My Favorite Bit: Camille Griep talks about LETTERS TO ZELL

My Favorite Bit iconCamille Griep is joining us today with her novel Letters to Zell. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Everything is going according to story for CeCi (Cinderella), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty)—until the day that Zell (Rapunzel) decides to leave Grimmland and pursue her life. Now, Zell’s best friends are left to wonder whether their own passions are worth risking their predetermined “happily ever afters,” regardless of the consequences. CeCi wonders whether she should become a professional chef, sharp-tongued and quick-witted Bianca wants to escape an engagement to her platonic friend, and Rory will do anything to make her boorish husband love her. But as Bianca’s wedding approaches, can they escape their fates—and is there enough wine in all of the Realm to help them?

In this hilarious modern interpretation of the fairy-tale stories we all know and love, Letters to Zell explores what happens when women abandon the stories they didn’t write for themselves and go completely off script to follow their dreams.

What’s Camille’s favorite bit?



A reader might stumble upon Letters to Zell and wonder to herself, Is the entire novel in letters? Who is this Zell whose mail we’re snooping through? Why would anyone want to start a unicorn preserve? The answers (yes, Rapunzel(l), and I’m not altogether sure) will be revealed once the reader has finished the book. But because the epistolary structure of this novel is uncommon these days, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why the letters themselves are my favorite bit.

This book, my first novel, is a declaration of love to friendship as well as a paean to correspondence between friends.  Though it is a somewhat polarizing choice in terms of structure – requiring much of a reader’s concentration – I realized, after several false starts, the only way I could correctly tell the stories of these three women was to put the reader at the receiving end of a fairy tale mailbox.

See, once upon a time, in a land called Montana, a nine or ten year old Camille Griep had a favorite friend named Lizzy who moved to Pennsylvania. Back then, Lizzy might as well have moved to the moon. But soon Camille learned to console herself with the letters sent back and forth for a few years, sharing their lives and thoughts and, of course, woes – parental, scholastic, boy-related. Their interests and personalities eventually diverged, ceding to the more immediate demands of adolescence.  But the power of letters was seared into her heart, all those many years ago.

But that’s quite enough of the third person. After I moved to California for college, letters shored up the homesickness that gripped me for the first several months. I wasn’t sure I’d survive being so far away from my family and friends. Receiving mail made such a lasting impression that, to this day, I still dream about getting my mail at the campus post office (aptly named Story House).

I spent college summers in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness at a camp 30 miles from the nearest tiny town post office. The mail truck came three times a week and we sat up for mail call as if instead our names were being called for The Price Is Right. I’d secret my letters to the quietest place I could find and read them with the roar of the Boulder River in the background.

Throughout the years, letters allowed me to deepen friendships, gossip, laugh, cry, engage, sympathize, empathize, and even fall in love. Within letters we wrote as our best selves, responsible for putting a picture of our day, our week, our countenance on the page. Responsible for illustrating life and emotions with canvases made of words.

The core of Letters to Zell is three women navigating the expectations of adulthood. I wanted to turn these expectations upside down. Instead of my friends wanting the fairy tale, what if the fairy tales were in want of our reality? Instead of re-telling familiar stories, I wanted to write the as yet blank futures of CeCi (Cinderella), Bianca (Snow White), Rory (Sleeping Beauty), and Rapunzel (Zell, asking what does Happily Ever After look like?

The title came about as a joke — the result of several workshops whereupon I was asked if the book was really going to be all letters. Even though the title never dissuaded the question, the name stuck, and grew on everyone involved. It not only describes the format, but the recipient, too.  To eliminate the sometimes-exclusionary nature of letters, the readers are allowed, if they wish, to become part Zell themselves.

Initially, I tried to include letters back from Rapunzel. But I found the replies cluttered the story I was trying to tell. And it interrupted a true examination of the kinds of assumptions we make about each other in the real world in the absence of information – the assumption everyone else is happy, and has life all figured out.

Rory, the shameless romantic of the book, tries to explain Zell’s silence with romantic optimism while Bianca, our potty-mouthed loose cannon gives marriage advice while making a mockery of her own impending nuptials. To get inside of the heads of these women, while still carrying a plot, the only choice seemed to be letters.

One of the things I tried to avoid was allowing the characters to sound similar. While I love epistolary tales, I wanted to make each woman unique, at least at the outset. To make each voice easier to read individually, I made very conscious choices with tense. While CeCi is first person past tense, Bianca is first person, present tense, almost exclusively active, while Rory’s voice is very passive. Their voices change, over time, as the characters are shaped by their experiences in the world and, more importantly, each other.

The reason individual voices became so important was due to a tidbit I learned while researching the original Grimm material. While I considered myself a fairy tale fan, I hadn’t realized that the Grimm brothers’ method of gathering material consisted of gathering oral traditions door to door from the women within.

In a small way, the format of Letters to Zell allows these characters to not only re-assert themselves as the authors of their own narratives, but to actively write that narrative in their letters to each other. No longer subject to the pen and ink of humans or the spite of fairy godmothers, the women strike out on their own unique paths. There is no happy ending, there are only journeys toward happiness. And a mail pigeon or two.




Camille Griep lives and writes just north of Seattle, Washington. She is the managing editor of Easy Street and a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Letters to Zell, is her first novel.

My Favorite Bit: Carrie Patel talks about CITIES AND THRONES

My Favorite Bit iconCarrie Patel is joining us today with her novel Cities and Thrones. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In the fantastical, gaslit underground city of Recoletta, oligarchs from foreign states and revolutionaries from the farming communes vie for power in the wake of the city’s coup. The dark, forbidden knowledge of how the city came to be founded has been released into the world for all to read, and now someone must pay.

Inspector Liesl Malone is on her toes, trying to keep the peace, and Arnault’s spy ring is more active than ever. Has the city’s increased access to knowledge put the citizens in even more danger? Allegiances change, long-held beliefs are adjusted, and things are about to get messy!

What’s Carrie’s favorite bit?

Revolution transforms the city of Recoletta. The new leaders dethrone the old oligarchs, open up the secret archives, and establish a new government based on change and transparency.

Months later, Recoletta is in shambles, the farming communes have revolted, and neighboring cities scheme against the crippled behemoth.

Inspector Liesl Malone, now chief of police, must protect her city from black market barons, violent insurgents, and the excesses of her new government. Meanwhile, Jane Lin has fled to the city of Madina, where she learns of a plot to crush Recoletta. Jane must decide whether—and how—to save her old city from her new home.

One thing I loved about writing The Buried Life was telling a story from the perspectives of two very different characters who are shaped by the events of the novel in very different ways. Inspector Malone is dogged, aggressive, and proactive to a fault, whereas Jane the laundress is cautious, observant, and mostly trying to keep her footing around dangerous and powerful people.

My favorite bit of Cities and Thrones was reversing their roles.

The Buried Life ends (spoilers) with Jane on the run and Malone in a position of leadership in the newly-reconstituted Recoletta. Isolated and (mostly) friendless, Jane must find a way to outmaneuver the city she’s left behind and the gauntlet of mysterious powers ahead of her. And through her vulnerability, Jane begins to recognize that she has a unique strength, too:

Jane remembered a story she’d been told weeks ago, at a party to which she never should have been invited by people who were, likely as not, dead by now. It had concerned Roman Arnault and his uncanny ability to survive by remaining relevant.

She was lucky to have made it this far on the goodwill of the farmers. But she needed something more. And on the other side of Salazar’s threat, she perceived an opportunity – the ability to survive and, perhaps, thrive by remaining relevant.

If only she had something he needed.

And that was when she noticed it. She’d seen it many times, but she didn’t recognize it at first because she’d only witnessed it obliquely, in interactions happening around but beyond her.

It was hunger. In the way Salazar pinched the handle of his mug, in the way his lips were slightly parted. He wanted, very badly, to know what had happened in Recoletta.

And then something else occurred to her for the first time.

She could use that hunger.

She comes to understand the power of narrative and the authority that comes from holding the answers that other people want. And so, without fully understanding the consequences, she begins to shape the story that the rest of the region will hear about Recoletta.

He wanted reasons. Something to give meaning to an as-yet unfathomable series of changes.

Realizing that her fate might hinge on those very reasons, she gave him the ones she suspected he wanted to hear.

“Recoletta’s weakening. Rotting from the inside. It was run by a few corrupt inbreds who have no particular skills to lay claim to except an incredible capacity for deceit and self-delusion.” Something hot and turbulent sang in her blood. Even if she hadn’t spared the matter much thought before, she knew everything she was saying was true. Whether she felt this good because her words seemed to have the desired effect or because she could finally speak them, she couldn’t quite say.

He was leaning in, so she continued.

“Sato recognized that, which is why he stepped in. But what he doesn’t recognize is that he’s little better. Others are catching on fast, though. You’ve seen the numbers coming out of Recoletta. It’s only a matter of time before his new city collapses on itself.”

While Jane learns to thrive in her new surroundings, Malone finds herself alienated and disoriented by the city changing around her. Her situation is further complicated by her new position of power, which she never wanted and which still leaves her with a bad taste in her mouth:

She still didn’t understand the politics of this new Recoletta. It didn’t take more than common sense to know that things were bad and getting steadily worse, but she couldn’t follow the minutiae of gestures, expressions, and inflections in the Cabinet meetings with Sato well enough to know whose fault it was from week to week (even if it was hers) or how promises and bargains were made over a raising of eyebrows and quirking of lips.

Recoletta had become an amorphous place of ragged flesh congealed around broken bones, and in the darkness of her apartment, she imagined she heard it contorting around her. The thought filled her with a kind of dread she was unable to admit even to herself. She closed her eyes each night, wondering what kind of city she’d wake up in.

Yet dashing and skulking through tunnels, she could feel the city under her feet, hear and smell the evidence of thousands of people still making their way in it. It reminded her that it was a real place of stone and metal and not merely an idea shaped by the debates between Sato and his cronies.

Her cronies now.


@Carrie_Patel on Twitter


Carrie Patel is an author, narrative designer, and expatriate Texan. When she isn’t scribbling her own fiction, she works as a narrative designer for Obsidian Entertainment, where she wrote for Pillars of Eternity. Her work has also appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Cities and Thrones is her second novel and is the sequel to The Buried Life.

My Favorite Bit: A.F.E. Smith Talks About DARKHAVEN

My Favorite Bit iconA.F.E. Smith is joining us today with her novel Darkhaven. Here’s the publisher’s description.

Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.

When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?

Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.

What’s A.F.E.’s favorite bit?



My favourite bit of Darkhaven has to be the city it’s set in.

Arkannen is probably the most orderly city you’ll come across. Not the inhabitants; they’re as complicated and messy as anyone else. But the city itself has an abundance of structure. It’s a walled city, or maybe a multi-walled city, since it consists of seven concentric rings that are each accessible by a single gate. In the very centre – the seventh ring – is Darkhaven itself, the tower where the country’s ruling shapeshifter family (the Nightshades) live; and each of the other rings has its own precise function, whether that’s trade or worship or weapons training.

At this point, it may be worth mentioning that the British town I live in, Milton Keynes, is famous for its roundabouts. And I mean famous. Mention Milton Keynes to anyone in the UK and nine times out of ten, the response will be Oh, you mean the one with all the roundabouts. Which is relevant only because when I told a writing friend where I live, she instantly said That explains Darkhaven’s map. Which hadn’t actually occurred to me, but … yeah. It’s entirely possible that living in a town full of roundabouts led me to create a perfectly round city.

Anyway, like Milton Keynes, Arkannen was created pretty much whole. It’s not one of these places that started as a hamlet, or a cluster of hamlets, and then grew organically until one day it turned around and realised it was London. No, according to in-world history, Arkannen was designed according to certain principles, then built according to design. After all, you wouldn’t get a perfectly round city (or a city made of roundabouts) without some serious design work taking place.

Of course, that all happened centuries ago. So although Arkannen started out as a fortified city that would be easy to defend during medieval-style warfare – complete with arrow slits, lookout posts and gates that are easy to barricade – things have changed a little since. Industrial revolution has hit, bringing all the upheaval that entails. The lower rings of the city, in particular, have become a place full of steam trams and factories, airships and machines; but still, alongside and beneath them, there are narrow cobbled streets and oxen pulling carts. Thus the old and the new coexist in sometimes uneasy harmony.

Higher up in the city, the impact of mechanization hasn’t been so great. I must admit I’m very fond of the fourth ring, the residential ring, which is – as it always has been – divided into sixteen Quarters, each of which traditionally houses a different segment of the population. Each Quarter is named after, and decorated with, a semi-precious stone in a different colour. And to help people find their way around, the streets are paved with stripes that consist of tessellating arrow-shaped tiles in those same colours – similar to what I imagine it would be like if you painted the map of the London Underground onto the streets of London. Simply follow the stripe in the colour you want and it will take you to the right Quarter.

Though it may look the same as ever, there are some steam-powered vehicles and household appliances in the fourth ring. But beyond that, the industrial revolution stops. Apart from the new gas lamps, the training grounds of the fifth ring and the temples of the sixth are much the same as they ever were. And Darkhaven itself – right at the centre – doesn’t appear to have changed since it was built. It looks like what it is: a show of power and a warning to the world.

Yet there is actually more to the city than what I’ve described so far, because Arkannen was built according to alchemical principles. It was designed to focus power into the tower at its heart in order to maintain the abilities of the Nightshade shapeshifters who live there. So the seven gates are positioned at different points around the compass, and together they create a shape that holds the seven alchemical elements in balance. None of the city’s inhabitants are aware of this, except perhaps a few of the alchemists currently working at the university, but there is a well-known legend that the fate of the Nightshades is intimately bound up with the fate of Darkhaven. If one falls, so too does the other.

This fact isn’t touched on to any great extent in Darkhaven, but it’s there in the background. And who knows … it may become relevant in later books.


Buy the book from HarperCollins / Amazon (global link) / Barnes & Noble / Google play / iBooks / Kobo

Reach A.F.E. Smith on her website / Facebook / Twitter

DARKHAVEN on Goodreads


A.F.E. Smith is an editor of academic texts by day and a fantasy writer by night. So far, she hasn’t mixed up the two. She lives with her husband and their two young children in a house that someone built to be as creaky as possible – getting to bed without waking the baby is like crossing a nightingale floor. Though she doesn’t have much spare time, she makes space for reading, mainly by not getting enough sleep (she’s powered by chocolate). Her physical bookshelves were stacked two deep long ago, so now she’s busy filling up her e-reader.

What A.F.E. stands for is a closely guarded secret, but you might get it out of her if you offer her enough snacks.

My Favorite Bit: Alyc Helms Talks About THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN

My Favorite Bit iconAlyc Helms is joining us today with her novel The Dragons of Heaven. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Street magician Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather. She also got his preternatural control of shadow and his legacy as the vigilante hero, Mr Mystic. Problem is, being a pulp hero takes more than a good fedora and a knack for witty banter, and Missy lacks the one thing Mr Mystic had: experience. Determined to live up to her birthright, Missy journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather.
Lung Huang isn’t quite as ancient as Missy expected, and a romantic interlude embroils her in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the nine dragon-guardians of creation. When Lung Di-Lung Huang’s brother and mortal enemy-raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr. Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier.
As Missy prepares to confront Lung Di, she faces a tough decision: remain loyal to Lung Huang and see China destroyed, or side with the bad guy and save the world.

What’s Alyc’s favorite bit?



I‘m a folklore nut. Growing up, I amassed a decent collection of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colors.  I snatched up every Terri Windling/Ellen Datlow collection I could lay my mitts on. I knew the ‘original version’ of Sleeping Beauty (well, the Basile version) before it was cool. I started studying folklore because I was a sucker for synchronic myths—the way similar-seeming plots and tropes would show up in the stories of otherwise distinct cultures. Your basic Claude Levi-Strauss, Joseph Campbell-style folklore-geek crack about ‘mythemes’ and ‘hero’s journeys.’ I was all about the Ur-narrative. The Uber-myth.

I think the first thing they do when you go into Folklore as a disciplinary study is beat that wide-eyed adoration of universal narratives out of you. They let you know that universal themes and plots are lovely, and it’s so nice that Campbell brought you this far, but the study of Folklore is the study of the particular, of variation. It’s a focus on the different meanings that a particular group of people ascribe to a seemingly universal story. It’s a study of the coded associations that cultural groups embed into common symbols. The first rule of Folklore club is, if someone asks you if you’ve heard a particular story before, you say no because you want to hear their version of that story. The hero’s journey is not the same thing to all peoples. It only looks that way if you erase the nuance.

The Lang books were pretty good prep for going beyond Western European folklore (he includes a not- insignificant selection of tales from other parts of the world/cultures), but I really started digging in to non-European myths, legends, and lores in my undergrad days.

That’s where I discovered the Cannibal Inn trope.

The cannibal inn is one of my favorite tropes in Chinese folklore, possibly because when I first encountered it, I was studying travel narratives and the satisfaction that people take in hearing and telling stories of travel disasters (like the Mary-Go-Round trials and associated drinking game of our lovely hostess!) In a cannibal inn story, a traveler stops at an inn for a night, but wakes up to discover that the kind innkeepers and friendly locals are all cannibals, and the traveler is in danger of being the next meal. The details of each execution reveal a lot about cultural norms: expectations around hospitality, the tensions that can creep into host/guest relationships, what happens when propriety comes into conflict with taboo. Great, rich stuff that can’t be conveyed by a summary.

So, of course, when writing The Dragons of Heaven, I had to include a cannibal inn scenario!

But that threatened to run afoul of another thing I love: characters who are narratively savvy, who know stories and use stories to make sense of the world around them. A character with knowledge of the cannibal inn trope who finds herself in a cannibal inn situation is going to have some awareness of how to deal with the situation.

A bunch of clueless Western tourists… are not.

So, early on in Missy’s adventures (before she gets too narratively savvy), I tell my own version of a cannibal inn story. It’s a tourism-gone-wrong narrative, a take-home-to-your-friends-(if-you-survive) cautionary travel tale. It is not simply a Hansel and Gretel variant (despite the claims of the German tourist in the group). It’s my chance to explore and foreshadow in microcosm Missy’s own, particular hero’s journey as well as the larger themes of the book: issues of cultural intrusion and appropriation, xenophobia/xenophilia, and collaborative heroics.

I wrote the entire thing in a single sitting, cackling to myself as I did so. It’s my favorite non-spoilery chapter to perform at readings when I can wrangle 6-8 people to play the different characters (pro-tip: former Angry Robot editor Lee Harris plays a fantastic vixen!) I take glee when readers tell me that a particular bit (you’ll know it when you get to it) made them queasy. It’s the darling I wasn’t willing to kill even when I wondered whether it had a place in the larger narrative flow of the book. I made it work because I wasn’t willing to let it go.

It resonates because of the trope, but it works because of the particulars. That’s good folklore.

The Dragons of Heaven, forthcoming from Angry Robot in June 2015
Angry Robot | Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Amazon UK | Waterstones | Goodreads

Enter the Goodreads giveaway by July 1 for a chance to win a copy.

Alyc Helms fled her doctoral program in anthropology and folklore when she realized she preferred fiction to academic writing. She dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances Scottish highland and Irish ceili at Renaissance and Dickens fairs, gets her dander up about social justice issues, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes. She’s a freelance RPG writer, a graduate of Clarion West 2012, and her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven, will be published by Angry Robot Books in June 2015. She can be found on Twitter @alychelms or at

Henson Diversity Training Workshop: Day 1

At 6:30, fifteen of us have gathered at the Jim Henson studios. It’s sunny so we’re meeting in the courtyard and chatting. I’m delighted to see Raymond Carr, who I worked with on Lazytown. I recognize one other woman who was in the audition group after mine. I don’t know anyone else. What is striking, compared to most gatherings of puppeteers I wind up in, is that I’m one of only three white people there.

We’re a mix of folks with backgrounds in puppetry or improv. Some have both. Some have only one. Some are brand-new to the whole thing. And everyone is excited.

We’re led over to the cafeteria and they feed us dinner. I know I talked about it after the audition, but really, the kindness of the people here is just amazing. I mean — they are putting on a free workshop, and then making sure we’re fed. The dinner also has another side effect. It gives us time to get to know each other without the pressure of teachers present. It’s an icebreaker and builds a sense of community.

Then Allan leads us into the big studio space. They’ve got a camera and monitors set up — this time it is not reverse scan, which will be easier for me, but harder for everyone else. Allan and Kevin orient us, explaining what the workshop will look like. They’ve already done one session, with the Monday/Tuesday track, and based on that, they tell us that they decided to extend the “for everyone” workshop from two weeks to three. Why?

They’re nice, yes, but because they realized that it wasn’t fair to the people who had no video experience. It takes awhile to rewire your brain to work like this, so they want to give people more time. It’s the only way to judge accurately.

They warn us that we’ll be starting really baseline, to get everyone to a level place. That means that those of us with video experience will be reviewing, but reviewing is good.

We aren’t working with puppets this week. We’re using “Peepers” created by Hobey Ford, which are these nifty eyeball things that slip onto your finger. So your bare hand is a puppet. They are great fun.

What’s nice about starting like this, is that it reduces the strain on the puppeteer — no weight — but more importantly, the teachers can see the mechanics of what is going on in your body. Tension is really easy to see when you have a naked puppet.

So, we start off, with just learning to stand up straight and focus. Then we say the alphabet. Over and over and over. At a certain point in the evening, my brain shut down and I lost my place in the alphabet — embarrassing and hilarious. I was not alone in that, but still. I was like, “L, M, N, O, P… Wow. Apparently, I can’t say the alphabet unless I sing it. Um… W, X, Y, Z.”

They gave a ton of individual attention. Helping people who were new, learn to correct. And they kept reminding people, over and over, that this was a new skill and that people shouldn’t beat themselves up about what they got wrong, but recognize when they improved. Small steps will lead to a big improvement.

Watching Kevin and Allan analyze a puppeteer and help them come up with ways to retrain their body was great. Allan explained that, when he was learning video puppetry, that he’d identify the problem. Like, the puppet is leaning to the left, and look off to the side. Then, rather than trying to fix everything all at once, he’d tackle one problem at a time. First correct the lean. Then adjust the focus.

It’s good advice in general, you know? Identify the problem, then break it into manageable pieces.

It was a great evening. I’ve never had so much fun spending an evening reciting the alphabet. Maybe I’ll even remember the letters in order next time.

Android camera question: Can you turn off the mirroring on the front facing camera?

Does anyone know how to turn off the mirroring on the front facing camera in Android? Let me explain why, before you jump to the comments to try to tell me that it’s a feature not a bug.

I totally get why, under normal circumstances, having the image mirrored will make it easier for most folks to take a selfie. My problem is that I want to use my tablet as a monitor so I can practice video style puppetry. In video puppetry, the monitor is not mirrored.

My google-fu is failing me. Or rather, it’s coming up with lots of posts of people asking the same question and being told that they should just embrace the mirroring as a feature. I can’t. There are other solutions, like buying a camera, but I’d love to not have an extra thing to haul around.

Any ideas?


I’m looking for a solution to the image I’m watching, not the final image.


Thanks to Scott Raymond, who found an app that does what I need. Smart Mirror (non-reversing) 


Help Nora and Bob by listening to me read naughty Jane Austen.

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Nora & Bob

Before we get to the Jane Austen phone sex video, give me a moment of your time. Last month, I told you about my friends Nora and Bob and the horrific car accident they survived. This is their truck.


So — there’s a fundraiser, and I’m helping with some Acts of Whimsy. I’m going to read a little Jane Austen to you, in my phone sex voice, because it always makes Nora laugh and laugh when I do this at Oregon Regency Society retreats.

Here’s the link to Help Nora and Bob by donating at GoFundMe

So how are they doing? Bob has been moved to a skilled nursing home and is starting the long road of physical therapy. His jaw is still wired shut, but hopefully for not much longer. Nora’s road has been harder. She’s had a persistent infection and required multiple surgeries to repair the damage from the accident. She just, this week, had the tracheotomy removed because she can finally breathe on her own.

They only get to see each other three times a week. Until now, Nora hasn’t been able to do more than mouth words to Bob. Now, she’ll finally be able to say the thing she keeps mouthing to him — “I love you.”

Please, help them out? Even with insurance, their medical costs are going to be severe.

My Favorite Bit: Chris Angus Talks About THE GODS OF LAKI

My Favorite Bit iconChris Angus is joining us today to talk about his novel The Gods of Laki. Here’s the publisher’s description:

From the author of Flypaper comes an adventure about mysterious underground volcanic forces and a savage plot to alter the Earth’s climate.

A race to unveil the secret of Laki, a volcano on the southern shores of Iceland, pits our heroes—a sixteen-year-old Viking girl from the tenth century, a German geologist from World War II, and a former Secret Service agent protecting a female volcanologist—against evil forces with a plan to cause an eruption using explosives, altering the global climate through the release and forcing the price of oil to skyrocket.

Everyone and everything on Laki is in danger, including the possibility of ever unraveling the mysteries of the place, as it faces burial beneath a carpet of lava flows. Caught underground by the fracturing physical breakup of Laki, everyone finds themselves ensnared by Laki itself—an unseen, implacable foe that seems everything but a benign presence. Every move they make appears to be guided and controlled by an intelligence that permeates the netherworld.

Only gradually, through all the conflict between the various factions, does everyone begin to realize that it is Laki itself that has always been in charge.

What’s Chris’s favorite bit?
GodsOfLaki-FrontCover 9781631580468

Part of the serendipity that comes with researching and writing is discovering something you hadn’t expected to find and realizing with a jolt that this bit of knowledge is so fascinating that you are absolutely compelled to incorporate it into your story.

Such was the case in my book THE GODS OF LAKI, set around Iceland’s busy subsurface geology of volcanoes, glaciers, hot thermal waters and subglacial lakes. A race to unveil the secret of the volcano Laki pits our characters against evil forces with a plan to use explosives that will cause an eruption and alter the world’s climate. But much more is going on beneath Laki than anyone suspects. Caught by the fracturing breakup of the volcano, our heroes face an unseen, implacable foe with supernatural power.

The more I read about subglacial lakes, the more fascinated I become, and of course, for a thriller writer, they offer untold bounty. There are many causes of subglacial lakes. Not all are related to volcanic activity. Some may be formed simply from the incredible pressure of the weight of the overlying glaciers, which causes heat that can melt the ice, forming pristine freshwater lakes that may not have been exposed for millions of years. Thus, scientists have a sample of water as it was before humans began to mess with the earth.

There are several hundred known subglacial lakes beneath Antarctica. Lake Vostok is the largest of these. The surface of its waters is some 13,000 feet below the surface of the ice, actually lower than sea level. The lake is 160 miles long by 30 miles wide. Its waters may have been isolated for up to 25 million years and may well contain previously undiscovered life forms.

Did I hear someone say: thriller?

Subglacial eruptions can cause jokulhlaups or great floods of water. The effects of a volcano erupting beneath a glacier can bring about the interplay of forces such as ice, meltwater and molten lava that can have catastrophic results. A subglacial lake that breaks free can cause runoffs equal to a week’s outflow of the Amazon. This all plays into the plot of THE GODS OF LAKI, including the possibility that the isthmus of land that once connected Britain and Europe may have been washed away by the catastrophic release of subglacial waters.

My utter absorption with this phenomenon surprised me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the incredible forces involved. It virtually inserted itself into the story. The choice was not mine. I wanted to know more about it. And now my readers will too.


Chris Angus


Chris Angus is the award-winning author of several works of nonfiction and a newspaper columnist. He has published more than four hundred essays, articles, book introductions, columns, and reviews in a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, the Albany Times-Union, Adirondack Life, American Forests, Wordsworth American Classics, Adirondack Explorer, and many more. He also served for ten years as the book review editor for Adirondac magazine. Angus lives in Canton, New York.

My Favorite Bit: Rebecca Roland talks about FRACTURED DAYS

My Favorite Bit iconToday Rebecca Roland joins us to talk about her new novel, Fractured Days. Here is the publisher’s description:

Malia returns home the hero of a war she can’t remember. The valley burning under the Maddion’s invasion, the fate of her late husband, the way she resolved the long-time distrust between the Taakwa people and the wolfish, winged Jegudun creatures–all of it has been erased from her memory. Malia hopes to resume training as her village’s next clan mother, but when the symbiotic magic that she and the Jeguduns used to repair the valley’s protective barrier starts to consume more and more of her mind, she’s faced with the threat of losing herself completely.

A powerful being known as “the changer” might hold the solution to her vanishing memories. But the Maddion’s new leader, Muvumo, also seeks the changer, hoping the being will cure them of the mysterious illness killing off his people. Meanwhile, Muvumo’s bride hopes the changer can bring about a new era, one in which she and the other Maddion women no longer need to hold onto their greatest secret.

So what is Rebecca’s favorite bit?

Fractured Days cover
One of my favorite bits about the world in Fractured Days is how the main character, Malia, and her people, the Taakwa, can share memories directly with the Jeguduns, who are winged, wolfish, humanoid creatures that sort of resemble gargoyles. The Jeguduns can take a look at a Taakwa’s memories, and they can show a Taakwa their own memories. And it’s not just like watching a picture on a screen; it’s an immersive experience where you feel and hear and smell what the Jegudun experienced.

Take, for instance, when a Jegudun shares a memory with Malia that involves flying. Malia gets to feel the wind rushing against her. She gets to smell all the scents in that rushing wind: wildflowers, woodsmoke, the dangerous brimstone scent of dragons (yes, there are dragons in this book). She gets to feel the mist coming off a waterfall as she glides beside it in the Jegudun’s memory.

The other thing about sharing memories is that you know exactly what happened. There’s no chance to lie or manipulate the truth. There’s no way to hide events, unless you refuse to share them. The Jeguduns don’t even attempt deception, because it’s not possible for them, which makes them refreshingly honest. And because they can reveal events as they unfolded, I can’t help but think they would make the best eye witnesses, should they ever establish a court system in their world.

And one of the coolest things of all is that the Jeguduns can pass memories down from one generation to the next. So a Jegudun’s grandmother could share all the most pertinent events of her life with her children, and they can share those with their children. Imagine being able to access history like that. I can’t help but think that if we could experience history through our ancestors, we might be better at not repeating mistakes. We might actually have a more peaceful world, because we have vicariously experienced what it’s like to lose that.

For generations, the Taakwa thought the Jeguduns were their enemies. But it’s through the sharing of memories that Malia discovered how her people actually helped the Jeguduns escape their slave masters and establish a home in the valley where the Taakwa live. The ability to fully experience moments of someone else’s life leads to greater understanding. I guess part of me dreams for greater understanding with people who are different, and for the ability to find those things we all have in common, rather than fear those things that make us different.



Twitter: @rebecca_roland



Rebecca is the author of the Shards of History series, The Necromancer’s Inheritance series, and The King of Ash and Bones, and Other Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Nature, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Stupefying Stories, Plasma Frequency, and Every Day Fiction, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can find out more about her and her work at or follow her on Twitter at @rebecca_roland.

Women of Color Short Story Intensive Grant

I regularly teach Short Story Intensive workshops and they have been predominately populated by white writers. The ability to register on short notice for a workshop is something that is tied to having ready funds lying around. Because income is often linked to color and gender due to the economic disparities in the United States, women of colour are frequently caught in the intersection of race and gender. That means that many women of color are less likely to be able to register for a workshop on short notice.

photo by Elvert BarnesAnnalee Flower Horne has offered to help me set up a grant for women of color (including cis, trans, and genderqueer) to help balance the playing field. She’s covering the first one, but after that I’m going to keep offering one seat per session for a women of color. Hopefully I’ll be able to offer other grants or scholarships for other disadvantaged groups as well, but for the moment, this is who we are reaching out to.

With thanks to Annalee, here’s the information you need to move forward.

How to apply:

Fill out the form below.

Request for scholarship for Short Story Intensive

If you are a woman of color (including cis, trans and genderqueer) this scholarship is for you.

Full name, please
Really double-check this to make sure you have it right.
This is just so that if your email breaks, I can still reach you.
Tell me a little about yourself and why you'd like to take the workshop. Please note that I'll make the selection by drawing a name randomly, this is just because I want to know a little about who I'm helping out.
Twitter, FB, your blog, whatever you want to share


The selection process

On June 17th at midnight Central, I will draw a name randomly from the list and contact the recipient. They will have 24 hours to accept the invitation.

What is the workshop?

Think you never have time to write? Think again. Mary Robinette Kowal wrote her first Hugo-nominated short story “Evil Robot Monkey” in ninety minutes. If you have ninety minutes, you can have a story — all it takes is understanding how to make every word work double-time. In this workshop, learn the same techniques she uses to create new fiction. Through exercises focusing on viewpoint, dialogue, and plot, you’ll learn how to let nothing go to waste. By the end of this three day workshop, participants will be given a writing prompt and complete their own short story.

Classes will be taught via G+ from June 26 – 28

Each session, you will be given an exercise that builds on the previous session. Classwork will be uploaded to a shared Google Drive folder visible only to you and your classmates. The class will be divided between lecture and group critique. The class is capped at eight students, to create a class size that allows the most interaction, feedback and personal attention for each of you.

Class requirements: You need an interest in writing short stories, but you do not need to have written or published anything yet. You also must be able to use G+ Hangouts (Note: You don’t need a web camera, although they’re useful, but you do need a working microphone, a G+ account, the internet and some speakers so you can hear us).

This is an intensive workshop, so do not plan anything else that weekend.

Schedule (all times are Central time)


Introduction, discussion of POV using specificity, and focus. Exercise 1: Context


Post assignment.

Critique of homework. Second POV assignment

Post assignment/meal break

Discuss nature of dialog, use of rhythms to distinguish character. In class exercise, followed by homework.

Post assignment/meal break

Plot structure.  Plot homework

Sunday – Daylight Savings begins

Discuss plot exercise, unpacking, and outlining for short fiction. Outline homework 

Post homework/meal break

Discuss outlines. Recap of plot structure. Final exercise.

Write a story in ninety minutes.

Post story/meal break

Critique of stories/recap


Q. Why is the selection process so simple?

A. Because my classes are normally first come first serve, and I don’t ask what your writing background is. Asking the scholarship applicants to justify it seems like saying that they have to be better than other people in order to just get in the door.

Q. When is the workshop?

A. The first one is June 26-28 and is all weekend.

Q. Why are you calling it a grant instead of a scholarship?

A. Because a reader pointed out that a scholarship is earned based on proving one’s excellence.  This is open to entry-level writers and doesn’t require proving abilities first, just a willingness to learn.

So- What’s it like to audition for a Henson workshop?

This weekend was a good example of what it’s like to have more than one career simultaneously. I was at the Nebula Awards Weekend, which was fabulous, and left at 4:00 to go to the airport. This meant I missed the Nebula Awards Ceremony itself, but one has choices to make.

Because in order to have watched the ceremony, I would have had to take a red-eye to LA and then been exhausted for the audition. That kind of defeats the point of going. So. So I skipped the awards and then watched them later streaming, (OMG! You guys! Congratulations!) because I was going to audition for this.

Jim Henson Diversity Initiative

I know! Right? How awesome is that! It’s fantastic when a company self examines itself and says, “Hey! All of our puppeteers are white guys. Maybe we should get some other folks in.” So I dutifully sent in my resume and puppetry reel and crossed my fingers. Last week, I got word that I was invited to audition and dropped EVERYTHING.

The only thing I knew before arriving was that we were going to be having a basic puppetry workshop and then doing some improv.

I was nervous about being late, because LA and traffic, which wound up with me arriving an hour early. My plan was to go sit at a coffee shop until time, but the security guard waved me through to sit in the courtyard with the other folks. This is the first thing to tell you about auditioning for the Hensons: Everyone is nice. EVERYONE is nice. They went out of their way to make this a comfortable and encouraging environment.

Because I was so early, rather than making me wait until my group’s time, they let me go in with the 3:00 group. Super-nice, because it reduced the amount of time I had to fret. And I was nervous when I wasn’t distracted. Not about the puppetry, because that part I have down, but just about being there. It used to be Charlie Chaplain’s studio and I have a huge posthumous crush on him. Time travel? Oh yeah– I’d want to go back in time and… ahem.

So the Jim Henson Company is there now.

While we were waiting, Allan Trautman came out and gave us an overview of what was going to happen. He took a lot of pains to reassure the folks with no puppetry experience that they didn’t need to worry about it, just to have fun. And his attitude, which was very relaxed and engaged, helped with that. The audition was to be in two parts. Stage one was a group workshop. Stage Two was individual sessions.

Stage One – The workshop

Drew Massey and Donna Kimball, who are both amazing puppeteers, took us into the soundstage for a quick puppetry workshop. I say soundstage. That or the world’s largest blackbox theater. It was dark and cool and populated by ten chairs, four giant mirrors, a camera, and a table full of Muppets. They asked who had puppetry experience, most of the group raised their hands. Improv? Again, most of the hands went up. Television puppetry? Fewer of us, but still some. What sort?

The answers were varied: Took a workshop, weekly web series, and me, “Um… I was on Sesame Street two weeks ago.”

Drew winced. “I’m so sorry– We’ve got a reverse scan monitor to be easier on the new folks. Just tell them when you go in that you’re used to a standard monitor.”

What that bit of jargon means is this. Normally, video puppetry is done with a standard monitor, so the puppeteer is looking at a video screen that shows exactly what the camera sees. A reverse scan monitor is flipped, like a mirror. It’s easier on a new puppeteer because we’re all used to how a mirror works.

A video puppeteer, on the other hand, has trained their brain to work so that seeing the puppet move in apparently the opposite direction is normal. We do that because it allows us to see the same composition that the audience will see. In visual storytelling, the direction of travel is really important, but that’s a whole other post. Point being that I was about to have the same experience that a newbie puppeteer would have because my monitor would behave in the opposite way from the way I’d been trained. Hopefully that makes sense.

Again, though, this is an example of how gentle they were trying to be with the process. It made a much more level playing field for everyone.

They then had us go “puppet shopping” which means that we got to go over to that long table of Muppets and pick on up. And put it on. These are really lovely creations. And no, none of them are regular characters.

Put us in front of the mirrors, before introducing the monitor, and just had us count to twenty “to see what style lipsync everyone is doing.” Which is a nice way to say, “we want to see if you even know how to lipsync.”

This group did, so they moved straight on to walking. We just walked in a follow-the-leader circle, watching the mirror, so they could see if anyone needed coaching on how to walk a puppet. Again, this was a solid group.

Next came camera introduction. The instructions were simple:

  1. Walk to the center of the monitor.
  2. Stop.
  3. Turn to face the camera.
  4. Look left.
  5. Look right.
  6. Exit the way you came in.

They were planning to go straight down the line, but the first woman in the line said, “I’d really rather not go first.” She’d been one of the ones who had not had any puppetry experience. Rather than forcing her to be an example, they reassured her that this was fine, and moved to the next person in line. Me.

So I lift my puppet — a little boy scout or the world’s youngest sheriff — and enter the frame and immediately pull the puppet back. “Whoa– That’s weird.”

Donna laughed. “I know. Give it a minute, you’ll readjust.”

Because the monitor was acting like a mirror, the puppet appeared on the opposite side of where I expected to see it. What I found fascinating was that when I was looking in an actual mirror, I had no problems. But something about looking down at a screen made my brain refuse to treat it like a mirror. But, I did readjust quickly, as promised. I had a little trouble overshooting the marks, because when I tried to correct for what I saw on the screen I would correct the opposite way. That’s what happens to newbies with a standard monitor, so at least I knew what was happening.

(If you want to experience this, by the way, you can go into G+ hangouts and flip the image so it’s not a mirror image.)

As they went down the line, they helped people adjust and learn how to situate themselves in frame. Once we’d all done that, we started into a session of Round Robin improv.

So puppeteer A would go to the middle of the frame and establish a one shot (single figure in frame). Then puppeteer B would enter and A would counter to  create a two-shot. And here I learned something new! Which is always exciting.  They referred to the monitor in terms of zones.

Here! I’ve made you a diagram.

Monitor zones

So we entered, went to Zone 3, then countered to Zone 4 when the new puppet entered and stopped in Zone 2. Two-shots still work exactly the way it works anywhere else, but having the zones numbered makes it way easier to teach. Totally using that from now on.

The round robins were a load of fun. Each time we finished, we’d swap out for a different puppet and were asked to use as many voices/characters as we could. The entire time, they were encouraging us to be bold in our choices. A bold failure is better than a dull success. By the end of the session, I had acclimated to the reverse-scan monitor, as promised, and was just having fun.

They took us back out to the courtyard to await Stage 2.

Stage 2

Here they took time to orient us on what was going to happen next. We’d be taken, one at a time, into the screening room where we’d have a private audition with the casting team. And then began the long wait as the first woman went in. The second woman waited, “on deck” on the porch of the screening room aaaalll the way across the courtyard from us. We could see them, but couldn’t really hear.

The rest of us sat in the shade in the courtyard and shot the breeze, trying to make each other comfortable and calm. I know I needed the distraction. It was an amazing group of women. One of them had the best story.

When she was in elementary school, she was obsessed with puppets and a puppet troupe came to her school. They were going to be using volunteers in the show and train them. She was picked. And the day before they arrived, she broke her arm and didn’t get to do it.

Now she was here. She was just beside herself with joy at just being there. Which is exactly the way to go into an audition like this.

Another woman had been bitten in the face by a dog on Thursday. She’d had surgery. This was her first public outing and by God, she was not going to miss the chance. Everyone was brave, strong, and just happy to be there. It was a great group to wait with. Everytime someone came out of the screening room, they’d come back over to the courtyard and we’d cheer that they got in.

See… They got “hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds” of applications. They picked 100 of us. Just being there at all was huge.

One woman, a puppeteer of colour, actually teared up a little when she was told how many people applied. “I didn’t know there were that many of us. I always felt like I was the only one.”

So. We waited. I was second to last and headed over to the screening room porch to wait. This was the only time that the nerves really came out. That ten minute wait. I paced. I stuck my hand in the air and practiced lipsync. I sang a little. Ran through character voices that show my range. Anything, really, to distract myself from the fact that I was about to audition for Brian Henson.

Who I’ve met. Who is lovely. But still.

In I go. They stopped me on the threshold, “Give yourself a minute for your eyes to adjust. It’s really dark in here.” See what I mean about kindness? Just the little considerations like that.

The audition is deceptively simple. I get to pick a puppet from a table and then I’m to do an improv scene with Allan Trautman based on a prompt provided by Peter Bristow (the host of PuppetUp! and an improv god). Switch puppets and do a second. That’s it.

In front of a reverse scan monitor. I say, “I was told to say that I’m used to a standard monitor.”

Immediately, everyone says variations of “Oh God. I’m so sorry” with a lot of reassuring laughter and comments about what a brain twister it is.

Let me say that Allan Trautman is a generous and fun improv partner. The first scenario was a job interview for a chat room moderator. I had a buxom blonde bombshell, with my Mae West/phone sex voice, so — remembering the advice to be bold — I decided that she had previously worked in a BDSM dungeon, which made her perfect to spot abuse as opposed to consensual play. Laughter all the way through. Thank heavens.

Next, I was drawn to a little girl puppet with pigtails. “Are you looking for children’s voices?”

“If they are edgy. Sure.”

I pick her up. Edgy? That I can deliver. Mentally, I decide to play her like she’s one of those thirty year olds who keeps getting cast to play children. Sounds like a child. Mouth outta the gutter.

The prompt for this scene was that we were cleaning up from throwing a party.

Allan’s puppet was looking at the ground, “Hey! I think that party was really a success.”

I entered my backwards, looking off camera. In my little girl voice, I say, “Yeah. The only problem with this sort of party is cleaning the semen off the walls in the bathroom.” (sorry, Mom)

Huge laughter. And we’re off! A couple of lines in, I realize that this could go down the wrong path if I don’t work in that she’s actually an adult, so I steer the conversation to just talking about the kind of implements that one uses to clean semen. “Which is so spoogie” and then a rundown of various squeegies. It was fun. They were laughing, thank heavens.

When I finished, Patrick said, “Well, it’s good to know that you aren’t afraid to go there.”

Really, really not. I thanked them. They thanked me. And that was the end.

And the outcome of the audition? Triumph! It was fun and I learned stuff.

Oh– Oh you mean… Yes. Yes, I got into the workshop! Well, the first half. They’ll work us for two weeks, and then choose a smaller number to continue on for another six weeks. Regardless, this was such fun and I wouldn’t have missed it, not even for the Nebula Awards.



My Favorite Bit: Beth Cato Talks About THE CLOCKWORK CROWN

My Favorite Bit iconToday Beth Cato joins us to talk about her new novel, The Clockwork Crown. Here is the publisher’s description:

Narrowly surviving assassination and capture, Octavia Leander, a powerful magical healer, is on the run with handsome Alonzo Garrett, the Clockwork Dagger who forfeited his career with the Queen’s secret society of spies and killers—and possibly his life—to save her. Now, they are on a dangerous quest to find safety and answers: Why is Octavia so powerful? Why does she seem to be undergoing a transformation unlike any witnessed for hundreds of years?

The truth may rest with the source of her mysterious healing power—the Lady’s Tree. But the tree lies somewhere in a rough, inhospitable territory known as the Waste. Eons ago, this land was made barren and uninhabitable by an evil spell, until a few hardy souls dared to return over the last century. For years, the Waste has waged a bloody battle against the royal court to win its independence—and they need Octavia’s powers to succeed.

Joined by unlikely allies, including a menagerie of gremlin companions, she must evade killers and Clockwork Daggers on a dangerous journey through a world on the brink of deadly civil war.

So what is Beth’s favorite bit?


When I decided to work gremlins into the plot of my novel, The Clockwork Dagger, I had no idea that one gremlin would result in my book selling to Harper Voyager.

In early 2013, my agent called with the happy-happy-HAPPY news. Her basic information was 1) An editor wanted to buy The Clockwork Dagger and one more book, and 2) Everyone who read Dagger fell in love with Leaf the gremlin.

Therefore, I can’t help but be fond of Leaf and the rest of the gremlin menagerie. They continue to win over readers. I can’t say how many times I’ve had folks tell me, “I LOVE LEAF,” or “I want a Leaf of my own!” or ask if there are gremlin plushies in the works (I wish!).

Gremlins–Leaf included–play an increasingly important role in the second book of the set, The Clockwork Crown.

The genre is steampunk fantasy based on the World War I-era, though not set on Earth. My gremlins are very steampunk creatures, biological beings created out of science and magic. They are green-skinned and bat-winged, most of them about cat size. The first generation of gremlins was cobbled together with bits of cats, dogs, and other small animals, though gremlins now breed on their own.

Gremlins are hideous in an adorable way. They have round black eyes, smushed faces, and tapered ears. They meow, chirp, and purr, and say a lot without utilizing human speech. My heroine Octavia learns that young Leaf the gremlin is incredibly bright. He quickly becomes a beloved friend.

Octavia and Leaf’s relationship is an exception in their world. Most everyone else despises gremlins. They are creations out of the technologically-superior city-states to the south and have a reputation as flying vermin. They horde silver and food. On top of that, they’re regarded as a perversion of science and magic. Some people question if they are truly alive at all.

Octavia is well aware that gremlins are living beings because she’s a highly skilled medician. Her healing magic enables her to hear the life songs of any surrounding bodies, human or animal. She initially befriends Leaf as the rest of his flock is massacred as a menace on board an airship. In the second book, Octavia learns more about the nature of gremlins and meets their creator. Readers wanted more gremlins, and by golly, they get more gremlins.

I never could have anticipated the importance of gremlins within the full storyline, or in the plot of my life. They stole more than cheese and silver–they also stole hearts from readers at Harper Collins and around the world. For that, gremlins will forever be among my favorite bits.


@BethCato on Twitter


Barnes & Noble




Beth Cato is the author of The Clockwork Dagger steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in Urban Fantasy Magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat.

My Favorite Bit: Joanne C. Hillhouse Talks About MUSICAL YOUTH

My Favorite Bit iconToday Joanne C. Hillhouse joins us to talk about her new novel, Musical Youth. Here is the publisher’s description:

Can one summer make the difference of a lifetime?

Zahara is a loner. She’s brilliant on the guitar but in everyday life she doesn’t really fit in. Then she meets Shaka, himself a musical genius and the first boy who really gets her. They discover that they share a special bond, their passion for music, and Zahara finds herself a part, not just of Shaka’s life, but also that of his boys, the Lion Crew.

When they all get roles in a summer musical, Zahara, Shaka, and the rest of the Lion Crew use the opportunity to work on a secret project. But the Crew gets much more than they bargained for when they uncover a dark secret linking Shaka and Zahara’s families and they’re forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about class, colour, and relationships on the Caribbean island of Antigua.

Musical Youth placed second in the 2014 Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean Literature sponsored by CODE.

So what is Joanne’s favorite bit?

Musical Youth

Some of my favourite bits in my novel teen/young adult novel Musical Youth spotlight the relationship between the boys, something we don’t see enough – the ways they ground and at the same time grind (mercilessly tease) each other. In the case of Shaka and his Lion Crew, they are a family of their own making and anyone developing a relationship with one is essentially developing a relationship with the whole group. As Zahara discovers when Shaka tries to help her get over her shyness when it comes to playing her guitar in front of others:

“Play,” he insisted.

“I, I can’t…”

“Yes, you can. Play.”

She wanted to stamp her feet; she didn’t like him playing games with her.

She stood there in a dark so dark she couldn’t even see her feet, and tears stung her eyes.

“Play,” he urged, his voice coaxing.

And she breathed, and breathed again, and lifted the guitar; it was awkward, she didn’t have a strap and it kept slipping. Still, she closed her eyes, tears wetting her lashes, and she strummed, conscious that he was out there in the dark somewhere listening to her. And what happened as she played was that his presence, his silence, his attentiveness, his encouragement, his invisibility and the music she had never been able to resist had a calming effect on her. Her strumming grew more assured, Lauréna Lee right there at the tips of her fingers. At the last lick of her pick, she opened watery eyes to find his face inches from hers, she hadn’t even heard or felt him come closer.

She thought he might kiss her then, held her breath; but he merely asked, “how you feel?”

She searched her heart. “Happy,” she said.

Her fingers were still tingling, and the electricity of it travelled up the rest of her body until she felt like she had to move or scratch or dance or something. She leaned forward and kissed him.

And just like that the spell was broken.

“Woohooo!” somebody hollered.

“Mi boy goin’ get some,” said another.

And she looked past him, squinting, to see Kong, Accident, Monkey, Scaly, and Big Head.

Shaka rolled his eyes and she tried to be mad but she was still tingling. Besides, of course, he’d brought his Crew, she’d quickly learned that they were extensions of each other. She kind of envied them that.

Wow, choosing a favorite bit was hard. I thought about a section near the end where Shaka reflects on his bond with his boys; but then thought, no, show, don’t tell. However, given that I write from an authentically Caribbean space, allowing my characters to live and breathe as they are, picking an excerpt that showed that bond was also challenging. Context would be sacrificed and context is important in helping the non-Caribbean reader especially access the rhythms, speech, and sensibilities of lives that might be unfamiliar to them. Also I wanted to include Zahara and music, and a bit of the book’s broader themes – Zahara’s path to confidence through creative expression, the ways Zahara and Shaka bond over music and help each other to grow…while hinting at the tone of the relationship between the boys. I think this scene comes as close to doing all of that better than anything else I could have chosen.




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Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse wrote The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (since re-issued as Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings), Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and Musical Youth, which placed second for the Burt Award for YA Caribbean Literature in 2014. Her writing fiction and/or poetry have appeared in Pepperpot: Best New Writing from the Caribbean, In the Black: New African Canadian Literature, and other journals and/or anthologies. She runs the Wadadli Pen writing programme. For more: or

My Favorite Bit: Terry Jackman Talks About ASHAMET, DESERT BORN

My Favorite Bit iconToday Terry Jackman joins us to talk about her new novel, Ashamet, Desert Born. Here is the publisher’s description:

“Headstrong was the least I knew they said about me. Unpredictable, a wicked sense of humour? Gods, I hoped so.”

A desert world. A population of 100 males to every female. And for Ashamet, its prince, a suddenly uncertain future…

All Ashamet wants is the warrior life he already has. But then a divine symbol appears on his arm, closely followed by an attempt on his life. Now nothing’s simple any longer, even less so when a new and very foreign slave seems shocked by both his new surroundings – and his master’s amorous attentions.

Could this innocent young male hold the key to Ashamet’s survival? And to his heart?

Ashamet, Desert Born, is a debut adventure fantasy with an exotic Arabian-style setting and strong elements of same-sex romance.

So what is Terry’s favorite bit?


I loved putting Ashamet’s strong character onto the page, often grinning as much as he did at his less than reverent reactions to his world, and its dangers. I loved Keril’s first appearance, and how different he is – from Ashamet, from the others around him and maybe even from what he first seems? But I’m hoping they’ll be a case of love at first sight for you as much as they were for me and I won’t need to point you in their direction.

So how about something in the book you might not notice so much…

There’s a small scene, a moment tucked between all the adventures, when Ashamet stands back and just accepts what’s in front of him. For once there’s no agenda, no ulterior motive, no threat. It’s an ordinary moment, in a life that so seldom is.

If you take this scene for granted when you come to it in the course of reading the whole book, that’s fine; after all so does Ashamet. But for me the words dropped onto the page from nowhere. They weren’t in the outline. They weren’t even a vague idea in my head, but once they arrived they had to stay, word for word as they first appeared, because they belonged. They were a small bonus moment.

They begin…

The next day found us turning north-west. Four more days took us from the desert’s shifting yellow sands to cloying brown and orange soil. In these parts every village sat beside its jealously protected clay pit. Slaves and free males, stripped to loincloths in the heat and dust, were often caked with it so thoroughly they looked like moving statues.

Houses here had lacquered, peach-tiled walls instead of whitened plaster, every second building open fronted with a dome-shaped, brick-built kiln beneath its awning. Every awning was without exception drab and faded, but the poles that propped them up were always brightly lacquered. Master potters bent at wheels. Young males kneaded slabs of glistening clay on heavy benches…

Ashamet only stays there for one night, enjoys the break in the journey then travels on. Does it add anything vital to the plot? Honestly, I’m not sure it does. But I think it added something to the story, something it would have been a shame to miss.

If you get to that page maybe you’ll tell me what you think?





Terry Jackman, christened Teresa, is married with kids and not pretending to be a guy for the book. Nobody ever calls her anything but Terry, so that’s the most honest name to use.

To go with two names she inhabits two worlds. In one she’s a mild-mannered lady who tutors children and lives quietly in a pretty English village. [Find out more at ]

In the other she’s secretly on the committee of the British Science Fiction Association, coordinates all their online writers’ groups, writes a regular page for Focus magazine, reads submissions for Albedo One in Ireland and is a ‘top reviewer’ for Netgalley. What else? She is also a member of Milford, and NorthwriteSF, has been known to appear on panels at conventions and does some freelance editing.

When Ashamet goes public the two lives will finally collide. She suspects there’ll be some raised eyebrows so she’s stocking up on fortifying tea and biscuits.

Hey Chicago! Join me, Larry Niven, Nancy Kress, Greg Bear, Ellen Datlow and more at Geek Bar Chicago on Saturday

Yep. Tor Books and have arranged an Author Drinkup at Geek Bar Chicago in conjunction with the Nebula Award Weekend.

You know you want to come hang out, talk fiction, and drink beer, or cocktails, or soft drinks, or whatever you prefer. With whom? Me, John Joseph Adams, Greg Bear, Tobias Buckell, Ellen Datlow, Steven Gould, Daryl Gregory, Nancy Kress, Cixin Liu, Ken Liu, Usman Malik, Laura Mixon, Larry Niven, Mary Rickert, Lawrence Schoen, Rachel Swirsky, and Fran Wilde. Pretty shiny lineup, eh?

So… I’ll see you on Saturday from 2 – 5. Right?


Geek Bar Beta is at 1941 W North Avenue in Chicago’s wonderful Wicker Park neighborhood. That’s about 15 minutes from the Palmer House Hilton by train…