Review: An Enchantment of Ravens

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Genre: YA Fantasy

Medium: Hardcover

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

FROM THE BACK COVER:

A skilled painter must stand up to the ancient power of the faerie courts—even as she falls in love with a faerie prince—in this gorgeous debut novel.

Isobel is a prodigy portrait artist with a dangerous set of clients: the sinister fair folk, immortal creatures who cannot bake bread, weave cloth, or put a pen to paper without crumbling to dust. They crave human Craft with a terrible thirst, and Isobel’s paintings are highly prized. But when she receives her first royal patron—Rook, the autumn prince—she makes a terrible mistake. She paints mortal sorrow in his eyes—a weakness that could cost him his life.

Furious and devastated, Rook spirits her away to the autumnlands to stand trial for her crime. Waylaid by the Wild Hunt’s ghostly hounds, the tainted influence of the Alder King, and hideous monsters risen from barrow mounds, Isobel and Rook depend on one another for survival. Their alliance blossoms into trust, then love—and that love violates the fair folks’ ruthless laws. Now both of their lives are forfeit, unless Isobel can use her skill as an artist to fight the fairy courts. Because secretly, her Craft represents a threat the fair folk have never faced in all the millennia of their unchanging lives: for the first time, her portraits have the power to make them feel.

MY THOUGHTS:

Isobel is a portrait painter, loved by the Fair Ones (Fae) for her ability to paint realistic portraits that served to please the ever-growing vanity of the Fair Ones. But when she paints sorrow into the eyes of a prince, Rook (who rules the Autumn Lands), he is furious and whisks her away on an adventure to set his reputation back to normal.

What did I like? The banter. There were several lines in here that were actually pretty funny and felt genuine to the characters and the moment. The beginning of the book is so full of witty lines that I was very excited to see where the story went.

Truth be told, I very much wanted to like this book. I found the concept refreshing and the cover gorgeous. But it all fell flat with me. It felt incredibly rushed, which I suppose I should have expected since it is a standalone fantasy novel. It could easily have been expanded into at least one other book, which would have allowed for more character and plot development, which it desperately needed.. The world-building, while a good concept, is vague enough that I constantly had to wonder what in the world was going on. I never fully understand how Whimsy existed or where the fae lands were in relation to the human lands. And I never fully grasped anyone’s motivations throughout the book – they just seemed to be doing things just because the author wanted them to happen.

This book is a serious case of instalove. Isobel and Rook fall in love early on (although they both have moments of denial throughout), but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why. They never really speak to one another. And the conversations they do have are “off-screen” and are mentioned later. The romance just… happens. It felt forced and unnatural, and since their romance and the danger therein was the crux of the whole novel, I couldn’t buy it.

In the end, I did enjoy reading the book but found myself skimming the last few chapters to just figure out what happens. I don’t think it really deserves only 3 stars because I did enjoy Rogerson’s writing style, but I can’t give it 4, either, because of the reasons I’ve explained above. So, 3.5 it is!

Review: Roar

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Genre: YA Fantasy

Medium: Audible and Kindle

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

FROM THE BACK COVER:

In a land ruled and shaped by violent magical storms, power lies with those who control them.

Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.

To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. At first, the prince seems like the perfect solution to all her problems. He’ll guarantee her spot as the next queen and be the champion her people need to remain safe. But the more secrets Aurora uncovers about him, the more a future with him frightens her. When she dons a disguise and sneaks out of the palace one night to spy on him, she stumbles upon a black market dealing in the very thing she lacks—storm magic. And the people selling it? They’re not Stormlings. They’re storm hunters.

Legend says that her ancestors first gained their magic by facing a storm and stealing part of its essence. And when a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage.

She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.

Challenge a tempest. Survive it. And you become its master.

MY THOUGHTS:

Okay, the world-building in ROAR is really cool. Princess Aurora (Roar) lives in a world where magic is alive and gifted people (called Stormlings) can harness and then use the powers found at the hearts of storms. There are different types of storms – fire, skyfire, thunder, wind, fog, and twisters – and the monarchy is responsible for quelling storms before they destroy their cities and kill their people. The problem is, even though Roar is set to inherit her powerful mother’s throne, she has no magical abilities. What’s worse is that she has to keep this a secret, and the only way to protect her throne is to go through with an arranged marriage to Cassius, a prince from a nearby kingdom (whose father is quite dubious, I might add).

But Roar doesn’t want that life for herself, so she escapes one night and meets a mysterious, orphaned young stormcatcher named Locke. Before she realizes it, she’s thrown into the back-alley world of black market magic (that she didn’t even know existed) and the people who hunt  storms for a living. Initially driven by the selfish motive to escape her impending wedding, she soon discovers a world far beyond her imagination and realizes that her responsibilities haven’t gone a way – they’ve actually intensified.

I started this audiobook while in the car on a road trip and quickly feel deep into the story. The narrator did a fantastic job and pulled me right in. Additionally, I loved the world-building in this story. The originality of harnessing storm power and collecting stormhearts is refreshing and not something I’ve seen before. Storms that have souls? Clever!

Roar’s character is well-rounded (albeit a bit immature sometimes) and grows throughout the entire story as she learns more about who she is and what her gifts are. I even enjoyed the slow-building romance between her and Locke. It evolves naturally, and it isn’t “instalove” that sends her into a state of foolishness. However, I did not like the possessiveness that he showed. He practically becomes obsessed with her, which is not good, especially since we can see inside his head as he inches towards questionable territory when the story flips to his point of view. Their verbal sparring matches also got old. But kuddos to Roar, because she would push him off and tell him off when he became too much of a dolt to recognize her for who she is – not just someone far more powerful and important than he wants to believe, but a woman worthy of respect, pure and simple.

I have very high hopes for the second book in this series, which releases in June of 2018. I look forward to seeing how Roar’s relationship with Locke develops (and if she sets him straight on his possessiveness), what happens to the kingdom now that she’s been away and things have taken an ominous twist by an outside force, and what happens with Cassius, Roar’s intended.

Review: The Hundredth Queen

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Genre: YA Fantasy

Medium: Kindle and Audible

Rating: 4/5 Stars

FROM THE BACK COVER:

He wanted a warrior queen. He got a revolutionary.

As an orphan ward of the Sisterhood, eighteen-year-old Kalinda is destined for nothing more than a life of seclusion and prayer. Plagued by fevers, she’s an unlikely candidate for even a servant’s position, let alone a courtesan or wife. Her sole dream is to continue living in peace in the Sisterhood’s mountain temple.

But a visit from the tyrant Rajah Tarek disrupts Kalinda’s life. Within hours, she is ripped from the comfort of her home, set on a desert trek, and ordered to fight for her place among the rajah’s ninety-nine wives and numerous courtesans. Her only solace comes in the company of her guard, the stoic but kind Captain Deven Naik.

Faced with the danger of a tournament to the death—and her growing affection for Deven—Kalinda has only one hope for escape, and it lies in an arcane, forbidden power buried within her.

MY THOUGHTS:

Emily King weaves together a beautiful and terrifying world in The Hundredth Queen. The main character, Kalinda, was orphaned at birth and raised as a ward of the Sisterhood, which is a mystical/fantasy version of a convent. Her world flips upside down, however, when she is selected as the Hundredth Queen for the emperor and all-around villain, Rajah Tarek (who undoubtedly has some major issues with women). There’s a catch, though: she has to fight for her spot against Tarek’s concubines, and it’s winner-takes-all. The losers die.

But Kalinda doesn’t want to be his queen. In fact, she finds him and the entire competition repulsive.

Kalinda has to survive, though, if for nothing else than to protect her sisterhood friend, whose fate still hangs in the balance. And so she fights.

The Hundredth Queen was a fast read for me. Set in an imaginary land a-la south Asia (which is kind of awkward since the author is not south-Asian and it’s a general fantasy hodgepodge of various cultures and religions), the world-building was really good and transported me to a spice-filled city full of color and danger. Her descriptions were beautiful and vivid, and I could picture everything in my head as she showed me, rather than told me, what to see. In addition, Kalinda was well-developed as a character with clear motivations and fears. I loved that she spoke out against and acted against the fantasy world’s cultural view of women. Even secondary characters were depicted with care with clear goals. I appreciated this. (I will say, however, that there should be more development of Brac’s character and his relationship with Deven. That part felt confusing and rushed.)

The biggest head-scratcher, however, was the romance between her and Captain Deven Naik, a guard assigned to protect her during her trip to the city and throughout the competition. It’s instalove. She seriously falls in love with the first man she’s ever seen, and it just seems a bit immature and undeveloped. She doesn’t necessarily have a reason to love him nor him to love her. It just sort of… happens. I really wish this part had been developed more, but this complaint definitely isn’t enough to keep me from reading the second book in the series. It’s still sweet to watch them learn about one another, even if they know that their romance is doomed. I really hope that this component of Kalinda and Deven’s character arcs is better fleshed out in the next book.

While I read most of the book via kindle, I listened on Audible to the first several chapters and LOVED the narrator’s voice. She really brought the story to life and added depth with her accent. It was perfectly done.

Overall, I’d give this book 4 stars. I look forward to seeing where Kalinda and Deven go from here.

Review: An Ember in the Ashes

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Genre: YA Fantasy

Medium: Paperback

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

MY THOUGHTS:

As the first book in a series, An Ember in the Ashes is an intriguing tale of danger, loyalty, and fledgling love told from dual points of view. Laia is an orphaned descendant of scholars, who are a conquered people subject to the rule of the empire, and Elias is a Mask, one of the soldiers whose life purpose is to protect the empire. Even though they have very different backgrounds and end-goals, they both hate the empire but are forced to hide this hatred for fear of death and/or retribution on those they love. The main villain, the Commandant, is also well-developed, although her motivation and WHY she’s so evil isn’t ever fully fleshed out. Perhaps that will be addressed in future books.

I loved Tahir’s story immensely and stayed up well past midnight to finish it, because I couldn’t put it down. The first several lines were jaw-droppers and immediately pulled me in. The characters are well-developed and motivated, and the world-building is pretty good. The romance(s) seem a little forced, but it/they work well. My only hangup is that there is a lot of telling rather than showing, or in non-writer terms, there just isn’t much description to the world Tahir has created. The focus of the story is more on Laia’s and Elias’s inner turmoil and dialogue, which I guess it should be, but the story doesn’t have that special magical touch of descriptive voice that a story like this begs for. I’m not big on superfluous description, but I’d have loved to have been pulled in a little more to this desert world full of mysticism and color and magic. All in all, I definitely look forward to reading the sequel and give this book 4.5/5 Stars.

 

In Defense of Picture Book Writers

Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes as a kidlit writer, it can feel a bit nerve-wracking to tell someone, especially a fellow writer, that I write picture books. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling. Why is that?

Back in August, I attended a writers workshop. I volunteered to help with the workshop, and one of my “duties” was to read out the first pages of submitted manuscripts for a panel of agents to critique. When it was mentioned that my agent signed me on the spot at the last conference I attended – for a picture book manuscript – a man sitting in the front row scoffed. Audibly. And then turned to the person beside him and repeated the words “picture book!” Now, I don’t know what he was insinuating. I don’t know who he is or what he writes or what he intended with that noise. I couldn’t even recognize him again if I saw him. But I know how it made me feel.

For a moment, behind that podium, I almost felt ashamed… ashamed that it was for my picture book of all things that I received an offer of representation and not the young adult dystopian novel that I slaved away at for at least three years. This scoff made me suddenly felt as if I had less credibility as a writer because I’m being rep’ed for picture books and not some other genre. This man didn’t know I already had a published novel, and it doesn’t really matter, does it? The fact that saying I wrote picture books was enough to earn a scoff from another writer… a dismissal… it stung. It was a confirmation of a fear I already had.

So, why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to others in the writer community?

I KNOW I spend considerably less time on my picture book manuscripts than I did on my first novel. Novels are SO HARD to write! I’m working on the sequel to The Elect right now, and it’s SLOW and difficult and exhausting. There’s world-building and hundreds of pages of text and dialogue and plot-lines. But does the “simplicity” of picture books make those of us who write them less hard-working than others? Less creative? Less intelligent? I don’t think so.

Picture books are difficult to write. Not only do you have a story to tell or a concept to portray, but your audience has the attention span of a two-year old, because they are – actually – two years old. And to convey that message or story in a logical, bouncy rhyme scheme no less? It’s not easy. It comes naturally to some but not to others, who have to work at it a lot. It’s a skill, just like anything else involved in writing. I know writers who work HARD to get their PB manuscript perfect, who have spent months figuring out rhyme schemes or sounds or illustrations. They deserve credit and recognition.

I asked my (now former) agent, Marisa Corvisiero, to share her thoughts, and she had this to add: “Good picture books help kids learn and are the stepping stone to fostering a lifelong love for reading and learning. The stimulation obtained from a picture book is almost unsurpassed. It is a needed experience and we need good picture books. And the truth is that picture books are hard. Because many don’t have the ability to accomplish the needed message or goal so simply. The simplicity of it is the difficult part. In other words, they are deceivingly simple in that they seem simple but are difficult to pull off.”

So, anyways, I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

If you are a picture book writer, don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed of what you do, because it doesn’t matter what someone else thinks about your hobby or job. You don’t write for them. You don’t write for adults. You write for the tiniest of humans. You write about cute animals and pirate ships and musical instruments and nighttime forests. You make silly noises and flaps and touch-and-feel pictures. You help children learn about the world around them – and the world in their imaginations. You teach literacy skills to emerging readers, and you instill a love to read in them. Most of all, YOU help families everywhere across the planet bond when parents and caregivers snuggle their children in their laps, read them a story (or five), and prepare to tuck them into bed.

So, no. Don’t blush or tuck your head or feel ashamed the next time someone asks you what you write. You were made to do this. Tell them you write picture books, and be proud of it!

tenor

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

The Elect: Chapter 1

Hey guys! Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m so excited about this entry, because after requesting permission from my publisher, I’m officially cleared to share the first chapter of The Elect with the world – FOR FREE! If you’re drawn into the story after reading this excerpt, I’d be honored if you purchase the e-book on Amazon, iTunes, or Barnes and Noble, and then left a review. I hope you enjoy the first chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it!

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Chapter One

 

 

Hunt. Confront. Detain. Deliver. Those are my orders. I repeat them over and over to myself as I prowl through the streets of the village. My boots make no noise on the dusty road as I weave between towering grey buildings, and my eyes scan every shadow and alley for movement. I can sense the presence of other Young Ones over my shoulder, searching like I am. We’re on a mission. Someone is breaking protocol, and we’re supposed to find him and turn him over to the Men in Red.

Frustrated that I’m missing something at ground level, I take three bounding steps and throw myself onto the roof of a two-story building. I land with ease and roll my neck, trying to relax. The early autumn sun creates a sheen of sweat on my tan skin, and my uniform clings to my back, but it doesn’t bother me. A short, red-headed girl lands on the roof beside me, and she leers, sizing me up. She’s a few years younger than I, maybe eleven or twelve years old, and she’s no match for me. We don’t speak. Nobody speaks. I move forward again, compelled by my very nature to follow orders.

I trace the edge of the building, scanning the empty streets below for clues as to the man’s whereabouts, but there are none. I leap over the road to the next row of buildings and try again. Across the village skyline, small uniformed bodies do as I do, bounding from one building to another, but there is no sound in the air. The light breeze coming down from the northern mountains carries no noise, which is what the Foundation prefers. I’m preparing to move to another street when the flutter of a white curtain in a red-framed window catches my eye. I pivot and immediately drop down to the road, landing in a soft crouch before moving towards my prey. I’ve found him.

I lift a leg and slam my foot through the front door of the five-story apartment building, and the wood splinters and explodes backwards into the hallway. I’m greeted by warm, stale air and sterile, white stairs. Footsteps shuffle in the stairwell overhead, and I can tell he’s moving upwards, towards the roof. I lunge up the steps, taking them four at a time until I reach the roof access. Light floods into the stairwell as he throws himself through the exit, and I tear after him, slamming against the weighted, metal door so hard that it breaks off its hinges and slides across the gritty roof.

He runs from me, pumping his legs as fast as he can so that his shaggy brown hair bounces around him, but he’s not fast enough. He looks over his shoulder at me and trips, landing on his side with a grunt. I don’t run to catch him now. The chase, uneventful and short, is over. His narrow chest heaves with each breath, and his gaunt eyes widen as I close in on him. He rolls onto his back, shuffling his hands and feet beneath himself to scramble away from me, but it’s no use. I lean over and grab the collar of his black shirt and tug him up so he’s standing in front of me, pain wincing across his bearded face.

“Citizen, you are in violation of Protocol Three, Section Two,” I tell him as I twist him to the side and pull his arms behind him. I retrieve a set of handcuffs from my belt and click them around his wrists.

“Please, kid,” he says. “Don’t do this! All I did was visit a friend.”

“Did you have authorization?” I ask, knowing already he didn’t. The sole authorized movement within the village is given to citizens going to and from work. Social calls are not permitted.

“N- no,” he stammers, dropping his head.

“Then you are in violation of Protocol Three, Section Two,” I restate. I lift my fingers to my mouth and let out a shrill whistle that cuts through the air. Several Young Ones on nearby roofs turn towards me. When they see I’ve apprehended the man, they drop back to the streets, disappearing beyond the ledges to head towards the Compound. I shove my prisoner towards the broken doorway, and he stumbles through and heads downstairs to the street. When we exit the building, he looks back at me with desperation.

“Towards the main road, Citizen,” I say, motioning with my head towards the center of the village.

“What’s going to happen to me?” he asks, shoulders slumping in on his thin frame.

“That is for the Men in Red to determine,” I reply and direct him to move with a flick of my hand.

We walk in silence from here on until we reach a main road where a single black van waits for us. Two Men in Red get out of the cab and one rounds the back of the vehicle and yanks one of the doors open. The other nods at me and grabs the man’s arm and tugs him away. I don’t watch them put him in the van. My job is done, so I head back to the Compound along with the other Young Ones, all of whom heard my whistle to stop the search and now walk ahead of me.

It takes about fifteen minutes at a controlled pace until we reach the Compound gates, and I file in line with the others close to my age. We wait without speaking for our turns with the nurses as we reenter the controlled zone. It’s standard protocol for us to receive a new dose of vaccine to protect us from outside elements whenever we return from a mission. I don’t question it. I have no reason to.

After a few minutes, only four of us are left — two girls, another boy, and myself. I can’t identify them by name, nor have I ever talked to any of them. One of the girls — petite and fair-skinned — reaches the nurse’s station when a deafening explosion roars from the far side of the Compound. A feathery cloud of dust spews into the air, and the ground trembles beneath me. Inside of the gate, nurses and Men in Red grapple for their balance, waving their arms and widening their stances.

I, on the other hand, do not even flinch, nor do the other three Young Ones in front of me. Instead, we all stand blank-faced with our hands by our sides as a tower of medical vials tumble from its formation and crashes to the ground. Sparkling shards of glass fly out like tiny, bouncing slivers of light while a mournful siren wails from further inside the Compound. A few of the Reds rush forward and push us inside the gate, locking it behind us in case the rebels are attacking. In all of the chaos, I am ordered to go straight to my standard position in the main courtyard amongst the hundreds of other Young Ones. Reds buzz around us, checking the buildings for anything suspicious, and I assume they find nothing since we are eventually dismissed to retrieve our dinner.

The sun has set by this point, and I take my place in line to retrieve my bar. It takes a couple of minutes before I reach the table, behind which stands a nurse dressed in all white.

“No water tonight,” she says. “Something’s up with the tower. You’ll get it in the morning.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I reply, taking my food. I step aside and go sit cross-legged in my designated spot. I rip the wrapper off with one swift tear and consume the bar in two bites. It tastes the same as ever — like nothing. But this bar is what gives me my strength, so I don’t complain.

When everyone has eaten, we are sent to our barracks for sleep. We all proceed in synchronized movements as we shower, change, and lie down on our cots. Tomorrow, I will wake up and repeat this same choreography, because it’s the same thing I’ve done every day for as long as I can remember. Nothing ever changes.

 

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Through no earnest intention of my own, I find myself awake and lying on my back. A network of gray, steel rafters weave across the ceiling above me, and a lacy netting of cobwebs and dust flutter against them from the cold draft in the room. To my right, a Man in Red grips a thick rope hanging from a bell, and he pulls downward with a huff, sending the bell into a fit of clanging to awaken us. Though I would like nothing more than to remain beneath the wool blanket that’s tucked around my chin, my body propels me into a sitting position as a groan escapes my lips. The cool grit on the floor bites into my bare feet, and my bunkmates, a few dozen boys around my age, mirror my movements with almost identical timing. But when they proceed to stand and straighten their bedding, I hesitate.

I’m caught up in a strange cycle that I know I’ve repeated thousands of times, but it feels new today. In this moment, something has changed. I stand up and run my fingers over my cropped hair and release a slow breath. I’ve spent years in this building, sleeping on this very cot, but the memories are wavy, like my mind has been flooded with fog. I press my palms over my eyes, squeezing them shut.

Most of the boys have now begun to change their clothes. None of them speak, and the silence leaves an eerie pall in the air. Across the room, my behavior has caught the attention of a middle-aged Man in Red. I lock eyes with him, and his expression narrows, folding his dark brows inward as he studies my face. It’s my first indication I’m doing something wrong, and I swoop down and tug the sheet and blanket over my cot, smoothing the wrinkles. I glimpse up and see him now speaking to another Man in Red, and they both watch me. The pistols on their hips and the menacing sneer on their faces remind me that they’re here to keep us in line. And right now, I am out of line.

Not wanting to draw more attention to myself, I hustle to the trunk at the end of my cot and withdraw my uniform. I shrug into the routine brown button-up shirt and matching pants and shove my feet into wool socks and a pair of black boots that pinch my heels. As I reach down to tie the laces, a black mark on my right wrist draws my attention from beneath the cuff of my sleeve. I tug the fabric back and see the thick outline of a triangle tattooed into the tender skin above the tendons and veins. The fingers of my left hand trace the symbol as I search my mind for its significance, but I find a murky void instead of a memory.

Annoyed, my fingers tie the laces, and I stand. I’m a few seconds behind everyone else now, and I scan the room to find them all clicking various weapons onto their belts. In the top of my trunk, beneath where my uniform had been placed, I find a sling and several perfectly smooth gray stones. The pad feels worn and familiar in my hands, and I stroke the braided leather handles. Beside me, a pale-skinned boy with dull eyes and a wild patch of freckles attaches his own sling to his waist.

The shrill screech of a whistle cuts through the room, and I flinch. The trunk lid slips from my fingers and slams shut. I suck in a breath and wait for a reaction from someone, but there is none, so I drop the stones in my pocket as though nothing is out of the ordinary. The boys around me are falling into line, and I step forward to join them as we prepare to leave the building, somewhat aware that we should be heading to retrieve our breakfast now.

Just as we begin to move forward, a firm hand grabs my right arm, and I’m jerked to the side. Panic snarls in my chest as a heavy arm pins me against a cool wall, and I struggle to not grimace as the back of my head smacks into the unforgiving cinder blocks. In front of me stands the same short, stocky Man in Red who had been staring at me earlier. His greasy, blond hair is slicked over to one side, and his deep-set eyes are dark and shifty as they bore into me. He wears a scarlet shirt and black pants, and a small golden triangle is pinned to the left side of his collar. As he opens his thin lips to speak, I inhale the scent of stale alcohol and tobacco, and my stomach clenches with nausea. He grabs my face with a calloused hand and squeezes my cheeks so my lips squish together, and I can’t help but feel like an animal being inspected for slaughter.

“What are you doing, boy?” he asks with a sniveling, high-pitched tone. My face drains of blood, and my heart picks up speed as the Red’s expression grows more furrowed. The surprise of the encounter has my mind reeling, but I know better than to reply. I feel awake for the first time since I can remember, and I intend to keep it that way.

“What’s wrong with this one?” the Red mutters to himself. My heart pounds in my chest with such speed and voracity that I begin to worry the guard will hear it, and my own body will betray me. All at once, the guard releases my face with an apathetic grunt and pushes me towards the door by my shoulder. I’m startled by my sudden propulsion, and I stumble forward into line as relief floods my body.

I follow the silent parade of students as it streams out of the doors and into an alley. The buildings on either side of me are identical — long, gray, and void of visual interest. The only features that stand out against the monochromatic scheme are the doors, which are blood red and resemble nicks and cuts in the buildings’ exteriors. I’m tempted to look around, but I train my eyes forward and focus on blending in with the group. The crunching cadence of our boots against the unpaved dirt road fills the otherwise silent air.

“You, too?” a voice whispers to my left. We are now entering a courtyard, and before I can stop myself, I whip my head around to search for the source of the voice. A pair of warm, blue eyes set below a short curtain of straight, black hair meets my gaze. My own eyes widen as I jerk back to face the front. I scan the courtyard and find it swarming with Men in Red. Now is not the time to have a conversation.

“You missed it, too,” the voice whispers again, this time as a statement, not a question. There’s an urgency to the boy’s tone, and I feel the need to respond, but I don’t want to get caught again. I mull over his words, wondering what he meant. I begin to dismiss them when something rushes back to me — the gate, the line, the explosion, the vials.

Holy crap. I missed my vaccine. But why would that make a difference in my mental clarity? Is that why I can remember things now? Or did I catch something from the village when I touched the man? That couldn’t be it, because this boy didn’t touch the man, and he’s as aware as I am. The thought triggers an image of the man’s pleading face in my mind, and my stomach drops. What had I done to him? And why? I shove the memory down, knowing I need to focus on the bigger issue at hand.

Stealing a glance at him, I wonder if the blue-eyed boy was the one at the gate with me, but I don’t speak yet. If I answer his question, I will be admitting that I have broken protocol. And yet I can’t convince myself that this is a bad thing.

Even still, I don’t want to lose track of one of the only other students who could have answers. Clenching my fists by my sides, I muster my courage and decide to answer him in the briefest way possible. My lips are parched with apprehension, but I turn my head anyways and whisper, “Later.”

The boy tilts his head in agreement, his eyes filled with a knowing glint, and then we separate into two different columns that lead to a row of rectangular, black tables. On the other side of the barrier stand female nurses in a white uniform of cargo pants and pressed shirts. Like the Men in Red, they also wear a golden triangle pinned to their collars.

The lines move at a brisk pace, and I am soon handed a tin cup of water and a small, plain brown package. I take my ration and go sit on the ground in my assigned spot within the rows of students in the courtyard. The sky above us is clear and still has the lingering golden-pink hints of dawn at its far edge. The air itself is crisp with the chill of autumn and void of all sounds beyond the shuffling of feet and ripping of packages as everyone eats their breakfast. This place — my home — is desolate and sterile.

I set my cup down and tear at the edge of the wrapper that encases my food. Inside is a skinny, beige block that has no discernible scent. I already know what it will taste like, and I lift it to my lips and take a bite, ripping off a third of the bar. For how little flavor it has, I might as well be chewing the wrapper itself. It settles like a boulder in my stomach and leaves me parched, especially after not receiving my ration of water last night for some reason. As I reach for the cup by my side, a figure casts a shadow over me, and a large boot unceremoniously knocks my cup over with a loud clamor, spilling its contents across the dusty ground. My lips begin to part in protest when I notice the color of the shirt the person is wearing. It’s red. I stare out across the quadrant, waiting for whatever comes next.

“Here, kid,” the Red says with a smooth voice. He kneels beside me and places a new cup of water in my hand. “Sorry about that.” I dare to look at the face that is now inches from mine. The Red’s skin is dark brown, and his black hair is clipped short. A faint shadow of stubble hangs over his thin cheeks and sculpted jaw. This man is strong and fit — that much is obvious. And to my horror, there’s something in the guard’s expression. He knows.

I gulp despite the dryness in my mouth and turn away as fear seizes my body. I don’t want to be captured or re-vaccinated, assuming that’s the reason why I can all of a sudden remember things. I consider running off, but that’s a foolish idea. One glimpse at the guns strapped to the belts of the Reds is enough of a warning. I sigh and prepare myself for the worst, and then the Red grabs the knocked-over cup, stands back up, and walks off without another word. I blink repeatedly, unsure why he didn’t say anything. I know better than to speak after him, so instead I tear off another bite of food and stare at my shoes.

What’s in a Name?

If you, like I, struggle with figuring out how to name your characters, you’re not alone. Naming your main character (MC), as well as secondary characters and especially your story’s protagonist, is a daunting task. Names reveal more than just a relative understanding of personality – they reveal the world in which your story is set. They can be demure and ladylike or have a hint of malice. They can be foreign or mystical, a sign of a fantasy world, or they can be plain and ordinary. They can be completely fabricated and weird – and that’s okay, too! But regardless of what you choose, the significance of your main character names cannot be understated.

It just wouldn’t seem right if Harry Potter battled against a snake-like, evil dark wizard named Jonathon. Or if Elizabeth Bennett fell in love with a wealthy aristocrat named Cepheus in early 1800s England. Granted, maybe we could see this happening in a steampunk remake, but in the original stories themselves, the names mean something and were intentionally chosen to represent their characters.

Let’s look at others: Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. Katniss Everdeen. Neo and Morpheus. Ebenezer Scrooge.

What do each of these have in common? They all have names that are relevant to the time period/setting/culture of the story in which they star. They draw on inspiration from other sources or from the historical meaning of the names.

Katniss was carefully chosen by Suzanne Collins, symbolizing not only her relationship with her father, but also her socio-economic station in Panem – often having to subsist on the roots of the katniss plant. Even better? The genus for the katniss plant is Sagittaria. And what’s the symbol for the astrological sign, Sagittarius? A bow and arrow.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s last name literally means “to squeeze.” What is he squeezing? His wealth and pride. His number one character trait until the end of the book is his consistent greed.

Neo is an anagram of “one,” symbolizing that he will be the Chosen One to restore peace. And while it’s an old Greek word meaning “new,” it also works well inside the science fiction future world of the Matrix.

In my own novel, The Elect, I chose the name August for my MC. Initially, the name came to me in a dream, so I did some research on it to make sure it was right for my story. Turns out that “August” means revered/esteemed. Even better, when I dug a little deeper, I learned about this man: August Landmesser. There’s a really famous photograph taken at a Hitler rally in 1936 that depicts hundreds of men with hands raised in the Nazi salute – all except one: August Landmesser. This act of defiance is absolutely something my MC would do in his dystopian world, and I was convinced that August was the perfect name for this character.

I recently posted a poll on Twitter and asked people to choose between three different options that explained how they chose their character names. Here are the results:

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52% of respondents said that they research the meanings behind their names. This makes sense. I mean, don’t most of us do this for our own children? Before my husband and I chose the name for our son, we researched it to make sure it didn’t mean anything weird or creepy. Thankfully, it didn’t. But if it had, would we have chosen a different one? Chances are, probably. Shallow? Maybe. But names are significant. It’s why there are dozens (or more) websites dedicated to helping people choose the right name for their child. And when we write, are we not creating people, characters? They may be fictional, but to us and our readers, they’re real. Most of us want to honor our characters by choosing names worthy of their personality and role in the story.

I actually did a followup to this poll, because many people messaged or replied and said that they researched names, but not necessarily for meaning. Their research centered around their book’s setting, whether time period, culture, geography, etc. Here are the results from the followup poll:

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Granted, there were significantly fewer respondents to this one, but still – 96% of people said they take setting into account when naming their characters, whether a little or a lot. Only 4% said setting didn’t matter to them when naming characters.

Cate Hart, a literary agent for the Corvisiero Agency, was kind enough to let me pick her brain about this. When I asked her if she thought querying authors put too much or too little emphasis on names, she said too little. Some of her pet peeves? Outdated names for millennial romance – babies born in the 1990s most likely weren’t named Bernice or Shirley. And when it comes to fantasy? “Don’t make it too complicated to pronounce,” but at the same time, don’t choose a name like “Bob” either. Justin Wells, another Corvisiero agent, also said that he prefers names to match up to time periods and cultures – as much as possible. (BTW, definitely consider querying these two agents – they’re top notch!)

Before we finish, let’s talk about the other responses to my initial poll.

32% of people said they just choose names that they like. I get that. One of my secondary characters is named Elisa, mainly because I like the name. Her name actually started out as Ellie, but Ellie didn’t feel like a natural name for my soviet-bloc inspired culture, thus Elisa was born.

Some respondents said they chose whatever name felt “right” for their character. Sometimes you know in your gut what your characters should be named. After all, inevitably, some of our most favorite characters were named at the whim of the author, not necessarily because of meaning or history, but because it sounded right. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but you might consider taking the advice of agents and other publishing professionals and double-check to make sure it “fits” with your setting.

Lastly, 16% of people said they created names for their characters. I could be wrong, but if I had to guess, I would say that most – if not all – of these writers work within the fantasy and/or science fiction genres. These genres typically require extensive world-building. Not only do you have to select names, but you have to compose your entire world from the ground up. YOU, as the author, set the tone and create the culture for SF/F stories. As a result, there’s substantially more creative license with naming characters. Off the top of my head, I immediately think of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series or Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Cate Hart even mentioned the author of Six of Crows and the Grisha Trilogy when we were chatting: “I love Leigh Bardugo. She totally made things up. They feel familiar yet Russianesque infused but not to complicated.” Some character names are familiar, ordinary even, others are fantasy variations of names you might have heard before, and some are completely new – created by the author.

This approach can totally work in the author’s favor, but here’s one request from agents and readers alike: as Cate Hart mentioned above, try not to create names in SF/F so overly complicated that people don’t know how to pronounce them. As a reader, there have been many books that I’ve read in which I just have to guess at how a name is pronounced. Does it make a difference to the plot/action? No, not really. What it DOES do is slow the reader down when they have to stumble over the name repeatedly. A major exception to this, of course, would be in the form of culturally/ethnically diverse names that many English-speaking readers just haven’t been exposed to before.

So, there you have it. This is by no means an exhaustive resource for naming characters (obviously), but it is well-intended and will hopefully provide clarification for us writers still learning who our characters are and/or who we are as creators.

Character names are important. Research their meaning, or don’t. Choose a name just because you like it, or create one out of thin air. Regardless of what route you choose to take, know that there are millions of people ready to read your story. Honor the fictional world you’ve built and respect your characters – and readers – enough to give them the best work you possibly can. Happy writing!

Let’s Talk About Adverbs

To put it mildly, agents, editors, and even readers tend to hate adverbs, or at least they hate the overuse of adverbs. So, what is an adverb? Adverbs are words that describe an action. Typically, they end in “ly” (see what I did there?). What are some examples? Let’s use some Game of Thrones references to liven things up a bit. (*Mild spoilers ahead for GoT virgins.*)

  1. Joffrey died painfully after being poisoned.
  2. Danaerys flew quickly on the back of her dragon into the battle.
  3. John Snow led his men bravely into battle.
  4. The Lannisters ruled their kingdom harshly.
  5. When Jaime was about to be killed, Bronn quickly pushed him out of the way.

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In each of these sentences, the action (died, flew, led, ruled, pushed) is described with an adverb. It’s true – Joffrey did die painfully after he was poisoned, so what’s wrong with using the adverb? It slows down your story and makes your reader trip over your words. While the occasional adverb isn’t a problem, many manuscripts include passages of text with adverb after adverb after adverb, and they’re usually all unnecessary.

So, how can you avoid using adverbs but still describe the action in detail? Choose stronger verbs to begin with. Here are some amended sentences to give you an idea.

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  1. Joffrey clutched his throat and stumbled forward before keeling over dead from poisoning.
  2. Danaery’s dragon raged into the battle with her riding on top.
  3. John Snow inhaled a deep breath, steadied his hands, and then hurled himself into the battle, his men following behind him.
  4. As a family, the Lannisters destroyed any threat to their rule, even from their own people.
  5. Bronn threw himself into Jaime, pushing him out of the way just as he was about to be killed.

Each of these sentences still gets the point across, but the action is more vivid. You’re showing, not telling the reader what happened.

When Joffrey clutched his throat and stumbled forward, it is obvious to the reader that he’s dying a painful death.

When John Snow takes a deep breath and steadies his hands, it’s clear that he’s scared, but he leads his men into battle anyways. This makes him brave.

The fact that the Lannisters destroy any threat to their rule shows that they rule harshly.

The overall sentiment of the message doesn’t change – you’ve just exchanged weak verbs that need more detail (died, flew, led, ruled, pushed) with stronger verbs (clutched, raged, hurled, destroyed, threw) that imply everything you want to show. I hope this helps clear up any questions you may  have when someone says there are too many adverbs in your manuscript.

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Have any questions? Let me know below in the comments!

 

Passive vs. Active Voice

Before I start, I’d like to make the disclaimer that passive voice is not, in fact, the devil despite what some may say. In some instances, it is 100% appropriate and even prefered. But typically, it is not as preferred as active in the context of fiction writing. It is up to you, the writer, to decide what verbiage you want to use. If you aren’t sure about it, consult beta readers or hire an editor. They’ll tell you if there’s a problem with your voice and hopefully how to address it. Whatever you choose, just start by writing a good story. The rest will work itself out (hopefully).

Now then, if you’re writing fiction (or even nonfiction), chances are that you’ve heard someone reference the difference between passive and active voice. If not, keep reading – this is important. Agents and Editors typically always prefer that authors write books in active voice. Why is that? The voice of your book sets the tone and pace, and it can either make the reader feel completely involved IN the action or separated FROM the action. So what’s the difference, and how can you tell?

Passive Voice

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First off, let’s start with some examples of sentences written in passive voice.

  1. “Plymouth Colony was founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims.”
  2. “The trees were planted by August.”
  3. “The first mass-marketed lightbulb was invented by Thomas Edison.”
  4. “The phone was answered by Alice.”
  5. “The football was thrown by Laura as the defensive line closed in around her.”

Passive voice usually involves some form of the word “is” or “has.” The information here is delivered in a way that keeps the reader from feeling connected to the action, because the direct object of the verb (Plymouth Colony, woods, lightbulb, Alice, football) becomes the subject of the sentence instead of the object that’s actually doing the action. You’re being told by the writer about something that has happened, but you don’t feel connected to the action. In other words, you are a bystander.

Active Voice

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So how do we change these passive voice sentences to active voice?

  1. The Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.
  2. August planted the trees.
  3. Thomas Edison invented the first mass-marketed lightbulb.
  4. Alice answered the phone.
  5. Laura threw the football as the defensive line closed in around her.

We have removed the passive words (“was,” in this case) and flipped the sentence around so that the subject of our sentence is who or what is actually doing the action. You immediately feel more connected to the subject, because you’re not being pulled out of the action. No longer are you *telling* the reader about something. You’re showing them.

You may be thinking that those sentences look so short and choppy, and they do! That’s where you, as the author, add in your descriptions. And don’t be afraid to change up your sentence structure. It gets very redundant for readers to see the same “noun verb” sequence in every sentence, so mix it up. Instead of “Laura threw the football as the defensive line closed in around her,” try “As the defensive line closed in around her, Laura threw the football.” It’s the same exact information, but the description has been moved to the beginning of the sentence to break up what could be another monotonous “noun verb” sentence. Just make sure to keep it active.

 

So, there you have it. This is by no means a conclusive breakdown of the differences between active and passive voice, but it will hopefully help developing writers (aren’t we all) figure out how to make their voice more active so that readers feel more engaged in the action. For a more detailed analysis, you can go here. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!

How to Make Your First Page Shine

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend the first of many author-preneur workshops held by the Corvisiero Agency. As a client of Marisa Corvisiero, I was so excited to get a chance to see her and the other agents in person again and to soak in some more knowledge from Marisa’s different topical lessons. After all, it was at the last conference that I attended that I pitched Marisa and was offered representation on the spot. (That happens?!? Apparently so! You can read more about that here.) So, as far as I can tell, these workshops are magical.

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In particular, the portion of writers conferences that many authors find incredibly valuable is the First Page Panel, in which anonymous first pages, submitted by attendees, are read aloud and then critiqued by a panel of agents. And because the authors’ names aren’t mentioned, agents don’t hold back – they let you know when (if) they would have stopped reading and what they did and didn’t like from the page. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly subjective, but so is the literary world in general. Here, I’m going to list out the most significant pieces of advice that I learned from agents’ feedback.

1. Show, Don’t Tell

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Chances are, you’ve heard this one before, but it bears repeating. Your audience wants to experience your book through visuals, sounds, smells, and even tastes. Your descriptions are vital to the experience. But there are ways to provide this information without doing what’s called an “info-dump.” How so?

When a character walks into the room, don’t launch into a paragraph description of the room itself. Instead, note the details as the character would experience them. Instead of “Sasha was tired and saw a big bed in the room, so she laid down on it. The bed was soft and covered in a white quilt,” perhaps consider why this information is necessary and tie it back to your character and what he or she is experiencing. “Sasha crossed the room and sunk into the bed, appreciating the plush quilt that molded around her aching body.” Doesn’t that sound better? It gets the message across, is relatable, doesn’t remove the reader from the action, and it stays in active voice instead of passive.

If you want someone to keep reading past that first page, it needs to draw them in. Choppy descriptions won’t do that.

2. Avoid the “Info-Dump”

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Piggy-backing on #1, unless it is 120% pertinent to your story (and maybe not even then), don’t start your book with a ton of backstory or sci-fi terminology, including the dreaded prologue. This can either bore or overwhelm your reader and prevents him/her from immediately connecting to your main character. This information can usually always be sprinkled in throughout your story as your character reflects on things or talks about his/her experiences with other people. Once again, you want to draw in your reader, and the best way to do that is to make that connection to your mc. 99% of the time, your story can start somewhere else than a giant info-dump.

3. Introduce Your MC ASAP

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This could probably fit in with #2, but it bears repeating. Your book is about a person (most likely), so if your reader struggles to figure out who they are and why they care about this character within the first couple of pages, they won’t keep reading. Maybe this is a product of our on-demand culture, but most people want to get to the point as soon as possible, and in a book, the point is your MC – who they are, what their personality is like, and what drives them. Don’t make your reader wait for this by taking the first 3 pages to describe the setting or backstory. While those things are important, they’re not the focus.

4. Avoid Cliches

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This was one thing that all agents agreed on – avoid cliches in your opening scene. Characters waking up in bed to start their should-be-no-different-than-any-other-day day has been done countless times. Be creative. Make their activity – whatever they’re doing before the inciting incident that moves your story forward – relevant to their personality. Writing about a surgeon? Maybe they’re exhausted and scrubbing out after a surgery. Writing about a teenager? Maybe they’re playing sports or at school or jamming out to music or excited as they get ready for a date. Is your mc a detective? Have them involved in a stake-out, bored and trying to stay awake in their car. Anything, literally anything, is better than reading about an mc turning off their alarm clock and then following them through their boring morning routine (shower, teeth-brushing, breakfast). This isn’t to say that it can’t be done well and be relevant to your story (a soldier waking up in the trenches to an enemy assault, for instance), but if you do it, knock it out of the park (cliche intended).

5. Edit, Edit, Edit

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Yes, I write, but I pay my bills by teaching. As a teacher, the biggest piece of advice I ever have to offer my students is to proofread their paper. After proofreading silently, read it aloud. After reading it aloud, get someone else to read it. After they read it, give it to someone else. And after each round, make notes of errors and revise. It doesn’t matter how many times we edit our own writing – inevitably, there will be errors. Tense changes, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and other formatting issues will do nothing to help you win over a prospective agent or reader.  While most agents won’t reject you based on a few typos, it can certainly cause them to raise an eyebrow. Before you ever hit submit, trust someone else to look over your work for you. I know – I KNOW – how vulnerable it makes us feel to let someone else read our unpublished work. It’s like allowing someone else to see inside our imagination and heart and soul. You will do yourself a huge favor if you find a critique group, even if it’s online, because you’re all writers and you all (hopefully) understand one another. Other writers get it. And most of the time, they want nothing more than to help you write the best book possible. The worst thing that can happen is that they give you suggestions that you feel would sidetrack what you want from your book. If that happens, don’t use them. Simple.

6. Remember – Agents are Subjective

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What one agent hates, another may love. Some agents like dialogue in the first line, others hate it. Some agents may be okay with starting a story with a wake-up scene, while others want to scream when they read it. Do your research and find an agent who you like and who fits your style. If Agent X represents a ton of historical romances, they’re probably not the best fit for your space opera. Websites like QueryTracker and Manuscript Wishlist are invaluable resources for querying writers looking to find an agent or publisher. I actually have a whole post on these resources that you can find here.

 

I hope you’ve found these tips useful. If possible, I do highly recommend that you attend a writers workshop. Getting to meet agents and pick their brains in person is invaluable. If that isn’t an option, get on Twitter and blogs and connect that way. Publishing is a community that you will WANT to be a member of. With that said, keep at it, stay creative, and be brave with your work!