Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Breaking Up With Your Novel

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

breaking up with your novel

Last week I finished penning the third book in my epic fantasy series and sent it off to beta readers. Paths of Alir was two years in the planning/writing, and the final clocked in around 300,000 words. (It is an epic fantasy. Providing a series is well-crafted, anything short of 250k and epic fantasy fans somewhat turn up their noses). A well-written novel of any genre and length will present characters the reader can identify with, but let me tell you, by the time you’re three books into a series of this depth, you and your readers are deeply invested.

Investment is exactly the point—and the problem. I sent off the manuscript last week expecting to feel that remembered sense of accomplishment, and…

Nope. Nothing like it. Instead of a warm glow, I experienced only a haunting sense of loss.

I don’t know if every writer encounters this agonizing moment upon departing the world of their novel. Perhaps it’s worse when you’re square in the middle of a five-book epic fantasy that’s already pulled nearly a million words out of you. Or perhaps it’s no different from finishing one novel that you poured your heart into for two years, or ten.

Writers often equate their passion for the craft with obsession, even at times addiction. I’ve heard writing a novel analogized as a mistress who jealously demands your creative attention. These are justifiable parallels. As the author, you become truly intimate with your characters. You spend all of your free time with them and (to be honest) quite a lot of time that wasn’t yours to devote (i.e. when you should’ve been focusing on some other task). I regularly warned people in my “real” life that I was only about 60% there. It was a generous estimate—40% was often more true.

In looking at the nature of this author-novel relationship, certain things should’ve been quite obvious to me, yet it never occurred to me until I closed the door on my world how deeply I was in love with it. So much so that pulling mentally out of the world (even knowing it necessary to gain perspective) felt agonizing. I felt like I’d broken up with my novel.

Suddenly I stood in that moment we’ve all experienced: you’ve just shut the door behind a departing lover…perhaps experiencing that duality of conscience in which you start second-guessing your decision to eject this person from your life…realizing with a visceral and all-encompassing regret how much the other person meant to you… I had closed the door on my novel and stood leaning my forehead against that door feeling all of these same emotions.

It should’ve occurred to me sooner that my novel (or in my case, my entire series) and I had been having an intimate relationship. Mayhap I’m the last author on earth to figure this out. In any case, it got me to thinking about the parallels between our novels and our loves. Here are five ways finishing your novel is like breaking up with your significant other:

1. When you’re in a passionate relationship, it’s all you want to talk about. Likewise while you’re passionately engaged in writing your novel. You’ll inundate your friends with unsolicited gushings that sometimes push them to the fine edge of patience. You live and work and eat and breathe with these characters in your head twenty-four/seven. It only follows that they’re the first thing on your mind when it comes time to reluctantly pull out of the world and engage with people who actually breathe oxygen.  

Of course, now that you’ve finished writing the novel, here comes that enforced separation. You and your significant other have decided you both need a little space, time to reflect, time to work on yourselves, perhaps. You seek comfort in friends, ex-lovers…new lovers (relationship rebound)—new books, new manuscripts, but none of them hold the same luster as the novel you just completed. And no matter who you’re with, now that you’re no longer together with your novel, all you can talk about is how you’re not together anymore.

2. Intent on staying out of the novel’s world for a while, you find yourself going to all the places you used to go together, only now you’re going there alone. Your morning tea or coffee…your stop by the bakery…your shower, your morning run or drive to work… Always before, you and your novel shared an intimacy in each mundane moment. Now you feel the novel’s absence in everything you do, and the world has lost some of its magic.

3. Suddenly you can’t listen anymore to the soundtrack you’ve been glued to for the last three months—or any song that reminds you of your novel, your characters or the world. Instead, you find yourself returning to those old breakup favorites, mulling over the pervasive feeling of loss that is gripping you, wishing your beta readers could read faster so you could at least talk with them about your novel love.

4. While you’re waiting for your beta readers, maybe you’ll return to an earlier manuscript or a short story with the same characters and linger there like a voyeur, observing the characters from afar like you’d watch your ex at a restaurant or a bar with friends, not daring to intrude or interact. They were your friends, too, but now you feel estranged from them. 

5. Lastly—almost worst of all—you’re beset by the nagging, ruthless worry of whether or not there’s another novel out there for you. Will you ever be able to find the same magic in the next book that you found in the one you just finished writing? Can your next book ever be as well-crafted, as wondrously inspired? Will you ever find another novel idea that feels as true, or that touches you as deeply?

How can a conglomerate of symbols representing thought take on such life and feel so real as to engender such an emotional upheaval at its end?

And how often we writers equate our novels with lovers or children or the labor of birth, implying an explanation-defying yet truly intimate connection with a work that has no substance, no mass save printed ink on paper, and no recognition of us—its author—whatsoever, and yet is unequivocally an entity with which we’ve interacted, reasoned, worried, slaved over and—ultimately—fallen in love with.

Have you had a similar experience finishing a creative work? What parallels have I missed? Please share your thoughts. Misery loves company. ;)

The Use of Emotion in Storytelling

Monday, July 22nd, 2013


I was recently in dialogue with a reader about the use of homoeroticism in my novels. She asked if I had intentionally created a correlation between two homosexual characters (Sandrine du Préc in Cephrael’s Hand and the Prophet Bethamin in Dagger of Adendigaeth) and unethical conduct.

In short, I had not. However, I found the question intriguing. I loved it, actually, because no one had ever asked me this. Nor had I ever looked at these characters from any other point of view—to me, their sexual attractions were just part of their nature, part of who they were, and I had no hidden agenda or statements to make about those choices. Yet, I could see how, by having the only two homosexual characters in the series thus far both be morally corrupt, this might imply some personal viewpoint on the topic.

(In point of fact, they’re both bisexual, but it doesn’t matter for purposes here. Also, while Sandrine certainly has questionable moral standards and could readily be labeled immoral, the Prophet is merely amoral. The difference I see between the two could fill many more pages.)

Nonetheless, I looked deeply at this after my reader’s question. Why had I shown these two characters as homosexual?

My immediate answer: to create an emotional response.

In our society, it’s readily apparent that most people respond to homosexuality on a visceral level. Either they find it secretly erotic or unreasoningly repulsive or some point just shy of one of these extremes. Even those with relatively impassive views on the topic might undergo an involuntary response when experiencing the moment through a viewpoint character’s eyes.

So yes, I consciously determined that Sandrine and the Prophet would have these urges in order to elicit that sense of homoeroticism, or that repulsion against it, in my readers’ experience.

I had to ask myself then: is it fair that I used homoeroticism to engender an emotional response?

Whereupon I thought, this is what writers do.  We tap into the fears, the hopes, and the mutual joys and desolations of life and imbue our characters with these same tribulations in order to produce that harmonic resonance out of the reader’s own experience. How well we do this determines how much our characters are loved or hated. A story that elicits no emotional response is hardly interesting, is it?

Everything we’re trying to do as writers—and what indeed separates a great story from a mundane one—is that emotional impact. Writers will use whatever methods are available to them to do this, and the gamut of choices is wide. The basics of technique certainly play into it—you’ve got to know passive from active voice and how to arrange a coherent sentence/paragraph/story—but the quality of technique elevates from grammar into craft when you begin looking at the ways a writer elicits an emotional response. Some writers might even be considered unscrupulous in their expert manipulations of our heartstrings, but in the end, if they’ve drawn out our emotions, they’re lauded.

This reminded me of an essay on art that I once read. The author asked, how good does a work of art have to be to be considered art? His answer: technical expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.

Ultimately this is what I’m trying to do: to introduce you to characters who you can relate to—characters who find purchase in your heart—and to use whatever artistic craft is available to me to make you so invested in these characters’ welfare that you cannot stop reading until you know they’re safe. And of course, they’re rarely so.

In the end, I forgave myself for any unintended aspersions to sexual choice (sorry about that!) and decided that at the very least, I was accomplishing my purpose as a writer in having produced that emotional response one way or another.

I’m open to any thoughts you have on this topic. Share them below! 

An Amuse-bouche for Fans of A Pattern of Shadow and Light

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

As some of you may know, I’ve been traveling in Europe this month gathering a plethora of research for book three. Much of the third installment of A Pattern of Shadow & Light is set in the Empire of Agasan – specifically in the Sacred City of Faroqhar – which in turn is based on Italy. So my time abroad has been well spent, even if it hasn’t seen new words written to move the story along.

I’ve been getting a lot of mail recently from fans wanting to know when book three will be ready—and rightly so. I want you all clamoring for more. However, since I am ultimately benevolent towards my readers, and since book three is still a ways from hitting the shelves (even the cyber ones), I thought I would give you some fodder for thought on where the story is heading. A few little nuggets to chew on to satisfy your craving, even if it only just takes the edge off your hunger.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Book 2, The Dagger of Adendigaeth, stop here and go immediately to download it. I don’t want you left behind.]

[SECOND ALERT: What I say now, below, could still change. I think it’s fairly set or I wouldn’t be sharing it with you, but I reserve the right to reshape the story.]

Okay, now that that’s all covered, let’s look at a few threads we’ll pick up early in book three:

Tanis and Phaedor – when we left these intrepid explorers at the end of Dagger, they were gazing out over a lush valley and a sliver of ocean beyond, a place the zanthyr had just named home.

In book three, Tanis will head into that valley with Phaedor, where he’ll learn more about his mother and father, more about his own unique nature, and ultimately head to the Sacred City of Faroqhar as he continues on his path. He will also face another Malorin’athgul (cue scary music riff).

Franco and Carian – we last saw these Nodefinders in T’khendar. Franco has been training under Dagmar, and Carian was making new friends with the Sundragons as he learned T’khendar’s secrets.

In book three, these two will team up at Björn’s behest to stand against Niko van Amstel as he seeks the Vestal appointment and ousts Dagmar as the realm’s Second Vestal. Niko has plans that will rattle the firmament of the second strand. Unless Franco and Carian can find a way to stop him, he could further push the realm out of Balance to disastrous consequence.

But more troubling to Björn than Niko’s plans alone are the faceless men who stand behind him. Björn needs Franco and Carian to unmask the masterminds using Niko as their pawn, and our two favorite Nodefinders will be wading through a morass of unscrupulous characters in this search (and cursing the entire way).

What about Gwynnleth, you may ask? Currently she’s staying in T’khendar, and I’ll have to keep the why of that a secret for now.

Queen Errodan – When we left the Queen of Dannym at the end of Cephrael’s Hand, she stood upon the quay watching King Gydryn’s ship vanishing into the dawn.

Ean’s queen mother has already shown herself strong-willed and steadfast – she stood apart from her king for five years to protect Ean, never mind the strain it placed upon her heart. With the king and his generals now gone from Calgaryn, Errodan stands alone to meet the Duke of Morwyk as he makes his play for the Eagle Throne.

She’s a powerful woman in her own right, but in Lord Stefan val Tryst, Errodan will face unimaginable trials to both her integrity and her honor.

We’ll also meet some new characters in book three: the Empress of Agasan and her Consort, the High Lord Marius di L’Arlesé, as well as their daughter the Empress’s heir.

We’ll spend some time in the head of the young Agasi Nodefinder Felix di Sarcova as he maneuvers the halls (and forbidden nodes) of the Sormitáge seeking answers to the mystery of his best friend Malin’s disappearance.

And we’ll pick up a new viewpoint character in an old friend whose thoughts have, until this point, been a mystery to us.

I hope these threads (which are all in progress) reassure you that in fact I am working on book three and not just resting on my laurels basking in your adoration. Although that would be nice, too.

And if, dear readers, you raise a loud enough clamor, I’ll even consider posting the first chapter of book three on this blog.

It picks up with Tanis, by the way. 

Overcoming Writer’s Block – 5 Unconventional Ideas

Monday, April 29th, 2013

As writers, we innately tend to know when our story is working and when it isn’t. I like to describe this awareness as a sort of resonance, but it could just as easily be compared to an engine with all pistons firing. A skilled mechanic can tell just by listening when an engine isn’t purring along. Likewise the practiced writer. 

Sometimes the words just pour out. The pages flow one to the next, your dialog perfectly captures the emotion of the scene, the story conflict builds or resolves into the next arc without interruption or even much thought… In those moments, the creation appearing on the page before you seems to flow from a divine source. 

And then there are the times when you can’t seem to make a chapter work to save your life. The island paradise may be your final destination, but the sea between you and this goal is either a storm of occlusion that has you struggling to stay the course or a dead calm without a breath of inspiration to cast you forward. On those days you simply cling to whatever you can, aimlessly adrift, praying for a spark of lucidity in which it all suddenly begins to untangle and the wind picks up. A moment that brings your island into view. 

I’ve been working through my own difficult seas recently. During this time, I tried some of the popular methods for overcoming writer’s block (of which there are as many suggestions as there are writers) but ultimately I returned to my own rather unconventional means of navigation.

Here are five of my successful ways of calling the wind in a dead calm:

1. Go back to where you were last doing well.

You’re sailing along and suddenly slam into a bog. The waters turn muddy, the way forward becomes unclear, and nothing you write thereafter seems to work.

If you can look back and see a time in the story when everything was going well (even if that point was a chapter or more ago) returning to the point where you were last doing well and then continuing forward again in a new direction can often prevent running into the bog again.

How do you chart a different course? Change your dialogue, alter your character interaction, throw in a new plot twist or peril, or even send your character(s) somewhere else entirely. The point is to cast your new heading directly from the point where you were last doing well, even if it means tossing all of the pages written since. 

2. Look to see if you’ve compromised your character’s integrity in some way.

I’ve many times found that the story will bog if I’ve somehow compromised my character’s integrity. For example, at the beginning of Dagger, my truthreader Tanis faces off against an overwhelming enemy named Pelas. My first attempt through the scene saw Tanis with spunk and fire, talking back to Pelas with brave defiance. It was interesting to see a new side of Tanis—and it didn’t work at all.

The problem lay in the fact that my young Tanis isn’t defiant. The way I was writing him in that scene—the way I originally felt I had to write him—was out of character for him. He’s innocent and he’s brave, but he’s not impudent and rude, and he wouldn’t suddenly become belligerent even when facing overwhelming odds.

I had to look at how to rewrite the scene, how to make it both interesting and intense, yet stay true to Tanis’s character. Going back to the beginning of the scene and letting Tanis be himself led to a breakthrough—oddly enough—in Pelas’s character (which ultimately made him a reader favorite). 

3. Rethink a character.

If you suddenly bog and something isn’t working in the story, take a look at the characters in that part of the tale and try adding complexity or new depth to them. Reveal a new side of them that is plausible to the reader. Give them a hidden passion, a compulsion, or a secret love or torment. Any time you can add something new to a character’s personality, you give the reader more about that character to connect with. 

In the example above, I had been writing Pelas as a typical villain–flat, unimaginative, boring, actually. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but when I took another look at Pelas (as a part of solving the problem with Tanis) I realized Pelas could be much more than he appeared. Even if it means going back to the beginning to add a nuance or hint here and there to set up your character reveal later, it’s usually worth it.

Rethinking a character from the ground up can often open entirely new paths through the story and pull you rapidly into breezy seas once more.

4. Change location—not yours but your character’s.

When something about a scene just doesn’t feel right, try putting the characters in a different setting. Instead of having them meet in a courtyard, move the exchange to a ballroom, a garden, or a dark alley.

Changing the scene will cast new shades upon the existing conversation and add new elements of danger or anticipation, longing, love, heartbreak or excitement. Sometimes we’re so focused on plot that we forget to take advantage of the setting, but setting can do so much to convey or engender emotion. It’s an invaluable tool.

You may end up changing the dialog you already have written to adapt to the new environment. Sometimes that shift of location is all you need to set a new course.

5. Don’t strand yourself on a reef of your own devising.

This is perhaps the most perilous hazard to keep an eye out for when sailing creative waters. 

As writers, we often have an idea of our destination. Some writers chart their path island by island (chapter by chapter). Others merely use the stars to guide them in the general direction they wish to go.

No matter your means of navigation, it’s all too easy to decide on a certain course and then become stalled by it. You make a decision about the path the story should take while just rounding the head at point A. Then as you’re sailing into port at point C, your next heading doesn’t make sense anymore. But you’ve decided on this heading because that’s how you planned the story. You’re already thinking it has to be that way. But you are the one who set that course to begin with. You can simply decide to go in a different direction.

This is almost always easier said than done. Firstly, it can be difficult to isolate which of the many decisions are the ones now stopping your forward progress—we make the rules, you see, then we have to follow them in order to keep continuity in the story; so we become just as bound by the rules we made as our characters are. The second problem faced when looking at this is the understanding that you have the entire story/plot/chapter/character arc planned out—the course is set!

But if that very course is what is sinking you, hadn’t you better rethink it?

I’ve experienced this with laws I established for my fantasy world or powers I’ve given to my characters. I’ve seen it with plot points decided on months ago that now just don’t make sense—or that cause unsolvable conflicts with later story threads, or even with the time it would take to develop the backstory to support the plot element I’ve decided must exist.

I’ve seen it with character back-stories and planned future conflicts and myriad other vortices I created for myself and proceeded to sail directly into as if I had no choice, as if the gravity of my own creation now exhibited more power than I did.

We have to be able to change our minds about our story or we’re no longer captaining our creation but enslaved by it.

I hope these ideas will help you to continue sailing free.

*    *   *

What’s your experience? Share your thoughts on writer’s block and any methods that have successfully gotten you out of the calm and back on course. 

Fear: The Most Undervalued Emotion in Fantasy

Friday, April 26th, 2013

I’m thrilled to host this guest post from fantasy author A.E. Marling (@AEMarling) in celebration of the upcoming release of his epic fantasy novel, Gravity’s Revenge

“The time for fear is past.” ~ King Theoden, The Lord of the Rings

In fantasy worlds, fear is the enemy. It swoops down on black wings to smash the heroes to the ground, to paralyze their hopes. It comes with talons and ghostly swords, with blazing eyes and green fire. It rusts men’s resolve. Turns allies against each other. It clears walls of defenders. It is the edge that no armor can stop. Cowardice to courage marks the most common arc of character growth in fantasy, possibly in all genres. For heroes to stand a chance, or even to remain standing, they must say goodbye to the butterflies ravaging their stomach. Anyone who reads enough might begin to believe that all fears should be smothered in their cradles. 

Read closer. Characters in fantasy novels fear all the time. They are cautious. They respect danger, trying to avoid the greatest perils. When they throw fear to the wind, it’s often because they have no other choice but one last desperate gambit.

Real-life heroes also fear. Soldiers in modern armies still experience the tearing sensation of numbness in the pit of their stomachs. They merely fear letting down their fellow soldiers more. I read an article in which a veteran said his greatest worry was that his mistake would get a friend killed.

“I do not fear either pain or death,” Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings said to Aragorn. “Then what do you fear, my lady?” “A cage.” Even the bold must fear something. If not, then we would have a hard time relating to them. They would begin to seem inhuman.

I hope my readers never meet someone who is truly fearless. There is a name for that condition: psychopathy. Bereft of emotion, psychopaths have only an intellectual understanding of danger. In one reported case, a psychopath broke into a man’s home, murdered him, had a beer from the fridge, and fell asleep beside the corpse on the sofa. (Clearly, this psychopath was not an intellectual.) He woke up in handcuffs. A person in that situation who has fear in their repertoire would be less likely to kill, fearing social recrimination if nothing else. Adrenaline would careen through his bloodstream. His heart would pound, his pulse race, his stomach cramp, and his lungs gulp air. He could never fall asleep.

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence

Even for us non-killers, fear has its uses. A performer on stage will always feel the rush, that tingling burst from the presence of hundreds of eyes. The greatest entertainers will expect the feeling, be ready for it, and use their heightened alertness and strength to amaze. Those without any urge to perform (or find the safest way to Mount Doom) may still have need of fear. In fact, it may save their lives. In the book The Gift of Fear, the author cautions that often people will imperil themselves by ignoring fears. A woman might, for instance, experience a chill before allowing a strange man to carry her groceries into her apartment. To avoid appearing rude or ungrateful, she might push away the creeping sensation that’s bristling its way up her spine. If she acts fearlessly and lets him inside she could well regret it.

“You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” — Gavin de Becker, consultant to the FBI and author of The Gift of Fear

Some might prefer to call this inner sense the intuition. Whatever the name, adrenaline accompanies it and causes those well-known feeling, from trembling fingers to cold feet. The important thing to remember, Gavin de Becker writes, is that fear is in response to some external trigger. Even if our brain’s conscious processing has not yet caught on, we have to respect that our fear might be onto something. Stories will often have the theme of trusting one’s instincts. The wise old mentor might urge the hero to follow intuition and, in the same wizened breath, to stamp out every last spark of fear.

That's some slipper slope, Yoda.To be fair to the Jedi masters, they likely are cautioning against allowing fear to paralyze, or drive one to impulsive violence. But to deny all fear seems less than practical. “Ignore your doubts,” sounds too close to, “Ignore your intuition.” Heroes feel fear, and we should expect no difference from ourselves. When that sensation of ice prickles down our backs, we should first think what might have caused it. (But don’t freeze in the headlights too long.) Next, we should avoid thinking of fear as an evil. Not, “Oh, no, this is terrible!” Or, “I’m afraid, so I must be a coward.” But, “Ah, something important is coming, and my body is getting ready to fight.” I say it’s past time fear got its due in the fantasy genre. After all, I always root for the underdog. Especially if he is a terrifying mongrel that breathes fire and has three heads.

In my latest fantasy novel, a tragedy arises from an acute shortage of fear. The protagonist studies magic in a vertically inclined magic school. To reach the lofty altitude of the academy, she had to overcome her fear of heights and walk up a cliff. When the academy’s enchantments begin to fail, she senses the mounting danger but ignores her worries. She has grown too used to being bold. To save her school and her students, Enchantress Hiresha will have to regain a healthy respect for fear. She’ll need the full speed of her intuition to outsmart the mastermind holding the magic school ransom. Only with every instinct and every edge adrenaline can bring her will she have a chance to oust the invaders. Hiresha faces twelve to one odds in battle, and each step could end in a plummet.

“He who is without fear has no hope.” – Lord Tethiel, Gravity’s Revenge

Discover the fun fantasy loot at the Kickstarter for Gravity’s Revenge


Click to discover first chapters

Reviews, Writer’s Block & the Author’s Integrity – A Problematic Trinity

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

I’ve been struggling recently with a situation that arose from the number of positive—yes, I just said positive—reviews I’ve received on my latest novel (which, by the way, was recently selected as a Finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year – yay!) It took me a bit to sort through just what I was experiencing, and I thought I’d share these ideas now that I’ve got the problem resolved.

To begin, I want to talk about universes. Not the Stephen Hawking kind. The kind that come with us when we wander from place to place. The kind that offer a retreat in which to explore our own thoughts. The kind where we imagine and dream…where we envision the people and events that eventually fill the canvases of our artistic works. 

I have never spoken with my characters, yet they’re as real to me as anyone I’ve passed on the street. I carry my characters around with me in the universe of my head.

When a writer envisions a story, he creates it first in his own ‘universe’. Though intangible, these universes can feel very real to the person who owns them—as real as the physical universe we all live in. Of course, the clearer the writer sees things in his own imagined universe, the better he can bring his readers into it through narration and description, through the medium of fine storytelling.

Now, for every author who has created a world to be read about, there are countless readers who recreate that world in their own universe as they read. They take the author’s descriptions and mold and shape them into their own versions of the characters and events. No matter how complete the author may have been in his/her descriptions, readers still inject the characters with their own colorations—they still have to imagine them, you see. 

This concept of multiple subjective universes reminds me of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, where Amber is the one true world, casting infinite reflections of itself.

Every book casts infinite reflections into the universes of its readers; and in every reader’s universe there exists a slightly different—or largely different—reflection of the book.

So what does this have to do with reviews? The truth is—and whoever would’ve thought I’d be saying this—the plethora of glowing reviews for The Dagger of Adendigaeth actually mired my forward progress into the story.

For an agonizing span of days, I couldn’t understand why I was experiencing this writer’s block on Book 3. I had the story planned out to the ninth hand of chance. I had countless positive reviews rolling in for Dagger, extolling my ‘epic follow-up,’ and an abundance of dear readers expressing their excitement for the next book in the series. Even where someone voiced a criticism, their thoughts were usually insightful in some way.

Please don’t think I’m complaining (trust that I am working through this difficult situation of overwhelming admiration for my novels), but it took me some time to figure out why praise was miring my forward progress into the story.

We all love getting to experience our work through a reader’s eyes. I think this is the artist’s real pay. This form of reader contribution—i.e. their exchange with the author—is far more valuably some subjective feedback than the material dollars and cents provided. But when we look at reviews, what we have to keep in mind is that the story being reviewed has subtly changed from the author’s original. Our readers take our worlds and make them their own as they read along—and therein lies the trap in spending too much time “listening” to reviews. 

Here’s what I finally realized: Any time you take a review to heart, you run the risk of departing your true Amber world and getting caught instead in the reflections of your work. For instance, my readers commended Book 2, and I devoured their praise, gobbling up every morsel as reviews came pouring in. Yet in reading all their kind words, I began to feel the pressure of continuing to please them, of not disappointing them with my next novel, of continued success. I began to wonder how I would ever make Book 3 better, more exciting, even more valuable to my readers than Book 2 had proven to be.

Here’s the real problem in my taking on this viewpoint: I didn’t write Cephrael’s Hand or The Dagger of Adendigaeth for anyone’s benefit but my own. When I wrote those novels, I retreated to my universe entirely and asked no one’s permission, sought no one’s regard, and just wrote what I wanted to write because it pleased me to thrive in that creation. I wrote to entertain myself. (Now it happens that I’m a picky fantasy reader, so something that entertains me is likely to please others, but that’s really beside the point).  

You see, there I was, assuming the reader’s viewpoint suddenly, trying to determine how to keep my readers happy, worrying how to make my opening scenes as interesting and vital as those of book 2, fretting that I’d never be able to make book 3 as intriguing, as heart-wrenching…so many concerns. I was second-guessing all of my plot points and plans, because I wasn’t sure they would be interesting enough to others. I had abandoned my most successful action of just writing for my own entertainment. In trying to take the viewpoint of the reader and fit my story to their unknowable expectations, I lost my way, and the story went nowhere.

So this is the crux. Any time you as the author get tied up in trying to fix or alter or somehow match your world to a reader’s reflection—even the reflections of glowing praise—well…you’ve lost the integrity of the world. Because ultimately when you assume the reader’s viewpoint, you’re now sitting in the reflection, too. You’ve become one with the kaleidoscope of reader universes. You’ve lost your true path, your Amber. 

If you’ve experienced any shade of this phenomenon in your own artistic work, or even in life, here’s the most important thing to remember: those reflections are but shadows of the real world. Your world.

What do you think? Have you experienced this idea of universes, either in your reading or in devising your artistic work? How have reviews of your work impacted you? Share your thoughts. 

On Reviews, Obsession and Art (and a gratuitous adorable kitty pic)

Friday, January 11th, 2013

photo (5)My cat Sam sits with me when I write, whether I’m working on my laptop or composing on the piano. He likes being around when I’m being creative, which is pretty cool, considering he’s a cat. As a child, the idea of having a cat for a writing companion seemed wonderfully romantic; in reality, he’s mostly in the way. He’s really fat, and he wants to be either lying in my lap, where my laptop is, or lying on my laptop itself—either of which situation conflicts with one’s ability to type.

Even so, I obsess over my cats. I’d like to think I don’t, but I do. It’s just in my nature. I don’t think you can be a good fantasy writer and not have obsessive tendencies—at least not an epic fantasy writer.

To write epic fantasy, you have to be able to move in and out of the heads of innumerable viewpoint characters on a chapter by chapter basis, while weaving together a dozen or more story threads into some form of cohesive whole. You have to be able to create an entire world with realistic conflicts, cultures, languages and religions and design and explain a magic system that follows actual laws—and above all, you have to be able to craft a good story out of this complicated tangle.

Artists obsess over their creations. They also obsess over people’s reviews and critiques of their creations. Art is obsession in all its many guises.

To you, Joe and Marybeth Reader, this is probably just some book you picked up for somewhere between $0.99 and $10 dollars (most likely). Maybe you loved the story and happily gush about it to your friends. Maybe it wasn’t your cup of tea. Maybe you hated it with a passion. I can safely say, Joe and Marybeth, whether your response was lukewarm or glowing, the writer of that novel obsessed over every part of it far longer than you did over their choppy dialogue or the errant typo encountered during your thirty-minutes-before-bedtime daily vigil.

Art of any kind is basically communication. Good stories are all about communication. Simple tales might have one thing they hope to communicate. If the story is well crafted, that communication is universally received. The more complex the story, the more obscure the ideas being conveyed, the more varied the reception of the author’s communication. And when you’re writing about invented worlds and races, when you’re crafting a commentary on real life but using a parallel world to do it, when you’re weaving a tapestry of philosophical ideals meant to be explored and evaluated, compared and pitted against reality, and when you’re writing at a level that requires a fairly high degree of literacy in your reader…well, that single communication has turned into a peacock’s fan colored by nuance and intimation, where each feather represents a different character and each swirl upon the fan poses another thread of philosophical exploration.

The greatest reward for an author isn’t in the money someone pays for their work. It comes when that reader receives the author’s communication. I don’t care if someone disagrees with me, so long as I can tell from their comments that they at least understood what I was saying. 

To be understood—that’s all any of us really seek from others, isn’t it? In the broad scheme of life, don’t we all just want other people to understand why we do what we do, why we react a certain way, why we feel certain compulsions or harbor unusual passions? Don’t we want them to understand those parts of ourselves that we don’t even comprehend?

There are a lot of varying viewpoints about reviews. Truthfully, I welcome any review, because a) I want to know if my communication was received and b) they help encourage potential readers to pick up the book.

But with this said, let me ask, what would be your ideal review? Would it embrace the whole of your story in a way that lets others know what they will find within its pages? Would it touch upon your philosophies and story threads, and capture the essence of favorite characters? Would it encapsulate your communication as the author, even if reduced to a few succinct sentences? And would it give, overall, a sense of the world, the characters, the feeling of being there and what it’s like to have experienced the story? 

When a reviewer writes a review so expertly detailed, so eloquent, so revealing of their depth of understanding that you’d think they were talking about their own novel…this is the highest compliment any author could receive.

I recently read such a review. I’ve been sending it everywhere, because no better summary has ever been written of my novel. And it starts like this:

“Melissa McPhail created a world unlike any other in fiction but also not unlike our own, where individualism and unity exist all at once; good and evil coincide, are intertwined, and vary in shades; and philosophy, mundane and profound, shape lives. With her debut novel, she captured a world—from its physical base to its ethereal heavens, and everything tangible and intangible between, before known time and (hopefully) not its “after.”

Please read the rest at The LUV’NV, because it truly is an amazing review. Itself a work of art. 

And thank you again, Raindrop Soup, for understanding me so beautifully.

Building A Fantasy World – The Magic of Genre Fiction

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012
Many thanks to The Cover by Brittany for originally hosting this post on her blog. 

Some fantasy authors cringe at the topic of world-building, but actually, it’s one of the most thrilling aspects of writing genre fiction. When we write fantasy, we become the Maker of Worlds. We establish our world’s limitations, its physical barriers, and the triumphs and tragedies of its histories. Ultimately, as its creator, we can make our world any way we like. We can envision a world inhabited by a single race—like Endor or Pandora—or one of multiple races and kingdoms.
No matter what type of world we’re creating, we have to know some things about it in order to be able to describe it to our readers. But how do we go about this monumental task?  At the highest level, the world-building field can be divided into two camps.  
In Camp #1 we find the Engineers.They believe in establishing the entire world before they ever write a word of story. They use exhaustive lists of questions that explore a variety of topics in order to flesh out their world. If you enjoy D&D, Warhammer 40K and other games that involve detailed lists which must be compared with more detailed lists in order to a) set up the game and b) take a turn, Camp #1 is the approach for you. 
The Engineers enjoy establishing kingdom, country and empire, coming up with names of forests, rivers, towns and cities and examining their respective histories, their geographical boundaries, their ideologies and their economic products. They’ll easily spend days developing the relationships of the ruling monarchies and plotting their family trees and blood-feuds, and love every moment of it. As they work through these details, story ideas may come. To be sure, they’ll have a long list of kingdoms and character names to choose from by the end of this exercise. And probably some gorgeous diagrams and maps. But they’re not likely to have much of a story to show for all those invested hours.   
In Camp #2 dwell the Gardeners (the great Ruth Harris calls them pantsers). They simply start writing the story by the seat of their pants and see how it grows.
“But a writer must know kingdoms and peoples and places before he can write about them!” you scream.
The Gardeners believe all of these details will appear as the author pens the tale, growing organically as the story evolves. (We’re taking into account here that you already have an idea for your story, that you know your protagonist, his or her conflict, the antagonists, and the basic story arc.)
So, these things in place, with the Gardener approach, we start writing. Our character is on a horse, so we name the horse if we care. He’s going to a town so we name the town. What our character sees and experiences while in town—the scene literally appearing in words on the screen as its appearing in our heads— establishes how large or small the town is, its relationship to nearby towns or cities, and the struggles and challenges faced by its inhabitants. We basically make these things up as we go along.
So our character goes into a tavern. We sit for a moment and come up with a name for the tavern, deciding also in that moment that it is a pirate establishment, so we give all of the men inside nose piercings and wild black hair. They need some kind of history now, so we decide they inhabit an archipelago off the coast of this kingdom (or perhaps one far away, which changes entirely the reason they might be in that tavern). How much of the pirates’ experience we share fleshes out more of the world our protagonist lives in.
Each new meeting or interaction offers a chance to provide a little more of the world’s varied history—to a) make it up right then, b) explain something we’ve already mentioned but refrained from delineating; or c) some information we had planned all along. 
Okay, we’ve left the pirates. Now our protagonist is off to the castle. Maybe we’ve had this part of the story mulling in our heads for days or months, or maybe it’s heading in a new direction since we met the pirates. With each new character we introduce, we also have the opportunity to develop and reveal more of our expanding world, its history and culture, and the conflicts that define the ideologies of its kingdoms. These story and character seeds can be sewn ahead of time (if we think of them), or sprouted on the spot. 
Is one approach more difficult than the other? It depends on our inherent mindset. For Gardeners, endlessly designing a world with no story is difficult and tedious. They need the story in order to flesh out the world. Conversely, the Engineers delight in this exercise and shy away from writing the story without a detailed blueprint from which to build.
And then, as with most extremes, there are those of us who fall somewhere in between. Certainly, a little planning is beneficial, some fleshing out is good. Knowing the names of the surrounding kingdoms and at least their kings or queens (or ruling Empires) is helpful in framing the context of the tale. 
Ultimately, an approach is only as workable as it works for you. Wherever you fall on the world-building scale, it’s your world to create as you please, and that’s the magic of being a genre-fiction writer.
What camp do you fall into? Or is there another camp altogether that should be represented here? Let me know how you approach world-building.

Why everyone should read Fantasy

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012


“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson 

We are what we read. In big ways and small, the books, articles and even social commentary that we ingest fuels our thinking like vegetables of the mind. Some never eat a bite without studying each tiny morsel to determine if it will suit their constitution; others gorge on anything placed in front of them, possibly trusting that a highly developed internal organ, the stomach of their consciousness, will somehow sort the wheat from the chaff.

But I don’t mean to pontificate on the importance of evaluating what we read; rather to point out that what we read is relevant to more than our entertainment.

What we read educates us, stimulates us. In some ways it defines us. Reading exposes us to experiences vast and varied, dangerous and exotic—all from the safety of our favorite chair.

So why should fantasy be at the top of our most-nutritious list?

We need but glance at the tropes that define the genre to understand. If you’ve partaken of fantasy at all, you’ll have tasted such tropes as the “hapless farmboy against the Ultimate Evil Dark Lord.” There’s a lot of chatter and criticism about this one, and it certainly qualifies as an overused plot element—you’ll see countless interpretations of it in novels across the genre.

But it’s been done so often for a reason. Like all lasting ideas, an element of truth in this one equally resonates with each of us. I invite you to look beyond the trope for a moment and see the “hapless farmboy” for what it represents.

It’s a coming of age story, one that invites all of us to recall our own moments of inadequacy, struggle, heartbreak and triumph. It presents the idea that even the smallest person can make a difference in society—that in fact, all of us are important. It takes up epic battles between good and evil, and as our farmboy pits himself against forces far larger than himself, we are invited to look at ourselves and see how we might also grow, how we might learn to face those Ultimate Evils in our own lives.

Within the farmboy’s journey, we see him gain courage, honor, integrity—even often aspects of nobility. Whether we’re ingesting without thinking or thoughtfully digesting each chapter as we go, these ideas mold and change how we think. When you’re reading fantasy, such ideas of nobility, courage and honor begin to infuse your everyday life. Who couldn’t do with a little more chivalry in the world? A little more compassion? A little more understanding or granting of importance to others?

Fantasy invites us to explore the best qualities of mankind, and in so doing, we cannot help but begin to look at ourselves and each other in a more healthful light.

Why Everyone Should Read Fantasy Part 2: Speculative Fiction is the Motor of Progress

(This article was originally written for Sapphyria’s Book Reviews. Please see her blog for reviews on more great fantasy novels.)

This is the space, this is the place

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Here it is, your first sneak peak from The Dagger of Adendigaeth, A Pattern of Shadow & Light Book 2!  

 Chapter One


“Nobility is birthed not of blood but of the heart.”

- Gydryn val Lorian, King of Dannym


The temple of the Prophet Bethamin in Tambarré was built upon the ruins of a much older structure, one that first belonged to the ancient and corrupt Quorum of the Sixth Truth. For two long millennia, the massive complex stood crumbling atop its lonely mountain, a stark reminder of the Adept race’s darkest days. During all the intervening years, none had seen fit to approach it, much less build something new from its ashes.

But time thins the cloth of memory. As the ages pass, its rich colors fade. Strong wool is beaten by the elements until the pattern of its lesson disintegrates, leaving holes in the truths it was meant to carry on. Even the stains of blood blend and bleed, leaving but faded blotches without meaning, mere shadows of lessons that came before, their warnings lost within the obscure impression that remains.

As the strong Saldarian sun dove westward, the Agasi truthreader Kjieran van Stone stood upon the newly rebuilt walls of the Prophet’s temple, staring north. The wind blew his shoulder-length black hair into his eyes, so he held up a hand to hold it back that it might not distract him from the view. In the distance, the upper crescent of the Dhahari mountain range merged with the Iverness range of southeastern Dannym to form jutting, snowcapped peaks as impassible as they were forbidding. Only the Pass of Dharoym permitted travel between Dannym and Saldaria, and it was guarded day and night by hardened men sworn to the Duke of Morwyk.

Kjieran missed Dannym. He missed its green hills and misty grey mornings, its forbidding forests and charcoal seas. He missed the heavy snows of winter, and the north wind that scoured the land; and he missed the people—especially his king. In his years of service to Gydryn val Lorian, the monarch had become like a father to him, and his sons like the brothers Kjieran never had. In many ways, he missed Dannym more than his homeland of Agasan.

Though to be fair, he would’ve just as willingly served ten years before the mast on an Avataren slaver than spend even one more night in Tambarré.

At the behest of his king and the Fourth Vestal Raine D’Lacourte, Kjieran had been truth-bound to secrecy and sent south to serve the Prophet as a spy for the north. He was afraid to do it—he’d nearly wept the night Raine truth-bound him—but the kingdom had no one better suited to go in his stead, and their need was dire.

The Fourth Vestal believed—they all believed—that the plot to end the val Lorian reign encompassed more than a single throne, and had not the king and queen already sacrificed enough with the loss of two of their sons? Kjieran could hardly refuse them, though he suspected that Tambarré would be his doom.

Little did he realize then that there were so many shades of grey within the spectrum of imminent death…that when a man might pluck any variety of poisoned fruit from the Tree of Dying and suffer the ending through myriad torments—drawing it out for months, even years—that death itself might become a mercy.

But he understood that much better now.

Kjieran had served the Prophet for six moons, and every day of it had been a waking horror. Every day he reminded himself of his vital purpose, of their desperate need—not just Dannym’s, but all of Alorin. For without this hope to ground him, to shore up his fortitude and replenish his courage, he knew he would long ago have fled. Instead, each night he warded his dreams before laying down his head, loath to close his eyes for fear of the visions that lurked beyond his sight. But despite his best efforts, when dawn broke each morning, he still woke with a stifled scream.

They all did, the occupants of Tambarré—that is, those who slept at all.

At the sound of a voice raised in anger, Kjieran turned from his wistful study of the mountains. The conversation floated to him on the stagnant air that came seeping out of the temple hall, where large copper braziers glowed day and night. The Ascendants burned incense on those coals, and the oily smoke stained the walls and filled the air with a foul, fetid haze. When he heard the Prophet’s voice, however, Kjieran hurried inside, for Bethamin misliked when his acolytes were not close to hand.

“Those patterns are bound with the fifth strand,” the Prophet was saying in a tone of cold censure as Kjieran crept soundlessly through the vestry. “My hold upon a Marquiin should’ve been impossible to break—unless you’ve been misleading me, Dore.”

“My lord, I wouldn’t dream of misleading you,” came the sycophantic voice of Dore Madden, an Adept wielder and advisor to the Prophet. Kjieran stifled a shudder as he drew up just short of the temple nave. Dore Madden made his skin crawl, and he would just as soon not have the man know he was there.

He inched his head around the archway to see Dore and the Prophet standing about ten paces away. The cadaverous frame that was Dore Madden stood in profile to Kjieran, facing the Prophet as he continued, “The fifth strand acts as the sand in concrete, my lord. Any time one layers patterns of differing strands, they must be bound with the fifth if they are to endure. And like sand into the concrete mix, once bound, they cannot be separated.”

“Then you tell me how it was done!” the Prophet hissed. Kjieran had never seen him so infuriated. Usually Bethamin was all cold dispassion no matter the horrific deeds happening in his name…or in his midst. Bethamin turned away from Dore and stood with hands clasped behind his back, his stance conveying his ultimate displeasure.

The Prophet was a tall man and broad of shoulder. He wore his long black hair in hundreds of braids, each strand bound four times with tiny gold bands, the mass contained by more elaborate braids encircling the whole and again bound in gold. Bare-chested, he wore a tunic of white linen and loose desert pants, and the gold torc around his neck was always bright against his caramel skin. He was imposing. He was coldly arrogant. And he was terrifying.

“My lord, there is no way for me to know how it was done without inspecting the Marquiin who died or interrogating the perpetrator,” Dore said in a soothingly obsequious tone. He smoothed his white hair back from his wide forehead and licked his lips, which he had a habit of doing. Kjieran thought the man just one generation removed from the foulest of desert lizards. “You heard the testimony of your Ascendant as well as I, my lord,” Dore continued. “He saw this northern prince sully your Marquiin right before his own eyes, resulting in the untimely death of one of your most loyal servants. ‘Tis surely the divine grace that is upon you, my lord, that your Ascendant found his way back to us with the terrible news. We must send someone in search of this treacherous wielder who thinks himself above you and seeks to undo your great work. Such a man could cause all manner of mischief while sullying the purity of your name, my lord.”

The Prophet turned Dore a piercing look over his shoulder.

“But more importantly,” Dore continued, leaning toward the Prophet with a wild look in his reptilian gaze and dropping his voice to note, “this happenstance surely proves the validity of my concerns, my lord. We need stronger stock to carry your sigil.”  This issue was a bone of contention between Dore and the Prophet—Kjieran had overheard the argument many times. The Prophet turned away again, but Dore continued as his voice rose in pitch, “Wielders and men of the fifth are better suited to your Fire than these feeble fourth-stranders, my lord. Your power is too strong for them as are inborn of frail innocence. Only those born of the fifth might withstand the Fire’s brilliance. They would become beacons for its radiance, my lord! A far more fitting receptacle than a truthreader’s fragile shell.”

“This is not the first time you’ve expressed this sentiment, Dore Madden,” the Prophet observed uninterestedly. “The problem is the resources available.”

“Yes, but I may have solved that problem, my lord.” 

Kjieran could tell from the dreadful eagerness in Dore’s tone that the man had been waiting for just the right moment to reveal this new information. Kjieran loathed Dore Madden. Dore was the one who’d taught the Prophet what patterns could be twisted and snarled, perverted or adapted to host the power of his Fire. Every day the wielder brought Bethamin new patterns to try, having first tested them on the dungeons of doomed souls he kept as experimental rats scattered about Saldaria, many of them inexorably bound to him with the fifth.

Much to Kjieran’s chagrin, the Prophet took Dore’s bait. “Indeed? How?”

“There is a man—my most prized student—whom I’ve been working on for some years now. With the right compulsion patterns, I have succeeded in waking him to the currents of elae.

Elae,” the Prophet hissed. “An abomination.”

“Indeed, indeed,” Dore clucked, “but one must do things in their proper order, my lord. First my protégé had to learn to sense elae in its natural channels. Then he could be taught to work its patterns and then, my lord,” and here he leveled his snake-eyed gaze at the Prophet’s back, “then he could be taught to work your power.”

The Prophet turned to him. “A common man?”

“Yes, my lord,” Dore replied, eyes alight with fervor. “But we are yet in the early stages of this sequence. Still, I have succeeded in my use of compulsion. I have made a common man into a wielder.”

“A fine accomplishment,” the Prophet noted. “I do not see how he could be brought to work my Fire. A man is but a man.”

“Yes, my lord, but there is a way.” 

Dore had the Prophet’s full attention now. “Tell me how,” Bethamin commanded.

Dore’s black eyes veritably glowed with malice. He licked his lips and offered, “Long have we dreamed of a force of wielders, an army worthy of carrying your sigil, an army to spearhead our vital quest to rid this world of the offensive abomination that is elae and all of its accursed children.”

“Indeed,” remarked the Prophet in annoyance. “Do not sermonize to me on my own cause, Dore Madden.”

“My lord,” Dore continued unctuously, “such a force exists already, though they are small and of no use to us. Yet they work a similar power to your own—deyjiin it is called.”

The Prophet’s expression darkened. “What army is this?”

“The Shades, my lord,” Dore whispered with dutiful awe. He licked his lips again. “Long have Shades dwelled in the anathematized realm of T’khendar, bound to the Fifth Vestal, Björn van Gelderan. We cannot use them for our purposes, no, but we can learn from the Fifth Vestal’s skill—indeed, indeed,” he added then, rubbing his hands together and gazing up at the Prophet with wild-eyed glee, “for three centuries I have been working to discover the patterns the Fifth Vestal used to bind the Shades to him—for make no mistake, my lord. They are not merely under compulsion, as your Marquiin, with only a small tendril of power available to do your great work. No, the Shades are bound to Björn van Gelderan body and soul. Through him, they are able to wield his dark power in all its fullness.”

Deyjiin,” murmured the Prophet, and Kjieran shivered from the ominous interest in his eyes. Abruptly Bethamin focused his gaze upon Dore. “You have found these patterns?”

“Not entirely,” Dore confessed, a momentary frown flickering across his cadaverous features, “but my work progresses at great speed.”  He licked his lips again. “It won’t be long now, my lord.”

The Prophet regarded him intently. “And the man who vilified my Marquiin?”

Yes,” Dore said, drawing the word into a hiss. “This Ean val Lorian—he must be brought to face your justice, my lord. The job of retrieving him will be a most fitting quest for my star pupil—a most fitting quest—and a proving ground for his newfound skills. You will see, my lord.” Dore licked his lips and rubbed his hands with savage delight. “You will see then how our plans may finally be achieved!”

Kjieran inwardly swore, for the news was both baffling and grave. A host of factions already wanted Ean’s death. Now to have Dore Madden after him as well? And how in Tiern’aval did Ean unbind a Marquiin? From what Kjieran knew of the young prince, he had no Adept talent.

I must get word to the Fourth Vestal at once.

Bethamin meanwhile was considering Dore with his darkly piercing eyes. At last, and much to Kjieran’s mounting horror, he said, “Let it be done.”

Dore’s expression came as close to ecstasy as a cadaver could look, as though death had claimed him in the last moments of coitus, just as release shuddered through him. “Thank you, my lord.” He bowed eagerly and headed off.

The Prophet turned to look directly at Kjieran then, and the truthreader had no doubt that the man had known he was there all the while. “Come, Kjieran,” he commanded.

Kjieran exited the vestry into the nave where the Prophet stood wreathed in haze. He seemed an unearthly creature with his braids like serpents and his bare chest as muscled as the finest marble statue, with his dark eyes and exotically handsome features. The Prophet was terrible and bewitching and darkly compelling, and Kjieran had never been so afraid of any living man. 

What disturbed him the most was that though he knew Bethamin to be wholly without compassion and intent upon the destruction of their world—Kjieran saw the corruptive influence of his Fire and the horrific anguish it caused—yet still he was drawn to the man in spite of these!

Yea, what terrified Kjieran van Stone the most about the Prophet Bethamin was the sure knowledge that he was no more immune to the Prophet’s seductive power than anyone else.

Kjieran knelt before the Prophet, head bowed. “My lord,” he whispered.

“Kjieran, you told me you were trained in Patterning,” said the Prophet.

Kjieran kept his eyes on the floor. The Prophet misliked the colorless eyes of a truthreader, yet he kept a few unsullied ones around to advise him, as if knowing that his Marquiin, once touched by his own fell power, were tainted and thereby useless for discerning the truth. The hypocrisy sickened Kjieran. “Yes, my lord. I trained in Agasan’s Sormitáge.”

“Dore would have me believe there is such a pattern as he describes. Is it so?”

“If there is, I do not know it.”

“And these Shades of which he spoke? They exist?”

“I have never seen one, my lord, but they were a terrifying force during the Adept Wars. Dore would know them better than I, my lord. He survived the fall of the Citadel and is one of the Fifty Companions.”

The tragedy of this truth anguished Kjieran no end. That Dore Madden survived while so many good men fell—it was a bitter irony how the treacherous walked free while thousands of innocents had gone to their deaths.

The Prophet reached down and took Kjieran by the chin, guiding him to rise. His touch felt as deeply cold as a river stone long caressed by the glacial melt; achingly cold, like bare flesh held too long to the snow. Kjieran kept his eyes downcast while the Prophet considered him, only praying that whatever Bethamin found in his countenance would please him enough to let him be on his way again.

In the privacy of his chambers, the Prophet liked to experiment with the darkest of workings—bindings and compulsions and corrupted first-strand patterns that tormented rather than healed—and the man maintained the utmost reserve throughout the process, no matter how insanely the subject screamed. Kjieran found no rhyme or reason in who was chosen for these intervals, nor even any way to predict who would survive them. He merely prayed that Fate would close its eye to him in that moment while his heart beat frantically and he sipped his breath in tiny measures.

“Thank you, Kjieran,” came the Prophet’s deep voice. He released Kjieran’s chin. “That will be all.”

“Your will be done, my lord,” Kjieran managed, barely able to mumble the words for the ache in his jaw. He retreated to the vestry as quickly as he dared and then raced down the hall and into a prayer alcove, pulling its curtain roughly into place. He collapsed against the wall then, shaking uncontrollably and fighting back the tension and fear that clenched his chest in a death-like vise. Sliding down to the floor, Kjieran hugged his knees to his chest and wept in silence. He wept in relief and he wept in despair.

For in that moment when the Prophet held him fast, an overpowering yearning to please his lord had possessed him. It felt wholly wrong—he knew this—a compulsion laid upon him so expertly that he couldn’t tell anything was being worked at all. Yet he had been unable to resist it—to resist him. Kjieran knew that had the Prophet asked him in that moment to do anything—anything—he would have done it willingly. So Kjieran wept in gratitude that Fate’s hand had passed him by, and he wept with the terrible understanding that the next time Fate’s eye fell upon him, he might not be so graced. 

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