Fate’s Door

I’ve got so many stories I’m longing to write, and I can’t decide which one to chose next. So I decided to ask my readers! This is the first post in a series of story openings. Take a read and … vote! 😀

ETA: I wrote Fate’s Door in 2015 and published it the November of that year. It’s a doorstopper, which many readers assure me is their preferred length. 😀 Fate’s Door is currently available as an ebook on Amazon. The paperback edition is coming soon.

Breaking Wave, Asilomar State Park

A long green comber rolled the man’s body, flaccid and pale in the water.

Nerine could almost smell the tang of the ocean, hear the roar of surf on an unseen, but nearby shore, taste the salt air on her lips. Or was it merely the salt tears running down her cheeks?

She’d stepped up behind her mistress. Well, Nerine answered to all three, but Tynghed was kindest.

She’d noted the rooks cawing in the Tree. Did they see visions in the well of destiny? Sense the dooms meted out there?

The shrouded norns had first watered the Tree, dipping from the spring’s chill outflow. Now they posed beside its deeps, meditating on the images they saw reflected. What did they see? Did they see Altairos, the sea-king of Zakynthos? Did they see what Nerine saw?

She steadied her quivering lip and felt Tynghed’s hand, stealing from within the fate’s cloak, slipping behind her to clasp Nerine’s hand.

Oh, god, oh, god, it could not be! Altairos drowned in the waves of his beloved ocean? And yet she knew it was. The breath of life would pass from him this day, and she would lay out the blue and green silks with which the norns would weave his fate. “I won’t. I won’t do it,” she breathed. But she would. The Spinner, the Weaver, and the Cutter commanded her obedience. How could a stranded sea nymph defy them?

“I must!”

* * *

For more fantasy samples, see:
Tally the Betrayals
Ravessa’s Ride

For a science fiction sample, see:
Dragon’s Tooth

 

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Popcorn Kittens

I have a bad case of popcorn kittens.

What, you may ask, are popcorn kittens?

photo of surprised kittenWell…here’s the amusing origin of the concept. Go ahead, click the link. It’s just a 3 minute video on YouTube, and it’s fun!

And here’s the more serious explanation of of the term. (Warning: Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog can become a serous addiction, if you’re interested in the massive upheaval transpiring in the publishing industry these days!)

Short version of that “serious” essay: an abrupt change from scarcity to abundance produces the impetus to action on a gazillion different projects at once.

So why do I have popcorn kittens?

I have too many stories I’m longing to write, and each story is calling me to write it right now.

I’m hoping to get some feedback from my readers about which projects interest them the most. If you could choose from a list of 20 stories, each of which sings to this writer like a Greek siren, which one would you chose to go to the head of the work-in-progress queue?

I’ve already written the opening for a number of these stories. So I’m thinking I might share the openings with you over the next few weeks. And when you see one you like, you can yell: “Write this one! This one!”

And just to get things off to a good start, I’ll list the entire roster, each entry with a few explanatory remarks.

Deep breath! Here we go!

Three for 2013

The Dragon’s Egg: Livli’s brother Jorgan learns his calling in life when a troll, a dragon’s egg, and a Tromme-land shaman intersect. Hammarleeding fans will like this one.

Imsterfeldt: During Sarvet’s wanderyar, she has an adventure in Imsterfeldt involving a ghost and the ruined mooring tower for an airship. Sarvet’s fans will like this.

Inula’s Trumpet: Hans (from Troll-magic) finds adventure in the forests of Cambers involving a golden fauve, a troll, and lethal deceptions.

Science Fiction

Dragon’s Tooth: The Zero Stone by Andre Norton meets The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Metamorphosis Buffet: Steven has lost everything and schemes to claw his way up from the bottom. While working on his own problems, he encounters something so bizarre, he must investigate and is drawn into a threat of a much larger magnitude.

(The opening for Metamorphosis Buffet appears in an earlier post all about writer tips for writing strong openings. Metamorphosis Buffet is the third and last example, all the way at the bottom of the page. 😉 )

Fox in the Hen Coop: A cybernetic “hen house” guards the planet Lapis V from space toxins that spiral down to poison its biosphere. Something has gone wrong with one of MRY97’s (Mary’s) microchips.

Read-Only Beauty: The Sleeping Beauty meets Independence Day. (My short story of the same name – completed recently – would become a prologue to this novel.)

Mythic Novels

Witch’s Sweet: Demons threaten Callie’s family, and she defends them with her witchcraft and with…baking, of all things.

The Theft of Odin’s Horse: Loki’s latest prank threatens all 9 worlds anchored to Yggrasil’s mighty branches. How will his aunt save them all?

The Green Knight: Neptune enjoys the ministrations of a harem of 50 nymphs. One of them wants to escape. Can she?

The Golden Ka: Ancient Egypt meets Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones.

New Short Story Ideas

Tally the Betrayals: Three loyalties tear Gael in three directions. Will he protect innocent humans? Will he support his fellow trolls? Or will he obey his heinous master?

Troll-witch’s Promise: Livli’s son, Rede, encounters a troll-witch with disastrous results.

Fate’s Door: A handmaiden to the three Norse norns, the Fates, sees her forbidden lover threatened. Dare she work against fate itself to save him? And if she dares, how can she succeed?

Doorstopper Novels

Steal from the Sea: Livli’s brother Jorgan has grown up, but seeks a second wanderyar – partially on his own account, partially to seek a nephew who’s been gone too long.

Ruin the Earth: A re-telling of the Norse “Widow’s Son.” Gabris and Emoirie from Troll-magic travel from Bazinthiad to get involved.

Break the Sky: A re-telling of my own Gethaena (a role playing game) in novel form. Demons, a prison, and transformation.

The Soldier’s Daughter: Our heroine must rescue three princesses of Elamerony (the land of the southern emissaries in Troll-magic) from the demons in Break the Sky.

Eclipse the Sun: A re-telling of the Norse “The Lassie and her Godmother.”

The Dawn Trilogy: The lodestones of ancient Navarys fell into dangerous hands. Three heroes, each with something to learn, play a part in the recovery of these powerful artifacts.

And there you have it, the ideas luring me. It’s hard to decide! 😀

(First story opening coming next week!)

* * *

Update: It’s 8 months later, and I’ve posted quite a few of the openings for the stories mentioned here. In the list above, I’ve linked each title that has one to its posted opening.

In the time between July 2013 and March 2014, I’ve also posted a few openings not included above. 😉 Here’s a list of all the openings – popcorn kittens of all vintages, new and old:

Fate’s Door
Dragon’s Tooth
Witch’s Sweet
Dream Trap
Tally the Betrayals
The Green Knight
Fox in the Hen Coop
Read-Only Beauty
Last Tide
The Theft of Odin’s Horse
Metamorphosis Buffet (last opening in the post “The First Lines”)
The Player King

 

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Writing Sarvet

170903424_2c9eb32bfc_bI love reading fantasy (as well as writing it), largely because of the sense of wonder and possibility it evokes. The journey through a strange and imaginary landscape feels magical. And that magic compels me.

Yet setting isn’t enough. It’s the people and their doings – the story – that sustain my interest.

As a writer writing, finding the balance between story and setting can be tricky. My reader must understand enough to understand what’s at stake. Yet that necessary information mustn’t bury the protagonist and his or her very human concerns. It’s easy to err in either direction: presenting so much wonderful strangeness that the connection between reader and protagonist grows tenuous; or gliding over the setting so lightly that the protagonist’s challenges and desires seem obscure.

A brief aside . . .

Some readers prefer not to watch the sausage being made. If that describes you, this post may not be your cup of tea! I’m going to peer under the hood of one of my stories and discuss a revision prompted by my first reader’s feedback. For those of you who enjoy nothing better than seeing how an author does things, read on!

My first draft of Sarvet’s Wanderyar erred in the direction of flooding the reader with too much information about Sarvet’s culture. The women and men of the Hammarleedings live segregated from one another in sister-lodges and brother-lodges. This fundamental difference ripples through their entire society, their religious rituals, and their daily routines.

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie wandering the mountainsI dove right into those differences, and my first reader felt disoriented by it. The interesting thing to me was that the slight gap between heroine and reader didn’t manifest immediately. My reader cared about Sarvet, became invested in her wellbeing, and grew genuinely scared for her when Sarvet ran into danger. But when Sarvet encountered the crux of her dilemma – could she find the courage to confront and let go of the resistance within herself that shored up the external barriers she faced? – that was where my reader felt distance.

Not good!

I didn’t immediately know where I’d gone astray. I reviewed the climax scene. Had I failed to depict Sarvet’s dilemma fully? Did I not evoke her struggle to change vividly enough? Did I need to give more detail to her internal challenges? After re-reading the passage, I felt all that was present. And my reader agreed. She wasn’t really sure where the problem lay, what was provoking her sense of remove.

At that impasse, I was blessed with a flash of intuition.

The problem did not lie in the climactic scene itself. It occurred back at the very beginning. My reader was so preoccupied with understanding Sarvet’s milieu that she was distracted from forming a full bond with Sarvet herself.

Along with my diagnosis of the problem came inspiration for how to fix it. I would give my reader two additional scenes that not only took us deep within Sarvet’s experience and showed us a pivotal part of her history, but that also included universal human experiences: enjoyment of a light-hearted holiday and the connection between a child and her father. Here they are . . .

* * *

But Other-joy was . . . complicated. Lodge-day was just fun. She’d spent it with her friend Amara last summer.

They’d greeted the men of Tukeva-lodge with traditional tossed thistle-silk streamers – a shower of crimson, gold, purple, amber, and blue pelted at the visitors as they approached the mother-lodge. Amara’s father was a bear of a man, big and round and laughing, with a pillow of a beard. His hello hugs swooped Amara, Amara’s mother Iteydet, Amara’s aunt Enna, and Sarvet off their feet. His arms felt like tree limbs. Flexible ones. Only after his enthusiastic civility did Feljas gaze in puzzlement at Sarvet’s face.

But little Hilla never grew from belt high to chest high since Nerich!”

Amara broke into giggles. “Hilla’s picnicking with her best friend, mapah! This is my best friend, of course. Sarvet.”

Then you’ll excuse a mapah’s zeal, little sister, won’t you? I thought you were mine!” His eyes twinkled.

Sarvet found herself giggling along with Amara. “Of course,” she answered. And knew a moment’s wistfulness. I wish he were my mapah. But Ivvar would never visit Kaunis-lodge, even on the greater fete-days like Other-joy.

Feljas was more like a wixting-brother than a father. He claimed the very tip of the valley-rock for their picnic blanket, teased Enna unmercifully about the damage her long eyelashes would do to the hearts of unlinked brothers, juggled their luncheon pears in fancy patterns before passing them to each sister for eating, dropped kisses on Iteydet’s cheek every fifth sentence, and pulled a sack of luxurious dried cherries from his capacious pocket for dessert. Then he fell asleep under Sarvet’s amazed gaze.

Her expression must have conveyed her astonishment, because Iteydet ventured a laughing explanation. “He’s always like this. Never stops until he really stops. In sleep. If I had to live with him day-in and day-out, like a sister, he’d wear on me.”

But Hammarleeding women didn’t live with their men. Sarvet had heard rumors that the Silmarish lowlanders did. Here in the mountains, sisters lived with sisters in the mother-lodges. And brothers lived with brothers in the father-lodges. As was proper.

Iteydet continued: “He’ll wake again soon. And I’ll be glad of it. It’s not a proper fete-day without Feljas’ jokes!”

He did wake. And proposed a game of tag combined with rolling down the mountain slope. Enna refused, but the sisters occupying three blankets near theirs were persuaded to join the fun, even including the normally staid Teraisa. Sarvet surprised herself when she abandoned keeping Enna company mere moments after her own plaintive refusal. Her limp was no disadvantage when rolling, not running, was the mode of movement.

The whole day had been like that: merry and easy and . . . loving. Would she trade Other-joy for Lodge-day? Yes! Well . . . maybe. Sarvet ducked her head down under the covers. No. Other-joy is special.

* * *

Sarvet still didn’t want to think about it. And yet she did.

What was her first experience of fathers? She didn’t really need to ask that question. She knew the answer. I’m just delaying. She’d been little, really little. How many years did I have then. Maybe five? It was one of her earliest memories. She was sitting in a clump of alpine flowers making a chain from the blooms, carefully selecting all the pink ones, when a shadow fell over her. She’d looked up to see . . . a father looming against the sky. He seemed as tall as the clouds, and his bearded face scared her.

Sarvet?” His voice was gentle and his eyes kind.

He knelt so that she wouldn’t have to crane her neck to look at him. “Do you remember me?”

She didn’t, but her fear ebbed. He looked nice.

I’m Ivvar, your mother’s linking-brother.”

She still didn’t remember him, but she held up her flower chain to show him. It was nearly done.

Beautiful,” he told he. “Would you make one for me?”

And she did, a yellow one, not pink.

He’d just draped it around his neck and was thanking Sarvet when her mother arrived, hot and bothered and annoyed. “You shouldn’t be here,” Paiam declared.

I’ve a right.” His voice was equable, but he stayed seated on the grass.

Paiam went on to argue with him. Sarvet couldn’t recall the words, but Paiam’s rage seemed to cover another feeling. She would have been crying, except that Paiam never cries.

Sarvet did remember the end of it. While Paiam stood by in fury, Ivvar had taken his daughter kindly in his arms and kissed her forehead. His lips were warm and dry. “Goodbye, little Sarvet. I’ll love you forever.”

You’re going?” He’d been a fun play fellow. It seemed a shame to lose him just when she’d found him.

Yes, I’ll be living at Rakas, not Tukeva, now. The brothers of Rakas visit a different mother-lodge.”

Oh.” She’d been placid then, accepting his farewell. Now . . . now she felt differently. Paiam drove him away, shun her! I could have been like Amara and Brionne, seeing my own father several times each year, if it hadn’t been for her. With a small shake of her shoulders, Sarvet opened her eyes.

Her mother was seated on the bench in front of her, a little to the right. She had the same expression on her face that Sarvet felt leaving her own features: faint distaste mingled with longing. Sarvet winced. I don’t want to be like her. She looked away.

* * *

photo of old manuscriptDid my revision do what I wanted? Would my reader walk more fully in Sarvet’s boots? That was the question, indeed. I sent the revised manuscript off to my first reader and waited with baited breath.

Her answer: a resounding yes! She’d experienced no sense of distance at all, feeling thoroughly there as Sarvet confronted her destiny.

Yay!

My reader did suggest one other minor change. I’d made Sarvet a bit on the young side for the story that emerged. She needed to be closing on 16, rather than 14 approaching 15. Plus there were a few more typos to correct. But in all essentials my story was complete.

I’d learned once again how important a first reader is to my process. I’m too close to my story to always perceive how it touches my readers. I need one of them to report back from the reading front!

I also learned that an error at the story’s beginning may hide for an interval, manifesting only in a later passage. Who would have guessed? I love these unexpected revelations, whether they’re within a story or outside one. This is why I write!

For more about the writing experience, see:
The First Lines
Writer’s Journey

 

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The First Lines

photo of partially open bookFebruary and half of March saw me studying story openings. I was taking an online workshop and learning a lot.

What makes a good opening? How does a writer engage the strong interest of her reader?

Writing stories is an art. In a sense, there are as many good opening structures as there are good stories. Every story’s first few paragraphs are unique to that story.

However…you knew there’d be a “however,” didn’t you?

There is a structure that consistently hooks most readers’ attention. This “hook opening” won’t be right for every story, but it serves many of them well.

A character with a problem in a setting.

Pretty simple, isn’t it?

Ah! But how will you introduce your character and his or her problem? How will you mention the setting without slowing the pace too much? Even when borrowing a story foundation honed by the ages, artistry calls!

There’s also one more critical element.

My teacher recounts how that critical element made all the difference for him. Decades ago, when he was first starting out and before he incorporated this key element, he received nothing but form rejections from publishers. After…he received personal letters for his rejections and…a beginning stream of acceptances! That’s how important this is.

What is it?

Ground your reader in what your character is seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. Make your opening rich with sensory detail. Your reader will feel like she or he is there, chilled by the breeze, smelling cinnamon, tasting vanilla, hearing chapel bells, and watching the cavalry thunder over the hill crest.

Touch on all five senses in the first three paragraphs and continue to mention them every 500 words.

Is it a formula? Will it generate formulaic writing?

I don’t think so. We humans are corporeal beings, and we relate to our world and the people in it via our bodily senses. Stories are about the human condition, and a story that’s thin on sensory detail is a story rather distant from our human experience.

Consider architecture. (With a degree in architecture, I’m bound to drag it in willy nilly!) The cultural blueprint for house could be considered formulaic: sheltering walls and roof, ways to get in and out, places of privacy within. But think of all the amazing variations: yurts, New England saltboxes, Georgian colonials, Frank Lloyd Wright prairie houses, and on and on. Limits breed art and beauty.

But enough philosophizing!

What does a “hook opening” look like in practice?

Allow me to present some examples.

Before the workshop, I was stumbling in the right direction. As I approached the release of my story Perilous Chance, I sensed something was wrong. I loved the story, and my first readers spoke well of it, too. But, but, but! The opening wasn’t quite right.

This was the original opening:

 

thatched cottageThat morning, Clary had stood in the front room, turning slowly. The cloth on the table under the windows hung askew, its corner tassel dragging on the weathered pine floor. The candles had guttered in their sockets, the wicks drowning amidst congealed wax. One, burned only halfway, lay fallen under the gluey drips from the gravy boat. Clary’s fingers crept to her mouth.

Why did this morning after an impromptu party feel so different?

The murmur of conversation last night, rising to her bed chamber, growing louder as the hour latened, had seemed normal. Uncle Maury’s deep laugh boomed as always. Aunt Theosia’s mandolin sounded as sweet. But it hadn’t been the same.

She stared at the welter of mismatched briar-wicker chairs, one tumbled on its side. I won’t think about that. Or who knocked it over. But she knew who. I won’t think about it, more fiercely.

Lyrus was whimpering upstairs in the nursery. She’d ignored him on her way down, hoping her mother would see to the baby. But she wouldn’t. She hadn’t risen before the children for . . . how long had it been? This was Thyril. Spring. Had it truly been eight months? Last Sanember in fall? Clary drew her fingers away from her lips to count, but she didn’t really care how long it’d been. Too long. What she wanted to know was: would it end?

* * *
As part of the story, yes. As the opening? No. I wanted something more gripping, something with more immediate tension, rather than its slow rise. I mused and mulled, wondering how I might solve my problem. And, finally, for reasons unknown to me (but probably well known to the muse), a short story by Connie Willis came to mind: All About Emily.

It’s a great story, one I recommend with enthusiasm. What I did was study it. How was its opening structured? I had to go back and look, since I’d been too engrossed originally to notice.

What Willis did was take a snippet from near the end of her story to generate its opening. There lay my answer! I can’t pretend my story displays Willis’ mastery. She’s been writing for decades and is one of the most renowned SF writers in the world. But the underlying structure of her gem of a tale was perfect for mine. And I knew exactly which snippet in Perilous Chance I would use to generate my opening. Here is the final version that I published (the opening above follows directly on these new paragraphs):

 

web cover image for Perilous ChancePerilous ChanceShe was eleven, and she was hurt. Her leg lay under her, knee throbbing. Her arm ached, the broken bone within sickening in its pain. But worst of all, worst of all, a vast shadow loomed above her, dark wings spanning distances too great for the grotto enclosing them, razor-sharp talons sparking with the spitting blue fire of a strange power.

“No, please, no,” she whispered.

How had it come to this? Her day had started so ordinarily, getting breakfast for herself and her sister, because Mama could not. She cast her thoughts desperately back to the morning. I’m there. Not here. I’m there.

*   *   *
I remain pleased with it, even after the finish of my workshop. But I wonder if I might have included more sensory detail, if I were writing the story now.

With Clary and Elspeth, we see the disorder of the front room, we hear Aunt Theosia’s mandolin and Uncle Maury’s laugh. We attempt to ignore the faint whimpers of their baby brother upstairs. We taste the sweetness of the fig syrup. Is it enough? I’ll leave that answer to my readers. Because stories are an art, after all. Sometimes three senses – sight, hearing, taste – might be enough.

In fact, my second assignment for the workshop was to create an opening focused solely on sound. And my teacher declared my effort gripping and compelling. So the rule of all five senses is clearly a guideline rather than a law.

After listening to the first week’s lectures, I pondered my new world view. The information had changed me. I grew pre-occupied with the opening to an already published story. Sarvet’s Wanderyar didn’t have the opening that would do it justice, and…I had an idea! This one was good, this one was better, this one wouldn’t let me go until I wrote it.

So, here’s another before and after. The original opening:

 

photo of the mountains of Haines, AlaskaShe awoke to the pleasant consciousness that the morning of a fete-day brings. No chopping cabbage, digging potatoes, or long hours at the spinning wheel awaited her. The preparations for Other-joy were wholly different from normal chores, and this year the calling ritual would include three linking ceremonies!

She smiled with anticipation, started to push herself upright, then changed her mind and snuggled her cheek more deeply into her pillows. Light from the oil lanterns in the hallway was seeping through the chinks around her bednook shutters – Sister Teraisa must already be up – and Sarvet wanted to get up too. But not just yet. Her sheets were so soft, her blankets cozy, and the fur coverlet warm. She wriggled her toes in their bedsocks, ignoring the constraint in her right foot. There was something special to the first beginning of a day, all its promise ahead. She would savor it . . . and avoid a little longer the chilly moment when she doffed her nightcap and gown in order to dress.

* * *
And the new opening, not yet published as of this blog post (sneak preview!):

 

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie wandering the mountainsTense and furious, Sarvet shook her mother’s angry grip from her forearm. “I’ll petition the lodge-meet for filial severance,” she snapped, and then wished she’d swallowed the words, so hateful, too hateful to speak. And yet she’d spoken them.

The breeze swirling on the mountain slope picked up, nudging the springy branches of the three great pines at Sarvet’s back and purring among their needles. Their scent infused the moving air.

Paiam’s narrowed eyes widened an instant – in hurt? – flicked up to encompass the swaying tree tops behind her daughter, then went flat.

“You dare!” she breathed. “You’re my daughter. Mine alone. And I’ll see to it that you and every other mother in the lodge knows it too. You’ll stay under my aegis till you’re grown, young sister, even if I must declare you careless and remiss to do it!”

Oh!

Sarvet only thought she’d been mad before. “You never wanted me!” she accused.

Was it true? Or was she just aiming for Paiam’s greatest vulnerability, aiming to hurt? Because under her own rage lay . . . desperation. Something needed to change. She just didn’t know what, didn’t know how. And didn’t want to be facing it right now, facing her mother right now. It was Other-joy, and she wanted joy. For just a little longer. How had this day of celebration gone so wrong?

She’d woken to the pleasant consciousness that the morning of a fete-day brings. No chopping cabbage, digging potatoes, or long hours at the spinning wheel awaited her. The preparations for Other-joy were wholly different from normal chores, and this year the calling ritual would include three linking ceremonies!

She remembered smiling with anticipation, starting to push herself upright, then changing her mind to snuggle her cheek more deeply into her pillows. Light from the oil lanterns in the hallway was seeping through the chinks around her bednook shutters – Sister Teraisa must already be up – and Sarvet wanted to get up too. But not just yet. Her sheets were so soft, her blankets cozy, and the fur coverlet warm. She wriggled her toes in their bedsocks, ignoring the constraint in her right foot. There was something special to the first beginning of a day, all its promise ahead. She would savor it . . . and avoid a little longer the chilly moment when she doffed her nightcap and gown in order to dress.

* * *
I’m still not hitting all five senses, but – again – this is art, not science. And revising an already complete story can be a tricky and delicate business. I’d rather honor the story’s essence and integrity than risk harming it by sticking slavishly to a checklist.

But, before I close, I’d like to share an example that does include all five senses. It’s one of my homework assignments from the workshop. I hope to write the full story, but I think it wants to be a novel, so patience on that one!

 

photo of red neon signMetamorphosis Buffet

Steven glanced down at his tux and shirtfront, then back out through the transparent gleam of the force bubble surrounding his table. His clothes looked cheap compared to those of the other patrons. What else could you expect from a rental? At least they were clean. At least he was clean.

When he’d spotted the lottery ticket in the muck of that back alley, he’d wondered if mere bathing could scrub the garbage stench from his skin. His too-loose coveralls lay sodden against his bony wrists and ankles, slimy with the juices of rotting food. The air was foul enough he could taste it. His hand nipped the foil ticket from its puddle of noxious yuck before he had time to consider otherwise. The liquid burned until he wiped fingers and ticket against his collar, the only dry scrap on him.

He angled the ticket toward the neon glow at the alley mouth. Its plastic coating hiding the winning result was already scraped away. Why would anyone throw away a free dinner at – he squinted – oh, gods and little demons! Fabrine’s.

He’d figured on selling it. Some decent cash to be picked up that way. Enough for a bed in a lockable bunker and a few handrolls out of the vending creche.

But . . . Fabrine’s. Damn!

So he’d called in some favors. Favor’s he’d hoped to save. Favor’s he’d need, if he were ever down and out. More down and out.

And now he occupied a force bubble on the exclusive platform reserved for haute clientele in this purveyor of fine cuisine and deformity. The faint aroma of freshly squeezed lime tingled his nostrils, fighting the sandalwood of his borrowed aftershave. Lighting low enough for intimacy – if he’d brought a dining companion – but bright enough for security (the bodyguards stood outside the bubbles) soothed his eyes. Comfortably firm bolsters supported his back, cushioned the bench under his buttocks. If he were here for a meal – except he’d never come here to simply eat. Did anyone?

His stomach muttered. The murmur of conversation escaping the muffling force bubbles rumbled louder, then subsided.

There was a reason Fabrine’s had the reputation it did: looking for mutations and nightmares? – the haute called them dreams – they were here. Steven? He wanted – needed – an extra arm (with hand attached) smack in the middle of his forehead.

* * *
What are your experiences with story openings? As writer or as reader. Do you have a favorite read that gripped you in spite of yourself? The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold did that for me. Or does your favorite book have a quieter beginning?

Cover design, cover copy, and story openings are among the top influences in connecting readers with books. My Cover Design Primer presents basic concepts for creating a professional looking book cover. Eyes Glaze Over, Never! introduces the foundations of good cover copy. And my Cover Copy Primer provides more detailed how-to’s for cover text.

 

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Dreaming the Star-drake

dragon profile against starry night skyOne line in Rainbow’s Lodestone inspired Star-drake.

“The star-dragons and the wind sprites, her usual companions, could not visit her here.”

I wanted to know more about the star-dragons and the wind spirits with whom the rainbow played. Surely they would have missed her while she sojourned on the mountain, shut away from her native sky.

It felt like a story awaited me within that notion.

My concept of a wind spirit came from a snippet in Raggedy Ann Stories by Johnny Gruelle. Two little girls – sisters – lose their rag doll at the beach. He is rescued by the Tide Fairies who pass him to the Undertow Fairies and then on to the Roller Fairies and the Spray Fairies. At last the Wind Fairies carry him home to the little girls’ garden. A wonderful illustration depicts beautiful sea spirits surfing the whitecaps and tossing Freddy (the rag doll) into the sky. My wind spirits resembled them, I felt sure.

But what was a star-dragon?

I settled myself to meditate on the question, hoping for an answer. These are my notes: star-dragons are creatures of darkness who dwell in the blackness between the stars. They are emptiness. Shadow. Nothingness. They are the terror of these things, and they are the potential within these things. Nothingness has space for beginnings and newness.

The star-dragon in my story takes a terrible vengeance. He seeks out evil, strips it down to nothing, and re-creates it transformed: a newborn star-drake, destined to seek evil and transform it.

The final stone of Star-drake‘s story foundation lay with the travelers who engaged the rainbow near the end of Rainbow’s Lodestone.

Who were they? Where did they come from? I thought some more.

Emrys, the “ice-man,” was brother to the king of Tuisil-land, a small island kingdom far to the north. Emrys journeyed because he mourned and hoped to ease his grief in roaming.

Haral came from the Hammarleeding enclaves in the Fiordhammar mountains. He’d extended his wanderyar (the year of travel that most Hammarleeding boys take when they turn sixteen or seventeen) to continue studying duoja (magic) under the unusual tutelage of a Tromme-man, Paavo.

Paavo’s discipline of energetic shamanism is completely different from the Hammarleeding duoja, and Haral is fascinated by it.

The moors west of the Tahdenfiall mountains form part of Paavo’s regular ambit. He travels from settlement to settlement, much like a circuit judge, but he brings healing and insight rather than justice.

Tor and Lilli – grandson and grandmother – hail from Silmaren’s lowlands. They stumbled upon a worrying clue in their home hamlet and set off to track it down. I won’t say more here, because I envision a full trilogy stemming from their adventure!

Tallis I know the least about, possibly because she holds the most to know. She’s a salver, a healer, and is connected to Tor’s and Lilli’s quest. Yet she has her own problem to explore and resolve, one that will likely require the entire middle book of that trilogy.

With these elements – the winds, the star-drake, and the travelers – I was ready to begin, to move from dreaming to writing.

“Láidir couldn’t find her anywhere.”

On the chance that my dreaming has inspired you to read Star-drake,
I provide the links for the ebook.

Amazon I B&N I Diesel I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Sony

Gefnen hunts victory, but a darker victory hunts him.

For more about the writing experience, see:
Behind Troll-magic
Writing Sarvet
Writer’s Journey

 

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Notes on Chance

It started with a vivid snippet: the vision of an old, abandoned quarry overgrown by brambles and the certainty that a troll was involved.

Next came the entrance of Clary, an eleven-year-old girl, and her sister Elspeth. For a while I thought Elspeth was named after her great grandmother Jennifry nish Roanmothe. But she wasn’t. She was Elspeth, no question.

The troll seemed to be both good and evil, which was confusing until I understood there were two trolls. Aha! And then I discovered that kinship existed between the little girls and the trolls. Time to draw a family tree. I needed to know just what that kinship was.

Calcinides Roanmothe family tree

Before I received my revelation about the troll sisters, another intense vision swept through my mind’s eye: the shabby, disordered front room of Clary’s cottage. Her parents were weary, so weary they were neglectful. What made them so? I didn’t know, but I jotted notes for what would become an early scene in my story: dining table cluttered with last night’s supper, cloth hanging askew.

There I stopped for two weeks, letting the story lie fallow while I devoted myself to publisher tasks. I believe I worked on the print edition for Troll-magic.

When I returned to Perilous Chance, the image of a pegasus took me by storm; it was coal-black and shining, and bursting from the egg. With wings, are pegasi born from eggs? Or, with equine bodies, are they birthed live from their mothers? The answer still awaits me, because Clary’s encounter with a fabulous beast does not feature a pegasus after all. The scene from a future story had arrived, not to be incorporated into this one, but to spark a necessary idea.

No, Clary’s creature was not a pegasus, but I knew what it might be. I did some research: king of the beasts, king of the birds, powerful and majestic, symbol of divine power, and guardian of the divine. Yes! (But I’m not telling here. Too much of a spoiler!)

Once I had these pieces – two girls, enervated parents, two trolls, and a miracle-bearing beast – my story fell into place. I made a rough outline and started writing.

In three places I faltered.

The first was the simplest. How did Clary’s father make a living? He did not possess inherited wealth. He worked with his hands, but he was more than a simple craftsman. He didn’t fashion “bramble furniture” as I’d initially believed. Nor was he a businessman, supplying city households with the products of craftsmen under his organization. What did he do? He worked with his hands, but made decent money from it and received considerable respect.

If I ask myself a question with enough variations, I usually get an answer. It turned out that Tiber was a sculptor, and a renowned one at that. He designed the fountain in the main square of Auberon’s capital city and sculpted the horses cavorting under its play of water. He regularly receives commissions from the Morofane himself.

That settled, I wrote on. And reached a point of resolution. Was this the end? Events were resolved, but it didn’t feel like the end. I sought a first reader’s opinion. Was it finished? No, it was not. But no wonder I wanted it to be. In order to write the proper denouement, I needed to comprehend the judicial system of Auberon better than I did.

I set to work, researching a bit, brainstorming more. And I figured out enough to go forward. The current Rofane ni Calcinides is Justicar of the Peace. Local disputes and crimes are handled under his purview. Several wardens and a secretary, appointed by the royal judiciary, work under his leadership.

Writing the validation was easy after that. I knew where to place emphasis – Clary’s experience – and where to glide lightly – the visit to Arteme’s manor. And then I was done.

Excepting one problem: my opening wasn’t quite right.

I studied the openings written by my favorite authors. Why were they so effective? What was their underlying structure?

All About Emily by Connie Willis supplied me with the structure that would work for Perilous Chance. In Emily, Willis begins with a paragraph describing the protagonist’s predicament from much later in the story. That was what I wanted! And I knew exactly what piece I would use. Now my tale truly was complete.

 

cover image for Perilous ChanceShe was eleven, and she was hurt. Her leg lay under her, knee throbbing. Her arm ached, the broken bone within sickening in its pain. But worst of all, worst of all, a vast shadow loomed above her, dark wings spanning distances too great for the grotto enclosing them, razor-sharp talons sparking with the spitting blue fire of a strange power.

“No, please, no,” she whispered.

How had it come to this? Her day had started so ordinarily, getting breakfast for herself and her sister, because Mama could not. She cast her thoughts desperately back to the morning. I’m there. Not here. I’m there.

 

Something wondrous this way comes!
Amazon I B&N I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords

For more about the stories behind my stories, see:
Dreaming the Star-drake
Writing Sarvet
Behind Troll-magic

For more about Perilous Chance:
Justice in Auberon
Clary’s Cottage
Not Monday, But Lundy
Cover Creation: Perilous Chance

 

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Cover Copy Primer

cover copy for Troll-magicI’m a writer, but I’m also a reader. I’m going to don my reader cap for a moment.

How do I choose my reading material?

When I’m lucky, a friend recommends something that’s right, but my voracity has exhausted most of my friends’ reading lists. (Grin!) More often, I must browse the shelf of new books at the library, check what my favorite authors are reading (because I’ve read all their stories), or fish among Amazon’s recommendations (which are still very hit-or-miss for me).

All these methods, however, eventually confront me face-to-face with a book cover (I’ve blogged about cover design here) and cover copy. Sometimes cover copy might more properly be called web copy, but it’s the same stuff. That cover copy – even on the tail of a friend’s recommendation – must get me to either buy the book outright or flip to the first page of the story. (Which must then make the sale, but story openings are another blog post!)

How does the cover copy do its job? It has an underlying structure. Let’s examine it.

To do so, I’ll doff my reader beret and put my writer fedora back on. How do I write cover copy that lets my readers know this is the story for them?

It isn’t easy. Marketing folk spend years in school learning this skill. But, as an indie publisher, I must manage somehow. The better I communicate the essence of my story, the more of my fans and potential fans will realize they want to read it.

Several months ago I blogged about the two most essential elements of cover copy: theme (not plot) and active verbs. If you missed that post, you’ll find it here. But what about the nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts of writing such copy? Theme and active verbs are necessary, but not sufficient for the job. What about the rest?

At the same workshop where I learned to aim for the story’s heart and to avoid all forms of the verb to be, I also learned six questions to ask myself before I sat down to create cover copy. Read on!

What is the theme of the story, and what are the repercussions of this central idea?
This is the big reason a reader wants to read! Is the story about star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, catching a dream, or what? Spell it out, but don’t descend into your plot. Stay with the big ideas; avoid the finicky details.

Who is the story about?
Readers are people, and people relate to people. Even if your setting is as spectacular as Niven’s Ringworld or your plot as dazzling as Willis’ time travel stories, it is your protagonist who will lead your reader into and through the magic of your creation. If your story has multiple points of view, pick the character who will best snag your reader’s interest.

What is the initial conflict?
Again, do not list plot details. What is the heart or essence of this conflict? Focusing on theme helps you avoid spoilers. You want to give a sense of the story without revealing elements best encountered within it.

Where is the story set?
Ground the reader somewhere. In Chicago’s loop, Virginia’s Blue Ridge, or the troll-infested North-lands. (Grin!) Imagine your reader as a helium balloon: tie his or her string to something. One word might be enough. Other stories will require a phrase or an entire sentence.

What is your tag line?
Developing tag lines probably deserves its own blog post! You’ll need a tag line for your cover copy, and it should possess zip or else drench your reader in evocative images. It usually appears at the end of the cover copy, but sometimes works better at the beginning. Either is fine. When I’m developing a tag line, I try to express the essence of the story as concisely as possible and then pair it with its opposite. I’ll give examples below.

What is the hook?
A hook provokes tension in the reader; it’s often a question. Such as: how can he convince her, when she won’t even talk to him? Will her gift for improv poetry be enough to catch the god’s eye? Can he run fast enough, leap high enough, drink deep enough to surmount the walls of Olympus?

I follow this outline each time I must write copy for an upcoming release. Occasionally I become fired with inspiration after tackling just a few questions and dive in. More often I need four or five answers complete before I start wrestling. Cover copy remains a challenging arena for me! It doesn’t come naturally. I trust continued practice will help!

With that caveat (you’ll want to better my performance), I’ll lead you through my exact progression of thought as I wrote cover copy for four of my stories. I need concrete examples myself, so I’m providing them for you.

 

cover image for Troll-magicWhat are the themes in Troll-magic?
Dreaming big dreams. Looking beyond your origins. Stretching for more, even when you don’t know quite what more is.

Who is the story about?
Lorelin, a seventeen-year-old growing up in rural Silmaren.

What is the initial conflict?
Lorelin’s family wants her to settle down and commit to life on the family farm. Lorelin wants more, but she’s not sure how to do something different from what her parents have done.

Where does the story take place?
The primary location is Silmaren, the cool northern country where Lorelin lives and where Kellor is imprisoned. The story visits other locations in the North-lands, but only for short periods of time.

Tag line?
Lorelin has dreams – dreams of playing her flute every day, dreams of a larger life. Mandine, the antagonist, is a nightmare come true.

nightmare versus dream
Fighting against a nightmare
Fighting for a dream

Fighting against a nightmare pales beside fighting for a dream.

Hook?
Lorelin doesn’t know what to do, because she can’t see clearly. Her friends and family cannot help her, because they don’t know how either. Her father actively undermines her. And once she’s in the palace, everything goes wrong. It seems there’s no hope left.

Cover Copy

Fighting against a nightmare pales beside fighting for a dream.

An accursed prince and her own longing for music challenge Lorelin to do both.

But tradition and a hidden foe stand squarely in her way.

How do you make dreams come true when vision fails, allies undermine you, and all roads toward hope twist awry?

Can courage, honor, and loyalty prevail against a troll-witch’s potent curse?

Set within her enchanted North-lands, J.M. Ney-Grimm’s new take on an old Norse folk tale pits distorted malice against inner wisdom and grit.

 
 

The Troll's BeltTheme for The Troll’s Belt?
Avoiding full responsibility for yourself by avoiding self-honesty.

Who?
Young Brys Arnson, a 12-year-old, who lives with his father. (His aunt and uncle, right next door, help out.)

Conflict?
Brys means well, but he’s taking short cuts. The result of his dishonesty and skimming out of chores: he gets grounded. When grounded, he cheats again and becomes inadvertent bait for a troll.

 
 
 

Setting?
A lumber-focused hamlet in the frontier lands west of settled Silmaren, where the pine forests and chains of lakes go on forever.

Tag line?
cheat – cheater
trick – trickster – trickery
devour
honesty

Inspiring example from Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones: A new witch learns old magic. Tension of opposites: new/old

Ryndal pretends to be friendly. Brys pretends to be trustworthy and responsible. Brys pretends to be strong after he finds the belt.

One pretense too many
When strength is one pretense too many [problem: is]
When stolen strength is one pretense too many [there it is again: is!]

borrowed belt, stolen strength

When wriggling out wriggles you into a heap of trouble.
When a greater cheater traps a lesser, there is no wiggle room.
Wriggling out wriggles Brys into a whole heap of trouble.
Wriggling out – from chores, from losing, from consequences
Wriggling out means wriggling in – to consequences.

Some mistakes are water under the bridge. Other mistakes
A short cut becomes the long way home. [There’s that pesky verb to be.]
A troll and his hunger turn a short cut long.
Short cuts + mistake + one troll = trouble
Short cuts, pretense, and wriggling out yields . . . trouble.

Childish deceit sprouts grownup trouble.
Minor deceit sprouts major trouble.

Young deceit sprouts timeless trouble.

Cover Copy

Motherless Brys Arnson digs himself into trouble. Bad trouble.

Grounded for sneaking and sassing, he makes bad worse.

Now he must dig for courage and honesty to deliver himself and his best friend from his mortal mistake.

Tricked by a troll in J.M. Ney-Grimm’s richly imagined North-lands, Brys must dig himself and his best friend back out of danger. But that requires courage . . . and self-honesty. Traits Brys lacks at depth.

A twist on a classic, The Troll’s Belt builds from humor-threaded conflict to white-knuckle suspense.

 

Cover image for Livli's GiftTheme for Livli’s Gift?
How to manage cultural change.

Who?
Livli, a young healer in the Hammarleeding spa.

Conflict?
Thoivra wants less contact with the Hammarleeding men and fewer visits between the sister-lodges and brother-lodges. Livli wants exactly the opposite.

Setting?
The Hammarleeding culture in the Fiordhammar mountains of Silmaren. Specifically, Kaunis-lodge, a sister-lodge that is special due to its healing hot spring.

Tag line?
Sometimes letting go spells defeat – sometimes it harnesses power.
Can letting go harness power? Or does it spell defeat?
Does letting go spell defeat? Or does might it harness power?
Does surrender spell defeat? Or might could letting go harness elemental real power?

Must surrender spell defeat? Or could letting go harness real power?

Hook?
Working toward what she wants, could Livli lose everything instead? While Livli pushes forward, one influential sister pushes back.

Livli, being a pioneer in the healing arts, wants change elsewhere as well, in all of living. But her desired change is too big, too much, too fast for her sisters.

Cover Copy

Livli heals the difficult chronic challenging injuries among patients of pilgrims to Kaunis-spa. Its magical spring gives her an edge, but Livli wields a possesses a special gift achieves results that others cannot achieves spectacular cures mainly because she refuses to fail.

A pioneer, she hopes to match new ways of living to her new ways of banishing illness her new ways of banishing hurt with new ways of living.

But her the sisters of Kaunis-lodge fear rapid change. While Livli pushes the new, one influential sister pushes the old. What precious things might they lose while tossing old inconveniences?

Livli pushes forward the new, and one influential foe pushes back. Kaunis-home will keep its revered traditions, even if Livli loses almost everything.

Everything . . . and the one thing she absolutely cannot lose.

Livli seeks an answer in the oldest lore of her people, something so old, it’s new. But mere resolve against failure meets an immovable counterforce this time. Victory requires more.

Must surrender spell defeat? Or could letting go harness real power?

 

Cover image for Star-drakeTheme for Star-drake?
Rebirth and redemption.

Who?
Gefnen, a troll-herald for a greater troll-lord, Koschey the Deathless.
Emrys, brother to the king of a small island realm.

Conflict?
Gefnen is hunting the life force of a youngster to feed his master, who requires it to hold death at bay. The boy at risk is defended by his friends.

Setting?
The wild moors west of Silmaren (in the North-lands).

 

Tag line?
redemption – victory – loss

What will victory look like? And to whom will it come?
When does victory mirror loss?
Gefnen hunts victory, but a different victory – redemption? – hunts him.

Gefnen seems to be winning until the star-drake seizes him. Then he seems to be losing. Ultimately he is reborn, and his deep descent into evil will permit him to offer redemption to others. He will know, because he has been there.

possess – hold – mirror – own

Victory mirrors loss until
Boy versus troll versus redemption’s champion.
The stars foretell victory – the night behind them brings something else.
Hunting victory, accepting something else.

Gefnen hunts victory, but victory hunts him.
When victory arrives
Gefnen hunts victory, but a different victory hunts him.

Gefnen hunts victory, but a darker victory hunts him.

First Draft

Gefnen is hunting [pesky to be] hunts life.

Not deer, not pheasant, not game [reserve for later] meat for the table. His master eats choicer fruits.

When the piercing scent of youthful life exuberance tingles in his troll deformed twisted senses, Gefnen tracks focuses the his chase. The boy His prey lacks guardians strong enough to best a troll.

But Gefnen But other seekers than Gefnen tilt the chances in this game. The spirit of the storm, the poignant memories of a seolh-prince, and the vast powers of an ancient star-drake define the shaping looming conflict.

What will victory look like? And to whom will it come?

[You’ll note I have a decided and unfortunate tendency to gild the lily. Luckily I wield a red pen with enthusiasm.]

Cover Copy

Gefnen – troll-herald and hound for Koschey the Deathless – hunts life across the moors of the far north.

Not deer, not pheasant, not meat for the table. His master eats choicer fruits.

When the piercing scent of youthful exuberance youth tingles his senses, Gefnen focuses his chase. This The prey – a boy – lacks guardians strong enough to best a troll. Gefnen readies for Swift victory [reserve for later] triumph awaits.

But other seekers tilt the chances of this game. Spirit of storm, poignant memories of a sea-prince, and something more ancient than memory or the wind shape the looming tumult.

Gefnen hunts victory, but a darker victory hunts him.

* * *

Are you a reader? Have you ever chosen a read purely because of its cover copy? What book was it? I’d love to read it myself and learn.

Are you an indie author? What methods do you use to generate effective cover copy? I’d love to learn anything you’d care to share!

For more discussion of cover copy, see my earlier post – Eyes Glaze Over? Never! – on the subject.

 

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Eyes Glaze Over? Never!

I love it when one of my favorite authors releases a new book. The instant a title by Robin McKinley or Lois McMaster Bujold hits the shelves, I′m there with my wallet open!

But how do I choose a book when McKinley and Bujold are between releases? Usually the process goes like this. I′m browsing – at the library or online – and I′m looking at book covers. My reactions vary. Sometimes I say eeuw! Other times: huh. And often: oh! nice!

Cover designers know what they′re doing these days. I see a lot of attractive covers. Covers which prompt me to go to the next step: reading the cover copy. There the results are more mixed. Lots of ick! More of huh? Or huh. Very few oh, interesting! Only my interesting! responses send me inside the front cover to the first page. By then, depending on how the whole progression felt, I′m thinking either m-a-y-b-e or this is good!

The opening paragraphs then grab me. Or they don′t! If I abruptly find myself seven pages in, it′s a keeper!

That′s my experience as a reader. As a writer and publisher, my own reading experience catches my attention from a different angle.

How do I create covers and cover copy that will accurately and attractively signal the contents of my stories? That will connect the right readers – the ones with a taste for my work – to what′s inside the books?

Hoping to answer those questions more skillfully, I took two workshops this summer. I′d like to show you the results from the first one.

I knew going in that I didn′t understand how to write cover copy, but I didn′t realize just how clueless I truly was. (Utterly clueless!)

Writing superb cover copy is a skill that takes years to master, but there are two fundamental rules underlying the niceties:

use active verbs
(avoid all forms of to be)

convey the essence of the story
(do not describe the plot: what happens next and what happens after that)

The first of these two basics felt natural. As long as I paid attention, choosing verbs that added energy was fun.

The second basic . . . oh my! I continually descend into plot – the series of linked events – in my attempts to describe its essence.

″Pull up! Pull up!″ exhorted my teacher. Eventually I did get it. In fact, my teacher pronounced my class exceptional, because everyone got it! (Usually a few straggling students struggle.) But I discovered that the more useful instruction for me is: dive down! Go deeper! Go below the plot to theme.

So, is my cover copy better? I think so. But I′ll let you be the judge. Here′s a batch of BEFORE′s and AFTER′s. What do you think?

 

Rainbow′s Lodestone

BEFORE

She leapt across the sky in the wake of a thunderstorm, glorying in the energy of wind and lightning, exulting in the rush of the earth beneath. Her rainbow splashed amidst mountains, and she slid down the curve of light.″

The rainbow’s child was eager to enjoy the delights of earth, but this visit to the realm below the sky might be her last. Gefnen, a cruel troll-herald, would see to it.

portrait of the rainbow (web size)AND AFTER

A lost birthright and unending agony.

On a whim, the rainbow’s child falls to earth, where a cruel adversary takes advantage of her innocence.

Can she reclaim her thunder-swept heavens? Must she dwindle and die?

This transcendent short story of J.M. Ney-Grimm’s troll-ridden North-lands explores how inner freedom creates outer opportunities.

Earth trumps heaven until ancient music plays.

 

The Troll′s Belt

BEFORE

The stranger was short, but he wasn’t a boy . . . hair grizzled gray in a wild mane around his face, beard equally wild, but thin. His voice sounded genial, almost friendly, but his pale, watery eyes held a mad glitter. Was he a troll?″

Grounded for sneaking and sassing, Brys finds a magical belt in the woods. But his good luck is about to turn bad. Trolls never mean well: this one pursues a grudge.

web imageAND AFTER

Young Brys Arnsson digs himself into trouble.

Bad trouble.

Tricked by a troll in J.M. Ney-Grimm’s richly imagined North-lands, Brys must dig himself and his best friend back out of danger. But that requires courage . . . and self-honesty. Traits Brys lacks at depth.

A twist on a classic, The Troll’s Belt builds from humor-threaded conflict to white-knuckle suspense.

 

Sarvet′s Wanderyar

BEFORE

Sarvet is lame, and her culture keeps girls close to home. Worse, her mother emphasizes all the things that Sarvet can’t do. But Sarvet dreams of traveling outside her small, mountain enclave to explore the big world with all its strangeness and wonder. How can she transcend her injured leg, her confining lodge-home, and her over-protective mother?

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie wandering the mountainsAND AFTER

Running away leads straight back home – or does it?

Sarvet walks with a grinding limp, and her mountain culture keeps girls close to home. Worse, her mother emphasizes all the things Sarvet can’t do. How do you escape, when you hold none of the resources you need?

Sometimes big dreams and inner certainty transform impossible barricades into a way out. J.M. Ney-Grimm’s inspiring fantasy novella explores this cusp of miracle.

 

Troll-magic

BEFORE

In short, she was the friend from his childhood . . . and yet not his old friend: taller, hints of curves. Why had he never noticed she was beautiful before? All his planned introductions slipped away.”

Kellor’s a prince in trouble. Lorelin’s a musician trapped by bucolic traditions. Both must defy a troll-witch’s curse while navigating a maze of hidden secrets.

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie aback a north-bearAND AFTER

Fighting against a nightmare pales beside fighting for a dream.

An accursed prince and her own longing for music challenge Lorelin to do both.

But tradition and a hidden foe stand squarely in her way. How do you make dreams real when vision fails, allies undermine you, and all roads toward hope twist awry?

Can courage, honor, and loyalty prevail against a troll-witch’s potent curse?

Set within her enchanted North-lands, J.M. Ney-Grimm’s new take on an old Norse folk tale pits distorted malice against inner wisdom and grit.

 

Better? What′s your vote?

 

For further discussion of cover copy, see my later post – Cover Copy Primer – on the subject.

 

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The Writing of the Belt

The Troll's BeltI had no idea I’d be retelling a renowned folk tale. All I had was the really vivid mind-picture of a wide leather belt, dyed brilliant blue and studded with golden metallic stars, nestling in the reindeer moss of a pine forest. That and the knowledge that a boy would find it.

So, how did I build my story? I almost always start with questions. Who is this boy? Oh, he lives with his father, but there seems to be no mother on the scene, and I have the sense that she’s been absent since he was a baby. Okay. Then how did his father manage? Ah . . . his brother’s wife took care of the boy when he was really little. The two brothers, when they were very young men, purchased a timber claim from Silmaren’s Queen Anora.

My notes show that I digress into examining the nature of the timber claims and fishing claims offered by the crown at this point in the realm’s history. Then I pull myself back to the boy and sketch out a quick account of his childhood. Next my thoughts leap to the skeleton of my story’s plot: the boy finds the belt, he gets in trouble with it, and he only achieves some wisdom in the course of overcoming his trouble.

Hmm. This is the North-lands. If there’s trouble, then of course there’s a troll involved. Surely the belt belongs to this troll. And . . . suddenly, I just know that the troll lives in a rustic cot hollowed from a massive glacial rock.

Naturally, the boy encounters the troll, who wants his belt back. And, oh my, he wants the boy for dinner. Oh! I’m telling Hansel and Gretel. Cool! I think I like it.

copy of actual manuscript notes for The Troll's BeltSo the boy is imprisoned and that mad old troll is going to devour him. Then the boy’s cousin arrives on the scene, and things get even more complicated. Now I need some names. I can’t just keep saying: “the boy” and “the boy’s father” and “the wood-town.” What all do I need? Boy, cousin, father, uncle, aunt, town, troll. This time, for this story, the names just fly into my head without much searching for inspiration.

Then I realize I need to know what the town of Glinhult looks like. At first I think everyone lives in tree houses, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Ah! The older houses are indeed tree houses, remnants from the time when the lumberjacks needed a cheap way to raise their homes off the ground for safety’s sake. Packs of wolves and other predators roam these parts, the wilds of west-lying Gosstrand. Once the work on the timber claim was more advanced and everyone had more money, they could afford to build the more convenient stilt-homes.

So what did Brys’ home look like? I draw a quick floor plan. And make some notes about its idiosyncrasies: the straight door at the bottom of the stairs and the trap at its top. Then I think about what Brys and Jol look like: Brys with shoulder-length red hair; gangly; shorter than his cousin; Jol a bit larger and with long, curly, dark hair pulled back in a horsetail. What chores do the boys do? Suddenly I know that Brys and his father Arn will have an argument about chores. And the specifics of the plot unfold in my mind. I’m there. Time to start writing. On October 20, I begin: “Brys slammed the door behind him and stomped across his room in fury.”

Copy of handwritten list of scenes for storyEach day thereafter I write another installment of the story. Sometimes the scene is so clear, it pours out of my pen (yes, I was writing longhand, ink onto paper) like an enchanted spring welling from sacred ground. Other times I make notes or mini outlines in my margins to get my inner storyteller going: “skip to meeting Jol who is impressed with his daring, but also pretends to object to the tunic borrowing;” or “clasp belt, sudden urgency as body joins mind, leap up, know just what to do.”

On November 4, I write the final words: “’Huh, yourself!’ And Brys aimed a friendly punch at his cousin’s ribs.”

I’d done it! Written the story I would use to test the intricacies of uploading computer files to electronic bookstores. Best to encounter all the error messages and to search for fixes on a short piece of fiction, not a novel!

Of course, I was not finished. I sent the story off to my first reader, who quite liked it. I would work on the cover while she was reading. Then I must make corrections and put the whole package together. Yes, there was work to do. But that moment of triumph at the close of the first draft was special.

Just in case The Troll’s Belt has suddenly catapulted itself onto your must-read list (grin!), here are the links:

Amazon.com I B&N I Diesel I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Sony

For more about the stories behind my stories, see:
Writing Sarvet
Notes on Chance
Dreaming the Star-drake

 

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Writer’s Journey

The first and worst mistake I made was accepting the status quo. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t question it. I didn’t analyze it. I didn’t seek any accounts by others describing their experiences and solutions.

It? Writer’s block.

My choice of profession was second best from the beginning. The people I revered most were writers. The magic of their creations transported me to strange, exotic worlds. Their storied heroines and heros made me laugh and cry. Their fictional delving made me connect ideas I never would have without reading their work.

If I could have chosen to be anything at all in the whole wide world, I would have been a maker and teller of stories.

But, a storyteller? A writer? You had to be someone amazing to do that: a champion, a wizard, a god. I was mere mortal. I could never climb so high.
I’d better find something more practical.

Not that interior design was exactly practical. But I loved it, and I could do it. My high school counselor suggested I aim a little “higher” than that and pointed me toward architecture. Since beauty of all kinds thrilled me, architecture seemed a reasonable aspiration. I signed up for mechanical drafting class, then architectural drafting, and eventually set off for architecture school in college. Learning about architecture was fascinating, and I did have a flair for design. But I can’t say I ever displayed the flashes of genius I spotted in a few of my classmates.

Once, during an idle moment in my third year at the University of Virginia, I was assailed by the image of a witch-queen driving a flying sleigh across the sky, glorying in the rush of the quilted countryside below her. (Readers of Troll-magic, do you recognize a certain troll-queen?) The vision was so compelling, I wrote it down. Once the first paragraph was on paper, I wanted to take things further, but I didn’t know how. If there were a story to be told . . . I’d know it, wouldn’t I? And nothing came to mind.

I was getting an apprenticeship in my heart’s chosen vocation, although I didn’t know it. My best friend said: “There’s this game. I saw an ad for it. Will you play it with me?”

What? Of course I’d play a board game with her. Why did she have to make such a big deal of asking?

I found out why. It was Dungeons & Dragons she was talking about. And “playing it” was an ongoing experience that took as many hours as you cared to give it: an afternoon, then the evening, a month of weekends, a year. Wow! I could participate in creating stories even if I couldn’t write them. I took to role playing adventure games like the proverbial fish to water. And rapidly seized on the post of “dungeon master,” the one who crafted the larger story which served as a backdrop for the personal stories of the “players.”

RPG gaming in high school naturally led to RPG gaming in college. And RPG gaming in college naturally led to . . . a job in a small game company after graduation! I was hired to draw maps and floor plans for the published games. (Guess that architecture degree was good for something after all!) And I learned paste-up: the physical process by which words and maps and illustrations were transformed – before the days of desktop publishing – into the pages of a printed book.

Quickly there were opportunities for writing. Of course, I was not a writer, but these were such small snippets that I could manage. And the managing was incredibly fun! I wrote about unicorns and minotaurs and naiads for a tome called Creatures & Treasures. I wrote a mini adventure for the magazine The Adventurers Club and then another and a third. I’d already begun an opus at home on my own time. It was a story of demons and imprisonment and the inner work required for true freedom. Did I know that it was about the writer’s soul imprisoned within me? No, I didn’t, but I worked on the piece for ten years, writing sometimes just a sentence or three in a day, then letting it lie for months.

I continued to be offered practice in my day job. I wrote the character tales at the beginning of the Narnia Solo Games. I edited Middle-earth modules and contributed to them. Then my biggest chance arrived: I wrote ‘Dawn Comes Early’ (and some introductory text) for the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. Wow! I was flying. This was what I was meant to do! And I could do it. I remember learning after it was released that all the designers at a rival game company were playing LORAG in their free time. Wow! My story!

I finished the home-created oeuvre of demons and freedom, and offered it to my employers. They liked it; published it. (Gethaena.) Maybe I was a writer after all. But not a “real” one. I wrote role playing modules, not “real” stories.

The judgement was overly harsh, but it held a grain of truth. The stories in an RPG module are real stories. But they aren’t entirely fleshed out until someone “plays” them. The writing contains the full beginning, middle, and end; but the story lives in the role playing. The writing is the birth, but not the living. I longed for a more complete experience.

So, what about it? Could I write real stories? I’d never really attempted it. Maybe I should try. Eventually I did. I sat down at my desk with pen and paper and dove into the story of Jaen Rougepied and the adventure that led to her martyrdom and canonization. I got three pages in and . . . stuck. I didn’t know what happened next. Huh. Maybe I wasn’t a writer after all. But I sure wished I were.

I tried again. This time I tried outlining the story of the lassie who let loose the stars and the moon and the sun. Years before, I’d written two paragraphs of her story and . . . stuck. Maybe an outline would get me further. It did. I completed the entire outline, but it was dead. And bore no resemblance at all to the living story I could still feel pulsing within me. I would have cried, if tears came easily to me. But they don’t, and I didn’t.

I now knew my calling, and I was not fit to pursue it. I felt leaden . . . stuck! I brainstormed other vocational possibilities. Graphic design drew me, but it was just an entertainment, no true expression for my heart’s song.

Then, one day I stumbled upon a book on my bookshelves. It had been sitting there unread . . . how long? I don’t really know. But the title caught my eye as I boxed up the rest of the books on that shelf. I set it aside . . . and read it: The Artist’s Way. I followed the author’s instructions, actually did the exercises. And felt something
. . . freedom? . . . stirring inside. Then I dared to dream, really dream. I was an artist, for good and true. If I could chose anything at all in the world, what art would be mine?

Writing. Of course, writing. But how? I was a writer, but I was still a blocked writer. How could I free the stories inside me? They were hiding, and I could not see them.

In the bibliography of The Artist’s Way was listed another book: Becoming a Writer. I didn’t know it was the book. But it was among five I chose (from the multitude included) to check out from the library. I read Becoming a Writer, and at a certain page a light bulb flashed on in my mind.

A light bulb? No, a blazing firework, a thundering volcano, a flaring supernova. Oh. My. I never knew; I never knew. It seemed so simple, but I’d not managed to discover it myself. I needed to be told. This was the key to the iron gate that locked my stories in darkness beyond my reach. Dorothea Brande (the author) said: meditate on your story, really think it over; ponder your characters; immerse your mind in their world. Then, take a walk, or whatever. Let things settle. And a day or two or three later, sit down and write.

I’d tried sitting down to a blank page and surprising myself. This generated great beginnings, but nothing beyond them. I’d tried writing a long outline. That produced a long outline utterly divorced from the hidden story singing in my soul. When neither method worked, I concluded I wasn’t a writer. Not a “real” one.

But how was I writing all those role playing books? Ah. I was meditating (and writing) about a cavern-realm with a brassy hot sky. I was pondering a demon with long, curling, black hair who dreamed of passion and destroyed it with power. I immersed myself in the impossible imprisonment experienced by six souls born into ridiculous limitation. Gethaena was the result.

The process natural to writing a role playing module just happened to be the process I needed for writing a story. Oh. My.

I dove in almost at once, pondering a prince who awoke in darkness, trapped in a monstrous form. In imagination, I walked the cavern-palace where he dwelt. I toured the cool, forested land spreading away from his gates. This was Troll-magic, and my inner writer was loosed at last. It was November of 2007. I was 47. I could now begin becoming the writer I’d always wanted to be. I’d been freed; I’d been reborn. Welcome to the world.

For more memoir, see:
Waterfall and Fairy Tale
Visitor’s Surprise

For more about my writing experiences, see:
The Writing of the Belt
Dreaming the Star-drake
Behind Troll-magic

 

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