The Inspiration for Long May She Reign

Long May She Reign is out now!

I can't believe it's finally out in the world, on the shelves for you guys to read. And, to celebrate, I thought it'd be fun to talk about some of the random things that came together to inspire this genre mishmash of a book.

The Ballroom at the Haunted Mansion

I was such a chicken as a kid that I didn't go into the Haunted Mansion at Disney until a couple of years ago. It just sounded like it would be scary! 10-year-old me couldn't cope! But when I finally did go on the ride, I was fascinated by the ballroom and its 1950s visual magic. Spoilers, if you don’t what to know how it’s done, but the room uses an old stage trick called Pepper’s Ghosts to create the illusion of dancing ghostly figures on the ballroom floor that seem translucent and to fade in and out of view. You look at the ballroom through a piece of glass, which reflects a group of dancing figures hidden above you out of view. This is actually a Victorian stage trick, and it got me thinking about how illusions and phantasmagoria like that might be used in a fantasy tale in the place of magic…

18th Century Ghost Tours

My research into phantasmagoria led me to discover the history of ghost tours (something very familiar to me, as I live in a supposedly ghost-filled city and see ghost tours every night). Initially, people used tricks similar to Pepper’s Ghost in “séances,” convincing high-paying guests that they were actually communing with the dead. Then, in post revolution France, a man called Etienne-Gaspard Robert built a portable device that allowed him to create moving ghostly images. He performed in an old tomb in Paris, and people were so convinced that his ghosts were real that the French authorities temporarily shut him down, concerned he was going to resurrect the executed Louis XIV.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen, was a sixteen year old, not-too-close relative of Henry VIII who was shoved on the throne to prevent his Catholic daughter Mary from becoming queen. She barely lasted a week hidden away in the Tower of London before Mary stormed London and took the throne back. Jane got to live a little longer, but after people plotted against Mary in her name, she was beheaded in the Tower courtyard.

Two questions: what would it have been like to be Lady Jane Grey, unexpectedly queen and knowing many people want you dead? And what would have happened if she had survived on the throne for more than a few days?

Marie Antoinette

Or, really, the 18th century French court in general. The extravagance! All of the gold, the hairstyles, the huge dresses, the displays at the feasts.  Most fantasy books seem to be medieval, but medieval is bleak compared to later luxury. I wanted a pre-French Revolution of a kingdom, ridiculous in its opulence.

 

Great British Bake Off

Yup, really. For those who haven’t see it, Bake Off is an addictive TV baking competition in the UK, and one of the three weekly tasks is a “showstopper,” where they create things like Gingerbread Empire State Buildings and ten-tiered sponge cakes and contraptions made of profiteroles and spun sugar and magic. They also have a historical part, where they talk about some of the ridiculous “showstopper”-esque creations of rich people of the past.

Obviously, my extravagant court needed to have some extravagant food creations too. And maybe they could even play a part in the plot…

The Tower of London

Although the Tower of London was an extravagant castle when it was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, it looks pretty darn bleak now. A single white tower, surrounded by medieval additions used for torture and imprisonment, circled by a moat that once stank of trapped garbage and had to be traversed by traitors by boat before they were locked away and eventually executed. But despite all the grim and grisliness, it was the last-resort stronghold of the British royals for centuries, where they’d retreat in times of threat, and also where they’d return (assumedly ignoring the blood stains) to prepare for coronations.

Social Anxiety

I don't have a picture for this, but this was the final piece to make Long May She Reign click. I was working on the book and dealing with a huge spike in my own anxiety, and it was pretty therapeutic to give Freya some of those feelings as well. And as it turned out, giving Freya explicit social anxiety, rather than just general shyness and awkwardness, was exactly what the story needed to make her struggles as an unexpected queen come together.

If you'd like to check out my blend of brutal history, science, phantasmagoria, opulence, and The Great British Bakeoff, you can grab a copy now. I really hope you enjoy it!

 

One day to go!

Long May She Reign comes out tomorrow. Help?

Releasing a book is a really weird experience. Because of how publishing works, I finished editing Long May She Reign over a year ago. I last read it in August, when I did the final look through for typos and errors (and my mom has already told me she's found a typo in the finished book. Thanks, mom). There's something very strange about finishing off a book, waiting a year, and then having it go out into the world for people to read. You're talking about it like it's this BRAND NEW THING, but by the time a book hits the shelves, you've already spent a substantial amount of time working on the next thing, if you haven't already finished it. So I'm really, really excited that you guys are finally going to meet Freya, but it's hard to wrap my mind around the idea that she's only just going out into the world.

And I guess it's like any project -- before you do it, it has all this potential. It could turn out great. People could like it. You could meet your own expectations (unless you're an insane perfectionist, oops). But when you actually complete the project, all of that stops being hypothetical. It is, or it isn't. And I feel like I'm standing on the edge of that right now, like, "Um, maybe I'll just go and hide in a cave for a month."

But it's also really, really exciting to dive back into thinking about this story and this world, and getting to reflect on what I actually wanted to achieve with the book, now that all the messiness of actually writing it is long past. I'm getting to think about why I wrote Freya the way I did -- why I made her insecure, why she's so judgey at the start of the book, why I chose to have her struggle with social anxiety. I'm thinking about why I chose to make a fantasy novel that is driven by science, not magic, and all the fun I had researching science for the book. Writing a book can get so messy and emotional that you lose sight of what you're actually trying to do, and I feel like release day is one of the few times where you get to think about it and go, "Yeah, actually, that was the right book to write."

It's a weird, weird transition, and I'm going to be very relieved once tomorrow comes and all that anticipation ends. I just really hope you all enjoy the book when that happens!

Blogmas #17: Real Writers (Don't) Write Every Day

If there's one thing I hate, it's writing advice ultimatums. "Serious writers write every day." "Real writers always work at the same time every day." "Proper writers never give up on their planned writing time, even if it just means staring at the screen all day." They treat creative writing like it's a very mechanical process that is always the same, no matter who or what is involved. Press button, book comes out. But that's not the case, and I think it puts people off writing, because it's incredibly difficult, and for many people, it's incredibly unhealthy.

Not only does every writer work in a different way, but every book works in a slightly different way. At this point, I have a rough process for how I write books, but even then, each book is different. How much I outline it, how much I ignore the outline, how rewriting or revision works, whether I write an hour first thing every weekday morning for months or throw out a draft by marathon writing over a couple of weeks. Whether I write slowly and carefully, or whether I use something like Write or Die to force the words out and worry about fine-tuning them later. Each book has its own unique challenges, and each writing period matches up to a unique moment in your life, so I think you always need to keep your approach to writing flexible. Even saying "I always do this" can get you stuck, never mind saying "all writers always do this."

I don't write every day. I try to write every work day, and I try to give myself weekends off, and both those plans fail sometimes. Unless I'm pushing towards a deadline, I write far more, and far better, if I only aim to do it for about 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, rather than every single day without fail. But even then, sometimes,I'm not feeling well, or I'm feeling low or anxious, or something bad has happened in the world that's distracted me, and because writing is so very reflective and "in your own head," it reaches a stage where there's no point even trying to get anything done. It's just a waste of time. But then sometimes, I get up on days that I have categorically told myself I'm supposed to be taking a break, and I really, really want to grab a pen, so I do, and it's far more fun than on those "I have to write" days.

I think this all this super common writing advice is trying to get at something important, which is that, if you want to write a book, you have to commit to it. You have to figure out how to push through the tricky parts and develop the discipline to work on the project for the long haul. For some people, that might mean writing every day. But that also sets up an almost impossible work standard that can be pretty unhealthy for some people, even if they do pull it off. Really, the goal is to do what you can do to keep writing long-term.

So if you're growing to really detest writing, maybe it's time to take a break. If you're totally stuck on a plot point, maybe the answer isn't to stare at a laptop screen until willpower delivers the answer. Maybe it's to do other stuff. Take a walk, read some new books, go to a museum. Give yourself some space to think. There have been so many times I've forced myself to stay in my writing space for hours, even though I wasn't writing, because I was stuck, then given up, and had the answer by the time I'd finished walking home.

Nobody else can tell you what your writing process is. You might not even know what your writing process should be for whatever you're working on. Try different things, cut yourself some slack, and figure out the best way to write happily and efficiently, rather than with robotic consistency.

And ignore anyone trying to tell you what "all real writers" do. Maybe that's what they do. More likely, it's what they aspire to do. But that doesn't mean it has to be what you aspire to do as well. Aspire to write the book. It doesn't matter how you get there.

Blogmas #16: Fear in Art

Today, I absolutely loved this video from Tessa Violet (if you haven't heard her music, go listen!) about fear and art. In it, she talks about the half an hour leading up to the release of her recent EP, when she was miserable, crying and generally freaking out and trying to figure out why she wasn't more happy.

And like, I feel you, Tessa. The day that my debut novel came out was one of the best days of my life. I saw my book in bookstores, had lunch with my editor, walked around Manhattan in the February cold, got a bubble tea, went to a celebratory dinner with my American friends, got MORE bubble tea... I felt so, so wonderfully happy. But the day before my debut novel came out was one of the worst days, emotionally, that I've ever had.

I was a mess. And not even in a concrete, understandable way, like having endless thoughts about how people would react to my novel or anything. I just felt generically terrible.  And I think, as she says, it is this feeling about putting a part of yourself out into the world and not getting to have it for yourself any more. You want to share it with other people, you want to take that step, but that transition from private to public, from a work in progress to definitely 100% no takebacks done, is an emotional rollercoaster. It feels amazing once it's actually crossed that line and it's out in the world, you've done it... but the time teetering on the edge feels like a bit of a pre-emptive mourning period. The book is shifting from something you're working on to something that you created once, and you have to accept that this flawed creation is as good as it's ever going to be. You will get better, and you will create better things, but this thing is heading out to stand on its own two feet, warts and all.

And that throws us off-balance, I think, no matter how happy the actual release of art makes us too.

Blogmas #12: Thoughts while finishing a draft

original 1.  I should really stop guessing chapter numbers when I'm editing. They are never right. No book needs five chapter eights. They're not even all next to each other.

2. I tried to go to the Disney Store to buy myself a cuddly Pua as a reward for finishing the book. Except I hadn't finished the book yet. I just wanted a Pua. I reasoned that I could sit him next to me at Starbucks, and have him watch me all judging until I finished.

The Disney Store are out of stock. Should be getting more tomorrow. So that's a sign that I shouldn't buy the reward before I finish the work, right? Or is it just a sign I should buy one of the giant £40 ones? I mean, it has been a difficult year...

3. Not saying I'm getting overemotional or anything, but I am Moana came up on shuffle, and I may have started crying. I might need more sleep. But it's so good.

4. Titles are hard. Why are titles so hard? Is there some sort of title fairy I can ask for help? Maybe I could make a dark bargain with a witch in exchange for some ideas?

5. I basically have nothing left on my to-do list to tackle, but I'm still sitting here and blogging instead of sending the book off, because SCARY. Maybe I'll just do a Buzzfeed quiz instead.

Blogmas #6: First Readers

c8764a5c78d5bd752ec626a97421b5d0 People often wonder how to find "critique partners", other writers who'll critique your drafts in return for you critiquing theirs. I was too shy, as a baby author, to hunt down writers to pair up with, so I glomped onto my friends and bribed them to read with chocolate instead. And the most important thing, I think, for a "critique partner" or a first reader isn't necessarily that they're a writer that you admire, but that they're a reader that you admire. That they're passionate about stories, that think critically about them and love sharing their thoughts and opinions. They're people who you trust when they give you a book recommendation. You're excited to read it. Your opinions might not always sync up, but you think they're smart, you love their reading tastes, and if they told you something was good, you'd believe them.

And, of course, they're willing to read your unpolished work and give feedback. That's kind of important too.

I'm lucky enough to have two close friends whose bookish opinions I can always rely on. The first is a friend who's a scientist, not a writer, but very artsy in lots of ways, and who reads passionately and always gives me super in-depth notes on all her fantasy nerd reader-y thoughts and insights. (She also answered my endless questions about science for Long May She Reign, which I'll be grateful for forever). We don't have the same tastes in everything, but we share them on most things, and she's the sort of person who, when she likes something, she really loves it. And when she dislikes something, she is pretty darn firm on that dislike too. I really trust her passion and her opinion, and her help is always amazing.

My other reader friend is a writer, and we have almost identical opinions on almost all books and movies. Which is amazing, because when I'm in the middle of working on a book, I can't trust myself to have an opinion on it. I've spent so much time with it, and have so many frustrations with it, that I can never get an even vaguely accurate read on the quality of what I've written. It's impossible to read my stuff objectively. I read it and all I can see are the flaws. Flaws like "the whole book" and "no, seriously, you're going to have to rewrite this from scratch."

So if my writerly friend reads something of mine and gives me her opinion, I can trust that, if I hadn't written the book myself, that would probably be my opinion too. If she likes it, then maybe I would like it. She provides really important, amazing, detailed feedback on plotting and characters and all the rest as well. But it's like she also provides a bridge out of all my writer-y thoughts to what my reader thoughts might be. She can tell me "don't worry, this is the sort of book that we love," and I can believe her and move on with my revisions with a lot more confidence and hope.

And yes, I am gushing because she just got back to me on the latest book draft I've completed -- the first person to read it! -- and I'm so grateful to her for both the confidence boost and the super useful critique. I've lucked out, on an insane level, that I had these two wonderful people as close friends long before I started pursuing writing as a career, and that they're willing to help me with little more than hugs and chocolate in return. But if you're getting into writing, and you're wondering who you should beg to read your work, look to your reader-y friends. I don't know what I'd do without mine.

Blogmas #4: Write Weird

schuylersisters One of the hardest things about figuring out what to work on is that all my ideas either feel too familiar or too weird. Usually both at the same time. The elements I've seen in other stories make me go, "Oh, this is unoriginal. I can't write this." And the elements that I don't recognise from other stories make me think, "Oh, this is too weird. Seriously, who is going to like this?? I can't write this."

But I've been thinking a lot recently about how some of the absolute best things are things that don't sound like they should work. They don't sound like they should be successful. They're things that are weird and wonderful and so uniquely their creator. Basically, things that you try to describe to others and end up going, "OK, I know it sounds weird, but it's really good, I promise!"

Like Hamilton. Freaking Hamilton. It's a hip-hop Broadway musical about the founder of America's national bank. I mean, think about that for a second. Who reads a 700 page biography of one of the obscurer founding fathers and thinks, "Yes. This must be a musical"?? I doubt anyone except Lin-Manuel Miranda. And the result is genius. It's amazing. The world is obsessed.

And the show borrows a lot of stuff. It borrows from history, obviously, and it borrows from music history too. But the product is nothing but itself. Lin-Manuel Miranda believed in the story, and he told it, in ways both familiar and unfamiliar, and in ways 100% authentic to him. But if he ever sat and felt all self-doubt-y and wondered, "Is this idea too out there to work?", the answer would almost certainly have been, "OF COURSE IT IS." Who makes a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton??? But now we're all endlessly singing about the Election of 1800 and quoting the Reynolds Pamphlet, because Miranda hit the perfect balance of familiarity and freshness and gave us something that no one else could have created. It works precisely because it seems like it shouldn't work, because it's not something we've really seen before.

So, you know. Your idea is not too weird or out there, as long as it feels like it represents you, and you put your heart into building it. And it's not bad for it have familiar elements and echoes of other things, because all art pays homage to the things that came before it. Anything can work, as long as you're passionate about it.

And how do you stop the nagging doubt voices that make you question whether you are actually passionate about it? Um. Well. If someone could let me know, that'd be swell.

"Aha! I was lying the whole time!"

Not an example of this trope, but a DEFINITE example of betrayal "Surprise! The protagonist has been working on a secret plan all along and just didn't tell you about it!"

We're inside the protagonist's head, so we know exactly what they're doing! Wrong. They've had secrets all along, and now it's time for the Big Reveal. Aren't you shocked? Isn't this a thrilling plot twist?

For me, no. Lots of people must like it, because it's been cropping up more and more in popular books lately, but it's probably one of my least favorite narrative devices. No matter how well-written the book otherwise is, if this device comes into play, I immediately mentally check out of the book, no matter how much I was enjoying it before.

"Aha! You didn't know I had a way to turn this on its head all along!" Well, I should have, protagonist, because we share thoughts.

This kind of "twist" is like a barrier slamming down between me and the protagonist. When I read, I love the sense that we're inside the characters' heads, that our perspectives are almost overlapping as the story unfolds, and these moments immediately take that away. At best, they make me go, "Dude, you didn't trust me? You kept secrets from me? WTF." But most often, I just feel cheated by the author. They were telling me the character was one way, from inside the character's own head, and actually they were another?? Even if the character is a trickster or a schemer or a liar, they shouldn't omit important details from their own thoughts.

And once that trust is gone, it's gone for good. There's no longer any point reading the book, because the protagonist could be lying to me at any time. I can't trust that the story I've been reading won't just get ret-conned for drama when convenient. No matter how much I was loving a series before, once this happens, I am done. I can try to force myself to keep reading, but I'm not going to get far. The world and the characters just don't feel real to me any more.

Of course, like all things like this, there are very, very rare occasions where it works. In Crown of Midnight, for example, Celeana is literally repressing her plot twist-y memories. She tries very, very hard not to think about any of it, so it makes sense that we only get vague hints from her before she's forced to face it. Otherwise -- well, I guess you could say the character thought about it and planned while they were "off-screen," but that feels a little cheap to me. I find it hard to believe that the perspective characters never think about these things while they're happening, especially if they're that important. If you pick one perspective to write from, in my opinion, you have to let us into it fully. And if you pick multiple perspectives, you have to let us into all of them. You can't pick and choose perspectives so you can best mislead the audience.

Basically, if the reader is going to be surprised by a plot twist, then the perspective characters have to be surprised too. Otherwise, our connection with the characters collapses, and if you're a character reader, like me, the book is never going to recover from that betrayal.

Writers: Play D&D!

This post will be accompanied by Critical Role gifs, because... well, because I can. Dungeons and Dragons. That final frontier of "well, yes, I'm a nerd, but I'm not that kind of nerd." So endlessly uncool. Which is a shame, because it's so much fun. And, for writers, it's a totally overlooked way to practice writing, make creative friends, and have a really great time in the process.

Before I played, I always imagined D&D as a stat-based fighting game, which interested me not even a little bit. That's basically the most boring part of video games for me. But although combat is part of D&D, it's actually a collaborative storytelling game. The best way to describe it is like an open-world, decision-based RPG computer game (like Dragon Age or Skyrim), except you can actually, genuinely, do anything you want. You can approach problems however you please. You can flee from the city under attack to save your own skin. You can stab the king in the middle of him giving you a mission. You can do anything, as long as you accept that your actions will have real consequences too.

tumblr_inline_o1ugjv20ue1tdhpfo_500

In D&D, you control one character -- but only one. You develop them and their relationships over weeks and months and years, and unlike writing fiction, you don't get to decide what happens to them, only how they react to what happens, and what they'll attempt to do next. Then it's down to the other players to figure out how their characters would react, the game runner (Dungeon Master or DM) to decide how non-player characters react, and down to the dice to decide how successful your attempted actions might be.

Not that the dice run a dictatorship on the story, like I once imagined. You get boosts or penalties for your attempts based on your character's stats (a charismatic character is going to have an easier time deceiving people than a socially-awkward one), on how good your strategy is (you'll have a better chance sneaking into a place through the back door at night after making sure all the guards are drunk than if you stride in through the front door at noon), and perhaps on how convincingly you roleplay the situation. It forces you to strategize, think outside the box, and dig deep into your character.

tumblr_nsqz005bse1uz17elo2_r1_500

But you don't get to choose exactly what happens or what path your character will take. All you can decide is their personality and goals and play it out from there. Which makes it an awesome exercise in character development.

This was proven to me recently, when I started playing a selfish and ambitious human sorcerer called Kethra. In my head, she was going to end up on an adventure and learn to be a better person. If I'd written her story as a book, it would definitely have gone in that direction. Instead, she started a steady fall into Pure Evil, and was a hair's breadth away from betraying her entire party by the end. (Yup, D&D friends. If I hadn't been out of spells and low on health when you guys destroyed those black dragon eggs, I would so have fought you to keep one). It wasn't what I expected her story to be, but the way people reacted to her and the way her actions played out just kept leading her deeper and deeper into Team I Love Evil Dragons.

No one knows where a game of D&D is going to go, not even the DM. Things get weird. Sometimes you adopt little goblins called Droop and end up rolling deception checks to convince him that actually you do like his terrible cooking, really (and feel really guilty when you fail). Sometimes an attempt to gather information undercover goes awry because your friend wrote "Wizardy Bloke" in her notes instead of the relevant character's name, and you end up being blackmailed by a smuggler with some really second-rate goods for sale. Sometimes you make deals with chromatic dragons, because everyone knows that always ends well. And sometimes your DM wants to kill you when you keep trying to find out things about an ancient civilization that she has barely any notes about because it was just supposed to be a little side worldbuilding thing, seriouslystop doing investigation checks, there's nothing else to know, why do you hate me?

And it's great for learning how to stay true to your character and develop character-driven story arcs, even in super-plotty fantasy situations. It's definitely made me think differently about narrative and about how characters pursue (and are thwarted on the way to) their goals. And, of course, it's just plain fun. At least, it is if you like stories, really weird improv, and having great adventures with your friends.

tumblr_nspu50xyma1uz17elo3_r1_500