Finding Meaning in Footnotes: An Interview with Author Jane Rosenberg LaForge

USPrincessAn Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy | A Fantastical Memoir, Jane’s debut novel, is an unusual mix of fantasy and memoir that builds slowly but steadily in intensity to a climax that will have you reaching for the tissue box. A poet, former literature professor, and journalist, Jane ties together lovely, lyrical fantasy and hard-boiled memoir to say something about love, loyalty, and the damage we do to ourselves when we don’t live up to our ideals.

A few weeks ago, Jane interviewed me on her blog about A Wizard’s Forge—the sort of deep-rooted questions about character motivation and literary influences that an author loves to chew on. Here we turn the tables and I ask Jane about some of the things that intrigued me about An Unsuitable Princess. I hope you’ll pick up a copy of her book and look for the next one when it appears in 2018.

AMJ: Why did you choose to blend memoir and fairy tale/fantasy in An Unsuitable Princess? Can you talk about your literary as well as your personal reasons?

JRL: Since the memoir covers a lot of ground—my family life, my neighborhood in the 1960s, the birth of Renaissance Fairs, and this one friend I had—I had to find one theme that would unite them all. And I think that uniting factor is my imagination. All of these things have had an impact on my imagination. And if you look at my imagination, you can see how ordinary it is; it’s been influenced by the same things that influence everybody’s imagination: childhood, old jealousies, movies and TV (and for my generation, rock ‘n’ roll). I was trying to say something about how imagination works, how everyone’s imagination works, and I thought that if I was really going to reveal something in my memoir, since I’ve had a pretty good life without much tragedy or abuse and then redemption etc., I would have to reveal how my imagination was constructed. Besides, going to or participating in a Renaissance Fair is the ultimate in trying to make your imagination or your daydreams tangible, or real.

I have to admit, though it is probably obvious, that I was influenced by David Foster Wallace and other innovators of the contemporary footnote—Nicholas Baker—because the use of footnotes makes the reader question just where the story is. At least that’s what I think footnotes do. Is the story the main text that the writer wants you to read? Or is it really in the footnotes, which in my case were messy, personally revealing, nothing like the pretty little story the main text was trying to tell.

AMJ: So, it sounds like the memoir came first in the writing. Was your purpose then to embellish your real experiences with the fantasy, or frame the fantasy with the real-life story? If the former, it’s interesting how you used the footnotes to tell the memoir, because when presented as footnotes, the memoir seems like the embellishment.

JRL: I wrote the two of them together, because I don’t think that either one stands that well on its own. You can read them separately, but they really need each other. The memoir is very self-centered and was even called narcissistic by one critic; the fantasy is very formulaic, though I sort of meant to make it that way, as a commentary on how books and movies shape our imaginations. My idea for a story with footnotes came about as I was considering writing a piece of fan fiction; my idea was to write the fan fiction and then footnote points in the story where I could explain why I had chosen to take the plot in a particular direction. I wanted to show scholarly precedent for my decisions. I had the whole thing plotted out when I realized it was too much “inside baseball,” and that no one would probably want to read it.

I’d like to note that another criticism the book received (this time from a literary agent) was that the footnotes had nothing to do with the fantasy. But there were themes in the fantasy that were also developed in the footnotes and I tried very purposely to develop those parallels. If no one saw them, well, mea culpa, but I put them in there for a reason.

AMJ: What was the fan fiction piece about?

JRL: It was “The Prisoner,” a 1967 television series from the UK. The “prisoner” is a retired secret agent who is always trying to escape from “the village,” where he’s been sent because he knows too much. I was trying to write something in which he actually escapes; he isn’t brought back, because he is always failing and in the end, you wonder if he is a prisoner of the government or his own imagination. The footnotes would have justified how I chose to get him out, because there’s a lot of speculation among fans about where the village is, who runs it, etc.

AMJ: That is so cool! I’ve never seen that show (since it was on when I was a baby) but I know of it.

JRL: Definitely the coolest thing ever broadcast on television. My family and I watched it as we were traveling up California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada, and we always had to make sure our hotel rooms had televisions so we could see what was happening. I was obsessed, [and] so was my mother. I’m still obsessed. Greatest show ever.

AMJ: I’ll bet fans would love to see and discuss those footnotes.

JRL: True, but it would be like a discussion board on the Internet, lots of back-and-forth and disagreements over whether I had it right or whether I had the right to even enter the discussion.

AMJ: Getting back An Unsuitable Princess, both Jenny and Samuel suffer greatly. Why was their suffering necessary in your tale, and why do you think it’s such a universal element in the stories we tell each other?

JRL: Well the Buddhists would say that everybody suffers… I guess it’s what makes us human, this ability to feel and possibly learn from it. Samuel suffers because he’s sick and then he goes to war, which is some real first-class suffering. Jenny suffers because of the circumstances of her birth, which really isn’t too pretty either. But Jane hasn’t really suffered at all, and that’s the point. When I was a kid, I thought that no one suffered more than I did, in terms of feeling physically ugly, emotionally strange, out-of-control, unwanted, unloved, out of place—you name it. This must be a normal, developmental stage in human growth, at least in the United States. I believe we call it adolescence. But is that real suffering, or do we even know nowadays, with all our sanitizing conveniences, what real suffering is? I don’t know the answer to that, but having Jenny and Samuel suffer was important to show how little suffering I went through as a kid. And what does the human imagination do with that? That was one thing I was trying to explore.

AMJ: I was struck by the stark difference between Jenny and Samuel’s devotion to each other, and the casual convenience of your relationship with your high school boyfriend—who himself suffered quite a lot in real life. What were you trying to say by crafting the imagined story as the inverse of memoir, in terms of the climactic events?

JRL: That’s the point! There’s the first high school boyfriend, who is called Slayer in the memoir, who makes mincemeat out of Jane, and that is pretty much the extent of Jane’s suffering. Jane can’t realize what true suffering is—whether it’s Samuel’s or Jenny’s or Sam Waynert’s—because she’s a pretty self-involved adolescent. She is the self-involved adolescent. The dictionary definition. That was what I was trying to illustrate.

AMJ: You’re a poet and you go to readings. How has that informed your fiction?

JRL: One way to test out whether a poem is working is to read it out loud, in front of an audience. That’s why it’s so important for poets to read their work publicly. I think this affects my prose in a number of ways, although I’m not aware of all of its impacts. One thing I do know is that sound is very important to me; it needs to sound, if not poetic, round and full. There needs to be a rhythm or that rhythm needs to be consistent throughout the work so that the reader can settle into it. Reading aloud also lets you know when you are going on too long or when you are repeating yourself too much, [although] repetition is sometimes necessary. [Reading aloud] should make your sentences cleaner, but I’m not going to claim that my sentences are stronger or cleaner than other writers’, only that I aspire to have them be so.

One time I was just gossiping in my office and someone asked me if I was a writer or a mom, because of the rise and fall of my voice. That person said everything I said came out like a fairytale, beginning with “once upon a time,” and ending with “they lived happily ever after.” I really wasn’t writing then, since I was a new mom, and I was just trying to get through the day. But I was telling my daughter a lot of stories, usually involving her stuffed animals or characters from other stories we had read, so I guess that’s what that woman heard. I found it to be very reassuring, because I was both unable to write and to publish. I guess it gave me a bit of confidence to keep going.

AMJ: Your work involves a lot of magic. How does that work as a literary device, or in other words, how do you define fairy tale, fantasy, and magic realism? Do these distinctions matter to the story telling—in other words, do these literary forms serve different purposes?

JRL: Some of these are easy, and some are hard. Magic realism is real things happening but by magical means. So in One Hundred Years of Solitude, it’s all believable—wars, elections, romance, people isolating themselves with their strange thoughts, aging and insanity—but taken together it’s all a little weird. A better example, or more current one, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, where the railroad may be magical, but all of the things that happen in the book are truly rooted in fact. Magic realism involves a certain point of view, or at least I think so. I think that you could write the same book without magic realism, and have the same story propelled by different means.

I could be wrong in saying this, but I think fantasy is about world-building. That said, you might consider all novel writing world building. But fantasy, or what we have come to know as fantasy, has a medieval flavor, I guess so the stakes are so clearly defined, and science fiction, pure science fiction without other elements, is relatively contemporary in setting. But I don’t know. I’m thinking that the LOTR trilogy is the primogenitor for 20th-century fantasy, because I haven’t read the Gormanghast novels, and in The Hobbit, nothing really happens that could not happen realistically. There’s one section where Gandalf works his magic by simply throwing his voice. Of course, the ring is magic, so what does that mean? Perhaps fantasy gets its legitimacy from grounding itself in these medieval elements, in the lore and voice of previous fantasies.

Ellen Kushner once said to me that fairytales were a way of helping children cope with the impossible circumstances they faced—being powerless in a world of malevolent adults and a social order they don’t understand. That sounds like a pretty good definition to me. There is debate over whether Christianity influenced fairytales, or whether they were old pagan stories remade with a Christian ethos; you can probably argue all day about that. What interests me now is the contemporary fairytale, which uses practically none of these elements, but is instead based on the morals or the plots of classic fairy tales. That’s where you get Roxane Gay and Helen Oyeyemi and of course Kate Bernheimer, and I think their work is just wild, really inventive.

AMJ: Tell us about your next book.

JRL: It’s called The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War, and it will be published by Amberjack Publishing in 2018. It’s based on a Grimm’s fairytale called “The Bearskin,” with a little of “Beauty and the Beast” stirred in. If you read a lot of Grimm’s all at once, you’ll see that there are certain tropes, mechanisms, similes, or metaphors—or whatever you want to call them—that repeat themselves, and these two fairytales have a lot in common. I hope people will see that the book touches on many topics, including war since it takes place before and after World War I, and ultimately comments on the act of storytelling itself.

A Deep Dive into A Wizard’s Forge

Last week author Jane LaForge interviewed me about A Wizard’s Forge. Jane’s debut novel, The Unsuitable Princess, is a beautifully written blend of memoir and fantasy that speaks to the power of love and loyalty to bring redemption (you can read my review here).

Jane has worked as a journalist and a literature professor, and she posed deeply incisive questions that uncovered some things I, as the author of A Wizard’s Forge, didn’t know about it. That’s exciting, and I had a great time answering her questions.

Leaps of Faith: World Building, Religious Disquisition and Science Fiction

An Interview with A.M. Justice by Jane LaForge

A Wizard’s Forge by A.M. Justice is primarily an exercise in fantasy that presents challenges that might occupy literary purists. Aside from the nods to science fiction, fairytales and fantastical world building, this story of a young woman’s many transformations deals with what could be said to be a contemporary problem. The inhabitants of Knownearth are divided between two religions based on the same founding text. Heretical to each other, they are engaged in both a long war of attrition and a cultural battle that ensnares the protagonist. The mix makes for an  intriguing disquisition on the consequences of religious and irreligious practices, and a prescient discussion on the fear of the unknown, and what happens when that unknown accumulates too much power….

Read the interview here.

Spoiler Alert! The Unpublished Epilogue to A Wizard’s Forge

13020595_10153816100656144_131136232_nI read all my reviews. I cringe at the bad ones (I’ve received some doozies!) and rejoice in the good ones. I also occasionally respond to issues reviewers bring up, such as questions about the worldbuilding in Knownearth or about Vic’s difficulties overcoming past trauma.

Today I’m responding to another frequently mentioned topic: the so-called cliffhanger ending of A Wizard’s Forge. Every time a reviewer refers to the end as a cliffhanger, I think, “Huh? It’s not a cliffhanger!” In fact, I meant for AWF to stand on its own, and when I wrote the end, I thought the outcome was pretty clear. Nevertheless, as writers we’re taught that if a lot of people make the same comment about your work, maybe you didn’t achieve your vision the way you thought. And after thinking about it, I can see how people might think Vic’s immediate fate is in question.

So, as a thank you to the many book bloggers and readers who have taken the time to review AWF, I’m posting the book’s epilogue here. My editor and I decided to cut this denouement because we wanted to end the novel with that kickass last line. But for those of you hungry to know what happens next, here’s a tidbit.

 

SPOILER ALERT. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ A WIZARD’S FORGE AND DON’T LIKE KNOWING THE END OF THINGS, STOP READING THIS NOW AND READ THE BOOK INSTEAD (here’s where you can buy it). THEN COME BACK HERE AND READ THIS IF YOU WANT MORE

 

 

Unpublished Epilogue to A Wizard’s Forge

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Bethniel watched the darkened entrance to Lordhome, her fists clenched at her sides, her heart fluttering unevenly in her chest. Everyone had fled when Vic shot through the ceiling, triumph and defeat forgotten in the shower of stone. After that, terror and need imposed a truce among the people pouring out of Lordhome. Drak’s and Carl’s squads repelled out of high windows, then stood below, catching children cast to safety by their parents. Bethniel ordered a team back into the kitchen to find tablecloths or tarps, and soon Relman and Lathan hands stretched catch-cloths taut between them.

The earth shook for long minutes while fugitives tumbled out of Vic’s fury and onlookers ran up from the lower valley. As newcomers gaped and survivors wailed, Relman officials conferred, splitting gestures between Bethniel and the road leading out of Lordhome. Drak and a knot of Lathan troopers surrounded her while the Relmans talked. “Keep your weapons sheathed,” she said, “until they start a fight or Vic comes out.” Drak nodded. A moment later, a pair of Relman officers broke away from their conference and pelted down the road.

They waited. Fathers hugged children; mothers comforted babies; friends wept in each other’s arms, mourning the missing, shivering in the night. Bethniel’s heart staggered through each beat. She had little hope that Ashel lived, but she would not grieve, not yet. Please let Vic find him, she prayed. Let my sister find my brother, and let them both be well.

At last the tremors stopped. Everyone froze, eyes fixed on the gaping hole in their mountain home. A child’s whimper broke the silence, and another’s scream echoed off the courtyard walls. As parents hushed the children, a new party arrived at the gate. The Relman officials flocked round a ragged young man, bowing and kneeling. Ignoring them, he looked straight at Bethniel and inclined his head. Trepidation seized her bowels, but she straightened her shoulders and dipped her chin in return.

The young man started across the courtyard, officials in tow. Lathan hands seized weapons, ready to draw, but the Relman party halted as the young man offered a shallow bow. Dungeon stench flared Bethniel’s nostrils. “Your Highness,” he said, “I am Earnk Korng. These officers believe my father dead or captured.” He chortled grimly. “They they want my head before theirs in the line to the chopping block, so they’ve decided I should speak for Relm.”

Bethniel returned a cold gaze. “Do you surrender, my lord?”

He split a glance between several warleaders. “Olmlablaire is yours.”

Bethniel nodded curtly then turned toward the ruined stronghold, her fists beating against her thigh. Long minutes ticked by while the Relmans wept. At last four people stumbled out, covered in gray dust, pale as ghosts. A body floated behind them.

An anguished scream wailed up the rockface; gasps and warnings rippled through the crowd. The Relmans scrambled out of Vic’s path as she guided Geram through the rubble. Ashel followed, slumped over Wineyll’s shoulder. A blood-stained cloth covered his hand. Her breath stuck, Bethniel’s knees began to buckle, but she locked her legs straight and fought the swoon that had kept her from Latha’s throne. When Vic’s party reached her, her spine was stiff enough to slide under her brother’s arm and kiss his cheek.

He laughed softly, tugging her closer. “Sis. You cut your hair.”

“It’s all the rage in Direiellene.”

Vic dropped the Relmlord’s body face down in the snow.

“Is he dead?” Bethniel asked.

“No.” Vic’s gaze landed on Earnk, and they exchanged nods.  “Lornk Korng’s crimes extend beyond me, or Ashel, or anyone standing here. He’ll answer for them in Latha.” Anguish welling in her eyes, she sagged into Geram.

The war with Relm had lasted Bethniel’s lifetime. Now Lornk Korng lay at her feet, but she saw this triumph drown beneath the defeat writ on Vic’s face. Yet, her foster sister had lived up to her name—Victory was theirs. She pressed her cheek against Ashel’s shoulder, hugged him tight around the waist. Her brother lived; the war was won. “Well done,” Bethniel assured Vic. The war was won, but not yet the peace. “Now it’s my turn.”

A Walk Through Knownearth

A Wizard’s Forge is finally available!

On launch day, as the earthbound get their first look at Book One in the Woern Saga, I’ve decided to walk readers through Vic’s world, Knownearth.

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Line art by Steven Meyer-Rassow

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Oreseeker steppes

Vic’s journey begins in Ourtown, a small community of Oreseekers, a people who settled the far northern steppes of Knownearth, in an area so remote it’s called the Unknown by the world’s other societies. The Oreseekers began as a survey party sent out from a group of marooned spacefarers to find mineable metal ores on a planet where iron, copper, and other metals are rare. Thousands of years before Vic’s birth, the Oreseekers failed in their quest and settled lands so far from their shipmates that the rest of humanity forgot about their existence. In Vic’s time, only the Caleisbahnin–dreaded pirates and slavers who rule Knownearth’s seas–know where the Oreseekers live. A Wizard’s Forge begins when Vic falls prey to Caleisbahn greed.

 

AWF_map_v3Trapped in a slave ship’s hold, Vic sails hundreds of miles south and east to the city of Traine, Knownearth’s grandest capital and home to the Citizens of Betheljin. Betheljin is ruled by a despot known as the Commissar, and Citizens are the wealthy elite of that land. Traine resembles ancient Rome with its high hills and a wide gulf between the fabulously rich and desperately poor. Vic hears about a slum full of thieves and brigands and escaped slaves–most of whom are Oreseekers, like her–but she never sees this place. All she knows is the home of her master, Lornk Korng, the Lord of Relm.

AWF_map_v3 – Version 2Although Lornk keeps a home in Traine, he rules Relm, a nation thousands of miles to the south, and he travels between the two lands via a transporter called the Device. No one knows who made the Device or whether it works by magic or some imperceivable technology, but the Korng palazzo was built on top of it, and it’s permitted the family to travel instantly to Relm and other places for generations.

Lornk tries very hard to make Vic his, body and soul, but before he succeeds, she escapes through the Device to Latha, a nation at war with Relm. The Lathan royals give Vic asylum from their common enemy and welcome her into their family.

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A cerrenil

They also send her on walkabout in Kiareinoll Fembrosh, a vast forest full of trees that are aware. Lathans do not believe that Knownearth’s humans arrived via spacecraft; instead they think people were born from cerrenils, a strange tree species that seems able to move as well as communicate to people through their dreams. While sojourning through the forest, Vic dreams of herself as a warrior, and so she joins Latha’s fight against Lornk.

 

kragnash

Kragnash

Years pass, and Vic’s prowess as a soldier grows but her memories of her time as Lornk’s slave fester, preventing her from accepting the love offered by the kindhearted Prince Ashel. When Lornk’s forces capture Ashel, however, Vic doesn’t hesitate to embark on his rescue. Aiming to attack Lornk’s Relman stronghold by surprise, she travels through Kragnash, a land of endless sand dunes occupied by a society of enormous intelligent insects. Their capital city, Direiellene, is a vast complex of hives normally forbidden to humans, but upon meeting Vic, the Kragnashians proclaim her the One–a figure from their mythology–and force her to drink the Waters of the Dead. These Waters contain the Woern, microscopic parasites that confer telekinetic abilities on those who survive being infected with them.

 

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Relman badlands

AWF_map_v3 – Version 2Vic survives, and leads her war party into the Relman badlands, a near impassable maze of box canyons and ravines. Desperate to reach Ashel, Vic makes a bad decision that will have lasting consequences for her and her companions.

Yet the choice permits them to move quickly through the badlands and up into the mountains surrounding Olmlablaire, an elaborate castle carved out of a mountain face and Lornk’s seat of power. To rescue Ashel, Vic will need to find not only a way into the castle but the strength to confront her old master without losing herself to him.

Readers can find more about Knownearth by checking out the Explore and FAQ pages on my website!

Many thanks to Steven Meyer-Rassow for the beautiful map of Knownearth.

Cover Story

Great covers are forged, not born.

 

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And it’s a collaborative process. I love the cover for A Wizard’s Forge (to be released September 19, 2016). Long ago, when I first imagined what the cover of this book would look like, I wanted the focal point to be Vic’s hair. I envisioned it flowing down her shoulders and twisting into the point of the totemic dagger that symbolizes her quest for vengeance. The novel, after all, chronicles Vic’s unlikely transformation from a bookish teenage girl to the most powerful and dangerous person on her planet. It also has some thematic roots in the Grimms’ “Rapunzel,” so the hair also has its own totemic symbolism.

The final cover is better than that, because it captures Vic’s grit, determination, and general bad-assery, as well as suggests her transformation isn’t easy. It’s hot and hard; it’s painful, and it’s going to leave scars.

In a technical brief on the design process published on Fstoppers, artist Steven Meyer-Rassow writes:

In the book, Vic is forged into life through both external and internal events, and the author and publisher were keen to use this idea of forging and bringing to life as the visual vehicle for the cover composition. We all agreed Vic should be poured into life somewhat similarly to molten metal or lava pouring out of a furnace and creating a fiery weapon.

revenge-tv-show-seriess-posterYep, that’s all true. We had several brainstorming discussions to arrive at this idea, however. First I told everyone my idea with the hair twisting into a dagger. We also talked about the world of Knownearth and my preferences for fantasy and scifi artwork. Initially, if the hair-to-dagger idea couldn’t be executed well, I wanted to go for a more abstract cover design with a single symbolic object on the front, similar to some of the Song of Ice and Fire covers. Some of the first spit-ballery images we used for brainstorming appear on one of Steve’s Pinterest pages, and we all became fixated on the poster art for the first season of ABC’s Revenge.

Because AWF is thematically structured according to the forging process (it’s divided into four parts: Ore, Smelt, Forge, and Temper), we arrived at the molten metal idea. After the first brainstorming session, Steve roughed out some sketches that involved Vic either sitting in a forge fire or being cast from molten metal. However, Patrick–my project manager at Wise Ink Creative Publishing–worried that this approach would make people think the book was about a male wizard creating women, like some sort of golem or Frankenstein’s Bride. The book is really about how Vic recasts herself–it’s her self-actualization. Then Patrick and his colleagues proposed the artwork capture the pouring into being concept as portrayed in the title sequence of Netflix’s Daredevil.

That idea inspired Steve to propose this piece of art as the inspiration for AWF‘s cover. After that, we were off to the races. As Steve describes, he sent out an online casting call, and we chose Michelle Duckett. I couldn’t have asked for a better model–Michelle perfectly captured Vic’s complexity, toughness, and vulnerability in that hunched, over-the-shoulder frown.

 

The final cover wouldn’t have come into being without this team effort. It’s so good I want hurry up and to finish AWF‘s sequel, just so I can work with this awesome team of people again, and see how the cover for A Wizard’s Sacrifice turns out.

The eBook of A Wizard’s Forge is available for pre-order on Amazon now, or if you’d like to purchase a signed copy of the physical book, please contact me through my website.

Crafting Back Cover Copy: Don’t Try It Alone

First of all, let’s clarify some terms. The text that appears on the back cover of a printed book and on any webpage offering the book for sale is not called a blurb, it’s called back cover copy or book description. A blurb is a quote from another author or celebrity touting the book. Blurbs also go on the cover (front or back, depending on the fame of the blurb source) and are awesome marketing tools (and anyone wishing to blurb my book, please contact me!), but after the cover art, the first taste of a book most readers see and attend to is the back cover copy. Thus, getting it right is essential.

When traditional publishers release a book, they rarely allow the author to write the novel’s back cover copy; usually someone in the marketing department crafts it. Back in the last century, when I trained for a career in publishing, we were taught that the person writing the back cover copy will frequently not have read the book—you can chalk up every misleading book description you’ve ever read to that practice. Despite the risk of inaccuracies, however, there’s value in having someone else write the book description. As authors we can be blinded by our own vision, where another person can see through the forest to the particular trees that will hook readers’ interest.

I recently went through this process with the back cover copy for my upcoming novel A Wizard’s Forge. As I’ve already described here, AWF is a reboot of a previously published novel, which had this description:

BladeofAmber_final_sized for SWScorned by her teenage peers, Victoria studies the ship’s logs of her spacefaring ancestors and dreams of other lands. She regrets her wish the day slavers arrive. Sold as a concubine to a cruel sovereign, Vic escapes and finds refuge with his enemies, among whom she learns the art of war. In time, she becomes the Blade, a soldier-assassin renowned for cunning and daring, and the woman who captures the heart of the charming Prince Ashel. When the sovereign who once owned her imprisons the prince who loves her, Vic undertakes a quest to rescue Ashel and wreak her vengeance. Along the way, she meets mysterious creatures who make a strange offer: drink the Waters of the Dead and become a wizard. As Vic’s powers manifest, she realizes she has been forged into a weapon—but for what purpose?

I worked and reworked that description over months, including running it past other writer friends and working hard to find the essence of the novel. I didn’t anticipate a substantial revision to this copy for AWF, but when I sent it into Wise Ink, my publishing partners for the rebooted novel, my project manager Patrick came back with this alternative suggestion:

Scholar. Slave. Warrior. Wizard.

Victoria of Ourtown has been a lot of things.

On a planet far from Earth, the descendants of marooned space travelers are fighting a decades-long war. Vic is dragged from her peaceful homeland and sold to a sadistic warlord who keeps her locked in a tower and naked. After months of psychological torture, she seizes an opportunity to escape—and uses her newfound freedom to join the fight against her former captor. As new powers manifest in Vic, she realizes she has been forged into a weapon—but for what purpose?

My eyes popped and heart raced when I read this, and my first reaction was denial—I couldn’t put that on the cover! You see, even though I wrote a novel about a woman seeking revenge for sexual and psychological abuse she endured as a teen, I’m pretty discomfited by the content of my own story, and I previously hid the details of the plot’s driving force behind the relatively genteel concubine. However, once I caught my breath and my heart rate slowed down, I decided to build from Patrick’s more provocative version. He had, after all, found the trees that would likely draw readers into my forest.

Patrick and I passed the description back and forth for several more rounds, getting input from writing and publishing colleagues. Altogether, the description went through half a dozen rounds of revision. I’m thrilled with the final product:

A_Wizards_Forge_cover_Text_FINALScholar. Slave. Warrior. Wizard.

On a planet far from Earth, descendants of marooned space travelers fight a decades-long war. Shy scholar Victoria knows nothing of this conflict until pirates kidnap and sell her to the sadistic tyrant behind it. He keeps her naked and locked in a tower, subjecting her to months of psychological torture. After seizing an opportunity to escape, Vic joins the fight against her former captor and begins walking a bloody path toward revenge.

As the Blade, Vic gains glory raiding her enemy’s forces, but the ordeal in his tower haunts her. Bitter memories keep her from returning the love of the kindhearted Prince Ashel, whose family has fended off the tyrant’s invading army for a generation. When enemy soldiers capture Ashel, Vic embarks on a quest to rescue him and, on the journey, discovers a source of spectacular power. With wizardry, Vic can rescue the prince, end the war, and wreak the vengeance she craves, but she might also destroy her only chance for peace.

A Wizard’s Forge will be released September 19, 2016. I can’t wait, and I hope you’re as excited as I am.

Crime and Privilege

Like a lot of people, I’m outraged by the light sentence—essentially a slap on the hand and a shake of the finger—given to the Stanford student and swim team star who was convicted of three counts of sexual assault for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, who received six months jail time plus probation from a judge who said a longer sentence would have a “severe impact on him.” Half a century ago, we might have expected this incident to be shrugged off as “boys will be boys.” The rape would have been just as wrong half a century ago, but more concern for the rapist’s welfare than the victim’s would have been normal fifty years ago. How sad it is that in the Twenty-first Century we’re still blaming victims for not being pure and demure and well behaved enough. This same attitude in other countries leads to the sisters of rapists being raped in kind, as “justice” for the original crime.

What do I think should have happened to the rapist in this case? The maximum sentence under the law. The rapist’s status as a swim star at an expensive private university shouldn’t have carried any weight in this case. A privileged upbringing should not entitle one to commit crimes, period.

Sexual abuse and its lasting effects are a major theme of my upcoming scifi/fantasy novel A Wizard’s Forge, in which Vic, the protagonist, is held captive by the sadistic Lord of Relm, Lornk. She escapes and  joins the Lathan army in a war against Lornk’s forces, but is captured again during her first battle. This time, she escapes with the help of another Lathan soldier named Maynon, and they discover Vic isn’t the only young woman caught in Lornk’s dragnet…


 

A_Wizards_Forge_cover_Text_FINALThey broke out of the hollow, running across a flat expanse of grass at the bottom of the hill. Maynon puffed beside her, his strides limping, then grabbed Vic’s arm and tugged her down. The beam from a hooded lantern swung over them. Maynon grimaced, his face almost black in the darkness, his blood an ugly shadow. “My knees are sore,” he grumbled.

“We’ll never make it back to the Lathan lines tonight,” Vic whispered.

“Brilliant deduction.”

Suppressing a growl, she looked toward the Relman fires. At how many campsites did other girls lay bound, ready to be taken to Lordhome and Traine. “Look,” she said suddenly, her voice assuming the authority of a Logkeeper. “All this business capturing young girls is because of me—”

“What?” Maynon scoffed. “The Relmlord have a personal vendetta against you?”

“You can do what you want tonight,” she went on, “but I’m going to try to rescue other prisoners. The Relmlord will sell them in Traine, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.” Not even Kara.

Maynon lay speechless. He looked at the fires, at the stars, his mouth grim. “Madness,” he muttered. “Crazy insanity.” Then he eyed her. “Wish I’d looked the other way when I saw those two hauling your ass off the field. But since I can’t sit by a fire with my pipe, I might as well help you.”

Vic smiled, but a lump blocked her throat. Swallowing hard, she pointed across the grass. “If we head for that gully—”

“What gully?”

She blinked at him. “The one on the map. We’re about a league south of the battlefield—there was this string of hills like a necklace, then this flat area—”

“You memorized all that?”

Shouts echoed across the grass, lamps bouncing among running figures. “We need weapons, Maynon. Can we ambush them in the gully—is that a good plan?”

“As good as any, kid.”

They sprinted, diving and lying still whenever a beam rippled their way. Reaching an embankment, they leapt down, splashed into water, then ran downstream, hoping the burbling creek would wash footprints away. In a stand of trees, Vic hid behind a curtain of exposed roots while Maynon grabbed a heavy stone from the creek bed and swung himself into some overhanging branches. They waited, hoping their pursuers would split into small groups when they reached the stream. Orders echoed toward them. Minutes later, a pair of troopers ran along the rim of the gully, a third splashing through the stream, lamps flashing on the water. Vic pressed herself deeper into the shadows, her breath still in her throat. As the man in the creek passed beneath his tree, Maynon dropped on top of him, knocking him facedown in the water, and slammed his rock into the man’s skull.

The other Relmans leapt at Maynon, and Vic sprang from her hiding spot and stabbed one in the back, the razor sharp stone sliding easily through the woman’s ribs. Maynon sparred with the other, water flying around them in black droplets. The woman fell, coughing blood into the stream; Vic swiped the bow off her back, yanked her quiver free, and climbed the embankment. Arrow nocked, she took aim, but Maynon already had the third trooper down.

Stripping the Relman weapons, they doused the lamps and sprinted toward the center of the Relman line. In a copse, they paused to catch their breath. Vic’s ears pricked, and she held her breath, signaling Maynon to quiet his own gasps. Jeering laughter filtered through the leaves, voices egging each other on. Muffled whimpers and choked screams punctuated the glee. Vic knew that suffering; even if Kara had submitted to Lornk, Vic never had in that room in Traine. Ears burning, she hissed, “I thought Relmans were supposed to be just as prudish as Lathans.”

Maynon’s spittle thwacked against a fallen trunk. “Rape’s a killing offense, but folk still do it.”

Stealing toward the noises, they stopped outside a circle of firelight. A Relman man and woman lounged near the coals, giggling while a third, trousers pushed to his knees, pressed himself into a dusky woman, gagged and stripped, each hand bound to an ankle.

“Think of it as training, honey,” the woman taunted.

“Training for Traine,” the watching man laughed.

Cold rippled from the roots of Vic’s hair, encasing her heart in ice. Her fingers tightened around the hilt of the stoneknife, then loosened, sure of their grip. The shadow of Lornk’s hand encircled her throat, and her nostrils flared at the rutty stench pervading the campsite. Never, she promised herself. Never his. Striding into the circle of light, she jabbed the stoneknife through the ear of the woman, leapt over the fire and rammed the blade through the eye of the man, then straddled the rapist, pressing the knife edge against his throat.

“Pull out—gently,” she whispered. He complied, eyes rolling between her and his dead companions. “Maynon, I want him bound like her.”

Maynon’s eyes were just as big as the rapist’s, but he stepped over to the captured woman. “You’ll need some twine.” Cutting her loose, he pulled off his tunic and gave it to her, then tied the Relman hand to foot while Vic kept the knife at his throat.

Once he was bound, Vic went to the Lathan woman. “What’s your name?”

Shivering, she huddled within Maynon’s tunic. Her eyes darted between Vic, Maynon, and the Relman, then she pressed her lips together and answered. “Silla of Pilagg. I was with the Thirty-second. Can I kill him?”

Vic shook her head. “I need him to give a message to the Relmlord.” Facing the Relman, she said, “You caught the wrong girl. But if you had got the right one, do you have any idea what he would have done to you?”

The man’s eyes flicked to Silla, then to his shriveled privates.

“He might have started there.” Vic smirked, tapping the blade against her palm. Ice still enveloped her heart, but she felt a heat in her loins she hadn’t felt since those last moments in Traine. “In fact, he might still. Maynon, hold him down.”

“Vic—”

“Hold him!”

Silla strode over and pushed the Relman into the dirt. She pressed her palms into his shoulders, Maynon’s tunic falling over his face. “Enjoy the view, asshole,” she grated, giving Vic a grim nod.

Maynon grabbed the man’s legs, and Vic sliced open his shirt, handing Silla a swath of fabric to force between his teeth. “I hope they find you in time,” she said as she cut. Shrieks muffled, the man jolted and bucked, but her comrades held him. “I almost wish I could be there, when the Relmlord sees this. I hope you’re still alive, so he can tell you what your punishment would have been, had it been me you found. Knowing him, he probably won’t tell you—he’ll show you.”

“You’re the one they wanted?” Silla asked over the man’s gagged scream.

Vic pointed to the name carved into the man’s bloody chest. “That’s what he called me.”

“Kara. Like the wizard.”

Vic shrugged, then read aloud the message she’d cut into the man’s skin. “I raped a girl I thought was Kara.” Standing, she touched her tongue to the blade, relished the iron. “I really hope you’re still alive when your comrades find you. If you are, when you see Lornk Korng, tell him Victoria of Ourtown will never be his. She’s a Lathan now.”

Mulligans, Market Research, and Masterpieces

A_Wizards_Forge_cover_Text_FINALSecond chances don’t come often. When we’re kids, sometimes generous coaches, teachers, and friends will allow a do-over, but an extra at-bat or stroke at minigolf is the best we can expect.

A decade ago, before the era of indie authors, if a book came out and didn’t do well in the marketplace, the author moved on to new projects. It’s what creative people do: we keep creating, and we keep creating new things.

Yet…not all of us. In 2012-2013, I released a pair of indie fantasy novels called Blade of Amber and A Wizard’s Lot. They garnered positive reviews, but didn’t sell many copies. They also languished on a lot of to-be-read lists, and a lot of people never finished the first book, or didn’t pick up and read the second one. I knew in my bones the story was really good, so I was disappointed in the reception. Where did I go wrong, I wondered?

While I was marketing these books, I stumbled across a group of stellar writers and joined their critique group. I paid attention to their feedback, and my skills increased manifold. I also paid attention to the reviews for the two books. Most were positive, but the lukewarm and negative reviews highlighted some weaknesses. Finally, Colleen Aune, whose fiction I love (The Ill-Kept Oath, a Regency-era historical fantasy, will be released this September), offered to read Blade and provide a deep critical review. Her advice, along with the lessons learned from other excellent writers and the virtual focus group feedback from Amazon and Goodreads book reviews, led me to decide to rewrite the series.

The bottom line is, my first two novels weren’t ready for prime time. Before releasing them, I wish I’d had the critical feedback I received after they were on the market. My husband (a songwriter), a filmmaker friend, and others advised me to apply the lessons learned to new projects, but as I said, I knew this story was really good. I also knew I could tell it better.

So, using my virtual market research (the reviews) and my amped up skills as a writer, I took a mulligan. In the past year I’ve powered through a massive rewrite. I also found a publishing partner—Wise Ink Creative Publishing—to help me produce a beautiful, professional-quality book. The cover design by Steven Meyer-Rassow is phenomenal, and a substantive edit by Amanda Rutter has brought the narrative quality to a first-class level. A Wizard’s Forge, Book One of The Woern Saga, will be released September 2016.

In the meantime, I’d like to share two key lessons I learned about pacing and point of view (POV) characters.

1. Pacing.

Blade of Amber was a hefty 175,000 words, which made the printed book almost 400 pages (in a large trim size with small type). Common wisdom recommends novels be about 100,000 words, which typically puts the book size under 250 pages (depending on trim size and layout density, which dramatically affect page count). Being a fan of long epic fantasies, I scoffed at the idea that a big word count would deter readers, and I still don’t believe that buyers—especially ebook buyers, who have no sense of a book’s doorstop-ability—pay attention to book length when making a purchase. If the story holds their attention, they’ll read it.

But there’s the rub. The story must hold readers’ attention, and Blade failed to hold too many readers. Several friends and family members tried it and stopped reading before the halfway point. By swallowing my pride and asking those who gave up, I discovered why, and then I got to work. I crafted some guidelines for myself, and by following them, I cut the word count down to 120K without losing any story. In fact, A Wizard’s Forge contains many new scenes showing events occurring off-stage in the original version, and it’s still almost 50% shorter than Blade of Amber.

  • Rule 1.1. Something relevant should happen in every scene. Put another way, every scene should advance the plot. There doesn’t have to be a battle or hair-raising escape in every chapter, but each event should connect to other events in the book. World building, character development, scene setting—these are all important, but they must be done in the context of plot. For example, Blade contains a banquet scene where the characters are told an interesting story about their world. However, the story has nothing to do with the plot, and nothing else happens at the banquet that affects the plot either. That scene had to go—getting rid of it also helped me address a few major plausibility issues, so there was a dual benefit.
    • Rule 1.1.1. Dialogue should advance the plot. Characters sitting around and shooting the shit might be fun to write, but readers won’t necessarily find it fun to read. Banter should convey crucial information, not colorful but irrelevant anecdotes. Real life discussions about dirty underpants are boring; don’t make readers read them, unless underpants directly relate to the plot.
    • Rule 1.1.2. No important event should occur offstage. If something happens to a POV character that has bearing on the narrative, that event should be in the book. In Blade and in Wizard’s Forge, the queen gives Victoria, the protagonist, a bronze dagger forged from a belt Vic had been forced to wear while held captive by the queen’s enemy. The dagger symbolizes Vic’s quest for vengeance and freedom—the driver of the plot—and this talisman features strongly in the book’s climax. Yet in Blade, there’s only a passing reference to an offstage event in which Vic gives the queen the belt—the symbol of her captivity—in thanks for granting her asylum. In A Wizard’s Forge, I wrote that offstage event into the book. Now we see Vic give the queen the belt, and when the queen returns the same item—recast as a dagger Vic can use to exact vengeance—the exchange has much greater impact.
  • Rule 1.2. Avoid redundancy and superfluous information. When I embarked on the rewrite and cast a very critical eye over my prose, I lost count of how many times I found two or more sentences repeating the same information. Simply confining each thought to a single sentence saved me tens of thousands of words. Secondly, I gave an overwhelming amount of information about things that weren’t relevant to the plot (see Rule 1), and cutting extraneous detail also saved hugely on my word count. Here’s an excerpt from the same scene in the first chapter of both books. The new version is 44% shorter but conveys the same information:

Blade of Amber (252 words)

As Vic blushed, Martha smiled and patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, dear. Pretty’s a common thing.”

Vic blinked. “My father always says that.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Wise man.”

After she dressed, Vic learned that the villagers weren’t out just to take advantage of the daylight. The tide would ebb that night well beyond the usual low, stranding shellfish galore. Martha explained this as they walked down past the boat moorings. All the boats tilted on their sides now in the sand, the masts’ shadows slanting across the beach to kiss the base of the cliff.

“You see, we all run out to the waterline and the men scoop up all the crabs and mussels they can while the women run behind and catch the men’s catch in their skirts. See?” She formed a scoop. “We’ll have to find a partner for you, though. Do they have fish scoops in Ourtown?”

Vic shook her head. “Sounds fun, though.”

Martha giggled and joined her husband. They jabbered at each other a bit, then Martha waved Vic over. “Justin will find you a partner. Just follow him.”

Smiling at Vic, Justin grumbled under his breath as he led her through the gathering crowd.

“I had no idea so many people lived in this village,” Vic said.

“Oh, they’ve come from all over for the fish scoop.” As if to confirm his words, a child Vic remembered from Melbourne darted past.

“You there,” Justin tapped a black-haired man on the shoulder. “Samson, you got a partner?”

 

A Wizard’s Forge (163 words)

Vic blushed, and the woman smiled. “Don’t worry, dear. Pretty’s a common thing.”

“My father always says that.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Wise man. Now hurry and dress—you’ve arrived just in time for the Solstice Scoop!”

At the shoreline, boats tilted on their sides in the sand, shadows slanting across the beach to kiss the base of the cliff.

“While the tide’s out,” the innkeeper explained, holding her apron in the shape of a basket, “we all run out to the waterline and the men scoop up crabs and mussels while the women run behind and catch them in their skirts. Do they have Scoops in Ourtown?”

Vic shook her head.

The innkeepers whispered at each other, then the woman turned to Vic. “Go with Justin and he’ll find you a partner.”

Smiling wanly, the husband grumbled under his breath as he led her through the gathering crowd. “You there.” He tapped a black-haired man on the shoulder. “Samson, you got a partner?”

2. POVs.

The POV characters make or break a novel. They tell the story, and if their experience isn’t compelling, the book will fail. My market research told me people loved Vic. She’s not actually a likeable character—she’s an arrogant, unforgiving hardass—but I put effort into going deep into her thoughts and emotions so readers would empathize with her struggles, and I know I succeeded based on reader feedback. But my other POV characters had some problems. Once again, I had to follow some rules in the rewrite.

  • Rule 2.1. Every POV character should have a narrative arc. Throwing in a new or solo POV late in the book is lazy storytelling, and I’m guilty: Blade of Amber contained several solo POV scenes or chapters from supporting characters in the second and third acts. I deleted all of these scenes from A Wizard’s Forge and wove the plot-crucial information back into the book within the context of my main characters’ (MCs’) chapters. Now all the MCs experience change over the course of the book and also learn vital information along with the reader. The resulting narrative is far more compelling.
  • Rule 2.2. POV characters must emote to be sympathetic. Prince Ashel, Vic’s romantic interest, is handsome, brave, talented, and kind. I gave him every characteristic I like in a man, and in my mind, falling in love with him was as natural as breathing. Yet my virtual focus group did not love him. Few reviewers mentioned him, and those who did said he was weak and not worthy of Vic. No author wants to hear that reaction to her romantic lead! I realized that the Ashel who lived in my head was a completely different person from the one appearing in my prose. Far from being weak, Ashel is the strongest, most resilient person in the series. He undergoes tremendous suffering and retains his honor, his commitment to his family, and his love for Vic. Yet, I’d failed to show this. Doing so meant overhauling nearly every one of his scenes as well as adding several new ones. I had to get deep into his head, expose his thoughts, his insecurities, and the complexity of his emotions so that readers would want Vic to fall for him.

Here again are two comparison scenes that show some changes made, in this case switching Vic and Ashel’s “first date” into his rather than her POV, which allowed me to explore his attraction for her in a deeper way. Meanwhile, by switching the scene out of Vic’s POV, I avoided rehashing thoughts and feelings already covered in detail elsewhere (see Rule 1.2).

Blade of Amber (Vic’s POV)

Her shoulders began to shake, her hands covering her face on their own. This man loved music, gambling, fun. She was his sister’s friend, and he had never offered her more than cordial, lighthearted courtesy. They had never crossed the boundary marking the intimacy of truth. Embarrassed, she didn’t want to cry in front of him, but as she tried to swallow the tears, they spilled out. Helpless to explain them, she released her story with them. It came out jumbled—her sickness at Winterquarters, her discovery that Geram was a Listener assigned to spy on her, how she teased him at the Relman camp, Henrik giving her the crystal dagger as a medal, that Lornk survived. Moving his chair closer, Ashel patted her shoulder, asked her leading questions calmly, until she finally told him that she had stabbed the Relmlord. “Why didn’t I kill him?” she asked at last, looking up at him. “I’ve killed hundreds of people, and every time, I imagined they were him. Why couldn’t I actually kill him when I had the chance?”

“I’m so sorry,” he told her. “I wish—”

“And I was so, so hysterical. Geram was right, I should have been rejoicing when I thought he was dead. I hate him, Ashel. No one could ever understand how much.”

“Mother.” His hand, hovering for a moment by her hair, came to rest on her fist. “Mother hates him that much. You should go see her.”

“Ugh,” sniffing, she wiped her eyes. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear from you.”

He drew back a little, his chair squeaking on the polished floor. “Even I’ll admit she gives good advice, sometimes. She told you to go into the army, right? I thought that was a big mistake, but now you’re famous. Laelin even wrote a song about you—‘Exploits of the Blade.’”

 

A Wizard’s Forge (Ashel’s POV)

Her shoulders began to shake, her hands covering shimmering eyes. She struggled to master herself, but tears spilled past her fingers. “Every day since we found Silla, tasting his blood was all I thought about. I imagined myself dancing on his corpse. And instead I folded up and wanted to die.”

Ashel’s heart stuttered. The conversation had veered into a place far beyond his ken—Guild politics and Heralds’ gossip were the worst problems he ever faced. His mind raced through excuses to go back downstairs. But you asked, he chided himself. Swallowing the exit lines, he sat still as a jumbled narrative spilled out: an illness at Winterquarters, an unexpected camaraderie with someone assigned to spy on her, an undeserved medal for bravery. Her story, confused and agonized, netted his sympathy and pulled him into an intimacy of truth. As he crossed the threshold, his breath came easier and his heart beat freely again. He moved his chair closer, patted her hand, asked questions in the same level tone he used with apprentices frustrated over a complex piece of music, leading her to pull the threads together.

Finally she revealed the heart of the tale: she had stabbed but failed to kill the Relmlord. “Why couldn’t I?” she asked, meeting his gaze with bright green eyes. “I’ve killed hundreds of people, and every time, I imagined they were him. Why couldn’t I actually kill him when I had the chance?”

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I wish—”

“And I was so, so hysterical. Geram was right, I should have been rejoicing when I thought he was dead. I hate him, Ashel. No one could ever understand how much.”

“Mother.” He reached toward a loop of bright hair, but put his hand over her fist instead. “Mother hates him that much. You should go see her.”

“Ugh.” She wiped her eyes. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear from you.”

He drew back, his chair squeaking on the polished floor. “Even I’ll admit she gives good advice sometimes. She told you to go into the army. I thought that was a mistake, but now you’re famous. Laelin even wrote a song about you: ‘Exploits of the Blade.’”

 

Leafpainting

Lizzie Harper. Botanical Illustration – Tips on painting sketchbook-style studies of leaves – May 4, 2013

Did I create a masterpiece when I rewrote my flawed first novel? My good girl upbringing simply won’t let me make that claim, but I’m proud of A Wizard’s Forge in a way I never was of Blade of Amber. I knew Blade’s story was good, but I also knew the telling of it was flawed. In a post last year on the Guild of Dreams, I likened my decision to rewrite to J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Every artist is always striving to paint that one perfect leaf. I know I’ve come a lot closer to it now.

 

Update: A Wizard’s Forge will be released September 19, 2016. You can preorder a digital copy on Amazon.

 

GOT Snow?

Snow

Kit Harrington as Jon Snow (source: Wikipedia)

I woke up this morning on a Caribbean island paradise to the chirp of birds and crash of surf, my heart pounding. Anticipation roused me far earlier than I’d normally awaken on a Sunday, particularly on a first day of vacation, but my thoughts as I lay abed dwelt not on sand, sun, and sea, but on Jon Snow.

Yes, I’m giddy that the day has finally come when fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series will finally learn what happens next. (For those who haven’t read or watched the series but have it in a queue somewhere, stop reading. There be nothing but spoilers here.) For five seasons I’ve watched the series, fascinated at how producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have taken us down paths different from those in Martin’s books, yet always bring us to the same keystone moments in the plot. Ned Stark’s death, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Cersei’s penance, Daenerys’ dragon-borne flight from Meereen—we all knew these things were coming. The thrill is, for season 6 of the show, we mostly don’t know what’s going to happen next because Martin hasn’t yet finished the next book, The Winds of Winter. (There are a few characters whose storylines in the books have progressed past the point where the TV series left them.)

For now, let’s talk Jon Snow. Readers knew Jon would suffer Julius Caesar’s fate, suffering multiple stab wounds delivered by his own men. And despite Martin’s penchant for killing off beloved characters, everyone knows Jon would live to fight another day. The question is how. I’m throwing my speculations into today’s cacophony of theories, and we’ll see who’s right when HBO’s Game of Thrones premieres tonight.

  1. Melisandre resurrects him. The Red Priests and Priestesses were resurrecting dead people as early as the second book (A Clash of Kings) of A Song and Ice and Fire, and let’s face it, Ned Stark is the only point of view character to stay dead in the books. (I really miss Catelyn Stark’s vengeful undead freedom fighter in the TV series.) So the moment Jon Snow’s blood began staining the grounds of Castle Black in the books, I thought of Melisandre lurking nearby and thought, well, she’s going to pop out and give him the kiss of life.
  1. The Castle Black men burn Jon’s body, and the fire brings him back. All the dead north of the Wall in Westeros are burned, not buried, to keep them from waking up as white walkers. And although the TV series has been pretty stingy with the hints, it’s pretty clear to readers of the books that Jon is not Ned’s son, but his nephew. Jon is really the product of Lyanna Stark’s (probably consensual) affair with Rhaegar Targaryean. So Jon isn’t a Snow, but a Black (the surname carried by the illegitimate brood of the Targaryeans), and the members of that house aren’t consumed by fire, they thrive in it. The question here is whether Jon will be all the way dead when they burn him, or like Wesley in The Princess Bride, a little bit alive. To hold on to my suspended disbelief, I hope it’s the latter.
  1. Some combination of #1 and #2. The Red Priesthood’s power is based in fire, so there may be a doubling effect of Melisandre’s mojo and a corpse-burning conflagration.
  1. Jon comes back as a sentient, independent-minded White Walker–made zombie. There’s precedent for this in the books in the person of a mysterious stranger (probably Benjen Stark, Ned’s brother who went missing in Game of Thrones) who bears many White Walker zombie traits but who helps both Brandon Stark and Samwell Tarley in battles against the North’s undead. Somehow Benjen (or whoever the stranger is) was able to shake off the influence of the Others and operate under his own recognizance.

What’s your theory? I for one, can’t wait to watch tonight, even from paradise.

Heroes, Heroines, and Heroism

vic_action02

Artwork by Tim Smith 3

“My work features a female hero.”

When I said this last year at a writers conference, a bearded individual corrected me: “You mean heroine.”

“No, she’s a hero,” I replied, “Heroines are passive and wait to be rescued; heroes do the rescuing. My protagonist is a hero who is female.”

The naysayer scowled and shook his head at the chorus of approval from other attendees. He turned out to be the conference’s vocal contrarian, the sort who questions panel members to show off how smart he is. In my case, I don’t know whether his argument was motivated by adherence to dictionary-assigned genders, or if he was disturbed by an idea that my work might contain not only a female hero, but a male heroine. If the latter, he had reason to worry.

Prince Ashel, the secondary protagonist of my upcoming novel A Wizard’s Forge, is heroic. Courageous and noble by birth and by temperament, he is book’s moral center. He is also its heroine.

dragon-34167_960_720.yinyangIt’s hard for me to say that. When I wrote this book, I wanted to flip traditional fantasy gender roles upside down, and I created a kickass female warrior who saves the prince from the villain. But while I proudly call Vic (short for Victoria) the book’s hero, I balk at labeling Ashel its heroine, even if he is the one who passively awaits rescue. To call a woman a hero is ennobling, but calling a man a heroine is emasculating.

A while back my daughter asked me, “If a girl who acts like a boy is called a tomboy, what do you call a boy who acts like a girl?” There’s one of those parenting moments where you pause, gulp, and make the discussion a teachable moment, because in English, only insults describe boys who act like girls.

Rebecca2

Rebecca, the heroine of Ivanhoe

Ashel is not a pussy. He is not a warrior either, but he is a compassionate man and gifted musician who resists his captors at great personal cost. Fantasy’s more peaceful, self-sacrificing heroes—Earthsea’s Ged, Morgan of Hed, and Frodo Baggins—provided inspiration for Ashel, but so did Rebecca from Ivanhoe. Rebecca is my favorite heroine, and I love how her courage, honor, and stalwart resistance turns Brian into the dark horse hero of Sir Walter Scott’s novel.

Rebecca’s plight inspired Vic’s story in A Wizard’s Forge as well. Vic endures captivity, escapes and finds refuge with Ashel’s family, then must rescue him from the same man who possessed her. Ashel’s and Vic’s mirrored ordeals bookend a story set in a world where gender equality is the norm. In Knownearth, men and women don’t play separate roles of active heroes and passive heroines, they face life’s catastrophes and triumphs on equal footing. It’s an idealized vision of society, but one that still leaves plenty of room for the spectrum of human behavior, from the virtuous to the villainous.

david moonchild demaret

“Confrontation” Eowyn vs Nazgul Challenge by David Demaret http://moonxels.blogspot.com/

There is no shame in being a heroine; Rebecca and the other great heroines of literature are admirable people. Some of them, like Eowyn, play the hero’s part as well as the heroine’s, and in both roles, she is heroic. The Eowyn of The Two Towers who dodges Wormtongue’s advances, worries over her beloved uncle King Theoden, and maintains the defenses at Edoras while Theoden fights orcs at Helm’s Deep is just as courageous as the one who rides with the Rohirrim to Gondor and slays the Lord of the Nazgul in The Return of the King.

The dictionary wielders will always protest female heroes and male heroines, and so will those who think a body’s plumbing should dictate one’s role. Yet if we can dissociate the terms from their genders and define them in terms of their characteristics (heroes actively fight; heroines passively resist), men like Jesus and Gandhi could rightly be called heroines. Looking at it that way, Ashel’s in pretty good company.