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I absolutely know what Stephanie Burgis means about those openings that hook you. Lady Trent did the same thing, complete with me letting the opening sit around for years before I figured out where I was going with it. And fans of Lady Trent or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories will find a lot to like in the setting of Snowspelled . . .

***

cover art for SNOWSPELLED by Stephanie BurgisStephanie says:

Sometimes story ideas appear fully-formed…and sometimes they’re only tantalizing, half-glimpsed gifts.

I was in bed, already half-asleep, way back in 2015 when the opening of Snowspelled first presented itself in my head: a woman’s authoritative voice, unfurling with utter clarity as she looked back at the beginning of her story.

Of course, a sensible woman would never have accepted the invitation in the first place.

To attend a week-long house party filled with bickering gentleman magicians, ruthlessly cutthroat lady politicians, and worst of all, my own infuriating ex-fiancé? Scarcely two months after I had scandalized all of our most intimate friends by jilting him?

Utter madness. And anyone would have seen that immediately … except for my incurably romantic sister-in-law.

Cassandra Harwood had arrived in my heart from that moment, and I loved her immediately. I jerked upright, scribbled that brief opening down…and then spent the next year and a half trying to figure out how to continue it.

Did I want to set Cassandra’s story in historical England (it had a Regency feel to me) or in a completely different, high-fantasy setting?

What was her relationship with her incurably romantic sister-in-law, the one who was going to push her into accepting that impossible invitation?

Why had she jilted her ex-fiancé in the first place?

And what would go magically wrong once she was snowed in along with him?

I wrote opening after opening, trying to answer those questions…and I discarded every single new attempt as, one after another, they failed with a thud.

None of them felt right. None of them were fun. And I knew from the first moment that this story should be full of sparkling fun, both for me as a writer and for my readers, too.

I knew fairly soon that my heroine had lost something irretrievable, something that defined her, and that loss had led to her breaking off her engagement. At first, I thought maybe she’d lost her health. Then I realized she’d lost her own magic, although I didn’t yet know how…and wait a minute: hadn’t I written, in that first paragraph, that it was gentlemen who had magic in this society, not ladies? (The ladies, in their turn, managed the practical business of politics.)

In one draft, Cassandra couldn’t stand her dull, foolish sister-in-law even though she was forced to feel grateful to her. Oops. That draft didn’t work for me at all.

I gnashed my teeth. I set that opening aside, again and again. I despaired over ever finding my way inside the story – but oh, I really loved that opening! I loved Cassandra’s voice. I really didn’t want to give up on her completely…

It really helped when I finally figured out in the autumn of 2016 that she actually adored her sister-in-law, Amy, who is pretty, loyal and sweet – and ruthlessly intelligent, practical and manipulative, too. That dynamic – the push-and-pull between two fiercely smart and powerful women who love each other dearly but want vastly different things to happen – got me through the rest of that first family scene…

…And then (we’re up to November, 2016 now), as I felt my way cautiously forward, one slow paragraph at a time, their carriage rattled through the wintry dales of Angland (an alternate-history version of England, in which Boudicca kicked out the Romans long ago), Cassandra looked out the window, saw a troll standing outside in the falling snow…

…and CLICK! I suddenly had it: the plot, the mood, and the full setting – the elven dales, in which humans (ruled by a group of women known collectively as the Boudiccate) coexist warily with elves, and looming trolls guard the toll-roads for their elven masters. It was all suddenly real and tangible in my head…and I could not stop writing it from then onward!

I raced through the rest of the chapter in a rush of joy. I wrote the full novella (or maybe short novel – I’ve never been certain of which to call it!) powered by that joy and sheer sense of fun. Snowspelled was my comfort-/escape-writing project exactly when I needed it most, right after the 2017 election. It’s filled with romance, magic, danger, interfering family members, hilariously awful weather wizards, mentorship between generations, and deep love of more than one type.

It felt like it had taken me forever to figure out my real story from that brief opening…but the spark of life, for me, came at just the right time.

I hope you guys enjoy it too!

***

From the cover copy:

In nineteenth-century Angland, magic is reserved for gentlemen while ladies attend to the more practical business of politics. But Cassandra Harwood has never followed the rules…

Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.

Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.

But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks…and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.

To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness.

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffee shops, along with her husband (fellow writer Patrick Samphire), their two children, and their very vocal tabby cat. Her first historical fantasy novel for adults, Masks and Shadows, was included in the Locus Recommended Reading List 2016, and her latest MG fantasy novel, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, was chosen as a Kids’ Indie Next Pick and an Amazon Best Book of the Month. To find out more or read Chapter One of Snowspelled, please visit her website: www.stephanieburgis.com.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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As a fellow organic writer, I am totally there with Joshua Palmatier about needing these sparks of life to power a book to its ending. (There’s a reason I chose that concept for my guest blog series.) And if some of those sparks occasionally involve being a total sadist to one of your characters . . . well. It happens.

***

cover art for REAPING THE AURORA by Joshua PalmatierThe idea behind this blog series—Spark of Life—is particularly appropriate for me, because a novel will not work for me UNLESS there is some particular “spark” with the characters at some point during the writing process. I’m an “organic” writer, or a writer that works by the seat of their pants rather than an outline or synopsis, and so if there isn’t some kind of spark somewhere along the way, I’m never going to finish the novel. It won’t have any life, which means I won’t be interested in writing it, which means it will never get finished.

For Reaping the Aurora, there were many, many sparks. Some of them happened in earlier novels—this is the third and final in the series, so the characters had to come to life earlier—but the spark I want to talk about today relates to a character, Cory, who I didn’t think had a major role to play in the final scenes. He’s been there since the beginning, and had his moments in earlier novels, but it didn’t seem like he had anything to contribute to this ending. The “spark” was when I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It happened at the major turning point in the novel, basically when everything utterly and completely falls apart and the direction of the novel takes a sudden and sharp hairpin turn. I knew what the majority of the characters were going to do at this point—Kara, Allan, Marcus, Hernande, etc. But leading up to this point, I didn’t have anything in mind for Cory. I just assumed that he would be joining one of the groups and help them tie the final threads of the novel together. But that didn’t happen. During the course of the action, everything falling apart around them, shockingly, Cory gets captured by the Kormanley, the group they’ve been fighting since the first book. No one knows what happened, and so no one realizes they need to rescue him. And because he’s a mage, with powers that are feared, he isn’t simply thrown into a cell. He’s drugged and left mostly unconscious.

All of this was unexpected. All of it happened in the course of writing one chapter. But suddenly, Cory’s plotline awakened and exploded inside my head. How was he going to survive? He can’t plan an escape—he’s unconscious and paralyzed most of the time. And he can’t be rescued—no one knows where he is or that he’s even in trouble. His plight—because of the stakes involved and because it is so personal—suddenly took on a vibrancy and reality that the other known plotlines didn’t have. In my head, Cory had become the most interesting character in the book. Why? Not because his plight tied itself significantly to the final outcome of the novel. No. It was because I had no foreknowledge of his plotline at all.

Those are the surprises that keep me writing, that tell me the book I’m working on is actually working, that bring the words and the worlds I create to life. Those sparks make the job of putting words to paper mesmerizing.

***

From the cover copy:

The final book in the thrilling epic fantasy Ley trilogy, set in a sprawling city of light and magic fueled by a ley line network.

In a world torn apart by the shattering of the magical ley lines that formerly powered all the cities and towns of the Baronies, there are few havens left for the survivors. The uncontrolled distortions released by the shattering have claimed the main cities of the Baronial Plains. And many of the Wielders who controlled the ley died in the apocalyptic cataclysm their manipulation of the ley created.
 
Wielder Kara Tremain and former Dog Allan Garrett, survivors of the city of Erenthrall’s destruction, have seized control of the new Nexus created at the distant temple known as the Needle, the stronghold of the White Cloaks and their leader, Father Dalton.  With Father Dalton a prisoner, Kara intends to use the Needle’s Nexus to heal the major distortions that threaten to shake their entire world apart. 

But while she and the remaining Wielders managed to stabilize Erenthrall, they have not been able to stop the auroral storms or the devastating earthquakes sweeping across the lands. Now they are hoping to find a means to heal the distortion at the city of  Tumbor, releasing the nodes captured inside.  If they succeed, the ley network should be able to stabilize itself.

But the distortion over Tumbor is huge, ten times the size of the one over Erenthrall.  Kara will need the help of all of the Wielders at the Needle in order to generate enough power, including the rebel White Cloaks.  But can Kara trust them to help her, or will the White Cloaks betray her in order to free Father Dalton and regain control of the Needle, possibly destroying any chance of healing the ley network in the process?
 
Meanwhile, Allan journeys back to Erenthrall, hoping to form alliances with some of the survivors, only to discover that Erenthrall itself has sunk a thousand feet into the ground.  The vicious groups that plagued them on their last visit have banded together under a new leader—Devin, formerly Baron Aurek’s second-in-command.  While discussing an alliance with the Temerite enclave, Devin’s men attack, forcing Allan and the Temerites to flee back to the Needle, leaving Erenthrall in Devin’s hands.
 
But the Needle is no safe haven.  Father Dalton’s followers have begun to rebel, starting riots and creating unrest, all of it targeted at Kara and the Wielders.  The tensions escalate beyond control when Father Dalton declares he’s had a vision—a vision in which the Needle is attacked from the north by dogs and from the south by snakes; a vision that ends with the quickening of the distortions called the Three Sisters to the north . . . and the annihilation of reality itself!

A professor of mathematics at SUNY College at Oneonta, Joshua Palmatier has published nine novels to date—the “Throne of Amenkor” series (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, The Vacant Throne), the “Well of Sorrows” series (Well of Sorrows, Leaves of Flame, Breath of Heaven), and the “Ley” series (Shattering the Ley, Threading the Needle, Reaping the Aurora). He is currently hard at work on the start of a new series, as yet untitled. He has also published numerous short stories and has edited numerous anthologies. He is the founder/owner of a new small press called Zombies Need Brains LLC, which focuses on producing SF&F themed anthologies, the most recent being Alien Artifacts and Were-. Find out more at www.joshuapalmatier.com or at www.zombiesneedbrains.com. You can also find him on Facebook under Joshua B. Palmatier and Zombies Need Brains, and on Twitter at @bentateauthor and @ZNBLLC.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Michael F. Haspil at Denver Comic-Con recently, and he had me at the word “Egyptology.” The hero of his debut novel is a mummy and former pharaoh — how could I not be interested in that! But I’ll let Michael tell you about how it took a different character to bring his mummy’s story to, er, life for him.

***

cover art for GRAVEYARD SHIFT by Michael F. HaspilI wrote the original version of GRAVEYARD SHIFT during NaNoWriMo some time ago. However, I still remember when the story really jumped into gear and, regrettably, that wasn’t truly in the first draft, though at the time I thought it was.

As I began revisions and sorted through the aftermath of a NaNo first draft, certain aspects stood out as being decent. The main character, Alex Menkaure, an immortal pharaoh now working in a special supernatural police unit in modern-day Miami, and his partner, Marcus, a vampire born in ancient Rome, needed minor work. The climactic battle at the end against the villains needed a lot of polish. While the action was solid, I wrote the section in a blur and it showed. Also, there was something missing. While Alex and Marcus are formidable, the villains I’d set up for them to go against were more so, and they needed help.

The help came in the form of Rhuna Gallier, a young but vicious shapeshifter with her own agenda. I’d had an idea for her character while brainstorming another novel, but realized with some minor tweaks, Rhuna and “The Pack” could fit into GRAVEYARD SHIFT’s story and world.

When I wrote the next draft, as I seeded Rhuna’s presence throughout the book, she threatened to take over the entire thing and make it hers. This may sound weird to non-writers, but she didn’t seem to understand this was Alex’s story and she was a supporting character. So I promised her besides the climax she would get a cool action scene. I knew in the scene Rhuna needed to be mostly on her own with minimal support so I could showcase her lethality.

In GRAVEYARD SHIFT’s world, a practice goes by the underground name of S&B. It stands for Sangers, a derogatory name for vampires, and Bleeders, humans who willingly let vampires feed on them to experience the pleasurable sensations that come with it. Participants meet in bloodclubs, which are akin to prohibition-era speakeasies. Many unsavory activities such as human trafficking, blood and drug dealing, and murder, happen near the clubs and they are part of Miami’s criminal underbelly.

In the early draft, I had a criminal vampire who liked to prey on young girls, take one of his victims to the club. It was an unhappy chapter and ended with the vampire killing another victim. In the new draft, Rhuna showed up. That’s when the story jumped to life. Rhuna took the place of the victim and suddenly where I had a naïve girl falling prey to an old vampire’s wiles, now I had Rhuna going in as a Trojan horse and the vampire and his companions never knew what hit them.

I rewrote the sequence, several chapters long, in one sitting. Now, I can’t wait to write Rhuna’s novel. It’s going to be great fun.

***

From the cover copy:

Alex Menkaure, former pharaoh and mummy, and his vampire partner, Marcus, born in ancient Rome, are vice cops in a special Miami police unit. They fight to keep the streets safe from criminal vampires, shape-shifters, bootleg blood-dealers, and anti-vampire vigilantes.

When poisoned artificial blood drives vampires to murder, the city threatens to tear itself apart. Only an unlikely alliance with former opponents can give Alex and Marcus a fighting chance against an ancient vampire conspiracy.

If they succeed, they’ll be pariahs, hunted by everyone. If they fail, the result will be a race-war bloodier than any the world has ever seen.

Michael F. Haspil is a geeky engineer and nerdy artist. The art of storytelling called to him from a young age and he has plied his craft over many years and through diverse media. He has written original stories for as long as he can remember and has dabbled in many genres. However, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have whispered directly to his soul. An avid gamer, he serves as a panelist on the popular “The Long War” webcasts and podcasts, which specializes in Warhammer 40,000 strategy, tactics, and stories. Graveyard Shift is his first novel. Find him online at michaelhaspil.com or @michaelhaspil.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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How often is the thing that brings a story to life a question of grammar? And yet, I know exactly what Linda Nagata means. Here she is, explaining how verb tenses turned out to be the key:

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cover for THE LAST GOOD MAN by Linda NagataIf there ever was one bright spark, one bit of insight, one unexpected plot twist that brought The Last Good Man to life, I don’t remember it. What I do remember was how flat and uninteresting the manuscript felt to me in the earliest days.

This wasn’t an unusual situation for me. Beginnings are hard and it can take time to work out a tone and style that feels right. So I kept pushing forward, telling myself that if I kept going, the essential spark that every novel needs would eventually ignite.

It didn’t happen. Not for over 30,000 hard-fought words. Sure, the story was advancing but I wasn’t happy with the tone or with the way it was being told—and I didn’t know why.

I’d done my preliminary work—a lot of preliminary work. I’d been tossing ideas into the literary stew pot for months, revising my synopsis again and again. This was a very near-future story centered on a small private military company—contract soldiers of the sort hired by corporations, NGOs, and the US government. These were “white hat” mercenaries, choosy about their clients, working only for the good guys, and though they were a small force, that force was amplified by the autonomous robotic weaponry they could deploy. And I had an unusual protagonist in True Brighton.

Middle-aged women are not generally considered cool enough to serve as the lead in a techno-thriller, but I wanted to give it a shot—I wanted the challenge—so I made True forty-nine years old, a retired US Army veteran and mother of three who is still fit, strong, and agile enough to qualify for field missions.

All the pieces seemed right. For months I’d sensed the potential in this story, but still somehow the spark was missing.

Up to this point I’d been writing in third person, past tense. Then—30,000 words in and on the verge of despair—I chanced to read a novel written in third person, present tense and I was intrigued. Could I write The Last Good Man in third person present?

Present tense is commonly used with first person, where the narrator relates the story using “I” or “we.” I’d done a whole trilogy in first-person present. But I’d never written in third-person present. Inspired by the novel I was reading, I decided to try it.

And I liked the energy of it! It was just a technical change, but at last the tone of the story felt right. I continued to move ahead, writing additional pages every day in present tense, and at the end of the day I would revise my past work, gradually shifting it from past tense to present, adding detail as I did.

I was far, far happier with the feel of the story. The change in tense had given it the spark it needed—or maybe it had given me the spark I needed. Whichever it was, I never considered shifting back.

***

From the cover copy:

Scarred by war. In pursuit of truth.

Army veteran True Brighton left the service when the development of robotic helicopters made her training as a pilot obsolete. Now she works at Requisite Operations, a private military company established by friend and former Special Ops soldier Lincoln Han. ReqOp has embraced the new technologies. Robotics, big data, and artificial intelligence are all tools used to augment the skills of veteran warfighters-for-hire. But the tragedy of war is still measured in human casualties, and when True makes a chance discovery during a rescue mission, old wounds are ripped open. She’s left questioning what she knows of the past, and resolves to pursue the truth, whatever the cost.

“…a thrilling novel that lays bare the imminent future of warfare.” —Publishers Weekly starred review

Linda is a Nebula and Locus-award-winning writer, best known for her high-tech science fiction, including the Red trilogy, a series of near-future military thrillers. The first book in the trilogy, The Red: First Light, was a Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial-award finalist, and named as a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and several anthologies.

Linda has lived most of her life in Hawaii, where she’s been a writer, a mom, a programmer of database-driven websites, and an independent publisher. She lives with her husband in their long-time home on the island of Maui.

Website | Twitter

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Not to be confused with my own series! Brenda Cooper’s novel Wilders takes place in a world on the other side of an ecological collapse. Here’s what the cover copy has to say:

cover for Wilders by Brenda Cooper

Coryn Williams grew up in the megacity of Seacouver, where every need is provided for—except satisfaction with life. After her parents’ suicides, her sister, Lou, fled the city to work on a rewilding crew, restoring lands once driven to the brink of ecological disaster to a more natural state. Finally of age, Coryn leaves the city with her companion robot to look for her sister.

But the outside world is not what she expects—it is rougher and more dangerous. While some people help her, some resent the city, and still others covet her most precious resource: her companion robot. As Coryn struggles toward Lou, she uncovers a group of people with a sinister agenda that may endanger Seacouver.

When Coryn does find her sister, Lou has secrets she won’t share. Can Coryn and Lou learn to trust each other in order to discover the truth hidden beneath the surface and save both Seacouver and the rewilded lands?

What was the spark that brought Coryn to life?

*

Wilders is the beginning of a new series for me. Although I’ve written a number of near-future stories set on Earth, Wilders is the first novel-length science fiction I’ve set on my home planet. Everything else has been set some indeterminate time in the future in a different solar system, in space, or once, in the far past. Setting things in brand new made-up worlds is easy. I love world-building.

But I wanted to write more directly about us. So I plunged in a book about two broad topics I care about: the environment and technology. Wilders is about a time fifty years in our future, with fabulous and powerful cities full of technology, entertainment, and safety. The land between cities has been ravaged by climate change. In order to explore the technology thread, I needed a naïve protagonist who readers wouldn’t fault for being way-too-dependent on her robot companion. Even though my viewpoint character, Coryn, would learn enough to be compelling through the story, I struggled to bring her to life early on. Some very bad things happen to her. These give her great pain, so she is sympathetic, but still, frankly, a little boring in the first few chapters. Coryn also doesn’t know enough at the beginning of the book to tell the story of the world to the reader in any detail.

So I needed help, but I didn’t know what kind.

Coryn is a runner. This is how she dumps her pain, and her loneliness. Running. Her robot, Paula, is her only friend. Paula trains her, and together they run through the city, deeply immersed in augmented reality worlds. Then one day a much older woman, Julianna, runs right past Coryn, and makes it look easy. Intrigued, Coryn follows her.

Now, I had never seen Julianna before. She wasn’t in my rough outline. She wasn’t on my list of characters. I didn’t know who she was or what she looked like other than the gray ponytail from the back. But Julianna’s existence opened entire avenues of exploration into the hidden secrets of my future city, and she became a main character in Wilders and in the sequel (tentatively named Keepers). Her backstory is the backstory of the city, her wealth is the key to resources I need later, and her deep distrust of robotic companions makes Coryn question her own blind trust of Paula. In fact, the first moment this happens is on the first run, where Julianna make Coryn leave Paula outside of the restaurant with her own security robots. Here is when that happens:

At the landing, the still-nameless woman leaned over to her. “Leave your companion outside.”

That surprised Coryn. “She usually sits with me.”

A slightly perturbed look crossed the woman’s face. “Well, I’m going to eat with you. She doesn’t need food. She can stay out with my guards.”

Coryn blinked. Paula’s job was to keep her safe.

So that’s the spark that helped bring Wilders to life. Its name is Julianna. She sprang to existence exactly when I needed her.

*

* Reserve an autographed copy from University Bookstore in Seattle
* Amazon Kindle Version
* Amazon paperback link
* Indiebound

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Brenda Cooper is the winner of the 2007 and 2016 Endeavor Awards for “a distinguished science fiction or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author or authors.” Her work has also been nominated for the Phillip K. Dick and Canopus awards.
Brenda lives in Woodinville, Washington with her family and three dogs. A technology professional, Brenda is the Chief Information Officer for the City of Kirkland, which is a Seattle suburb.
Brenda was educated at California State University, Fullerton, where she earned a BA in Management Information Systems. She is also pursuing an MFA at StoneCoast, a program of the University of Southern Maine. Learn more or sign up for her newsletter at her website: http://www.brenda-cooper.com.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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If you’re like me, the phrase “Orpheus myth in space” gets your immediate attention. Here’s Jessica Reisman to tell us about the spark that brought Substrate Phantoms to life!

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cover to SUBSTRATE PHANTOMS by Jessica ReismanSubstrate Phantoms had a long road to publication, so I’ve had to cast my mind back to remember the original writing and when the fire seemed to catch. I already had my far future science fiction universe, the Aggregate, in which I’ve had several stories and my first novel (so long ago now that Substrate gets to be a new debut), and had been playing around with the idea of the Orpheus myth in space, a kind of ‘don’t look back’ when a character is fleeing a space station, trying to save a loved one.

That was all very well, but things weren’t really taking any compelling shape. It was with the haunting of the space station that the first sign of heat flared up. A kind of film reel unfurled in my mind, of powerful images and feelings having to do with the intersection of technology and futurity with superstition and our need for the kind of possibility inherent in the more inward, arcane, and irrational side of our natures. Where these elements—often set in opposition—cross is a deep vein of story for me.

It was a pretty potent unfurling of image and feeling, that film reel. It had what felt like the whole story—and more—within it. My writing process is what we sometimes call “organic.” The initial phase of image, feeling, and story arc is like a seed for me, a tiny, dense ball of potential in which the story exists. To maul the metaphor, note-making, research, background work, and world building are all preparing the ground, planting, and fertilizing; the actual searching march of words onto page is when the growth begins and the story stretches toward its shape.

So there was the spark of the haunted space station—a usefully compelling elevator pitch, but what now? I think it leapt into full conflagration when I found the opening of the first chapter:

Revelation deck rested currently in station shadow, spangled in reflections off the solar collectors. Long glimmers cut through the high dim space in a slow dance. Revelation deck was a big space with open gridwork, gridwork being the bones of station superstructure hidden on other decks. Tall viewports and a lack of adult traffic made it a favorite haunt of station kids, four of whom sat clustered under a twenty-foot span of the grid arch. Likely there was someplace they were supposed to be, and strict regulations said they shouldn’t be there, but it was a regulation never enforced.

Jhinsei, two-thirds of the way through sitting a shift at the automated shuttle monitors, liked the murmur of voices. He had been such a kid himself, not too many years past, listening to tales on Revelation; besides, they lessened the loneliness of the cavernous deck.

Revelation deck, far future space station, kids telling stories, future and past: it makes friction for me and, voila, sparks!

*

From the cover copy:

The space station Termagenti—hub of commerce, culture, and civilization—may be haunted. Dangerous power surges, inexplicable energy manifestations, and strange accidents plague the station. Even after generations of exploring deep space, humanity has yet to encounter another race, and yet, some believe that what is troubling the station may be an alien life form.

Jhinsei and his operations team crawl throughout the station, one of many close-knit working groups that keep Termagenti operational. After an unexplained and deadly mishap takes his team from him, Jhinsei finds himself—for lack of a better word—haunted by his dead teammates. In fact, they may not be alone in taking up residence in his brain. He may have picked up a ghost—an alien intelligence that is using him to flee its dying ship. As Jhinsei struggles to understand what is happening to his sanity, inquisitive and dangerous members of the station’s managing oligarchy begin to take an increasingly focused interest in him.

Haunted by his past and the increasing urgent presence of another within his mind, Jhinsei flees the station for the nearby planet Ash, where he undertakes an exploration that will redefine friend, foe, self, and other. With Substrate Phantoms, Jessica Reisman offers an evocative and thought-provoking story of first contact, where who we are is questioned as much as who they might be.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indigo | Publisher

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Jessica Reisman’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. A three-time Michener Fellow, she has been writing her own brand of literary science fiction and fantasy for many years. Jessica has lived in Philadelphia, parts of Florida, California, and Maine, and been employed as a house painter, blueberry raker, art house film projectionist, glass artist’s assistant, English tutor, teaching assistant, and editor, among other things. She dropped out of high school and now has a master’s degree. She makes her home in Austin, Texas, where well-groomed cats, family, and good friends grace her life with their company. Find out more at her site.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Spark of Life is a chance for authors to talk about a key moment when the story came to life: a character did something unexpected, the world acquired new depth, or the plot took a perfect but unforeseen turn. For more details, go here.

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Juliet McKenna, The Shadow Histories of the River Kingdoms

This Must Be Kept A Secret

After four series and fifteen novels, I’m familiar with that electrifying moment when a story comes alive, when the interaction of people, places and plot generates an internal momentum to drive the narrative, often in unexpected directions. It can be a wild ride. It’s always exhilarating.

My experience with the stories in The Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom was very different. This new fantasy world started with one short story for an anthology called “Imaginary Friends”. What if a lonely child’s imaginary companion proved to be a threat? not a consolation? What would make this significant? It would be, if that child was important. So I devised the tale of Princess Kemeti discovering that her imaginary friend can step out of the Unreal World. Worse, he threatens to break free of her control. That’s some challenge for a nine year old.

So far, so good, for a single story. Then I realised something about the magical environment I’d just created, where dreams, longing and other emotions can call something or someone into existence in a parallel world. The possibilities were limitless, and if those creations could cross over into day-to- day reality, so was the potential for confusion and for dangerous situations. More stories floated through my own imagination. But that wasn’t the ‘spark of life’ moment.

That came when I realised this magic would have to be kept a secret. Except, how could that possibly be done? If someone’s dreams of a unicorn could send one trotting down a street? Unicorns get noticed. Apparently inexplicable things get noticed by the authorities, religious, political, whoever. Once those in power worked out what was happening, they’d see that same limitless potential for chaos that I had. Then they would go one step further. They’d realise the uses they could make of such magic, as well as the ways their enemies could abuse it. What would this mean for the River Kingdom which I’d sketched into the background of Kemeti’s story?

More than that, something so powerful would have to be kept a secret. But how do you keep something so unpredictable hidden? By watching and waiting and concealing every manifestation as quickly as possible. By assessing anyone and everyone who proves to have this uncanny magical talent. By enlisting those powerful enough to be of use, whatever their character or their background might be. When the stakes are so high, that’s going to be an offer these people would be very unwise to refuse. But that’s okay if we’re the good guys, right? The ends can justify the means…

That’s it. That’s the spark. This tension, this challenge, the inherent instability, which will drive more stories, novellas and novels set in this world.

cover art for THE SHADOW HISTORIES OF THE RIVER KINGDOMS by Juliet McKenna

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble which began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, to Defiant Peaks concluding The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. In between novels, she writes diverse shorter fiction, ranging from stories for themed anthologies such as Alien Artifacts and Fight Like A Girl through to forays in dark fantasy and steampunk with Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.

Currently exploring new opportunities in digital publishing, she’s re-issued her backlist as ebooks in association with Wizard’s Tower Press as well as bringing out original fiction. Most recently, Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom offers readers a wholly new and different fantasy world to explore. Learn more about all of this at www.julietemckenna.com and find her on Twitter @JulietEMcKenna

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Aliette de Bodard’s latest book, The House of Binding Thorns, is the second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, which began with The House of Shattered Wings. What’s the point at which the book came to life for her?

*

cover for House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de BodardI really dithered about where to start The House of Binding Thorns.

The book is a Gothic dark fantasy set in a decadent Paris set in the wake of a magical war: I knew pretty early on that it was going to be "opium war with dragons" and that it was going to involve politics, backstabbing and magical intrigues around an arranged marriage, but while I hammered out the basics of the plot pretty quickly, I couldn't get the entire thing to gel. It sounded fantastic on paper, but I tried and discarded several beginnings that didn't work.

One of the main characters, Madeleine, is a drug addict (to the opium analogue in this universe, a drug distilled from the ground bones of Fallen angels). I knew that her first chapter was going to involve her being forcibly weaned off the drug in unpleasant ways (since the magical faction she belongs to, House Hawthorn, is headed by a sadist and completely ruthless). But every attempt I made at opening in media res fell flat.

And then I realised I was having a twofold problem: the first was that opening on a character being tortured felt too over the top for me personally. The second was that opening in media res is a very tricky thing. It's too early for the reader to care about the characters that horrible things are happening to, so the writer needs to both get the reader to care and to keep everything else going at the same time, which is a lot of very hard juggling.

The usual fix to this is to open earlier, get the reader time to get attached to the characters, and then have things go pear-shaped. I realised that I could actually open later, after the weaning from the drug had already happened, and only allude to it in flashbacks. This solved both of my problems in one go. I could make the reader attached to a character recovering from trauma, and I also could leave the description of said trauma mostly to the reader's imagination– which I've always found to be more effective than graphic descriptions of violence.

I sat down, and wrote:

In the House of Hawthorn, all the days blurred and merged into one another, like teardrops sliding down a pane of glass. Madeleine couldn’t tell when she’d last slept, when she’d last eaten—though everything tasted of ashes and grit, as if the debris from the streets had been mixed with the fine food served on porcelain plates—couldn’t tell when she had last woken, tossing and turning and screaming, reaching for a safety that wasn’t there anymore.

And just like that, the character (and the book) came alive for me.

*

cover art to The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de BodardAliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. She is the author of the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace, Gollancz). She lives in Paris. Visit her website or Twitter for more information.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Spark of Life is a chance for authors to talk about a key moment when the story came to life: a character did something unexpected, the world acquired new depth, or the plot took a perfect but unforeseen turn. For more details, go here.

***

Alma Alexander, The Were Chronicles

It’s very easy to just follow comfortably in the ruts of a well-trodden road when it comes to telling a story – but every now and then something WILL happen to jolt you out of that and then all of a sudden it’s a bumpier ride but you’re out of the ruts and the view is spectacular out there. That’s largely what happened with the Were Chronicles, because two things collided here – the well trodden road of Were-creatures and their archetypes, and the never-quite-before-explored edge of just how the Were-creatures existed, what made them not-quite-human. And I turned back to my long-ago roots – I hold a MSc degree in Molecular Biology and Microbiology, and all of a sudden I had all this relevant knowledge I could draw on. And the story exploded on me. I suddenly had immensely alive characters who couldn’t wait to tell their stories, in their very distinctive voices, characters who lived and breathed and who were genetically Were-creatures but who were so achingly, vulnerably, totally *human* that they made me wince when bad things had to happen to them. For me, these three books – Random, Wolf and Shifter – are amongst the most vivid, most involving, and by far the most important books I may ever write.

a triptych of the three WERE CHRONICLES covers, by Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, on Twitter, or join her on her Patreon page.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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medium-sized version of the cover for WITHIN THE SANCTUARY OF WINGS

At long last, the series is complete.

This story has been living in my head for . . . about a decade, I think. I know I wrote the first third of A Natural History of Dragons in 2007 or thereabouts, before stalling out on the plot and setting it aside. I came back to it in late 2010, sold it in 2011, the first book came out in 2013, and now, my friends, the end of the story is in your hands. (Or will be, as soon as you run out and buy it.)

I’m going to be launching a new blog series, along the lines of John Scalzi’s THE BIG IDEA or Mary Robinette Kowal’s MY FAVORITE BIT, called SPARK OF LIFE: a place for authors to talk about those moments where the story seems to take on a life of its own, with a character doing something unexpected or the world unfolding a bit of depth you didn’t plan for. For me that mostly tends to happen in the depths of the tale, when I’ve built up enough momentum and detail for such things to spring forth. But in the case of this series, it happened less than a page in, because the spark of life?

That was Isabella.

Countless reviews have talked about how the narrator is one of the strongest features of the story. I’m here to tell you that, like Athena from the head of Zeus, she sprang out more or less fully-formed. The foreword got added a bit later, so it was in those opening paragraphs of Chapter One, where Isabella talks about finding a sparkling in the garden and it falling to dust in her hands, that she came to instant and vivid life. Part of the reason that initial crack stalled out in 2007 — or rather, the reason it got so far before stalling — was because I was having so much fun just following along in her wake, exploring her world and listening to her talk. The narrative voice has consistently been one of the greatest joys of writing this series. I have an upcoming article where I talk about how sad it is for me to be done with the story, because it feels like a good friend has moved away and I won’t get to see her regularly anymore. That’s how much she’s lived in my head, these past years.

Stay tuned on future Tuesdays for a glimpse at how other authors’ stories came to life. And stay tuned in upcoming days for some more behind-the-scenes stuff about my own characters!

***

In the meanwhile, the book is out, and so are the reviews. Here’s a spoiler-free one from BiblioSanctum, and two reviews on one page at Fantasy Literature; here is a SPOILER-TASTIC one at Tor.com. (Do NOT click unless you’ve read the book or are fine with having the big discovery of the entire series laid out in full. I’m serious.) (And while I’m at it, the same goes for that Gizmodo article that shows all the interior art for the book, because spoilers can come in visual form, too. Love ya, Gizmodo, but oof. Tor.com warned; you didn’t.)

Back in the land of no spoilers, you can read about my absolute favorite bit of Within the Sanctuary of Wings on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog. It’s . . . a wee bit topical, these days. And I’m on the Functional Nerds podcast, talking about all kinds of things that aren’t this book, because they like to give authors a chance to branch out and natter on about roleplaying games and things like that.

And finally, I’m currently running a giveaway on Twitter. Name your favorite female scientist in any field (there, or in comments here), and get a chance to win a signed book of your choice from my stash of author copies. It’s already a stiff competition; we’ve had dozens of women named. (If you were wondering why my Twitter stream has turned into a sea of retweeted names, that’s why.) You have until tomorrow!

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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