The two types of creative exhaustion

The two types of creative exhaustion

I’ve been exhausted for the last few days, so I thought I’d take an afternoon off and tell you about the creative struggles and draining process that goes into actually writing novels – both to give myself a break from writing, but also to give you a “behind the scenes” tour of my work in progress.

I’ve previously done some research on creativity and have decided all creative fear comes down to just two basic insecurities, which have to do with quality and quantity.

The first question is, can I even do this?

I’m dealing with that now as I write “Thirst” – the sequel to my vampire dystopian novel “Taste.” Luckily, I’ve finished some novels before, and I’ve even finished some sequels before. So I know, historically, that I’m capable of writing books, even “good” books, though we’ll discuss that later.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Even though I have a pretty good outline; even though I LOVE my ending and I think some of the scenes in this book are AMAZING, right now I’m just cresting 20,000 words. It’s mostly rough, and I only have about another month to finish before my preorder deadline.

So of course, I’m feeling the pressure. A lot of you may think it’s silly to give myself hard deadlines and make myself work harder or faster, but I’ve learned that:

A) A book I write quickly is in no way worse, and actually sometimes better, because I focus on it in a short time frame.

B) without a hard deadline, I’d spend all my time procrastinating and getting nothing done.

I think deadlines are important to my process, even if they are stressful, and I know I am CAPABLE of meeting my deadline: I just need to write at least 2,000 words a day for the next 30 days (which, will leave me zero time for editing, so ACTUALLY I need to write 3000 words a day, which is possible, but challenging).

If I force myself, I can write 3000 words in a couple hours, then spend the evening thinking about the next chapter or scene, and start again the next day. The problem is, from right here – where I am right now – I can’t see it all at once. I can’t see how all the chapters are going to come together, because I can’t see the later chapters or scenes until I’ve finished the immediately preceeding one. So even though I know it will/should all come together, it’s still terrifying writing into the void, because… maybe it won’t.

This fear creeps in, and makes it harder to sit down and write those words, because the mystery of the unfinished 50,000 words I still need to write this month are overwhelming. Also, creating worlds from nothing, even though it is satisfying, is also cognitively draining. There are so many things I could be doing with my time that don’t leave me emotionally and mentally drained; creative writing and fiction in particular is draining. Even the prospect of needing to write the words is exhausting, and if I do manage to write for a few hours and finish my words, I’m a vegetable for the rest of the day, capable of little more than naps, junk food and Netflix.

The second question is, is this good enough?

This is the one that really paralyzes most first-time authors, and I already have some advantages here:

  1. I define “Good” as “my readers will enjoy it.”
  2. I’ve built and audience and done my research so I KNOW what my readers will like and how to entertain them
  3. I’ve practiced enough to know that I’m capable of writing high quality fiction – my books review well

So I don’t have that crippling fear that I’m wasting my time, or that nobody is going to buy it and like it. I also don’t have the delusions of grandeur most authors deal with when writing their first book (after doing no research and having no audience, but still deciding their book is going to be a miraculous NYT bestseller because they love it and so will everyone else).

HOWEVER, I am doing something new this time around, which is working with cowriters. And while, on the one hand, it means I get to develop projects much more quickly, it can also mean I have more work to do in the editing and revision stages, which is where I am now.

I tend to edit slowly than I write, because I revise heavily – about 2000 words and hour. Right now I’m working on an alien invasion romance. I’m excited about the story and we have a really strong start. We’ve finished a rough draft and now I need to clean it up and get it ready to publish. But it’s going so slowly – a couple chapters a day – and part of me is starting to worry that it won’t be good enough, because it’s not good enough right now.

And actually, this is totally normal. It’s normal to be dissatisfied with your first rough draft, which is just about getting the basic story in the right order. That’s stage one.

Stage two is the 2nd rough draft – that’s when you START fixing the story and making it emotionally satisfying. It’s when you flesh out the characters and scenes; add conflict and tension; fix the cliffhangers and hooks at the end of the chapters. And even if it’s going really slowly, I also know I’m making real progress, and the book is getting better.

I’m frustrated because I know it’s STILL not good enough. After I finish this round, I’ll need at least one more pass to fix details, smooth my revisions and check for errors (before sending it off to a proofreader, who will find typos). Which means possibly another week or two of work on just this one book… when I have several more in the pipeline PLUS the vampire novel I talked about earlier.

There’s nothing wrong with making slow, deliberate progress, and forcing yourself towards burnout by overextending yourself isn’t wise. On the other hand, I’ve been writing fiction for several years now and haven’t been able to go big because I’m limited by my production speed. My goal for this year is to finish some full series, and several sequels, so I can spend more time and money advertising my books to reach new readers – but none of that can happen until I finish more books.

I also want to make sure the books I put out are the best possible versions of themselves; that they aren’t rushed or sloppy, but I have a hard time letting go (I have friends who write a first rough draft and send it straight to an editor; I still need at least three full revisions before I’m happy enough with the story to share with anyone else – but writing cleaner first drafts might be the solution for me as well eventually).

Every author has their own process, and I don’t expect readers to pay extra for the author’s effort (they should pay for the results, ie the finished book – just because an author worked 10X harder doesn’t mean it’s a better book or worth more money).

As an author, I’m trying to figure out how to publish  better books with less time and effort, by paying attention to my process and expertise.  But I also think it’s important to share the creative struggle; that this isn’t just fun and easy all the time; that writing books is challenging, difficult and often times can lead to exhaustion, depression and even a sense of hopelessness (most authors will spend years writing unsuccessful books; and even though I’m planning on becoming moderately successful, there are other things I could do with my time that would pay a great deal more).

But I do this because I love the challenge; because I love telling stories and I love hearing from readers who have enjoyed them; and because it’s a skill I’m determined to master, in this lifetime, even if it takes me decades of practice. Hopefully, my commitment to the craft will pay off, and my dedication will infuse my novels with a recognizable literary style.

PS. If you’re a creative person and you’ve dealt with any of these frustrations before, let me know in the comments. If you’ve read my books and enjoy them, let me know!

YASH (young adult scavenger hunt 2019)

YASH (young adult scavenger hunt 2019)

YASH kicks off today – unfortunately I’m stuck mid-site design but I’ve added all the details you need on https://urbanepics.com/blog. You can find instructions and help getting unstuck on the official YASH page.

For my part, I’m hosting Annie Sullivan and giving away 3 of my favorite books from the other authors on the Red Team: I’m also giving away a $100 Amazon gift coupon so make sure you enter the giveaway.

 

Finally – I’ve made Taste free today and hope to push it a little higher in the Amazon store.

It’s doing OK – #1 in multiple categories – but I’d love it to break the top #100.
I’ve just put book two on preorder and have started writing, I love where it’s headed and there is so much creepy/bad-ass stuff in this book. I’m kind of known for my endings but this one is going to be AMAZING.

I plan to finish fixing up the website this week and then adding a TON of new content as I introduce my new penname (Drake Mason) and the six talented writers I’ve started cowriting projects with. I’m so excited for this stuff! It means we’ll be able to put out 2 or 3 novels every MONTH and get whole series finished so much faster (within a year, at least, so you don’t have to wait).

If you like my writing, please stick around, stay tuned, and pay attention – there will be ARC copies for loyal readers, and we’ll probably launch every book at $0.99 before going full price, so make sure you’re in the loop to get the best savings.

 

 

First chapters and pilot episodes – how to hook with story (Roswell Reboot)

First chapters and pilot episodes – how to hook with story (Roswell Reboot)

I’m doing two things tonight: giving feedback on sample chapter submissions from new writers and watching the new Roswell Reboot (New Mexico).

I’ve been focused on lot on craft recently, and trying to figure out what makes the difference between a good first chapter – a project and writer worth investing in – and one that just doesn’t hold my attention.

Mostly, I’ve decided it’s all about conflict and sympathy: before anything happens, you have to make readers care about your main character – but just enough; then you hit them with some big action and conflict.

Pilot episodes do this really well, so in this article I’ll break down the new Roswell reboot.

The episode starts with a minor conflict that establishes the scene and setting; a very short prologue introducing the premise (people say Roswell is full of aliens, protagonist thinks it’s just a small boring town).

Liz (main character) is coming home; gets stopped by the police and ICE; launches onto a tirade before recognizing the cop as her high school sweetheart Max. They let her go.

She immediately relieves her dad – who is an undocumented immigrant running a diner – of his work shift and dons a waitress outfit, complete with dangling alien antenna, but not before ridiculing a podcaster talking about how aliens are taking over America.

This establishes: she’s a smartass who doesn’t believe the hype, and she’s likable because she takes care of her elderly relatives. She also mentions she’s worried about him because of his immigrant status (something to lose, something she cares about).

She closes the restaurant, puts her favorite song on the jukebox, and starts dancing like nobody’s watching – of course the cute cop from before immediately stops by to watch, so she can be embarrassed.

He mentions how sorry he is about her dead sister (intrigue/sympathy – more on this later). She fills him in on backstory – research funding got cancelled so she’s back in town. They almost have a moment, he goes to leave, she offers him a milkshake, but then takes a sip out of it, bringing them close together, gazing into each other’s eyes in palpable romantic suspense.

But suddenly… A shoot out!

Pew pew, drive by shooting, she gets shot, Max uses his supernatural powers to save her, draining his energy. The lights outside explode (whenever you have a cool scene, make it PHYSICAL by showing lots of things happening – it’s not enough for him to save her easily, he has to grunt and make faces, and the lights go out, and the lightbulbs explode: even if this is just costing Max physical pain, it needs to be represented by a change in the physical environment as well, because we can’t “see” internal processes like the wound getting healed or Max using his powers, it needs to be reflected visibly). The ensuing blackout is also a noticeable event that will effect the town at large.

This is actually enough for a chapter one: we’ve established multiple points of sympathy with the main character.

  • cares for someone else
  • persecuted/oppressed status
  • brave/rebellious, stands up against authority
  • defends the innocent
  • tragic past or history
  • has lost someone close to them
  • romantic intrigue/possible love interest
  • quick backstory that hints at impressive skillset or intelligence

But before readers lose interest, an inciting incident (big twist or surprise, central to the story’s main premise.

We could end chapter one here. For a pilot episode, we need more… so the story continues. The next few steps would probably be saved till chapter two, but already readers will be asking WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

Liz isn’t sure what just happened. She tells her dad they should leave town because everyone hates them for no reason; he drops a bit more backstory – her sister got high and killed two innocent girls in a car crash (possible conspiracy, real story to be revealed later I’m sure).

Max, our second main character and love interest, chases the shooter but collapses because he’s weakened after saving Liz. He telepathically calls his sister to save him. Meanwhile his deadbeat alien brother is already in lockup, using his powers to fly the keys off the desk. That brings all three of them together at the police station to argue and fight.

They’ve been keeping this alien thing a secret for 20 years, but Max just risked it all to save a girl. This is important because it shows what’s at stake: they have lives now, and if they get found out they’ll be dissected. Big conflict, and it all depends on Liz – who is off at the hospital getting a full checkup, from her attractive doctor friend Kyle.

Now readers are hooked: can the aliens count on Liz or will she destroy everything? Sources of conflict:

  • Max and siblings fighting
  • Max and Liz (she wants truth, he has to protect secret)
  • Liz and father (she wants to move, he likes the town)
  • Liz and town (they just remember how her dead sister killed two other girls).
  • Liz and hot doctor guy (she’s acting weird, but won’t tell him what really happened).
  • Dead-beat brother (Michael) has to move trailer when the land gets bought by military; runin with new character Alex – old friend and military vet back, lost a leg in Afghanistan. He’s hiding alien tech in his trailer (risk of discovery).
  • She visits sister’s grave but it’s been vandalized.

Next scene: Liz confronts Alex and opens up about her family: mother is mentally ill, and so was her sister, she thinks that’s why she got into drugs. After what happened at the diner, she’s worried she might be going crazy too (deepens sympathy for protagonist, also her search for answers heightens conflict).

Alex is ABOUT to say something like “you’re not crazy,” but Michael is listening in and he causes a distraction by blowing up some care windows.

New character: local bartender and old friend, who also does psychic readings on the side. Liz gets blown off at first, after a casually racist observer makes a snide comment about going back to her own country.

Isabel (the alien sister) is planning the 10 year high school reunion – upcoming event, trying to keep the normal appearance. Gives her a reason to be at Alex’s house so he can tell her he plans to tell Liz the truth; they fight, he yells, “I’m not asking permission!” (escalating conflict).

Isabel says, “You can’t ever be with her, even if you tell her the truth, there’s too much she can’t ever know. Fall in love with someone else, anyone else.”

Tragic romance/star crossed romance. It’s not just aliens + humans. Alex, specifically, can’t be with Liz – probably because of whatever happened with her sister. He’d always have to lie to her, even if she knows what he is. Added layers of conflict and tension.

But he’s also in love with her. He’s been in love with her for 10 years. Falling in love with someone else is impossible. Meanwhile, while Alex is smitten, we need to make sure to fuck up the relationship beyond repair by putting her with another guy.

Liz thinks Alex isn’t into her, because he’s so cool and reserved. Her friend Maria recommends “random sex, different guy” – planting the seed, and immediately outside, she runs into hot doctor friend Kyle, which leads straight to a makeout session.

But Kyle sees something weird on her chest and asks what happened. So she jumps out of the car and runs to a mirror, to discover a glowing alien handprint on her skin.

Now she knows she’s NOT crazy, but there’s also one more person who could expose the alien secret. Escalating tension, more external and internal conflict, a widening circle of involved characters.

Back to podcast guy, who’s now talking the coming aliens who will rape, murder and “steal our jobs” (fear and xenophobia).

Max is about to tell Liz everything and ask her to keep the secret (which he does) but it’s too late because Kyle already called in the military. He gets initiated into “Project Shepherd.” (Threat #1).

In the next scene, Michael is telling Isabel she needs to prepare to wipe Liz’s memory and send her packing, something only she can do. (Threat #2).

“Just like you did 10 years ago.” (Big reveal about backstory.)

Now that we’ve established the dangers and threats… we get a nice romantic scene, and SO close to a first kiss, but he pulls back because he’s a gentleman, and thinks she may just be feeling his feelings, and doesn’t want to take advantage while she’s under the influence.

High school reunion: all the characters together, highlighting the tension. Kyle is initiated by the military general; military general’s newly returned injured-veteran son has a secret romantic history with Michael (making him gay); Liz and Alex show up together but everybody gossips and points to Liz because ‘her sister murdered two people’…

They’re about to leave but then her best friend Maria (who is black, because we need POC representation in the core cast – also kudos to CW for making Liz latina unlike the white-washed first installation of Roswell) plays her song, so they stay.

We get a creepy scene of Alex stalking Liz through a window in highschool, but it’s meant to show how deeply he loves her. We get a flash of the core conflicts: Michael’s romance with general’s son; Kyle and general hunting aliens; and the big secret that Alex is still keeping from Liz, about what really happened with her sister – “she can never know about that.”

So we’ve set up a diverse cast of characters, overflowing with tension and conflict, and this was all done in the first episode. In a book, this would be the first several chapters, probably about 25% of the way in. But now that we’ve set the stage, we can just let all these conflicts keep playing over several books in a series.

Sapphire Tablet – First Chapter

Sapphire Tablet – First Chapter

I could feel the broken bones in my arm scrape together under my skin, like wooden blocks covered in sandpaper. Puriel lifted me up from the pile of rubble that used to be my childhood home and carried me to the black sports car. It was so quiet, I thought my ears must have been damaged, but then I could hear Puriel’s voice. He was asking me something, something about how to drive the car. I shrugged and rolled my head.

I’d been in JDRI since I was nine, and driving lessons were never on the curriculum. I looked around for Sitri, why wasn’t he driving? Then I saw him, or at least the dark furry shape he’d become. The impossibly large, wolf-like creature. He was waiting for us in the middle of the road. Howling at us. Puriel finally figured out the mechanics and the car screeched out of the suburban coldesac. I could hear sirens getting louder, and we passed several police cars and an ambulance. I blinked against the harsh flashing lights. Puriel kept checking the skies. I looked up as well, expecting a helicopter, but instead I saw a flash of wings and a glimmer of silver shapes, illuminated by the early light. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so I only saw silhouettes against the dark sky, but I knew what they were. Hunters. Dozens of them.

“Why aren’t they attacking us?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” Puriel said. “But Zeus isn’t going to want us to reach Nevah. Not with the shears.

The Golden Shears. 

I looked down, and sure enough, my pale fingers were still clenched around the golden metal, almost like they’d melded with my fist. My arm looked like a spiked hammer. The shears radiated power, and I could feel a pulsing. A throbbing through my whole body. I didn’t know if it was my own heartbeat, or the shears. 

My hands felt sticky, and I realized they were covered with bright blue goo, that shimmered when I moved them. Pure divinity. Zeus’s blood. I shuddered, resisting the urge to wipe it against my clothes. 

“Do we have a towel or something?” I asked. 

Puriel looked physically pained, and his eyes were coal black, with unusually wide pupils. He stared at my hands with more than just concern. It was hunger. This much energy, right here, it was taking all his strength to restrain himself. 

“You… want this?” I asked, holding my wrists out.

Hunger took over his face, and for a moment I worried he was going to lose control and bite my hand off. Instead he reached for my hand and held it up to his mouth. He gently kissed my fingertips, and I felt his tongue flick over my skin. It should have been erotic, but it wasn’t. I knew this disgusted him as much as it disgusted me. But after what we’d been through, he needed strength. It must have taken a tremendous amount of willpower to resist Zeus, and Puriel had refused him. He’d given me the shears, and I’d stabbed Zeus in the thigh. Nobody could question his loyalty now. He’d had his shot at redemption, and he’d chosen us.

Tall fir trees tore past us. I looked behind us and saw Sitri keeping up, running impossibly fast. We were going nearly over 100 miles per hour. Puriel was hugging the curves tightly, his white knuckles gripping the wheel with singular focus. I couldn’t believe he’d never driven before.

The Olympic forest expanded before us, inviting us in—a hundred miles of virgin territory, as far as anyone else knew anyway. But up ahead, I could see the a small road that cut through the forest to Nevah; Able’s private sanctuary for heirs, roots and magical creatures. 

But something looked different this time. Something was blocking the road, some kind of wall. Puriel slammed on the brakes when we got close enough to see clearly. The wall was actually a tight lattice of hunters, their golden armor glistening, swords glowing with divine power. There were at least thirty, and streaks of light overhead told me more were arriving every second. They spread their wings in uniform, and it was like drawing the drapes closed. Puriel slammed on the brakes and the car screeched to a stop. I heard a growl as Sitri launched himself into the wall of hunters, barreling through the middle. He tossed one hunter up in the air with a flick of his jaw, and pinned another to the ground, tearing at its neck with bloody jowls.  

“Stay here!” Puriel shouted. He tore the door off and held it with one hand like a shield, then he grabbed his sword and darted towards the fray. His sword didn’t glow like the hunters, who were connected with Zeus’s energy, but after feeding straight from the source, he was much stronger. He cleaved hunters in half with raw strength, slicing through their metal armor. He cut through them like a lawnmower, tossing up bits and pieces.

Someone’s head bounced off the windshield. I hit the wipers, and watched them spread the glowing, silver blood across the glass. A tiny stream of soap shot out, and the wipers worked furiously until I could see again.

 I gripped the door weakly and tried to push it open with my shoulder, but pain radiated down my arm. Hunters materialized by the door. One of them ripped the side door off and tossed it aside. He grabbed me by my clothes and threw me to the ground outside. I didn’t think they’d kill me. I was far too valuable, and too dangerous. Unless, now that I had the shears, Zeus didn’t want to take the risk. 

The shears. I rolled to my knees and held them up, feeling their power. Zeus was afraid of me. I’d hurt him. The look of surprise on his face filled me with courage. I took a deep breath, and focused on the slender threads of the hunter’s lifespans. They shone like siler glowsticks in the early light. But when I tried to reach for them, a numbing, icy pain shot through my elbow. With my arm broken, I couldn’t lift my hand high enough, which meant I couldn’t grip the threads and also cut them with the shears, not with one hand anyway.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t do any damage. I tucked the shears into my pocket, then lashed out and flicked the thread with my bare fingertips, and watched the nearest hunter crumple and writhe on the ground. The other two froze and exchanged a look. I got to my feet and dusted off my jeans, then looked up at them with a smirk. I curled my fingers like talons, just before one of them swung a fist at me. I ducked and hooked his thread, winding it around my finger before pulling sharply. He dropped like a stone. Two others grabbed my arms and held them in a vice-like grip. A third grabbed the shears, attempting to rip them out of my pocket. An arrow appeared in his neck, and he slumped to the side. I looked up to see Mist flying towards us, loosing arrows nimbly. Dion and Tori were right behind her. Dion charged through the hunters like a bull, skewering them with his double scimitars. 

The hunters kept coming, like flies to meat, swarming around us. But then the sky darkened. Able and Stephanie, holding hands, descended in dark splendor, with some kind of dark lattice of energy between them. They sucked out the light, causing temporary blindness, except for the small portal under their arms. 

We passed through, with Stephanie chanting, and the gateway closed behind us. The sealed passage swallowed up the sounds of battle. We’d made it back to Nevah safely. My knees buckled and my face hit the dirt, for the third time this morning. 

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I woke up in the infirmary. Alice was by my side, sending currents of warm, healing light over my arm. The throbbing pain was gone but there was a still a tightness in my muscles. I stretched my fingers, playing with the morning light coming through the large bay window. Nearby the fountain of Asclepius[, Alice’s grandfather, tinkled magically, surrounded by ferns and sweet-scented Jasmine. 

I woke up in the infirmary. Alice was by my side, sending currents of warm, healing light over my arm. The throbbing pain was gone but there was a still a tightness in my muscles. I stretched my fingers, playing with the morning light coming through the large bay window. Nearby the fountain of Asclepius[, Alice’s grandfather, tinkled magically, surrounded by ferns and sweet-scented Jasmine. 

I sat up suddenly. 

“Where’s Sitri?” I asked. “And Puriel.” 

“Safe,” Alice said. “We’re all safe.”  

“If the others handn’t come to save us, we wouldn’t have made it back. I screwed up, again. Is Able pissed?” 

“I’d say he’s dealing with a wide range of emotions, but excitement is probably at the forefront.”

“Why?”

“The shears,” Alice nodded.  

“Personally, I never thought they really existed,” came another voice from across the room. Mist was leaning against the window, watching me. So still I hadn’t noticed her before. 

“I thought it was all a foolish legend, and I couldn’t believe Able had let himself get so caught up in hope that he bought into it. Even when he brought you here, even after what you did to me, I still didn’t believe it.” 

“And now, here we are,” Alice said, wrapping a shawl around my shoulders. 

“Able wants to see you,” Mist said. “I’m to escort you upstairs.”  

I nodded, though my chest tightened in dread. At least I’d brought back the shears, but I’d probably get a lecture for sneaking out again.

I trailed behind Mist, up the wide, curling staircases of the mansion. I realized it was still early morning, most of the household probably wasn’t even awake yet. We passed the kitchen and my stomach growled at the smell of bacon and coffee, but I knew I couldn’t delay the inevitable. 

Able’s office was exactly as I remembered it, a large, round hall filled with books and antiques. Sitri and Puriel were sitting on the leather couches, looking like chastised school boys, and still covered in blood and sweat from the battle. 

It was the first time I’d seen Sitri since his transformation. I wanted to run to him and feel his arms around me, but I resisted. He didn’t look up to meet my eyes. Puriel nodded at me, and I realized at least his hands were unrestrained. That’s something, at least. 

Stephanie and Able were standing in front of the desk, blocking my view, but I could just make out the golden glow of the shears behind them, on a stand in some kind of glass box.

“You may go,” Able said to the others. “Mist, find Puriel a room in the house.”

Mist’s jaw nearly dropped open, but she quickly replaced it with a sneer and crossed her arms.  

“I’m not his keeper,” she said. 

“Now!” Able’s voice made the room tremble. 

After they were gone, Stephanie gestured towards a seat, but she and Able remained standing. On edge, and I realized, putting themselves between me and the shears. Like they were afraid of how I’d use them.

“Puriel and Able told us what they could,” she said, “but we’d like to hear it from you.”

“I had a dream,” I said quickly. “And I realized where the shears were. I thought we could just go get them, and be right back – Puriel, Sitri and I – we’re not gods, we’re harder to track. I didn’t think Zeus would notice.” 

“What happened when you got the shears?” 

“Zeus showed up. He forced Puriel to bring them to him, but at the last second, Puriel threw them to me.” 

“You had the shears. Zeus was right there – why didn’t you cut his thread?” 

I bit my lip, and cast a glance at Sitri. I didn’t want to get him in more trouble. But none of this was his fault. “When we were in Greece, when we fought Athena, Sitri almost died. Zeus told me I could save him.”

Able squeezed the desk so hard I heard the wood crack.

“And you believed him?” Stephanie asked.

“I didn’t have time to think about it,” I said. “I just, I couldn’t let him die.” 

“You did this without his knowledge,” Able clarified. “Sitri never knew what you’d done for him?” 

“Not until last night,” I said. “I didn’t know how it worked, I didn’t know what I’d done. Not until I saw it.”

“Saw what, Dear?” Stephanie asked.

They leaned forward, eyes wide, as if compelling me to answer. I realized, I hadn’t even had time to share this with Puriel and Sitri. 

“Zeus’s thread, it’s bound with hundreds of others, maybe thousands. Including Sitri’s. It’s less of a thread, and more of a tangled ball of yarn.”

“And you hesitated,” Able said, his voice dripping with scorn.

“You wanted me to get the shears, right?” I asked, pushing back. I was tired of being lectured. “They’re right behind you. I got them for you, and I couldn’t have done it without Puriel and Sitri. You should be thanking us.”

“Is that what you think you deserve?” Able glowered. “After failing to kill Zeus. The shears are useless if the one person who can wield them doesn’t have the courage to use them.”    

“I won’t apologize for not killing thousands of innocents, or Sitri.”

Able looked like he was going to yell at me, but Stephanie grabbed his arm and shook her head slightly.

“You care about him,” she said. It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t bother to answer. Everything was out in the open now. I’d saved Sitri once, with some kind of magical voodoo that tied him to Zeus. It gave Zeus an extra layer of protection we hadn’t expected. Honestely I was surprised all three of us made it back to Nevah alive.

“We got the shears, that’s all that matters.” I had other questions, but I was tired of being grilled. And hungry. So I kept my mouth shut and raised an eyebrow.

“Are we done?” I asked, crossing my arms.

“One more thing,” Stephanie asked. “Puriel said you stabbed Zeus.” 

“In the thigh. And twisted. You should have heard him scream.” I said. 

I could have sworn I saw the smallest glimmer of a smile on Able’s face, but he turned his back to me so I couldn’t see it. I turned back at the door, unsure where I was even heading. I was excused, but I really wanted to talk with Sitri. We locked eyes, but he made no move to follow me. I guess the others still had things to discuss. I realized, I wasn’t anxious to be cut out of the loop if they were making plans. 

“So what happens now?” I asked over my shoulder, glancing from Sitri to the others. I hadn’t told them about what happened to Sitri. Able must know what he is – the last of Zeus’s guard dogs, and the last hound of hell. I wondered if they also knew how completely Zeus had been able to control him. I didn’t think that had anything to do with the knot I’d tied. That connection was older, ancient. Like Puriel, Sitri had been bred for service. Following orders was in his DNA. But Puriel, unlike Sitri, had been able to resist.

“Zeus attacked once before, for you. Now that you have the shears, I don’t imagine he’ll wait long before trying something else. For now, we’ll stay here. You’ll continue your training. Get some food, and some sleep. We’ll talk again later.” 

I made it back to my room and shrugged off my clothes. I put my hand against Sitri’s door. I wanted to talk to him. I knocked timidly. I thought I heard movement on the other side, but he didn’t answer. It seemed like ages ago he’d slept outside my door to make sure I was safe.

My head had[ barely hit the pillow before I was out cold, drifting through dreams of white wings and gleaming armor, and long fangs and sharp claws. I was running, and falling, and then there was an earthquake so strong it shook me awake. I sat up, dizzy, and momentarily confused as I watched books fall off my shelves. 

Not a dream. I sat up just as Sitri burst through the door. The look on his face woke me up like a shot of adrenaline. 

“I’m fine,” I said, throwing off the blankets. “It’s not me.” 

We raced down the hall, and saw wisp of smoke from under one of the doorways. Sitri kicked the door open and I followed him inside. The room looked like a charred-out shell of a campfire, everything smoldering and black. But the roof was intact, and instead of a flood of armored hunters, the center was a young girl. She looked up at me with wide eyes and I gasped. She looked so familiar, but I was sure I’d never seen her before. 

“Who are you?” Sitri demanded.

She looked up through her blonde hair, tears hanging from her round blue eyes. They seemed too large for her face, which was square and angular. Still, I recognized her, even before she opened her pretty mouth.[ 

“Kai, it’s me. Sarah.” 


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Poisoned Chalice: A Reverse Harem Epic Fantasy… with Dragons!

Poisoned Chalice: A Reverse Harem Epic Fantasy… with Dragons!

Download book one for free (sign up to my email list and I’ll let you know when it’s available!)

She’s spent her life in a cage, for a childhood incident that wiped out her family. But when her captors figure out she’s one of the rare lost queens—humans with tremendous power—she’s presented with a choice.

Marry one of the five handsome princes, or be executed as a witch.

Poison kills queen. Wand detects poison. Knight seduces witch. Dragon stops knight. When one rising queen refuses to play the game, she must marry one of the 5 princes or be executed as a witch. Red Queen meets Shatter Me. 

As long as a Queen sits on the throne of each royal house, there is peace in the Last Realm.

While the royals lust for power, their schemes are restricted by the rules of the game.

  • Only poison can kill a queen.
  • Only a wand can detect poison.
  • Only a knight can seduce a queen from another kingdom.
  • Only a dragon can stop a knight.
  • Only a queen can claim the crown.

Unless a king has the three magical items that keep his queen safe, and a handsome heir to attract a queen, his rule is threatened. But when one rising queen refuses to play the game, everything falls apart.

Enter a magical kingdom full of handsome rogues, dragon shifters and royal assassins – each vying for power in this deadly game of thrones. The Poisoned Chalice is book one in an epic fantasy reverse harem series with epic worldbuilding and twists that will keep you guessing.

“Vampire Diaries meets Hunger Games”

“Vampire Diaries meets Hunger Games”

Last year I published a short teaser based on a vampire-dystopian story idea I had. Then six months ago, I heavily revised the first few chapters. Since then I’ve been struggling to finish the entire novel, which is deeper and darker than intended – both a story of apocalyptic survival, and a vampire romance centered around a royal wedding and political intrigue.

Although it’s still rough, I’ve just about finished a rough draft, which means I know how the whole story goes and now I just have to clean it up, edit and polish it. I know many of you have been waiting for the whole book, so today I put it up on preorder and gave myself a one-month deadline. (You can preorder NOW and get the full book as soon as it launches!)

If you read the first part, you may not have seen this bonus chapter, so I’m publishing it here:

____________________

Damien stood with his back to the door. He turned around, appraising me with his eyes. I’d only caught a glimpse of him this morning, when he killed the slagpaw, and I realized my memory didn’t do him justice. He was far more handsome than I remembered. He wore an all-black suit that screamed expensive, with a dark blue tie and that matched my dress.
“It’s nice to see you again, Miss Sharrow,” he said, his rich voice felt like velvet in my ears.
I hesitated for a moment, as he reached out a hand towards me. But finally I took a deep breath and stepped forward.
“Call me Emily,” I said, putting my hand in his.
His lips were curved up in a tiny, amused smile.
He repeated the name thoughtfully, dropping the syllables like he was savoring them. I realized it was the first time he’d ever said my name. The gentle way he said it sent a warmth through my body.
I linked my arm in his as he led me down an arched hallway overlooking a center courtyard full of rose bushes. The floral scent was wonderful, even up here on the third floor. We passed over a narrow stone bridge that crossed over one of the natural streams that seemed to divide the districts. In the distance I could see several more, hundreds of feet high, crisscrossing between the gravity-defying pillars of the Citadel. Some of them looked like natural rock and melted wax. Others were made of glass and steel.
As the sun set, the lights of the city began to glow, until they outshone the stars. I couldn’t believe a place like this actually existed. The City of Lights. I was finally here. We reached a spot overlooking the lower layers of the Citadel with a view over the maze-like walls that surrounded the settlement. I’d never been up this high before, and the view made me dizzy. I leaned closer to Damien, holding tighter to his arm. I felt his muscles tense beneath my fingertips and pulled away quickly. The sky was turning a deep purple, casting long shadows through the dark pine trees below us. The air tasted crisp and cool. I inhaled deeply, smelling scents of jasmine and spices from a market down below. I realized suddenly there was no ash here, but I couldn’t hear the hum of any purification machinese. They must have a different system defending them from the barrage of poisonous white flakes.
“Like it?” Damien said. I’d spent the last few days thinking about Prince Damien Hartmann, and now here he was, escorting me to some kind of ball. It should have been a dream come true, and yet, he’d barely said two words to me since I got here. He even seemed slightly annoyed, like he had better things to be doing than show me around.
“So, um, I guess I should thank you,” I said, looking out into the dark forests. “You know, for saving me from Nigel. Twice.” I bit my lip, waiting for him to answer.
“Don’t mention it,” he said casually. There was a sharp edge to his voice that sounded almost like a warning. He was acting like it was no big deal, like he would have done it for anyone. But not only did he save my life in the woods, he’d chosen me. We were supposed to get married, and I couldn’t even tell whether he liked me.
“And for what happened today,” I added. “I guess that was the third time you’ve saved me. How’d you find us, anyway?”
Damien’s sharp eyes flicked down to the steel bracelet his father had given me. The red numbers on the screen gazed up at me like angry eyes.
“That does more than monitor the level of elixir in your blood,” he said. “There’s also a tracking chip inside, so we know where you are. My father insisted on picking you up himself,” Damien said. There was an apology in his eyes, but not on his lips. “He can be very persuasive. But I was monitoring your journey. I left the Citadel as soon as your caravan stopped moving.”
I shuddered, remembering the terrifying moment when the limo had been flipped through the air. The amount of force it must have taken to lift a car like that was unbelievable. Damien bent down to meet my eyes. It was the first time he’d made direct eye contact, and the sudden intensity of his green eyes took my breath away.
“Listen to me,” he said. “The slagpaw cannot hurt you inside the Citadel. You’re perfectly safe here. Do you understand?”
I nodded, and shook my head to clear it. I hated being treated like I was some fragile thing that needed protection. Especially after years of looking out for myself. I lifted my chin and stepped brazenly forward.
“So are we going to do this, or what?” I asked, casting a teasing smile over my shoulder.
Damien was at my side in an instant. My pulse raced as he threaded his long fingers through mine.
“You certainly have a knack for getting yourself in trouble, Miss Sharrow.”
“Yeah, I suppose I do,” I grinned.
For a long moment, he was silent, and the duration bled into awkwardness. Finally, he dropped my hand and stood a little further away from me, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
“I wouldn’t recommend continuing that behavior in the palace,” he said. “The fortress walls will keep the slagpaw out, but that’s not an invitation to be reckless.”
With that chilling piece of advice ringing in my ears, Damien ushered me down a narrow side alley and over another bridge. I was completely turned around, but then suddenly we emerged onto a huge courtyard. It was lined with trees, but so wide and flat the opposite side faded into the distance. At the center, a crashing waterfall cascaded down from a steep hill, following a straight channel that cut through the stone plaza. Just at the top of the waterfall, a twinkling palace glittered more brightly than anywhere of the other lights in the city. It was a collection of tapered pillars and smooth domes that looked like upside down chocolate drops. A massive set of sweeping stairs had been cut into the bare rock on both sides of the waterfall, wrapping around the torsos of a pair of enormous statues carved into the rock. They were bent over, supporting the weight of the raised platform supporting the citadel with their shoulders. The waterfall gushed between them.
“We have to climb up that?” I asked, frowning. I thought we were going to a party, not a hiking trip. My new shoes were already cutting into my ankles, and I didn’t relish the idea of climbing up all those stairs in my dark dress.
“There is a faster way up,” Damien said. This time there was a hint of a smile in his eyes.
“Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like the next words out of your mouth?”
“We jump,” he said, nodding at the platform on top of the hill. It was at least a hundred feet above us.
My heart pounded just thinking about it. I didn’t know if he was serious, or making fun of me. What if he was just testing me, to see how tough I was?
“Fine with me,” I said, far more boldly than I felt.
He stepped closer and wrapped his hands around my waist. He was suddenly way too close, holding my body firmly against his. He raised a questioning eyebrow, and I nodded.
Damien took three long strides, then jumped into the sky, holding me with one arm like a teddy bear. My dress pulled against the wind, and then opened up like an umbrella when we started descending. Damien landed first, then let me down slowly until my feet touched the ground. When he let go I was breathless, my eyes wide from excitement.
“That was amazing,” I grinned. “It’s just like flying.”
“Glad you liked it,” he said. There was a twinkle in his eyes, but he stepped away from me and put his hands behind his back. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think we’re late.”
He nodded towards the palace. Up close I could see the entire building was covered in gleaming marble tiles, inlaid with golden ornamentation that reflected the glowing lights pointed at it. A long red carpet ran from the massive front doors to the edge of the platform, seeming to disappear into thin air over the rushing waterfall. A dozen soldiers were positioned on either side of the carpet, so still I thought they were statues at first. Like the ones in our compound, they were wearing silver jackets with black pants. These ones, however, also wore a wide red band around their waists—a sign of the royal guard. As Damien and I walked casually between them, their gaze never flickered.
We entered the massive doorways into the largest room I’d ever seen. The high ceilings were covered in frescoes, and golden highlights ran between the enormous marble tiles in the floor. I had shield my eyes from the lights—they were brighter than anything I’d seen before, illuminating every inch of the room as bright as daylight. A few of the men in my compound had flashlights, and the streetlights used electric bulbs, but otherwise electricity was metered, and expensive. Unnecessary power usage was seen as wasteful, even potentially damaging to the purification engines that kept our air free of contamination. But here, the lack of restraint was almost conspicuously absent. The elite must have an unlimited supply of power.
Some kind of band with stringed instruments played music that made my heart sing, and I could see people dancing in the center of the floor. At the far end of the palace was a stage, surrounded by white round tables. Each table could fit twelve chairs, and had an elaborate flower display in the center, surrounded by white candles.
“Took you long enough,” said Tobias, approaching us with a friendly smile. He was with an elegant woman in a magnificient black dress and a pearl necklace. She was nearly as tall as Tobias, with long dark hair and an elegance I envied.
“We took the long route,” Damien grinned.
The girl rolled her eyes at him.
“Don’t tell me you jumped,” she said. “Poor thing! Tobias did that to me at my Presentation. I nearly had a heart attack.”
“She still hasn’t forgiven me for it,” Tobias smiled wickedly. “Allow me to introduce my wife, Penelope.”
I held out my hand, but Penelope reached out and grabbed me, squeezing me into a hug.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get Damien to choose a girl for years, just so I have someone to hang out with when the boys are busy.”
“How long have you two been together?” I asked, hoping I was asking the right question.
“Five years,” she said, holding out her hand to show off her ring, which glittered with diamonds. I wondered if that included the three month trial, but I was too embarrassed to ask.
“Let’s sit,” Damien said, motioning toward the tables. We picked one and were soon joined by several other couples, and a handful of elites that appeared to be single. Everyone was so dressed up, it was a little hard to tell them apart at first. Mostly, the elites had a calm certainty about them, and a restrained power. They did everything in precise, simple movements. It was easier by far to recognize the other chosen, by their wide-eyed expressions and gaping mouths. I wonder if I looked as impressed as they did by our opulent surroundings.
My mouth watered as the first course of the meal was served. Waiters in red coats twirled wide silver dishes, then lifted the lids with a flourish, revealing strange foods I’d never seen before. I groaned as the exotic aroma washed over me. The duck, venison and soup I recognized. But there were also alien looking creatures with massive claws, and something that looked like two leaves stuck together.
“Oysters,” Penelope said, pointing out the unfamiliar dishes. “And lobster. My compound is right on the ocean, we catch them with traps and nets.”
She showed me how to crack them open to reach the meat inside. I pulled off my gloves so I could eat with my bare fingers, like she was. I saw her eyes slide to the dark red stains on my hands, but thankfully she didn’t ask about my birthmarks.
They’re supposed to be aphrodisiacs,” Penelope whispered in my ear, giggling.
I didn’t know what the word meant. I raised my eyebrow and she explained.
“It’s supposed to make you more eager, you know, for the bedroom.”
My brow suddenly prickled with sweat, and I squeezed my hands under the table. Was that supposed to happen tonight? I’d assumed intimate contact would be restricted to after the trial period and the formal wedding ceremony, but I realized nobody had told me so specifically. I glanced up at Damien. His smile was warm. He reached over and poured me a glass of wine. I smiled, and took a tiny sip. He was handsome, of course, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to be with him, in that way.
Was it expected of me? Did I have a choice?
At that moment, spotlights pointed towards the stage and I saw Damien’s father, King Richard, ascend some kind of podium. On either side of him, large screens descended, displaying a close up of this angular features. Somehow his words were spelled out on the wall behind him as he spoke.
“Tonight is the opportunity to welcome the new chosen into our community,” he said, as cheers erupted in the crowd. “I hope everyone is having fun.”
There were at least a hundred elite in the room, and I knew these weren’t even all of them—these were just the noble families and royalty. I wondered how many elite there were in total.
“There were thirteen chosen this year,” the king continued. “I’d like to invite them to the stage now.”
A few girls stood up immediately. Others, like me, waited to be prompted. Tobias and Penelope clapped their hands and smiled at me, but it wasn’t until Damien stood and pulled my chair out for me that my legs started heading towards the stage. In my peripheral vision, I saw Mary coming towards me from the side. I almost didn’t recognized her at first—she was wearing a lacy pink dress that stood out like a bright flower amongst the forest of dark suits and dresses that the elite seemed to prefer. She smiled at me, and I returned the gesture. She was probably feeling as alone and isolated as I was. We’d never been close, but it was nice to see someone I recognized from Algrave.

 

She followed up the stairs behind me and we got in line behind the other girls. Each chosen seemed to have a more elaborate dress. I was suddenly grateful that mine—while luxurious—was also relatively simple and understated. My jaw dropped when I saw Jessica, in a bright yellow dress with a matching hat that looked both ridiculous and stunning at the same time. She strode confidently forward. At my side, Mary nudged my arm and raised an eyebrow.
“She looks like a block of cheese,” Mary whispered.
“Or a banana,” I shot back, smiling.
Once we were all lined up, the king continued.
“For the last seventeen years,” he said, pacing before us, “you’ve enjoyed the protection and technological advances of living in the compounds. Safe havens, built for humans to thrive, without worrying about the poisonous ash of the wastelands, or the deadly beasts that roam outside the gates. Now you have been selected to fulfill your sacred duty and represent your communities by joining with an elite in a holy bond of matrimony. However, while you have taken the first step, and secured one of the highest honors for your compound, your partnership is not yet set in stone. Over the next few weeks, you will attend classes, to learn how to be better servants of the Citadel, and loyal consorts to your mates. I know that you will make your compounds proud.”
“This year marks the ninety-eighth year the chosen have been selected. For almost a century, we have had unparalleled peace and prosperity, since the covenant between our two races was first formed. Trust that, even if you don’t understand everything we do in the citadel, there are reasons for how things are. Learn our ways quickly, serve your new masters, and you will be invited to stay among us as full citizens.”
The audience applauded, and I looked back at the stairs, squinting against the bright lights and hoping we could get off the stage again.
“One more thing,” the king said, holding up his hand for silence. He drew his shoulders back, and when he spoke again it was soft, so low I saw the humans in the crowd lean forward to hear him.
“There are some, even within these walls, who do not support our mission, who questions our laws and way of life. Traitors and rebels, hiding in the shadows, plotting our downfall. Today there was even an attack on several chosen as they were heading towards the Citadel.”
There were murmurs from the crowd, even outrage. I was surprised that not everyone had heard of the attack yet.
“Luckily, my own son was keeping a close eye on his chosen, and arrived in time to save the lives of all three girls after their drivers were killed. Fear not,” the king said. “We will discover the parties responsible for these attacks, and they will be punished harshly, whether human, or elite.”
He let the last few words sink in. I furled my brow in confusion. We were attacked by slagpaw, not rebels. Certainly not elite. Then I remembered the bearded man I’d seen just before the attack, and the way he’d moved—for too quickly for an ordinary human.
What was he doing out in the woods, all alone? Was he involved somehow?
“Finally,” the king said, “on a more personal matter, I’d like to raise a toast, to my son Damien. I had always hoped he’d one day embrace the Covenant, and set a good example by choosing a human consort. Instead, he has resisted his duty for nearly a century… until now. So I’d like to raise a toast to Damien, and the first, and only, girl to catch his interest—Emily Sharrow!”
 A spotlight focused on me and I was blinded by the heat and light. I squinted, then raised my hand above my eyes. There were cheers and applause, along with quite a bit of laughter. When my eyes adjusted, I could make out Damien, but he was frowning and looking at the table with his arms crossed, even as elite from other tables came over to slap him on the back and congratulate him.
Just as the noise was dying down, I heard someone call out from the back.
“What’s wrong with her hands?” Followed by a cackle and a round of laughter. My eyes focused on a dark-haired girl in a black dress, practically lounging in Nigel’s lap. She looked drunk.
Was she a chosen? Why wasn’t she on stage?
My cheeks flushed red, as I realized I’d left my gloves at the table after eating. The splotlight showed off my marks in stark detail, and somewhere a camera zoomed in close, feeding a live video to the massive screens behind us, so that everybody could see the jagged marks on my hands. My deformity.
I crossed my arms, hiding my marks beneath my arms.

 

Blood roared in my ears. I didn’t even hear the king dismiss us, and stood there stupidly until Jessica pushed me from the other side, shoving me towards the side stairs.
“Move it, freak,” she hissed.
I nearly stumbled down my stairs, fighting to keep the tears out of my eyes. I could already feel the wet mascara and eyeliner. Once at my table, I sank into my seat without making eye contact with anyone, and immediately reached for my gloves. Before I could pull them on, however, Damien’s hand lashed out and grabbed onto my wrist. He looked like he wanted to say something, but instead he squeezed my wrist lightly before scowling at the table again. I wondered what I’d done to disappoint him.
When my heart stopped pounding, I took a timid glance around the room, imagining what people were saying about the prince’s deformed new bride. Most of the others had gone back to dancing or chatting with their tables, but I caught Nigel’s gaze as he glared at me from across the room, with such rage and malice it stole my breath away. Damien was wrong. The walls might keep out the slagpaw, but I had a feeling there were far more dangerous things inside the Citadel.
***
We walked home in silence. Damien must have taken me the long way the first time to show me the lookout point for a full view of the Citadel. The way home was much shorter. We passed over two of the covered bridges connecting the enormous towers of the main fortress, and then we were back in the building where we’d started.

 

Damien was pensive and silent, which made me nervous. Was he embarrassed by me, now that I’d revealed myself to the other elite in the Citadel? Was he regretting his choice so soon? I also couldn’t forget about what Penelope had said at dinner. Was Damien expecting us to sleep together? Is that why he was walking me home? Although I didn’t hate the idea of seeing Damien’s godly physique with less clothes on, I wasn’t eager to share my bed with a total stranger.
At the door, I panicked. Was this my bedroom? Or was it his?
I should have asked earlier.
“Do all the chosen live in this building?” I asked, trying to get at the truth.
“Just you,” he said. “This is our family residence, and it’s closer to the training grounds. Most of the chosen are living in this neighborhood. I’ve moved my things to my private chambers in the palace, to give you some space, so this place is all yours for the moment.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. So at least we didn’t have to live together. Not yet, anyway.
“Well, I guess I should get out of this dress,” I blurted, trying to find a way to dismiss him without being rude. I blushed when I realized how it sounded—almost like an invitation.
“And go to sleep,” I added quickly, faking a yawn. “I’m exhausted.”
He nodded, but frowned, like there was something else he wanted to say.
I stepped inside, holding the door, and he placed his palm over my hand.
My heart pounded as he leaned in close. My lips parted involuntarily, expecting a kiss that never arrived. Instead, he whispered quietly in my ear, so closely I could feel the warmth of his breath against my skin.

“Never hide who you are,” he said. Then he vanished into the night.

 

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