Noble women

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.

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.

A Friday peek at Cygnet Moon (#SFWApro)

Every other Friday, my critique partner and I meet to go over our respective works and brainstorm the next step in our stories. We had to reschedule this week due to my cold, so I thought I'd share a little piece of the current work in progress:

Mother rose and looked down on me. Her ar’nel temporarily blinded my vision as she probed my mind for a lie. Without the drugs, I could have shielded my thoughts and memories from her, but whatever Sun had slipped into my food left me rotten and naked before her magic. She saw my inhibitions laid bare.

She finally announced, “We believe you, Makar.”

Before she could withdraw from my mind, my ar’nel rose up and vomited my animosity in her face. My darkness burned holes in the mists of her magic.

I struggled up through the narcotics and enunciated each word. “I. Hate. You.”

She turned her face from my rage. “Take care, Makar.”

“Father loved you, and you ran him away too,” I said with tears in my eyes. “You made him hate us.”

Her open palm struck my cheek so hard I felt the sting of her blow in spite of the narcotics. I pursed my lips and tried to spit at her but my mouth was too dry.

She flinched anyway. I’d taken her by surprise. She expected my tears, my sorrow, but she had not anticipated my rage.

When she looked at me again, her glare had turned diamond sharp.

We became enemies that night.

I'll be back on Monday. I've got a contest coming up soon, so stay tuned for that. 2014 is going to rock. You just watch.

Year end wrap-up (#SFWApro)

A look back on 2013

I read a lot of novels by men during 2012 and 2013, because I wanted to analyze the differences between male and female authors. The Gender Bending post of late 2012, early 2013 was one of my most popular posts ever; although, I hesitate to call it mine. Several wonderful authors contributed to that project in late December 2012 through early January 2013, so in many ways it belongs to all of us. Thank you again to everyone who contributed their time and energy to make that project work, especially to the fans who guessed and commented.

What we found out was what we already knew: unless the name automatically indicated a gender, there was approximately a 50/50 chance that the participants would guess wrong.

My writing

Dolorosa (Book 2 of the Katharoi series). I completed a solid first chapter to Miserere's sequel, Dolorosa. I had just started work on the synopsis when Night Shade Books initiated the sale of the company to Skyhorse/Start. For a variety of reasons, Dolorosa was put on hold.

Given the time limitations that I have for writing, I have to focus on projects that have a chance of selling. I spent most of April and May trying to work out a feasible schedule for the project and finally decided that anything with the Katharoi series had to be placed on hold for the duration of one year at the very least.

Miserere: An Autumn Tale. Is now available at Audible where it is drawing some very nice reviews.

In other good news, Miserere has officially earned out on the Skyhorse side of the debit sheet. For that little miracle, I owe all of my thanks to everyone who has purchased a copy of Miserere, either ebook, print, or audio. You have my deepest gratitude.

Miserere also took a major shout-out on Tor.com in the Under the Radar series. Check out the Under the Radar series for more great books that you might have missed.

Short Stories. Given all of the upheaval going on around me in April/May, I concentrated on short stories:

  • "La Santisima" is an original short story that is here on the blog and you can read it for free.
  • "Naked the Night Sings," is merely one of the many fine stories featured in Manifesto: UF, edited by Tim Marquitz and Tyson Mauermann, Angelic Knight Press, 2013.
  • "Love, Crystal and Stone," will appear in Neverland's Library Fantasy Anthology, edited by Roger Bellini, Neverland Books, March 2014. You can read an exclusive excerpt from "Love, Crystal and Stone" at Fantasy Book Critic.

I also wrote two more short stories that will be going on submission after the first of the year:

  • "Down to the River" a coming of age story about a young sin-eater.
  • "White like Snow" a story about two brothers who find a haunted castle.

Cygnet Moon. I have a synopsis and almost 50,000 words on this novel. I'm really pleased with both the story and the characterization so far.

General observations

In spite of all of the set-backs, I don't feel too bad about 2013. I wrote over 30,000 words on short stories and 50,000 words on a new novel. That figure doesn't include word counts from submission packages, blog posts, interviews, etc.

Not bad. In 2014, I will finish Cygnet Moon and begin work on Dolorosa. More and more people are asking for Miserere's sequel and in every review people mention that they would like to revisit Woerld. I hope to make that possible for you.

To all of the awesome people who have been so kind as to read Miserere and give the book a shout-out whenever and where ever you can. Thank you!

Celebrate the season in whatever way you see fit. I'll be with the most tolerant people in the world ... my lovely family.

I'll see you again in 2014.

Watch for me.

all the things ... and a snippet from Cygnet Moon

The joy of having a writing partner (or group) is that I am on task to finish certain projects within a specified period of time. My writing partner and I are old friends, and I am so very fortunate that she is in my life.

We meet every two weeks and we are determined to have at least one chapter ready to be read. On the weeks that we do not meet, we touch base via email and describe what we've been doing. Most people think that writers write and that is all that writers do. However, part of her list included organizing her notes and outlining where she wants her chapter to go. My list included marketing (revamping the web site, setting up a profile on BookLikes, and working on a guest post for Bastard Books), writing chapter three of Cygnet Moon, and world-building.

World-building this week included coming up with animals to represent certain hours such as in the Chinese zodiac. I want to do something similar with Cygnet Moon, but I wanted to change the animals so that they all were birds. So my hours look like this:

Chinese zodiac

Hours

Cygnet zodiac

Rat

23:00 – 00:59

Heron

Ox

1:00 – 02:59

Stork

Tiger

03:00 – 04:59

Swan

Rabbit

05:00 – 06:59

Grouse

Dragon

07:00 – 08:59

Dragon

Snake

09:00 – 10:59

Crane

Horse

11:00 – 12:59

Phoenix

Goat

13:00 – 14:59

Gull

Monkey

15:00 – 16:59

Osprey

Rooster

17:00 – 18:59

Rooster

Dog

19:00 – 20:59

Dove

Pig

21:00 – 22:59

Swift

 

These are all fairly arbitrary right now. I didn't really put a lot of thought into why I chose this bird or that one, it was more like scrolling through a list and seeing what felt right. I don't let myself become too hung up with minor details during the zero draft portion of the story. What I have created is what I like to call "place holders." These are details that may or may not change, but they give me the ability to achieve the desired mood while filling in the broader strokes of the story itself.

So that is what I did with my week of writing.

Oh. And I've almost finished chapter three of Cygnet Moon, which is turning into a very dark fairy tale. I'll leave you with a teensy snippet:

“Makar,” Mother whispered my name. A thin line of salvia trailed from her bottom lip to the rim of the cup. “I feel as if he is here.”

Fear hardened around my heart.

Balian gestured to the guards with her staff. “Search the room! Seize him!”

Mother raised her head. “Be still!” Her voice emitted a shrill note I’d never heard her use before.

Balian seemed to shrink inside her voluminous robes.

“They will not find him. His body is not here, he is merely watching, hiding in the shadows, seeing what shouldn’t be seen. Ungrateful, spiteful child.”

Mother makes Catarina look like a novice, because Mother isn't emotionally unstable, she is just plain evil.

Wicked women rule.

Carry on and read books for pleasure.

I'll be making words ...

why so silent?

While I'm letting a short story percolate, I've returned to work on Cygnet Moon. I don't have any taglines or blurbs for this novel yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying the story. The protagonist has finally begun to show me a few moments of subtle psychological imbalance. That trait has prevented the story from slipping into the tired old frame "young person goes into the world to mature."

Makar is twisted around the edges--his madness is embedded in his DNA and comes from both his mother and his father. I'm still discovering all of his quirks, but this one surprised me as I completed a scene the other day:

“Swear your loyalty to me, Makar.”

With the suffocating whiteness of her ar’nel gone, I could breathe freely once more. My eyes still burned and refused to focus properly, but I glimpsed the shadowy image of Balian as she stepped close to Mother’s side.

I disengaged myself from Tatiana’s grip and knelt before Mother. “I swear on the names of my ancestors and on the blessed name of my grandmother Queen of Heaven Norayn ib Jebid that I will fulfill my duties to our people and protect them from harm.”

“With your life.”

“With my life,” I whispered to the floor, then kissed the hem of her robe and made sure to smear my blood on the underside of her gown. She wouldn’t notice until this evening that she had carried a part of me with her all the day. The very thought of my blood on her person would horrify her. “I will not dishonor this house.”

Ah, family.

I've also been working on some guest posts that will be showing up online over the next few days and weeks. I'll keep you notified of when those go live.

I'm over at the Ranting Dragon, making a case for Marion Zimmer Bradley's novel The Mists of Avalon as my choice for their Great Fantasy Novel series.

Tomorrow, my big post of the week will be at BookSworn.

I'm really excited about the Manifesto: UF anthology that is coming September 1. I've had a chance to read several of the stories and I love the way that Tim and Tyson have segued from one story to the next. There is a definite flow to the anthology that makes reading the stories in order very smooth.

One thing I've loved about the various stories that I've read so far is the scope of urban fantasy. Manifesto: UF has a little something for everyone.

I'll be talking more about my story, "Naked the Night Sings," over at Suzanne Johnson's blog later in September. Suzanne is an agent-mate of mine, we're both represented by Marlene Stringer. You can read about Suzanne's urban fantasy novels right here.

While I worked on "Naked the Night Sings," I thought a lot about the fine line between urban fantasy and horror. Of course, we all know what happens when I start to think--either nothing good comes of it, or I end up writing an ungodly long blog post about it.

So that is what has been going on behind the scenes. I hope you've been busy too.

#SFWApro

building first drafts and cygnet moon

First drafts are very fluid for me--they shift and merge a little at a time as I work through the story. A strong synopsis gives me an excellent road map to use, but all stories shift and merge and change as they go along, primarily due to the growth of the characters.

During the course of a first draft, I find or create various images to help me visualize and describe the characters and their environment; I write scenes that help me define characters and their motives but never make it into the novel. I draw maps, or locate pictures or scenes of different landscapes, and sometimes I find pictures of men or women who make me think of my characters. I keep them on hand for inspiration. Sometimes, I post them to my Tumblr, other times I just save them to my hard drive and pull them up when I need to strengthen my inner vision.

About a week ago, I changed my cover pic on Facebook (and a couple of other places) just for something new. Back during the winter, Robert Dunbar posted a spooky little pic on his Pinterest page that intrigued me. I took the pic and edited it heavily in my photoshop program in order to make it look like a character from my new work in progress, Cygnet Moon.

Several people asked about the picture and a few people speculated that the character was supposed to be evil, but he's not. I'm reposting him here with the excerpt so you can meet Makar's ar'nel with the understanding that all of this might change before the first draft is finished.

This is the first time that I've photoshopped a pic to make a character and I'm really proud of how he turned out, because this is exactly how I imagined Makar's ar'nel to look:

He is a black shadow with wild hair and eyes like nickel. My ar’nel is my magic made manifest, the breath of my spirit. My grandmother’s ar’nel exhibits itself as a great gray swan that follows her like a shade. When she visited me, her ar’nel filled my chambers and enveloped her in a pearl mist. The tapestries undulated like waves and the shields that decorate the walls trembled in her passing.

My ar’nel barely causes the lamp flames to flutter. I glare at him. If he was a great spirit like grandmother’s swan, I could use him to force the guards aside; they would have no choice but to obey my commands. Instead, I am left with this wicked magic that refuses to obey me. He is good for tipping over inkpots and knocking paintings askew but little else.

I've got two short stories to finish, then I am back into Makar's world in Cygnet Moon. If you want to leave a comment, let me know what you do to build your worlds during your first drafts.

Secret project sneak peek

I saw the movie Biutiful this past year, and in that movie there was a little boy. Out of all the things that happened to that family in that movie--there were many, many things that happened and many other portions stayed with me--something about that little boy just broke my heart.

I wanted to write a story about a young man, neglected by everyone but a few. I wanted him to grow up and find his own strength and righteously kick-ass once he matured. So I started a new story, and I'm not sure where it will lead me. Forgive this tiny portion, because this is the first draft. It is a story about a young man named Makar, who is the son of the Swan Queen. The tentative title of this one is Cygnet Moon.

chapter one

“My grandmother is dying,” I whisper. The words flow down the hall, absorbed by the darkness, lost like me.

My guards do not move their spears. They stand rigid, one on either side of the engraved archway. Demons and spirits are carved into the mahogany of the arch; they writhe around the frame, their mouths full of black. Just twenty paces beyond are the stairs that lead to the palace's upper levels. Wall sconces forever burn in these dark corridors but they shed little light. The air is rancid with burning oil.

I try to summon a princely tone, but all I manage is a strangled murmur around the burning in my throat. “I must go to her.”

The guards do not speak. They pretend not to hear.

I know the youth on the left; his name is Akim, he is eighteen, only a year older than me; in another life we might have been brothers in arms. I’ve worked hard this last year to win his allegiance. I have given him gifts and spoken kindly to him. Grandmother said that was how a prince wins the loyalty of his men, but Akim is not my man; he serves my mother.

The other guard, Dajad is on the right; he is older, almost mother’s age. Akim glances nervously at him. Hope tickles my heart. Dajad keeps his eyes on the opposite wall, his face tilted slightly to one side so he doesn’t glimpse me from the corner of his eye.

I reach up and unhook the golden necklace my grandmother gave me. Inside the locket are two feathers, one from a peacock and one from a swan. They twine around each other like grandfather cleaved to grandmother. It is the most precious thing I own.

I hold the pendant out to Akim. The lamp light spins off the gold. “Let me go to her and it is yours.”

His tongue darts over his lips. He wants it. He can feel the chain sliding over his fingers, he wants it so bad. Another furtive glance from Akim to Dajad bears no fruit. Dajad is stone. He will not give.

“She is dying.” I hate the whine that creeps into my voice. A Sygnosian prince must never be seen in a state of distress. We are blessed by Heaven, gods on earth; we must never frighten the common people, or ourselves, with emotions. I am failing everyone: my mother, my grandmother, and the two guards before me.

I can’t stop myself. I extend my arm, the chain twinkles merrily. You can have it; you can have it all if I can say good-bye to her. “Just turn away. For a moment.” Please trembles behind my teeth, but I clamp my mouth shut. I will not lower myself to beg.

Akim turns his head toward the light of the chain. Dajad knocks his spear against Akim’s and the younger man jerks forward, his gaze cemented on the stairs. I have lost him. Akim will not look at me.

I clutch the locket, the muscles in my forearm bunch tight with a rage I dare not show. Without another word, I turn away from them and follow the dim corridor back to my rooms. My ar’nel joins me midway down the hall and trots at my left side.

He is a black shadow with wild hair and eyes like nickel. My ar'nel is my magic made manifest, the breath of my spirit. My grandmother’s ar’nel exhibits itself as a great gray swan that follows her like a shade. When grandmother visits me, her ar’nel fills my chambers and envelops her in a pearl mist. The tapestries undulate like waves and the shields that decorate the walls tremble in her passing.

My ar’nel barely causes the lamp flames to flutter. I glare at him. If he was a great spirit like grandmother’s swan, I could use him to force the guards aside; they would have no choice but to obey my commands. Instead, I am left with this wicked magic that refuses to obey me. He is good for tipping over inkpots and knocking paintings askew but little else. My ar’nel is small and mean like my father. That is what my mother says.

And that is the beginning ...