Category Archives: Behind the Keyboard

Anxiety vs. Creativity

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Over the holidays, I read I Am Brian Wilson, the erstwhile Beach Boy’s second memoir (after the first, written under the heavy influence of his therapist/Svengali Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson eventually disowned).  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for anyone looking for a deep insight into his process or a comprehensive behind the scenes chronicle of the Beach Boys’ history; it is very much the fragmented, personal recollections of a man looking back through a peripatetic lens from a lifetime’s distance.  To my generation, Wilson is known largely as the subject of a Barenaked Ladies song, and as the Beach Boys’ records fade from airplay on all but the stubborn classic rock stations, he is remembered at a glance more for his struggles with mental illness than his musical contributions.  To his credit Wilson does not shy away from describing the impact of his illness in his book and what has allowed him to manage it.  It is sad that even in 2017 mental illness remains dogged by stigma; one can only imagine with horror what it was like to endure it under the celebrity spotlight in the era where it was still acceptable to call such individuals crazy and fling them into asylums tended by Nurse Ratched types.

In one passage, Wilson talks rather nonchalantly about seeing a report on television about a link between anxiety and creativity, identifying that the very same part of the brain which can cause us to worry incessantly about things that may never happen is what also allows us to conceive of worlds that never were.  Maybe I’d always instinctively known that, given how many creative types throughout history have experienced some form of mental illness (or have even been described as merely having extremely difficult personalities), but I’d never read it put so simply and directly.  It led me to reflect on my own experiences with anxiety over the years, and to think about how the two forces are linked far beyond the daily battles that may be waged in one particular individual’s brain.

My anxiety would not be termed crippling by any means, as it has never been so debilitating that it has kept me from getting out of bed or functioning as a capable adult, not once.  But there was a time when it kept me fairly isolated from the world, where family and existing friends were ignored and the thought of initiating new relationships was as appealing as the proverbial root canal.  On many consecutive nights alone with West Wing DVD’s playing on a loop in the background, disappearing into the fictional worlds I was creating was the only way I could calm a turbulent stomach and silence the mantra repeating in my head about how I was bound to fail at everything lying out there in wait beyond the door of my one-bedroom apartment.  When fingers touched keyboard, those stresses vanished, and while I was in the process of creating, they were kept far at bay, locked in an impenetrable adamantium cage.

As soon as I hit save and close and stepped away, however, the anxiety roared back – questions of what now, assurances that no one would ever like this, that I’d never find a way to support myself with it, and that it was all a colossal waste of time.  I could never talk about what I was working on either, as my fear of the hated “oh, that’s nice” response or that people would think I was weird or simply wouldn’t get it made it easier to gloss that part of me over or pretend it didn’t exist.  So writing became more and more of a narcotic, as I shunned the outside in favor of the blinking cursor, but a significant part of me still wanted that outside, even as much as I feared entering it or didn’t seem to be able to function very well while navigating it.  I wanted to be as confident in interacting with real human beings as I seemed to be proficient in writing fictional dialogue, and I could never quite understand why the two did not complement one another.  Whatever the case, it was not a recipe for happiness.

Even years removed from those lonely nights, when I am now married, a parent, a homeowner and gainfully, stably employed, the anxiety lingers, reminding me how much of a failure I am each day – even though an objective observer would confidently argue the reverse.  With dogged determination, anxiety has crept into the previously impenetrable sanctuary of the creative process as well, leaching away what used to be the most reliable source of my confidence.  If I were somehow able to plug into my thoughts as I write this post, here is what they would be saying:  who are you kidding, this is pure shit.  This makes no sense, this is self-indulgent and pretentious, the writing is godawful, high school caliber, and hell, even high schoolers can write better than you.  It takes you hours what some of your peers can toss off effortlessly in fifteen minutes, and you might as well just delete this post because nobody’s going to read it, let alone like it anyway.  You should give up and get on with your life and leave this field to people who know what they’re doing and actually have people listening to them.  No one cares.  NO ONE CARES.  (Repeat to fade.)

I thought that eventually this would go away as I wrote more and published wider, but it’s gotten worse, to the point where literally dozens of posts have been strangled in the cradle, never seeing the light of day, because the voice of negativity has been too strong to overcome – expanding from mere inadequacy about one’s capabilities to sheer terror that some pissed off Trump-worshiping Internet troll is going to go to town on them.  But if anxiety and creativity are the same part of the brain, then it stands to reason that an increase in one would be directly proportional to an increase in the other.  As ideas spring and percolate and yearn to take shape, so too does the counterforce in equal measure, belittling and slapping those ideas down; apathy rears its slouching head to nip persistently at the heels of effort.  This doesn’t do any favors to goals of becoming more productive and prolific, but it would seem that you have to accept this rather Faustian trade in order to get on with things, and the less time spent bemoaning it, the better.

Towards the end of his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry ruminates about the possibility of trading away his manic phases to the benefit of owning a more stable emotional state of being, and he offers bluntly, “I need my mania.”  It is a rather potent question to be asked even of those of us who don’t veer to those sorts of extremes:  would we give up our creativity to live without our anxiety and much more confidently, in order to be that guy who can walk into the room and charm the pants off everyone he meets, who always knows exactly what to say in every single situation, who never has the slightest doubt about who he is or what to do next, who never worries about what tomorrow might bring?  If you’re a writer, a painter, a musician or anyone who finds their passion in any creative works – whether it’s a casual hobby or how you put food on the table, could you answer with a yes?  I suspect that for many, there are days that you might, when it all seems to be folding in on you, when the abrupt ring of the telephone is a blade filleting every last nerve into shreds of spaghetti and you can’t fathom how you’re going to make it till tomorrow.  Yet in the calmer moments, you can look back at the impressive body of work that you’ve amassed and shake your head and say of course not, are you kidding me?  It is a lingering question with as many layers of duality as the integration of the two states themselves.

Even after reading his memoir I don’t know if Brian Wilson could definitively say one way or another, if he would have preferred a quiet, certain life over the chance to gift the world with “God Only Knows.”  But there might be a serenity to be found in learning (eventually) to accept that, in the words of Frank Sinatra, you can’t have one without the other – that the pitiless snarls of the beast salivating for your failure are mere fuel for the imagination that will ensure your success.

When you figure out how, let me know.

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A Recipe for Making Sausages

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That title probably sounds a little too innuendo-ish for your liking (and even now I’m regretting the potential algorithmic implications), but rest assured that the discussion to follow is SFW to the highest degree.  Having recently completed a long work (Vintage) and looking back on it now from the safe perch of a few months’ distance, I feel the time appropriate to offer a few reflections on the process of the thing.  Perhaps it’s for posterity’s sake; when I’m looking back through cataracts from thirty years further on and my brain has become addled with age and lost memories, I might find it enlightening – or possibly embarrassing, who knows, really.

Back in “the day,” long before Internet and the age of instant gratification for even the slightest itch, there would usually be a healthy distance between the author and the work – you could receive and evaluate the story on its merits alone without getting overly bogged down by the storyteller’s intentions and inspirations.  You might see a cryptic print interview here and there providing hints, but the author would usually remain an enigma with the work forced to its betterment to stand on its own.  But that’s not the case now, with the world’s glut of writers actively pushing their stories across social media while at the same time being more accessible than they ever have been before.  Work and creator are irrevocably intertwined and intent is as important as event.  I’m forced to wonder if this is healthy even as I find myself doing it as I read (current slog:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which halfway through is teetering precariously on the knife edge of pointless self-indulgence).  It might be better, truly, to let the work stand on its own.  At the same time, if learning about the “how” inspires a few more readers to check out the “what” – and tell a few more readers in turn – then maybe it’s worth the exercise.  So enough navel-gazing and let’s get on with the show, presented in the form of a hard-hitting self-interview.

What inspired you to write Vintage?

Simply put, I hated what I was doing.  I felt that I was stagnating as a writer.  I was not having any luck with the querying process and it was discouraging to accumulate rejection after rejection while witnessing what seemed like a perpetual stream of other people’s “I got an agent!” and “I got a book deal!” tweets pouring through my feed.   (You want to be happy for those folks but you still question what the hell you’re doing wrong that it’s not your turn yet.)  And I was finding it difficult to keep coming up with engaging topics for my blog – both subjects that I would enjoy writing about and those I felt would draw some new eyeballs my way.  I felt a compulsion to do something different, and fiction seemed to be a most logical outlet – where I would be creating an original story in which I could decide what happened and would not be restricted to commenting on events occurring around me.  There was a pretty good chance too that it might alienate some of my audience, but I don’t think you do yourself any favors by remaining predictable.  The best musicians are those who keep trying to do something different instead of always relying on what made them popular in the first place.

And then into my dreams one night popped this image:  a man half-frozen in the ice while a beautiful woman in a cloak looked down at him.  No context or anything, just this single image that stayed with me for a few days.  It seemed to be something that a story could wrap itself around.  Turned out it was, as details began to fall in place around it – the notion of a man who thinks he’s powerful in his own right but finds himself completely beguiled by a woman with a power he can’t duplicate or even fully understand.  I always want the stories I tell to have depth and meaning – to be about something – even if they seem on the surface to be a fairly airy, mindless romp.  Otherwise, it’s just a waste of words.  You have to be careful with this approach in that you don’t want to sledgehammer your reader with THE BIG LESSON.  I try instead to weave it in there so you don’t even notice that your assumptions are being challenged while you’re breezing along.  Whether I’m successful in that or not is for the reader to decide.

Was the story always intended to be what it turned out to be?

No, not at all.  As I alluded in a few of the chapter introductions I thought it was only going to be about four or five parts at most.  I began to worry a bit when the aforementioned image of the man in the ice didn’t turn up until Chapter Eight.  If I’d been more disciplined in my initial intent to do a short serial then I would have created a proper outline and written strictly to that.  But frankly I was just enjoying the creative exercise of writing away and finding out where the story went on its own.  This is the nature of the “pantser-vs.-plotter” debate that many writers have undergone, and it’s become abundantly clear to me through the Vintage process that I hate writing to outlines and that I’m much happier as a pantser.  I love discovering the story as I go and when I am writing to a predetermined end I find my words weaker and more forced and obvious.  Publishing one chapter at a time was an interesting challenge in itself as you had to pick up where you left off without the benefit of being able to go back and tweak things to get yourself out of jams.  You had to dance with the one that brung you, so to speak.  (I only retroactively changed one minor thing, and that was the location of the entrance to the secret storehouse beneath the Bureau Centrale headquarters, which was a pretty inconsequential detail but would have made for an awkward transition in the big finale.  So sue me.)

How did the story evolve in your mind?

I think the best way to articulate it would be to say it was like crafting a series of independent jigsaw pieces and then figuring out a way to fit them together.  I had this image of the man in the ice but I obviously had to get there, so with the understanding that the man was a witch hunter and the woman was his target, I started by writing a series of scenes that were – without sounding too pretentious – jazz riffs on other stories.  Etienne’s monologue where he figures out that the people of Montagnes-les-grands have been using magic to augment their wine took inspiration from Christoph Waltz’s long speeches in Inglourious Basterds.  The scene with Etienne in the casino is very obviously a riff on Casino Royale, and him getting his assignment from the Directeurs is the first fifteen minutes of Apocalypse Now, right down to the takeoff on the “terminate with extreme prejudice” line.  There’s an echo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Etienne’s solo flight from Le Taureau’s village.  As a writer I’m just playing, playing different notes, having fun, trying to get a feel for what works and where this is going, until I get that lightbulb moment and think “aha!  Okay, now I know what this story is about and where it should go.”  I think that is the reader’s experience as well.  You’re standing at the bottom of the hill trying to get your hands about the tow rope, and once you latch on, you’re off like a shot.  Going back and reading it from start to finish, all those disparate early scenes fit into the spine of the story very nicely, but in a way that was almost a happy accident.  It could have just as easily not worked out.

How did the characters change from how you originally conceptualized them?

I should tag this answer with SPOILERS in case you haven’t read Vintage yet.  The major difference was that Etienne was never intended to be redeemed.  He was going to be a bad guy to the bitter end and ultimately be done in by his own arrogance and hubris, hauled off in irons while Nightingale laughed in the shadows.  His parents were never going to be part of the equation.  But really, “bad guy comes to bad end” is not that interesting a story.  Watching a bad man have a revelation and then try to atone makes for – at least in my opinion – a more compelling experience.  My own philosophy – my liberalism, if you will, is that I want to believe that the worst of us is capable of being and doing better, that there is no such thing as absolute evil.  At the same time, there is no coming back from a lot of the stuff that Etienne has done in the past.  Yeah, he got screwed over, but the answer to that is not necessarily to screw over other people yourself.  He himself recognizes that he can’t be forgiven, and so that’s why his story ends the way it does, and really, as I wrote it, as much as I began to grow attached to the character, I knew it couldn’t end any other way.

I can admit that Nightingale is a cliche:  the beautiful, seductive witch who leads men astray with her mysterious powers (she’s drawn from the same cloth as Melisandre in Game of Thrones among many, many others.)  Fantasy is full of one-dimensional sexy sorceresses placed there to appeal to our more prurient interests, but that doesn’t mean that a sexy sorceress can’t have depth and intelligence and an allure that isn’t predicated on the skimpiness of her outfit in the cover art.  Take the cliche and tear it apart, twist it around, poke at it, stretch it, flip it inside out.  What would someone like that really be like?  What would move her heart and drive her actions?  The story is told from Etienne’s POV but I wanted Nightingale to transcend the cliche and be as complete a character as possible.  I also wanted to ensure that the relationship between her and Etienne was handled properly.  It did not seem to me that someone like her could ever truly fall in love with someone like him given his history – though they could connect on other levels, most certainly the physical one.  You’ll note she never tells him she loves him, not once, and even in the epilogue she is evasive about her true feelings.  Really, they are her business, and no one else’s.

Without giving too much away, I can say that there was not a single main character who did not end up in a radically different place from where they were originally scripted to be.  Le Taureau, for example, was a one-off obstacle I dropped in to separate Etienne from his group for a little while.  I had no idea when I first wrote him that he would eventually come back at all, let alone become an important ally for the good guys, nor that his colorful language would be such a distinguishing trait.  (As an aside, until I literally wrote the line “The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand,” I did not know I’d be bringing him back.)

How did you go about the worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is my nemesis.  It really is.  I’m much better at characters and dialogue (see the blog post entitled “I Suck at Description” for a more thorough read on this particular boggle).  I just want to get on with the plot, so to speak.  But I think with Vintage I took a big leap forward in this regard.  Starting out by deciding to set it in the same universe as the novel I was querying removed a big burden as I could just start writing with the same basic rules in place vis a vis who has magic and who doesn’t and what the general society looks like.  The home country in the novel is written in a very English idiom, and quite frankly English accents in fantasy stories are yet another cliche, so I thought it might be fun to flip that on its ear and do the whole thing with a French feel instead.  (It also let me drag out my underused French language skills.)  Placenames and character names were drawn from French baby name websites, usually mashing unrelated syllables together to keep the French feel while creating brand new, unfamiliar monikers.

From there it was a matter of filling in the blanks while remaining true to the overall “French-ness” (even though the story obviously doesn’t take place in France).  For the scene in the casino I wasn’t going to rip you out of the story by using a real life card game, so I just made one up.  Calerre is a port city and the origin and center of the country’s gambling industry so it stood to reason that the cards might have a nautical theme to them, hence ships, oceans and moons instead of spades, clubs and diamonds.  (Don’t ask me how to actually play route de perle though, I just made up enough of it to fit the scene.)  When Etienne meets the two sisters and the other Commissionaire in Charmanoix, there was no specific reason to putting the whole community on stilts over a river other than we were now in our fourth different town setting and I wanted it to have a much different feel than the others, otherwise you’d get bored (and so would I).  But out of that setting grew the chase across the bridges and the fight to the death on the burning rope, so it was a terrific exercise in seeing how even the most basic worldbuilding could inform the evolution of the characters and of the plot.  Obviously these folks who go on about worldbuilding are onto something.

Why didn’t you put Chapter Eighteen on your blog?

I went back and forth on that a dozen times.  Maybe that was off-putting to a few folks, I don’t know.  What it came down to was that I was going to write a pretty racy and descriptive (yet tasteful) sex scene and I just didn’t feel that belonged here with posts about being a dad, the Toronto Blue Jays, U.S. and Canadian politics and the lion’s share of the rest of my work.  If you’re tuning in to hear what I thought of The Force Awakens I’m guessing you probably won’t appreciate stumbling on titillating depictions of tangling naked flesh.  I certainly don’t make any apologies for writing the scene, I think it was a logical progression of the story, it accomplished what it set out to, and I’m not in any way embarrassed by it – it was crucial to me that it was passionate yet completely consensual, and I think it was.  Interestingly enough, if you skip from Seventeen to Nineteen you can still follow the narrative and just guess what has happened, so I don’t think making Eighteen a little harder to track down harms anything in the end.  And nobody complained, so there you have it.

What would you change if you could do it all again?

What’s that great line of Woody Allen’s:  “If I had my life to live over again, I would do everything exactly the same except I wouldn’t see The Magus.”  I’ve looked at Vintage a couple of times since finishing it and I haven’t really found anything that screams out at me as a major sore-thumb error.  I guess I would have liked to have gotten it done faster, but overall I’m pretty happy with it, and I’m glad I wrote it.  I think the exercise of it sharpened my description skills; I made more of a conscious point to delve into the other senses when depicting scenes, and the writing feels far less clunky to me.  I also like that it moves at a better and faster clip than the novel, coming in at a relatively lean (for the genre) 95,000 words.  I like the twists, especially given that most of them were totally unplanned.  Do I think it’s the most magnificent thing ever put to paper?  Umm, no, of course not.  What I do like most about it is that I think it represents a maturity in my ability to write and to create a story, and with it I’ve learned lessons that I’m eager to apply to the next one, whatever that may be about.  Maybe we might even see Nightingale again some day in some unexpected setting.  She does have a tendency to appear in a flash of white light whenever she feels like it.

Never say never, especially where magic is involved.

In either case, thanks for letting me ramble on here.  A reminder that Vintage is available in its entirety on Wattpad or here at the main site, with all the chapters helpfully indexed for you on their own dedicated page.  If you have any comments or questions about Vintage that I haven’t addressed here, feel free to so advise in the comments.  Thank you for your patience during my radio silence and I look forward to posting on a more regular schedule once again.  Speaking of which, man, does that Blue Jays bullpen need help…

In Conversation with… Emmie Mears!

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It’s my privilege today to welcome back for a chat the fan-dab-tabulous author Emmie Mears, whom you may recall (that is, if you don’t follow her and her works already, double-finger-wag shame on you) from our conversation last year about her then-impending debut superhero novel The Masked Songbird.  Her journey since then has been one fraught with as many sharp curves and unexpected drops as a theme park roller coaster.  Now that things are trending up, big time – think rollicking new novel, new agent and new epic fantasy on the horizon – she’s graciously agreed to return to talk about it, in inimitable Emmie style, and share a few hard-earned words of wisdom.  Hope y’all dig.

The last time we caught up with you, The Masked Songbird was about to make its debut.  Since then I guess it’s fair to say a heck of a lot has happened.  Can you fill us in?

Do you have three days and a significant number of Big Macs handy?

2014 was one of those years that made me wish I had an ejector seat. Or could be cryogenically frozen. Or could become a glittery vampire and frolic away into the tundra. Basically, within about three weeks, all four of the books I had under contract became orphans. Publishing has been undergoing many seismic shifts in the past decade, and with the acquisition of Harlequin by Harper Collins, my imprint got smushed in the plate tectonics. It’s not a hugely uncommon thing to happen, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend the day my book disappeared from Amazon under a pile of pizza and Buffy episodes. Also, my former agent (who was and remains wonderful) left the business, so I had to do the query trench thing again. Which was…interesting. I girded myself with my beast of an epic fantasy and waded back in, to a surprisingly cacophonous response. I’m still sort of bewildered by February.

Ultimately, I decided the best way forward with three urban fantasy novels in a market where most editors have severe urban fantasy fatigue (actual diagnosis) was to put them out myself. My wonderful former agent and friend is making the covers, and they rock. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far.

Through a combination of circumstances, Gwen was orphaned.  Now she’s making a comeback.  What’s changed from the first kick at the can with this book – what have you learned, and what, in retrospect, if anything, might you have done differently?

Hoo, doggies.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about this business is that there is no “the one.” There’s no One Book. There’s no One Deal. There’s no One Agent. Essentially, there is no sovereign specific. I could go with a metaphor about eggs in baskets, etc, but I’d rather just say this: publishing is a rapidly-changing landscape. You have to be adaptable. You have to roll with rejections, and you have to get back up when the business doesn’t pull its punches. I have a pet (very mathematical) theory that…

Success in publishing = hard work + time(x factors)

Time can be two months or two years or two decades. (Hell, it can be two centuries — there are enough posthumous success stories out there. GO TEAM ZOMBIE AUTHORS!) The x factor is going to be that weird concoction of the market, industry biases, reader readiness, word of mouth, cultural coincidence, and whatever the fuck (can I say fuck?) else makes a book sell. The x factors can speed up or slow down a single book’s chances of success. But that little time variable is what mitigates their influence. If you work hard for long enough, you might not be grossing Janet Evanovich royalties, but you’ll probably find some sort of success whether you’re shooting for trade publishing (brick and mortar distribution, advances, etc.) or going it on your own.

Time and hard work also heavily influence a writer’s craft, which also plays a part. My seventh book was infinitely stronger than my first book.

Book math. It’s gonna be a thing. My equation right now looks like: >6 years working 60-130 hour weeks between full time day job and full time writing shtuff (crowded UF market + uncontrollable publisher movement + 7 years of an established online presence + readers still liking UF) = my first thousand sales. To me that feels like success.

Please don’t do the math on my hourly wage for the last half decade. (Anyone who ever accuses me of getting into this business for teh moniez is welcome to replicate my equation in their own controlled experiment.)

How has the progression of real-world events (i.e. the results of the Scottish referendum last year) impacted Gwen’s story, and do you think it has affected the timeliness of the book?

I was very deliberate when I first wrote Shrike: The Masked Songbird to make the referendum present and important without hinging the book on its outcome. I didn’t want that. A: I am heretofore unsuccessful at predicting the independently concluded thought processes of groups of 4 million people. (Or four people, for that matter.) B: The question behind the book was more “what makes a hero?” than “what will Scotland do?” And on that latter bit, I wanted to explore what Gwen would do. In the USA, there’s Captain America and plenty of homegrown heroes who love their country. Ultimately Gwen is a hero who loves her country.

There is a sequel coming in September, and it’s followed with the sort of uncertainty that came in the wake of the referendum. Scotland is a very different place today than it was a year ago, and I wanted to show that, as well as the helplessness that comes when someone is swept away on something they can’t control. Shrike: Songbird Risen is very much a book about learning how to wield your power, and I think that remains topical in post-referendum Scotland. It’s a darker book (and I wrote it on deadline pre-referendum, so I was careful to consider how uncertainty shapes people regardless of what happened with the vote), but I think there is a lot of hope in it. Ultimately it’s not superpowers that save anyone — it’s humanity.

I’m very interested to see what will happen in the coming general election. The referendum galvanized a massively engaged, powerful populace.

There seems to be a perception, fairly widespread among amateurs, that all one has to do is land representation or get that first book published and it’s money-printing and red carpet time.  The media doesn’t help by hyping overnight success stories.  What’s the reality of a working writer’s life from your perspective?  What does everyone who calls him or herself “an aspiring author” absolutely need to know about making this business of wordsmithery a realistic calling?

There’s this common joke in publishing circles of the ten year overnight success. Like I said above, there isn’t a The One. No one thing will make you a success. I’d also challenge that those “overnight” success stories are probably not really overnight at all. Nobody waves a hand at a keyboard and poofs a book into existence, and there is no, “Like a good neighbor, IMPRINT is there!” to make an editor magically appear next to you with a contract in hand.

My reality is something I touched on above. I get up at 5:30 and shower and drag my sleepy butt to the metro. I either write or read on my hour train ride. I work 8-10 hours in the office. I slog back on the train (again writing or reading). I play with my cats, give them their beloved fudz, and write some more. On weekends, I get up and do write-y stuff. Plot, outline, draft, edit, revise, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t joking about the high end of my hours — sometimes I really do work 100+ hours in a week. That’s not everyone, but for me, that’s what it’s taken to get where I am.

Okay. I hate the word aspire. It sounds like a cloud’s fart.  I’m gonna go all Yoda on you. Do or do not. There is no try. To quote Chuck Wendig and probably a lot of others, writers write. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’ve written a story, you’re the author of that story and therefore an author. You didn’t fart it into existence (unless you have some extraordinary talent, and if so, you are squandering your potential and should have your own reality show), you wrote it. You’re not in competition with anyone.

If you want to do words as a career, it takes time. It takes that and a lot of effort. There aren’t shortcuts for reading widely in your genre (or in general). You don’t have to reinvent the wheel — I love craft books for learning foundational things like structure — but even learning things on an intellectual level necessitates practice to make them work for you. That said, I’m ten years in and only this year has it begun to look like I could do this full time and pay my bills this way. It’s a long con, and there are setbacks and obstacles at every stage. Getting an agent doesn’t make everything into the dance-y, pre-gasoline fight incident scene in Zoolander. (There might still be freak gasoline fight incidents.) Getting published doesn’t even guarantee your books will be on shelves a year later. *waves little flag meekly*

The great thing is that today in authordom, there are many paths to readers, and you can pick any or many of them.

It’s been said about just about every art form, but if you can be fulfilled and happy doing anything else, for Hades’ sake, do that instead.

What’s your writing routine?  What’s your writing playlist?  Is there one particular song or album that breaks you out of block?

I carve out writing time wherever I can. My dream schedule would be to wake up, go for a swim or a run, shower, write for a few hours, read, eat, write a bit more, and then play video games till 3 AM and do it again. (I’m allowed to dream, right? That sounds nicer than scribbling on a metro train whilst smelling someone’s BO after getting three and a half hours of sleep…)

I usually don’t write to music, which may be a surprise. When I do, it’s usually music without lyrics, though it depends on what I’m writing. Writing Storm, I listen to classic rock. For that I blame Supernatural, because even though I wrote the first Storm book before ever seeing an episode of the show, demon hunting and classic rock now just…live together. When writing Shrike, I listened to a lot of Frightened Rabbit. When writing Stonebreaker (my most recent novel), I listened to music only rarely, and it was usually the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, even though the book’s not so LoTR-y except for sharing a genre.

I want to ask a little about the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign.  Where did this start and what is it all about?  What voices would you like to see get more exposure on the bookshelves?

This amazing campaign started because of a sort of perfect storm (har har) of things. BEA released their author lineup for 2014 and stats came out for representation in literature, AND there was comparison to census data…it all added up to a rather stark depiction of the lack of diversity in publishing compared to the diversity of the American (and global) people. (They say it better than I.)

Basically, representation matters. Seeing yourself in media matters. Seeing yourself excluded from media has an impact. Seeing yourself relegated to a set of stereotypes has an impact. In any given adventure movie, you’ll have (usually white, able-bodied, and straight) men playing a number of roles. The brains, the brawn, everything in between. One gets to be a geek, one can be the muscle, one can be something else entirely. They are allowed a diversity of experience. Look at the Avengers for a sort of case-in-point example. Tony Stark is the wealthy genius playboy. Bruce Banner is a gentle — if explosive — also genius. Steve Rodgers is the underdog-turned-hero. Clint Barton is the pensive (at least in the movies), deliberate, competent dude. And Natasha Romanova is a femme fatale. She’s not without nuance, but where guys have four people to find themselves in, women have one. You learn at an early age to relate to people who aren’t you when you are part of a marginalized people group, regardless of whether that means gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, etc.

A desire for diversity is a desire to see many facets of experience. Being a straight, white, able-bodied man is not a homogeneous experience, and in all corners of media, they are allowed that diversity. Being a queer woman, or a woman of color with a disability, or a queer man of color? If you see yourself at all, you are conditioned to scramble to pick up the scraps. Diana Pho (editor at Tor) wrote a phenomenal piece on Jim Hine’s blog recently. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Ultimately books and media without diversity are erasure — if you’re writing a futuristic sci-fi where humans are exploring other worlds and your flight crew is all white dudes? On a lot of levels, that says that the rest of us aren’t welcome in that new world, or that we weren’t even thought of to include. This discussion is about having empathy for experiences outside our own and being willing to learn to see ourselves in people who go through the world in different skin.

I grew up with two moms, and I’m a bisexual woman. Growing up in the 90s where the only representation of my family that I saw in media was a banned book (Heather Has Two Mommies), I was used to receiving signals that my family was bad or wrong or somehow dirty. A book about a family like mine was banned. People argued about it. That communicates things to children. I remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out. There was this sense of “FINALLY” for me, to see someone I loved like Ellen suddenly having something in common with my family. Representation is powerful. It tells you that you’re not alone. It tells you that you deserve to be here. It tells you that your story matters, and that you can be a hero too.

Without dropping spoilers, there was a powerful moment in Storm in a Teacup involving consent.  The scene was realized beautifully.  Why don’t others get it – why do you think that there is still so much depiction of non-consensual sex in popular fiction, and what does it take to change that trend?

Possible trigger warning for my answer here, as I intend to be frank about issues of consent and rape.

I think that can be boiled down to that concept of rape culture. That phrase alone tends to flip the off switch in some people’s heads, so bear with me. Culturally, we’re taught that men make the first move, that men are the ones who are assertive sexually (or aggressive), and that women are the passive recipients. Phrases like “she was asking for it” (when the she in question was, in a literal way, doing nothing of the sort) and “he couldn’t help himself” reinforce this idea. I think a lot of the issues of consent in fiction are unintentional. I have done it too, without even meaning to. I’d meant something to BE consensual, but after multiple editing passes by multiple people, this scene had slipped by until my editor said, “Huh, just realized this could be interpreted as non-consensual.” And she was right. I was mortified, because that wasn’t what I meant. That’s why getting new eyes on things is important; your experience might filter out some of those interpretations. Someone else might be hyper sensitive to it and save you the heartache of having your words hurt someone else (and obviously, that other someone as well).

(Also, there’s a difference — sometimes a fine line, sometimes a big boldy thick one — between hurting someone and offending someone. Someone telling me they think my hair is ugly might offend me or dent my delicate fee-fees a little, but someone breaking my trust or plunging me into a triggery situation without warning can do damage. I want to err as much as possible on the side of not hurting people.)

Non-consensual sex is rape. It’s not sex. Rape is violence, even if terrible politicians try to say that only certain kinds of rape are “forcible.” (They might as well say my rape didn’t count because I didn’t have contusions afterward.) I think the conflation of rape and sex is part of what makes this mess. Participating partners in sex should both want to do it. To me that seems very simple, but somehow that’s an alien thought to too many people.

What does it take to change it? So many levels of change will be necessary. Demystifying sexuality for children and adolescents, teaching them to engage with the subject thoughtfully and with empathy, giving them the tools (including facts and real information) they need to make informed decisions, teaching them about bodily autonomy and consent (these things are relevant at all ages — I was taught bodily autonomy and consent as a toddler by my wonderful mothers, and their instruction helped me escape a situation where someone tried to molest me). Putting examples of this in art and media — people internalize the stories they see. Many, many levels of change.

I appreciate your words about Storm. I was intentional about it. I’m glad it came through.

What are you reading right now?  What does it take to hook Emmie’s interest, and by contrast, what kinds of books would you avoid?

I’m currently reading The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I just finished Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise and a bit ago, Delilah Dawson’s Servants of the Storm. Great writing hooks me regardless of genre, but I deeply appreciate finding stories that escape the trappings of cliches and tropes. I’ve read some fantastic stories lately. Some authors to watch: Jacqueline Koyanagi, Alis Franklin, Stephen Blackmoore, and obviously the others I’ve already mentioned. They weave gorgeous, rich worlds and tell stories that make me want to live in them. Also, most of the books I mentioned star people of color, and that’s refreshing to me, like that feeling of “FINALLY” I felt when Ellen came out. Yes, more of this please. More stories. More heroes. More people to love.

Fridged women are the fastest way to get me to tune out. I’m just so tired of seeing that trope over and over. It’s exhausting when your first introduction to a character like you in a world is to someone who’s gone already. Or to always have the damsel distressing as the bait for the beleaguered protagonist. Give me something I haven’t seen ten thousand times.

You’re doing your own series on the query trenches so I don’t want to step on that, but can you talk a little about how you secured representation with Sara Megibow, and any advice you’d offer to those champing at the bit to be able to publish their much-dreamed about “I FINALLY HAVE AN AGENT!” blog post – even if it’s a hard reality check?

I found Sara IN THE SLUSHPILE!!! I will crow that loudly to anyone who listens, because I am a firm believer in slush. I wrote a query. I sent it. She requested. She offered. It was the process in its most process-y form.

My biggest advice is to look over that equation I mentioned above. Hard work + time(x factor). Some things will be harder to sell. Pay attention to the market and what’s happening in publishing. Educate yourself about the business, because even though we venture into it with a dream, it is a business with a bottom line. It (as a business-y bottom line behemoth) does not care about dreams so much. BUT. This business is run by people who are humans and want to find things they love and share those things with readers. Write a fantastic book. Be a professional. Follow directions. If trade publishing is what you want, buckle yourself in for the long haul and start putting in the work. It’s not a fair business. It has systematic and structural issues with diversity, so if you are a diverse author and/or have a diverse story, it could very well be harder even with so many agents and editors asking for just that right now. Just keep swimming. And remember that there are many paths to readers these days.

Lastly, can you drop any tantalizing hints about Stonebreaker, and when we might feast our eyes on it?

Ah, this question! Stonebreaker news will happen when it happens (yay, vagaries!), but I can tell you that it is a book, and it is a large book. And there are giant sentient camouflage-able bats in it.

Curse your sudden but inevitable vagueness!  Oh well folks, I tried.  In the meantime, you can check out Storm in a Teacup, presently ranked #15 in Amazon’s top Dark Fantasy novels.  Thanks so much to Emmie for taking the time to indulge my inner Larry King.  To the rest of you, thanks for reading.  Now get back to work.

 

Please Welcome… Emmie Mears and The Masked Songbird!

The Masked Songbird_FC (2)

Gentle readers, I’m pleased as punch to present – making a generous stopover at this backwater blog during the tour for the release of her debut novel The Masked Songbird – someone whose acquaintance it’s been my great privilege to make:  author Emmie Mears.  If you’re not already following her on social media (shame on you!) you may remember her from the post she inspired:  Shut Up and Write.  In less than a week, The Masked Songbird drops, and Emmie’s been gracious enough to spend a few moments answering some questions about her life, her work, fandom and the need to speak up.  Come then, let us away.

But first, folks, presenting The Masked Songbird:

Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving.  She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent.  Gwen’s biggest challenges:  stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength.  All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved.  Finally — and most mysteriously — she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends — even her country.

A few words from Emmie about herself:
Emmie Mears was born in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star state promptly spat her out at the tender age of three months. After a childhood spent mostly in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana, she became a proper vagabond and spent most of her time at university devising ways to leave the country.Except for an ill-fated space opera she attempted at age nine, most of Emmie’s childhood was spent reading books instead of writing them. Growing up she yearned to see girls in books doing awesome things, and struggled to find stories in her beloved fantasy genre that showed female heroes saving people and hunting things. Mid-way through high school, she decided the best way to see those stories was to write them herself. She now scribbles her way through the fantasy genre, most loving to pen stories about flawed characters and gritty situations lightened with the occasional quirky humor.

Emmie now lives in her eighth US state, still yearning for a return to Scotland. She inhabits a cozy domicile outside DC with two felines who think they’re lions and tigers.

You can preorder THE MASKED SONGBIRD here (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JD7TWZK)! Released in a box set, you get four great paranormal and urban fantasy books for less than $4!
Follow Emmie on Twitter @EmmieMears and join her on Facebook!
And we’re back!  Glad to have you with us.  Take it away (in my best Dick Cavett or Brian Linehan voice):
Let’s start from the very beginning (a very good place to start). Who are you? How long have you been writing, and how did you get from unknown aspirer to agented author with a 2-book deal and an imminent release from a major publisher?
I am…*checks passport*….Emmie? I’m a mostly-human defective cyborg who can swim with some facility and has an embarrassing penchant for watermelon. I’ve been writing since I was old enough to steal my mother’s day planners, and writing with the intent of publishing since I was about sixteen.  I think I got here via the scenic route. I have always been a very deliberate planner, and I scouted out the business for about four years before I tried to hunt for an agent at all. I bought about five years of Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents, researched query format, generally scoured the internet for protocol, and finally started querying a few years ago with a book that wasn’t up for the task. A few months later, I wrote The Masked Songbird, and I put all that knowledge to use. Doing my painstaking homework saved me a lot of foot-in-mouth moments, I think.  My path to agentdom was relatively quick, as was my first sale.  The offer came about four months into submission time, which is really not much.  You hear about the miraculous four day turnarounds, but really, those are unicorns.  Best advice I’ve heard: write a great book, be professional, and follow directions. It cuts through a lot of hassle and hand-wringing.
What is your favorite book, what author’s work can you not miss out on, and who are your biggest influences?  Whose writing makes you wish “damn, I wish I wrote like that?”
Ooh, favorite book is like asking me which fantasy world I’d like to live in forever.  I really don’t know.  My copies of David Eddings’s Belgariad and Malloreon are dog-eared and hunched over from their cracked spines — I read those at least once a year.  Harry Potter made a home in my heart.  LJ Smith’s 90’s paranormal romances are still among my favorites. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is one of my favorite massive stories. Pride and Prejudice is a perennial. The Giver. Hatchet.  A Wrinkle in Time.  See what I mean?  Eddings and L’Engle are probably some of my biggest influencers. I always loved Eddings for being able to make me both laugh and cry in the same book.
How would you define your writer’s voice?  What is “Emmie Mears style”?
I tend to write gritty stories that have some quirk to their telling, whether that’s from the minds of the characters and how they observe their situations, or something else.
Tell me a bit about The Masked Songbird.  Who is Gwen Maule and what is her journey?  What makes her different from the superheroes we’re familiar with?
Gwen is very much an everyperson at the outset of the book. She is, in many ways, a product of the global recession as well as a child of poverty. She has what I think is the under-represented mainstream millennial generation mindset of just sort of…plodding forward. While people like to call this generation entitled, I think for the vast majority of millennials, reaching adulthood at the zenith of global recession has put many on autopilot. Work, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s Gwen at first.  Her journey is recognizing the power she has always had to alter her circumstances and effect change in her own life and others. I think what sets her apart from other superheroes is that she’s very much engaged in the regular world. She doesn’t have Bruce Wayne’s money or the resources of Charles Xavier’s school. She is just a person with special abilities, learning how to use them in tandem with her pre-existing latent (very human) strengths.
What, for you, is the appeal of the superhero genre, or more generally, the fantasy genre?  There is an element of escapism that appeals to all of us, including the primal desire to see good triumph over evil, but what’s the difference between someone who can take or leave it and another who wants to lose themselves in these worlds to the point where it becomes their career path?
I think the appeal of the superhero genre is the ability to project yourself onto someone extraordinary.  Even the gritty superheroes call back to human nature, to the desire to fit in or the need to prove oneself.  I think that’s one of the things that makes them so alluring.  For fantasy as a whole, I think escapism is a good part of it, but that’s true for any fiction. Fantasy provides us the ability to imagine ourselves away from this world in a different way, though — to imagine better worlds, or scarier worlds, but worlds where extraordinary things happen.  At the heart of all great fiction is humanity, though. That’s where superheroes and fantasy in general shine brightest: telling human stories through a different lens.
Speaking of humanity – one thing that stood out in the excerpt I was fortunate enough to read was how well you convey Gwen’s feelings of being small next to her boss without coming out and stating it.  When you’re sitting down to write a scene like that, how much is intent and how much is happy accident?  Are you starting off by saying “I wish to convey X in this scene” or are you just writing and seeing where the story takes you?
That scene was a little bit of both.  The first sentences of the book haven’t changed since draft one, and they’re really the thesis statement of the whole chapter.  Gwen feels small and impotent, so she escapes into her imagination. It ended up working out well, I think.
What made this particular book the one to kick off your career as a novelist?
A lot of craft-related things sort of converged on me when I wrote The Masked Songbird.  I’d written two and a half books of a trilogy before sitting down to write Gwen’s story, and they were unpublishable. Structure clicked for me, as did Gwen’s voice, and it freed me up to run amok in Edinburgh for six weeks. I wish I knew what it was that made it different than the others aside from basic craft improvement, but honestly, I think sometimes what works is sort of a crapshoot. You hit something at the right time or you don’t.
Tying the story to the Scottish referendum is an interesting choice.  Obviously a controversial issue, and we’ve just seen none other than J.K. Rowling come out against independence.  You, on the other hand, are very much in favour of it.  How come, and how much of your thoughts and feelings on the matter inform the story you’re telling?  And ultimately is your priority to inform and convince, or to entertain?
I am a big supporter of the idea of self-determination. I think that Scotland’s values are distinct from the rest of the UK’s in many ways, and that it makes sense for them to be able to govern themselves and allocate their tax dollars where they see fit.  In The Masked Songbird, though, I wasn’t so much trying to inform as to make the story accessible. It’s less Mel Gibson brandishing a claymore and bellowing “FREEEEEEDOOOOOOM” and more Gwen grappling with her feelings on the subject.  She recognizes that there are valid reasons to vote both yes and no, and ultimately for her (as with Scotland at large), the question is one she has to decide for herself.  Some characters will disagree with her, including some that readers will I think not expect.  I left many of the other characters’ perspectives out of the first book for that reason.  Book 2 will reveal how some of them voted, and some of Gwen’s friends DO vote no.  My priority was to entertain, and while I am passionately pro-independence, I am fully cognizant of the fact that there will be tremendous obstacles and adjustment regardless of who votes what on 18 September.
You’ve said that you were inspired by seeing the reboot of Spider-Man and wondering where all the big-screen female superheroes were.  Obviously we’ve seen with the huge success of movies like Frozen and Maleficent there is an appetite for heroines in fantasy settings, so what do you think the reluctance is to give Wonder Woman or Storm their own solo ventures?  Are studios that stuck on how bad Catwoman was?
I think studios think with their bottom lines and honestly, with entrenched ideas of what the public wants. They’re ready to blame Catwoman and Elektra‘s failures on female leads.  I think they really are that stuck on it, for the same reasons the gaming industry lifts their shoulders and sturgeon-faces and holds up their hands like there’s just noooothing they can do about the lack of female leads in video games.  Like it’s somehow out of their control or something.  I mean, really, it’s kind of like watching people busy playing checkers who just shrug and say “Well, that’s the game” when there are chess pieces right next to them if they really wanted to play something different.  They know they’re in control.  But for some reason they act like the continuation of imbalanced representation is something happening passively rather than something in which they participate.
I see that you’ve also made a sale of a nonfiction work on women and fandom that should be a terrific read as well.  Searching for SuperWomen is getting tens of thousands of hits a month, so clearly you’ve tapped into something.  Yet the prevailing attitude is that this sort of thing remains a boy’s kingdom, which perhaps explains the lack of female-focused genre films.  When do you think this particular glass ceiling will crack?
If I could predict that, I would pile all my meager funds into the stock market.  Heh.  I really don’t know.  I think that in some ways, the younger generation is more progressive, but in other ways, I see some troubling attitudes that seem to think that feminism is irrelevant, along with a lot of people hesitant to identify as feminists (even when they’re espousing verbatim feminist views, like that women should be able to walk down the street without getting groped).  There are some inroads being made, and I think films like Gravity, Frozen, The Heat, and this year’s Lucy ought not be discounted for their importance — but it’s really going to take people in power taking a stand before this stuff filters down.  Voting with dollars works to an extent, but it’s slow.  There’s such a huge gender disparity in Hollywood in general — the men with the power to greenlight films and television shows hugely outnumber the women with the same power. It’d be foolish to assume that doesn’t play a part in what gets made.
You and I sort of “met” through exchanging blog posts about the very different and saddening ways society responds to women who express strong opinions versus men, and how it intimidates women into silence.  Since then the specter of Elliot Rodger has cast itself over the conversation.  What is something that men who don’t want to be lumped in with the Elliot Rodgers and MRA’s of the world need to understand, and what can they do to ensure that women can continue to speak up without fear of reprisal?
Hoo, doggies.  There’s a question.  I think the biggest, hardest thing to recognize is that the fact that “not all men” are like Elliot Rodger is irrelevant.  Absolutely irrelevant.  Because it doesn’t take all men being like a sociopathic murderer — it only takes a tiny percentage of the population to contribute to a culture where women are devalued, unsafe, and likely to experience abuse.  And when the larger percentage tries to treat that tiny percentage as unworthy of discussion, well…that becomes part of the problem.
What can men do? Recognize that. Recognize that even though they might be a kind, empathetic, compassionate person, women have to operate from a point of view that every strange man is a potential threat. Have to. I cannot emphasize that enough. It’s ingrained in us from childhood, and it’s beyond stranger danger. Women are taught laundry lists of ways to stay safe that don’t always succeed. Because if we let our guard down and treat strange men like they are safe by default and something DOES happen, we’re ALWAYS going to get blamed for it by someone. Always. It’s a given. There is no if.I got harassed via text message this week, by a guy who had my number because I’d showed him my old apartment when I was separating from my husband. He gave my number to someone else. They were both texting me. The first thing two of my coworkers said when I told them? “Why the hell did you give them your number?”

Because that’s how the fucking classifieds WORK. I didn’t identify my gender in the post. The guy got my number because he was going to come see the place. He already had it when he found out I was female. And a month later used it to harass me. And I got blamed for not being careful enough.

So I really think that if men want to help, recognize that once you’ve gotten sick after eating an apple, you tend to have to look at apples with a different perspective until you’re sure they’re safe (Note: there’s a difference between courtesy and assuming someone is safe. I treat people courteously, but I will still be cautious and alert). Practically? Respect boundaries. Don’t invade a strange woman’s personal space (ie: give her wide berth if you’re walking on the sidewalk next to her). Don’t try to touch her. Respect if she says no. Listen. Believe her when she says she’s not interested. Believe her when she tells you her story.

And probably most importantly, when you exist in a space where women are not present and you see or hear men saying things that you know are wrong or disrespectful or toxic or shaming to women, SPEAK UP. For the love of all things warm and fuzz, SPEAK UP. I think the internet is good proof that many men listen more to other men than they do to women. If I call a guy out on a rape joke, I get told to lighten up. If a man calls his friend out for making a rape joke and makes it abundantly clear that it’s not cool, maybe that guy will think twice next time. We all know someone who has been assaulted or raped — we just might not know it because people don’t exactly wear it on their foreheads. And beyond that, women are people who should merit basic courtesy and respect by default, just like men. Ultimately, we have to create a space where the Elliot Rodgers of the world are challenged by the very people they think will accept their bullshit without question.

What’s next for you after Gwen hangs up her mask?
After the verbosity of the last answer, I’ll say simply that I have a magical realism and an epic fantasy in development.  🙂
Any advice for writers still slogging through the trenches looking for their break?
Persist.  Do your homework.  Be professional in ALL interactions with agents, fellow writers, and publishing folks.  Work on something new while you wait.
Finally, with apologies to James Lipton, a bit of fun:
Favorite word?
Marmot!
Least favorite word?
*blushes*  Superheroine.  It sounds like a drug, and to me “superhero” is gender neutral.  Plus, the red squiggly line doesn’t like it.
Favorite curse word?
Fuck.
If heaven exists, what do you want whoever’s in charge up there to say to you when you arrive?
“Freddie Mercury is waiting to hang out with you.”
Can’t think of a better note to end on than that.  Thanks so much to Emmie for her time, her candor and just being a generally awesome person.  Be sure to follow Emmie for links to the other entries in The Masked Songbird‘s blog tour, and pick up a copy when it releases July 1st.  Onwards!