Year of the Deathsniffer

ME, THE INSIDE OF MY HEAD, AND DREAMS COMING TRUE

Almost two weeks ago now, on July 13th 2016, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant had its first birthday.

My parents got me a lemon cheesecake and took me out for dinner. I got some well-wishes from fans and industry friends on social media. I procrastinated writing this blog post, and the day passed.

It was both really, really exciting, and kind of low-key underwhelming. Partially because my second book is coming out in a couple of weeks, which is just crazy, and it’s hard to look back on and celebrate a year of my first baby when I’m currently having labour pains for my second! (And working on my third. Crap, I’m going to end up with so many of these things.) But mostly, I think it’s because I’m getting accustomed to this. In a good way!  When TDA hit shelves and kindles a year ago, it felt like living in a brilliant flash of a moment. My lifelong dream was coming true. Strangers were buying my writing, liking it, wanting more. Absolutely none of that has stopped being amazing, but, having achieved my dreams, my life didn’t stop.

Writing this, I’m remembering my favourite scene from the massively underrated Tangled, my favourite Disney Princess movie. (I, um, might be a little in love with the Disney Princess canon.) Rapunzel is about to see the floating lantern festival and gets a little scared, wondering what happens after you achieve your dream. I know that feel, Rapunzel. I think I’ve spent a lot of this year dancing with it.

Putting The Deathsniffer’s Assistant into readers’ hands didn’t make my life complete in the way that I irrationally always thought it would. And I’m realizing that these things I’m saying are making me sound like the year has been a disappointment, that nothing lived up to my expectations. Really, it’s the opposite of that. My fans are the gift that keeps on giving. Every @ on twitter, every new review, and every comment on my site still makes my day. What I’m saying is something that I think is a lot more universal: life is never complete, and it just keeps going.

That’s what I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about. I thought publishing TDA was going to be the culmination of my life’s work, but I think I’ve realized that it’s just the start of it, the springboard I’ve built to go ever upwards.

 SUCCESS AND SATISFACTION

I think I can say, with firm certainty, that The Deathsniffer’s Assistant has been a resounding success.

I’ve sold considerably more copies than I ever expected for an indie publisher without in-store distribution. (Without sharing specific numbers, it’s only about half of what would be considered a success from a major house, but for my situation, it’s extremely strong!) My Amazon ranking in the paid Kindle store has twice broken the top one thousand, and once broken the top one hundred. And my reviews have been phenomenal. In one year, only one single reader has ever said that they outright didn’t like it. This matters a lot to me. I think I’d rather sell five thousand copies to universal acclaim than five hundred thousand to a lukewarm response. With a 4.4 on Amazon (of almost 100 reviews) and a 4.1 on Amazon (of almost 300 ratings), I can safely say that people really dig it, and that’s fantastic.

I’ve always wanted to make money writing. First of all, because money is wonderful and I am poor and I like to eat. But secondly, because, despite the way we romanticize the starving artist, it’s the ultimate dream to have someone give you cash not because you performed a service, but because you created something. I mean, hell. I’d almost pay you to read my books! The chance to share my stories with a receptive audience is almost payment in itself. When that audience is actually trading currency for the privilege, it’s kind of enough to make a creative-type weak at the knees.

For literally as long as I can remember, I’ve been telling stories. I can’t possibly overstate how grateful I am for the 4.4s and 4.1s and dollars in my bank account that are the evidence of a year spent telling them on a large scale.

I AM REALLY BAD AT COMMUNICATION EXCEPT FOR WHEN I’M NOT

We get it, Kate. You don’t like blogging! Yeah, well. I think I just might hate the act of throwing my voice out there into the void. But what I love? Is actually engaging with people, and talking about my work.

I’ve  numerous done book clubs and signings this year. It’s been wonderful. Especially the book clubs, because I get to talk with people who have already finished the book and have so many questions. I love answering questions. I love talking about my behind-the-scenes insights. I love getting into discussions about my own stuff, talking about my process, and  digging into the meat of my characters.

I’ve discovered that as much as I struggle with the act of stringing together non-fictional words about me, my work, and my process when I’m doing it alone, I absolutely love it when I’m doing it with others. I want you guys to know that I am always open to questions and thoughts and discussions about my life, my work, or anything about me! While I agonize over topics for blog posts, I just love getting to answer directed questions. Consider my door wide open.

AUTOPSIES AND APOLOGIES

All right. Time for this.

I didn’t want to say anything negative about my own work until a year after it was out there. For a lot of reasons, but mostly two.

The first is because it’s really easy to get down on your own work, seeing problems where they aren’t any. (For instance, there’s one scene in TDA that I wrote while extremely sick, and I hate it so much because all I can see is how miserable I was and how bad it was the first time I wrote it because I was so sick. It’s fine, now. Some people say it’s one of their favourite scenes! But all I can see is how much I hate it.) The second you vocalize those things, it can cause this effect where, now that I’ve pointed out a problem that doesn’t exist, other people start seeing the problem, too. And it still doesn’t exist! I wanted to let enough time pass that, like with the scene above, I can be objective and only talk about things I actually think were mistakes.

The second reason, obviously, is that when you’re trying to sell something to someone, you don’t point out how bad it is, haha. “Hey, you should buy this car! It smells like old fish and the e-brake doesn’t work and I really hate the trunk size. Only five thousand dollars!” I wanted to wait until the time to sell TDA was mostly over, and the time to discuss TDA had started in full.

In all honesty, there are still some things about the book I hate irrationally because of what the experience of writing it was like. For example, that one scene I describe above. It’s still fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. And I still hate it. There are some spots where I wish, with the eye of a hyper-critical creator, that I could go in and tweak and play around and make it “better.” I’m not going to talk about those things.

I do kind of want to talk about Ethan Grey.

!!HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!

I want to do another Backstage Character Pass series where I talk about the characters from TDA who won’t be appearing in the rest of the series — the cast of the val Daren murder mystery. I have a lot to talk about with those characters, and wanted to wait until I could go into the nitty gritty details of the mystery without spoiling it. So that’s coming! For now, I just want to say that I think I could have handled my killer better.

I think I came at it from a good angle. For my first mystery, I wanted something really classic. The murdered patriarch. The elegant, grieving widow with a secret. The fey and beautiful daughter. The shark creditor. The spurned mistress. The spurned mistress, obviously would be the killer. And I got this idea that I could put a modern twist on the spurned mistress characters, and have it be a gay man.

I go back and forth on whether or not Ethan was fundamentally a mistake. I still like the idea. And when you read The Timeseer’s Gambit, I hope you’ll see that I use Chris’s reactions to him in interesting ways, as well as seeing some more positive LGBTQ characters. But a book has got to stand on its own, and Ethan straddles the line perilously close to that predatory gay man trope who tries to trick straight guys into doing gay things and is unhinged and dangerous. Like, really close. Close enough that I think I could have done better.

I tried to mitigate the circumstances. I do think that Ethan is a tragic character. Being gay didn’t make him a killer — a society that forced him into the shadows and convinced him that he was evil did. He was pushed to the sidelines and the choices he made were just a stacking Russian doll of ways to push back until he had crossed so many lines he didn’t know which way was up anymore. In a world that had accepted him, Ethan wouldn’t have become what he did. He’d have been a brilliant, celebrated artist with someone who loved him. I tried to use Olivia to show this, to be the one person who could see past the way things “should be” to mourn for his potential.

Was it enough? Honestly, probably not.

My own history and beliefs don’t really make a difference, and intent only goes so far. I made a conscious choice to hold back on outing my queer characters until book 2, and I think if I wrote the book again, I’d make it explicitly clear for least one of them. Gay people can be killers just as well as straight people. But my only visible gay character being a killer? Not ideal.

Some of you are probably reading this thinking “I don’t know, I thought it was fine.” Others might be going “that’s a nice apology, but you can’t unring that bell!” And perspectives are going to differ. I get that. But this is why I waited so long — to be sure that I knew how I felt about my own choice. And I think that I didn’t quite do my best to ensure that my people got the rep we deserve. All I can say is that I can’t go back, but book 2 is going to bring it in spades

!!END OF SPOILERS!!

THE FUTURE

If you’re like me and procrastinate reading articles the same way I procrastinate writing them , The Timeseer’s Gambit might already be out when you’re reading this. It’s my great hope that it’ll have as good a year as The Deathsniffer’s Assistant did. As many positive reviews, as many sales, and as many opportunities to communicate with my fans.

I think it’s the better book. I think people are going to like it. I hope I have less to answer for in my autopsy for this one, and I hope all readers respond to it the way early ones have.

Who knows how it’ll feel in a year? Or, for that matter, how TDA will feel another year from now? Will I mark the date at all, or will it just float by? Time will tell! All I can say is that this has been one of the best years of my life, thanks to the book, and thanks to all of you who’ve read it.

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Cover Reveal for The Timeseer’s Gambit!

My second book, The Timeseer’s Gambit, is going to be out in just two weeks now, and I’m so excited to reveal its cover here today!

2-Timeseer's-Gambit-final-front-cover-for-preview

The cover for  The Timeseer’s Gambit features Chris alongside William, the titular Timeseer, set against warm colours to make you think of hot, heavy summer days. I was lucky enough to get the same artist who worked on The Deathsniffer’s Assistant and I absolutely love how they look side by side! The Kindle version of The Timeseer’s Gambit is now available for preorder at Amazon.com and other territories, so grab your copy today! (Paperbacks will be available for purchase on release day!)

Super excited for everyone to get their hands on this book! I think everyone is going to love it.

Oh, Hey, Long Time No See

Wow, this is embarrassing, isn’t it? After all that talk about making an effort to blog more and get myself out there and make sure I’m staying in close touch with you guys, I seem to have gotten worse than ever at this. Huh.

After about two years of doing this, I’m coming to the conclusion that I am just bad at blogging. Or, no. Let’s scratch that. I think I’m actually pretty good at blogging. People keep telling me that they really love my blog and they think my posts are really compelling and interesting and they love reading them. The truth is probably closer to this:

I hate blogging.

I have got this idea in my head about what a blog post needs to be, and one of those things is that it needs to have effort put into it. Which may or may not be true, but god dammit, it’s stuck in my head like a song that won’t leave. When I just have some hot take I want to throw out there, I go to my twitter.  Blogging feels like an obligation that’s going to absorb my valuable writing energy. Which it kinda does.

Anyway. I feel like I’ve made this damn spiel so many times, everyone must be bored of it! This isn’t a blog post about my issues with blogging. Rather, this is a blog post I’m putting the absolute minimum amount of energy into to see if it can be done, instead of getting myself all worked up about things!

UPDATES:

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant has been out for almost a year! It’s birthday is only two days away, and I’m really excited to hit that milestone. I’m intending to write a big postmortem on the book and do something to celebrate the birthday. We’ll see if it actually gets done! For now, let me just say that I’m really, really happy with how this year has gone and I’m so, so grateful to all of you for buying a copy and telling your friends and supporting me. I write for you guys.

The Timeseer’s Gambit is out in only twenty-five days! Holy crap! The time has flown, and also, has dragged so slow I could cry. I am really proud of this one and so frigging excited to get it into your hands. Early reviews are starting to go up, and the consensus so far is that it’s as good or better than the first one. (Yay!) I am really just so pumped to start talking about the book with you. My cover reveal is next week (pushing it close to pub, I know!) and I hope you guys love it!

The Heartreader’s Secret is looking a hell of a lot better than it was the last time I updated this blog, when I posted talking about how I’d spent five months writing a single chapter. The good news is there is now a lot more than one chapter hammered out on this manuscript! The going is still slow-ish compared to how fast TTG came out, but it’s a much more complicated book. I think it’s going to turn out considerably longer than the first two (which have almost the exact same word/page count!), which could be great or terrible depending. I’m still at a stage with this book where I’m worried it’s not very good, so I can’t say that I’m excited to get it out there in front of you all. But it’s coming, and it’s turning out mostly the way I want it to, so that’s good.

As for me, personally, it’s been a long summer so far. What do you mean, summer has just started? Dammit! It isn’t over yet?? I hate summer, I really do. I’m one of those weird people who would rather sit curled up by the fire with blankets while a blizzard rages outside than go to the beach. I hate the beach, actually. And the heat. And bugs. And eighteen hours of daylight. And I’m pale as a ghost and sunburn like I’m being roasted. Summer is not my time. I’ve been a little down, a little unfocused, and really, really excited for autumn to get here. Okay, is summer over, yet? What’s that? It’s only been a minute since I started writing this paragraph? HOW IS IT STILL HERE?

I’ve also read some books that are totally worth checking out. In the sci-fi side of things, I’m still digging the absolute pants off of  The Expanse series by James S A Corey. As for fantasy, Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan just recently came out in paperback and I tore through it in a day or less. So good. And on the romance front, I’ve been absolutely thrilled over how good Sarah Maclean’s Rules of Scoundrels series is, especially the second one!

So that’s it. This took very little effort and was fun to write, so hey, that’s something.

The Wretched Rebirth of That Little Voice

Come with me on a journey. We’ll use that magical internet ability to time travel and go back to May 17th, 2015. The world was still waiting for the promised new Star Wars and the Canadian dollar hadn’t yet ruined my life by bungie jumping without a cable. I was ecstatic, because I had just finished the first draft of The Timeseer’s Gambit, which at the time still lacked a firm title. Look at how happy I was. How proud. How naive.

Depressingly, we’re about to come up on a year since that day, and I’m about to admit that I’m only just now finishing… the very first chapter of Book 3.

Oh, ouch.

I wish I could say that I’ve had a hard year. I haven’t. Full disclosure? I’ve had a great year. I got engaged and went on a ballin’ vacation in Las Vegas. The Deathsniffer’s Assistant has done so well and I’ve gotten a lot of incredibly moving feedback, met wonderful fans, and even made a not insignificant amount of money. My finances are better than they’ve ever been and I’m a happier, better person than I was this time last year. My mental health has never been so good. So while I wish that I could take refuge in having had a rough time of it, the truth is quite the opposite.

Part of it is that I wasn’t prepared for how much different editing is when you have an actual committee of people on you. I am really bad at starting a new project while I feel the previous one is still “unfinished,” and the fact that The Timeseer’s Gambit is still nowhere near ready for print right now, almost a year after my finishing it, is actually low key making me crazy as we speak. So many more steps were added to the revisions process with the addition of an agent and an entire publisher‘s worth of assorted people. But I sat down to actually start really digging into work on The Heartreader’s Secret in January, which is about when I started working on TTG in earnest last year. Even with the unexpected complications of working with publishers on a the previous book, I should be a lot deeper into THS than I am. There’s really only one real explanation for it.

I just can’t shut that little voice off.

You know. THE VOICE. The one that comes from inside of you. The one that always has something to say, and it’s never something nice. That voice is my best friend while I’m in editor mode and it’s part of what makes me a pretty good writer. But only part. The only part is the creativity, the joy of storytelling, the ability to find and follow a scene and the characters who inhabit it. And while my creative spirit leaves the voice alone and lets it work when it’s work time, the voice isn’t content to return the favour. It does its level best to strangle the creative part of me every single second when I’m actually trying to create.

That paragraph is too long.

You’re overusing italics.

That transition was awkward.

What’s the point of this scene?

That’s not the perfect word you’re looking for.

This entire beginning is trash.

Obvious explanatory dialogue tag.

Chapter too short.

You’re rambling.

Run-on sentence.

Too much dialogue.

Not enough action.

Not good enough.

Not good enough.

Not good enough.

A year ago, fresh on the high of having finished my second book in record time, I had kind of convinced myself that I was above that voice. I’d slain it like a knight on a dragon, and now it was behind me, beneath me, and I’d never face it again. I was a Real Writer now, and my difficulties had graduated with me. I didn’t have to face the same things that I’d faced before.

Well, lesson learned.

I’m realizing that we never defeat that voice. Sometimes it’s louder, and sometimes it’s quieter, but its always there, and we all have it. I think I underestimated it and oversold myself. And it’s laying me so low because I naively thought I was beyond it. When you think you’ve slain your demon and stupidly turned away from it, its strikes become backstabs.

So here I am, looking that voice in the face.

I underestimated you, asshole. I let myself think that you were gone and you’re very much still here. But here’s the deal. I wrote two books already, and you were here for those, too. And they’re pretty damn good books. So you don’t control me.

I’m going to go back to my basics. One chapter minimum a week. A commitment to hard work. Furrowing my brow and ignoring you when you start whispering, and doing it over and over again until I get my immunity to you back.

You can be a useful partner. You’ve helped me see flaws, cut fat, and kill darlings. You’ve kept me grounded and realistic. But right now, nobody wants you here. I’ll see you when the draft is done, but that might be a while, so don’t wait around.

… is it gone?

That’s a joke. It’s never gone. Because the real shitty twist to this story is that it’s not an evil dragon-demon-voice.

It’s me.

It’s my own brain, doing what brains do, being both your best friend and worst enemy. No amount of shouting at my brain will make it go away, and besides, I kind of need it. But the fact that it is me is also an advantage, because ultimately, we have control over ourselves. I’ve made the decision to ignore my brain-voice before. I know I have, because I remember doing it. I can do it again, and I will.

I’m going to work my ass (and my brain) off to get The Heartreader’s Secret into your hands in the summer of ’17. So here I go. Screw you, me. Let’s do this.

Official Release Date for The Timeseer’s Gambit!

Good news, everyone! I finally have permission to share the official release date for book 2 of the Faraday Files, The Timeseer’s Gambit! The  book will be available for purchase on August 4th, 2016! I know that seems like a long wait but it’ll be here before you know it! In the meantime, I’ll be working away on book 3, The Heartreader’s Secret.

I can’t wait to see what you all think about The Timeseer’s Gambit! I’m incredibly proud of it and so far, everyone seems to think it’s even better than the first!

Backstage Character Pass — William Cartwright

Every writer has their favourites.

We love all our characters equally, of course, and all differently. Some (Chris) have deeply personal roots in our own souls. Some (Rachel) are such a labour of love to get right that every word is precious. And some (Olivia) are just damn fun to write. But deep down in our hearts, I think we all have one that we knew we’d save from a fire if we had to choose.

For me, that’s William Cartwright.

Will’s origin story is definitely the oddest of my main cast.

Part of constructing the world of Darrington City was embedding fun mystery-solving avenues into the world. The gift of timeseeing let me roll a lot of modern detective tech into one. Namely: video surveillance, DNA testing, and fingerprinting. The ability to get a glimpse into the crime scene at the time the crime happened.Timeseeing itself was fully fleshed out very early on.

But the timeseer was kind of an amorphous blob. I knew she (yes, she!) had to be a major character in the grand scheme, an integral part of the core cast. Otherwise, her abilities would seem too convenient whenever they were wheeled out. Beyond that, I just decided I’d get to her when she arrived. My original outline for The Deathsniffer’s Assistant even has a line for the scene in which Will first appears – “meet timeseer character (flesh her out later.)”

I’m a predictable beast.When I give myself permission to do something “later,” it always ends the same way. I get to the scene in question and still haven’t decided what to do. So it happened with my timeseer. Olivia and Chris entered the room, looked my amorphous blob in the eyes, and right then and there my blob needed a name, a face, a history, and a personality.

I’d kind of haphazardly assigned a few traits to my blob in the back of my head. She was going to be soft, beautiful, spiritual, and gentle. A little bit fey. Not quite connected to what was going on around her, always living in the pasts that she could see. I’d kind of stuck a name to her, too, scribbled on a post-it note and stuck to the blob. Hannah.

Tire screeches right about now. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Will’s handler, the soft-spoken and gorgeous Officer Hannah Burke?

Why, yes! Yes it does.

As Olivia and Chris looked the blob in the eyes, it occurred to me that Chris was the only major male character in the core cast. And I didn’t really like my spiritual, listless timeseer. I didn’t have a sense of who she really was beyond a list of traits I thought would be interesting to write. There was nothing to pull them together. I had no sense of her as a person at all.

So I rolled everything way back. Square one. I looked at what a timeseer was. Someone with the rarest, most valuable categorization. Someone whose magic was almost mythical in a world where magic is nothing. The one gift that’s still “special.” What would someone with that ability be like?

tfe4D9r
art of the ponce by http://stormbourne-art.tumblr.com/

Uh, well, they’d be kind of a ponce.

And then – bam. Fireworks in my brain, and like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead, William Cartwright appeared. A puff of smoke, a trill of fanfare, and an entire character was standing where the blob had been. I didn’t slowly discover Will, his history, his motivations, his personality, his backstory. In one moment he was not. And in the next, he was.

I think this is why he’s so special to me. I have to think very hard about my characters, about all the little pieces that make them who they are. I’ve only very recently finalized the last details of Olivia’s childhood! It takes time to assemble truly human characters. But it wasn’t like that with William. As soon as I discovered him, I discovered all of him. And, not content to just be a talking surveillance camera, he pushed himself into every last corner of the story.

It’s hard not to love a character with that much agency over his fate.

I kind of think of Will as a chihuahua. When you first meet him, you’re taken in by how tiny he is and how he looks so decorative. How cute! But just like the dog, Will’s territorial, cranky, peckish, and furiously loyal to a very small group – so loyal, in fact, that he’s willing to make anyone outside that group his enemy. Lots of bark and lots of bite in a package so small and adorable it’s hard to take seriously. But underestimating Will is a bad idea. He’ll mess you up, mate.

As you might be able to guess from the title, The Timeseer’s Gambit is Will’s book in a lot of ways. His appearances in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant are few, but I’ve been told quite a few times that he makes a really strong impression. I absolutely can’t wait until you get to know him better in the sequel. You’ll find out where he and Chris know one another from, and really get into some meat of his character. I hope you all love him as much as I do!

What did you think of Will? Are you looking forward to unpacking his mysteries and finding out where he knows Chris from and why Chris doesn’t remember him? And do you agree with what some readers have theorized – that there’s some attraction going on between the two young men?

Other Backstage Character Passes:
Chris
Olivia
Maris
Rosemary
Rachel

Backstage Character Pass — Rachel Albany

[This Backstage Character Pass contains some very minor SPOILERS for The Deathsniffer’s Assistant! Read at your own risk.]

No character deviated more from their original plan than Rachel Albany.

I’ve written about how The Deathsniffer’s Assistant originally started as a NaNoWriMo side project without an outline that I later realized had some potential. What I haven’t talked about is how much of the book changed between those mile markers. While I picked it back up and continued writing more or less where I left off, the very fabric and intent of the novel had changed.

The original novel didn’t have the Floating Castle.

Michael and Julia Buckley had been killed in a carriage accident. There was no larger plot, no political landscape, no depression, and no conspiracy. It was just the val Daren murder.

While I left the novel fallow, those ideas began to sprout and bloom. The murders themselves weren’t enough to hold up the book. I didn’t want to just tell murder mysteries in a fantasy setting. I wanted something bigger. Parents dying in a silly accident didn’t provide my narrator enough baggage or motivation, and with no overarching mystery for the main characters to solve, the series lacked a mission statement.

This is when the Floating Castle was born.

The details of that story are for another time. But the birth of the Floating Castle was also the birth of the Miss Albany who reached the presses.

I immediately knew that I needed a character representing the reformist point of view. An important part of making a conflict seem human is personifying it. I needed someone the audience respected and trusted to voice the views of the reformist camp – and more importantly, to trust the reformist leader, Dr. Livingstone. A major plot point hinged on the audience believing the doctor was a good man, and a character who could grandfather him into the story was necessary.

Even from the first draft, the Miss Albany character existed. But she was different, a pinched older woman, severe and intense with a completely different backstory. I didn’t want to create a new character, so I decided to have Miss Albany perform double duty.

And then I thought – well, since we’re already tinkering, why not triple duty?

See, I knew from moment one that I wanted Chris and Olivia to have an extremely intimate relationship that readers would see flourish over time. I also knew that I wanted absolutely no romantic connection between them. Their relationship would have to be completely platonic. The age difference, power difference, and fundamental personality conflicts between them was a part of that, but it was more. I wanted to explore how platonic relationships can be as meaningful and as important as romantic ones. I wanted to show a sexually compatible man and woman forming a deep connection without sex being an aspect of it. And, most importantly, I wanted Olivia to never become subservient – in any way – to Chris or Chris’s development.

I had to remove all risk of subtext, make it obvious to the reader that there was no romantic attraction between the Deathsniffer and her assistant. And the easiest way to do that is to show how they act around someone they are attracted to.

So: Rachel.

Three separate character ideas became one complete character: a governess for Rosemary, a romantic interest for Christopher, and a reformist sympathizer for the audience. She had to be someone Rosemary would initially resent, later respect, and eventually love. She had to be someone Chris would want, but also someone who would challenge his preconceptions. And she had to be implicitly trustworthy: forthright, stubborn and strong-willed.

Rachel became one of the most vital characters to the series as a result of this compound mission statement. She also became the most challenging to write. A single character pulling triple duty is economical writing, but it’s also tough. Rachel had to be playing all three roles in equal measure while still pursuing her own personal agenda. Finding the balance between her three roles in the story and her agency was tough, and no character has undergone more revisions in either book than Rachel.

rachel
MTWX’s gorgeous art shows the different faces of Rachel Albany.

The most important piece of advice I always want to give new writers is that they shouldn’t be so afraid of a first draft. I see so many writers struggle with fear of starting. And I want to tell them all that first draft is so mutable. (I talk about this a lot in my Getting Out of the Labyrinth series, especially Writing Part 1 and Writing Part 2.) Your book is going to change so much! And that’s not only fine, it’s awesome. Nothing is more inspiring than the knowledge that your work can still grow and adapt as you write. No word you write is written in stone. And I think Rachel is a great example of how much change can happen and how positive it can be!

I love all of my characters, and appreciation for any of them makes my day. But it’s curious. If I had to pick a favourite, it wouldn’t be Rachel. And yet, when someone tells me that she’s their favourite, nothing else makes me happier. Rachel is such a challenging character. Writing her is never effortless. I constantly have to work on juggling so many things while she’s onscreen. So when I hear that she really worked for someone, it’s crazy rewarding!

In The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll get to see Rachel more relaxed and comfortable in her position as Rosemary’s nanny. She and Chris have gotten to know one another better and their dynamic has subtly changed. You’re also going to learn quite a bit more about her infamous brother, the mysterious Garrett Albany you heard so much about in the first book. Look forward to it!

Have any comments, questions, or just something to say about Miss Rachel Albany? Let me know! I love hearing from my fans.

Other Backstage Character Passes:
Chris
Olivia
Maris
Rosemary

Getting Out of the NaNoWriByrinth — Five Lesson I Learned While Writing a Novel in November

It’s that time of year.

Aspirational writers, hobby writers, published writers, and fanfiction writers all come together for the month of November. We descend like a horde of locusts upon the internet, taking over social media with our hashtags, word count widgets, and blog posts. ‘Tis the season for commiseration, advice and encouragement.

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76November is National Novel Writing Month, when writers of all kinds and types try to write a novel in thirty days! Or… to write 50 000 words in thirty days. There’s some debate over which is the main goal. More on that later. But one thing is for certain: you want to write a lot in a short time.

I first tried NaNo in my early twenties. I only got ten thousand words – two chapters – into the book in question. I tried again off and on for years. Three unfinished manuscripts are lying about on old hard drives, the skeletal remains of NaNos both failed and succeeded.

There’s also one other. It’s called the Deathsniffer’s Assistant, and you might have read it.

To my knowledge, I’m the only published author in my circles who’s both finished and pubbed a NaNo project. And I learned a lot about NaNo that I want to share with those aspirational writers who really want to get a book out there.

To those working NaNo for the pure joy of if – this isn’t for you! Do whatever makes you happy! But for those who want to put words into something they can eventually show to an agent, here are some things that I learned.

1. Treat your NaNo prep like you’d treat prep for any other novel.

NaNoWriMo puts forward a “justgo” attitude. Don’t worry about if it’s good. Just blank out and write. And that’s NaNo’s strength. But if you’re trying to get something out there, I recommend checking out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, especially the posts on planning and outlining. Have a plan! “Justgo” doesn’t mean swan diving gracefully to your inevitable failure. Writing is a journey, and any successful journey needs a some sort of map. I’ve gotten lost in too many NaNo projects that I thought I didn’t need one for.

2. Writing 50 000 words is good. Writing a novel is better.

I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on the magic number, and not enough on the key word. It’s national novel writing month. Not national dick around until you have 50 000 words month. Too many times, I just wrote a whole lot of words, padding my word count with fluff and avoiding contractions so that I could say I arrived at the finish line. I have 25 000 words of just two chapters in one NaNo grave. That’s appalling.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: measuring progress by word count is fine, but measuring progress by progress is better. Your goal in NaNo should be to either write a novel or writing a big chunk of a novel. If you’ve got a NaNo graveyard of your own, try to switch it up this year. Maybe just ignore that magic 50 altogether. Aim for ten of twenty outlined chapters, instead!

Shooting for actual progress instead of a numerical target encourages economical writing over padded writing, and you’ll end up with something much closer to real novel status when December hits.

3. NaNo rules suggest you start something new. I suggest you work on something old.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant was a NaNo project twice, in fact. The first time I went in without an outline or real plans and ended up with three overlong chapters and no direction. Two years later, when I attempted the project again, I picked up where I left off (with an outline this time) instead of starting something new. NaNoWriMo official rules say you shouldn’t work on something already in progress, but I needed another unfinished manuscript like I needed a hole in the head. If you’ve got a bunch of stalled projects lying around that you want to keep working on, it might do you more good to put another 50k words into one of those than to just add something else to the pile.

4. Celebrate well-earned victory, but don’t let it be the end of the journey.

50 000 words is a little long for a novella, but quite short for a novel. If you’re working on something intended for publication, it’s very likely that you won’t be at the end of your outline when you reach the magic number. And the temptation when you hit it is to drink a bottle of wine and take a bubble bath… and leave the novel behind. Don’t give in! You succeeded at NaNo, but until you have a completed project under your belt, nothing is finished. I abandoned The Deathsniffer’s Assistant for eight months after reaching 50k on it during that second NaNo, and the longer I let it sit, the harder it was to get back to it. Let your November be a running start towards the discipline and momentum that’s really needed to be successful in writing.

5. Don’t forget about those all important revisions.

Even if you finish a novel in November, your novel is not done. NaNo encourages functional writing, focusing on quantity and speed. It’s a great way to marathon yourself into a lot of words – and a terrible, terrible way to get a finished product. Even an amazing first draft is a first draft. Many agents live in fear of their slush piles in December and January, wincing whenever the dreaded NaNoWriMo is mentioned in a cover letter. Cool your jets and take some time to workshop and revise your finished project before trying to introduce it to the world. Let that paper baby grow up – don’t just throw it into the world the moment it’s born.

For more writing tips, check out my Getting out of the Labyrinth series, where I take stalled writers step by step through the lessons I learned from planning to publication. For all of you doing NaNoWriMo this month, good luck! Don’t listen to anyone tell you that nothing good can ever come from November. It did for me! Just be smart and be realistic. This November might be the year your book dreams come true!

Backstage Character Pass — Rosemary Buckley

Ah, Rosemary.

All my characters seem to be polarizing except for her. Depending on who is talking, Olivia can be an empowering riot or an unreadable monster. Chris can be a well written beta male or a grating self-congratulatory dandy. Rosemary, though? There is a very clear consensus on Rosemary.

She’s a spoiled brat.

rosemary's aesthetic was inspired greatly by victorian porcelain dolls.
rosemary’s aesthetic was inspired greatly by victorian porcelain dolls.

Some hate Chris for being a terrible parental figure and letting her get to this point. Some skip right over Chris and get down to hating Rosie herself. In fact, there’s only one reader I can think of who really, really likes Rosemary – and I’ll get to him later.

First, I want to talk about the origin of the character. I said in my Maris backstage pass that except for Chris and Olivia, every major character in the book either joined the cast halfway through or deviated wildly from their original sketch. Rosemary is in the latter category. When I conceptualized the character, I had something a little more… delicate in mind. Initially named Rosaline, Chris’s gifted sister was of the ethereal waif archetype, an odd and spiritual eight-year-old girl, dreamy and fey and strange. She lived more on the elemental plane than in the real world and needed protecting from her own nature as much as from the outside forces closing in around her.

I tried to write that character. And there was really no moment when the dainty Rosaline became the precocious Rosemary. It was just that the character I was trying to write just refused to stick.

Rosaline would not go down on paper. She kept developing an attitude and getting older. Her wispy blonde curls wouldn’t become a solid image in my mind, and I kept having visions of an imperious little devil-child with jet black bouncing curls and a face like a porcelain doll.

There was also the issue of agency. Rosaline sat wrong with me. She had no real will of her own, and was so ghostly and sweet that no conflict would arise between her and Chris. Chris could handle Rosaline in a way that he can’t handle Rosemary, and it was just too easy. Becoming a parent when you’re only fifteen shouldn’t be easy. I wanted Chris to make mistake and I wanted his sister to be an entity who exerted her own will on the story – and on Chris himself.

So I started to write something more comfortable for me.

When my own younger sister was five years old, she demanded that the husky nine-year-old  boy who lived down the street get out of “her”chair. When he didn’t immediately obey, she grabbed him by his shirt, threw him onto the floor, and climbed up in his place, smiling happily. He ran all the way home crying.

They say to “write what you know,” don’t they?

I know what it’s like to have a little sister who’s a handful and a half. My own little Rosemary was my closest companion and the constant bane of my existence. We were the best of friends and she drove me crazy. To me, that’s what little sisters are. Strong-willed, stubborn little monsters who want everything, think they deserve even more, and make you love them so much it hurts even while you want to strangle them. I couldn’t conceptualize a little sister like Rosaline. So Rosaline became Rosemary.

Oh, and that one lone reader who adores little Rosie?

That would be our dad.

Rosemary isn’t just an expy of my sister, of course. They’re very different people. For instance: when people call Rosie a spoiled brat, they’re right. She is, from her head to her toes. She’s what Chris has made her into. Unlike my own sister, who I only had to take care for occasional nightmarish babysitting sessions, Rosemary was essentially raised by a teenage boy. Chris loves her so much it hurts, but he’s never had any how to handle her. He’s done the best he can, but she’d be a hard child for even two experienced and devoted adults to raise. Chris’s love for Rosie and his desire to keep her pliant led to him giving her everything she wanted. Never good parenting strategy. Fernand’s firmer hand only went so far when he was willing to cede to Chris himself.

Rosemary is a tough character to write – harder than Rosaline would have been. None of my characters are designed for likeability, but Rosie takes that to an extreme. And yet, for the story to work, I needed readers to buy Chris’s love for her. I needed them to see how much he loved her and how much she could be hurt by the factions lining up to use her. I needed them to see that Chris is a terrible parental figure while also respecting all he’s given up and how hard he’s tried. It’s really tough to evoke all these conflicting reactions, especially on a character carrying so much of the narrator’s motivations on her shoulders.

But I think Rosemary is a more rewarding character in the long run. It’s easy to make readers care about a cherubic, spiritual little waif. The reason that character is so overused in fantasy is because she’s easy. But I’ve always love young female characters like Malta Vestrit of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books, or Sansa Stark from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: girls who are too “difficult,” too spoiled, too spirited. Those characters go on to grow and change and make a reader think twice about dismissing them. I’m hoping Rosemary will succeed in the same way.

In The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll get to see Rosemary taking those first steps toward increased maturity. She’s got a long road ahead of her, but I hope in the end she’ll have been worth it.

Let me know what you think of Rosemary in the comments!

Other Backstage Character Passes:
Chris
Olivia
Maris

Backstage Character Pass — Maris Dawson

Chris and Olivia are the only two characters who were both planned to be in the book and came out the way they were initially planned. Everyone else either joined the cast later on, or deviated wildly from their original concept.

Officer Maris Dawson is one of the former.

There’s exactly one reason that Maris broke into the book. While finishing up my outline and making sure it was going to work – this was once I already had over ten thousand words written! – I came to an unfortunate realization: The Deathsniffer’s Assistant didn’t pass the Bechdel test.

The test is a simple bit of feminist critical theory that started as a joke by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the 1980s. It has three criteria. In order to pass, a piece of media has to have:

1. At least two female characters,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.

Passing Bechdel doesn’t mean that something is feminist. And failing doesn’t mean that something is bad. But it’s a very low bar to set and it’s shocking just how few movies, books, video games, and so forth actually pass it.

It didn’t seem possible that I could fail the test. I strongly identify as a feminist and work hard to ensure my female characters are diverse, interesting, and have their own agendas. Considerably more of my cast is female than male! But as I went through the list of characters in my first book and compared them against the outline, I came to a pretty startling realization.

Rosemary, Evelyn and Analaea val Daren, and Vanessa Caldwell all interacted at least once with Olivia. But each time, they were discussing a man. The murder victim in the first book is male, and Olivia’s interactions with these characters were either about him or Christopher. Rachel and Rosemary’s interaction all happens offscreen and is communicated to Chris by one or the other. Somehow, while I had passed the first two qualifiers with flying colours, I’d utterly failed the third. It became obvious that I was going to need to add another female character, someone with a more personal relationship to one of my leads, if I was going to pass the test.

tumblr_nudthe1rlL1urkoeko1_1280I identified a bit of world-building I’d glossed over. I’d decided early on that investigators were beholden to the police, who used them as independent contractors and outsourced their cases. The sudden permission to create another character let me explore that a bit, and I decided that Olivia needed a supervisor.

And then Maris kind of just… happened. The moment I realized that she should exist, she did exist. A stern, tough, handsome redhead, burly and indelicate and dry. Faux-Scottish with a rough brogue, contrasting Olivia’s sharp-tongued English way of speaking. Someone who would have no tolerance for Olivia’s bullshit, but who Olivia would be incredibly fond of. Someone to show the reader – and Chris – that Olivia did care about some things other than herself, that in her own way, she had formed attachments to the world she inhabited.

Everything about Maris snapped into focus in a split second, and she quickly wound herself in through all the empty spaces the book had. She became absolutely necessary to the story. She provided a little window into Olivia’s life pre-Chris, and provided the context for a major subplot in the first book, the minor mystery of Constance. She allowed me to have another likable, sympathetic character with traditionalist leanings, to make the deck seem less stacked in favour of the reformists. And, as I originally planned, she let me pass Bechdel.

Whenever I read sections where she and Olivia rib one another, ask about each other’s personal lives, or just complain about work, I smile to myself. It humanizes Olivia a bit, adds texture to her life, and makes her feel like she existed before Chris met her. All that aside, Maris has become a central part of the series as a whole and plays an increasingly major role in future books. Passing Bechdel actually did make my book stronger.

I see a sentiment online a lot. “Diversity shouldn’t be added for the sake of adding it.” And to them I say: why not? Maris is one of my most popular and favourite characters, and she wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t trying to check those boxes. If an element doesn’t work, by all means, massage or cut it. That’s just good writing. But fantastic characters and plotlines might be hiding behind that diversity barrier. You just need to be willing to look.

Maris is at her most professional in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, but in The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll see her in a much more personal context and learn a bit about who she is when she isn’t Officer Dawson!

Other Backstage Character Passes:
Chris
Olivia