So, I randomly, as of yesterday, decided to join in my first ever Magical Readathon: O.W.L.s! To find out more information click HERE!
I was a bit overwhelmed BUT it so cool how in depth everything is! You can even enter your reading as points for your Hogwarts house! I don’t read as much as everyone else it seems like, so I chose a relative easy path as a Magizoologist, because it’s only 4 books to read this month.
And then here are all of the prompts!
Here is what I am choosing:
Care of Magical Creatures – Hippogriffs: Creature with a beak on the cover
Book choice – Crescent City: House of Earth and Blood (I’m counting this because there is in fact a crow on the cover.) by Sarah J. Maas
Charms – Lumos Maxima: White Cover
Book choice – A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab
Herbology – Mimbulus mimbletonia: title starts with an ‘M’
Book choice – A Murderous Relation by Deanna Raybourn
Potions – Shrinking Solution: Book under 150 pages
Book choice – Monstress Vol. II: The Blood
And for additional training and courses:
Dragon Tamer – Read a book with dragons
Book choice – House of Dragons by Jessica Cluess
Let me know if y’all are joining in and what house you are participating under!
I am so excited to be featuring this lovely book on my blog today! Plus there is an excerpt AND an author Q&A!Thank you so much to Harlequin for having me on the tour!
Olivia shoved her hands into her pockets against the damp Seattle afternoon. Nothing would take the chill from her bones, though. She knew that. Even five days of sick leave, huddling in her bed and mindlessly bingeing on cooking shows hadn’t done anything but make her crave cake.
She couldn’t hide away in her apartment forever. Eventually she was going to have to reenter life and go back to work, which was why she stood outside this coffee shop in a typical spring drizzle with her heart pounding and her stomach in knots.
This was stupid. The odds of anything like that happening to her again were ridiculously small. She couldn’t let one man battling mental illness and drug abuse control the rest of her life.
She could do this.
She reached out to pull the door open, but before she could make contact with the metal handle, her cell phone chimed from her pocket.
She knew instantly from the ringtone it was her best friend from high school, who still lived in Cape Sanctuary with her three children.
Talking to Melody was more important than testing her resolve by going into the Kozy Kitchen right now, she told herself. She answered the call, already heading back across the street to her own apartment.
“Mel,” she answered, her voice slightly breathless from the adrenaline still pumping through her and from the stairs she was racing up two at a time. “I’m so glad you called.”
Glad didn’t come close to covering the extent of her relief. She really hadn’t wanted to go into that coffee shop. Not yet. Why should she make herself? She had coffee at home and could have groceries delivered when she needed them.
“You know why I’m calling, then?” Melody asked, a strange note in her voice.
“I know it’s amazing to hear from you. You’ve been on my mind.”
She was not only a coward but a lousy friend. She hadn’t checked in with Melody in a few weeks, despite knowing her friend was going through a life upheaval far worse than witnessing an attack on someone else.
As she unlocked her apartment, the cutest rescue dog in the world, a tiny, fluffy cross between a Chihuahua and a miniature poodle, gyrated with joy at the sight of her.
Yet another reason she didn’t have to leave. If she needed love and attention, she only had to call her dog and Otis would come running.
She scooped him up and let him lick her face, already feeling some of her anxiety calm.
“I was thinking how great it would be if you and the boys could come up and stay with me for a few days when school gets out for the summer,” she said now to Melody. “We could take the boys to the Space Needle, maybe hop the ferry up to the San Juans and go whale watching. They would love it. What do you think?”
The words seemed to be spilling out of her, too fast. She was babbling, a weird combination of relief that she hadn’t had to face that coffee shop and guilt that she had been wrapped up so tightly with her own life that she hadn’t reached out to a friend in need.
“My apartment isn’t very big,” she went on without waiting for an answer. “But I have an extra bedroom and can pick up some air beds for the boys. They’ve got some really comfortable ones these days. I’ve got a friend who says she stayed on one at her sister’s house in Tacoma and slept better than she does on her regular mattress. I’ve still got my car, though I hardly drive it in the city, and the boys would love to meet Otis. Maybe we could even drive to Olympic National Park, if you wanted.”
“Liv. Stop.” Melody cut her off. “Though that all sounds amazing and I’m sure the boys would love it, we can talk about that later. You have no idea why I called, do you?”
“I… Why did you call?”
Melody was silent for a few seconds. “I’m afraid there’s been an accident,” she finally said.
The breath ran out of Olivia like somebody had popped one of those air mattresses with a bread knife.
“Oh no. Is it one of your boys?” Oh please, she prayed. Don’t let it be one of the boys.
Melody had been through enough over the past three months, since her jerkhole husband ran off with one of his high school students.
“No, honey. It’s not my family. It’s yours.”
Her words seemed to come from far away and it took a long time for them to pierce through.
Fear rushed back in, swamping her like a fast-moving tide. She sank blindly onto the sofa.
“Is it Caitlin?”
“It’s not your niece. Stop throwing out guesses and just let me tell you. It’s your mom. Before you freak out, let me just say, first of all, she’s okay, from what I understand. I don’t have all the details but I do know she’s in the hospital, but she’s okay. It could have been much worse.”
Her mom. Olivia tried to picture Juliet lying in a hospital bed and couldn’t quite do it. Juliet Harper didn’t have time to be in a hospital bed. She was always hurrying somewhere, either next door to Sea Glass Cottage to the garden center the Harper family had run in Cape Sanctuary for generations or down the hill to town to help a friend or to one of Caitlin’s school events.
“She had a bad fall and suffered a concussion and I think some broken bones.”
Olivia’s stomach twisted. A concussion. Broken bones. Oh man. “Fell where? Off one of the cliffs near the garden center?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know all the details yet. This just happened this morning and it’s still early for the gossip to make all the rounds around town. I assumed you already knew. That Caitlin or someone would have called you. I was only checking in to see how I can help.”
This morning. She glanced at her watch. Her mother had been in an accident hours earlier and Olivia was just finding out about it now, in late afternoon.
Someone should have told her—if not Juliet herself, then, as Melody said, at least Caitlin.
Given their recent history, it wasn’t particularly surprising that her niece, raised by Olivia’s mother since she was a baby, hadn’t bothered to call. Olivia wasn’t Caitlin’s favorite person right now. These days, during Olivia’s regular video chats with her mother, Caitlin never popped in to say hi anymore. At fifteen, Caitlin was abrasive and moody and didn’t seem to like Olivia much, for reasons she didn’t quite understand.
“I’m sure someone tried to reach me but my phone has been having trouble,” she lied. Her phone never had trouble. She made sure it was always in working order, since so much of her freelance business depended on her clients being able to reach her and on her being able to Tweet or post something on the fly.
“I’m glad I checked in, then.”
“Same here. Thank you.”
Several bones broken and a long recovery. Oh dear. That would be tough on Juliet, especially this time of year when the garden center always saw peak business.
“Thank you for telling me. Is she in the hospital there in Cape Sanctuary or was she taken to one of the bigger cities?”
“I’m not sure. I can call around for you, if you want.”
“I’ll find out. You have enough to worry about.”
“Keep me posted. I’m worried about her. She’s a pretty great lady, that mom of yours.”
Olivia shifted, uncomfortable as she always was when others spoke about her mother to her. Everyone loved her, with good reason. Juliet was warm, gracious, kind to just about everyone in their beachside community of Cape Sanctuary.
Which made Olivia’s own awkward, tangled relationship with her mother even harder to comprehend.
“Will you be able to come home for a few days?”
Home. How could she go home when she couldn’t even walk into the coffee shop across the street?
“I don’t know. I’ll have to see what’s going on there.”
How could she possibly travel all the way to Northern California? A complicated mix of emotions seemed to lodge like a tangled ball of yarn in her chest whenever she thought about her hometown, which she loved and hated in equal measures.
The town held so much guilt and pain and sorrow. Her father was buried there and so was her sister. Each room in Sea Glass Cottage stirred like the swirl of dust motes with memories of happier times.
Olivia hadn’t been back in more than a year. She kept meaning to make a trip but something else always seemed to come up. She usually went for the holidays at least, but the previous year she’d backed out of even that after work obligations kept her in Seattle until Christmas Eve and a storm had made last-minute travel difficult. She had spent the holiday with friends instead of with her mother and Caitlin and had felt guilty that she had enjoyed it much more than the previous few when she had gone home.
She couldn’t avoid it now, though. A trip back to Cape Sanctuary was long overdue, especially if her mother needed her.
What made you write this story? (The “story behind the story”)
That’s a very long “story behind the story”! My husband of 34 years was adopted at birth to a wonderful loving famiy and never knew anything about his birth parents. He was never really interested, though I always wondered. He took a DNA test a few years ago before going in for a major surgery, just out of curiosity so our kids could know something about his ethnic heritage, and was astonished a few months later when results from Ancestry.com came in linking him to several close relatives on his maternal side. He wasn’t going to do anything about it but through a very strange sequence of events, he eventually connected with three half-brothers, an aunt and several uncles (including one who has been our neighbor and friend for more than twenty years without either us knowing the connection!). Unfortunately, my husband’s birth mother died several years ago so he never had the chance to meet her but my husband now has a wonderful relationship with his brothers, who have embraced and welcomed him. I have heard of these kind of stories before and after living through the amazing results from a simple DNA test, I wanted to write about someone trying to trace her father. That’s one of the underlying subplots to THE SEA GLASS COTTAGE.
Which character do you most relate to in the story and why?
I love all of them but probably am most drawn to Juliet, who yearns for those she loves to be happy. That’s a universal mom need, I think. Also, she hesitates to lean on others even when she really needs the help because she doesn’t want to be a burden and feels as if her role is to caretake those she loves instead of the other way around. I can definitely relate to this one!
Do you have a place you go to in order to clear your head like Olivia did?
I don’t live by the ocean, unfortunately, but I do live in the mountains of Utah. Ten minutes from my home, I can be in a gorgeous wilderness area where I can walk and think and meditate. We are heading into the most beautiful time of year here, where the mountains turn green with new growth and wildflowers begin to pop out. I can’t wait!
Is this based on a real place?
Cape Sanctuary is kind of an amalgamation of some of my favorite spots along the Pacific coast, a mix of Carmel, California and Cannon Beach, Oregon. It’s loosely based near Trinidad, California. I only wish it really existed!
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?
I started out in journalism in high school and discovered I loved telling stories. After graduating in journalism, I spent ten years at a daily newspaper as a reporter and editor but dreamed of writing a romance novel some day. When I was on maternity leave with our oldest (who is now 30!), I started my first book. It took me about 5 years of tinkering with it, dealing with rejections, rewriting and starting something new before I sold my first two books to Bantam Loveswept in 1995. I’ve been writing full time since 1997 when our second child was born. The Sea Glass Cottage is my 63rd book. I get a little overwhelmed when I think about all those words!
What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Like all my books, the core story is that we’re all here to learn how to take care of each other. All my books have the underlying theme that our lives become better and more fulfilling when we reach out to help and lift someone else. The world can sometimes feel ugly and angry. I feel like there’s an increasing need for us all to focus on trying a little harder to be kind. Life is filled with pain and trials but it can also be beautiful and joyful at the same time.
What drew you into this particular genre?
I still consider all my books romance novels at heart because that is the genre I have adored since I was eleven years old. My books will always have some kind of love story in them! But my hardcovers also have provided a wonderful chance to explore deeper relationship issues: Healing a rift between a mother and a daughter, finding peace when a relationship with a sister ended in tragedy, finding common ground between an aunt and a niece.
If you could sit down with any character in your book, what would you ask them and why?
I would probably ask Juliet why she kept so many secrets from those who might have been able to help her deal better with the challenges she faces.
What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?
Right new I think it’s a close tie between Facebook and Instagram, probably weighted a little more to Facebook. I don’t use Twitter much.
What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?
Focus on the emotions you want your readers to feel in your stories. Readers love finding authors who can carry them away with their storytelling, making them feel what the characters feel. They want that emotional ride! Find the kind of stories you love to tell, focus on your strengths and constantly keep stretching yourself in new directions.
What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
Yes! Always ☺ The last book in my Haven Point series, SUMMER AT LAKE HAVEN, comes out June 23. This is Samantha Fremont’s book, for those who have read others in the series. It also includes a surprise novella. Next up will be a standalone Christmas book in an all-new community, Silver Bells, Colorado. CHRISTMAS AT HOLIDAY HOUSE will be out in late September. And I recently spent three days at a California beach house with writer friends plotting my next hardcover and can’t wait to start writing it! THE PATH TO SUNSHINE COVE (tentative title!) will also be set in Cape Sanctuary and will be out April 2021.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I am the luckiest of writers because I have my own office. Several years ago, we made the impulsive decision to buy the house adjacent to ours. It was rundown and unsightly and kind of blighted the view from our backyard. Our plan was to fix it up to increase our own property value and then rent it out but after the renovation, I loved it too much to rent it out so I took it over. I have loved it! With a special needs son who has multiple disabilities and requires total care, life at my house is at times chaotic and messy but I always have such a sense of peace and calm when I go to my office. And I love that I can walk through the backyard in my jammies to go to work.
What do you like best about your new book?
I love the peace and healing that came to the characters from being honest with their loved ones and opening their hearts to second chances.
Do you have a favorite character in The Sea Glass Cottage?
This is a hard question because all my characters become cherished friends when I’m writing a book and I love them all but I really adore Henry. He is just an amazing hero for Juliet ☺
What inspired you to become a writer?
I have been a voracious reader all my life and have loved romance novels since I used to steal them out of my mom’s room when I was still a preadolescent! I always used to tell stories to my friends, usually involving our latest celebrity crushes. I didn’t know I was destined to become a writer at the time but when I look back, I see all the things that set me on the path. I actually wanted to be an actress and was very involved in drama in high school, including performing in a repertory theater company, but my mom persuaded me to take a journalism class my junior year and I fell in love with telling stories. Even as I went into journalism through college and my subsequent career as a reporter and editor, I dreamed of writing a romance novel. I never imagined some day I could say I’ve written sixty-something of them!
New York Times bestselling author RaeAnne Thayne finds inspiration in the beautiful northern Utah mountains where she lives with her family. Her books have won numerous honors, including six RITA Award nominations from Romance Writers of America and Career Achievement and Romance Pioneer awards from RT Book Reviews. She loves to hear from readers and can be reached through her website at www.raeannethayne.com.
I am so excited to feature and give y’all an excerpt of this gorgeous book! It sounds so good! I love books about secret societies and super powers! How cool! Plus it is written by two indie authors! I love supporting indie authors!
A strange smile slowly comes across his sallow face, like he’s glad Emeral chose to not go with him or run, yet sorry for her at the same time.
“I didn’t say my name, but that’s not really the name you’re looking for, now is it? Think about it deep down, you already know. Probably your biggest feat coming to life. I am an operative for an organization known as the Arcane. They specialize in extracting people with your skill set from society. We have a special type of appreciation for your ability, as you probably know by now.”
The feat Emerald pushed aside for a moment find its place, and her confidence is melting away. The Arcane. They know, and they’ve come for me, she thinks. Somewhere in a corner of her mind, she reminds herself that she has prepared for this. She always knew somewhere inside her that this was a possibility, and that’s why she started the defensive fighting classes. This is what she was preparing for. She can do this.
While working on this novel, Alyssa graduated with a bachelor’s in Psychology and went on to get a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. She currently lives in New Mexico with her husband, Jared, and their newest addition, daughter, Zoey.
Alongside a career in nutrition and fitness, Ann spends her days chasing three little girls around a cattle ranch in Northeastern New Mexico with her husband, Casey. What started as a fun project for sisters-in-law turned into a co-author match mad in heaven! Ann and Alyssa are thrilled to present their first novel to you, the readers.
This book sounds so good, y’all! I can’t wait to read it! Let’s spread the love, what are some of your favorite Indie books?
I am so excited to feature and post an excerpt of this gorgeous book! I am drooling over this cover! It sounds absolutely magical and I can’t wait to read it!
On the third day of the convocation, two of the Slonimi scouts killed a calf, and the herbalist’s boy wept because he’d watched the calf being born and grown to love it. His mother stroked his hair and promised he would forget by the time the feast came, the following night. He told her he would never forget. She said, “Just wait.”
He spent all of the next day playing with the children from the other caravan; three days before, they’d all been strangers, but Slonimi children were used to making friends quickly. The group the boy and his mother traveled with had come across the desert to the south, and they found the cool air of the rocky plain a relief from the heat. The others had come from the grassy plains farther west, and were used to milder weather. While the adults traded news and maps and equipment, the children ran wild. Only one boy, from the other caravan, didn’t run or play: a pale boy, with fine features, who followed by habit a few feet behind one of the older women from the other caravan. “Derie’s apprentice,” the other children told him, and shrugged, as if there was nothing more to say. The older woman was the other group’s best Worker, with dark hair going to grizzle and gimlet eyes. Every time she appeared the herbalist suddenly remembered an herb her son needed to help her prepare, or something in their wagon that needed cleaning. The boy was observant, and clever, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that his mother was trying to keep him away from the older woman: she, who had always demanded he face everything head-on, who had no patience for what she called squeamishness and megrims.
After a hard day of play over the rocks and dry, grayish grass, the boy was starving. A cold wind blew down over the rocky plain from the never-melting snow that topped the high peaks of the Barriers to the east; the bonfire was warm. The meat smelled good. The boy had not forgotten the calf but when his mother brought him meat and roasted potatoes and soft pan bread on a plate, he did not think of him. Gerta—the head driver of the boy’s caravan—had spent the last three days with the other head driver, poring over bloodline records to figure out who between their two groups might be well matched for breeding, and as soon as everybody had a plate of food in front of them they announced the results. The adults and older teenagers seemed to find this all fascinating. The herbalist’s boy was nine years old and he didn’t understand the fuss. He knew how it went: the matched pairs would travel together until a child was on the way, and then most likely never see each other again. Sometimes they liked each other, sometimes they didn’t. That, his mother had told him, was what brandy was for.
The Slonimi caravans kept to well-defined territories, and any time two caravans met there was feasting and trading and music and matching, but this was no ordinary meeting, and both sides knew it. After everyone had eaten their fill, a few bottles were passed. Someone had a set of pipes and someone else had a sitar, but after a song or two, nobody wanted any more music. Gerta—who was older than the other driver—stood up. She was tall and strong, with ropy, muscular limbs. “Well,” she said, “let’s see them.”
In the back, the herbalist slid an arm around her son. He squirmed under the attention but bore it.
From opposite sides of the fire, a young man and a young woman were produced. The young man, Tobin, had been traveling with Gerta’s people for years. He was smart but not unkind, but the herbalist’s son thought him aloof. With good reason, maybe; Tobin’s power was so strong that being near him made the hair on the back of the boy’s neck stand up. Unlike all the other Workers—who were always champing at the bit to get a chance to show off—Tobin was secretive about his skills. He shared a wagon with Tash, Gerta’s best Worker, even though the two men didn’t seem particularly friendly with each other. More than once the boy had glimpsed their lantern burning late into the night, long after the main fire was embers.
The young woman had come across the plains with the others. The boy had seen her a few times; she was small, round, and pleasant-enough looking. She didn’t strike the boy as particularly remarkable. But when she came forward, the other caravan’s best Worker—the woman named Derie—came with her. Tash stood up when Tobin did, and when they all stood in front of Gerta, the caravan driver looked from one of them to the other. “Tash and Derie,” she said, “you’re sure?”
“Already decided, and by smarter heads than yours,” the gimlet-eyed woman snapped.
Tash, who wasn’t much of a talker, merely said, “Sure.”
Gerta looked back at the couple. For couple they were; the boy could see the strings tied round each wrist, to show they’d already been matched. “Hard to believe,” she said. “But I know it’s true. I can feel it down my spine. Quite a legacy you two carry; five generations’ worth, ever since mad old Martin bound up the power in the world. Five generations of working and planning and plotting and hoping; that’s the legacy you two carry.” The corner of her mouth twitched slightly. “No pressure.”
A faint ripple of mirth ran through the listeners around the fire. “Nothing to joke about, Gerta,” Derie said, lofty and hard, and Gerta nodded.
“I know it. They just seem so damn young, that’s all.” The driver sighed and shook her head. “Well, it’s a momentous occasion. We’ve come here to see the two of you off, and we send with you the hopes of all the Slonimi, all the Workers of all of our lines, back to the great John Slonim himself, whose plan this was. His blood runs in both of you. It’s strong and good and when we put it up against what’s left of Martin’s, we’re bound to prevail, and the world will be free.”
“What’ll we do with ourselves then, Gert?” someone called out from the darkness, and this time the laughter was a full burst, loud and relieved.
Gerta smiled. “Teach the rest of humanity how to use the power, that’s what we’ll do. Except you, Fausto. You can clean up after the horses.”
More laughter. Gerta let it run out, and then turned to the girl.
“Maia,” she said, serious once more. “I know Derie’s been drilling this into you since you were knee-high, but once you’re carrying, the clock is ticking. Got to be inside, at the end.”
“I know,” Maia said.
Gerta scanned the crowd. “Caterina? Cat, where are you?”
Next to the boy, the herbalist cleared her throat. “Here, Gerta.”
Gerta found her, nodded, and turned back to Maia. “Our Cat’s the best healer the Slonimi have. Go see her before you set out. If you’ve caught already, she’ll know. If you haven’t, she’ll know how to help.”
“It’s only been three days,” Tobin said, sounding slighted.
“Nothing against you, Tobe,” Gerta said. “Nature does what it will. Sometimes it takes a while.”
“Not this time,” Maia said calmly.
A murmur ran through the crowd. Derie sat up bolt-straight, her lips pressed together. “You think so?” Gerta said, matching Maia’s tone—although nobody was calm, even the boy could feel the sudden excited tension around the bonfire.
“I know so,” Maia said, laying a hand on her stomach. “I can feel her.”
The tension exploded in a mighty cheer. Instantly, Tobin wiped the sulk off his face and replaced it with pride. The boy leaned into his mother and whispered, under the roar, “Isn’t it too soon to tell?”
“For most women, far too soon, by a good ten days. For Maia?” Caterina sounded as if she were talking to herself, as much as to her son. The boy felt her arm tighten around him. “If she says there’s a baby, there’s a baby.”
After that the adults got drunk. Maia and Tobin slipped away early. Caterina knew a scout from the other group, a man named Sadao, and watching the two of them dancing together, the boy decided to make himself scarce. Tash would have an empty bunk, now that Tobin was gone, and he never brought women home. He’d probably share. If not, there would be a bed somewhere. There always was.
In the morning, the boy found Caterina by the fire, only slightly bleary, and brewing a kettle of strong-smelling tea. Her best hangover cure, she told her son. He took out his notebook and asked what was in it. Ginger, she told him, and willowbark, and a few other things; he wrote them all down carefully. Labeled the page. Caterina’s Hangover Cure.
Then he looked up to find the old woman from the bonfire, Derie, listening with shrewd, narrow eyes. Behind her hovered her apprentice, the pale boy, who this morning had a bruised cheek. “Charles, go fetch my satchel,” she said to him, and he scurried away. To Caterina, Derie said, “Your boy’s conscientious.”
“He learns quickly,” Caterina said, and maybe she just hadn’t had enough hangover tea yet, but the boy thought she sounded wary.
“And fair skinned,” Derie said. “Who’s his father?”
Derie nodded. “Travels with Afia’s caravan, doesn’t he? Solid man.”
Caterina shrugged. The boy had only met his father a few times. He knew Caterina found Jasper boring.
“Healer’s a good trade. Everywhere needs healers.” Derie paused. “A healer could find his way in anywhere, I’d say. And with that skin—”
The boy noticed Gerta nearby, listening. Her own skin was black as obsidian. “Say what you’re thinking, Derie,” the driver said.
“Highfall,” the old woman said, and immediately, Caterina said, “No.”
“It’d be a great honor for him, Cat,” Gerta said. The boy thought he detected a hint of reluctance in Gerta’s voice.
“Has he done his first Work yet?” Derie said.
Caterina’s lips pressed together. “Not yet.”
Charles, the bruised boy, reappeared with Derie’s satchel.
“We’ll soon change that,” the old woman said, taking the satchel without a word and rooting through until she found a small leather case. Inside was a small knife, silver-colored but without the sheen of real silver.
The boy noticed his own heartbeat, hard hollow thuds in his chest. He glanced at his mother. She looked unhappy, her brow furrowed. But she said nothing.
“Come here, boy,” Derie said.
He sneaked another look at his mother, who still said nothing, and went to stand next to the woman. “Give me your arm,” she said, and he did. She held his wrist with a hand that was both soft and hard at the same time. Her eyes were the most terrifying thing he’d ever seen.
“It’s polite to ask permission before you do this,” she told him. “Not always possible, but polite. I need to see what’s in you, so if you say no, I’ll probably still cut you, but—do I have your permission?”
Behind Derie, Gerta nodded. The bruised boy watched curiously.
“Yes,” the boy said.
“Good,” Derie said. She made a quick, confident cut in the ball of her thumb, made an identical cut in his small hand, quickly drew their two sigils on her skin in the blood, and pressed the cuts together.
The world unfolded. But unfolded was too neat a word, too tidy. This was like when he’d gone wading in the western sea and been knocked off his feet, snatched underwater, tossed in a maelstrom of sand and sun and green water and foam—but this time it wasn’t merely sand and sun and water and foam that swirled around him, it was everything. All of existence, all that had ever been, all that would ever be. His mother was there, bright and hot as the bonfire the night before—not her face or her voice but the Caterina of her, her very essence rendered into flame and warmth.
But most of what he felt was Derie. Derie, immense and powerful and fierce: Derie, reaching into him, unfolding him as surely as she’d unfolded the world. And this was neat and tidy, methodical, almost cold. She unpacked him like a trunk, explored him like a new village. She sought out his secret corners and dark places. When he felt her approval, he thrilled. When he felt her contempt, he trembled. And everywhere she went she left a trace of herself behind like a scent, like the chalk marks the Slonimi sometimes left for each other. Her sigil was hard-edged, multi-cornered. It was everywhere. There was no part of him where it wasn’t.
Then it was over, and he was kneeling by the campfire, throwing up. Caterina was next to him, making soothing noises as she wrapped a cloth around his hand. He leaned against her, weak and grateful.
“It’s all right, my love,” she whispered in his ear, and the nervousness was gone. Now she sounded proud, and sad, and as if she might be crying. “You did well.”
He closed his eyes and saw, on the inside of his eyelids, the woman’s hard, angular sigil, burning like a horse brand.
“Don’t coddle him,” Derie said, and her voice reached through him, back into the places inside him where she’d left her mark. Caterina’s arm dropped away. He forced himself to open his eyes and stand up. His entire body hurt. Derie was watching him, calculating but—yes—pleased. “Well, boy,” she said. “You’ll never be anyone’s best Worker, but you’re malleable, and you’ve got the right look. There’s enough power in you to be of use, once you’re taught to use it. You want to learn?”
“Yes,” he said, without hesitating.
“Good,” she said. “Then you’re my apprentice now, as much as your mother’s. You’ll still learn herbs from your mother, so we’ll join our wagon to your group. But don’t expect the kisses and cuddles from me you get from her. For me, you’ll work hard and you’ll learn hard and maybe someday you’ll be worthy of the knowledge I’ll pass on to you. Say, Yes, Derie.”
“Yes, Derie,” he said.
“You’ve got a lot to learn,” she said. “Go with Charles. He’ll show you where you sleep.”
He hesitated, looked at his mother, because it hadn’t occurred to him that he would be leaving her. Suddenly, swiftly, Derie kicked hard at his leg. He yelped and jumped out of the way. Behind her he saw Charles—he of the bruised face—wince, unsurprised but not unsympathetic.
“Don’t ever make me ask you anything twice,” she said.
Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving and Josie & Jack. Her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, the author Owen King. A lifelong reader of speculative fiction, the idea for The Unwilling originally came to her in college; twenty years later, it’s her first fantasy novel. Visit her at kellybraffet.com.
Hello book lovers! I am excited to be on #teamscarlet this week for #lunareverafter! Fierce Reads has a few really awesome giveaways to celebrate the new paperback release of The Lunar Chronicles! I will post those links down below!
There is a month long celebration for these books and this week we are celebrating Scarlet, my personal favorite girl of the group! Plus, Scarlet and Wolf are my favorite couple! I am completely obsessed with these new covers. Here is the schedule if you are interested:
I am very excited to feature Cast in Wisdom by Michelle Sagara! I am a little behind on the series but I’ve read some of them and LOVE these books. They’re so cool! They would make a great TV show. Check out the Excerpt and Author Q&A below! Thank you to Harper Collins for having me on the tour!
Q&A with Michelle Sagara
Q: Your Chronicles of Elantra series is 15 books deep. How do you keep up with the characters and the plot? What do your notes look like?
A: I have a wiki that is not online, and I attempt to keep it updated as I write. This is not always as easy or tidy as it sounds. The wiki (I use VoodooPad) is easily searchable, but I have to remember to search it, and sometimes I don’t.
I am not a visual person, at all. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I had known my husband for years, and it wasn’t until someone in the store asked what color his eyes were that I realized I didn’t know. Since he’s blond (Finnish on his mother’s side), I assumed that they were blue, and after some thought said, “probably blue”, which caused mild confusion. Had I not known my husband for years? I went home and this time looked and paid attention to what I was seeing: they were blue.
Because eye color had not–obviously–been of great import to me, eye color was the start of my note-keeping. I needed to try to track eye color of characters because I knew I’d forget. And… I still got it wrong between books. T_T.
But… the internals of the characters–what they want, where they’ve come from, the experiences that produced them, I viscerally know. Height? No, not really. Shape? Well, I remember which ones are human, Barrani, Dragon, Tha’alani, etc. Hates? Likes? Yes. Goals as well, if they have them. I remember their place in the hierarchies they occupy, because in some ways, that’s part of their interior makeup.
But sometimes, when in the flow of the words, I… don’t remember to go and check the wiki for the details that, in the moment of writing, aren’t important to me.
My notes, however, and all cross-linked to each other, because of the wiki format.
Q: What kind of research do you do for your books? Is it mandatory (for you) for all your books?
A: It’s very much on a book-by-book basis. At this point in the writing, most of the research is… all the previous books.
I have had books which are more research intensive, but in general I read history in bits and pieces, and file away what I’ve read. It becomes part of the mental soil from which books grow.
So, there are specific books in which I realized, as I was writing, that I didn’t know something that I needed to know, and that stopped the writing dead as I then attempted to find answers to the questions that arose from my own ignorance. I think, as I get older, I realize far more easily when I don’t know something and need to know it.
But I’m what’s generally called a pantser. I don’t have a plan when I start; I usually only have the ending. To know exactly what I don’t know and need to know is therefore not entirely predictable.
…and I admit that once I’ve started building bits and pieces of world, I become increasingly impatient because I just want to dive in and start writing. So sometimes I start, write, and then stop because something a specific character would know, I don’t know. And then I set the book aside and start to look at things.
I think it’s important to know what my characters know, or at least what my viewpoint characters know.
Q: What is it about fantasy that makes you love it above any other genre?
A: This is a harder question to answer, because it’s so specific; it’s entirely Michelle-context. Does that context overlap with other readers? Yes. But not all of it, and not simultaneously.
I’m a product of my culture, my reading culture, and my linguistic limitations; I speak only English, and can only read French with a fifty percent chance of understanding it.
So: books I read and loved when young had fantasy elements, were fantasy. I read a lot of fairy tales. Anything I could get my hands on. Portal fantasy like the Narnia books. Fantasy like McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Fantasy like The Hobbit, and eventually, Lord of the Rings.
I also read a lot of mythology books–at first for kids, and later, translations of plays and sagas that hadn’t been written with children in mind.
I read other books, books without fantasy elements, growing up–but the things that spoke to me most strongly were those. They were the books of my developing reader heart. As I traversed the divide between childhood and not-childhood (does anyone truly ever feel adult on the inside of their own head? I always feel like I’ve gotten better at performing adulthood, but I can’t quite feel it as my base state), I found other fantasy. I also found books like The Left Hand of Darkness.
And all of the reading overlapped with life experiences; everything on the inside of my head, like the soil out of which story grows and evolves.
I loved fantasy as a reader. I loved reading as a reader. When I made the choice to start writing, I wrote what I loved.
Q: If you didn’t write, what would you be doing?
A: I cannot actually answer that question, because I have always written. From about six years of age, on. I didn’t write for other people, and I hid all my writing because I didn’t want to open it up to judgement and criticism.
If you mean, what would I do to make money, I’m not sure. Work, yes–but I’m not sure doing what. I didn’t expect, growing up, that my work would be my life; a job was a necessity, because having a roof over one’s head and food on the table was a necessity. I didn’t therefore pursue a career about which I could be passionate until I started to write for submission.
If I worked for someone else for a living, I would still write, because I always did. Would I write as often or as consistently? Probably not. There were gap months in university in which I didn’t write at all. But I always came back to it because writing words was an act of communication.
How, if I didn’t share them?
Good question. It was an act of communication with myself. It was a way of seeing, more clearly, things I believed or things that moved me, that I had not fully processed or pragmatically understood.
It was also like an exorcism: I put these words down so that they didn’t envelop and overwhelm the rest of my thoughts.
Q: What is the most difficult thing about your writing process?
A: The answer will depend entirely on when the question is asked, sadly.
If, for instance, I’m starting a new book, the answer will be: beginnings. I start a book several times, trying to find the right tone, the right voice. The longest not right attempt at a beginning was thirty-two pages. Most peter out at between four and six.
At the moment, I’m revising, so the answer is: Revision.
Writing, once I have a beginning, is about flow. The story is like a river; I can follow it. I can swim in it. I can drown in it if I don’t remember to come up for air. But the entirety of the book flows from beginning to end. I don’t write out of order. I don’t write to an outline. Part of writing, or the joy of it, is in the discovery. I have an idea of where things are going and how they’ll get there, but the act of writing the book produces a lot – sometimes a LOT – of surprises.
What I know is the end. I understand the world. I don’t know how the characters will reach the end from the beginning, because even when I do know, I’m often wrong.
So, I now have a finished book. I revise it for submission–but I’m aware that I’m too close to it, and that my editor is going to be reading it and pointing out the parts that didn’t work for her.
Here’s the trick to editing: editors read as readers. Their editorial experience gives them the abililty to explain why they had the reader reaction they did. I’m not going to argue about the editor’s reaction to the book. Even if I disagree with it, what am I going to say? No you didn’t react that way? Clearly, they did.
What I can do is examine why the scene didn’t work for the editor. Why it wasn’t compelling enough or believeable enough. If I want to keep that scene in this book, I have work to do.
But. Revision requires–for me–an entirely different frame of mind. It’s more objective; objectivity is required for me to assess structure and structural changes. Subjectivity is required for me – and let me take this moment to stress that all writers have different processes and I’m talking about only mine – to write.
And I can get caught up between the two states, until I can’t tell what’s objective and what’s subjective.
The corollary to that is that the book is a metaphoric river, and it is very difficult to restructure a river. I can’t just cut out one part and move it to another part if the terrain and the riverbed are not substantially the same for the two parts.
Which means I frequently end up having to take a chapter which mostly works and throw the entire thing out and start it again because I can see the seams in the revision if I don’t.
Q: Finally, what do you want readers to leave with after finishing your books?
A: I write books because reading books moved me. A lot. I could get lost in a book, sink into it, follow it, think about it, daydream about it.
Parts of that were intellectual, but the drive to be intellectual about a book I’d read came from a strong emotional response to it. What I want readers to leave with is the emotional response to the story and characters I had, and built, while writing it. I want to open a window into what the book made me feel as the writer.
Writing story is, in some ways, building a vessel that is solid enough to carry the emotional weight of the ending.
“You are such a coward,” Bellusdeo said when they’d reached the relative safety of the street. The roads in and around Helen were sparsely populated at the busiest of times, which this wasn’t. They would soon join roads that were crowded at the slowest of times, but Kaylin was dressed for the office. The Hawk emblazoned on her tabard encouraged people to make space.
Had Bellusdeo hit the streets in her Draconic form, she’d have cleared far more of it—but some of that space would be created by panic, and panic could cause both accidents and the type of traffic congestion that caused the Swords to investigate. Also, it was illegal.
“It’s not cowardice,” Kaylin replied, scanning the windows of the buildings above ground level.
“What would you call it?”
“There’s no point in arguing with them now. Sedarias thinks it’ll be months before this ridiculous command performance occurs. We have months to attempt to talk her out of—”
“Out of expressing any appreciation or gratitude?”
Ugh. “You know they’re grateful. This isn’t about gratitude. It’s about rubbing that gratitude in the faces of the Barrani who attempted to brand you a—an army. An attacking army.”
“I believe the term you want is Flight.” Bellusdeo’s eyes were orange.
Hope squawked at the Dragon. Kaylin didn’t understand what he was saying. Bellusdeo did, but her eyes didn’t get any lighter.
“You know as well as I do,” Kaylin said, emboldened by Hope’s entry into the discussion, “that this is not the time to visit the High Halls. I’m not sure the Emperor has ever been a guest there.”
“We visited the Halls—more or less—when they came under attack, and the Barrani needed our help.”
“From the outside. No one invited the Dragon Court in.”
The chorus of Barrani voices that sometimes offered entirely unasked for opinions on the inside of her head maintained their silence for half a beat. The first person to break that silence was the fieflord. His words were tinged with amusement.
You cannot expect that the cohort would suddenly cease to cause any difficulty, surely?
I’m almost certain that the cohort understands why inviting a Dragon—any Dragon—to attend the High Halls would be a disaster.
For the Dragons?
I believe some of the more conservative High Lords might be surprisingly supportive of such an invitation.
Of course they would. It would be their best shot at killing Bellusdeo. If Bellusdeo died, there would be no new Dragons. No hatchlings.
There’s no way the Emperor would give her permission to attend.
Nightshade concurred. In his position, I would not. But I would be prepared, should I refuse to grant that permission, for all-out war. My brother has grown inordinately fond of her; living with you has made him reckless.
He has known Bellusdeo for even less time than you. He is willing to trust her in a fashion no one older would. And do not cite the Consort, please.
Kaylin hadn’t intended to. The Consort seems to like her.
Kaylin, the Consort “likes” me. But she does not trust me.
“Stop making that face, or it will freeze that way.” Kaylin reddened.
I understand that you are attempting to avoid the Emperor’s ire. I consider this wise on your part. It is not, however, the ire of the Emperor that will be your most significant problem; he will do nothing to harm Bellusdeo.
I know that.
It is the ire of the High Lords. Sedarias is, I believe, genuinely grateful for Bellusdeo’s intervention. She does wish to honor her. But gratitude can be expressed privately—and in most cases, it is. Only rulers feel obliged to make that expression public because the public expression elevates those to whom one feels gratitude. It makes clear to witnesses that the aid tendered—in whatever fashion—is important and significant. The Emperor has codified such significance in public ceremonies and public titles, has he not?
For Sedarias, however, genuine gratitude is not an impediment to political displays. She can be genuinely grateful and simultaneously,extremely political. She wishes to highlight Bellusdeo’s aid and import to Mellarionne. Why do you think this is?
Kaylin thought about this. After a long pause, she said, She wants to thumb her nose at the rest of the High Lords, many of whom weren’t helpful at all?
Nightshade’s silence was one of encouragement.
Bellusdeo’s a Dragon. So…her presence means that even Dragons—with whom you’ve had a war or two—
Fine, a war or three, were more helpful, or at least more of a genuine ally, than any of the Barrani.
Yes. I believe that is some part of Sedarias’s intent. That’s not going to help Mellarionne any.
Perhaps, perhaps not. She will do so as An’Mellarionne. It would be considered a very bold move—but there are those who would assume that Sedarias is confident in her own power, and they would hesitate to challenge her.
“If you are speaking about me,” Bellusdeo said, her voice almost a whisper of sound, “I must insist that you include me.”
“Well, yes, that could cause some difficulty,” the Dragon replied. “But I dislike Kaylin’s worry. She is mortal.” Squawk. “The marks of the Chosen don’t matter. She’s mortal. I may be a displaced person in these lands; I may no longer have a home or lands of my own. But I am a Dragon.”
“I’m not exactly worried about you,” Kaylin said. When one golden brow rose in response, she added, “Not about you specifically. But—there’s no way for Dragon and High Halls to combine that isn’t political. Explosively political. On your own, you can survive more than any of the rest of the cohort—or me. But you won’t be on your own. The cohort won’t abandon you.”
It was the Dragon’s turn to snort.
Kaylin reconsidered her words and chose better ones. “Most of the cohort wouldn’t abandon you. Annarion wouldn’t. Mandoran wouldn’t. I don’t believe Allaron would either, from what I’ve seen. And you know what the cohort is like. The minute one of them enters combat to save you, they’re all going to rush in. It doesn’t matter if they’re there for your sake or their friends’; they’ll be there. But this is political, and anything political is far above my pay grade.”
“You don’t seem to find this insulting.”
“I consider it one of the biggest advantages of my rank. Which is the lowest rank I could be given and still be called a Hawk.”
“One of? What’s another one?”
“I’m not in command. I don’t need to make decisions that might cost the lives of other Hawks. No matter what happens in an action, large or small, I won’t have their deaths on my hands.”
“But you don’t like being a private.”
“Well, I could be a corporal, and it would still be mostly true. And the pay is higher.”
“It’s not much higher,” a familiar voice said. It was Mandoran’s. Of course it was. Kaylin didn’t miss a step.
“I don’t suggest you try to enter the Halls of Law looking like that.”
“Like thin air.”
“Oh. That.” Mandoran caused other people some consternation as he materialized to the side of Kaylin that Bellusdeo wasn’t occupying. To be fair, most of the street didn’t notice; people always had their own problems and their own schedules. “I was going to follow Teela into the office, but Teela’s not heading there directly.”
“So you followed us?”
“Not most of the way, no. I decided to head straight here to wait, but I caught up because you’re doing the Hawk-walk.” He glanced at Bellusdeo. “For what it’s worth, I think insisting on your presence on the inside of the High Halls is suicidal.”
“Oh?” The Dragon’s voice was cool. “For who?”
Mandoran grinned. “Mostly Kaylin.”
Kaylin watched as flecks of gold appeared in Bellusdeo’s eyes. Mandoran had, once again, managed to set Bellusdeo at ease. Kaylin wondered if that was why he’d chosen to speak when he had. He never treated the Dragon with respect; had the Emperor been present for most of their spats, she wasn’t certain Mandoran wouldn’t be a pile of bleeding ash. Well, ash, because ash didn’t bleed, but still.
“You left the rest of the cohort behind?” Kaylin asked.
“We had a vote, and Helen decided it was safest to send me.”
“She was the tie-breaker?”
“Ah, no. She didn’t consider the first choice viable. But— we can all see what I see anyway, so unless there’s an attack, having more than one person here is superfluous. If Teela had been coming directly to the office, someone would have followed Teela.”
“Not you?” Bellusdeo asked.
“I had to live with Tain for a few years. Compressed into a few weeks, I might add. He’s stuffy and remarkably straightforward. Also, he hates fun.”
“He hates mess,” Kaylin said, as they approached the stairs that led into the Halls of Law.
“Define mess. No, wait, don’t. The problem with Tain—at least for me—is that Teela might actually kill us if we’re indirectly responsible for his death. He’s not like the rest of us; we can’t speak to him without shouting, and even if we can, he doesn’t listen half the time. So…it’s a lot less safe to tail Tain.”
“I imagine it’s safer to tail Tain than it is to tail Kaylin if you’re worried about Teela’s reaction,” Bellusdeo said, frowning slightly.
Michelle Sagara is an author, bookseller, and lover of literature based in Toronto. She writes fantasy novels and lives with her husband and her two children, and to her regret has no dogs. Reading is one of her life-long passions, and she is sometimes paid for her opinions about what she’s read by the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. No matter how many bookshelves she buys, there is Never Enough Shelf space. Ever.
I am so excited to feature A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen today on my blog! Plus a few extras to go along with it! Check out an excerpt and a Q&A with the author below! Thank you to Harper Collins for having me on the tour!
Q: Parent characters are a large part of A Beginning at the End. Did you know your character’s family backgrounds before you began? How do the characters take form in your writing process?
A: Somewhat. Usually the core problem comes first in my drafting process. I tend to write in layers and my initial drafts are always very light — initial scenes may only be about ¼ of their final length because I don’t know the characters too well yet. At that stage, I’m trying to find the main conflict of the scene and the voice for their characters. I typically need 5-7 passes through a book to turn it from a 45k-50k word skeleton to a reasonably polished 90-100k word draft. During that time, the characters start to form.
As an example, my current work in progress (which will be released after 2021’s upcoming WE COULD BE HEROES), I’m on my third pass through for the first act and only now am I beginning to understand each character’s unique voice as well as their physical appearances. Core conflicts (such as character X has trouble with character Y) are established during the initial outline phase as part of the initial concept, but the how and why those conflicts happen (Is it family history? Is it a traumatic event? Is it sibling rivalry?), that takes a little longer to establish.
For the characters in A BEGINNING AT THE END, I started out immediately knowing what drove Krista and Rob. Moira didn’t really become fully three-dimensional until much later, and in fact in early revisions, she was just a minor supporting character. My agent noted that she was far too interesting to push to the side, so the book was rebuilt around her to hold equal footing to Rob and Krista.
Q: Where did you take inspiration for this pandemic? Do you have any other book or film recommendations?
A: Though it wasn’t a direct inspiration for this book, there’s a scene in the second season of The Walking Dead that began the train of thought for A BEGINNING AT THE END. It was the season on Hershel’s farm, and there’s a scene where Lori is trying to go over homework with her son Carl. A lot of viewers mocked the scene at the time with comments like “Why would you do math in the zombie apocalypse?” but I thought that was a smart bit of human grounding against a fantastical backdrop. Because those characters didn’t know if and when the apocalypse would end, and I think it makes sense that 1) a mom would try to keep some form of normalcy for her son 2) they wouldn’t just assume the world was completely over.
Because a lot of apocalyptic fiction focuses on either the event itself or a grimdark survival world, that scene sparked a lot of ideas for me — what if society did crawl back from the brink, and instead of a true “end of the world” it was more like a big pause button? Then all these people would move past day-to-day survival and suddenly have a lot of trauma to unpack, and i hadn’t really seen that covered much at the time. That seemed really interesting to me, much more so than the idea of tribal factions attacking each other to survive.
Q: Which main character is your favorite? And which was the hardest to write?
A: It’s been interesting seeing early reader feedback because the “favorite character” opinion has been pretty evenly split. I think that’s a good sign that things are pretty balanced. For me personally, I always viewed Krista as the main character in this book and it was originally written with her to be the main focus (the original draft of this from 2011ish only had her POV and Rob’s POV). She has such a snappy voice that it’s just fun to write her responses and reactions to stuff, and a big challenge came from cutting out unnecessary dialogue that made it in there simply because she was so fun to write.
The hardest character to write was definitely Sunny. Simply because I needed to get into the head of a seven-year-old. Her POV was one of the last major structural changes my agent recommended before we sold this to my publisher and it was tricky my daughter was still very young at that point (she’s still only five). I ran those chapters by my friends who had survived parenting those years for accuracy: complexity of thought, vocabulary, rhythm, etc.
Q: Your characters struggle with confronting their past while their future is so uncertain. What are some important lessons you’ve learned as a writer that you previously struggled with?
A: I think the keys to success as a writer are also keys to a happy and fulfilled life: don’t give up and keep an open mind. Every writer I know that started around my time eventually broke through and got an agent by improving their craft through feedback and simply chipping away. If one book wasn’t good enough, then it got shelved as a stepping stone and they marched forward. Doing that requires a certain amount of humility because it recognizes that you’ve got room to improve, and that improvement is going to come from listening to others rather than being defensive. Those are hard lessons to learn so I try to tell new writers that right away, so they understand the value of harsh-but-true constructive criticism from critique partners — you’ll never make it without that.
Q: What is a genre you don’t think you’d ever write? A Beginning at the End and Here and Now and Then are both SF, do you think you would ever write something that’s vastly different? What draws you to SF?
A: Writing character-driven stories in sci-fi settings comes pretty naturally to me, as it takes my favorite type of story (slice of life) and my favorite genre and brings them together. I’m fortunate that the market has turned around on that now to support books like mine. If I wrote something different, I imagine it would lean further in one direction or another — either a contemporary drama or space opera. I am also a big fan of gothic horror, and I would love to try a haunted house story at some point.
As for what draws me to sci-fi, I can’t put my finger on it but it’s been really important to me my entire life. I grew up on Star Wars and Robotech as cornerstones of my media influences. At the same time, I’ve never really been too into fantasy despite them often being opposite sides of the same coin. My wife loves both sci-fi and fantasy, and there are things she loves that I just can’t get into like The Elder Scrolls.
Q: What are some of your writing goals for the future?
A: Keep writing and not run out of ideas! In a perfect world, I’d love to be able to be a full-time author — which is basically 50% writing and 50% the business of being an author. I don’t think that’s feasible since I live in Silicon Valley and need health insurance for a family situation, so I will likely always have one foot in corporate life unless the political landscape changes regarding medical care.
An obvious dream would be to have one of my books be adapted to a movie or TV series — I’m of the mindset that HERE AND NOW AND THEM would work as a movie while A BEGINNING AT THE END has a deep enough world that it would work well as a TV series. I really want to try writing a video game, something like Telltale’s games. And I would love to write for my favorite franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. I’ve been pretty vocal about Clone Wars-era story ideas, and I’m friends with several authors on the Lucasfilm roster, so fingers crossed.
Q: If there was a global disaster in the future, what would your plan of action be?
A: Well, I have a bunch of animals and family health issues, so I’d say we’d be pretty screwed. I’m pretty organized and have a diplomatic approach, so hopefully that would earn me an in with some survivalists until society stabilizes.
Q: Both of your books, Here and Now and Then & A Beginning at the End, have a strong emotional foundation. Why did you choose that route?
A: It goes back to my favorite types of stories. To me, the emotional core is always the most important part of any story; it turns it from being surface level entertainment to something that resonates deeper.
Q: How has the success of your first novel affected your writing process for your second novel? Is there anything the first time around you did, that you didn’t do the second time?
A: I am lucky that A BEGINNING AT THE END was mostly finished when we sold it because it had been a project I’d shelved years ago but revised with my agent. I had a complete and fairly polished manuscript, and my editors revisions didn’t affect much of the structure, they were mostly about tightening and adding more flashbacks, more world-building. So in that regard, that process was very similar to HERE AND NOW AND THEN.
However, having now experienced deadlines and commitments on top of a day job and parenting, the biggest change is that I draft by acts rather than the whole thing. For books 3 (WE COULD BE HEROES) and 4 (in WIP stages), I drafted a first act to get a sense of characters and world, then sent that to a few critique partners for their input before investing further energy into it. There’s just no time. Also, I have to limit myself on reading for fun or video games because that time has to be used for writing and editing. Being published is a great privilege but its time demands do create numerous sacrifices.
Q: How do you balance being a reader and being a writer?
A: I use my phone a lot! I’ve discovered audiobooks, though my preferred method right now is ebooks through Google Play. Their app has a text-to-speech feature which, while nowhere near the quality of real audiobooks, allow me to listen while I’m commuting or doing dishes or whatever, but then also allow me to switch back to reading in the app when I want to. It’s funny, I just don’t read physical books that much now because my time is so compartmentalized that having it available on my phone is the best way to go.
The great irony about this is that as I’ve gotten to know more authors, agents, and editors, I’m often offered advance review copies by authors I really love and I simply have no time for them.
Q: What does literary success look like to you and with that definition in mind, are you successful?
A: This is tricky because I think all authors at all stages are looking up at someone and mentally comparing sales and awards. I know I’m doing better than some of my peers and worse than others, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past year is that it is totally okay to be happy for someone while also jealous of their success. In fact, that is 100% normal.
With that in mind, I think success means that I’m selling enough copies to get the next contract and a chance to audition for licensed franchise work. Aspiring for bestseller status or awards is kind of silly because so many other factors go into that, many of which (marketing budgets, publicity selections) are simply out of your control. But if you keep producing at a high level of quality, I think you’ll be able to gradually grow your readership with each book, and that’s good enough for me.
Also, it’s really cool to hear your book has touched a reader. That level of engagement is always a good measure of success.
Q: Finally, for you, what makes a book a good book?
A: I think the things that I always look for are interesting characters, emotional conflicts, and good prose. While I appreciate great action scenes or immense worldbuilding, I can often overlook those things if characters, emotions, and prose are all clicking. On the other hand, if I lose any of those main three, I’ll often have to drop a book, even if, say, the worldbuilding is amazing.
Shameless shoutout to some friends: if you want impeccable examples of ALL of those (characters, emotions, prose, action, and worldbuilding), I suggest Fonda Lee’s JADE CITY / JADE WAR and Kat Howard’s AN UNKINDNESS OF MAGICIANS.
People were too scared for music tonight. Not that MoJo cared.
Her handlers had broken the news about the low attendance nearly an hour ago with some explanation about how the recent flu epidemic and subsequent rioting and looting kept people at home. They’d served the news with high-end vodka, the good shit imported from Russia, conveniently hidden in a water bottle which she carried from the greenroom to the stage.
“The show must go on,” her father proclaimed, like she was doing humanity a service by performing. She suspected his bravado actually stemmed from the fact that her sophomore album’s second single had stalled at number thirteen—a far cry from the lead single’s number-one debut or her four straight top-five hits off her first album. Either way, the audience, filled with beaming girls a few years younger than herself and their mothers, seemed to agree. Flu or no flu, some people still wanted their songs—or maybe they just wanted normalcy—so MoJo delivered, perfect note after perfect note, each in time to choreographed dance routines. She even gave her trademark smile.
The crowd screamed and sang along, waving their arms to the beat. Halfway through the second song, a peculiar vibe grabbed the audience. Usually, a handful of parents disappeared into their phones, especially as the flu scare had heightened over the past week. This time nearly every adult in the arena was looking at their phone. In the front row, MoJo saw lines of concern on each face.
Before the song even finished, some parents grabbed their children and left, pushing through the arena’s floor seats and funneling to the exit door.
MoJo pushed on, just like she’d always promised her dad. She practically heard his voice over the backup music blasting in her in-ear monitors. There is no sophomore slump. Smile! Between the second and third songs, she gave her customary “Thank you!” and fake talk about how great it was to be wherever they were. New York City, this time, at Madison Square Garden. A girl of nineteen embarking on a tour bigger, more ambitious than she could have ever dreamed and taking the pop world by storm, and yet, she knew nothing real about New York City. She’d never left her hotel room without chaperones and handlers. Not under her dad’s watch.
One long swig of vodka later, and a warmth rushed to her face, so much so that she wondered if it melted her face paint off. She looked off at the side stage, past the elaborate video set and cadre of backup dancers. But where was the gaffer? Why wasn’t anyone at the sound board? The fourth song had a violin section, yet the contracted violinist wasn’t in her spot.
Panic raced through MoJo’s veins, mental checklists of her marks, all trailed by echoes from her dad’s lectures about accountability. Her feet were planted exactly where they should be. Her poise, straight and high. Her last few notes, on key, and her words to the audience, cheerful. It couldn’t have been something she’d done, could it?
No. Not her fault this time. Someone else is facing Dad’s wrath tonight, she thought.
The next song’s opening electronic beats kicked in. Eyes closed, head tilted back, and arms up, her voice pushed out the song’s highest note, despite the fuzziness of the vodka making the vibrato a little harder to sustain. For a few seconds, nothing existed except the sound of her voice and the music behind it— no handlers, no tour, no audience, no record company, no father telling her the next way she’d earn the family fortune—and it almost made the whole thing worth it.
Her eyes opened, body coiled for the middle-eight’s dance routine, but the brightness of the house lights threw her off the beat. The drummer and keyboard player stopped, though the prerecorded backing track continued for a few more seconds before leaving an echo chamber.
No applause. No eyes looked MoJo’s way. Only random yelling and an undecipherable buzz saw of backstage clamor from her in-ear monitors. She stood, frozen, unable to tell if this was from laced vodka or if it was actually unfolding: people—adults and children, parents and daughters— scrambling to the exits, climbing over chairs and tripping on stairs, ushers pushing back at the masses before some turned and ran as well.
Someone grabbed her shoulder and jerked back hard. “We have to go,” said the voice behind her.
“What’s going on?” she asked, allowing the hands to push her toward the stage exit. Steven, her huge forty-something bodyguard, took her by the arm and helped her down the short staircase to the backstage area.
“The flu’s spread,” he said. “A government quarantine. There’s some sort of lockdown on travel. The busing starts tonight. First come, first serve. I think everyone’s trying to get home or get there. I can’t reach your father. Cell phones are jammed up.”
They worked their way through the concrete hallways and industrial lighting of the backstage area, people crossing in a mad scramble left and right. MoJo clutched onto her bottle of vodka, both hands to her chest as Steven ushered her onward. People collapsed in front of her, crying, tripping on their own anxieties, and Steven shoved her around them, apologizing all the way. Something draped over her shoulders, and it took her a moment to realize that he’d put a thick parka around her. She chuckled at the thought of her sparkly halter top and leather pants wrapped in a down parka that smelled like BO, but Steven kept pushing her forward, forward, forward until they hit a set of double doors.
The doors flew open, but rather than the arena’s quiet loading area from a few hours ago, MoJo saw a thick wall of people: all ages and all colors in a current of movement, pushing back and forth. “I’ve got your dad on the line,” Steven yelled over the din, “His car is that way. He wants to get to the airport now. Same thing’s happening back home.” His arm stretched out over her head. “That way! Go!”
They moved as a pair, Steven yelling “excuse me” over and over until the crowd became too dense to overcome. In front of her, a woman with wisps of gray woven into black hair trembled on her knees. Even with the racket around them, MoJo heard her cry. “This is the end. This is the end.”
People had been making cracks about the End of the World since the flu changed from online rumors to this big thing that everyone talked about all the time. But she’d always figured the “end” meant a giant pit opening, Satan ushering everyone down a staircase to Hell. Not stuck outside Madison Square Garden.
“Hey,” Steven yelled, arms spread out to clear a path through the traffic jam of bodies. “This way!”
MoJo looked at the sobbing woman in front of her, then at Steven. Somewhere further down the road, her father sat in a car and waited. She could feel his pull, an invisible tether that never let her get too far away.
“The end, the end,” the sobbing woman repeated, pausing MoJo in her tracks. But where to go? Every direction just pointed at more chaos, people scrambling with a panic that had overtaken everyone in the loading dock, possibly the neighborhood, possibly all New York City, possibly even the world. And it wasn’t just about a flu.
It was everything.
But… maybe that was good?
No more tours. No more studio sessions. No more threats about financial security, no more lawyer meetings, no more searches through her luggage. No more worrying about hitting every mark. In the studio. Onstage.
All of that was done.
The very thought caused MoJo to smirk.
If this was the end, then she was going out on her own terms.
“Steven!” she yelled. He turned and met her gaze.
She twisted the cap off the water-turned-vodka bottle, then took most of it down in one long gulp. She poured the remainder on her face paint, a star around her left eye, then wiped it off with her sleeve. The empty bottle flew through the air, probably hitting some poor bloke in the head.
“Tell my dad,” she said, trying extra hard to pronounce the words with the clear British diction she was raised with, “to go fuck himself.”
For an instant, she caught Steven’s widemouthed look, a mix of fear and confusion and disappointment on his face, as though her words crushed his worldview more than the madness around them. But MoJo wouldn’t let herself revel in her first, possibly only victory over her father; she ducked and turned quickly, parka pulled over her head, crushing the product-molded spikes in her hair.
Each step pushing forward, shoulders and arms bumping into her as her eyes locked onto the ground, one step at a time. Left, right, left, then right, all as fast as she could go, screams and car horns and smashing glass building in a wave of desperation around her.
Mike Chen is a lifelong writer, from crafting fan fiction as a child to somehow getting paid for words as an adult. He has contributed to major geek websites (The Mary Sue, The Portalist, Tor) and covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter