!

Laurel City Historical Fencing is located in Winsted, CT, USA. You can find more information about Chris and Historical European Martial Arts at www.laurelcitysword.com, and watch demonstration videos on the school’s YouTube channel.

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Have Book, Will Read #15

Summer is crawling to an end, and the cooler weather brings the promise of blanket-smothered tea-fuelled book binges. Of course, I did get some reading done while the kids were on school vacation. How about you, read anything good over summer? Let me know in the comments!

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Recent Reads: Magic, swords, and trickery.

V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light, last in her Shades of Magic trilogy, has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, and I finally got around to picking it up. I love Schwab’s crisp yet pretty prose, and the cast of characters in this series is fabulous.

This last book finds Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Alucard facing the possible end of Red London, and indeed their entire world. From the battle on the streets of the city, to a frantic adventure at sea, there was so much I loved about this novel, and it was a perfect end to the series that first brought Schwab’s work to my attention.

Another novel by a favorite author that had been waiting patiently on my bookshelf was Shadowcaster, second in Cinda Williams Chima’s new Shattered Realms series. Her first books in this world – the Seven Realms series – are among my absolute favorite fantasy stories. This new series is set a generation later, and although it takes the tale in new directions, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Shadowcaster introduces new characters we didn’t meet in the first book, Flamecaster, and, likewise, some of the characters we met in the first book are absent here. I love Chima’s writing, and thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I confess I’m looking forward to having all the characters come together in – hopefully – the third book in the series.

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows has been on my to-read list for a while, and when my daughter picked it as her summer reading for school, I jumped at the chance to get my hands on it. I had read Shadow and Bone, the first in her Grisha trilogy, a while back, and really enjoyed it (I’m not sure why I never finished the series; perhaps it’s time to revisit it). Likewise, Six of Crows is a great novel and deserves every bit of the great press it’s had.

Six of Crows is set in the same world as the Grisha books, just in a different part of it. It has all the sorts of elements I love: a skilled band of thieves, a tricky heist, magic, mayhem, and great characters. It’s YA, but will definitely appeal to adult readers, especially fans of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series. I already have the sequel (and last book in the duology), Crooked Kingdom, lined up and ready to go.

Now Reading: Virtual excitement.

I’m currently around a third through Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The book had been on my radar for a while, and when I saw the movie trailer the other day I thought I’d pick it up from my local library. It’s a little slow at times, because there’s a LOT of worldbuilding information thrown at the reader’s head, but the premise and story is so interesting that I’m finding I really don’t mind. Things are just beginning to heat up, and I’m looking forward to see where it’s all heading.

To Read: Phoenix, and Tiger, and Fairies, oh my!

I picked up a three-part serial by fantasy author Thaddeus White called Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger – Episode 1, called Phoenix Rising, is up on Amazon for free as a taster, if you’re interested. The series is pitched as ‘Ancient China meets Robin Hood’, and since I’m already familiar with White’s work and his skills in writing adventure tales, I just know I’m going to enjoy this one!

I also have Jo Zebedee’s new fantasy novel Waters and the Wild on my list, a deliciously dark story set in the Glens of Antrim, in Northern Ireland. I read a very early draft of this one, and I can’t wait to see what the polished, finished story looks like.

Why Kid Lit?

Sometimes I get asked, ‘why write kid lit?’ The short answer is probably ‘why not?’ The long answer is a little more complex…

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My 10th birthday cake – perfect for a book lover

This week I renewed my annual membership to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international non-profit organization for authors and illustrators producing work for children and teens. I joined the SCBWI in 2013, just after we moved to the USA. I began writing ‘for real’ a year before that, and knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write stories for young people.

I consider myself primarily a middle grade* and YA* author. Occasionally I write short stories that fall under ‘adult fiction’, too, like my tale In Plain Sight, in the Aliens – The Truth Is Coming anthology, or Fool’s Quest, in Journeys. Sometimes it’s fun to write about certain themes without stopping to think ‘would I let my kids read this?’ (The answer is probably yes – I’m pretty liberal when it comes to reading. I tend to be of the ‘if you’re interested and think you can handle it, go ahead’ school of parenting.) When it comes to novels, however, all my work so far has been within the realm of kid lit.

I moved from England to Brazil when I was eight, brand new set of Narnia books in my hand luggage as my going away gift. With no handy English-language bookstores or libraries in those pre-ebook and pre-Amazon times, I slowly built my own shelf collection, which I read obsessively over and over in my preteen years. My little personal library had plenty of classic children’s authors like Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as the ubiquitous Enid Blyton books all us 70s British kids devoured.

In my teens, I explored my parents’ bookshelves, reading other classics like Bradbury, Austen, Asimov, Brontë, and Tolkien, besides my mother’s large collection of Agatha Christie novels. But I always had time for my childhood favorites, and there was nothing quite like the beauty of those kid lit lovelies. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “one day I’ll do this too.”

A good children’s story has a streamlined elegance to it, very different from the longer, more intricate plot lines that adult novels by necessity demand. The sheer beauty of something like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web is a gift that endures. What makes children’s books so special? Perhaps it’s due to the limits on word count/novel size, forcing authors to pare their stories down to the absolute essence. Or maybe the target readership (especially in the case of middle grade fiction) demands not a simplification (children have proved over and over again to be able to handle far more complexity than we give them credit for), but a directness that brings writers very quickly to the core of a tale.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always loved kid lit in all its shapes and forms. Young people today have a tremendous amount of choice in reading matter, with hundreds (probably more like thousands) of new books published each year. It’s an exciting and invigorating field to work in, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

*A loose definition: Middle Grade – fiction for 8-12 year olds/ Young Adult (YA) – fiction for teens.

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From the 2017 New England SCBWI conference

Taboo Or Not To Taboo

A guest post by Jo Zebedee, author of Abendau’s Heir, Sunset Over Abendau, Abendau’s Legacy, Inish Carraig, and the brand new dark fantasy release, Waters and the Wild.

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When I started my first book – which eventually became Abendau’s Heir – I had nothing more in mind than writing something that had been floating around my head for a number of decades. What I intended was to confront the concept of the ‘chosen’ one and challenge it. Which meant the poor main character had to go through an ordeal. That ordeal turned out to be a lengthy torture regime, including a rape.

Now, in genre novels rape is the great taboo. It is often used for weak plot reasons. It brings about accusations of gratuitousness quicker than practically any other trope. And, to add to the fun, torture isn’t that far behind it… And all in a debut novel….

I’ve often asked myself if I would have the guts to write something just as hard hitting as Abendau again. If I’d have known then what I know now (that many people would find the book too dark, that it might define me as the dark little bunny in the writing group), would I do it again?

On the face of it, Waters and the Wild, my latest book, is a million miles from Abendau. There is no torture. There is no rape. The darkness within it is subtler and less confrontational to the reader. But there are still themes within it which will challenge a reader and which were not the easiest to write about.

Firstly, the book has a main character dealing with the day-to-day reality of coping with a mental illness. Whether she is mentally ill or whether fairies really do speak to her is largely irrelevant – because, whichever it is, it causes compulsions in her, bring anxiety and fear, causes her confusion and disassociation. That Amy has had these thoughts, or has heard these voices, since she was a child, is redolent of our modern era – where teenage mental health problems are growing and our services (where I am, at least) are stretched and support is often patchy.

But the thing that Waters and the Wild does (which has been picked up in even the earliest reviews) is question what that does to a wider family. The repercussions of mental health difficulties – not just Amy’s – reverberate through the book. No one is unscathed by it – because we are not islands and when someone we love struggles, we can’t just close ourselves off from it.

Up to this point, I’m on safe ground, I feel. I researched. I got feedback from people who were more knowledgeable than me and acted on it. I researched some more. I drew on whatever personal knowledge I have, or have been privileged enough for people to share. As with Abendau, I’m confident the themes that have arisen have been dealt with carefully, with thoughtfulness and honesty.

That’s before the book is released, however. Once it goes out as a published book, I no longer own that book.

With Abendau, I hoped I’d be recognised for writing a thoughtful trilogy about a character’s journey. Mostly, though, I’m known as the lady who writes great torture. Those 3000 or so words in a sea of 250,000 are what define the trilogy. With Inish Carraig, my Belfast-based alien invasion novel, I’ve had to come to terms with people reacting to a reflected Belfast in the book. It’s not why I wrote it, but that’s okay. It’s what resonates with so many readers.

What, then, for Waters and the Wild? I hope the dark mythology will stand out but, looking at early feedback, the character interactions in all their quirked and strained ways, are coming to the fore. The mental illness themes, too, are resonating. We’ll see where they all settle down and what the book’s identity becomes.

What I do know is that, for me, it’s only by writing challenging themes that a multi faceted book emerges. Which I suppose answers my question. Would I tackle hard themes again, knowing they might cause discomfort, and put some readers off?

Yes. Yes I would. Because I should be honest to the story, the characters and their theme. And I hope readers will find that I have been.

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You can buy Waters and the Wild here.

Add Waters and the Wild on Goodreads.

Follow Jo on Twitter @jozebwrites, and check out her wonderful blog posts on writing and publishing at her website, www.jozebedee.com

Summer 2017 Updates

Summer is here, bringing all the joys and challenges of kids on school vacation. It’s a lot harder to get writing-related things done when my not-so-little ones are around, but by mixing up the carrots (“we can go to the beach tomorrow if you let me work today”) and the sticks (“HALP! Leave me alone or I swear I’ll block your YouTube access”), I’m slowly getting to the end of my Night Blade revisions.

By next week, I’ll be ready to send my fight scenes to my sword instructor, Christopher Valli from Laurel City Sword. Chris revised all my sword and fight scenes for Heart Blade, and I’m hoping he’ll be pleased with the ones I’ve written for Night Blade. My climbing scenes also need a stern revision, since my only rock climbing experience was years ago, in my teens. I’m counting on my brother Simon, an enthusiastic climber, to look those over for me. The internet is a great resource for many things, but if you have access to someone who can revise sections that require a certain level of expertise, I thoroughly recommend it.

After incorporating any new suggestions from my experts, the next step will be a final reread of all the rewrites and edits I’ve made to Night Blade, before it goes back to my publisher for a last look. Once we’re all happy, the book will be ready for the copyeditor to get her teeth into.

Very soon, I’ll be able to share the gorgeous cover art for Night Blade. I’m lucky enough to have been given the chance to work with not just one, but two extremely talented cover artists. Merilliza Chan was in charge of the beautiful cover for Heart Blade. For Night Blade, my publisher changed direction slightly, and handed the cover over to Tom Edwards, who does some truly amazing SF/F book cover work. The result is very different from Heart Blade, but just as fabulous. I can’t wait to share it, and see what you all think.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 7.39.33 PM  A teeny tiny teaser… Cover reveal coming soon!

And speaking of art, Corinna Marie, who did the adorable character art for Heart Blade, is working on a brand new set of character pictures for Night Blade. There are a couple of familiar names among them, and a couple of new names, too – I hope you’ll enjoy meeting them as much as I enjoyed writing them! And yes, I’ll definitely be doing some character art postcard giveaways closer to launch date.

Don’t forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter for exclusive mini interviews – in July, my guest is fantasy author Kerry Buchanan, talking about horses in fiction.

Happy summer to those in the Northern Hemisphere! Here’s to beachside reading, lazy days in the shade, and a chance to recharge those batteries.

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