Monday morning reading

bookstackMonday. I don’t actually dread Mondays. They’re like resetting the switch for the week, getting a fresh start. I like to start Monday with a new book, though this week it’s actually an old book called Ripley Under Water. I found the book The Talented Mr. Ripley in New Orleans and gradually became addicted to the rest of the series. Tom Ripley is not your typical sociopath–he’s a murderer, knows what he’s done is wrong, but resolves not to let those deaths destroy him. And since most of the people he kills are objectionable or even evil, it’s hard not to have sympathy for him. Highsmith’s writing is spare and economical where it needs to be and full of detail where that’s necessary. This is the last book in the series, and I’ll be sad to let it go.

thegodtouchedmanebookcover-1This Monday also marks the beginning of a week of sales for me. The God-Touched Man, sequel to The Smoke-Scented Girl, comes out on Tuesday. It features Piercy Faranter, man about town and secret agent, whose assignment to chaperone a foreign princess turns into a quest to solve a mystery with roots a thousand years deep. Piercy was a fun character to write, and I hope readers will enjoy reading about him.

thesmokescentedgirl smallIn celebration of this release, I’m putting The Smoke-Scented Girl on sale for $0.99 all week. It’s not necessary to read it before The God-Touched Man, but if you haven’t, this is a great opportunity to pick it up for cheap. In The Smoke-Scented Girl, Piercy’s friend Evon is a magician tasked to solve the mystery of spontaneously occurring fires hotter than anyone can make. What he finds is a girl named Kerensa, a thousand-year-old curse, and the legend of four semi-mythical heroes, all of which may be the key to stopping a power-hungry warlord bent on conquering the world.

And the fun doesn’t stop there! Thursday and Friday only, Burning Bright goes on sale for $0.99 on Amazon. You can now also preorder the sequel to Burning Bright, titled Wondering Sight, which is about Burning Bright front coverSophia, the Extraordinary Seer who discovered how the pirates were tracking the Navy ships. Robbed of her professional reputation by the Viscount Lord Endicott, Sophia sets out to prove his criminal activities and redeem herself–but in her quest to destroy him, she finds herself becoming increasingly like him. Wondering Sight will be released on January 19, 2017.

So, it’s Monday. What are you reading today?

In which there is much writerly news

So many things have happened recently, I don’t know where to start. Chronologically makes sense, I suppose, so–

*BURNING BRIGHT is going to be an audiobook! This is probably the news that excites me most, because I have a daughter with a reading disability who consumes books almost entirely as either manga or audiobook. This means she’s never read any of my books, and I’m so happy to be able to share this one with her. (Okay, yes, I could read them aloud to her, but as she does all her reading late at night, I’m reluctant to do so.) It will be available November 15.

*For fans of Tremontane, the next novel is actually a trilogy taking us back in time to the days of Willow North, first of the North queens. PRETENDER TO THE CROWN won first place in the League of Utah Writers First Chapter contest, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with everyone. But I’ve decided, since it’s a true trilogy and not a set of linked stories, not to start releasing it until the trilogy is complete–which means writing the third book. I’m sorry about the delay.

* I’ve sold two new books to Curiosity Quills! One is the sequel to BURNING BRIGHT titled WONDERING SIGHT (the rhyming is completely coincidental). It features a whole new cast of characters and is about Sophia Westlake, the Extraordinary Seer who figured out the pirates’ secret in BURNING BRIGHT. It’s a very different story from the first; there are counterfeiters and madmen and revenge and obsession, and I hope readers will like it, too.

*The second book is the first in a new series called The Last Oracle, titled THE BOOK OF SECRETS (I’m not satisfied with this title and it may change). The book is about Helena, who takes a job at a strange used book store only to discover it’s hiding some powerful secrets. Caught up in a centuries-long war between humanity and alien monsters from another reality, Helena must take on a new role: that of custodian to the world’s only living oracle. I’m very excited about this series, which is five books long so far and still growing.

*Speaking of sequels, the sequel to THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL will be available for preorder on October 5! THE GOD-TOUCHED MAN is the story of Evon’s best friend Piercy, man about town and secret government agent. When he’s assigned to chaperone a princess of a foreign country, Piercy thinks he’s in for a very dull time. But an encounter with a rogue magician catapults Piercy and the princess two hundred years into the past, forcing the two of them to work together to return to their own time and prevent a catastrophe that could destroy Dalanine–even if it costs them their lives. Release date November 15.

I’ll be posting more news as things progress, but until then, thanks for reading!

 

Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a not so secret fact: I have virtually no sense of smell. I can only smell the strongest, closest odors, and since the strongest odors are usually the most unpleasant (gasoline, ammonia, the baby who’s just filled her diaper) I tend to think of my sense of smell as an enemy. What’s more, my brain often translates what I do smell into other smells, or sends me phantom scents that no one else can perceive. All perfume smells the same to me. All flowers smell the same. That aforementioned diaper, about half the time, smells like peanut butter. (The reverse is thankfully not true.)

This affects my sense of taste, too. There are a lot of flavors that other people love that to me are just—empty. They taste like a cup of hot water. That means I like strong, spicy flavors like chipotle, or bittersweet like dark chocolate. Even more do I like lots of flavors mingled together, so if one is missing, I don’t notice it. My favorite dessert is English trifle, chocolate and custard and berries all mixed together…and now I’m hungry.

So what does this have to do with writing? In my book The Smoke-Scented Girl, the senses of smell and taste are essential to the story. Taste, because one of the side effects of each magic spell is a phantom flavor; immobilizing someone is like biting an ice cube, clairvoyance tastes like strawberries. Smell, because the spell Evon creates to track Kerensa enhances his sense of smell. And about half the things they smell and taste in that book, I have no personal experience of. I had to be able to write convincingly about those things because my readers would know what charred toast smells like.

Probably the most famous piece of writing advice is “write what you know.” I’ve always thought that was both true and incredibly limiting. On the one hand, if you write about things you don’t know anything about, you’re going to sound like an idiot to the people who do know about them. On the other hand, our experiences in living don’t allow us to know and feel and do absolutely everything in the world. That’s one of the reasons for literature: books give us a window on other lives and encourage us to understand, even in our limited way, what other places and people and times are like. If writers take that advice in the strictest sense, we might as well give up on writing anything that doesn’t reflect our own narrow experience. For those of us who write speculative or historical fiction (or in my case, speculative historical fiction), it might as well say “don’t bother.”

But I think “write what you know” contains a wealth of advice beyond the obvious, and advice that broadens the possibilities of writing rather than shutting them down.

  • Research, study, learn. There’s nothing that says you can’t expand what you know and then write about it. Thanks to the Internet, research is easier than ever before (though also more perilous when it comes to establishing the veracity of a source). Libraries that participate in interlibrary loan are an author’s friend. I spent three weeks collecting information on the Bow Street Runners before I came across a book via interlibrary loan that had everything I’d struggled to learn, plus about a hundred more things I never thought to investigate. These days, you can become an expert on virtually anything if you’re willing to take the time.
  • Talk to experts. This isn’t just a variation on the above. People who are experienced in the things you want to write about can not only give you knowledge, but also a sense of what it feels like to have that knowledge. They live what you’re writing about and you owe it to them to do your best to reflect that experience in your writing.
  • Expand your own knowledge. Everyone has things they’re good at; getting better at those things gives you more material.
  • Talk to people. Writing what you know isn’t just about facts, it’s about people—about how they think and feel. Learn what motivates others, what they love and hate. Getting to know others makes for better characterization and a solid emotional basis for your story.
  • Read for pleasure, both inside and outside your genre. Share the experiences of other writers. Explore character motivations. Look for ideas you might want to pursue. And above all, remind yourself why you got into this field in the first place.
  • Be consistent. If you’re making up a world, you know everything about it—make your readers believe you’re writing what you know by keeping the rules logical and consistent. And if they’re not logical and consistent, have a reason for that, too.
  • Learn to fake it. Some things you’re never going to be able to experience. That’s where everything above comes into play. Compassion, empathy, imagination—all of that bridges the gap between what you know and what you can only guess. Then get your writing into the hands of someone who knows, and see what they think.

I will never be a secret agent, a warrior woman, or an ageless, deathless queen. I don’t have any personal knowledge of what those lives are like. In that sense, I can’t write what I know. But with some study, empathy, and a lot of imagination, I can write what I don’t know. And that opens up far more worlds than my limited one.

Young adult fiction doesn’t equal safe

A few months ago I published my second book, THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL, and immediately noticed something interesting: a number of reviewers seemed to think it was a young adult book. It was a little disconcerting. I wrote it as an adult novel, with adults who have adult concerns–I suppose it could be called New Adult, since the characters are all in their early 20s, but I tend to think of New Adult as applying to contemporary fiction.

So I stepped back and looked at the book from what I hoped was an impartial eye, and found some traits I think might make THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL look like YA fiction:

  • There’s no sex or swearing. (I’m pretty sure about the latter. I tend to forget unless I’ve used really strong swears.)
  • The prose is simple.
  • The plot isn’t terribly complicated.
  • Adult readers, based on the response, are comfortable giving it to their teenage children to read.

And this is where it does get complicated. I spent years reviewing and critiquing young adult fiction (a subject for another blog post) and YA fantasy has always been one of my favorite reads. So I’m the last person to be embarrassed about reading, or writing, YA fiction. On the other hand, because I’ve spent so many years in this genre, I also have a good idea of what’s being published in it and what sort of books qualify for the category. My book really, truly doesn’t. YA fiction is not actually defined as “books teens read.” Teens read, and have always read, adult books. They’re assigned adult books in their high school English classes. And I’m not sure anyone’s willing to call A TALE OF TWO CITIES a YA book. I’ll address the difference between “YA books” and “adult books teens happen to read” later.

But it’s that fourth bullet point I want to look at more closely now. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that many parents who want their children to read, who want to encourage them to read, are lost when it comes to choosing books for their kids. With good reason. They can’t afford to read everything they give their kids. And a lot of these parents are concerned about the content of their kids’ books. So they go looking for ways to pick from among the hundreds of thousands of choices, and one of those ways is to look for the “young adult” tag, however it appears–books in the YA section of the bookstore or library, frequently. Their belief is that YA titles must be acceptable because they aren’t adult novels, with the swearing and sex and violence they contain.

But many parents don’t realize one important fact: YA does not mean “safe.”

The key distinguishing feature between a young adult novel and an adult novel a teen chooses to read is simply that YA books describe the experience of being a teenager. And that experience is not always pretty. Teens these days live in a world of violence, in which profanity is common (visit your local high school if you don’t believe that) and sexual experiences are becoming the norm. Divorce, abuse, rape, mental illness–all serious subjects that many teens deal with on a personal basis. Kids can’t be spared knowing about these things even if they manage to stay aloof from them. And kids need ways to process these experiences. That’s one of the things books do–give us ways to understand the things life throws at us.

Here are a few of the YA books I’ve had to defend to very surprised parents:

THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST, Rick Yancey: Though this is a horror/fantasy novel, and the protagonist Will Henry’s experiences are in no way realistic, dealing as they do with cannibalistic monsters and rotting corpses, Will Henry’s growth as a character comes from discovering who he is when he’s thrown into an adult world that makes no allowances for childhood or innocence.

SAVING FRANCESCA, Melina Marchetta: Harsh swearing and casual references to sex, a no-no for a lot of parents, but this also deals with the serious issue of mental illness and how it can tear a family apart. Francesca’s problems extend well beyond her mother’s mental illness, but this is also about friendship and what it means to no longer be alone.

FIRE AND HEMLOCK, Diana Wynne Jones: Incredibly complicated plot and a semi-appropriate relationship between a teenage girl and an adult man, this is still one of the great works of YA fantasy almost 30 years after its publication. This one isn’t challenged so much for content as for the idea that it’s too hard for a teenager. I’m pretty sure that should be up to the teenager.

THE HUNGER GAMES, Suzanne Collins: No one argues with me that this is YA fiction; the argument I tend to get is that it shouldn’t be read by teens because of extreme violence and “disturbing” images (not that I know what this means). Again, this is a story about fighting an unfair world, and what teen can’t relate to that?

DEERSKIN, Robin McKinley: The rape and incest are the more disturbing for not being described in detail, but I’ve had parents complain because they were familiar with McKinley’s other books and didn’t expect to find this kind of content in a retelling of a fairy tale. Never mind that most fairy tales, in their original versions, are dark and disturbing and terrifying.

I’m opposed to censorship. I’m not opposed to parents trying to make good decisions about their children’s reading. I’m not at all offended by parents thinking THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL is a YA book–I’ve given it to my own kids. But choosing a book solely because it’s marketed as young adult and thinking it’s therefore “safe” isn’t the way to achieve that.

What about you? What YA books would you defend as appropriate for teenaged readers despite their content?

 

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.