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Death comes for us all.

Keep her as your friend.

 Read "La Santisima"

What's New:

Miserere is now available at Audible.

My short story "Naked the Night Sings" is only one of the many fine stories in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF, edited by Tim Marquitz and Tyson Mauermann, Angelic Knight Press, 2013.

Novels

"Filled with show me now and tell me later prose, [Miserere] was one of the finest debuts of 2011 and remains a novel that I remember details from nearly three years later." Justin Landon, Tor.com

Download an excerpt of Miserere here

Thursday
Apr172014

Noble women

Earlier today on Tumblr, Kate Elliot shared a group of movie posters that I just loved. I wanted to repost one of the pictures here, because whenever I thought of the Sygnosian queens in Cygnet Moon, this was exactly the kind of woman I envisioned:

Cheng Pei-pei as She SaihuaThis is Cheng Pei-pei dressed for her role as She Saihua in the 2011 movie Legendary Amazons. She wears her age like a badge of honor, and she is far more interesting and beautiful than the younger women in the cast.

Monday
Apr142014

on endings and being strong ... (#SFWApro)

I've finished Makar's story, tentatively entitled Cygnet Moon, and I've shipped it off to my beta readers. While I'm waiting for them to get back to me, I worked on the blurb and the submission package. This is the part where I evaluate the characters and the major plot lines.

As I worked, it occurred to me that I've finished a book with a protagonist who is not homicidal in any way. He doesn't use violence as the means to get his way. He is intelligent but inexperienced, and in some ways these traits might make him seem weak. Yet he's not. His strength is his ability to be flexible and not become overwhelmed by his circumstances. He is willing to learn, and that willingness to learn and listen to others becomes his greatest strength.

Killing is a last resort to him.

As I'm thinking about the blurb and synopsis, I'm wondering how we define "strong" in genre literature now. Is a willingness to kill the criteria for what makes a character strong?

Part of this musing arises from a review that Justin Landon wrote about The Hunger Games:

In other words, I find Katniss to be an incredibly unappealing character who’s saved by being able (if tentatively unwilling) to kill her peers ... And yet, Kantiss is touted as a heroic character. She is something of a icon of the “strong female character”. I think shoehorning her into that role does her, and Suzanne Collins, a grave disservice. She is, actually, a much more layered character than that.

Without digressing, I think Justin is right, but part of his rationale stuck with me for a different reason. Why do we tend, at least in genre fiction, to equate killing with strength? The proverbial "strong female character" is one who "kicks ass." She kills without blinking and fights with the same savagery as a man. We expect the same out of our male characters: he must be willing to fight and sacrifice all. Yet we seem to be putting our emphasis on the ability to kill, not the ability to reason.

In spite of their willingness to kill, the Katnisses and Jorgs of the world don't possess strong character. Justin gives an excellent overview of Katniss. Mark Lawrence's Jorg is also weak in many ways. He is a child seeking his father's approval, and he will go to any length to acquire that approval. He is clever, but he is not emotionally strong. The one thing I like about Abercrombie's work is that he doesn't claim his characters are heroes, except in the most tongue-in-cheek manner. He portrays everyman in situations that demand hard choices, but he doesn't call them heroes.

This isn't saying that these stories are bad or inadequate in any way. I'm a big fan of dark fantasy and enjoy writing horror as well. That isn't the issue I'm trying to raise. The issue is how we, the readers, equate strength with killing. Our heroes are essentially murderers who find a way to justify their homicides.

Blog post after blog post has been written about women who fight as if they are some anomaly. Women have fought alongside men since the beginning of time--only the most obtuse individual would claim otherwise. I was fortunate in that my father was a historian and a teacher. He directed me to good sources when I asked about women in history.

As a young woman, and even today, my heroes were Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. These two women fought against the injustices around them, but they didn't go around "kicking ass." They fought with their intellect, their cunning, and they were unafraid.

If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it. --Sojourner Truth

As I grew older and read more history, Eleanor Roosevelt became another hero. Roosevelt knew that other women looked to her as a role model, and she gave us ammunition in the form of words. She rose to meet every challenge around her and told us all that we could do the same. She fought with the strength of her character.

We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot. --Eleanor Roosevelt

I thought about all of these things as I wrote Cygnet Moon. I could have easily made Makar a kick-ass killer prince. Yet the biggest battle is often with oneself and one's own nature. This applies to men and women. I wanted to explore Makar's desire to be humane in spite of the inhumanity around him. That takes a much deeper form of strength.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. --Harriet Tubman

So with Cygnet Moon, I wanted to look a little more deeply at heroes and how they are made. I wanted to bypass the thieves and the everyman. Other authors are writing those characters much more skillfully than me. I don't think we need another kick-ass hero of moral ambiguity. That's just more of the same.

Makar wants to change the world around him, and in doing so, he has to make hard choices. I don't think his lack of murderous intent lessens the tension of his story in any way. He is not the golden hero who always makes the right choices. He is flawed and quite vulnerable at times. He is a young man who wants to use his status and his privilege to protect people rather than exploit them.

I think those goals are just as worthy as kicking ass.

Sunday
Mar092014

random notes--the book of five rings: war and writing (#SFWApro)

I've really enjoyed my research for Cygnet Moon, because it has led me back to the writings of Miyamoto Musashi.

For those who have never heard of Musashi, he was a masterless samurai who was undefeated as a duelist, and in 1643, he wrote a treatise on the art of war. The Book of Five Rings is considered one of the primary texts on combat that emerged from samurai culture and is still in publication today.

Musashi took a very pragmatic approach toward killing and warfare. He eschewed showmanship and focused on the scientific art of lethal force. In The Book of Five Rings, he compares the discipline necessary to hone a warrior's skill to other crafts--he likens the science of martial arts to carpentry--and by doing so, renders certain parts of his treatise applicable to any craft, even the craft of writing.

I thought I would share with you Musashi's rules for learning military science, or any science, for that matter:

  1. Think of what is right and true.
  2. Practice and cultivate the science.
  3. Become acquainted with the arts.
  4. Know the principles of the crafts.
  5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything.
  6. Learn to see everything accurately.
  7. Become aware of what is not obvious.
  8. Be careful even in small matters.
  9. Do not do anything useless.

It's a nice list to keep in mind as I write.

__________

Translation taken from Classics of Strategy and Counsel: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Boston : Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2000.

Thursday
Mar062014

writing contests and author photographs

Two cool things are going on around the interwebs this week:

A Writing Contest: Bloody Cake News is hosting a writing contest to help Mark Lawrence spread the good word about his newest novel, Prince of Fools.

Six authors will be judging the entries: Mark Lawrence, T.O. Munro, Snorri Kristjansson, Daniel Polansky, Luke Scull, and me. Entries have already begun to pour in, so go over to Bloody Cake News and see what the competition looks like. You have got until April 1, 2014 to give us your best three hundred words ... make them count.

[Edited to add: my flash fiction, Comes the Night, was only 231 words. You can do it!]

Authors on Author Photos: M.L. Brennan asked a bunch of us what we really thought about author photos. I'm over at her place this week along with authors Jason Hough, Delilah Dawson, Django Wexler, Elspeth Cooper, Stephen Blackmore, Mazarkis Williams, and Zachary Jernigan. We discuss the dreaded author photograph and what these pictures mean to us.

In other things, I'm busy with my latest work and will be around sporadically.

Stay out of trouble.

Yeah, I'm talking to you.

Monday
Mar032014

what we have here is a failure to communicate ...

I was off-line most of the weekend, and I'm very glad that I was. The latest Twitter-rage-athon that I've see storified all morning appalls me. In retrospect, no matter how justified the comments, the whole ordeal smacks of verbal savagery and makes the entire community look bad.

The discourse was so incoherent and violent, one author asked if the objections to Jonathan Ross as emcee were because he was a white guy. He couldn't understand the rage, because he, like me, didn't know who Jonathan Ross is or why everyone was so upset.

Ranty tweets that essentially consisted of the sentiments FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, WHAT THE FUCKERY? weren't very enlightening either. A group that I belong to was very helpful in providing some insight into the matter, otherwise, I was as lost as everyone else.

I am trying to recall the last time I ever saw an announcement bungled so badly. This whole thing is obviously yet another PR disaster that could have been averted with a little advance planning and a better presentation. Unfortunately, the LonCon3 committee got excited and squeed all over Twitter, which was about as professional as pissing down their legs.

To his credit, Ross did try to engage civilly but was essentially shouted down. There was no communication. No one can listen when everyone is screaming.

People scream when they feel like they are not being heard. I totally understand women's frustration in that regard. Trust me, I do. However, I'm disheartened when I see a post like this from Sam Sykes and see other male bloggers who shall remained unnamed but are likewise worried over the same issues.

They feel, rightly so, that if they speak out they will be castigated.

And some women will say: Good, they deserve to see what it feels like.

I'm not one of those women.

One group's safety should not come at the expense of another group's. If we do that, then we have learned nothing and can claim no moral high ground whatsoever.

Anger at the LonCon3 committee is justified. They botched everything about this from the beginning to the end. For the record, having read a few articles about Ross, I can be the first to say that I'm not enthralled with his comedy. In lieu of all of the recent issues within the SFF community, I would not have recommended him as an emcee. LonCon3 knew this would be an issue and proceeded in spite of that fact.

However, regardless of what you think of Jonathan Ross and his comedy, he should not have been savaged the way he was on Twitter. While his comedy is off-color and antagonistic toward just about everyone, he does (or did, anyway) want to be a part of the SFF community. We have now lost any chance of engaging him in productive discourse on the topic. After the way he was treated, he'll run screaming from any of us, and frankly I can't blame him for that.

The objective must be to create a safe environment for everyone. If we cannot achieve that one goal, then we have failed to communicate. Worse still, we have stifled the voices of people like Sam and those nameless bloggers, who have rallied to our side in the past.

Communication is a two-way street that implies listening as much as talking. We need to stop screaming AT one another and begin talking TO one another. Otherwise, we'll never communicate enough to solve the problems before us.

Wednesday
Feb262014

writerly nuts and bolts

Because I don't have anything remotely like a real blog post for you guys this week, a picture of Cygnet Moon.

The book is open to the calendar I had to devise for the story. Sheet protectors hold notes and references. The pages are the actual story.

And yes, that is a real rabbit skin, which came with the table that passed to me when my grandfather died.

Monday
Feb172014

family in Miserere--a question by ML Brennan (#SFWApro)

I have another question: this one comes from ML Brennan (whose books you should read ... just sayin'):

In Miserere a fundamental portion of the world construction was about a created sense of family between the foundlings and the adults who essentially became their new parents. Lucian and Rachael are estranged former lovers, but one of the primary things that brings them back together is the need of Lucian's newly-discovered foundling. For a book that features so many orphans who are building new identities in a new world, there's an amazing emphasis on bonds of a nuclear family (Rachael and Lucian also share the same foster parent, who with his wife also forms another nuclear family unit) -- what drove this theme?

Weird as this may sound, I didn't think too much about the nuclear aspect of the families when I wrote Miserere. I wanted to examine the nature vs. nurture aspect of childhood, and the best way to study this is through the adoption process.

I knew two things: both Rachael and Lucian came from damaged childhoods and in order to develop into reasonably healthy adults, they would need firm guidance while maturing. I gave them John and Tanith simply because that is the way in which they popped into my head.

Also, not all of the families were nuclear. Not everyone had a spouse. If you'll remember, Caleb raised Victor alone. Victor got into trouble, but only because he was curious and inexperienced. Victor wasn't malicious, and he suffered no ill effects from being raised by a single parent.

As for the John-Tanith/Rachael-Lucian paradigm, it just worked out that way in Miserere, and since most--almost all--of the action took place outside of the Citadel, I had very little room to give an overall picture of the social structure in Woerld. When I focused on the scenes between Lucian and Lindsay, I figured that his primary objective was in survival as well as keeping Lindsay from inadvertently killing them both with her undeveloped powers rather than delving too deeply into the Citadel's society and how it functioned.

The actual family units were constructs that I saved for Dolorosa. There are at least two same-sex couples within the Citadel. Unfortunately, I didn't get to put them Miserere, but Lindsay will question their presence at the Citadel at some point. She will be told that love between two people is a reflection of the divine.

So it wasn't so much of a theme for nuclear parents, but more of a theme of adoption. How does adoption affect children when they are taken from one set of parents and placed with another? In our society, we expect these children to adapt like puppies and kittens, but even infants have shown changes in their brain chemistry when they are taken from their birth parents and placed in a new home.

The child's sense of security is threatened; the world is suddenly a hostile place, sown with uncertainties. It's not a new theme. Disney has used it over and over.

Most YA literature is about youngsters searching for their identities. However, a person's identity doesn't magically stop evolving after age twenty.

I wanted to write about adults who utilized their past experiences to further develop their personalities. So with Miserere, I examined the adoption theme from the adult perspective. How did their removal from their respective homes affect them?

Rachael doesn't look back. There was nothing in her earthly life but abuse and horror. She left her father to drown in a well, and though the memory haunts her, she feels no remorse for his death. She accepts her place in Woerld and will eventually thrive in Woerld's environment.

Lucian, on the other hand, has intense memories and a longing for home. He can relate to Lindsay's desire to return to Earth, and her initial refusal to accept Woerld.

Lucian wants to protect Lindsay, she ignites his paternal instincts into overdrive. Rachael wants to protect Lindsay too, but there is a distinct difference in how they value the child. Lucian shifts his strong paternal instincts from Catarina, who has rejected him over and over, to Lindsay, who values him, and Rachael sees Lindsay as a valuable soldier in their war against the fallen.

Lucian wants to nurture Lindsay into becoming a good person, and Rachael sees a weapon to be honed against the Fallen. In spite of all of this, I never really saw Lindsay as being the unifying force between Rachael and Lucian. She is more of an observer, the reader's eye into the story.

In a lot of ways, Miserere is about families, but it wasn't the nuclear theme that I wanted to stress. I wanted to examine whether blood really is thicker than water.

Lucian finds the opposite is true.

Thursday
Feb062014

being a woman and writing dark fiction--it's complicated (#SFWApro) 

It's question and answer time at the old blog! Today's winner is Beverly Bambury, who asked: How do you feel being a woman has affected you as a writer of dark fiction?

Like everything else in publishing--it's complicated.

Beverly's question made me think of the time I surfed through some posts on Reddit about year ago. Someone once commented that women don't write complicated novels like [insert list of male fantasy authors here].

Hmmmmm, I thought.

That is the sound of my brain warming up.

Hmmmmmm, why would someone make such an outrageous statement? Surely women were writing complicated novels that could be marketed toward the mainstream reading public.

Of course, the Redditor's statement sat in the back of my mind and fermented until Beverly’s question resurrected it. Now I was curious and wanted to dispel the myth that women don’t write complicated dark fiction, because I know a lot of women who do write complicated, intelligent fiction.

I constructed a search for female authors of dark fiction whose works were marketed to mainstream audiences at the same promotional level as those by male authors. My results returned a few prominent names: Gillian Flynn, Sarah Waters, Mira Grant, Joyce Carol Oates, and Elizabeth Kostova (and Kostova is not really a dark fiction writer—she merely qualifies due to The Historian). This is, by no means, a comprehensive list—these are just the first names that floated to the top.

I switched up my methodology and retooled my search to examine what kinds of books were being published by women. I kept my research primarily on new authors and generally skipped over authors such as Robin Hobb and Joyce Carol Oates, not because they aren't worthy of discussion, but because they have been involved in publishing for so long, their fan base and reputations are well established.

Goodreads was nice place to browse due to their Goodreads Choice Awards. I found that women are primarily, although not exclusively, published with following types of works (in no particular order):

  • Feminist literature (this includes novels with a protagonist who is a "strong female character" / usually college educated career track women, but not necessarily—the emphasis is on badass women who kick ass)
  • Young Adult
  • Urban/Paranormal Fantasy
  • Time travel (most of these novels follow feminist examinations of cultural attitudes, especially those surrounding mother/daughter relationships, and are either romance or coming of age stories--remove the fantastical elements of magic or time travel and these novels could easily be categorized as "chick-lit")
  • Historical romance (if a woman writes anything historical, there must be a heavy male/female romantic element)

As I browsed through the blurbs, I began to pick up on keywords directed toward women. The phrasing varies, but a lot of blurbs on women's fantasy contain differing versions of "they must work (or join) together." This is usually indicative of a romantic element within the story and is marketing-speak for "romance isn't the primary focus of the novel; however, there is a strong romantic element."

In order to prove my point, I'm providing a sampling of blurbs and with the keywords highlighted. If you intend to write for publication, you need to be aware of marketing techniques so you can design your blurb accordingly.

From the Goodreads Choice Awards for fantasy [note: all emphasis is mine and of course, the comments in brackets are mine]:

  • The Golem and the Jinni: "But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice." [Parting, then bringing the protagonists back together is a common romance theme.]
  • The Firebird: "... unearthing a tale of love, courage, and redemption." [Notice that "love" is mentioned first.]
  • The Ghost Bride: "After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim's handsome new heir, Tian Bai." [Desire=love]
  • The River of No Return: "Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance." [FEEEEELINGS ...]
  • The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic: This one pops all of the switches from the title on down: "Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true. Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school ..." [Well, of course he's gorgeous ...]

Let's switch over to the Goodreads horror picks and see what happens:

  • White Trash Zombie Apocalpyse: "Soon she's fighting her way through mud, blood, bullets and intrigue, even as zombies, both real and fake, prowl the streets." [You can't tell me that Diana Rowland doesn't write kick ass women characters.]
  • The Fate of Mercy Alban: With the help of the disarmingly kindand attractive—Reverend Matthew Parker, Grace must uncover the truth about her home and its curse before she and her daughter become the next victims. ["With the help of" can be substituted for "they must work together" also note that the good Reverend is kind and "attractive," because in marketing-speak no one falls in love with ugly people. Obviously.]
  • Parasite by Mira Grant gets a pass, because the blurb mentions nothing about love, relationships, children, or women's issues. However, Parasite was marketed to the same mainstream audience that loved World War Z. Grant is the exception, not the rule.
  • Come Alive: It’s one thing to bring the woman you love back into your life. It’s another to try and keep her there. For Dex Foray, con­vinc­ing Perry Palomino to open her­self to their bur­geon­ing rela­tion­ship has been more chal­leng­ing than hunt­ing ghosts, bat­tling demons and stalk­ing Sasquatch com­bined. [Romance.]

The subliminal message that I'm now taking from all of this is that women are only supposed to write within certain paradigms that focus the work entirely on women’s issues, romance, or children. The trick is to keep the story-line as simple as possible, because marketing personnel obviously feel they can't easily slip a woman into the domain of traditionally male dominated "complicated" stories.

The other message is that women only buy books written by women, therefore any woman who writes a book that is not aimed at women is “unmarketable” or “too complicated.”

I am reminded of the dragon’s syllogism in Grendel: "All pigs eat cheese / Old Snaggle is a pig / If Snaggle is sick and refuses to eat, try cheese."

The publishers' syllogism is: All women love women’s issues, romance, and children / Women only read books by other women / If women want to be published, they must write books about women’s issues, romance, and children.

Whether we like it or not, that appears to be the mentality we’re dealing with.

Don't give up. I operate under the philosophy that one cannot break the rules until one thoroughly understands the rules. The cold, hard truth is that it is very difficult to break an establishment from the outside. I tend to follow the Taoist philosophy that implies I must penetrate gently and imitate the wind.

Sometimes I'm more like a hurricane, but those are the breaks.

Let me give you some advice:

  • If you are lucky enough to have an androgynous name such as Robin, Alex, Jesse, Gillian, etc., use it as your by-line. No pictures. Give scant information about your gender.
  • If you are like me and have a more gender specific name, use initials. Create a pseudonym. Go the KJ Parker route and submit to editors without them knowing your gender if at all possible. Design your website and all of your marketing with the pseudonym in mind.
  • Network, network, network, network with other authors and with publishers. This may mean going to the larger conventions that host multiple publisher tables in their dealer rooms. If are you are like me and don't have a large budget for cons, network online. Other authors and bloggers have done more to promote my work for me than all the publicists in New York. They are awesome! Thank them prolifically!
  • Take workshops with well-known authors and publishers and editors who offer them, either online or in person.
  • Join a professional organization and get involved as much as you can. I know some folks have had problems with the SFWA, but so far, I haven't. Since I can't travel as much, the forum has been an excellent place for me to get marketing tips and meet other members.
  • Learn how to use social media effectively. Watch your stats and your Google analytics. Measure which blog posts are working and which are not. You want your voice heard and spread across the Internet in a positive manner. I am merely one Who in Whoville, but hear me now, my friend, you never know precisely what is going to resonate with the masses. Keep at it. Horton is out there.
  • Utilize short stories as promotional tools. I sold two short stories to anthologies last year and wrote several more that I haven't placed yet. I've been known to give them away here and another one is here, because every little click bumps my name higher into Google's algorithms. I also intend to move into hybrid publishing and self-publish some works this year.

This will break your heart, because I know it did mine: writing a good book is not the same as being marketable. This makes me very sad, because when I started writing, I had this lofty notion that I would finally be evaluated by something other than my gender, or my education, or the social circles in which I moved. I thought I would be judged by my prose, by my stories. I know you thought these things too, but unfortunately that is not how it works.

I have a friend who tells me that acceptance is the key to all of my problems and it is. First, I have to accept the fact that in order to become published, I must write something marketable. In order to do that, I must understand what publishers and editors mean when they say "marketable."

Once you understand those terms, then you can either write a novel that fits within one of the standard paradigms, or go incognito.

The choice is yours.

Monday
Feb032014

Miserere ebook is on sale & Bloody Cakes ... (#SFWApro)

Big news hit this morning: the ebook of Miserere: An Autumn Tale is on sale at Amazon US for $2.99. This is a limited time offer that is so limited I don't even know how long it will last.

If you're not in the US and you'd like a lower price, try Baen Ebooks for $6.00.

[Special note: authors don't control prices, but when we see our stuff is on sale, we pass that info along to you.]

LINKS:

On Saturday, I visited Bloody Cake News for their Perilous Roses series. I answered their questions and if you have a question for me, drop it in the comments and I'll answer it for you. (Thanks to Mihir for supplying my bonus question!)

On Sunday, I returned to Bloody Cake News with a special recipe for red velvet cake sans the glass and blood. Add those at your own risk.

I received two more questions in response to my Facebook post, but those were more apropos for blog posts. I'll be around later this week to answer them.

Thursday
Jan232014

and now for a very teeny story--comes the night (#SFWApro)

And now for a very teeny story:

Comes the Night

Comes the night, thin fingers reach past broken glass and grit. Warm asphalt oozes open; weeds part like thin gray ribbons. Brown bottles litter the ground. The yeasty odor of old beer clings to the soil.

Skin-taker’s blind face rises up. The head weaves from side to side, then suddenly stops.

The scent of cheap perfume, more alcohol than flowers, wafts through the air.

Roses at Midnight

Skin-taker slithers through the grass, toward the scent.

Roses

Comes the night, Skin-taker creeps past the rusted trailers set all in a row. There are steps: one-two-three. At the door, thin fingers start rapping, tapping—way down low where the paint flakes across the threshold.

The door opens. A sliver of light leaks through. It’s not much, but it is enough. Skin-taker flies up. It has one chance. This time it is lucky. It catches the woman in her eye. Plunging into the soft tissue, Skin-taker finds the nerve and flows into her brain.

The woman notices nothing more than a sting in her eye.

From the kitchen, a man asks, Who is it?

Nobody.

The woman returns to the kitchen. The butcher knife is too heavy and will not do. She takes up the boning knife. Moonlight catches the cold, silver blade.

The man turns. Honey?

Skin-taker smiles with woman’s mouth but not with her eyes.

Comes the night, Skin-taker takes some skin.