…just kidding. But all jokes aside, ARCs are making their way out into the world and a few people have asked me about one of the last pages, which announces the title for the sequel.

Ash Princess isn’t out until April 24th, 2018 and the next book won’t be out until Spring 2019, so it’s still aways away. I can’t share too much about it yet without spoiling the first book BUT I am thrilled to announce the title.

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EEEEE!! I have always hated titling books, but when my agent asked me to come up with summaries and titles for the rest of the series when we went on submission with Ash Princess, they somehow came easily. The titles, that is–the summaries were a whole different beast.

I wanted to keep the fire imagery constant but show a progression as Theo’s story moves forward. Lady Smoke captures the atmosphere and character of the book perfectly.

I love it and I hope you all do too!

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It has been a crazy busy month, hence the lack of posts, but in case you missed it, Bustle revealed the cover of Ash Princess!

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Covers are one of many things in publishing that authors have very, very little control over. In my case, I had a few conversations with my editor about the feel of the book and other covers we both loved, but then one day early in the year, she sent me a gorgeous cover design that was actually very close to the finished project.

It was so beautiful I couldn’t stop showing it to people–baristas, mailmen, even strangers on the street. I loved it so much.

And then Delacorte somehow made it even better.

A little background on the crown: in the book, Theo–the main character–is held captive in her own court by the people who invaded her country. She’s degradingly referred to as the Ash Princess and forced to wear a crown made of ashes to any public events that disintegrates over the course of the night.

It’s a central image in the book and I had my fingers crossed that it would make its way onto the cover, but I was unprepared for how phenomenally Delacorte would interpret it.

Seriously, I want to get it framed and hang it on my wall.

I also visited the Delacorte/Random House offices last week and the cover had inspired me to bring along a little surprise treat.

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Yes, those are Ash Princess Crown cookies! They’re made from a coffee sugar cookie base with cinnamon and topped with a honey glaze dyed black and sprinkled with red sugar crystals. In the book, the characters drink coffee with honey and cinnamon, so I wanted to represent those flavors in the cookies as well.

I’ve gotten some requests for the recipe, so here it is!

I adapted it from this recipe here and added a little extra cinnamon and the honey glaze.

You’ll need:

1 cup butter, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

2 tablespoons fresh ground coffee (can be decaf if, like me, you were baking with kids)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the glaze:

Powdered sugar

Milk

Honey

(No measurements for this, unfortunately, because I just eyeballed it. You’ll want to experiment to get the consistency right–too thick and it’ll never dry and swallow the sprinkles, too thin and it’ll slide right off the cookie)

Optional decoration: black food coloring, red sugar crystals.

The next bit I’m pasting directly from the above-mentioned website:

  1. In a mixer, cream together butter and sugar.
  2. In a small bowl, combine eggs, vanilla, and coffee until fully incorporated.
  3. In separate bowl add together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.
  4. Slowly add your egg mixture to the butter mixture until well combined. Slowly add flour mixture until fully combined, do not over beat.
  5. I would chill this dough for AT LEAST one hour, preferably overnight.
  6. When you are ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake for 8-10 minutes, or until edges are slightly golden. Allow cookies to cool completely before covering in any icing.

While the cookies are cooling, you can mix the icing. I have no exact instructions here except to say to start small and dry–you can always add more ingredients and milk, but you can’t take them out. You want it to not be watery, but thin enough that it spreads easily. If you want to add a bit of dye, you can do that now. Remember: this isn’t an icing, it’s a glaze so it should sit flat on top of the cookie.

Once the cookies cool, spread the icing (you can use a fancy brush if you have one, but I just used the back of a spoon) and IMMEDIATELY add the sugar crystals/sprinkles.

And the last and most important step: enjoy.

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Wiser writers have said that you never write two books the same way and I’ve realized this year more than ever how true that is. Drafting the second book in the Ash Princess series was one of the hardest things I’ve done even though Ash Princess itself came out somewhat easily. I knew the characters and the world right away and the voice just appeared one day out of thin air. It stands to reason that all of these things would be even more set when I started writing book two but that was…not the case. At all.

Now, I’m working on another book outside of that series and it’s a whole new experience. I’ve never been one to adhere too tightly to a structure but in this new project structure has been mandatory. We’re talking index cards and three act structures WITHIN three act structures. I’ve never been much of a free writer either, but suddenly my notebook was overflowing with daily free writes that took up pages and pages and delved deep into character arcs and relationship dynamics and world building. And it’s working in a way it probably wouldn’t have if I’d tried to write Ash Princess or its sequel the same way.

I’m attaching links to strategies that other writers have given, though it’s worth pointing out that these bits of advice were made to be adapted and adjusted as needed. So whether you’re a pantser or a planner or fluctuating somewhere in between like me, I hope you’ll find them helpful.

My go-to is Susan Dennard’s website. The Witchlands series author has written on just about everything authors need to know from coming up with ideas to the steps taken in traditional publishing. My favorite posts are the entire ‘How I Plan a Book’ series, but this post on the importance of Magical Cookies specifically, this post about productivity, and this post about endings. In all honesty, though, I could get lost on Susan’s site for hours on end.

I’ve fallen down a bit of a rabbit hole lately with the three act structure and one of the most helpful resources I’ve found has been Alexandra Sokoloff’s website. For the uninitiated, the three act structure is most commonly used in film but it’s a great way to craft compelling, page turning plots. Here is a practical dissection of the structure using Harry Potter. Interested in trying it out for yourself? This is a great intro post, about using this method with index cards and here is a list of common story elements that can be very helpful in figuring out what happens where in the plot.

And last but not least, one of the widest-reaching resources available for writers is Pub Crawl. If you aren’t familiar, you’re going to want to go ahead and bookmark it. The archives are full of just about every kind of post you could hope for–writing, plotting, editing, querying. It’s all just a click away with plenty of guest posts by some very familiar names. Here’s a post from Leigh Bardugo on coming up with ideas. Another post from Alexandra Bracken on handling criticism. One from Adam Silvera about the between book. This recent post from Patrice Caldwell about balancing a full time job with writing is one of my favorites, and not just because she talks about our lovely weekend writing group. It’s a virtual treasure trove of wonders, really.

What are your favorite online writing resources?

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Question: What does a unicorn have in common with a rejection-less author?

Answer: Neither one exists. (Sorry, unicorns.)

By this point, everyone knows about how many rejections J.K. Rowling received for Harry Potter. It’s a classic motivational story—J.K. Rowling is enormously successful now! Her books are modern classics that are beloved around the world! People name their dogs after her characters! And yet, most of the publishing professionals who initially read her manuscript didn’t see then what the world sees now.

Her story isn’t unique among authors. She isn’t the exception to the rule. There are no exceptions. Name an author—literally any traditionally published author—and I can guarantee you that they have dozens of rejections to their name. At the very least.

In my first blog post, I talked about the rejections I got for all of my queries, dating back eight years. There were over three hundred rejections in all, but let’s look just at my stats for Ash Princess.

I sent thirty-seven queries, which I sent out in batches every few weeks. I didn’t exhaust my query list because I signed with my agent before my list was done. Of those thirty-seven queries, I got thirty-three form rejections. Two revise and resubmits. Three full requests that bowed out after I got an offer. One offer. (Side note: my first offer came from a different agent for a different manuscript, which set off the above bow-outs.)

So that’s thirty-six Nos and one Yes. The ratio is pretty shitty, but it’s par for the course.

And one Yes is all it takes. Ash Princess sold at auction in a major deal. It’s since been sold in eleven other countries and territories. If I’d given up after ten rejections none of that would have happened and it certainly wouldn’t have happened if I’d been too scared of hearing no to query in the first place.

Unfortunately, that’s more common than you might think. I’ve talked to other querying authors who balk when I tell them how many agents I queried before I got an offer. Other authors have said they don’t want to query certain agents with all-star lists because they know it’ll only lead to rejection. Still more authors have said that they scrapped their book after getting just a few rejections because they think that means their manuscript is unsellable. And every time I hear these things, it makes me want to scream.

If there’s one thing I learned interning at agencies (and I learned a LOT, blog post to come) it’s that agents want to fall in love with your story. They get excited when a query grabs their attention, they wait impatiently for the manuscript. They want to enjoy it so much that they can’t stop talking about it. Taking on an author is a lot of work, it (usually) involves editing a manuscript and reading it a dozen times before sending it on submission and still loving it enough that you can pitch it to editors with passion, and then (usually) following it through on the rest of it’s journey. My agent continued to read every new draft even after I got an editor; at this point she’s read Ash Princess nearly as many times as I have! So, unfortunately, a lot of times an agent will really enjoy a book—love it even—but they’ll know that they just aren’t as in love with it as they need to be.

It sucks. Send more queries until you find an agent who who is.

Here’s an ugly truth: you will hear ‘no’ a lot in publishing. It’s unavoidable. You’ll hear it when you send out queries. You’ll hear it when you go on submission to editors with your first book. You’ll hear it when you’re selling your second, third, fourteenth book. You’ll hear no a lot from other people so there’s no point in wasting time saying it to yourself.

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Before I knew I wanted to write professionally, I wanted to act. I went to a theater/film high school and I majored in performing arts in college and even before that–at the tender age of two–I acted in a Rescue 911 reenactment where I played the star-turning role of Girl with Foot Stuck in Toilet. Not a joke.

I switched to writing for what I realize in hindsight was a lot of reasons–that I preferred to work in solitude and that the focus on weight was unhealthy for me being chief among them. Sometimes people ask me if I miss acting, especially given all the time I put into studying it, but I honestly don’t. And what’s more, I’ve found that the years of studying acting actually helped make me a better writer.

There are a lot of methods of acting. The Stanislavsky method is probably the most widely known, but there are many. The one that always connected with me the most was Ivanna Chubbuck’s method, outlined in her book The Power of the Actor, which a teacher in high school introduced me to. Though it’s similar to Stanislavsky, there are some differences. I’ve found that I often think back on this method when I’m writing–often unconsciously–almost ten years after reading the book.

Why? The method boils down to asking a few small questions based on one larger one: What does this character want?

Chubbuck wrote that every character has an overall objective that precedes and (often) succeeds the frame of the story. This can and should be vague. Some characters want love, others power, others glory. This is something we often think about in other ways, like when we sort our characters into Hogwarts houses. This objective may not always tie directly into your story, especially in the case of supporting characters, but it’s something you have to know because it directly affects how your characters behave in any given circumstance. A character who craves glory is going to behave very differently when facing a dragon than a character who wants safety.

The example I’m going to be using throughout this post is the main character in Ash Princess, Theodosia. Theo has spent ten years powerless and raised by her enemies so what she wants most in the world is power.

Beyond the main objective, there are smaller objectives that will fit more neatly into your story arc. What does your character want in this particular moment. Sometimes an objective can change one a scene-by-scene basis, while others may last a little longer. Before I write a scene, I always figure out what my characters want in it and unlike earlier, now that objective needs to be specific and it needs to be active.

Theo wants power isn’t enough anymore. In one of the first scenes, Theo is called to see the Kaiser, the ruler of the people who conquered her country and killed her mother. For ten years the Kaiser has tormented and beaten her. Theo’s terrified of him. Her need for power is dormant in this moment. What Theo needs in this particular moment is to convince the Kaiser to keep her alive.

What is their ideal vision of this scene? What will happen if it doesn’t go their way? You often hear agents and editors talk about stakes and this is what they mean. Give your character something to gain and give them something to lose. Even if it’s not life and death like it is for Theo in this moment, every scene should always have its own stakes.

And now that your character has their goal, they need to work toward it. Above I used the word convince but that’s a bit on the vague side. How is she going to convince the Kaiser to keep her alive? These are your beats and they change as your character’s attempts change. One attempt might not work so your character should move on to another. Maybe they can’t talk another character into giving them the last piece of pie so they decide to wrestle it away from them instead. That’s a beat shift.

Of course, the other characters involved all have their own objectives and beats and that’s where the conflict comes in, giving you compelling scenes with high stakes that move the story along.

Keep in mind though, what works for me might not work for you. There are all kinds of writing methods out there to try out to see what fits your style.

 

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Leaving my first agent was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. Looking back at it now, it was unequivocally the right decision, but at the time I didn’t know that. All I did know was that after years of querying, I finally had an agent and the idea of taking that step back was enough to send my anxiety spiraling. I was with my first agent for nearly two years, but I think mentally I was ready to leave after the first. It took 8+ months of stressing out and looking at the decision from all angles before I finally left.

A note here before I get more into specifics: I’m not going to name my first agent so please don’t ask me to. They have clients who are very happy with them and others who have made their frustrations known. You can find people discussing their experiences with agents and more on sites and forums like Absolute Write. Picking an agent is a lot like settling down in a relationship–what works for some people doesn’t work for others.

So there were a few red flags that happened before I left that I didn’t recognize as red flags at the time. I want to talk about those in today’s blog post not to trash talk or rant but to help other authors who might find themselves in a similar situation. Since leaving my first agent, I’ve interned at two literary agencies and signed with my own brilliant agent, so I’ve gotten a lot of insight about what, exactly, agents do and don’t do.

The first red flag was that I was never really sure what was going on. I signed with this agent on one manuscript and finished another shortly after. We agreed that the second manuscript was stronger and did a few small edits before it went on submission. Beyond that, I didn’t really know what was happening with it or what the submission strategy was. On the surface, this is fine–some authors don’t want details, some do. I’m definitely in the latter camp. The red flag was that I asked for more details several times and was never given any more information.

Specifically, I remember during an in person meeting, I asked if there was any news and my agent told me that we’d just gotten a rejection. This was probably about six months after we’d gone on submission so I assumed there had been other rejections and, after six months of distance, I had the clarity to see the flaws in this manuscript and I was ready to dig back in and edit. I knew enough to know that editors usually gave reasons for their rejections and that those could be handy to keep in mind while I edited. But when I asked my agent for them, I was told that there were reasons (and I assume from other editors as well) but that she couldn’t find them at the moment but they weren’t really important and we were going to keep submitting it as it was.

Just to reiterate–it’s fine to be kept in the dark about submission stuff, if you want to be. I repeatedly asked to be looped in and was rebuffed, which was the first big sign that it was not a great fit.

The editorial issue was another big sign. There are two kinds of agents when it comes to this–editorial agents and non-editorial agents. It’s fairly self-explanatory and again, a personal preference. I will say, though, that it’s tough out there for debut authors–especially in saturated markets like YA–and your manuscript usually needs be pretty close to perfect by the time it goes on submission in order to get an editor’s attention. Agent Laura ended up doing two pretty sizable edits with me before we went on submission and I don’t think Ash Princess would have sold without them.

The biggest red flag, and the reason I ultimately left, was that there was a lack of communication. While this agent was responsive when I first signed with them, it got to the point where weeks or months would pass before I got a reply to an email. This is the most important thing I want to talk about because I thought this was normal. Sure, maybe when you’re Leigh Bardugo your agent gets back to you in a few hours or days, but I hadn’t even sold a book yet and I’m sure my agent was busy with her other clients and

No. Not normal. It should not take your agent months to get back to you. You shouldn’t feel like you’re annoying them by checking in. No. If that’s the case, you need to have a serious talk with your agent.

TL;DR: Signing with an agent is the start of a partnership. There are different styles of agents for different styles of author and what works for one person might not work for you. But no matter what, communication is key.

Also, if you’re querying you should check out my agent, Laura Biagi. She’s pretty phenomenal.

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I moved into a new apartment a few months ago and as I boxed up everything I owned, I realized that books and clothes made up the vast majority of my belongings. Obviously I love books–I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t–but I also love fashion. Fashion gets a ditzy rep, especially for women, and I’m sure you’ve read your share of books where the main female character pointedly rejects fashion in the author’s attempt to distance herself from ‘other girls’, which is forever one of my least favorite tropes.

I’ve actually found that working fashion into fantasy not only adds another layer to the world building but also tells the reader a lot about your characters.

Fashion plays a big role in Ash Princess in particular and to find the right aesthetic I searched through a lot of runway collections. You can find these handily collected on Vogue for an array of designers sometimes dating as far back as 1991 and a lot of them look like something straight out of a fantasy novel. Don’t believe me?

Comme des Gacons Spring 2017

Here’s a look from Comme des Garçon’s Spring 2017 collection. Doesn’t that look like it would be right at home in some strange Alice in Wonderland retelling? A completely different world than…

Elie Saab Spring 2017 Couture

…this dress from Elie Saab’s Spring 2017 collection, which looks like something a princess would wear in a delicate high fantasy.

And if you’re ever low on inspiration, Alexander McQueen’s archives are a gold mine.

For Ash Princess, I used a few different designers and collections (below is Reem Acra and Zuhair Murad). In the book, one country conquers another and so there’s a melding of cultures happening. The Kalovaxians used to favor stiff velvets and full silhouettes, but since they’ve been in Astrea, they’ve coopted Astrean fashions, which are more Ancient Greek and Byzantine–lots of draping and intricate gold accents.

I think all writers are also painfully familiar with the note “show don’t tell”, and describing what your character wears can be a handy way to do that. Color, for instance, can show us a lot. A character who wears deep red will likely be associated with passion and daring, while a character who opts for a pale blue will probably be thought of as shy and quiet. The same goes for whether their clothes are tight or loose or long or short–every choice says something, even if your character doesn’t realize they’re saying it.

So next time you’re setting up a scene, try asking yourself what your character is wearing. Maybe find pictures of something similar if you’re stuck. I’m not suggesting you describe every detail, which can drastically slow down the pace and come across as boring, but pick the details that matter. A scarlet gown with gold epaulettes, for example, is enough of a description to tell you that the wearer is confident and ready for battle–even if it’s only a battle of wits. A grey tweed suit that doesn’t fit right is all a reader needs to hear to know that someone is uncomfortable in the spotlight.

In short, when we get dressed we are, consciously or not, deciding how we want the world to see us and giving the same decision to your characters can flesh them out as well as the world around them.

 

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