Being the Best: Jessamy in Court of Fives

Originally posted on Once Upon a Twilight for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:


When I was in high school a friend of mine confessed that she deliberately scored poorly on tests. She didn’t want to do better than the boys, she said, because boys didn’t like girls who out-performed them and would therefore never ask them out on a date (this was back in the days when the custom was that boys had to ask girls out on a date, never a mutual ask or a girl asking a boy).
Her comment stuck with me. I was smart and competitive; I got excellent grades and I played sports and did pretty well; and, yes, I didn’t “get a date” then. Don’t worry. It’s not necessary to get a date in high school to have the life you want afterward. It worked out for me.
As I grew older and read more I saw how often, both in narrative and in society, girls and women could be good at things as long as they weren’t better than boys and men. As long as, in the unlikely event that they were better, they stayed modest about it. Or hid their light under a bushel. Or gracefully allowed themselves to be surpassed as the boy or man came into his true power. A woman who was too good had to be alone, or she had to choose between career and family, or she had to be described as “as good as a man” as if excellence is a male virtue and a male calling.
Thankfully times have changed. These assumptions are no longer considered “how it is.” However, elements of those old attitudes still drift along the edges of many fictional works (as well as in real life, where too much “attention” to girls and woman being successful can cause backlash among some people concerned that boys are now being neglected). This is why stories about girls becoming the best they can be still feel revolutionary to me, because of that long twilight in which girls were told they ought not to be so unfeminine as to be excellent, that assertiveness isn’t womanly, that they ought not want to compete at all.
When I wrote Court of Fives I deliberately chose to push right at that tender spot. I wanted to write about a girl who is an athlete, who wants to win, who wants never to lose. A girl who isn’t afraid to harness that energy, who is willing to train and work hard, who will never let up. Those qualities allow her to become good at running a game called the Fives, but they also serve her well when she has to navigate obstacles off the court.
Writing the main character, Jes, in this way wasn’t the only part of the equation. When she meets Lord Kalliarkos, it opens up the whole relationship of how and when girls get to be successful. So often the boy or man plays a mentor relationship to the girl or woman whose story is about becoming her true self or finding a sense of worth or realizing her potential through the intervention of a man. I love those stories about becoming and worth and potential too, and I’ve written versions of them.
But in this case I wanted to write about a boy who respects her skill, who admires her competitiveness, who talks to her for the first time because he thinks she can help him improve. How interesting would it be, I thought, to write a confident male character who notices a girl for the first time not because she is pretty or beautiful, not because of her sexy body or how she dresses and acts toward men, not because she is a innately magical girl or a chosen one who is therefore desirable, but because she is skilled and successful through her own efforts. Because she’s better than he is at something he wants to succeed at.
As it happens, the story in Court of Fives doesn’t play out as a flipped version of that trope (girl mentors boy), but it still (I think) pushes against it. Jes is *already good* and the skills she has worked so hard to gain are crucial as she’s plunged into a terrible, disastrous situation and needs all her determination and fierceness to survive. Kalliarkos brings a different set of knowledge and skills that turn out to be equally crucial.
Every time we write a story we, as authors, are engaged in a conversation with our own expectations about how people interact, how they behave with each other, and how society believes they should, or shouldn’t, act. Many of the most exciting elements of writing target received wisdom, and say, “let’s see what happens if we turn this assumption on its head, if we look at it another way.”
Jes is my tribute to the ambitious girls and women who don’t let up and who never stop striving to be the best.

(Thank you again to Once Upon a Twilight for hosting the original guest post!)

 

The Death of Rostam (Shahnameh Readalong 30)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week we present an out of order chapter, the long-awaited podcast (hosted by the brilliant and magnificent Renay of Fangirl Happy Hour and Lady Business) in which you can hear Tessa and I discuss in person with each other the project, and the death of the great hero Rostam, about which we have many complicated thoughts.

Here’s an image of his death together with his loyal horse Rakhsh.

2-death-of-rostam

Find this week’s discussion on the Fangirl Happy Hour podcast.

Here’s another image of his death, using marquetry (inlaid wood):

death-of-rostam

Next week: We hop back to the regular sequence and, after the death of Sekander, continue on with The Ashkanians.

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2

When First Draft Experiments Don’t Work (But Are Worthwhile Anyway)

Originally posted on Dark Faerie Tales for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:


From the beginning I envisioned Court of Fives as a trilogy or maybe even as a quartet. When I first started thinking about the series I had an idea in which I would write the first book in Jes’s point of view and then add one sister’s pov to each subsequent book until the reader met all four “in person.”

So when I started writing the first draft of book two, Poisoned Blade, I tried writing in the point of view of Amaya, the youngest sister. She’s the pretty one who loves fashion and theater, who writes poetry, who pretends to dream of marriage even though she is really dreaming of a different kind of independence in a world that gives her few options. She’s over-dramatic and self-absorbed.

Here is the opening scene I wrote for her:


EXCERPT FROM FIRST DRAFT in Amaya’s Point of View:

Once upon a time, in a better world, a beautiful girl named Amaya Tonor, daughter of the honorable and exceptionally brilliant army officer Captain Esladas, attended the theater with her best and most beloved friend, the equally lovely Denya Tonor. Denya was the daughter of Captain Osfiyos who was also honorable but quite honestly not nearly as brilliant as Captain Esladas. However that fact is something a well bred young Patron woman would never mention in company and certainly not to her most doting and affectionate friend.

With what pleasure did Amaya and Denya watch their favorite play, the Hide of the Ox, for perhaps the hundredth time! They had every line memorized.

It so happened on that occasion that a pair of handsome cavalry officers looking quite dashing in the uniform of the king’s royal horse soldiers sat in the audience. Smote by the charming girls’ beauty and lively speech, the officers at once begged leave to address the solemn fathers, and begged leave to contract each a marriage with the girl who most caught his eye. Because the officers were well connected and rich, the fathers naturally agreed but with the proviso that the girls prove willing.

Thus it was that, holding hands, Amaya and Denya sat later that evening upon a garden bench while the two officers proclaimed themselves unworthy of the elegant delicacy and alluring virtue laid before them. Being officers, they would often be away fighting in the wars. But being brothers, as is the custom of Patron households, they shared a compound and thus the two girls would have each other to keep company with in the months and years their husbands were absent. Would these frequent and lengthy absences be an impediment too great an obstacle for the girls to leap?

No! No! the girls assured them. It would be entirely suitable and just what they most desired.

Once upon a time, in a better world, this is the story that would have unfolded upon the stage of my life.

Meanwhile my insensitive older sister Maraya faces me in the empty common room of the dump of an inn we now live in. As if kindly scolding a slow-witted child, she tells me I have to cut my glorious hair and smear mud on my face so I won’t be possibly be recognized by customers while I serve drinks and clean the floors at this ghastly ramshackle tavern.

“I won’t cut my hair just because you have brewed up a hundred horrible happenstances that will never come true!” I protest as Maraya crosses her arms, callously unimpressed by my reasonable retort. “Even if our father is a famous general now, ten days ago he was nothing more than a humble lowborn captain. He kept us four girls under such a tight rein it’s astounding he ever let me attend the theater with Denya and her family at all! No one will recognize me, especially now that most of the army has left the city.”

Maraya blocks the door that opens onto the street. “If Lord Gargaron’s stewards catch sight of you on the street, they will run to tell his lordship immediately.”

“Lord Gargaron and his stewards only saw me once, Merry. I know I have the sort of pleasingly beauteous face that attracts notice, but it strikes me as implausible that important Patron men would remember me.” If I catch her by surprise and shove her to the left, I might be able to bolt out the door before she can grab me. I can’t breathe in here! So I chatter on, hoping to distract her before I make my move. “It’s unfair I’m not even allowed to go to the market and buy food!”

“Amaya, can you think about something other than yourself for a single blink of an eye? Don’t you recall that Lord Gargaron had Father investigated to make sure he was the brilliant military commander who kept winning victories that gave honor and glory to Lord Ottonor? Don’t you recall that Lord Gargaron had Lord Ottonor murdered? He knows everything about us. He knew Jes secretly ran the Fives. Not even Father knew that!”

“Jes is the selfish one, not me! She ruined everything for the rest of us by sneaking out to run the Fives when she knew Father would never allow any of his daughters to do such a thing.”

“Don’t change the subject.” Maraya pierces my five souls with a deadly flat stare that makes me feel like a bug she is too bored to squash. “You ought to be grateful to Jes, since she is the one who rescued us from a living death in an oracle’s tomb.”

“Of course I am grateful but this wretched compound might as well be my tomb if I can’t ever leave its walls.” I sob a little, as actresses do to show the depth and intensity of their scorned feelings.

“Do you have any idea how tedious you are, Amaya?”

“You have the heart of a fish! Cold and sluggish!”

She snorts indelicately. “Is that a quote from a bad play?”

“No!” I say quickly, even though it is a line from a play I wrote, which no one knows about except Denya.

“Thank the gods,” she replies.

“No one appreciates me!” I mutter in an undertone, but Maraya hears me and in reply sighs so heavily her disparagement might as well be a huge wreath of withering flowers shedding dying petals all around her.

“Amaya? Maraya? Are you in here? It’s so dim without the shutters open.”

Mother appears at the curtain that hides the kitchen from the front room where drinks and food are served. She has to lean against the wall to hold herself up.

I rush over to her. “You shouldn’t be walking yet, Mother! Did the healer give you permission to get up? You are supposed to stay in bed until the bleeding stops.”

“What a scold you have become, Amaya,” says Mother in her gentle voice as she takes my hands and squeezes them. As if she needs to reassure me! Her grip is so frail.

I burst into tears, fear choking my voice until it comes out as a leaky squeak. “You must go back to bed, Mother. You were so sick. Here, let me help you.”

Maraya hurriedly limps over to us and takes Mother’s other arm.

But instead of going back to her bed Mother sinks onto a bench, so we sit beside her. Although I no longer fear she will simply cease breathing and die while she sleeps, her normally radiant complexion looks gray with weariness. “I would like to see other walls just for a little bit. Let me rest here a while.”


After I wrote this I was surprised at how self-conscious Amaya’s voice was. As a writer I wasn’t sure whether that coyness was truly her voice, or whether *I* hadn’t gotten into the heart of her yet.

Regardless, it quickly became apparent for other reasons that the Court of Fives trilogy is Jes’s story to tell. I decided against using any other point of view except Jes to keep the story streamlined and focused, just as Jes herself is very focused, and I’ve been really happy with that decision as it plays out in Poisoned Blade and in book three, which I’m revising now (for a 2017 publication).

However, there were a couple of lines from my attempt to write in Amaya’s point of view that I wanted to keep, so when I wrote a scene toward the beginning of Poisoned Blade in which Jes visits her family, I managed to work those in.


EXCERPT FROM POISONED BLADE:

A drab curtain separates the front room [of the inn] where drink and food are served from the back where they are prepared. I smell bread grilling, but it is the familiar voices of my older and younger sister rising behind the curtain that captures my attention.

“It’s unfair I’m not even allowed to go to the night market!”

“To do what, Amaya? We don’t have money to buy anything. If Lord Gargaron’s stewards catch sight of you on the street, we’ll be discovered.”

“Lord Gargaron and his stewards only saw me once, Maraya. I know I have the sort of pleasingly beauteous face that attracts notice, but it strikes even me as implausible that important Patron men would remember.” By the strength of Amaya’s wheedling I can hear she has recovered from her near death by poisoned candied almonds in the tomb. “I can’t breathe in here! It doesn’t even have to be the night market. I’ll hide my face beneath a shawl and walk down by the water and breathe fresh air and listen to the mellifluous cries of the wind-kissed birds who are allowed to y free. Unlike me.”

“Do you have any idea how tedious you are, Amaya?”

“You have the heart of a sh! Cold and sluggish!” Amaya sobs as third-rate actresses do to show the depth and intensity of their scorned feelings. “This wretched compound might as well be my tomb if I can’t ever leave its walls.”

“Help me,” whispers Polodos with a look of such desperation that I giggle.

An abrupt silence follows my betraying laugh.

The curtain twitches as a person on the other side hooks it open just enough to peek through. I would know those lovely eyes anywhere.

I say, “Amaya, if you cut off all your hair, smear mud on your face, and wear a dirty canvas sack with a hole cut for your head, then you can safely go to the market without being recognized.”

With a shout of excitement, Amaya plunges into the room, flings herself upon me, and bursts into sobs while clutching me so tightly I have trouble breathing.

Maraya limps in, smiling. “Oh, Jes, I am so glad to see you! I was afraid it would be unsafe for you to visit us.”

They look just as they did back when we all lived well protected at home, only without the fashionable clothing, perfectly beribboned hair in the most up-to-date style, and fragrant oils and perfumes to hide the smell of sweat. Had we grown up without a successful Patron father who acknowledged us, girls like us might have lived in a place like this, scrambling to make a living and able to afford only cast-off dresses and mended muslin shawls for wrappings.

“How is Mother?” I ask into Amaya’s hair. When she hesitates I shove her to arm’s length, gripping her shoulders so hard she winces. “What’s wrong?”

“Jessamy? Is that you?” Mother appears at the curtain. She has to lean against the wall to hold herself up. She is as tall as I am, and the most beautiful person I know. But right now her dark brown complexion is sheeny with perspiration; her magnificent cloud of hair has been bound under a scarf; no earrings or jewelry ornament her, all the little gifts Father used to shower upon her. She coughs weakly. I rush over but Amaya bolts past me to reach her first.

“You shouldn’t be walking yet, Mother! You are supposed to stay in bed until every trace of bleeding stops.”

“What a scold you have become, Amaya,” says Mother in her gentle voice as she takes my hands as if she needs to reassure me. Her grip is so frail that I fear I might squeeze hard enough to shatter her without meaning to. “I am so glad you have come back, Jessamy. Is Bettany with you?”

Anguish chokes my voice until it comes out as a leaky squeak. “You must go back to bed, Mother. You were so sick. Here, let us help you.”

Amaya takes Mother’s other arm.

She sinks down onto the nearest bench. “I would like to see other walls just for a little while. I have not been out of that tiny room since we came here.”

Amaya and I sit on either side, snuggling close against her as we used to do when we were little.


For me, a large part of writing and revising is knowing when to discard an idea or approach, however painful it may be to throw out work I’ve already done, and when to repurpose it, as in the rewritten Jes-narrated scene. Experimenting with Amaya’s point of view gave me some insight into how the sisters interacted that I might not have noticed otherwise. That’s the great thing about experimentation during the first draft: It might turn out brilliantly, or you might have to throw it away, but regardless it’s a great way to look at your story from a different angle.

 

(Thank you again to Dark Faerie Tales for hosting this guest post!)

The Reign of Sekander – part two – (Shahnameh Readalong 29)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out this  AMAZING post by Rachel W in which she works out the complicated genealogy of our main and secondary characters.

This week we are again skipping over The Death of Rostam and continuing on with the first part of The Reign of Sekander. Tessa and I, with the assistance of the able Renay of blog Lady Business and podcast The Fangirl Happy Hour, recorded a 30 minute conversation about our feelings about The Death of Rostam. We will post that for your listening pleasure as soon as Renay has edited it to her satisfaction so soon. Meanwhile, we forge onward.

Synopsis: “The second part of Sekandar’s reign, during which he travels the known world, seeking knowledge and power, until he dies of illness in Babylon.”

TG: This section alone feels like it could have been 500 pages of adventuring. So much happened, so many lands and people were visited, and they were all fascinating! I caught myself several times trying to figure out what places and cultures they were referencing. Obviously the women of Harum are connected to stories of the Amazons, with their matriarchy and manly left breast. Possibly some of the naked, blue-faced barbarian fighters were Celts or Norseman? I’m most interested in the city where the “men have soft feet!” What does that mean?

Sekandar continues to use his trickster ways, which is not only fun, but a very consistent characterization. He tries yet AGAIN to gain information from a king by pretending to be his own envoy! His army must just have gotten used to it. I was especially surprised he uses trickery to kill the dragon by filling the cow-skins with poison. That doesn’t seem very heroic to me — I can’t imagine Rostam killing a dragon like that. And yet, it works, and Sekandar is praised for it.

The most interesting thing to me in all his wandering were the frequent death visions: Sekandar saw several corpses, seeming to symbolize his fate. The dead king high on the mountain, surrounded by treasure and fame, but still dead. The angel Esrafil told him his death would come soon. The speaking tree gave him a precise time of death…. it seems no matter how far Sekandar searched out answers and curiosities, he always had to be reminded that death could not be defeated or solved. He didn’t even achieve the Waters of Life (though it seems his friend Khezr does, and then we hear no more of him?!?).

It was neat to see Arestalis come back in, and bestow wisdom to Sekandar, who then listened to that wisdom absolutely, even though it was connected to his death.

And I loved that Sekandar’s final words of wisdom, which in previous episodes have been relayed from dying king to his son and heir, Sekandar gave to his mother.

I do feel like the Shahnameh is taking a big turn as we leave Sekandar behind, the “world is changing” as Sekandar keeps being told, and the time of epic heroes may be passing as we get more and more connected to real history.

sikander-kills-dragon

Sekander kills the dragon

KE: I’m dealing with multiple things going on at the same time so I don’t have any extensive commentary except that I loved this. The whole Sekander section has fascinated me both for historical and psychological reasons, and this final segment has such a fabulist and yet also deeply philosophical aesthetic that it was a delight to read. He is always asking questions. There is, I think, a direct correlation thematically between his wanting to “conquer the world” and also to answering the big questions, including the most important one, about death, and of course there is no way to defeat death as the stories tell us over and over again.

Every episode in this sequence was amazing, from the city of women (where they allow him alone to sneak in and look around) to the wonders, and the death visions, and the final letters to his teacher and his mother.

And, yes, I can’t help but love that the only person to see through his trickster-envoy ways is still, and always, Queen Qaydafeh.

Like you, I feel that the tenor of the story must now change, that maybe we are leaving behind the mythic and entering history.

Next week: The Ashkanians

 Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1

Keeping the Story Alive: Writing the Second Novel in the Series

Originally posted on Such a Novel Idea for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:

“How do you write a second novel in a series so it keeps alive the excitement of book one AND expands the story in a way that makes readers anxious for book three?”

BASIC ELEMENTS:

** Give the second book its own introductory lead-in so you don’t have to use boring re-cap. Avoid info-dumping the events of the previous book: “On a quiet morning, Kaitlyn sat on her porch and thought about everything that had happened to her last week for three pages of non-action, and then the zombies attacked.” Start with the zombies; parcel out backstory only where and when you need it…

** Even if the second book follows right on the heels of the previous book’s events, pretend it is a brand new book in a brand new series to try to get that fresh feeling. I worked hard to make the opening of Poisoned Blade become a place a new reader could feel comfortable. While the story is a continuation from book one, the first page introduces a new miniature conflict and action that is perfectly understandable by itself when Jes decides to sneak into a place she’s not allowed to enter.

** When you can, use interactions between characters to reveal the information you need to know. That way you both help the reader orient themselves in the plot and setting AND heighten the characterization by deepening your character relationships.

** Character growth, character growth, character growth. Relationships are the fabric of character growth. Book two can and should deepen and complicate your characters.

BUT WHAT KIND OF SERIES ARE YOU WRITING?

There are many different kinds of series these days, and each one puts a different kind of pressure on a second book. Avoiding a sophomore slump with the second novel in a series starts with a close look at what kind of series you are writing. That way you can identify the part your second volume needs to play in the overall series.

Here are four possible scenarios. Remember, there are more than four scenarios; these are just examples to get you thinking about how to approach your own situation.

1) Your first novel was a standalone with a beginning, middle, and end, and your publisher has asked you to write a sequel. In this case, you want to make sure you aren’t just repeating the plot or character arc of the first book.

Open up the world. Change the direction of the character’s journey. Introduce a new conflict that isn’t a version of the original one. Deepen your character relationships or add a new complicating character.

For example (I’m making this up as I’m typing), after a world-altering firestorm our heroine Tania leads a ragtag group of refugees across a blasted wilderness to the safety of a domed city. That’s book one, and can be read as a complete and satisfying story. But book two reveals that the society in the domed city is corrupt and unjust, using refugees as unpaid labor, and so Tania is forced to lead a revolution to grant refugees the same citizenship rights as others.

The benefit to this “follow-up” scenario is that you can write book two as if it is a standalone too. A reader should be able to pick up book two without having read book one, even if knowledge of book one will amplify and intensity a reader’s understanding of the character dynamics.

A trilogy can also function as related but standalone installments, with some recurring characters and a thematic narrative arc that sits like an umbrella over all three books. In this case the second book must relate somehow to the first and also link to the third, while holding its own as a complete story. A good example of this form is N K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. The second book, The Broken Kingdoms, introduces a protagonist who does not appear in book one, while her love interest was a major player in book one. The events of book two, while self contained, are a natural progression from repercussions of the events in book one and cause ripples that spill through book three without book three being a direct continuation of book two.

2) You’ve written a duology in which the story takes place across two books. In a way this is the easiest second-book scenario because the second book is the latter half of a single story split into two volumes, with the climax and conclusion coming at the end of book two.

3) You’re writing an episodic series, similar to a tv series with a continuing cast of characters and a mystery or mission of the week. Book one introduces the main character, her sidekicks, & the overall situation (think Leverage’s Robin-Hood-like “we right wrongs caused by the powerful abusing the powerless” or “my mental powers allow me to see a potential death and thus try to prevent it” and so on). A mystery or mission is introduced and solved.

Book two therefore carries the weight of building on the readers’ connection to the characters, while offering a new and entertaining episode-length plot.  The challenge with this scenario is to avoid the info-dump introduction (as per “Basic Elements” above ) and to create a new adventure for this installment that is at minimum as exciting as the first one and preferably bigger and bolder. Add a new antagonist. Expand the world. Add a love interest. Plot out your basic outline for how you want the entire series to go. Decide whether your larger series plot direction is to create bigger and bigger stakes OR to create a close intimate study. Both can work.

For example (again, I’m making this up as I’m typing), volume one introduces our heroine, weary security officer Jo-jo who works at rundown backwater Space Station Tau keeping the peace. In book one, there’s a murder in one of the airlocks which she solves with the help of her trusty robot associate while that annoying administrative chief she’s kind of attracted to keeps hounding her about sticking to protocol even though it’s only by going outside protocol that she can solve the mystery. In book two, a battered space ship arrives with news of a terrifying alien invasion in a nearby solar system, but the station’s governing council doesn’t believe the rakish captain who has a history of smuggling and ration-busting activity; then it turns out that maybe an alien spy stowed away on the ship, and it’s up to Jo-jo and the captain to find the spy before that entity can get off the station and return to the invaders with crucial intelligence. At this point maybe you start thinking about whether you want a war to break out on the frontier. If you do, in book three refugees form the fighting can arrivg at Tau, with the search for a missing child providing the central mystery. Then in book four Jo-jo might get drafted into the space navy as an intelligence officer, and maybe the rakish captain and the contraband ship is drafted into service as well and the annoying admin chief is assigned to go along . . . this is how a story world starts opening up into bigger and bigger stakes. For a close, intimate study, you would stick to mysteries and missions ON the space station and neighboring areas (the planet, the asteroid belt) and concentrate on the character development and character journeys rather than a galloping plot.

4) The classic trilogy is a single connected story that takes three books to tell. The biggest mistake writers make in this scenario with second books is by spinning their wheels. A second book should raise the stakes. It should move the plot and character development forward in such a way that, if the reader were to skip book two and go directly to book three, they would not be able to orient themselves in the story because they would have missed major events and character changes.

For example, if in book one our heroine is sent on a quest to find four magical artifacts to defeat the Evil Overlord and manages to discover two by the end of the first volume, book two should not consist of her continuing the quest in the same way and finding the other two at its end. That sort of plot can easily become static with the quest element dragging on longer than it needs to when in fact the most dramatic element is the looming battle against the powerful antagonist.

Without spoilers, I’ll mention three ways in which I accomplished stakes-raising in Poisoned Blade.

1) Jes learns new things about the world she lives in that change the way she looks at the people and conflicts surrounding her. The reader learns them with her.

2) She travels outside the city of Saryenia, which allows the reader (as well as Jes) to get a look at the wider world.

3) Major events alter the trajectory of the plot.

I’m an architectural writer so I like to think of each book in a series as part of a bigger framework. I consider what I want the narrative to accomplish in book two. Where does the book need to take the story so it ends at the perfect launching point for book three?

Remember: There is no right answer for sequels that works for ALL books; there is only AN answer for each specific novel. That’s both the challenge and the beauty of writing a series.

(Thanks again to Such A Novel Idea for originally hosting this as a guest post!)

POISONED BLADE Blog Tour Interviews

Leading up to and following the recent release of POISONED BLADE, the sequel to Court of Fives, Kate Elliott embarked on a YA blog tour of guest posts and interviews to discuss her YA series, her writing process, and more. Here is a full compilation of the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour interviews:

  • YA Interrobang – Maybe, Just Maybe, A Kiss (Interview)
    What can Court of Fives fans look forward to in Poisoned Blade?
    More Fives. An arrogant but charming poet who dreams of rebellion. Travel outside Saryenia on a quest to find her missing sister, in the company of the man she hates most. A lot more about spiders. And of course a person she doesn’t expect to meet in the desert. And maybe, just maybe, a kiss.
  • SFFWorld (Interview)
    In your own words, who is Kate Elliott?
    That’s a hard question to answer! I make up worlds. I write epic stories. I keep working to improve at my craft. I’m stubborn, and my goal is to remain a person who learns and stays curious for my entire life. Few things scare me as much as the idea of no longer wanting to ask questions, see new places and try new things, and meet new people and ways of life.
  • Adventures in YA Publishing – On Listening to the Main Character’s Heart (Interview)
    What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?That I have to listen to the main character’s heart, even when it is something I don’t want to hear. Often the plot twists and character decisions that make me most uncomfortable are the most gripping and true.
  • Two Chicks on Books – On Poisoned Blade (Interview)
    What kind of research did you have to do for the story? There’s a lot of American Ninja Warrior-like courses, did you marathon the shows for inspiration?
    Yes I was forced to watch a lot of American Ninja Warrior and Sasuke (the original Japanese show). Also training montage clips like this of Stephen Amell in tv show Arrow. Believe me, I have really suffered for my art:

    https://youtu.be/xvxdpv5BKoo


Thank you to all of the host sites and interviewers for their cooperation and participation!

The Reign of Sekander- part one – (Shahnameh Readalong 28)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out this  AMAZING post by Rachel W in which she works out the complicated genealogy of our main and secondary characters.

This week we are again skipping over The Death of Rostam and continuing on with the first part of The Reign of Sekander. Tessa and I, with the assistance of the able Renay of blog Lady Business and podcast The Fangirl Happy Hour, recorded a 30 minute conversation about our feelings about The Death of Rostam. We will post that for your listening pleasure as soon as Renay has edited it to her satisfaction so soon. Meanwhile, we forge onward.

Synopsis: “The first part of Sekandar’s reign, during which he conquers several kingdoms, some with friendship, some with trickery, some with war.”

TG: I continue to find Sekandar delightful — I love that he refuses to give up his penchant for trickery and pretending to be who he’s not. It keeps him seeming youthful and very entertaining.

While the episode with Foor was pretty typical of episodes in the Shahnameh so far, the ways Sekandar allies himself with Kayd and Qaydafeh are very unique and fascinating.

Kayd’s defense of his land by giving up the four special gifts is so reminiscent of a fairy tale I could read it again and again, and yet the specifics ground it so firmly in Shahnemeh folklore and language I just am in love. The battle of wits that’s really a riddle game, the fairy princess, the goblet that will not be drained (not to mention the actual description of the rules by which that magic works! Be still my wizard heart!)… I was in heaven during this section.

And it’s about time we had a queen who not only rules and rules well, but who out-smarts Our Hero, and delights in doing so. She makes Sekandar blush, and laughs at him and her own prowess. I love Qaydafeh with all my heart.

The one thing that kept pulling me out of this was the anachronistic association between Sekandar and the cross, not to mention the explicit references to Christianity. Historical Sekandar lived ~300 years before Christ, and nothing in the Shahnameh so far has reminded me that it was written down hundreds of years after the events took place — if they took place — and that it likely stems from oral traditions unconcerned with chronology and documentation. This is also the first time, I believe, that Mecca is explicitly mentioned and as a holy city of God, not to mention the invocation of Abraham and his line of descendants. VERY interesting.

iskandar-qaydafeh

Qaydafeh taking no crap from Sekander as she shows him his lying face

KE: Yes, I really love how Sekander is portrayed in this. He is a great character (second only to Seyavash in my heart now).

But how fantastic is Qaydafeh!!! Note that she is an older woman, with grown sons, not a sexy princess available as a sexual partner. In fact, and this is really interesting to me, Sekander also communicates respectfully with Delaray, the mother of Roshanak-whom-he-marries), so there is a pattern here of showing him in relationships with older women that I find quite interesting (and not at all common either in the Shahnameh or in narrative in general).

But I have to quote from this simply adorable passage in which Qaydafeh calls out Sekander. How often have women thought (and less often said) this:

Qaydafeh laughed at his blustering manliness and his angry words. She said, “O lion-like king, don’t let yourself be led astray by your male pride!”

That she completely overturns the expected power dynamics between them is GOLD to me. GOLD. I could not stop laughing when she drops the portrait of him in his lap to let him know she knows who he really is.

Although Seyavash will always be in my heart, this may be my favorite sequence in the Book of Kings so far. Qaydafeh is never punished for being smart and wise and powerful. Her power is not upended (at least not so far). And given where part one left off (at page 500) I will be fascinated to see how she handles the apparent betrayal of her reckless and unwise younger son, Taymush, whom she has given permission to Sekander to school, as it were.

Whenever a well known historical Alexander episode pops up here I’m just so intrigued, for example the mutiny of the army and their complaint, which is a classic episode from the Western versions of his history as well.

Like you I’m fascinated by the presence of Christianity and Islam inserted into an historical period where they didn’t exist. Especially given the presence of Zoroastrianism during Esfandyar’s story. I don’t have any comment on it beyond how interesting it is to see the historical events of Sekander’s reign conflated with the present-day understanding of Ferdowsi’s world, in which the West WAS Christian and the Middle East WAS Muslim. Makes you think about how we create historical narrative in our own time, doesn’t it?

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Next week: the second part of The Reign of Sekander

 Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia

Court of Fives Educator’s Guide – NOW AVAILABLE

co5_educators-guide-previewFor any educators out there considering adding Court of Fives (and/or Poisoned Blade) to their curriculum, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has now issued an official Educator’s Guide. The guide includes class activities and discussion questions on women’s studies, prejudice and racism, code-switching, and more!

You can download the 4 page Court of Fives Educator’s Guide as a PDF here.

Read more about Court of Fives (and its sequel, Poisoned Blade) at Kate Elliott’s official website, too!

BURIED HEART Cover Reveal!

Just finished the recently released POISONED BLADE, the sequel to Court of Fives, and are left waiting anxiously for the exciting conclusion? Fear not, for today I can reveal the official cover for BURIED HEART, the third and final book in the Court of Fives trilogy:

buried-heart-cover-resizedBuried Heart will be available July 25, 2017. (Pre-order information is not yet available.) You can read more about the final installment of the Court of Five trilogy at Bustle.

NIGHT FLOWER Audio Soundtrack w/ Booktracks

NIGHT FLOWER, the e-novella prequel to Court of Fives now has an exclusive soundtrack from Booktracks. Synchronized to your reading speed, you can now fully immerse yourself in an auditory accompaniment to the story. The track is available for $4.99 and compatible with iOs and Android. Check out the free preview and download the track today!

night flower 1DESCRIPTION:
“Kiya is a commoner who has just arrived in the bustling city of Saryenia. Esladas is a member of the Patron ruling class and determined to prove himself in the army. His plans are disrupted by the outgoing and beautiful girl who sells him fruit in the market, though, despite the fact that neither of them speaks a word of the others language. Brief conversations and stolen moments together soon become something more, but when their divided cultures clash, Kiya and Esladas must decide if their blossoming love is worth becoming outsiders for the rest of their lives. Read the beginning of their legendary love story in this Court of Fives companion novella!”

Read more at Booktracks!