writing

Stand-alone or sequel-worthy? Ain’t that the question

"Greetings from magical Lenore": a vintage postcard-style forest at sunset commemorates my first stand-alone book to become a seriesOne of the frequent queries I get from readers, including for novels that bear every hallmark of a stand-alone, is “Will there be a sequel?” Usually the answer is no. As a writer, I have too many projects lurking in my brain to give them all the series treatment; as a reader, I prefer stand-alone books.

However, every so often, the answer is a tentative, “Maybe.” And sometimes, I even follow through.

With one of those happenstance sequels about to release (GUARDIAN OF RUSES drops November 1st!! /shamelessplug), I thought it would be fun to give my criteria for expanding on books originally framed as stand-alone tales.

And, as luck would have it, the RUSES OF LENORE series provides a decent example for how these criteria apply.

WARNING: there be Spoilers ahead for the first two books. If you haven’t read them, proceed at your own caution. (Or go read them and come back, haha.)

Criterion #1: Address open threads

I like my characters to exist beyond the confines of their stories, so some elements of their lives point outside the narrative. However, those threads don’t always merit an additional book. Sometimes they exist to fill out a character or setting rather than point to another plot.

Within the RUSES OF LENORE canon, these open threads exist:

Kingdom of Ruses

  • After Viola bonds with the land, it commences a rapid recovery. What effects would this engage? (This question led to the main plot in TOURNAMENT OF RUSES.)
  • Viola shows Will three cat’s-eye brooches and lets him pick one. What happened to the other two? (Rule of Three invoked; Flora receives cat’s-eye #2 in TOURNAMENT, but the existence of a third points to a third book. An unspecified number would have held no intrinsic narrative weight.)
  • When Lenore kills an imperial governor, Melanthos does not retaliate. Why not? (This points to either weakness or internal conflict in the imperial court; it is not addressed in the first two books.)

Prince of Ruses (short story)

  • The empire, because of its poor stewardship, is losing its vitality. What is Melanthos doing to counteract this consequence?
  • The empire keeps a draconian watch over its magical resources, to the detriment of its citizens. Is Melanthos truly doomed? And what of all the people caught in failing lands by no fault of their own?

Tournament of Ruses

  • The well of magic splits when it gets too powerful, and its first split happens within six months of Viola’s bond. How much more powerful will Lenore’s magic become? Who will the Morelands recruit as guardians to these new reservoirs? Does the split only happen when there’s a ready guardian waiting, or can it split off prematurely? How do these new reservoirs affect the forest creatures?
  • When the shadow-shifters attack Flora, her reservoir doesn’t activate to defend her. The original reservoir didn’t activate for Viola until she was under bondage, either. If the forest allows predators and prey to exist (which it does), what laws govern its intervention? What different types of magical bonds exist, and what hierarchy of authority punishes a violation of those bonds?

Criterion #2: Explore new ground

A sequel that springs from a stand-alone risks retreading the same ground, and a watered-down version of the first book diminishes the value of both.

“New ground” doesn’t have to be literal scenery. It can be ideas or themes, a broadening or magnifying of established story elements. Regardless, I’ll focus on literal scenery here, because the world-building left me a lot of new ground.

  • KINGDOM OF RUSES introduces the country of Lenore, a land bordered by the ocean to the west, with the empire of Melanthos looming beyond mountains and deep forest to the north.
  • PRINCE OF RUSES allows a glimpse into a single village within Melanthos, with a reference to imperial soldiers in the area.
  • TOURNAMENT OF RUSES delves into Lenore’s social scene: the pecking orders, parties, educational opportunities, etc. The story doesn’t venture outside the capital city walls, let alone into neighboring lands.

Therefore, much of the land’s geography remains unexplored, including

  • the forest itself
  • the nifaran village hidden somewhere within the forest
  • the vastness of Melanthos
  • the vaguely referenced “north countries” beyond the ridge of mountains that mark the empire’s western edge

Also unexplored:

  • the capital city’s Midsummer’s Eve festivities (the midnight processional and fireworks; i.e., what the regular citizens are doing during the Prince’s ball)
  • how Lenore’s people view the forest, whether it’s a land of nightmares or opportunities
  • how they view the creatures of the forest and the people of Melanthos

Criterion #3: Adhere to thematic continuity

On the surface, KINGDOM and TOURNAMENT are very different books. One has an exterior plot, with outsiders coming into Lenore to cause trouble. The other has an internal plot, with its heroine establishing her place in an otherwise stable society.

However, some themes bind these two books together.

The land as a character.

In both books, the land itself plays a significant role. The people who live on it must take its preferences into account in their actions.

The creatures of the forest.

Because my original source of inspiration sprang from the whimsy of medieval bestiaries, magical creatures need to show up somewhere. In KINGDOM, I introduced the nifaran to fill this role, with cameos from many other established beasts. TOURNAMENT played with brownies and shadow-shifters in addition to the nifaran.

The journal entries.

These give direct insight to my main characters’ thoughts. They are not, however, always chronological to the story. Instead, the journal excerpts reflect events in the chapter they precede or the one they follow, sometimes with a touch of dramatic irony, sometimes to indicate a time skip, sometimes for a first-person reaction to a climactic event.

Any addition to this series has to consider these three elements (and more) to maintain continuity.

Criterion #4: Pique my personal interest

This one is tough to meet. Once my characters are out of crisis (the original story arc), I don’t like plunging them back in. Hence, the appeal of a stand-alone novel.

With the RUSES OF LENORE series, the personal interest for a third book came from two directions: 

1. What kind of adult would Edmund Moreland become?

His scenes in KINGDOM and TOURNAMENT include him either ignoring calamity around him to focus on his own interests, or else creating mischief and then blithely running away. In addition,

  • While Charlie and Viola were raised on a scarcity of magic, Edmund matures through a period of prosperity and growth.
  • As the youngest child, he’s been babied but also left to his own devices.
  • He comes from a long line of slippery characters and he has Will acting as a role model through his teenage years.

Once I figured out where all these influences pointed, I wanted to play with him on the pages of his own book.

2. How would someone loyal to Melanthos feel about Lenore?

I’ve long been fascinated with the power of alternate points of view. While a reader of the first two books in this series would recognize Lenore as a good place and Melanthos as a bad one, a character from the empire would feel the opposite. Thus Rosia Domitius, with her fierce loyalty, was born.

Using her as the focal point for a Limited Omniscient POV created opportunities for me to play with dramatic irony. The reader will know many things she doesn’t, so they’ll be able to piece together some mysteries before she does.

However, she also knows and behaves according to things the reader hasn’t yet learned. Unfolding that information piece-by-piece promised a fun and interesting exercise for me.

Ruses of Lenore series book covers

The stand-alone series?

When I first published KINGDOM in 2012, I considered it a stand-alone even though I’d already drafted a second book. TOURNAMENT (2014) has many stand-alone elements as well, so the pair can easily be read out of order.

GUARDIAN OF RUSES, in drawing upon both of these books for its inspiration, is less stand-alone and more firmly series-dependent. I was, perhaps, a bit self-indulgent with callback elements, but that’s part of the fun. While I wrote the first two books for their own sakes, this third is more of a nod to those readers who love this particular world of mine.

Myself included, as it turns out.

While I won’t reveal what from the above criteria actually made it into this third installment, if you want it delivered at the stroke of midnight on release day, you can pre-order GUARDIAN OF RUSES right HERE.

In the meantime, what expectations do you think a sequel should meet? What additional criteria, if any, should an author consider?

Grammar, Usage, Style: an overview

Title plate: Is it Grammar, Usage, or Style?In my local writer’s group last month, I had the assignment to teach a lesson on anything under the sun that was writing-related. And, being that my expertise lies in the sere landscape of language structure, I opted to explore the differences between grammar, usage, and style.

We often hear these terms used interchangeably. More often, people lump all things language-related into the “grammar” category, which kind of drives my pedantic self crazy. So, in the interest of better understanding all around, here’s a quick run-down for your reading pleasure.

The basics:

  • Grammar describes the system of patterns by which a particular language functions.
  • Usage outlines the application of language patterns in the standard vernacular of that language.
  • Style dictates the preferred language patterns of an individual, publisher, or industry.

Long story short (too late), many, many “grammar” complaints are actually a matter of usage or style.

Grammar

Grammar involves the building blocks of language: parts of speech, clause and sentence structures, and how those sentences tie to their surrounding contexts.

Building Blocks

Grammar: parts of speech listed according to whether they're functional or lexical

Look at all those pretty parts of speech!

Every part of speech has its own set of features and rules for how it interacts with other parts of speech. For example, verbs can have features of tense, mood, aspect, and voice. They also have agreement rules for when they combine with their subjects (nouns or pronouns), matching in number.

  • The cat walks. (singular subject, 3rd singular verb)
  • Two cats walk. (plural subject, 3rd plural verb)

Languages vary in how they apply their rules. Take the same example above, but in Hungarian:

  • macska sétál (“the cat walks”; singular subject, 3rd singular verb)
  • Két macska sétál (“two cats walk”; in Hungarian grammar, a number before a noun keeps the plurality feature to itself, so the subject and verb here remain singular; the listener still understands that there is more than one cat)
  • A macskák sétálnak (“the cats walk”; plural subject, 3rd plural verb)

(Also, apologies for my Hungarian. 1,000 days on Duolingo has not an expert made in me, haha.)

And of course, as parts of speech combine into phrases and clauses, additional rules of word order, movement, subordination/coordination, etc., come into play.

Value Judgements in Grammar

Because grammar is descriptive, it abstains from value judgements. It doesn’t even have to make semantic sense. Noam Chomsky’s infamous sentence, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” is 100% grammatical, even though the words repeatedly contradict themselves.

In addition, aberrations in grammar can signal a restrictive code (a different regional vernacular, for example). They are usually systematic in their own way.

I.e., they indicate a different pattern—a different grammar—at play. There is no such thing as an inferior language or dialect.

Common Mistakes

Common grammar mistakes in writing include the aforementioned subject-verb agreement, inconsistent verb tenses, and, on the broader structural level, misplaced modifiers or ambiguous sentence structures (where two separate meanings exist depending on how the reader reads the sentence).

If it’s not a structural issue, it’s not a grammar mistake. Which brings us to

Usage

“Usage” specifies how native speakers apply their rules of grammar. It defines the standard within a language community. In this realm you will find such enlightenment as

  • whether to use “affect” vs. “effect”
  • when it’s “less” vs. “fewer”
  • expectations regarding subjunctive “be”

Sometimes, usage actually defies the rules of grammar.

  • “aren’t I” vs. “ain’t I” (“ain’t” = contraction of “am not” but Usage doesn’t like it, so the 1st singular pronoun here takes a 1st plural verb in its preferred form)
  • “that’s them” vs. “those are they” (try saying that second one in mixed company and see the looks you get, hahaha)

Value Judgements in Usage

I can has cheezburger?

Oh, hey look! Perfectly acceptable usage in certain corners of the internet!

So because usage deals with predominant standards, value judgements abound. Dictionaries of Usage exist for the express purpose of explaining what is correct vs. preferred vs. incorrect.

Violations can be nonstandard, colloquial, dialectical, or informal. But note, none of these are necessarily wrong, except that they’re not commonly used or preferred by the community from which the standard originates.

Also, keep in mind that usage rules consider both past and present patterns, and are thus changeable over time. You might think “irregardless” isn’t a word, but usage contradicts you.

(It’s also why “literally” can now mean “figuratively.” Sorry, not sorry.)

Common Mistakes

There are too many to list, even in categories. I own a 971-page usage dictionary that expounds on correct vs. incorrect word choices, and it’s by no means all-inclusive.

To be blunt, no one has perfect usage. We each apply patterns as we understand them against an ever-changing standard.

And if you think that’s unsettling, just wait until you get a load of

Style

Here we have arrived at the bane of every writer’s existence. Style gives guidelines for preferred usage, particularly when multiple options exist. It is the method by which we choose what language will best communicate to our desired audience the nebulous soup of ideas that swirls around in our brains.

(Say that ten times fast.)

And it is subjective to whoever dictates it.

Examples of guidelines for preferred usage

  • Oxford comma: Chicago, APA, MLA all say yes! AP says no!
  • Since vs. because: “Since is more precise when it is used to refer only to time (to mean ‘after that’); otherwise, replace with because.” (APA, 5th ed., section 2.10)
  • Pied-piping (“Don’t end a sentence in a preposition; it’s completely grammatical and people talk that way all the time, but we don’t like it.”)
  • List structures (e.g., “start all list items with the same part of speech”)
  • And, of course, the tear-inducing requirements for citation formatting that vary from one discipline to the next

Personal Style

In addition to established style guides, every author has their own style. This is the arena of literary devices: irony, alliteration, litotes, diction, etc. Style includes how a writer chooses to employ (or ignore) tropes and figures of speech in conveying their message.

An author’s personal style

  • supports the building of their tone: formal or informal, light-hearted or heavy, serious or sarcastic, etc.
  • takes sentence variation into account
    • Someone who writes only subject-verb-object displays a simpler style, whereas the writer who varies sentence lengths and degrees of subordination will have a more developed style.
    • Variety of structure can indicate the intended audience of the work. (E.g., younger audience = simpler structures)

Value Judgements in Style

As with Usage, value judgements abound here, but also, STOP JUDGING PEOPLE FOR USING THEIR PREFERRED STYLES. JUST ACCEPT THAT YOU’RE NOT THEIR INTENDED AUDIENCE AND MOVE ALONG.

*deep breaths*

Style varies from guide to guide and author to author. It can always improve, because writing is a craft that we constantly refine.

Final Thoughts

Everyone has an individual perception of grammar, usage, and style. Everyone. None of us is infallible, because we speak a language in constant flux.

Combined, these three elements create your literary fingerprint. This is how linguistic analysis can determine whether an anonymous work was written by a particular author. It’s why no one else can write that story that’s burning inside of you the same way that you would write it.

By distinguishing these three terms from one another, we can better develop our understanding and proficiency in each. More importantly, I hope, we can exercise greater compassion toward others in their usage and style choices.

Best wishes to you all!

***

For more information on this subject, check out the Grammar, Usage, and Style tabs at Grammarist.com, Merriam-Webster.com’s Grammar and Usage topics, the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers…

So many resources. Just type “grammar usage style” into the search engine of your choice and enjoy the deluge.

Sneak Peek: Current WIP | Newsletter Excerpt

Sunlight filtering through tall trees; caption: Oh, hi, it's a sneak peek Thank you for coming Please enjoy the excerpt

Welcome to a sneak peek of my current work-in-progress! A few extra details at the end, but for now I’ll let you dive right in.


Chapter 1: A Dangerous Expedition

The empire is under attack. Hardly a day goes by that doesn’t bring tales of death and destruction, inhuman creatures in the west descending from the mountain forests to wreak havoc on our borderlands. They scorch our fields and consume our cattle, and the people plead for imperial magicians to counter this devastating onslaught.

But our magicians’ hands are tied because the magic itself grows scarce.

I’m not supposed to know this much, yet rumors flood the halls of the imperial palace, whispering that the reservoirs are drying up across the empire’s expanse, and that this magical drought leaves us vulnerable to a degree that all our well-trained armies cannot counterbalance. Felix says it’s an exaggeration, misinformation sown by enemies to the crown. He thinks reports of the attacks are distorted as well, framed in a way to stoke our fears.

If so, the campaign is working. Tension stretches tight in every corner of the palace. The imperial prince is always on edge. Even the emperor himself is concerned, however much he hides his thoughts.

Melanthos has long been mighty, a protective force with dozens of tributary states within its fold. They depend on us for safety. If we fall, almost the whole continent will fall with us, and our only true adversary will rise to take our place, subjugating countless innocent lives into servitude.

Emperor Petronius has forbidden casual mention of that country, cautious of the fear it strikes when spoken aloud. Celina might cringe every time she hears its name, but I refuse to let such superstition dictate my life.

Our foe is Lenore, an insidious bastion of dark power ruled by a supernatural being they call the Eternal Prince. This monstrous creature governs in shadow, his face hidden from even his own people, his reach extending throughout the impenetrable forests that mark our western boundaries. The Eternal Prince directs these onslaughts that plague our people. He feeds off the magic that steadily vanishes from our land.

Therefore, the Eternal Prince must die.

And if the stars are on my side, I, Rosia Hilaria Domitius, will be the one to kill him.

***

A shift in the air indicated the exact moment they crossed the border. Rosia hunched deeper into her cloak, the hood falling a fraction lower over her dark eyes as her gaze flitted from one side of the dirt road to the other. She couldn’t pinpoint what exactly had caused that shift, only that an unseen something engulfed her.

A prickly, sinister something, as if a thousand needle-sharp eyes stared from the depths of the forest. It rippled over the whole company, from Captain Valerius at the front of the column to the very last soldier in the line.

Was it a warning? A threat? They had every right to investigate the source of attacks on their borderlands.

Not that a Lenorean patrol would agree.

Self-consciously she cast a glance behind her, to that invisible line and the land beyond. The trees thinned, with a glimpse of yellowing meadows between trunks that seemed oddly withered from this vantage point. The province of West Anrich, despite the early summer season, had displayed more brown in its landscape than green. Its fields—the ones not yet blackened by fire—grew only feeble, emaciated crops, and many of its people had already fled to better prospects.

It was worse than the reports had said. The local magistrates claimed that a month had passed since the last attack, but then, little remained to destroy. Logically, the enemy forces had already set their sights on a different target, leaving the area to lie in wait for the next strike.

She swiveled back for a second assessment of her surroundings. The trees here were sturdy, almost plump, with supple bark and dark green foliage. Sunlight filtered through the broad canopy above, caught in the webbing of leaves and branches so that only scattered shafts pierced all the way to the fertile earth.

And it was fertile, nothing like the desperate, half-starved terrain they had traveled these past three weeks.

A lump lodged in her throat. Like a parasite, this forest was sucking dry the land it bordered. She glanced to the woman riding alongside her. Tatiana, one of the emperor’s own magicians, swept her ice-blue gaze from limb to shrub. Surely she recognized the leeching. Surely she would know how to counter it.

But Tatiana made only brief eye contact, and she offered no reassurance in that fleeting look.

Rosia’s heart sank. The ultimate solution to their woes might be weeks more away. The empire needed help now. She craned her neck for a better view of the road ahead. With twenty of the emperor’s finest soldiers in this company, any opportunity to plunge further into Lenore, to confront the nefarious villain who drove this predation, would be difficult. The emperor had been most explicit: caution was to be their guide as they investigated.

Caution, however, would not spare those most vulnerable to Lenore’s attacks. Her hands clenched around her reins, the brown leather of her gloves tight against her knuckles. If she could somehow slip away, she could end this whole conflict. She had been trained in the imperial court, and even if she had never completed such a mission before, her inclusion with this party signaled Emperor Petronius’s expectations. Prince Felix and Princess Celina had bidden her a fervent farewell. Even their older brother, the imperial prince Blasius Drusus, had favored her with a solemn nod as she rode among the departing column, and Blaise had only ever scowled at her before.

If she could prove she was useful, perhaps she would never see that scowl again.

But first she had to survive this treacherous forest and reach the forbidden lands beyond. After that she had to accomplish her purpose without casting a shadow of disgrace on the Imperial Crown of Melanthos.

The rich earth dampened the clop-clop of horse hooves, the beasts’ ears swiveling to the side and behind. Birds and insects chirped from among the shrubs, but nothing larger manifested, though that sinister feeling yet loomed. Half an hour passed in this smothered unease, until, at the head of the column, Captain Valerius held up one black-gloved hand. The company halted.

No one spoke. The forest itself seemed to hold its breath. Pollen drifted through sunbeams, the only movement in an otherwise frozen vista.

After a silence that stretched far too long, the captain twitched his middle and forefinger to the right and promptly guided his horse off the road.

Rosia’s heartbeat spiked. What had he heard? An approaching patrol? A monster lurking in the bush? She strained her ears but could pick out only the burble of a river meandering somewhere through the woods.

And it was to the river that Captain Valerius led them, dismounting so his horse could drink. The trees stood back from the bank here as though to allow access to the flow. Soldiers’ boots landed in the soft, tufted grass, and irritation laced around Rosia’s throat like a tight-drawn court gown. It was barely afternoon. They could have pressed on further before resting.

“Patience,” Tatiana murmured, tucking a silvery lock behind one ear. Rosia swallowed the faint, instinctive growl that had betrayed her mood. Awkwardly she patted her own dark brown hair, wary that a curl might have fallen loose from the crown of braids she had worked it into that morning.

“Is it wise to stop so soon?” she asked, her voice low.

“Valerius knows what he’s doing. I’m not sure it’s wise to venture much further than this, and I’m almost certain he agrees.”

“Then I’m not imagining it, this strange atmosphere?”

Tatiana lifted her chin, her eyes shifting toward the twisted lattice of branches and blue sky above. “You’re not imagining it,” she said simply.

The pretty magician’s elegance never failed to make Rosia feel all the more like a fraud, like she would never be more than little dirt-smudged Rosie, scampering from the scullery to the stables and everywhere in between, hardly worth anyone’s notice. Tatiana was seven years her senior but had already apprenticed among magicians before she appeared in the imperial court almost a decade ago. She had slipped easily into their ranks at a mere seventeen, while Rosia, now nineteen, was lucky the emperor had finally seen fit to give her official employ.

She carried the vague and unimpressive designation of “imperial envoy.”

Granted, she couldn’t claim to be an imperial assassin until she actually killed someone, and even then, Emperor Petronius wouldn’t want to trumpet that event. Part of the reason he’d had her trained was the unpredictability of it: a slim young woman with a deceptively sympathetic face. No one expected a knife in the back from such gentle hands as hers appeared to be.

Even she didn’t expect it, but she would overcome her buried qualms for Melanthos. Anything for her home.

The river, narrow and swift, tumbled over slick black rocks and eddied in small pools. Her horse dipped its muzzle for a long draw among water-spiders, while tiny opalescent fish streaked beneath the surface, almost too quick to see. Rosia eased away from the group, glancing longingly toward the road, the path by which she should orchestrate an exit.

“Don’t wander off,” the captain called in her direction.

She bit the inside of her cheek. Grudgingly she pivoted back toward the others. 

Several soldiers had already tromped into the shrubs, taking the opportunity to relieve themselves. She lifted her nose in the air, too proud to use such an undignified excuse to escape.

Tatiana, meanwhile, had extracted a glass vial from her ever-present satchel and was catching river water into its depths. She held it up in a shaft of sunlight, studying the crystalline liquid.

“Is it safe to drink?” Rosia asked, suddenly worried for her horse and the dozen others quenching their thirst.

“Perfectly so,” said the magician, and she poured the water back into the flow. “It’s probably as pure a source as any in Melanthos. I’m surprised there’s no settlement along here. Unless…” She replaced the vial and withdrew a second one. A red wax seal held its thick cork in place. The pale contents sloshed against its glass prison, the faintest blush pink reflecting in its limpidity. Rosia caught her lower lip between her teeth, her shoulders tense, but Tatiana’s hand hesitated over the seal.

In the end, she did not break it. Instead, she wordlessly shook her head and replaced the vial in its pouch.

And Rosia breathed a careful sigh. Magic was too precious to waste on a mere suspicion, whatever that suspicion might be.

“According to every map we have,” said Captain Valerius, startling her from behind, “there are no settlements between here and Lenore’s capital, past the mountain ridge. We haven’t even discerned any army outposts—not that our spies have much luck beyond the border. Most of them don’t return.”

Those who did bore terrifying tales, of voracious beasts that attacked in the night, of vines that crept through the shadows to strangle victims in their sleep. Lenore didn’t need outposts if the Eternal Prince had magicked the land to defend itself.

“So we’re not likely to run into any patrols,” Rosia said, her mouth suddenly dry.

“It’s still possible, but I expected them more within the first mile. If they catch us this far onto their lands, we have our ready excuse.” His lips turned upward in a faint smile, the crow’s feet around his eyes drawing tight.

She nodded. Had the patrol caught them at the border, they could cite the attacks against their own lands. Now, two or three miles past that imaginary line, they would pose as an official delegation from the emperor himself. Such a ruse could theoretically give them passage straight into the heart of Lenore if the enemy soldiers honored their claim.

Yet another uncertain if.

“Tatiana, how long do you need?” the captain abruptly asked.

The magician glanced around. “An hour should suffice. We can be back to the village by nightfall.” Again she dipped her hand into her satchel, but this time she withdrew tightly rolled parchments, pre-formed spells that she could release with nothing more than a lick of her thumb and a whispered phrase. The other magicians had added to her store before the company left the imperial palace. Rosia had observed the simple dowsing spell several times already; Tatiana used it to trace the veins of magic through the land as they journeyed.

Last night, in the border village, the phosphorescent lines had been faint, barely discernible, and had faded to nothing almost as quickly as they manifested. What would they look like here, if Lenore’s predatory forest was truly siphoning power?

“Rosia, let her work in peace,” the captain said, crushing her expectations of observing such a display. A glance toward Tatiana showed no objection in that corner. With a controlled huff the younger woman turned away. She tucked her arms in her sleeves, stepping closer to the riverbank, but a casual glance over her shoulder showed the captain and the magician waiting for her to move beyond earshot.

Rude. Tatiana had let her watch every other time.

Still, she knew to make herself scarce when she wasn’t wanted. She kicked a tuft of moss into the flow and kept walking, past the soldiers settling in to play dice or take an afternoon nap, past the first line of trees at the edge of the clearing.

Again she sneaked a peek. Valerius ducked his head close to Tatiana’s, neither of them even glancing in her direction.

If she’d thought to lead her horse along, she might vanish into the depths of Lenore. She could plunge into the bracken without the creature now, though she wouldn’t get nearly as far before they noticed her absence.

Even ten steps into this gluttonous vegetation seemed enough to disappear, though. None of the plants themselves looked predatory, but they exuded a well-fed aura. With a deep breath, she ventured further into the trees.

Faint laughter followed her, the soldiers swapping stories as they wagered. A horse whinnied into the air. A few more steps, and the trees cut the clearing completely off from view.

If only she weren’t facing the exact wrong direction. At this rate, she’d be back in Melanthos by dusk. She twisted her path, circling around with the floating sounds from the clearing at the edge of her ears. She could cross the river further downstream and press through the forest, back to the road on the other side. The mountain pass into Lenore’s capital would take her two or three days on foot if she could survive a night in these insidious woods.

She stopped short.

Could she survive? She swallowed hard, taking comfort in the knife tucked into her boot, the extra rations squirreled away in one pocket, and the warmth of her cloak. Her wide-legged riding trousers would allow her to travel quickly, even to run if needed. She could rest in the late afternoon and travel all night.

“You can do this, Rosia,” she murmured.

Another glance in the direction of the river clearing showed no one tramping through the brush in search of her. This was her perfect window to press ahead.

The empire was dying. Its murderer lay in the heart of Lenore. If she could not sacrifice her own safety to free her nation from the evil that preyed upon it, she deserved every unkind word, every skeptical sneer she’d ever received.

“For Melanthos,” she uttered, and she started forward again.

Only to collide with a man who appeared out of thin air.


Author’s Note

Yeah, yeah, I know. I said back in January that if I wrote a third Ruses book it wouldn’t be for many, many years. But I’m also reformatting the other two, and I really, really don’t want to have to dig out an old formatting template/style guide however many years that is from now to make it match.

And since I wasn’t ready to wade back into my Namesake sequels yet, I figured, why not?

The working title is Guardian of Ruses. No word on publication dates yet, as the draft is still ongoing, but I hope you enjoyed the sneak peek of Chapter 1 anyway.

Edit (7 Oct 2021): The listing is up on Amazon! Guardian of Ruses releases November 1st!

The Heir and the Spare | Cover Reveal and Pre-Order

Well, folks, the cat is out of the bag. My next novel, The Heir and the Spare, will release on February 19, 2021.

This is my first-ever kingdom adventure (fantasy without a magic system), and today I’m excited to bring you the summary and cover reveal!

The Heir and the Spare: A Summary

An evil princess, a ruthless persecutor, a wretched match.

Tormented at home and bullied during her studies abroad, second-born Iona of Wessett hides in the quiet corners of her father’s castle. Her art and music provide refuge, but her cruel sister Lisenn ever lurks like a monster stalking its prey.

Such has been her life for twenty years.

However, a promise of reprieve and retribution arrives when the neighboring kingdom of Capria proposes an alliance between their new crown prince and Wessett’s heir to the throne. The treaty will rid Iona of the toxic Lisenn, and the potential groom is none other than her erstwhile bully, Jaoven of Deraval. The marriage could not be more poetic: each deserves the misery the other might inflict.

Except that Jaoven, humbled by the war that elevated his rank, appears to have reformed, and the fate of both kingdoms now hinges on the disastrous union he’s about to make.

And the wrapping paper…

cover image for The Heir and the Spare: a gold snake and bird face off against a leafy green backdrop

A big thank you goes to my brother, Russell. That’s his bougainvillea decorating the background. When he heard I was looking for a thorny, leafy shrub, he graciously volunteered it for the cause.

(I know you can’t see the thorns, but if you’ve ever encountered bougainvillea, you *know* they’re there.)

If you want a jump on this release, THE EBOOK IS AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER ON AMAZON.

Some fun facts

This is the first time I’ve taken a full-length novel from idea to publication within a period of six months. It’s also the first time I’ve used an epigraph rather than a dedication. Because of the quickness of the drafting/editing/publishing process, when it came time for me to make that decision, my mind drew a blank.

See, the family relationships in The Heir and the Spare are kind of strained, so I didn’t want the dedication to come across like, “Hey, beloved family member, this one’s for you!” *wink*

(Although, I guess I could have dedicated it to my cat.)

Dedication vs. Epigraph: What’s the difference?

A dedication marks the book as a formal offering to a person, cause, etc. as a symbol of the author’s respect or affection.

An epigraph is “a quotation that is pertinent but not integral to the text.” (CMOS 17th ed, 1.37)

In this case, I used Luke 17:3 (KJV), because forgiveness vs. retribution plays a thematic role in the plot. Also, that verse uses the subjunctive mood in two of its clauses, and I highly appreciate such nuance. #grammargeek4lyfe

Anyway, this whole project has been a whirlwind of fun from start to finish. I truly hope you enjoy it!

The Heir and the Spare (Newsletter Excerpt)

Title plate: The Heir and the Spare, Chapter One

Author’s Note: This excerpt from THE HEIR AND THE SPARE is subject to change. Please excuse any grammar errors, typos, etc. that I haven’t caught yet.

Chapter One

Only two people had to die for Princess Iona to become queen: her father King Gawen, an aloof figure whose passing she would one day mourn, and her older sister Lisenn, whose grave she would gladly dance on should the occasion arise. Of course grave-dancing was frowned upon in Wessett and the likelihood of Lisenn dying first was minuscule, but that didn’t stop the younger sister from sheltering such an inclination in her heart.

And it had nothing to do with wanting the crown, because she didn’t.

“You look exceptionally nice today,” said a voice behind her.

Iona glanced up from the tray of art supplies she had been arranging—oil paints, brushes, pencils, rags—to her cousin leaning against the door casing. Aedan wore a kind expression in his drooping eyes, his brown hair framing his face in waves, perfect for a portrait. Shame he was supposed to be on the other side of the room, positioned between a pair of faux-marble columns instead.

“Thank you…?” she said, her intonation rising as though she were asking a question rather than accepting his compliment.

He pushed away from the jamb and strolled fully into her studio, hands in his pockets and a casual air about him. His dark eyes swept from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. “It’s your hair, I think. Your maid put in some extra effort this morning.”

Her fingertips ghosted against the style. Bina had insisted on working braids into her usual upswept knot, and Iona had been too sleepy to protest. While she preferred to keep her long blond hair in simple order, the occasional elaborate variation wouldn’t kill her.

Aedan shifted his focus elsewhere. “Sticking to your usual somber colors, though. You always seem like you’re in mourning.”

She looked down at herself and pitched her words to sound innocent. “The smock is white.” As if that counteracted the slate gray of the exquisitely tailored dress beneath it.

His mouth pulled to one side and he leveled her with a piercing stare. “Your sister doesn’t own the rainbow, you know.”

Iona suppressed a laugh and motioned him onward to his waiting perch. “I like my grays and browns.” When he made no move to ascend the set of his portrait, her nerves manifested in a warbling chuckle. “Bina did try to dress me in blue today. Heaven knows where she got the gown, but it was the color of a summer sky.” Wessett was barely halfway through spring, but the pale, incomparable blue had called to her nonetheless. It invoked warmth and brightness, a far cry from the thread of cool, damp breeze that wafted now from her row of open windows. Her studio, tucked into the ground floor of the castle’s eastern wing, had only an hour or two of good natural light in the morning, but never the warmth of the sun.

“You should have worn it,” Aedan said, with something akin to sorrow on his face.

Again she shooed him toward the set, impatient. “Why? I’d only get paint on it by day’s end.”

He gave her an odd look but finally walked on, hopping up onto the low scaffold to take his place between the columns. Iona, satisfied that they were beginning their session at last, picked up her palette and selected a long, thin brush from her collection. Before she could so much as touch it to paint, her cousin asked,

“What was the name you used when you were living in Capria?”

Her hand froze. A series of unpleasant memories flashed before her eyes. Carefully she broke the momentary trance and lifted her gaze to meet his. “Why do you want to know that?”

“Were you keeping it secret from me?” he asked, off-hand, and she had to concede the point. She’d told him four years ago, upon her abrupt return from the mainland, but she hadn’t spoken of Capria or her experiences there in ages. Plague her memory though they might, she refused to let them govern her life. Only her lady’s maid knew the full extent, and only because she’d witnessed it firsthand.

But refusing to speak of it when directly asked would only arouse suspicions. Even though Aedan knew a fraction of the truth, he needn’t suspect it still bothered her.

So, Iona focused on the half-finished portrait and quietly said, “I called myself Yanna of Ghemp.”

“Why Ghemp?”

She leaned closer to the canvas, adding daubs of white to highlight the yellow-gold of her subject’s sateen breeches. “Because it lies in the furthest corner of their kingdom, with only a lower set of nobles who rarely sent their children to the Royal College. Why the sudden curiosity?”

Aedan didn’t immediately answer, and she might have let the conversation drop if not for the charged silence that possessed the room. After three more daubs of white, she stepped backward and to one side, the better to scowl at him.

“You don’t keep up with anything that happens at court, do you,” he said.

She huffed a laugh and resumed painting. “Why should I? I’m just the spare, here to ensure that my father’s bloodline continues on the throne into the next generation. If you want to speak of court, go find Lisenn.”

She didn’t miss the sneer that crossed his face, nor could she blame him for it. Had they been anywhere but her studio—had someone passed the open door to the hall or observed from the garden through the open windows—she might have rebuked him, but since they were alone and she shared his opinions of her sister, she merely allowed herself a wan smile and continued working.

His sudden interest in her time at the Royal College of Capria—four years, starting at age twelve—niggled at the back of her brain, but Aedan often wondered aloud about random things. Surely her parents weren’t considering sending her back, even if it was safe again. She dismissed the very idea.

The breeze helped dissipate the scent of turpentine, but it also worked a chill into Iona’s fingers. She had to pause to rub some warmth back into her joints. Had Aedan’s father commissioned the portrait later in the year, they might have set it in the garden instead of using the lavish backdrop of drapes and columns and worldly gewgaws angled in artistic opposition to one other, but the older generation loved their pomp and polished mementos. Perhaps she would propose a more casual study once this official one was complete. Aedan had an excellent face for painting.

But not, perhaps, a mind for tact. He abruptly said, “They’re coming to negotiate a treaty.”

Iona, absorbed now in the interplay of light and shadow on his canvas double, asked, “Who?”

“Capria. They sent the request last month. Their ship docked in the harbor this morning.”

She frowned, the words tumbling senseless against her own thoughts. Capria had fallen into civil war, the cause of her abrupt removal from its shores when she was sixteen. Of course she knew that conflict had resolved—such news traveled even to her neglected corner of the castle—but that had been more than a season ago. Wessett had helped the Caprian nobles with only a pittance of support during the worst of their battles, but the pair of countries had a troubled past so that hardly surprised anyone.

“Why would they want a treaty with us?” she asked.

“Probably to preempt your father from invading and taking them over when they’re already at their weakest.”

She blinked.

“Io, sometimes I can’t tell if you’re truly oblivious, or if it’s all an elaborate act,”Aedan said. “Capria has proposed a marriage alliance, their new crown prince with your sister, and the two thrones to combine in the next generation. They’re coming today to negotiate.”

Her chest constricted tight. She sucked in a controlled breath, torn between alarm and a strange, blossoming hope. “They’re marrying off Lisenn?”

“They’re negotiating it, I said. You little fool, do you understand what that means?”

The epithet didn’t bother her. Aedan used it more as a term of endearment than a malicious slight. His question, however, spiraled her into visual confusion.

Her cousin released a long-suffering sigh. “They’re sending their crown prince. He’s only a year or two older than you. That means you probably know him, and your parents will expect you at court as a member of the royal family to greet his entourage.”

Again she blinked, several times in rapid succession. Who was the new crown prince of Capria? The former prince’s assassination had kicked off their civil war, and his younger brother had died within a year. Both had been in their thirties, already married with small children, but traitorous militants had targeted their whole families. It stood to reason that the crown had fallen to another noble house.

But who? Someone near her age…?

The elite of the Royal College paraded through her thoughts, a catalog of proud and callous youths, scornful faces that delighted in tormenting their lesser peers.

In tormenting a nobody from backward Ghemp.

She almost flung her palette to the nearby table, fingers quick to work the buttons at the back of her smock. “Help me out of this,” she said on a gasp.

Aedan darted to her aid, deftly freeing her of the over-garment. “Are you going to wear the blue dress after all?” he asked, a gleam of approval in his eyes.

“What?” Iona peered past him to the open door. From further down the hall a set of footsteps echoed against stone walls.

“To court, to greet the—”

“I’m not going to court!” She shoved the wadded smock into his hands and bolted for the nearest window.

Aedan followed her to the sill. “But your parents—”

“I don’t care! I’m not going!” She was already slipping past the leaden frame, intent upon the narrow space between the bushes and the castle wall. As she dangled her legs off the ledge above the gravel four feet below, she glimpsed a figure in her studio door, and the voice of her father’s steward, Kester, filled the room she was in process of vacating.

“Your Highness, your most noble parents, the king and queen, request—”

Iona hit the ground running. If she never received the summons, she didn’t have to obey it. No one would expect her to attend the actual treaty negotiations. Or if they did, she could make her absence more prolonged. Perhaps she could masquerade as a dairymaid in one of Wessett’s far-flung valleys, or help with the early-season planting. The island was certainly large enough to hide her for a solid week or two.

Regardless, she could not meet the Caprian delegation. The nobles at the Royal College had prided themselves on who lay closest to inheriting the throne, and the lower that number, the more insufferable the bully. The worst of the lot, nine places removed from his illustrious birthright, had spearheaded every horrible movement within the school.

The war may have wiped out Capria’s royal family, but it had gutted their noble houses as well. Maybe he was dead. Maybe the crown had fallen to the twelfth in line, or the thirty-seventh. It didn’t matter. If they had a number, they behaved as monsters.

Kester shouted behind her. She glimpsed his more robust figure struggling through the window as she rounded the corner and passed beyond his line of sight. If she could reach the stable and commandeer a horse, she’d have much easier luck getting away, at least as far as the forest. The stablehands wouldn’t know she was expected at court.

Bina must have realized, though. That would explain the more elaborate hair and the plea for the sky-blue dress. Iona would have stuck out like a crocus in a snowdrift wearing such a color, and her sister would have wrung her neck. She thanked the heavens for keeping to her sedate gray, which might have passed as a servant’s garb if its make were not so fine.

Skirts hiked in her hands, she dashed across the back aspect of the castle. Gardeners lifted their heads from among the rose bushes and the flower beds, but she paid them little heed. The stable, with its long gravel courtyard, lay beyond the next corner. If she was lucky, Kester would give up pursuit and return to report her absence.

But luck eluded her, as it ever had. His shout echoed, the words lost on the wind between them.

Perhaps she would have to bypass the horse and rely on her own two feet. She barreled headlong around the next corner, into the shadowed porch that lay across the courtyard from the stable, only to collide with a body—or a whole collection of them. Swift hands grasped her upper arms to steady her.

“I’m so sorry,” she blurted, but as she lifted her gaze to the nearest face, the rest of her apology stuck in her throat.

She registered dark brown hair—cut close to the sides of the head in the Caprian style—along with an angled jaw and a pair of fine, hazel eyes she could never mistake. It was a face from her nightmares, Jaoven of Deraval, formerly ninth in line for the throne of Capria. He opened his well-formed mouth, presumably to inquire whether she was all right, but his initial concern melted into recognition.

A chill shot down Iona’s spine. The grip on her arms tightened.

“Yanna of Ghemp,” said her captor through gritted teeth. The flurry of movement her abrupt advent had created suddenly stilled, the air around her stiff and crackling.

“L-let me go,” she managed to say, but she only feebly struggled. She couldn’t escape his grip. She already knew as much. A fleeting glance toward the others of his party revealed more familiar faces, men and women who, though four years older than her last encounter with them, she could never mistake. She fixed her eyes on the most sympathetic of the lot, Neven of Combran, a brunet who had shared several of her art courses so many years ago. “Please.”

He offered her no help, though remorse practically bled from him.

“The rats always abandon a sinking ship,” Jaoven hissed, leaning in close. “So you fled to Wessett? And you’ve been living a safe and pampered life here ever since, while your countrymen fought and suffered and died—?”

“Your Highness!”

Iona, cringing from her captor’s accusations, wedged open her eyes. Her father’s steward stood panting at the corner of the porch, one hand propping him against the stone wall as he gaped at the scene before him. His gaze traveled from Iona’s face to the hands that gripped her arms and then back.

Jaoven thrust her half-behind him, keeping a firm hold upon her as he said, with feigned cordiality, “Yes. I’m Prince Jaoven of Capria. We had the fortune of meeting one of our countrymen just now and were reacquainting ourselves.”

Kester’s attention flitted past him to Iona, a question in his eyes. She minutely shook her head, a silent plea for him not to name her as the true recipient of his message.

“You’re wanted at court,” he faintly said.

“Excellent.” A smile tinged Jaoven’s voice, his diplomacy on full display. “Do you lead us there?”

“Ah.” Kester looked again to Iona, but finding no command or contradiction, he skirted forward through the Caprian party. “Yes. Allow me to show you, please.”

Once the steward’s back was turned, Jaoven leaned close to her ear and whispered, “We’ll deal with you after this first introduction is over. You’re coming with us, but if you say a word out of line, you’re a dead woman.”

Then he passed her off to Nevan’s keeping with a muttered, “Do not let her out of your sight,” and pushed through his entourage to take the front position.

As the party moved together, bodies surrounded her on every side, men and women alike sparing her bitter glances. She didn’t recognize all of them. Some were certainly servants who would fall back before the official delegation crossed into the great hall, and others envoys who would participate in the negotiations but not this formal greeting. She picked out the nobles among them by the finery of their dress, six in total including Neven and the newly crowned prince. She could name five of them, fellow classmates from Capria’s Royal College.

Near the front, Elouan of Dumene—number twenty-four, in former years, and still as broad of shoulder and golden of coloring—pitched his voice low. “Jove, don’t let this put you out of temper. We need to make a good first impression on the royals here.”

“It won’t be a problem,” Jaoven replied, but the clenching fists at his side told another story.

Iona swallowed against a lump in her throat, her mind racing for any exit strategy she could formulate. To Neven she whispered, “You have to let me go.” As art students, they had shared many of the same woes four years ago. Surely he of all this group might sympathize with her.

Instead he dashed her fledgling hopes. “I can’t.” His attention flitted to the delegates and servants around them. “If your family abandoned Capria in its time of need, you have to face your punishment.”

With increasing dread, Iona buttoned her lips and marched. Strictly speaking, her family had abandoned the embattled noblemen of that land. What punishment it merited, though, was up for debate.

Neven’s hold upon her arm remained loose, but if she tried to break away, the others would dog-pile her. If he would only move to the edge of the group!

Ahead, Elouan and Jaoven continued their consultation. “Do you remember everyone’s name?” Elouan asked.

Jaoven snorted. “Please. I’ve recited them a hundred times since we got on the boat.”

“Say them again. If your mind goes blank at the wrong moment—”

“King Gawen, Queen Marget, Crown Princess Lisenn, Princess Iona. Happy?”

“I will be once this blasted meeting is over.”

“Because you’re looking forward to the days of negotiations yet to come?”

“Your father gave us very strict instructions.”

Enough, Elou. I have too much on my mind already.” He cast a scowl over his shoulder, briefly meeting Iona’s gaze before resuming his purposeful stride.

Morbidly she wondered how his posture would change in the moments shortly before them. It was almost worth provoking Lisenn’s wrath.

Almost.

They crossed the main courtyard and arrived at the entrance to the great hall. The Wessettan royal guards in their signature red cloaks lined the way. If any of them recognized Iona’s presence in the foreign delegation, they only raised their brows and shifted their attention elsewhere. No one meddled much with her doings, and because Kester led the group, her inclusion in it could invite no comments.

The steward paused on the threshold, turning back as though to speak. When his gaze met Iona’s her scowl prompted him to look elsewhere. “If you will wait here but a moment,” he said delicately to Prince Jaoven. Then, after a slight bow, he proceeded into the vast and airy room without them.

A crowd of Wessettan nobles lined the walls leading up to the central dais, where four thrones awaited the delegation.

“One of the princesses is missing,” said Elouan with a frown.

“Which one?” Jaoven asked, peering from the raven-haired young woman at the king’s right hand, then over to the empty chair at the queen’s left.

“The younger. That’s Lisenn next to her father.”

“Perhaps the other one’s absence explains the delay. They certainly left us waiting long enough.”

“Perhaps. Or she might not be in town. Our informants said they’ve housed their daughters in different areas of the country before, as a safeguard against any attacks upon the crown.”

Jaoven grunted. “Would that our people had been as wise.”

Iona bit her lips to contain a bitter laugh. She glued her eyes to Kester as he lightly hopped up the stairs to her father’s side and whispered in his ear. Lisenn’s pretty face contorted, proof that she overheard the hushed confidence, but she schooled her ire away again as her father responded.

Kester returned. He gestured inward with a grand, sweeping arm. In a voice that echoed from the vaulted stone ceiling, a cryer announced, “The crown of Wessett welcomes emissaries of Capria into its hallowed halls: Crown Prince Jaoven; Elouan, Duke of Dumene; Lady Denoela of Rosemarch…”

True to Iona’s expectations, the servants and untitled diplomats peeled away, leaving her and Neven near the back of the group, with only one man behind them. The list of names and titles continued as the official delegation processed across the checkerboard marble floor toward the waiting monarch. A murmur arose among the Wessettan nobles who noticed Iona in the foreign ranks. She resisted the urge to shrink out of sight, but it didn’t fully leave until she met Aedan’s gaze near the front of the room. He had every right to attend an assembly such as this, of course, but he must have bolted straight here the instant Kester followed her.

Which meant he either figured she’d get caught or else was curious about the Caprians himself.

When they locked gazes, he tipped his head, his brows cinched as though to ask if she had gone completely mad. She squared her shoulders and glowered at him.

The cryer finished his list of names and the delegation stopped ten feet in front of the dais. Prince Jaoven bowed and then straightened, waiting for his host to speak.

King Gawen, one hand tracing patterns on the arm of his throne, looked past the newly crowned royal to lock gazes with his own daughter.

“Iona, what are you doing?”

A stricken hush fell across the hall. The Caprian delegates exchanged confused glances, and Jaoven actually turned as though to discern where the king’s attention lay.

Iona, resigned to her fate, calmly extracted herself from Neven’s lax grip and skirted by the rest of the delegation. She spared Jaoven only a grim, sidelong glance as she passed, then she mounted the three dais steps and swept into the empty chair at her mother’s side. The fair-haired queen favored her with a smile.

Straight-backed and stoic, the second princess of Wessett met the horrified stares of her former classmates.

And she might have relished this wordless comeuppance had Lisenn’s glare not been drilling into the side of her head.


Thank you for reading Chapter 1! The Heir and the Spare releases February 19, 2021.

You can pre-order the eBook now on Amazon!

Discipline in the Year of Hindsight

Discipline: in each of us exists both creator and consumer, and we thrive when we strike a balance between the two.At the beginning of the month, people on my social media feeds started announcing their word of the year. I’ve never done that lovely practice, but it got me thinking: “If I were to pick one word that embodied my hopes for 2020, what would it be?”

Ever so softly, the vast ether whispered back, “Discipline.”

And I laughed. Hahahahahahaha!

If there’s one thing I have lacked throughout my life, it’s discipline. In large part, my body has been a convenient vehicle to get my brain from one place to another. And since my brain’s favorite “location” is its daydream-du-jour…

Yeah. Exercise, sleep, and meals all take a back burner to whatever thought pattern I’m engaged in. I mean, I get to them eventually, but they’re not scheduled or anything.

Still, as much as I lack discipline, I idealize the concept as well.

Discipline: An Etymological Dichotomy

Discipline sounds austere, like a schoolmarm with a critical eye and a ready ruler. However, it also exudes wisdom, like an ancient sage who has mastered body and soul.

The word shares its root with “disciple,” both of them coming from the Latin discipulus, “pupil/student.” Earliest English usage had to do with the “punishment” sense of discipline, but as an outward sign of seeking self-control. People would discipline in order to invoke obedience to a certain discipline.

Thus the word speaks to a broadening of the mind through strict adherence to a study or process.

One who has discipline is learning and growing. They understand and honor boundaries, physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional.

And ultimately, when I considered making it my 2020 theme, it begged the question, of what disciplines am I a student, and how well does my self-discipline reflect that?

Ideal Versus Reality

In my ideal, I’m a disciple of writing. In reality, I’m more accurately a disciple of YouTube. Much as I love daydreaming about scenes and characters and plots, the process of connecting the dots and developing all of those in a believable (or at least passable) manner is HARD WORK. It’s so much easier to pull up social media and see what their algorithm has to feed me.

So, in my quest to find self-discipline, I took a hiatus from the internet.

(Mostly.)

Last week, I had about four approved websites I was allowed to visit. Two of them were dictionaries. It was lovely and, yes, oddly liberating to say, “No, I can’t go there. I’m not doing that today.”

And what was the effect?

First and foremost, I got to bed roughly 2 hours earlier most nights. I had nothing to do in the evenings, so why not sleep?

Second, I found time to exercise (four days and a total of 150 minutes, up from zero the preceding week).

Work-wise, I re-typeset Goldmayne for its transfer over to Eulalia Skye. There’s a few tweaks left, but the book is basically ready for its cover. (And it’s going to be a fat book. 474 pages. Yikes. But the original typeset was in 10-point Garamond, and I’m not playing that space-saving game anymore.)

I also wrote about 1K words on Eidolon. Still wading through the weeds on how to connect all my plot-points there, but I ain’t gonna sneeze at what little progress I can make.

Long story short: internet bad, discipline good. So, for now, I’ll be keeping my online time to a minimum.

(But we loves it, precious, we does!)

For Discipline We Strive

In each of us exists both creator and consumer. We work, and we play, and we thrive when we strike a balance between the two. Right now, I need that balance.

So that is my word for 2020: discipline.

Wish me luck. And for those who have also chosen a 2020 word, good luck to you!

Oliver Invictus | Official Reveal and Pre-Order

If you read between the lines of my last post, this one will come as no surprise. I’m pleased to announce the upcoming publication of Book 3 of the Annals of Altair: Oliver Invictus arrives on September 18, 2019.

You can pre-order the ebook HERE. Hooray!

Oliver Invictus book cover

Summary: Oliver Invictus

Dead at Fifteen

Oliver Dunn’s life is officially over. Pulled from his bed in the black of night, he’s headed for the Prometheus Institute’s mysterious shadow campus, where anomalies like him vanish forever.

But no sooner does he leave Prom-F than the school descends into chaos. The student body revolts, classmates make a break for freedom, and one silent, powerful projector among them corrals the adults into a hive-minded collective of slaves.

Yanked back from his impending doom, Oliver’s mere presence restores order. The Prometheus heads demand that he ferret out the rogue projector, but he’d rather die than cooperate.

His life is already over. They can’t threaten him with any fate worse than his own. But they can threaten the one person in the world he actually cares about: his former handler, Emily Brent.

If you haven’t read the first two books of this series, that summary might raise a lot of questions. If it’s been a while since you read them, ditto. Because I’m a giver, I’ll go ahead and post links for those two books as well:

Book 1: A Boy Called Hawk

Book 2: A Rumor of Real Irish Tea

That’s it for the announcement part of this post. A new book! Go forth and pre-order!

Or, if you’re game, stick around and read on.

Background Notes

I always considered the Annals of Altair complete at 2 books. This is apparent in their structure, which is pinned to the US Constitution. A Boy Called Hawk uses the main body for its chapter numbering (Preamble, Articles, and Sections) and A Rumor of Real Irish Tea uses the amendments (27 in all).

My younger self thought it was funny to have the Constitution as a meaningless frame for a hypothetical future in which that document itself had become meaningless. Actually, my current self thinks it’s funny too.

So.

A third book was not on my radar. What was I supposed to pin it to, the tax code?

The Plot Thickens

Still, I had family members that asked for more, and I knew that more happened beyond the scope of those first two books. Besides, if the original structure was meaningless, and meaninglessness was the point, then abandoning it for a meaningless chapter-numbering system would be fine.

Confident in that reassurance and the knowledge that I don’t have to publish everything I write, I tackled a third book for NaNoWriMo.

Back in 2015. (Seriously did not realize it was that long ago, but the timeline checks out. Tsk tsk, Kate.)

The story stalled at the third act, as my stories chronically do. I played with it a bit over the years, but it was definitely a back-burner project.

Why?

Well, I’ll tell you.

This series gets the least amount of traffic among my literary canon. Not a surprise. It’s dystopia lite instead of the gossamer fantasy that is my usual fare, so it’s easily skipped. It was also more like a personal art project than a commercial endeavor. Hence, for a while, I saw it as my weakest link.

We don’t draw attention to the weakest link.

But I truly love the story and its cast of characters—on both sides of the conflict. My initial vision to spin a yarn about four kids escaping an oppressive government morphed into a tale about the rotten little antihero tasked with bringing them back. By the end of the second book it was clear that Oliver and Emily were more the main characters than Hawk, Hummer, Honey, and Happy. I’ve always known what became of them afterward, and part of me always wanted to write it.

However, it seemed self-indulgent to work on a book that strayed so far from my perceived fantasy brand, and that few people—if any—actually wanted to read.

So what changed?

For my birthday last year, I sat down and conducted an inventory of my writing: unpublished projects, planned-but-unwritten projects, and works-in-progress. The list was kind of a slap in the head: I had 20 books in some form of development, not including my notebook of story kernels, and not including the six published books I still needed to switch over to my imprint.

The creative pile-up weighed me down. When you have too much debt, you get rid of the smallest one first. Thus, Oliver Invictus, 75% complete, moved up in the work queue.

(As a side note, the idea for Soot and Slipper hadn’t even occurred yet. I’m not great at managing my plot bunnies.)

The final impetus to complete the draft came from a comment on my blog last April. It’s one thing for people you know to ask for more of your work—there’s always a voice at the back of the head saying they’re only being polite, or that it’s their way of expressing a compliment. It’s quite another for a stranger to speak up. That’s a call to action.

And, as it happens, answering that particular call was within my ability. So.

Long story short (too late)

I estimate that roughly twenty people outside my own family might actively want this book. I hope more than that will read and enjoy it, but if its total market saturation is only those twenty, I still consider it time and effort well invested.

Mostly because I want this book.

Whether Oliver Invictus has a large audience or a small one, I’m excited for its readers to experience the next leg of this upside-down world.

And why September 18th?

It’s Oliver’s birthday. It seemed a fitting day to bring his story to light.

Annals of Altair series book covers

Look at these covers, you guys! They look like they belong together! +1 Branding skills for me!

Project Updates and Other Ramblings

Greetings, my friends! It’s time for a few project updates. Some bad news, some good news, maybe…? Idk. So, as Li Shang says, let’s get down to business.

First of my project updates: Thank you! May this classy purple flower convey how awesome you are.

First of all, I want to give a HUGE thank you to everyone who has read Soot and Slipper, double-thanks to those who have recommended it to others, and triple-thanks if you took the time to rate and/or review it on the venue of your choice.

Full disclosure: as a general rule, I don’t read reviews. My mother does, though, and she thinks it’s fun to pull them up and read them aloud to me as I hastily vacate her presence. You, my lovely readers, have been SO NICE.

Thank you. I am overwhelmed and humbled and grateful that you have found value in my work. You are awesome and amazing.

And speaking of value…

(Terrible segue, I know.)

Ebook Pricing

Around the time I released S&S, I had multiple people tell me I need to up my ebook prices (including a couple of commenters on my own blog, haha). I’ve kept my prices low as a courtesy, but those discussions have left me with a lot to ruminate on. After several weeks of wishy-washy contemplation, I’m ready to capitulate. Sort of.

Over the next few months, my ebooks that are 50K words and above will all get a price update to $2.99. For Tournament of RusesThe Legendary Inge, and Namesake, this is no increase at all. The Annals of Altair series, Kingdom of Ruses, and Goldmayne will each go up $2.

I did look into upping the price on the longer books (90K+ words) to $3.99, but price increases statistically lower sales. Basically, I’d be charging more for fewer people to buy, to the benefit of no one. So that’s been shuffled to the side for now.

For the time being, my two fairytale novellas will remain at $0.99. I know I could probably raise their prices as well, but I like them as introductions to my writing, so the low courtesy pricing makes sense to me.

It’s not that big of a difference on most of these, but hopefully the new prices will better signal that yes, I do value my work and I want readers who value it as well. I don’t have an exact timetable for when each price increase will happen (see below for why), so this is your courtesy notice that if you want any of my books at their lower price, grab them sooner rather than later.

And that brings us to…

Project Updates

When I created my imprint (Eulalia Skye Press) a couple years ago, I intended to transfer my earlier titles over. It hasn’t happened for a number of reasons.

Or, well, mostly because of all the paperwork involved. I’m using a different trim size under ESP than with my earlier titles, so transferring over means re-typesetting six books, which also means new covers. And that in turn means updated ebooks, which would ideally correspond with the aforementioned price hikes. In short, it’s a lot of dominoes that have to be lined up and tumbled, and since I’ve already been through the process with these books, I’ve dragged my feet on doing it again.

But I finally learned InDesign (as the print version of Soot and Slipper will attest, yeehaw), and I really ought to use that subscription to its fullest. So.

Annals of Altair Books 1 – 3

The print versions for A Boy Called Hawk and A Rumor of Real Irish Tea are no longer available. They will return shortly. This series gets the least amount of traction in my collected works, so no great loss.

For the ebooks, the price increase is effective immediately. I’ve uploaded new covers and reformatted book files for a nicer reading experience. Because these were my first books published, I’ve also done a medium-light edit (cleared out excess verbiage, cleaned up the writing style, etc.).

The stories are the same. They’re just not quite as wordy.

For those who want a hard copy (Hi, Mom!), the typesetting for the print versions is complete. I just have to upload files, order proofs, and make sure everything is pretty. My self-imposed deadline is the middle of September, for Reasons.

Look for this newly rebranded series on Amazon.

Ruses, Goldmayne, and Inge

I’m not messing with the wordiness of these books. Goldmayne is meant to have a folksy fairytale voice, so my older style of writing still works. The same goes for Inge and the Ruses books, to a lesser degree.

Kingdom of Ruses, however, will get the addition of a bonus short story, “The Prince among Men.” It’s roughly 4K; I wrote it a few years ago to answer that burning question, “But where did Will go?” And then I had nowhere to publish it, because it was too long for a blog post and too short for a standalone novella.

L O L

Since I’m adding a short story to the end of Kingdom, I think I have to dis-enroll it from Kindle Unlimited so that it doesn’t look like I’m trying to game the system for more page-reads. There were shenanigans to that effect a couple years back, as I recall, and I’d rather not chance having a book flagged because previous readers are skipping to the end for some added content. So whenever that update happens, no KU for a few months. (Sorry, my lovely KU readers. It will return eventually.)

These four books will update in the following order (theoretically): Goldmayne, Inge, Kingdom, Tournament.

Namesake

And now we arrive at the elephant in the room. “Wasn’t there supposed to be a sequel to Namesake, like, a year ago?” Why, yes. Yes there was. And then it turned into two sequels and I threw a creative tantrum.

I have a hard-and-fast rule of not publishing a book that needs a sequel written. Namesake can stand on its own, so I waffled over whether even to write the follow-up. When it split into two, that waffling doubled. I am still working on them, but there’s no timetable for completion.

Just, when you see Goddess (Book 2) finally make its appearance, you can rest assured that Eidolon (Book 3) will be close on its heels. I won’t leave you hanging from that cliff for long. Pinky promise.

Final Thoughts

A disproportionate amount of my writerly life has been me feeling like I fall short of other people’s expectations. I lack follow-through, I disappear for weeks or months on end, I hoard creative control, and I happily nest down in my comfortable corner of obscurity. The truth is, I only ever wanted to write. It was never my dream to publish a book.

So here I am, ten titles down the road and wondering how the heck this all happened. It has been a long, meandering path, and there is still so much meandering yet to come.

Long story short, thanks for joining me on this journey. Life is full of surprises, y’know?

Music and the Written Word

Albert Einstein on musicFor all you book purists out there, the paperback of Soot and Slipper is now live! (Click HERE) In honor of this momentous occasion, I’m going to explore a fun little element of writing: the background music.

Some writers need total silence. Others need speakers blaring. I fall closer to the second category, where listening to music can help me focus on my writing, but with a caveat: I can’t usually handle new lyrics. If I don’t know a song, my brain will turn more toward discerning its content than unraveling the scene I’m supposed to be creating.

Hence, my playlists often feature instrumental arrangements or foreign-language singers. But one other element comes into play when I pick my writing songs: the atmosphere. Every book is different.

DISCLAIMER: I don’t have any connection with the artists I’m discussing in this post. I’m not an affiliate for any of the sites I link. I just really like their music.

The Music of Soot and Slipper

As a Cinderella retelling, Soot and Slipper has a light and fluffy atmosphere, with some maybe darker undertones at play. (No spoilers, haha.) The playlists I gravitated toward definitely reflected that.

Music Backdrop #1: Eurielle

Around the time I started toying with the plot idea, I came across Eurielle on YouTube. At times epic and other times floating, her music has echoes of Enya if Enya were orchestrating a feature film about ghosts and medieval yearning for salvation.

Her album, Arcadia, provided backdrop #1 for this novella. She sings in English, Latin, and French. Probably the most influential song was “Je t’Adore,” which came to represent Eugenie’s first masquerade. It starts with gravitas (“Liberate me from the fire” is the Latin phrase, which works nicely with my recurring theme of embers and ashes) and then transitions into an airy refrain.

Eurielle on [iTunes] and [Amazon]

Music Backdrop #2: Boggie

This artist has been on my radar since the video for her song “Parfüm” went viral a few years back. A Hungarian jazz singer, she has songs in Hungarian (of course), English, and French. I have two of her albums, the eponymous Boggie and All Is One Is All.

Her playful song “Camouflage” became Pip’s anthem. And really, it suits him to a tee.

Boggie on [iTunes] and [Amazon]

Music Backdrop #3: Erutan

Sometimes I got too lazy to sign into my digital music account. (This is true first-world laziness, I fully admit.) Both of the above artists have YouTube channels, though, and after a few video plays the algorithm kicked in to find me similar songs.

And Erutan appeared in my suggestions.

Kate Covington AKA Erutan (“Nature” spelled backward) combines medieval instrumentation with etherial vocals to create an otherworldly musical experience. She sings both original music and covers arranged to her celtic-influenced style, with intertwining melodies and harmonies that stoke the imagination. I suppose, in many ways, she might represent the fairy of my tale.

From what I can tell, Erutan is an independent artist in every sense. She’s ridiculously talented, too. You can support her by watching her videos on YouTube or buying her tracks on [iTunes] or [Amazon].

Honorable Mention: Cœur de Pirate

So this artist didn’t show up in my algorithm until a couple days after I finished the Soot and Slipper draft. Since I was on a French kick, though, I gave her a listen. When I encountered her song “Combustible,” it embodied Marielle so well that I had to include it here.

I will definitely be listening to more of her in the future. (Especially since I’ve bought two of her albums so far.)

Cœur de Pirate on [iTunes] and [Amazon]

A Musical Trend

On looking back at the playlists I listened to while writing this book, a lot of them had Halloween and/or phantasmic overtones. Although Soot and Slipper was the very soul of creative escapism for me, that secondary atmosphere is oddly fitting.

If you enjoyed the songs above, please consider supporting the artists. Music, like books, can’t happen without a lot of work.

Final Thoughts | Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Final thoughts: Pamela Meyer quote on relationship between liar and recipientAnd at long last, we come to the final thoughts.

Through real-life patterns of deception, we can identify weaknesses in our writing and shift those weaknesses into strengths. With that in mind, I offer the following summary of this series.

The Poor Liar

  • Fakes emotions in the moment
  • Provides excess details to prevent the listener from questioning their authority
  • Dumps information
  • Forgets or contradicts essential points in their narrative
  • Uses language defensively, as a barrier to keep their listener at bay

In short, the poor liar spoon-feeds their audience because they don’t trust them. They either control every aspect of their narrative so tightly that it loses all authenticity, or they treat it with such vagueness that it never had any to begin with.

The Skillful Liar

  • Mimics authentic emotional patterns
  • Keeps details to a minimum so as not to draw unnecessary attention
  • Strategically withholds information
  • Maintains continuity in their narrative
  • Uses language as the tool it is, as a mechanism to draw their listener close

Skillful liars exploits their audience’s truth bias. They use cooperation defaults to further their deception instead of allowing those defaults to constrain them within the boundaries of truth.

As fiction writers, we need to be skillful liars, not poor ones. Our ability to engage our readers and to keep them engaged depends largely on how well our stories resonate with their perception of truth. Immersive reading only occurs when the reader forgets they have a book in their hands and starts living within those pages instead.

Final Thoughts

In her first chapter of Liespotting, Pamela Meyer shines light on an incredible truth.

“The liar and the recipient participate in a fabric of mythmaking together. A lie does not have power by its utterance—its power lies in someone agreeing to believe the lie.” 

Pamela Meyer, Liespotting, p. 22

This hold true for fiction as well as real life. The author and the audience are partners in creation. Thus, when you engage in Cooperative Deception, your words have power.

So, with that in mind,

  1. Trust your audience. They are with you for this ride.
  2. Lie to them with every pattern of truth you can mimic.

And that is the end of this series. Now get out there, my lovelies, and let your stories take over the world.

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