I’m sorry for my silence this fall. It’s been busy with a full course load, conventions, edits, and writing. Actually, this whole year has been super busy, and my list of publications is so much smaller than last years.
“The Suitor Sorter” was reprinted in Echoes of the Past. This was Fantasia Divinity’s Best of 2018 anthology.
This story was about a young lady trying to fool a steampunk dating machine and the automaton that ran it.
Content Warning: Homophobia
One of my favorite short stories, “Red Tide Rising,” was originally published as a serial in Helios Quarterly. was reprinted in a anthology of weird westerns, Gunsmoke and Dragonfire. This anthology was released on March 15, 2019.
“Red Tide Rising” is an outlaws vs sheriffs western set on Mars, but it is also about an estranged couple finding their way back together.
I remember reading on websites, forums, and social media that once I started querying a manuscript, I should focus on writing a new one. The advice was that unless I was getting multiple rejections on fulls, or multiple rejections with similar feedback, I should just leave the manuscript alone.
The first three times I queried, I mostly disregarded this advice. I worked on something new for a little, but was constantly going back to the thing I was querying and editing and revising.
This got confusing very quickly.
Which version of the first chapter did I just get a request on? How many other agents did I send that one too?
There were a lot of times I thought things like, “if only I waited longer to query this or that agent!” or “Why didn’t I just keep the opening how it was?”
One of the few benefits was that sometimes, if agents who had already rejected my query requested a query because of a twitter pitch, they were willing to take another look once they realized I had revised. Unfortunately, all of these second chance queries ended in rejection. In the end, it wasn’t much of a benefit.
Not wanting to go through all that stress again, I took a different approach to querying my fourth manuscript. As soon as my first batch of queries was out, I decided to focus on other projects. I started writing a sequel for Power Surge, but I wasn’t ready yet. I wrote prequel novella, Life Minus Me, which will be published this winter. I worked on revising a space opera, but got bogged down in the revisions and put it aside. Then I went back to the sequel, finished it, and worked on short stories while I let it rest between drafts. I wrote the first draft of a middle grade novel and started revising.
I have to say, this was the least stressful bout of querying I’ve had so far. I did make some changes to my opening chapters after a slew of rejections, but I haven’t read through the entire manuscript since I sent out my first full.
I was more productive in the past year than I was in the year or two I queried my first three books, and spent a lot less time stressing and obsessing over my query.
If I look at this in terms of success? The answer isn’t as clear cut. I am still unagented.
Queries from both batches resulted in offers from small publishers.
Power Surge, the second novel I finished and the first I queried, ended up with two offers from small publishers, and ultimately, I signed with NineStar Press. It was published last year. The prequel novella and sequel are both under contract with NineStar and scheduled to be released Dec 2019 and Feb 2020.
Song of the Forest, the first book I finished and second I queried, did get an offer, which I turned down because the contract was bad. I did not get any other offers and shelved this book. Honestly? I’m glad it didn’t get published. It has some potentially problematic content that would need to be revised and then looked at by a sensitivity reader and revised again. However, back when I wrote it and started querying it, I hadn’t really looked far enough outside my white, privileged bubble to realize. I know better now. I hope.
I have open R & Rs on this from small publishers. One day I might try to fix the problematic content I think is there, and the world building issues mentioned in several rejections. But right now? It’s low on my priority list.
The third one I queried, Like Birds Under the City Sky, got no offers. It was a strange little book where I experimented with form, and ultimately, it just didn’t work. Its currently shelved.
Revising while querying versus leaving the manuscript alone didn’t have an impact on how successful the query was, but the level of stress and anxiety was much lower when I focused on writing new things.
The new projects not only distracted me from worrying about the querying, but they assured me that even if this round of querying failed, there would most definitely be a next time, another chance at getting an agent or a contract from a small publisher.
My recommendation is to be working on a new book while your querying.
However, I understand that what works for me might not work for someone else, and in the end, it is important for writers to do what is best for themselves.
Has your writing ever taken you by surprise? For example, a positive and belated response to a submission you’d forgotten about or an ending you never saw coming?
For me, writing is full of surprises, mostly because my characters tend to take on a life of their own.
For example, with my current WIP, I told myself the mc was a girl because that story would be easier to sell than one with a non-binary main character. However, before I realized what I was doing, the character was telling someone that they use “they/them/their” as pronouns and thinking about being neither boy nor girl.
I thought I could control the gender of my main character, but that character decided they were non-binary (like me) whether I liked it or not.
The idea of characters I’m creating doing unexpected things always seems odd to me, even though it is something many writers have experienced.
I often find myself wondering why things like this happen. Why do my creations surprise me? Am I really surprising myself? How come I feel like I am not in control of these characters as I create them and make them do things? Shouldn’t I be more deliberate? What is the point of craft advice if my characters are just running around doing their own things with me putting zero thought into how that affects the story on some technical level?
I can maybe answer one of those questions.
Craft advice is for revision, not first drafts. At least, that is how it is for me. Other writers might be able to think about plot and scene and characterization while they draft. I can’t. I can only think of the characters as living entities and the story as something unfolding as it happens. If I outline, it’s because the story is unfolding in my head much faster than I can really write, and even then, when I start writing, I don’t usually stick to exactly what I outlined.
I think I get surprised because a lot of what I’m doing is not happening on a conscious level. It’s like dreaming. When I draft, my subconscious does the heavy lifting, so it feels like my creations have more agency in the creation of the story than I do.
When I was younger, part of me wanted to believe there was something supernatural about writing. I don’t think that now, but I do love writing about supernatural things.
I always surprise my self when I’m drafting.
My revisions, on the other hand, are far more deliberate and conscious. The biggest surprises there are how patient I am. In real life, I’m not known for my patience.
What kind of surprises do you find when writing?
Photo Credit: The back ground photo on the header was taken from Simone Scarano on Unsplash.
What was an early experience where you learned that language has power?
The word “chemical” has a lot of power. As a kid, it was a word that induced fear or panic. Chemicals were bad smelling things used to clean or dangerous things used in science labs.
I believe I was in fifth grade when I had a science teacher who blew my mind by telling the class things like some of the juices and sodas we drank were technically chemicals. She said that even water was a chemical.
I remember a brief moment of fear, then realizing that the word “chemical” had a much broader meaning than I originally thought.
Today, I looked up definitions of chemicals, here are some of the results I got:
Basically, almost anything is a chemical. Some of the definitions mention artificially prepared substances or those used in a chemical process, but nowhere do they say it is exclusive to those things. However, these elements of the dictionary definitions do have a stronger connection to the perceived definition of the word than the more scientific definition on wiki. (I know isn’t always the most credible website, but I included it anyway because the definition there echoed what I’d hear before. Plus, sometimes I trust the internet hive mind more than random website put up by individuals).
The word chemical, at its core, really doesn’t tell you much about something. It’s as general a term as material or substance. However, if I went up to someone and asked if they wanted to drink a chemical, they’d probably look at me like I had twenty heads.
This always reminds me how a words literal meaning and the meaning it carries for individuals within a culture or society, can be different things and can affect the power and effects that the word has.
Last night, I was reminded how chemical’s connotation can spread fear and panic, even to people who are aware of the words denotative meaning.
The lake I live on was getting an being treated with alum, which will bind excess nutrients, specifically phosphorus, and reduce the amount of cyanobacteria blooms in the lake. The barge carrying the alum capsized.
The whole neighborhood was out watching the ensuing spectacle of trying to flip the barge back over and drag it to shore. The more people threw around the word “chemical” the more nervous people got. By the end of the night, there was a post on Facebook claiming “Time to take a stand merrimac this company the town hired just flipped the boat carrying 1500 gallons of environmental hazardous materials” The language in this post in powerful in a negative way. It uses words whose connotative meaning scares people with a call to action based on false information.
The town did not hire the company when in reality, the lake association did the hiring, and the funding came from two towns, association fundraisers, and an EPA grant. The materials were going into the lake anyway, and at the time this was posted, the tanks had not been recovered, so no one actually knew how much of the alum, if any, had actually spilled. The hazard was that the alum and the chemical used to balance the ph might not have spilled in the same proportions they would be put into the lake in. Some of the older, weaker fish might die — the same fish that would probably die when the water temperature rose and the oxygen levels declined in the summer.
However, the person who posted this didn’t care about truth. The language in this is intended to scare and aggravate people. In Merrimac, residents are facing tax hikes because of a new school and a new police station. This person used language and misinformation to try and decrease people’s confidence in the town’s decision making abilities when it comes to spending money and hiring contractors, probably trying to get people to oppose the necessary but expensive new school.
When I log onto the town Facebook, I often find myself wondering how much thought people actually put into these posts. How much of it is careless and unfiltered, and how much is calculated lies and word choice people use to further their own, small-town political agenda?
I’ve also noticed that the tone these malcontents use in their town-related posts echoes that of some politically conservative relatives and twitter trolls. However, detailed analysis of the language used in social media forums is content for a completely different post.
What I hope readers take away from this post is that often, the connotation of a word lends it far for power than its denotative or literal meaning.
The difference between chemical’s connotative and denotative meaning surprised me when I was a child, but it was something I didn’t really think much about it until last night when the word “chemical” was spreading fear throughout my neighborhood.
Chemical may have been an accurate term for the contents of the tanks, but saying “substance” or “material” would have been accurate too, and they would not have conjured the same fear as chemical did. Even using the name of the chemical might have caused less fear.
The words and language we use are as important and influential in our interactions with our neighbors, friends, and family as they are within our writing.
Can you think of any words whose connotative meaning evokes fear?
If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be? (examples: fight scene / first kiss scene / death scene / chase scene / first chapter / middle chapter / end chapter, etc.)
For me, this would be the first chapter. However, I wouldn’t use the wish to help write it. I’d use the wish to help revise it.
Writing a first draft of a first chapter is a blast.
It’s like standing at the base of trail I’ve never hiked. The sun is out but there is a cool breeze. I have a map. I have ample snacks and water for both me and my dog. It is going to be an awesome day even if I am going to be gaining about 1,000 vertical feet per mile.
The first chapter is just that first stretch of trail when I am full of energy, when I’m practically running, wondering just how long it will be before the trail gets steep and I hit a scramble.
The whole hike up is the first draft of the manuscript. It’s hard work, but it is the kind that gets the adrenaline going and results with a breathtaking view.
I can’t stay at the summit forever. Eventually, I have to come down.
Often, when hiking in New England, the steepest scrambles are close to the summit. They’re my favorite part to go up and my least favorite to go down.
I can just see myself on my way down Killington. I’m a little ways down from the summit, standing on a slab of granite, staring straight down a ravine thinking,
“Did we really go up that? Do I have to go back down that way?”
I’m exhausted. My spouse is exhausted. The dog is exhausted. The dog, who was like a brilliant mountain goat on the way up, needs assistance going down the steep sections.
For a minute, I just stand there wondering what the heck I was thinking. I curse myself for picking an out and back trail and for being so obsessed with scrambles in the first place. But then I think about how much fun I had, how worth it the view was, and of how many times I have done this before on other mountains.
Then, after I’ve planned a way down in my head, my spouse and I slowly work our way down, helping the dog when necessary.
It’s the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the hike. It’s the one part I would skip if I could magically do so. It reminds me a lot of revising my opening chapters.
As fun as the first draft was, I never start the book in the right place, and fixing that is never as simple as just deleting a chapter or several chapters. It’s deleting a whole chapter and replacing it with something else and then rewriting it, deleting it, and replacing it. Once I find something that works as a concept, then I still have to fine tune it over and over.
For current WIP, I haven’t revised the opening chapter four times. I’ve written four completely different opening chapters, and that isn’t counting all the false starts I had while trying to get the first draft going.
So if I could use a wish to help me write a book? I would use that wish to revise my opening chapter.
Some of the books that made me fall in love with the genre of urban fantasy were set in actual cities, or I guess, technically, they’re not really those cities but alternate magical versions of them. The Dresden Files was set in Chicago and Greywalker was set in Seattle, so I when set to write urban fantasy, I also choose to set my books in alternate magical versions of real places.
As a reader, I prefer urban fantasy settings grounded in the real world, but not fully limited by it. I want there to be some recognizable landmarks for the city the story takes place in, but I also don’t want the setting to adhere to strictly to reality because then it doesn’t feel enough like fiction.
I write the type of books that I want to read. So when I write urban fantasy, there are usually some landmarks with real life counter-parts that exist along side a plethora of completely made up ones.
In Power Surge, the school Erin and friends attended was completely fictional, but one of the battles happens at Portland Head Light. The characters go in made up shops and restaurants, but those are within the confines of Portland.
I don’t put actual business in the story, though generically named places often bear some resemblances to my favorite eateries even if that was never my intention.
Good food sticks in my unconscious, and writing first drafts is a lot like dreaming. The worlds of my urban fantasy novels wind up littered with almost-Doppelgängers of my favorite restaurants.
Legal and ethical issues aside, I don’t use exclusively real settings because I feel too limited if I can’t completely make up certain aspects of a place, like the staff, the decor, and the restrooms.
However, a recent afternoon spent in Portland reminded me this balance is a tricky one to maintain, and I didn’t do quite as a good a job with it in Power Surge as I thought I did.
I’d been to all places that inspired my setting many times before I wrote the scenes that happened there. Years ago, shortly before and while I was working on early drafts, I frequented downtown Portland as well as the beaches and light houses around it.
Unfortunately, there was a large gap between those visits and the final revisions and edits of the book.
Google maps, even on satellite view, is no substitute for actually going to a place, walking around, taking pictures, smelling it, hearing it, and taking it all in.
I’m certain that in the early drafts, my description of places with real life counterparts, the ones that ground the fantasy, were very accurate. I’m not so sure I’d say that about the final version. I’m not way off, but when I think about how I described Portland Head Light and Crescent Beach, I realize I made them to small. I didn’t take the parking lot gates into account when my characters visited at night.
How did this happen?
I revised my descriptions of the “real” settings the same way I revised descriptions of fictional ones, and wasn’t careful enough to make sure I was staying true to the place.
To readers who have never been to the places in the book, it won’t matter. However, if someone who frequented them picked up, I fear some inconsistencies with reality might yank them out of the narrative.
“That parking lot is way bigger than you described!”
“If it was ten at night, the gate would have been closed.”
This is the danger of mixing actual landmarks in fiction. You may start with a light house or beach readers could visit, but if you are not careful enough, you may edit that place away from it’s real life counterpart without even realizing it.
In some ways, that is for the better. I’m writing fiction, and no matter how much the Portland Head Light in my book may or may not look like the real thing, at most, it is a Doppelgänger. The setting of the book isn’t reality but an alternate version of it. Still, I don’t want to confuse or alienate local readers.
I’m not sure if I’ll change how I handle settings in urban fantasy, but I need to be more careful. I need to approach revision differently in those sections. I need to really be aware of how much time messes with my memory.
Have you ever used real cities or landmarks in your books? Why or why not?
Whose perspective do you like to write from best, the hero (protagonist) or the villain (antagonist)? And why?
My favorite characters to write are the ones who are both hero and villain.
Power Surge is a great example of this. The whole book is from Erin Evanstar’s point of view, and the conflict with the most tension is Erin versus Erin.
Technically speaking, there is mysterious demon stalking Erin who eventually plays the role of the villain Erin has to fight. But honestly? For most of the book, Erin is in more danger of hurting themself than they are of being seriously wounded or murdered by the demon. After all, the demon wants to capture Erin alive, and while it isn’t shown on the page, readers know that Erin has attempted suicide at least once in the past two years.
Danger factor aside, the demon villain isn’t on page as much as a villain should be and doesn’t take as much action as a true antagonist would. He’s not even the real big bag behind the apocalypse, but an agent of that big bad.
Erin is their own antagonist.
In the relationship subplot between Erin and José, Erin is the biggest obstacle Erin has to overcome. José isn’t perfect. He says and does some stupid things because he is a mess, but inside, he really is a sweet guy who selflessly loves Erin. As much as Erin loves him too, there are times where they treat him horribly. If the relationship is going to work, Erin needs to defeat Erin.They need kick their dark, selfish side’s ass.
I have written heroes who are actually decent human beings and have actuall villains to defeat, and I’ve enjoyed writing them, but not as much as I’ve enjoyed Erin and other characters like Erin. I love the necromancer, succubus, troll, and human-eating alien farmer that have doubled as antagonists and protagonists in my short stories.
I think I know why.
The stories and characters I become the most invested in are the ones inspired by my fears. There are plenty of things I’m afraid of. Serial killers, bad dog owners, parking garages at night, elevators, crowds, sexual predators, and the dark are just a few items on a long, long list.
But the darkness I fear most is the one that quietly lurks inside of me. What would happen if it got too loud? Who could I hurt? What lines would I cross? Would there be any chance of redemption?
I write this darkness into my characters. I make it worse. I give them less self control. I make their upbringing rough and filled with tragedy and a lack of good mentors, and with things I imagine would have pushed me over to the dark side.
Soon enough, the characters take on a life of their own. When I start to get that feeling that they are growing independently of me and making their own choices, it is time to get plotting.
I want to see how long they can hold their own darkness off for. I want to see what happens when they fail. What lines will they cross? Can they come back once they cross those lines?
Besides writing what other creative outlets do you have?
Other than writing, photography has been my most consistent creative outlet. I loved taking pictures even when all I had was a disposable film camera.
I remember having at least one 35mm and one 110 film camera as a child. I can’t quite picture the 35mm, but the 110 was long and silvery. I was fascinated by my mom’s polaroid, and eventually, she bought me a couple kid-friendly instant cameras, one of which printed the pictures on stickers.
When my mom started selling antiques on Ebay, she bought a digital camera so she could photograph the objects she sold. When one camera would get old or become obsolete, I remember being able to use that to take pictures of and with my friends instead of my instant cameras.
I loved how digital cameras gave me the chance to see the picture right away without wasting material. If the picture didn’t come out right, I knew immediately. I could delete and retake it. This took away the stress of wasting material because of a mistake and I loved photography twice as much. Now, this is something I take for granted every time I pick up my camera.
I have to sit and think to remember what it was like to not really know if the image was going to be underexposed or blurry until it was developed. It’s hard to remember what it might have felt like to know I wasted material when an instant from my polaroid came out blurry too dark.
These days, the only images I print at all are my favorites.
Much like writing, photography is a medium of story telling with drafts, revisions, and edits.
Simply snapping a picture might be enough to just say “I was here.” Sometimes, that is enough. Other times, I might photograph the same scene or object over and over again at different angles and shutter speeds so I can tell a more detailed story. “I stopped to gawk because this caterpillar because those stripes are fascinating.”
I’ve never had the patience to really learn how to make the most of my camera’s manual settings, so often, when I get home and load my images to the computer, they fall short of my expectations and I end up in photoshop adjusting exposure and color balance and adding filters.
Sometimes, when I really want to tell a story without words, I’ll let my imagination run wild while I merge and blend different photos into something so strange and abstract that it might be some kind of art.
Mostly, photography and photo editing are hobbies, but I’ve been dabbling in cover art, and that, my friends, is paid work. It means getting paid to tell a visual story. It’s writing with pictures. Well, maybe more like writing a book blurb with pictures.
Note: As you read this post, you may notice I’m vague about the content of the review. You could probably go on Goodreads and figure out what I’m referring to, but I don’t want this to be seen as a response or rebuttal to the review. My goal is to capture my thought process as a new author seeing a negative review of their first novel.
Up until this week, all the reviews that I’d seen for Power Surge have been positive, which of course, made me skeptical. Inevitably, someone was going to burst my bubble.
It finally happened. Someone who didn’t finish the book left a review without a rating.
I disregarded advice I’ve heard across the internet and read the review. I’m glad I read it, even if I was surprised by my reaction.
At first, my brain processed it like feedback from a CP or beta reader. I had to squash my instinct to explain why I wrote something the way I did, and then I had to squash my urge to reply thanking the reviewer.
I thought about what I could’ve changed in a scene the reviewer alluded to. I came to the conclusion that in general, I need to be more careful about how my main character and my narrative voice react to characters who say problematic things or hold problematic opinions.
After a day, I realized that in my mind, the review had shifted from what it actually was something completely different. I had latched onto to a specific phrase the reviewer mentioned and made the whole thing about that scene.
Early in the morning when I just wanted to go back to sleep, I took it personally, as if the characters flaws were my own.
I realized one assumption the reviewer made was literally wrong.
I thought that it was the only review people are going to pay attention to. No one else would buy my book. No agent or publisher will represent future works of mine.
I thought the reviewer was wrong. I thought the reviewer was calling me out on an important issue. I wanted to thank them. I wanted to argue. I wanted respond, to know more, but I didn’t because writers need to leave readers and reviewers alone.
Instead of filing the feedback aside for future work and moving on, as you can see, I obsessed over it.
But something good did come out of it.
It reminded me that just says they don’t like a character or can’t connect with a character in a published work, I’m shouldn’t think much of it, especially when I know other readers have connected to that character. That type of thing is subjective and varies from person to person.
If a character makes someone uncomfortable? That’s okay. I’ve read books with characters that made me uncomfortable too, but that didn’t mean that book was bad.
Different people react differently to different characters. A good chunk of this bad review was based off of things I think of as subjective, and some assumptions the person made because they stopped reading too soon.
However, when I see a reviewer mention something harmful, like misogyny, it is worth reflecting on. The reviewer mentioned a phrase a character used in a scene, and I think I could’ve done a better job showing the main character and the narrative voice’s disapproval of that attitude.
Now, that might not have fixed it for the reviewer, who might have perceived an overall tone that I’m somewhat oblivious to, but to me, that change would’ve helped.
If a reviewer calls an author out on problematic or harmful ideas, then the author needs to listen. They need to take that into account and reflect. Maybe the reviewer is onto something. Maybe they are misconstruing it or their reading is being influenced by some outside factor. Either way, it’s something for me to keep in the back of my head when I’m revising the sequel and other works, especially since I do tend to include characters who hold problematic opinions or say harmful things in some of my works.
Sometimes those characters change.
Sometimes I kill them.
Sometimes they don’t actually mean the things they say, but feel they are expected to act that way fit a certain mold…or they are just trying to piss someone off.
In future science fiction and secondary world fantasy, I’m open to leaving those characters out and writing about societies that have out grown a lot of the problems that plague Earth today. On the other hand, when I write books like Power Surge, urban fantasy with a contemporary setting, the nasty side of present-day humanity rears it’s ugly head.
Sometimes problematic ideas creep in unintentionally, stemming from things I may not realize I internalized. Other times, I think I am deliberate exposing the dirt and raking up the muck, yelling “Look! This is a problem! Do you see why?”
I need to careful that the narrative voice isn’t endorsing their harmful words and to remember that silence equals endorsement. I need to acknowledge that some readers don’t want to see certain harmful concepts represented on the page in any way, shape or form, and that if those readers pick up a book like Power Surge, they might have a problem with.
Books that ignore problematic concepts and try to show us a better way to live and think and act are incredibly important. Books that get messy and roll around in humanity’s, books that acknowledge harm ideas and punch them in the face are also important.
Reading a critical review of my book ended up being a thought provoking excercise that was worth the stress it created.
If you are interested in reading Power Surge, for yourself, here are some buy links.
I love how Vasya resists the gender roles of her time, how she grows into herself and figures out who she really is. Her persistence, pain, wildness, courage, and dedication are tangible things. I loved struggling and succeeding and navigating a myriad of complicated relationships through her point of view. Morozko was my second favorite character, perhaps made more intriguing by the fact that readers really did not get to see much from his point of view. The others were okay, but every time the narrative shifted to them, I just wanted to get back to Vasya.
I did find myself annoyed at the way the book shifted point of view. This varies from reader to reader, but I prefer to read from one point of view for a whole chapter and get annoyed when scene breaks indicate a switch in point of view. On more than one occasion, I found myself rereading to remind myself which character’s eyes the world was being filtered through.
The world building was fantastic. I was smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and hearing right along with the characters. And it wasn’t boring or overwhelming. Every detail Arden chose to focus on was relevant and added to the tone or mood of the scene. I loved that the magic system and creatures were based off of actual myths, and that some of the characters were named after people who actually existed and fought in a battle the one in the book was based off of.
One downside of historically accurate fiction is that it is often loaded with sexism and misogyny the contemporary world is struggling to shake. Throughout this trilogy, were there was no shortage of sexist men treating woman like inferior beings or objects. However, I was happy that there were less of those in this book and that Vasya had earned the respect of men who previously looked down on her.
As much as I enjoy escaping to worlds without sexism, to worlds where gender isn’t a rigid binary thing people are judged by, I do believe there is plenty of room for those books to co-exist with novels like this that don’t censor the shitty parts of history. Historical fantasy has it’s value too. It makes me appreciate how far society has come.I’ll certainly miss Vasya, Morozko, and their complex, slow burn romance, but I’ll look forward to reading whatever Arden writes next.