Sesskia’s Diary, part 3

14 Senessay (maybe)

I’ve managed to keep this book hidden so far. I don’t know where to start or what happened, maybe the new pouvra did something, because it’s too big a coincidence otherwise. Everything hurts, not just my arms but the whole rest of my body, and my stomach feels like I’m going to throw up again, though they haven’t fed me since I did. The door is locked, but when I try to use the new pouvra to pick it, my body just aches more. I can’t focus. I need to start at the beginning.

I think it was nearly dawn when I woke feeling like I needed to take a piss. So I got up, or thought I did, but I felt as if I were stretching like taffy at a carnival, like part of me was still stuck to the ground and the rest of me was being pulled away from it. That made me think I was having a dream, but I’ve never dreamed so real before, and my arms still hurt, which I didn’t think happened in dreams. And I still felt this need, though by this time I could tell it wasn’t my bladder; it was just this pull, and it was starting to hurt. So I stood and let it pull me for a bit, thinking it might hurt less if I didn’t fight it. The air looked thick, like heat waves only sideways to the ground, and when I turned around I saw they surrounded me and even went through me. That was when I panicked. I ran for the door, but it was like wading through the tide, only hot and dry and stronger than any tide off Thalessa ever was. I know I tried swimming and I tried going in other directions, but it didn’t matter, it just kept pulling me away from wherever I tried to go. Continue reading “Sesskia’s Diary, part 3”

Sesskia’s Diary, part 2

13 Senessay (later)

It worked. I made the bunk in the corner lift off the ground and I didn’t even tear anything, though my arms hurt afterward as if I’d used them instead of the pouvra. Then I practiced working the lock, which was harder because I had to picture what it feels like to use the picks on it—I still can’t look inside things instead of through them, though I haven’t given up on that—but eventually I could lock and unlock it with the new pouvra faster than I ever did with lock picks. Of course, it’s only the giant one on the barn door, and it’s probably a hundred years old, so it wasn’t exactly a difficult lock—I’ll have to try again on something more finicky. I can’t help remembering being caught in Wirstan for stealing that stupid woman’s purse, and how they would have shut me away for good if I hadn’t found a couple of skinny iron nails to pick the lock with. No more worries about having my tools taken away!

I’m feeling a little low, the way I always do after I learn a new pouvra. It’s as if I put so much of myself into figuring it out, then learning to bend my will to the magic, that everything else feels like a disappointment. There’s still time to sleep before dawn, when I’ll have to move out again. This barn smells musty, and the hay is all stale and prickly, so I assume it’s been abandoned for a while, but I don’t want to take the chance that someone will come along and want to know what I’m doing here. People on the borders of Balaen don’t trust travelers (how well I know that!) or even anyone who comes from anywhere more than half a day’s walk from their home. And I’ve come so much farther than that.

This is also the time when I wonder if I wouldn’t have been happier just staying in Thalessa, working at the fishery, which was awful but at least it was steady work. But that lasts about two seconds before I remember the smell of fish guts, and that tiny hovel that I could never keep clean, and Mam getting drunk all the time and then begging me to forgive her, over and over again. I couldn’t have stayed, anyway, not once this magic took me over and I started doing things I couldn’t keep hidden. Besides…

I was going to write “it’s beautiful” but that’s wrong, it’s powerful and terrifying and when I use one of the pouvrin it fills me to bursting, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything, however dangerous it might be. But it’s not beautiful.

Sleep, now. I haven’t decided where to go next. Maybe Barrekel, it’s nearly harvest time and they could probably use some hands out at those big plantations. I’ll need to start saving for the winter.

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Sesskia’s Diary, part 1

BOOK SIX

13 Senessay

I’m going to try again tonight.

If I’m wrong, this could be my first and last entry in this new book, the sixth record of my travels through Balaen and beyond. Probably will be my last entry, considering how that last test left me pissing red for a week. But I think I know what I did wrong, and I feel pretty confident. Mostly confident. Terrified. No one’s ever going to read this, and I’m not sure why I keep writing, except to have someone else to talk to, even if it’s myself. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m going mad.

I don’t even know if these preparations matter. None of the ancient writers agreed on anything, and they all swore by their own methods. Fast for twelve hours. Sit by a puddle of water in which the moon is reflected and meditate. Burn three kinds of incense. Take off all your clothes—I’m definitely not doing that, even if I am the only one around. The best I could do was find common threads and then use my instincts—that’s something they all did agree on, that magic comes from who you are, at the core, and all this incense and water and fasting and nudity are supposed to make you more yourself. Or something. Anyway, I need this pouvra, and I’m willing to try anything at this point.

Maybe I am mad. Any one of these pouvrin I’ve learned could get me executed, if I wasn’t torn apart by a frenzied mob first. It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when magic wasn’t feared, but I have all these stories that say otherwise. Maybe I should have taken up a career as a traveling tale-teller; it would be less dangerous. Though with the kind of stories I’ve learned, I’d probably be just as likely to get killed, suggesting maybe magic isn’t as evil as all that. I can see why people think it is. The pouvrin I’ve learned are a little frightening—I can summon fire, or water, and I can see through things, and I think I might be able to walk through walls, though I’ve only done that once and I’m afraid to try it again. Suppose I went solid in the middle of something? And if I do this right, I’ll be able to make things move without touching them. I hurt myself trying, last time, but—I’m stalling now, aren’t I? No sense putting it off any longer. If I can make this work, they’ll never be able to trap me again.

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Sesskia’s Diary: An Introduction

The story that became Sesskia’s Diary was something I played with for about a year without getting much further than the opening scenes: a woman appearing in a vast cavern, surrounded by people who don’t speak her language, possessing an unusual magic and therefore fought over by several factions who want her power for themselves. It seemed like it had potential, but I couldn’t make it work. Then, sometime in July of 2014, I had a stray thought: what if I told this not only from my heroine’s point of view, but as the diary she keeps during her travels? I’m certainly not the first to think of this, so I’m not claiming to be marvelously original, but somehow it struck me as exactly what I needed for this story. I wrote a few “entries” as an experiment, and a week later the story began to flow. It was a fascinating experiment, and when I started keeping a regular blog, it occurred to me that it might be fun to publish it as a serial on the blog. And here we are.

Just to avoid confusion, I’ll explain that yes, book six is where the story begins, and you’re not missing five other books. It will become clear very quickly why the story begins where it does. Also, some of Sesskia’s entries are very long, and may be divided by me into shorter pieces for ease of reading. Aside from that, I’m going to let Sesskia’s story unfold the way she wrote it.

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Why I Wrote Today

Today I’m participating in the Writing Contest: How Writing Has Positively Influenced My Life. Hosted by Positive Writer.

Today I sat down at the computer and opened a new document. I organized the notes I’d made on story, on character, on the history of my world. And I began writing my thirteenth book.

Fourteen years ago I could not even imagine today. Fourteen years ago my doctor handed me a diagnosis I could never have guessed at: bipolar disorder, type II, rapid cycling. None of which made sense to me, except for the fundamental, absurdly dramatic reality that my brain was dealing with a biological illness that was going to affect everything I did from that day forward.

Fourteen years ago I began huddling in on myself, trying to deal with something no one I knew had ever experienced, even at second hand. I became accustomed to being unable to schedule activities more than a few days in advance for fear I wouldn’t be in a condition to meet those obligations. My friendships changed, my hobbies vanished, and all that was left was to hold on and tell myself I’d get everything back someday, because the medications were working, the therapy was working, I wasn’t losing anything I couldn’t recover.

Today I woke up knowing I had a long day of writing to look forward to. Starting a new novel is one of my favorite things in the world. I do a lot of planning before I sit down at my beautiful little keyboard, with its keys that click loudly and make me feel like I’m Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday, tapping away as the screen fills up with words, then paragraphs, then pages.

Four years ago I woke up feeling as if I were finally coming up for air after ten years of self-imposed solitude. The medication was working. I had my life back. I had a family that loved me. And I’d lost almost everything else. I’d planned to keep up my skills to get a job when my children were old enough; those skills were ten years out of date, I’d lost touch with all my contacts, and worse, I no longer wanted the things I’d thought I did. All that was left was a desperate need to do, to act, to create something that would persist, something I could point to and say “I made this.”

Today I went over my previous project, the one I’d had such hopes for. You love all your babies, and it’s sad when they turn into something you didn’t expect, something out of your control. The reason I started the thirteenth book was that I had to put the twelfth one away for a while. But there’s a beauty in that, too—the beauty of knowing that eventually, you’ll take it out again and see the potential you didn’t the first time. And you’ll find joy in it again.

Two years ago I was in despair over having tried my hand at half a dozen hobbies or jobs and failed at all of them. For different values of “failed,” really; some of them I discovered I didn’t really like, most of them I found I was terrible at, all of them were incapable of satisfying that need that ate at me every day, driving me to try again. But I was getting tired of trying.

Two years ago, on a whim, I started planning a story. It wasn’t much at first, just a character and a city, but it grew, and there came a day when I stood back and looked at it all with a critical eye and thought, “Why not?”

Two years ago today, I sat down at the computer and opened a new document. I organized the notes I’d made on story, on character, on the history of my world. And I began writing my first book.

Today I know what will happen when I start a new project. Two years ago I had no idea how the act of writing would take hold of me, how amazing it feels when the story starts to bloom and you find yourself following threads you never intended to. I didn’t realize what it was like to find myself still writing at 3 a.m. because the images keep unfolding and stopping is unthinkable. After all those years of being lost, writing was a gift. A joy.

Today I write because writing makes me happy. It makes me see the world differently. And it reminds me that some things can’t be lost.

Insert Title Here

lightbulbsI suck at coming up with titles. For EMISSARY, my husband the Plot Whisperer and I went around and around for a couple of days until I came up with the title. Then I went back into the book and changed it to fit the title. That’s how bad I am.

So after writing a couple of books and agonizing over their titles, I decided it was time to take a different route. I’d been reading the book Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and it has a whole chapter on brainstorming and a section on brainstorming titles. This seemed like the answer I was looking for. So I grabbed all the books near my work station, found an online searchable database of Shakespeare’s works, and started scribbling. The idea is to just flip through books or online sources and grab whatever phrases catch your attention. Then change them around. Extrapolate from them. Combine them and see where they go. Most of them don’t work out, or at least didn’t spark any ideas for me, but it was interesting to see what my subconscious came up with.

Here’s a few I don’t plan to use (NOTE: If you want to steal these, feel free, but if you do, and if they become runaway best sellers, please make sure you put some suitably taunting words in your acknowledgments page). From Matthew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach” came On a Darkling Plain (which I’m sure has been used before) which turned into Darkling Rover. I wish I could remember the source of Night’s Ignorant Armies, The Melancholy Sea, and Discoverers of the Empty Sea, because it must have been something really interesting.

Then there are the ones I can sort of trace back to their sources. I think I was looking at the bookshelf containing Stella Gibbons and Dorothy Gilman’s books, because I’m pretty sure that’s where The Nightingale Diary and The Tightrope Maze came from. I ended up with three small-print columns of potential titles and a sense of profound satisfaction that I’d accomplished something that day. Some days are like that.

But narrowing it down was more difficult. In the end, I printed up a copy for the Plot Whisperer and one for me and asked him to go through the list and mark 5-10 titles that grabbed his attention. I did the same, hoping there would be some overlap. And, surprisingly, there was. Four of the maybe fifty titles on the list were ones we both liked. I stored those away for future use. (No, I’m not telling.)

There was one last thing. I had a strong preference for which one I wanted to write immediately, but I wanted to see what he thought. So I asked him to choose his favorite. He immediately came up with the same one I’d chosen—and that’s how I came to write THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL. Everything else—the characters, the magic system, the story—all of that came later. The title was first.

Much as I enjoyed the experiment—and the relief of knowing the title problem was sorted from the beginning—I don’t know that it’s the best basis for an entire writing career. But until I find a way to pay someone to write my titles for me, I’ll probably keep coming back to it.

The 140-character Pitch

Bunch of pencils

About a month ago I participated in a couple of Twitter events for writers, #pitmad and #carinapitch. These are Twitter things where for twelve hours or so, you can pitch your book in nice bite-sized 140-character elevator pitches for agents and editors to look at; the first was general, the second for Carina Press. I was encouraged in this by the Partner in Crime, who is a Twitter veteran and has done this before. The conversation went like this:

PIC: I think you should do this Twitter thing.
Me: I’m barely capable of tweeting. I’m not even sure that’s what you call it.
PIC: It’s fun, and besides, it’s good to see what people are interested in.
Me: But I’m not sure I want to be published traditionally.
PIC: Just do it already and stop whining.
Me: Okay.
PIC: (shines I Participated! badge)

So I did. And it was fun. First of all, it turns out to be REALLY HARD to condense a 110K-word book into fewer than 140 characters (since you also have to include the hashtags so people can find it). It was a real challenge, and that alone was worth entering. Knowing what to include, how to structure it so it draws attention—it’s a good skill to develop and is useful in other things, like writing cover copy and blurbs.

It was also fun to see what books other people were writing, and also what books the editors and agents were interested in. If someone (not an agent) liked your pitch, they’d retweet it; if an agent liked it, she’d mark it as favorite. I pitched my historical fantasy series and had two responses from publishers and a bunch of people liking it. That was nice too, a kind of validation that what you’re writing does, in fact, have appeal beyond your immediate family and the beta reader who’s very patient in telling you when you suck. I also found a bunch of really funny, creative people, and maybe even some new books to try. Mostly, it was an interesting challenge, and one I might try again—or at the very least peek in on the next time it happens.

Forget About the Rope

ropeSeveral years ago I was in a writing group with a bunch of friends. We’d take turns bringing stuff we’d written and having everyone else critique it. One of mine was a chapter from a young adult fantasy novel I was writing (that will never see the light of day). In that chapter, the two protagonists stop at an inn for the night. I described it as something like “not very high-class, but better than sleeping on a rope.” This was a detail I’d read somewhere about old flophouses and it amused me, so I thought I’d use it as a throwaway line.

Not one person believed it.

Everyone in the group said it was impossible. I repeated that I’d read this in an historical context and no, I wasn’t making it up: in some really cheap lodgings, people would sleep either by sitting on a bench and leaning against a rope strung across the room, or simply hanging on it in flophouses when the beds were all full. They accused me of either misremembering or, yes, making it all up. I gave up and just took the detail out. It annoyed me, because I knew it was clever and interesting and I of course knew better than they did, but I took it out.

Weeks later I got a phone call from one of the people in the group, who was very excited. “We saw it,” she said. “The rope. It was in a movie and people were sleeping on it. You were right.” I forbore gloating. Much.

Now, just because something’s in a movie doesn’t mean you can count on it to be true—often it’s the exact opposite. And the truth about the rope story, historically, is more complicated. Some of the records about it can’t be sourced. Some people who refer to it, like George Orwell who in Down and Out in Paris and London reported this as one of the cheapest lodgings in London (the “Twopenny Hangover”) never actually saw it. I’ve seen a picture of men sitting on benches, leaning up against a rope, dating from the 1930s, and I’ve found a song by Paul Graney called “Tuppence on the Rope” that refers to the practice, and that’s pretty much it. So would I go to the mattresses for this particular detail? Not really. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is that in historical fiction writing, I’ve found that sometimes I have to forget about the rope.

It’s kind of a hard call to make. At one extreme, it implies that you can never, ever write something true that someone without a lot of knowledge about your historical era might not believe. And there’s always going to be someone whose knowledge ends just where your obscure fact begins. This is where good beta readers come in. In researching my Regency fantasy adventure series, I came up with some historical facts I thought were cool that my beta reader said “That sounds too modern. No one will believe you didn’t just screw up.” And she was right. Real experts on the Regency period might know the truth, but the average reader would just believe I was wrong. And I didn’t need those details. So I forgot about the rope.

But that’s not really the point of this story either. It’s not about trying to game the system, working out whether something you’ve written will throw certain readers. What really happened was that I came up hard against the reality that there were some details I was including simply because I was showing off what I’d learned. I wasn’t writing for my readers; I was writing for the experts who would know I’d done my research and, I don’t know, pat me on the head and give me a cookie for Getting It Right. And that’s bad writing no matter how accurate your facts are. It’s one thing to have a visitor to Almack’s in 1812 make a comment about how no one’s going to introduce a new dance there in her lifetime as an Easter egg for those who know the quadrille and the waltz are coming along soon. It’s another to put Captain Gronow in your story solely to establish when that happens. For me, forgetting about the rope is all about examining my own motives. Am I doing it to look cool, or am I doing it to write the best story I can?

The writing group is long gone, but I still have those friends. They haven’t forgotten the story of the rope. For different reasons, neither have I.

NEW RELEASE—The Smoke-Scented Girl

The Smoke-Scented Girl

My new book, THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL, is available today! Set in a world very much like our own Victorian England, it tells the story of Evon Lorantis, a magician of the country of Dalanine who invents and refines spells for use in his country’s war against an implacable, seeming unstoppable foe. When the government brings him a mystery–a rash of fires, hotter and stronger than anything anyone’s ever seen–Evon sets out to discover what, or who, is causing them, hoping to be able to turn them to their country’s use in the war. But the truth behind the phenomenon is far stranger than Evon expected, and the woman responsible for the fires bears a secret that really might be able to win the war for Dalanine–if they can learn to harness it.

I really enjoyed writing this book. I wanted something that evoked the feel of early Victorian England, pre-Industrial Revolution but post-Regency. In Dalanine, magic is a commonplace, and even those who don’t study magic will have access to a few spells, particularly the communication spell that only requires a mirror and knowledge of the person you want to talk to. So in this world, magic takes the place of technology, and in Evon’s time people are just beginning to see practical, external applications of it, such as radiant heating and a form of X-ray “machine.” Eventually I plan to write a sequel featuring Evon’s best friend Piercy, who is a secret agent masquerading as a dandy and, like Evon, needs a change in his life.

Here’s the book for Kindle and in paperback.