Revision: making your story shine

Revising, with bonus dog

For the last month I’ve been deep in revisions for my new novel. I finished the latest round today, and now my story is off with the four brave souls who offered to beta read it. It’s a weird feeling getting to this point, which is pretty much as far as I can go alone without feedback from others. I’ve been living and breathing my plot and characters pretty much constantly since mid-April, and finally it’s done. Well, not done, but done for now.

I’ve been refining my revision process over the years, tweaking it a little each time. There are SO MANY ways to approach revision, and each person has their own, but I think there’s one thing that we can all agree on: no matter how fantastic a writer you are, no matter how polished your prose, or how detailed your outlines prior to starting, if you want your work to shine YOU WILL NEED TO REVISE.

The first draft is literally that: a draft. It’s a pencil drawing, bare lines on a page. It may be beautiful in its raw simplicity, but at some point, you’re going to need to ink those lines and add color to the images. In writing, even if you’re the most hardcore outliner, that first draft is always going to be a discovery journey to some extent. Characters might reveal new traits or backstories; an unforeseen plot hole might lead to an entire new facet of your world you hadn’t imagined; or you might find your pacing is a little off and suddenly you’re forced to add an unplanned side arc.

But how do you tackle revisions? And how many revisions are enough? Here’s where the water muddies. Because there is no clear answer. Contemporary middle grade and YA author Carrie Firestone, whose latest novel Dress Coded is a fantastic dive into the world of preteen body image and school power politics, is a big fan of rewriting. Her first versions of stories are always discovery drafts, and it takes her a full rewrite to flesh out the bones. Fantasy and sci fi author Brandon Sanderson uses a complex revision system for his epic Stormlight series, with an entire team of readers using shared feedback documents. There is no right way or wrong way. And the only path to finding what works for you is to try different methods until you figure out the one that best fits your work style.

For this latest novel, and the one before, this has been my approach:

— For the first ten or so chapters, I constantly revise. If something new turns up, I go back and edit. I do this because I’m still feeling my way in this new storyworld, and writing progresses slowly enough to permit this constant stop and start.

— By the time I’m nearing the halfway point, my writing pace has picked up. Now I open a revision file to keep notes on things that will need fixing/adding/changing, but I no longer go back to make those changes so as not to lose momentum. Examples of changes are: a new character trait I added along the way; the fact that one character suddenly owns a gun that needs to be mentioned before it shows up; a worldbuilding idea that emerged and now needs to be fed in throughout the story.

— Once that initial draft is done, I immediately start a first revision. I often hear the advice ‘let the story sit for a while’, but for this first pass I like to jump straight in. My mind is bubbling with the plot changes I made and alterations that need adjusting, and it’s easier to keep moving. This first revision pass includes the big picture/big issue stuff as well as smaller scene-specific changes and chapter rewrites.

— After this first pass is over, I do another, for fine-tuning and for more delicate work. If the first revision is for adding color, this one is for shading.

— We’ve reached the point I’m at right now. Getting eyes on my work. For those of you with agents and/or publishing contracts, your agent/editor might be the person who does this for you. In my case, I’ve sent it to three writer friends — two from my critique group who have seen early chapters, and another to give me ‘fresh eyes’. I’ve also sent it to a non-writer who is an avid reader, for a different perspective. This is the ‘step away’ point for me. It’s out of my hands, so that means I get to distance myself a bit from my work.

— When I eventually receive feedback from my lovely beta readers, I plan to take a little time to let the critiques and commentary sink in and make notes.

— Finally, I’ll do another full revision pass. Hopefully this will be the last one!

Of course, my story won’t be perfect. As anyone who has sold a novel knows, if this one finds a home there will be editor’s notes and more revisions ahead. With my first published novel, Heart Blade, I ended up doing a full rewrite after reading through my editor’s feedback. 

Revising your work might seem at first like a tough, heartbreaking, uphill job, but I promise that, if you persevere, you’ll carve your story into the wonderful sculpture that lies at its core. Find your own path to revision, the one that works for you, that makes your best words shine, and hang in there. It’ll be worth it in the end!

Critiques, Betas, And Editors, Oh My! A Beginner’s Guide…

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The long path to publication is easier with a little help!

All writers at any stage — from beginner wordsmith to seasoned pro — can benefit from a support network to help take their work to a whole other level. If you are relatively new to the writing game, you may have heard some or all of these terms and wondered what they are. I know I did, once upon a time! So here’s a breakdown of what, exactly, a critique partner, beta, or editor does, and how you can acquire your very own…

Critique Groups/Partners

This should be the very first step you take: find other writers who are willing to critique a sample of your work (say, a chapter), usually in return for you taking a look at their own work. Learning to handle critiques is crucial, not only because it can help you spot weaknesses in your writing that you may not be aware of, but also because eventually, if you are published traditionally, you will most likely work with an editor and will need to learn to accept feedback as part of the process in creating an amazing book.

Critiquing comes in different shapes and sizes. There are forums where you can post a sample for feedback, with the understanding that whoever is willing will reply, and that you will critique other samples in turn. For writers of sci fi and fantasy, the SFFChronicles.com is a good place to start, with an active critiques board. Other forums with critique sections include Absolute Write and the SCBWI Blueboard (the last is specifically for kid lit). If you find someone you work well with, you might pair up and work out some form of private exchange, meeting either in person or emailing work back and forth. A trusted critique partner, with a rapport built up over time, is worth gold.

Many people are happy to stick with just the one or two critique partners, working on a one-to-one basis. However, I find I like having a slightly larger pool of peers giving me feedback — a critique group (or writing group). This is exactly what it sounds like; a group of writers who get together in person or virtually to give each other feedback on their work. I belong to two. My local group, the Pandas, connected back in 2014 and focuses on YA and Middle Grade fiction. My online group, the Tri-Angels, has also been ‘meeting’ for a few years; we focus on Fantasy, and email submissions and critiques to each other.

How did I meet my critique partners? My local group met at a SCBWI writing conference. My online one met on the previously mentioned SFFChronicles forum. How can you meet your own? Connect to local, regional, and international writing organizations. Join forums. Go to writing events and meet ups. Put yourself out there, and be willing to do the work, since most groups/partnerships work on a reciprocity system.

Critique partners are an important first step in improving your work, and not just for beginner writers. Plenty of multi-published authors swear by their writing groups, who often serve as the very first pair of fresh eyes upon a new project.

Beta Readers

Yeah, it’s a weird term, I know. Wikipedia defines it as ‘an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work’. Beta reading is an offshoot of critiquing: usually a beta reader will look at a full draft, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, as opposed to the smaller bite-sized submissions a critique partner/group will look at. This means that a beta reader’s feedback will be less about the details, due to sheer size of work they have to read, and more about the whole. Does it flow well? Are there plot holes, or character arc issues? And other things like that.

Beta readers might be people from your critique group, though personally I think it helps to have someone unfamiliar with your work look at it too, if possible. Most of my betas are writing friends whose work I’ve also read in turn, or with whom I have an established relationship as peers. A beta reader is someone you can trust to give you that big picture feedback.

In addition, you might have specific betas for certain things. Author Jo Zebedee, for instance, has a beta reader who revises her military jargon and battle scenes in her space opera novels. I have a beta who checked all the sword fighting in my Blade Hunt books. If there’s something in your work you’re not entirely familiar with, it’s helpful to have an expert at hand.

Editors

Unlike critique partners and beta readers, who are usually peers and work on a reciprocity basis, editors are always professionals, and unless you have a good friend who is an editor and offers to help out for free, you can and should expect to pay for this sort of service. That said, there are different types of editor. The following are the two main ones, from a writer’s perspective.

Developmental editors are people who will do the sort of thing a beta reader does, but coming from a pro point of view. They can be an absolute blessing to help guide a tricky or stuck manuscript out of the mud and back on firm ground, pointing out the weak spots and guiding you through revising your novel. This sort of advice can be pricey, but might be a worthwhile investment if you’ve exhausted peer options, and can’t figure out how to deal with your manuscript. If you sign a publishing contract with a traditional press, they will usually pay for an editor to work with you and make your manuscript as shiny as possible. If you are self-publishing, you might consider this option as part of making sure your work is as professional as it can be before you publish. You can find lists of editors online, or ask friends for recommendations.

Copyeditors should be the absolute last step in the first-draft-to-book journey, and they focus mainly on spelling, grammar, consistency, continuity, and other details of an otherwise polished and completed work. If you plan to query agents or publishers, DO NOT pay to have your work copyedited. It’s not worth it, really. You will be asked to revise, most likely, and then the publisher will pay for this part of the process themselves. Even if you’ve already had it done. So, who should hire a copyeditor? Pretty much only writers planning on self-publishing. For indie authors, I honestly think that this is a must. You can skip the developmental editor if you have good critique partners or beta readers, but if you want to publish a professional piece of work, you should invest in a good copyeditor. Again, there are plenty of online recommendations, or hit up your friends for help. (For more on copyediting vs. developmental editing, have a look at my blog interview from 2015.)

I hope this not-so-brief post helps, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. Coming next: what critique or beta feedback actually looks like, and how to critique someone’s work in a positive and productive manner.

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.

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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Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes

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Oh, hey! It’s another character naming post! (And here’s one I made earlier… *gestures like chef on cooking show*)

This time, it’s about naming difficulties I ran into while working on Heart Blade.

Changing a name after a first draft is done is always tricky. A new name can change a character in unexpected ways. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Here are three naming hurdles I came up against while revising my novel for my publisher.

1) Sometimes the character shifts and outgrows a name. Take Alex, who first emerged from my odd little writer brain as Brother Jerome. Jerome was originally supposed to be a sort of Old Master type character. The name was perfect at the time. He’s a vampire, almost 1000 years old, and he used to be a knight in the Crusades. But Jerome insisted on, well, not being Jerome. He’s perpetually eighteen years old, ruggedly handsome in a shaggy blond, broad-shouldered-from-sword-work sort of way. He’s covered in tattoos. And despite being an honest-to-goodness monk (though ‘recently’ ordained, I should add – only a couple of hundred years ago!), his penchant for wearing jeans, black tees, and an old pair of converse sneakers under his robes were a dead giveaway that I had the wrong name.

I renamed him Alexander of York and the poor guy got a whole new lease of immortal life.

2) Sometimes a character is too close to another writer’s character with the same name. I had this problem with Rose, née Lila. I have big plans for Rose in book 2! She’s a little edgy, and a little angry, with a lot of abandonment issues to work through. Her original name was Lila, which I loved. But then a couple of my critique partners had a Lyla in a co-authored story, and after a while their Lyla began bleeding into my Lila. They’re very different characters, but there are also a few similarities, and the name just stopped working. I needed my Lila to be 100% mine. So I ditched the name. It took me forever to find a new name I liked, one that showed her as she is in Heart Blade, but could be changed slightly by Rose herself to suit who she starts to become in book 2. I won’t tell you what she renames herself – you’ll have to wait for Night Blade for that. But I’m happy with Rose, and I’m glad she’s made the name her own.

3) Sometimes everyone just hates the name you pick! My main guy, Ash, was originally called Jimmy. It made sense to me: his full name in that first version was James Arthur Deacon III, after his father and grandfather. Jimmy matched the sweetness inside him. But although – interestingly enough – the guys who beta read the story for me were fine with the name, it got a resounding NO from all my female readers. This one took me a long while to puzzle out. I still wanted the family legacy thing to go on: Ash/Jimmy carries a pretty hefty family burden on his shoulders. So I decided to keep James Deacon and change his middle name. The men in his family would all have the same first and last names, but different middle names. The catch: it had to be a bible name. Ash’s family is descended from angels and they have an important role in policing the preternatural community. I went through a gazillion naming websites before I hit on Asher, a beautiful Old Testament name that just sounded right. (Kudos to my daughter, who suggested it in the first place.) I tried it out on a few female friends and relatives and everyone agreed it was a keeper. Jimmy was out – Ash was in.

I love the three new names, and can’t imagine my characters being anything else now. And the time I spent agonizing over the changes meant time spent thinking deeply about who those characters were and what really made them tick. That’s the light at the end of that particular tunnel: once you find the right shiny new name, you’ll feel you know your character even better than you did before.

May all your character naming problems be easy to solve! And now (because how could I not!), the gentle reminder that maybe get a second opinion if you’re in doubt. Courtesy of Friends and the inimitable Phoebe Buffay.

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October Updates

 

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Dog bed under table for strategic canine foot-rubs

Hello October, you lovely thing. Plenty of the good and the busy going on over here in my autumn-colored neck of the woods.

My Heart Blade edits are pretty much done! I have the wonderful experts at Laurel City Sword looking over my fight scenes at the moment, but apart from that…the manuscript is ready to place in the copyeditor’s capable hands. Although in the past I’ve worked with plenty of fabulous (and patient) beta readers and critique partners, this was my first time working with a professional editor. It’s been a really interesting and positive experience, and I’m sure there’s a whole other blog post right there waiting to happen.

I have a cover! Well, almost. There are all sorts of things that still need to be done to it before it’s ready to share, like adding a title. But my publisher has let me peek and Merilliza Chan‘s artwork is lovely, with a dreamy vintage feel to it. Here’s a teaser:

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Rose petals! So pretty! Shh, secret…

So what happens next? I have a sequel to write. That means I need to do some serious outlining first, and also a post-edits update of all my story and character arcs for the next three Blade Hunt Chronicles books. No spoilers for book 2 before book 1 is even out, but I may or may not have a heist tale in the works. I’ve been dying to try my hand at fictional armed robbery, and Night Blade is the perfect place for it.

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Caution: fictional armed robbery may or may not include swords

I’m looking forward to a busy October, and that’s just the way I like it. Happy words to all you writers and readers out there!

Worlds Apart

I recently read a great blog piece by SF/F author Jo Zebedee on how every character is a protagonist in their own story. Her post stuck with me, and I began thinking about how – in real life – we create stories to live in which color and enrich our world. Children do this all the time: they walk around in superhero outfits or princess dresses, or use sticks as swords in the park. We say, “Oh, so-and-so has such a wonderful imagination!” But it’s not just ‘imagination’, is it? It’s an ability to rewrite the world around you, however temporarily, and make yourself the star at the center of your exclusively crafted solar system.

(And, shh! Adults do it too! Daydreaming, they call it, but when you’re lost in an alternate world where you’re treading the red carpet, or being awarded the CEO-of-the-year award, or sunning yourself on a tropical beach somewhere, you’re not just playing imaginary games. For a brief instant, you’re the key player in a story of your own making, and not only are you the main protagonist but the script writer, the costume designer, and the director all in one.)

I have a clear fairytale memory of being four, and arriving in Brazil to spend a year with my mother’s family while my parents made work contacts and began setting things up for our permanent move to Brazil a few years later. Of course, I didn’t understand about the work contacts and all that stuff. What I do remember is that we drove up to a palace, and when I was shown my vast bedroom I opened a huge wardrobe to find it spilling with beautiful silken dresses while my grandmother went ta-da! in the best fairy godmother style.

Fast forward many years later and now, when I look back at the scene, I smile at my small self. Yes, my grandparents’ house was big and sprawling compared to our tiny London semi, but far from being a palace it was actually a former farmhouse. The wardrobe still exists: it’s a teensy thing built for a child’s room. And while I’m sure there were probably a good handful of dresses inside, they were all nice, serviceable hand-me-downs from my older cousin. But who cares? Because for that brief moment, that was my narrative. The fairytale, the princess dream. It was a real thing, as was my part in it, and though the narrative twisted and changed over time, that perfect dream moment will always be a part of my personal story.

As Jo points out in her blog piece, when she compares two books written by different survivors of the same horrific event, each character in a story will focus on different aspects of the same event – the aspects that touch them most, that become a part of their own particular story. They are the main characters in that tale, but the stories are different, too, not just the protagonists’ place in them. If we, as non-fictional and real, living people, can create our own worlds around us, beautifully distinct and personal to each of us, then our written characters should, too.

One child’s wardrobe is another one’s key to a magical princess world. Which world do your characters live in? What story does each of them tell? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

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In each person’s eyes, a different world.

August Updates

August tiptoed in yesterday all ninja-like and sneaky. July went by so fast it was a blink-and-miss it month. Probably because I spent most of it buried in my laptop. So, what’s new on the writing front? Plenty!

I received my edit notes for Heart Blade and I’m deep into rewrites. Revisions are hard work, and mean digging a lot deeper into scenes and characters than you’d ever imagined you possibly could. But I’m confident that the story will be all the better for it. And to tell the truth, I’m actually really enjoying the chance to polish up Heart Blade under the expert  hand of my editor, Teresa Edgerton. I can’t wait to share the results next year.

The big Heart Blade news, however is that I now have a cover artist! Woodbridge Press will be working with the very talented and lovely Merilliza Chan. I’ve had a sneak peek at some of her sketches and am so excited. I just know that Meril will produce something amazing for Del and Ash’s story. Keep an eye out for more cover news!

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Teaser…………. Because I’m evil like that!

Check out Meril’s art on Instagram and Deviant Art.

Write ’Em Up(dates)

True fact: once I wrote an entire novel to a 2-song soundtrack consisting entirely of Fall Out Boy’s Immortals and My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light Em Up). There, aren’t you glad you know that now?

So what’s new or old on the writing front, soundtracks aside? I handed in the final pre-publisher’s-edits version of Heart Blade around a month ago. Sometime over summer I should be getting revision notes back from my editor, the lovely and very talented Teresa Edgerton. This is both exciting and terrifying. I’ve had lots of great peer beta readers and critique partners, but this will be my first professional edit. Gulp.

In the meantime, I have a short story to revise for a fantasy anthology that will be out at the end of the year with Heart Blade’s publisher Woodbridge Press. The anthology has a truly great line up of authors, and I’m thrilled to be in it. I also have a new novel I’m working on, a science fantasy YA. I’m coming up to the halfway point on this one, and hoping to get a first draft nailed down before things start to get real with Heart Blade.

In blogging news, I’m putting my Spotlight interview series temporarily on hold. But only because I’ve joined the sffworld.com team and will hopefully be doing lots of interviews for them instead. I’m really pleased about this, since I love their website, and am looking forward to working with the SFF World team.

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Writing perch during a quick June trip to visit family in Brazil.

 

One last snippet of writing news I forgot to share back in May: I won the April 300-word writing challenge on sffchronicles.com. This is really cool as there are so many talented writers on the Chrons, and competition is always fierce! The 300-word challenges are open to any speculative genre and run off a visual prompt. This time the prompt was a photo of a bird’s skeleton. Here’s my winning entry; it’s a bit dark and not very summery, but I hope you enjoy it.

  

Tiny Bones

I crouch down in the garden, poke them with a stick. Small things, wispy and fragile. “Just a bird,” they would say. “Leave it alone, Sarah. It’s just a dead bird.” 

It’s raining again. There’s been nothing but grey since the Weeping began. I haven’t seen the sun in over two years. I hate this rain, the feel and the smell of it. It trickles off the bird bones and sinks silently into the moss. 

The bones are truly minute. If I picked them up, I could cradle them in my hand.

I wanted to cradle Sam, too, but they wouldn’t let me. He was so small when he was taken. Not even a proper baby yet. He never felt any pain, they told me. But what do they know? What do they really know of tiny bones and hearts and souls? 

He was the fifth, this year alone. Since the Weeping, no child lives in this aging compound of ours. One by one, fading, failing. In this diseased world, we scream and rage, but still the silent killer strikes, deadly accurate, picking off our young ones one by one. 

We bury the bones, bury them deep in the hidden place so they can’t come back, not like Marion’s Ava who killed three people before we trapped her in blankets and ran her through the wood chipper.

Because when they come back, they’re not human. Not any more, not after the Weeping. 

But I don’t care. I want my Sam. I leave the bird’s tiny bones alone and make my way to the hidden place. I sink my fingers in the rain-damp soil. And then I begin to dig.

What’s in a Name?

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games.” The line is the first in the opening poem of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It’s a line that comes to mind every time I read a thread or a post or a tweet on character naming.

Names matter, and writers are more than aware of that. Names have a power of their own. They have personality. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings we have Sam. Sam the nice guy, the reliable one. Sam the dependable. I’ve seen plenty of Sams in plenty of books and they’ve mostly been good guys. It’s a good-guy name.

Writers spend an awful lot of time naming characters. In fantasy or science fiction, it’s even more complicated. Are your characters seafaring warriors? Are they farm folk from rich vales and rolling hills? Do you have orcs, or fae, or an entire planet of purple humanoid space pirates? It all has to be taken into account. Also, now I really want to write a story about purple space pirates.

And so writers turn to baby naming apps, databases on Celtic lore, wiki lists of Egyptian gods. We attempt to make sense of our story worlds – be they the fifth planet in a galaxy far away, or real-world Los Angeles – and we try to find names that fit both the setting and the complex characters we’re designing in our heads.

Some writers use generic placehold names and substitute them later, once they have more of a feel for the story. I can’t do that. I need that perfect name to fit a budding character, and then I build the character upon the name. Name and personality, they go hand in hand.

Sometimes I need to change a name while I’m writing. Perhaps two characters look too similar on the page, and it’s getting confusing. The minute I do, though, the story shifts. Maybe only a tiny bit, but enough. A mellow character grows barbs, an edgy character softens. It’s tricky, renaming an imaginary creation.

Other times, it’s the character that changes halfway through the story. This one is more common, I admit. After all, in a first draft, I’m still getting to know my people. As I progress, they grow stronger, more sure of themselves. And, once in a while, they outgrow a name. I just spent two entire days agonizing over a necessary name change. I think I’ve found an alternative I like, but I spent so long with the other name that now I need time to roll this one across my tongue and make it truly my character’s.

I’ve always loved names, and writing gives me an outlet to play around with them. I keep notes on cool names I spot, so I can use them later on. I hoard them on my phone among the book recommendations and to-do lists. Naming characters is fun, and hard, and exciting, and a little heartbreaking at times. But it’s an essential part of the process.

We all know Shakespeare’s famous quote from Romeo and Juliet. However, when you’re writing a story, one name is definitely not as sweet as another. The right name can make a character flourish, and lead us in exactly the direction we want. The right name is just right.

And now excuse me, I’m off to figure out some names for my purple space pirates.