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With a million things (no exaggeration!) to do before leaving for vacation in Italy, I’m posting my happy book birthdays for this week and next a little early, but I hope that I can be forgiven for that, especially when I return with wonderful travel experiences and pictures to share with the class!

So, without further ado, happy upcoming book birthdays to…

 Queen-Swords QUEEN OF SWORDS by R.S. Belcher | Tor | June 27th

(Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieboundBooks-a-million)

“Belcher’s enjoyable third historical fantasy (after The Shotgun Arcana) employs considerable imagination to drop readers into a fully formed world of magic and mysticism, drawing on ancient cultures and rituals while serving up exciting action sequences… Fans of the Golgotha series will adore this, and new readers will find a rich new world to fall into as well as two very strong heroines to root for.” —Publishers Weekly

“Once again letting loose the reins on his formidable imagination and skill, Belcher creates another undeniable winner with his whimsically horrific characters, unparalleled worldbuilding, stimulating narrative and a diabolical storyline teeming with magic, mayhem and dark humor. Fans will cheer the powerful female protagonists who are indeed the queens of this world.” —RT Book Reviews, 4 ½ Stars, Top Pick!

1870. Maude Stapleton, late of Golgotha, Nevada, is a respectable widow raising a daughter on her own. Few know that Maude belongs to an ancient order of assassins, the daughters of Lilith, and is as well the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Anne Bonney, the legendary female pirate.

Leaving Golgotha in search of her daughter Constance, who has been taken from her, Maude travels to Charleston, South Carolina, only to find herself caught in the middle of a secret war between the Daughters of Lilith and their ancestral enemies, the monstrous Sons of Typhon. To save Constance, whose prophetic gifts are sought by both cults, Maude must follow in the footsteps of Anne Bonney as she embarks on a perilous voyage that will ultimately lead her to a lost city of bones in the heart of Africa―and the Father of All Monsters.

One of the most popular characters from The Six-Gun Tarot and The Shotgun Arcana ventures beyond Golgotha on a boldly imaginative, globe-spanning adventure of her own!

(Excerpt here!)

stillhouse lake STILLHOUSE LAKE by Rachel Caine|Thomas & Mercer| July 1st

(Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieboundBooks-a-million)

“Caine spins a powerful story of maternal love and individual self-realization that cries out for at least one redeeming sequel. Compelling characters and plenty of credible plot twists…” —Publishers Weekly

Gina Royal is the definition of average—a shy Midwestern housewife with a happy marriage and two adorable children. But when a car accident reveals her husband’s secret life as a serial killer, she must remake herself as Gwen Proctor—the ultimate warrior mom.

With her ex now in prison, Gwen has finally found refuge in a new home on remote Stillhouse Lake. Though still the target of stalkers and Internet trolls who think she had something to do with her husband’s crimes, Gwen dares to think her kids can finally grow up in peace.

But just when she’s starting to feel at ease in her new identity, a body turns up in the lake—and threatening letters start arriving from an all-too-familiar address. Gwen Proctor must keep friends close and enemies at bay to avoid being exposed—or watch her kids fall victim to a killer who takes pleasure in tormenting her. One thing is certain: she’s learned how to fight evil. And she’ll never stop.

LostBoy.jpg LOST BOY by Christina Henry | Berkley | July 4th

(Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieboundBooks-a-million)

“Bestseller Henry (Red Queen) will delight readers with this thrilling origin story, which reveals the true Peter Pan and the long road that led Jamie the lost boy to become pirate captain James Hook… Multiple twists keep the reader guessing, and the fluid writing is enthralling. Henry perfectly captures what it’s like to live on Peter’s island, and Jamie is a powerful character. Through his perspective, Henry immerses the reader in Neverland and genuinely shocks with the meanings behind Peter’s secrets and the intentions of his adventures. This is a fine addition to the shelves of any fan of children’s classics and their modern subversions.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“…a deeply impactful, imaginative and haunting story of loyalty, disillusionment and self-discovery.” RT Book Reviews, 4 ½ Star Top Pick!

From the national bestselling author of Alice comes a familiar story with a dark hook—a tale about Peter Pan and the friend who became his nemesis, a nemesis who may not be the blackhearted villain Peter says he is…

There is one version of my story that everyone knows. And then there is the truth. This is how it happened. How I went from being Peter Pan’s first—and favorite—lost boy to his greatest enemy.

Peter brought me to his island because there were no rules and no grownups to make us mind. He brought boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper than a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Our neighbors are pirates and monsters. Our toys are knife and stick and rock—the kinds of playthings that bite.

Peter promised we would all be young and happy forever.

Peter lies.

Grave Ransom Hi Res Cover GRAVE RANSOM by Kalayna Price | Ace | July 4th

(Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieboundBooks-a-million)

“Over the course of this transfixing series, Price has built a uniquely compelling world and made sure her characters were truly unforgettable!” —RT Book Reviews

The world-building in this series is phenomenal, with more intricacies to discover in each and every book… this is one installment of the Alex Craft series that you won’t want to miss.” —The Novel Lady

In the thrilling new novel from USA Today bestselling author Kalayna Price, Alex Craft comes face-to-face with the walking dead….

Grave witch Alex Craft is no stranger to the dead talking. She raises shades, works with ghosts, and is dating Death himself. But the dead walking? That’s not supposed to happen. And yet reanimated corpses are committing crimes across Nekros City.

Alex’s investigation leads her deep into a web of sinister magic. When Briar Darque of the Magical Crimes Investigation Bureau gets involved, Alex finds herself with an unexpected ally of sorts. But as the dead continue to rise and wreak havoc on the living, can she get to the soul of the matter in time?

her guardian shifter HER GUARDIAN SHIFTER by Karen Whiddon | Harlequin Nocturne | July 4th

(Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-a-million)

Some boundaries are made to be crossed… 

A rare Vedjorn bear shifter, Eric Mikkelson lives on his own terms. So allying with wolf shifters, even gorgeous Julia Jacobs, bristles his loner instincts. But Eric must protect his infant son from the dangerous shifter cult stalking him. However, keeping JJ at arm’s length proves nearly impossible. She gets under Eric’s skin, exposing them to new risks as their staggering attraction defies Pack laws, and JJ’s own dark secrets fester between them.

When the safe haven of their shifter-friendly town is violated, lying low is no longer an option. Julia and Eric must embrace the power of their inner beasts, even if it means sacrificing their forbidden bond.

 

While we’re on the subject of new releases, right now if you pre-order UNDER THE PARISIAN SKY by Alli Sinclair, you receive exclusive content AND are entered to win a beautiful pendant. It’s a win-win-possible-win situation!

The Publishing Process

(as previously noted, I’ve written about this before, so it may seem familiar to some readers)…

First of all, there’s no one path. Successful publishing takes a village. If you have the time, energy and personality for it, you may want to be that village (or hire it). If so, you may choose self-publishing. If you want someone else to do the work of a publisher while you focus on writing, you’ll pursue traditional publishing, which is what I’m going to talk about here, because that’s been my path, both as an agent and as an author.

It all starts with sending out queries, and probably to agents, since most major houses and many mid-sized houses won’t accept unsolicited submissions, which means that manuscripts must be submitted via agents.

You’ve spent all the time honing and perfecting your novel. Don’t do any less for your query letter. It’s not an e-mail to a friend, it’s a professional, business letter, like the cover letter for a resume.

The query letter should be one page, just like any cover letter, and about four paragraphs long:

Opening: For example, I’ve written an epic fantasy novel of approximately 100,000 words entitled XXX.

Summary of the work: Think back cover copy.  This would be a teaser that hits the high points of the plot and the main characters.  Remember that this should intrigue us, so you don’t want to boil it down to the point that it sounds generic.  Let us know how it’s original—not by telling us that its original, but by bringing those unique elements to the fore.

Bio: Tell us a bit about yourself.  Do you have previous publications and/or award nominations? Did you major in or work in a field relevant to your work in any way?  If not, is there something intriguing in your background that might pique our interest?

Close: I look forward to hearing from you.  Many thanks in advance for your time.  (Or something to this effect.)

Note: If you’ve enjoyed the work of any of their authors or benefitted from any interviews or articles they’ve done, you might want to mention this as well—not because they’ll be swayed by flattery, but because they’ll know you’ve really done your research.  If you’ve met an agent or editor and he or she has invited you to submit, this is definitely something you’d want to mention right up front.  Also in that case, you’d write “Requested Material” in the subject line of your submission.

While you’re honing –

#1) Do your research. Here are some great places to go when compiling a list of appropriate agents to query:

The Association of Authors’ Representatives

SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Author Beware site

Preditors and Editors

If you’re a member of a writers organization like SFWA, MWA, HWA or RWA chances are they have a list of publishers and agents they’ve vetted within their fields.

You might also look in the acknowledgements of authors to whom you would compare yourself.

#2) Continue your research by checking out the publisher or agency’s submission guidelines and then FOLLOW THEM. This is very important. It says that you do your research, you’re willing to put in the work and you’ll behave professionally. Also, it keeps your submission from being caught in someone’s Junk folder and never viewed.

#3) Persevere.  Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged and don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Get this submission out, then get your mind off it by starting work on something else.  It’s a rare author who sells right out of the gate.

What happens on our end?

Usually the first person to read your work is an intern, an assistant or a submissions coordinator, who will pass the work on to the appropriate person if they think it shows merit. Remember that the business is subjective, so a “no” is really a “not for us” not a “not worthy”. Most often you’ll receive form rejections, since we don’t have time to respond to every submission personally. If we did, we’d never have time to do anything else! So, you may not know exactly why your work was turned down. Here are some frequent reasons for rejection:

  • The material doesn’t fit in with what we represent.
  • The material really isn’t ready yet. Either it’s several drafts away or the person hasn’t yet mastered their craft.
  • It’s got the craft but it’s not firing an agent or editor to champion it (the craft but not the spark).
  • The idea is too a) off-the-wall, b) un-categorizable, c) like something we already represent, or d) commonplace.

-Something about the query leads us to believe that the author will be difficult to work with.  This can manifest in overwhelming ego, negativism, virtriol, condescension or any number of other red flags.

If you do receive a personal rejection, take this as a sign that you’re on the right track. If the comments are especially complimentary and the critique resonates, it’s acceptable to recontact the agent once rewrites are done to find out if he or she would like to reconsider. Unless a project has been pretty significantly revised, however, it’s not advisable to query the same agent with the same work. Although some guidelines will say otherwise (thus it’s always important to check), it’s also not generally acceptable to query multiple agents within the same company. Ditto for editors, although most publishers insist that queries come through an agent, so there’s a good chance that you won’t be submitting directly to editors (at least at major houses).

So, we’ve talked about rejections, but what about acceptance? If the agent likes what he or she has read so far, s/he will request more material, either a partial or full manuscript. Now is your time to shine! It’s fine, perhaps even advisable, to look it over once again, but don’t let too much time pass before sending it out. Now comes the waiting game – the agent’s letter or the guidelines on their website should say how long they take to respond. Feel free to follow up on your submission if that time passes, but always be professional in your correspondence.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for – acceptance!

Once an agent offers representation, there are all kinds of questions you can ask to find out if you’ll be a good fit, everything from where they see your work fitting into the market to what revisions they’d suggest.

If you’ve got your work out with others, you can feel free to ask the agent to hold that thought and give the others a chance to read and respond (something like a week), unless, of course, you already know that this first agent is the agent of your dreams, in which case you’d be putting the others through a rush read for nothing. If an editor makes you an offer while your work is on submission to agents, you tell him or her to hold that thought, that you’re talking to a few agents.

Then give those agents a call before you agree to anything. You should be sure the representative you pick is enthusiastic about your work and not just the fact that you come with an offer on the table, but you really don’t want to go about negotiating your first contract on your own.  Among other things, like getting you more advantageous terms, an agent will also help you avoid certain pitfalls, like strict non-compete and broad option clauses.

So, what exactly does an agent do?

  • Know the market. We keep on top of who’s selling what to who, what editors’ tastes are, who’s responsive and who’s not, what the strengths and weaknesses are of the various publishing houses.
  • Keep on top of submissions and responses and keep you in the loop.
  • Negotiate terms: beyond the financial, what territories and what rights are being granted or reserved, like film and television, merchandising, audio, translation… We also go beyond the big picture to haggle out nitty-gritty contract language that could make a big difference down the line.
  • Exploit the reserved rights with the help of film/television and other agents around the world.
  • Advise you on marketing and social media and help you liaise with publicity/marketing people at your publisher.
  • Chase contracts and payments, check over royalty statements, and argue when something doesn’t look right.
  • Play bad cop in general. We deal with conflicts so that you can work smoothly and editorially with your editor.

So remember that village I told you it takes to publish a successful book?

I’ve told you what an agent does. Here are just a few people at a publishing house who will have a hand in your publishing process.

Editor: Editors are indispensable.  They make you look good, catch things that you can’t see, call you on things you’re hoping no one will notice and make suggestions for improvement.  They’re also your point people for dealing with the rest of the company and most of the others on this list, though you will have some direct contact, especially with publicity and a few other peeps.  At some houses, you might have more than one editor.  A different person might do the line edit or continuity edit. Good editors help you achieve your vision rather than impose their own.

Contracts Department: After the editor makes an offer and the author and agent accept, the deal memo is off to the contracts department to draw up the agreement between all parties.  It’s now down to the agent and contracts department to iron out any additional bumps in the road and come up with a mutually acceptable document to be signed and abided by.

Copy Editor: Copyeditors are your last line of defense against typos, misplaced commas, run-on and nonsensical sentences, etc.

Copywriter: You know the teaser copy on the back of paperbacks and inside the cover flap of hardcovers?  You know who writes it?  Well, in some cases it’s the author or editor, but more often, it’s a copywriter.  It’s a special skill.  If you’ve ever tried to sum up your own work in a paragraph or two, you’ll appreciate exactly what I mean.

Art director: The art director hires artists and works with cover designers to  develop the look of your book.

Artist: Artists are commissioned by publishers to create an original piece for a book cover, though often these days, covers are developed from stock photography manipulated for your enjoyment.

Production Department: Estimates the cost of printing and deals directly with the printers and the nitty-gritty details of actually getting books produced.

Publicity: The publicity department at the publisher sends your work out for reviews, does press releases, sets up tours, pitches you for interviews, and various other things that go into publicizing your work.

Marketing: The marketing department arranges and designs ads and other promotion, which comes out of their budget.

Subrights Department: The subsidiary rights department submits work and negotiates deals for any rights external to print publication rights that are granted to the publisher and not exploited in-house.  For example, publishers often hold onto book club rights, and any arrangement for book club publication will be made via the subrights department.

Sales: Sales is in charge of marketing the books to retailers and the ID markets.

Bookstore reps: Individuals who liaise with booksellers within their territories.

So what’s your job as an author?

  • Keep your agent & editor apprised of anything that might be relevant to submissions: new short-fiction sales, contest wins, networking that you’ve done (particularly with editors who’ve expressed interest in your work).
  • Promote your work and be available for promotions, keep your website and other social media up-to-date.
  • Stay professional and don’t argue back with reviewers, bloggers, etc.
  • Write the best damn books you can and hit those deadline!

Without you, we wouldn’t have any business at all.

Conflict

The shape of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.

Internal: I’ve already talked a bit about this (see Part I). What makes things personal for your protagonist? Whatever drives the character and invests him or her in the outcome will invest the reader as well. Maybe there’s a killer after your hero or heroine. Maybe the killer is after someone they love. Maybe they’ve been accused of a crime they didn’t commit. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, something has to make the hero or heroine cares very deeply about events so that when we experience the story through their lens, we care as well.

External conflict: What is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.

So, what internal and external conflicts are driving your plot? What’s keeping those pages turning? Where’s your sense of urgency?

Whether you’re writing a romance and the primary tension is whether the hero and heroine will get together or a science fiction epic about the overthrow of an evil empire, a good novel needs three things. The reader must:

  1. fear that the protagonists might fail
  2. understand the very real danger of that failure
  3. care deeply about the outcome

In order for the reader to do any of these things, of course, the author must plot out:

  1. what’s at stake
  2. what form their adversity will take
  3. what face evil will wear

There’s rarely a one-word answer for what’s at stake, since there will need to be tension throughout the book, and a single note will start falling on deaf ears. Let’s take a pretty straightforward plot for example—a hostage story. The main goal will be to get the hostages out alive. The consequences of that failure are obvious, and if the author makes the readers care about the characters, they’re emotional invested in the outcome. However, things need to happen during the story to make us believe in this danger—not just “If not this, then that,” as in “If we don’t get the money, we start killing.” Obstacles need to be thrown in the way of the this which threaten to precipitate the that. For example, legalities will prohibit actually giving the hostage-takers what they want. So people will try to go about things another way. They’ll call a negotiator. Maybe that negotiator is having a bad day, and personal issues threaten the negotiation. Maybe he or she doesn’t make it to the scene or the baddies refuse to communicate or they’re all really just playing for time. Maybe the negotiation is going well, but one of the hostage takers is less stable than the others. Or maybe one of the hostages is a hotshot and wants to play hero (or maybe =is= the hero). The important thing is that things go wrong.

If everything goes well, according to plan, there’s not much tension, there’s no suspense and the ending is a foregone conclusion.   And what about the victims? Is one in need of medication? In danger of doing something stupid that might get the others killed? In league with the baddies? Any of these wrinkles will add character to the face of adversity. You don’t want to end up with a featureless, forgettable face, but one with character, stamped with tragedy and triumphs.

Because you must also have triumphs. Just as things have to go wrong, sometimes things have to go right. A piece of the puzzle falls into place or a battle is won on the way to winning the war. Things have to go more and more wrong, tensions have to rise, but not so continuously that there’s no relief. Just as we have to believe that the good guys could fail, we need to have hope that they will win. They must have the means to fight back, otherwise the inequality of power will make any end triumph unconvincing.

Okay, so you’ve got your characters and conflicts and you’ve written the most amazing novel. Now you’re ready for the publishing process, which I’ll post tomorrow as Part III.

2017-06-15 WW Lucienne Diver Last night I gave a talk at the Hart Memorial Central Library in Kissimmee, FL on Characters, Conflict and Publishing, which put a smile on my face, because my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Hart, was the one I credit with sparking my love of writing and with teaching me about butt in chair and other lessons I apply to this day. The attendees were a lovely bunch of people with great questions. As always, the ad-libbing and elaboration that comes from an in-person talk goes missing from the formal, on-paper speech, but since I promised, I’ll be recreating it here on the blog in parts. (Note: if you’ve followed along on my other posts and articles, some of what’s said here will already be familiar to you.)

Part I

For some, novels begin with a concept. For others with a character or characters talking in their heads. Either way, the best thing an author can be is as contrary as possible.

If your concept starts with a conflict, think “Who would be most thrown for a loop in a situation like this? Who would be most discombobulated and out of their element?”

If it starts with a character, think “What would really challenge this person? What’s his/her own personal version of hell?”

Then, I kid you not, put them through it. Characters and conflict are at the heart of every story, inextricably intertwined.

Characters

Let’s begin with characters. Who is your protagonist? What is his or her background? What does he care about and what’s at stake for him or her in the story? This is always ALL important. There must be stakes — something the character wants or needs but that obstacles may prevent or something the protagonist desperately fears that might come to pass if events aren’t thwarted. In the best of all possible worlds, both of these things are true. We’re all bundles of hopes and fears. Your characters should be no less. The difference is that for us, hopefully, there is no opposing force (a villain or a killer, say) battling against us.

When creating characters, be unique and be creative. Do not create stereotypes, but living and breathing characters. How do you do this? Here are a few things to think about:

Background: characters should be products of their cultural and personal experiences. There should be elements of both nature and nurture. For example, in fantasy werewolves (or vampires or even humans) will likely have certain behaviors in common because of their biology and biochemistry. People need to eat and drink, sleep, etc. Werewolves might have a need to change, particularly at certain times, or for red meat. Vampires aren’t really vampires without the need for blood (or energy in the case of pranic vampires). How your particular character deals with these urges and with others inside or outside their group will largely be informed by their personal, familial and societal history.

Uniqueness: while your main character or characters should be identifiable and sympathetic to the reader and may fit an archetype (hero, villain, caregiver, visionary) he or she should also be unique. Remember that even villains have a story. They may be doing the wrong things for the right reasons or responding to pains in their past or viewing everything through a lens of sociopathy, but in their minds they are likely doing what’s right or necessary. They probably don’t see themselves as evil. The same goes for your hero or heroine – most don’t see themselves that way. They’re not good or noble all the time. Think of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, who is heroic in standing up for her sister, but doesn’t set out to lead anything for the greater good, and when she takes on that role, realizes that it’s not black or white, but gray. People will die for believing in her and the symbolic role she plays.

Strength and Weaknesses: what are your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses and how does the conflict challenge them to be better. Characters should not remain stagnant from the beginning of a book to the end, they should grow and change, the conflicts the wringer they must go through to achieve their final shape.

Relatable: No matter how unusual a main character you choose, the reader should find him or her relatable and sympathetic. You may lose some readers if you choose a main character with whom they have nothing in common or who they feel is too immoral. Give us something with which to identify.

I’ve started with character, because that’s how stories often start for me. With the Vamped series, I first had my fashionista character talking in my head, and I absolutely had to get her out. I thought to myself, “How can I torture this girl?” (Authors have to have a little of the sadist about them and then write it out in their fiction so that they can be perfectly lovely people in real life.) The answer was to make her a vampire – take away her reflection so that she’d have no way to fix her hair and make-up, take away her tanning options and make her dig her own way out of the grave, totally ruining her manicure. Have her discover that the parents buried her in that dress she literally wouldn’t be caught dead in. And then, give her a bigger, badder, even more fashionable foe to fight against.

Which brings us to conflict, which will be Part II.

I’ve had one brand new book, one short story, and two reissues out within the past several months with two more reissues and a brand new book (Fangdemonium, the 5th and final novel in the Vamped series) coming soon. With all of that and my already more than full-time job as an agent, I haven’t gotten around to posting the excerpt from my young adult suspense novel Faultlines, which is a book very near and dear to my heart. I hope you’ll all read, enjoy, share, comment or do whatever the except inspires you to do!

faultlines-front-cover-final

Excerpt intro: Lisa has committed suicide. Her best friend Vanessa, struggling to come to terms with her friend’s death and piece together what led up to it, now faces another mystery. Someone is taking revenge against those they perceive drove Lisa to her death. Vanessa might even approve…if the pranks weren’t growing more and more serious and if everyone didn’t assume it was her taking revenge and act accordingly. As the danger level of the pranks and retaliations mount, it becomes clear that no one is safe. In this scene we first encounter the work of the vigilante Poetic Justice.

Excerpt:

When the bell rang, I took forever gathering up my things so that Rachel would be gone when I looked up. I wouldn’t give her the chance to “accidentally” hip bump me or any of the other stupid, petty things she was likely to do on any given day. Today I didn’t see any way I would stand for it. My emotions were too close to the surface.

I didn’t have to worry about her once I got through the door. Rachel was more an opportunist than an ambusher. That required forethought, and I wasn’t sure that was really in her wheelhouse. Unfortunately, she’d have another chance at me. Lockers were assigned alphabetically like our seats in homeroom, and hers was directly across the hall from mine. Usually it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t her favorite whipping girl. But today, I was vulnerable and just like a shark, she could smell blood on the water.

Luckily, Rachel was busy chatting with Shelby and Ashley when I reached my locker. They were preoccupied enough that I felt okay to turn my back on them. It was a huge mistake.

Everything happened in an instant. A huge pop, high-pitched screams, and something splattering against me like sudden raindrops out of a clear sky. Freaked, I whipped around, wondering what Rachel had done this time . . . and stopped cold, frozen in shock.

Across from me, Rachel’s locker had exploded, and the terrible trio stood covered in blood. It dripped from them in dark rivulets like from horror-film extras, but they didn’t appear hurt. Just shocked. My brain struggled to process what I was seeing. It was like some kind of dye pack had gone off, but what would something like that be doing there in the first place? And anyway, it didn’t look like dye. It looked like blood.

Rachel spat a thin stream of the stuff out of her mouth and started shaking uncontrollably. She went to wipe the residue from her mouth with her sleeve and dropped the arm like a live snake when she noticed it too was covered in blood.

“Get it off, get it off, get it off!” she chanted in rising panic.

Shelby yanked her shirt over her blood-soaked head, revealing nothing but a thin tank top underneath. She used her inside out clothing to wipe her own face before going for Rachel, who reared back and shrieked, “You’ll just rub it in!”

Ashley had been the least hit, but seemed frozen like me, her almond eyes wide, her mouth clamped shut to avoid any of the stuff getting in.

Marianne raced over to me, but stopped short of touching. “Are you okay?”

Wouldn’t she have been at the locker right next to mine? Hadn’t she been hit by the blood?

I shook myself out of my paralysis. “Fine. You?”

She looked down at herself as if to check. “I stopped off at the restroom. Good thing, I guess.”

She glanced around at the carnage, at the other kids watching but staying well away, at Mrs. Kerringer and Mr. Donally pushing their way through the crowd of students to take charge.

“Look,” Marianne said.

I followed the path of her pointing finger, straight to Rachel’s locker. Inside, painted on the wall in red paint or more fake blood, because it had to be fake, were the words IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT, all in caps.

Rachel saw the teachers coming and tried to throw herself into Mrs. Kerringer’s arms, but the teacher backpedaled, and Rachel got the message. Her arms dropped despondently. She stood, looking forlorn, great big teardrops starting to fall from her eyes, creating track marks in the red goo.

I looked around at the gathered kids. Could this be a prank? Or could the sign mean that someone else felt like I did, wanting to strike some kind of blow for Lisa. What was all Rachel’s fault? Was it the bullying or something more? I tried to see whether anyone looked smug or satisfied over the exploding locker. I didn’t know whether I wanted to thank the prankster or . . . or what? He or she’d had the courage, the strength, to do what I hadn’t. Using blood might be over the top, but it had made an impression.

Fear crept in. What if it was real blood? What if it was contaminated or diseased? What if this was more than a prank? I always had some kind of scrape from soccer dives or paper cuts or even hangnails. A thousand little ways to die of infection.

Panic started to rise and my heart to pound. I felt a freak-out coming on.

Marianne must have seen it too. “Mr. Donally, can I get Vanessa to the nurse? I think she’s in shock.”

He turned from the bloody girls to look at me in surprise. From the front, he could see no reason to concern himself with me.

“Why don’t you take all the girls to the nurse?” he said, realization dawning. “Anyone else get hit?”

A couple of nearby kids raised their hands tentatively. I saw fear in their eyes as well.

“All of you to the nurse,” he said. “And don’t touch anything along the way. The rest of you, I need your names. Officer Garza may want to talk to you. Then I want everyone to get to class. The janitor will have to get through with his crash cart. If you need to get past this spot, go around—outside the school and back in through another door. This area is closed.”

I was torn. Part of me wanted to stay and talk to Garza, even though I didn’t have anything to offer. But Marianne took her job seriously, and herded us down the hallway toward the nurse’s office. I didn’t fight her, but I could have broken my neck craning it to see back the way we’d come. I wasn’t the only one. A couple of times Marianne reached out to get one of the other girls moving and stopped herself before actual contact. The second time, Rachel reacted anyway, as if Marianne had not only touched her, but tasered her. She jolted her back to herself, as though someone had flipped her ‘on’ switch.

Rachel wheeled on me with fire in her eyes. “You,” she shrieked. “You did this.”

I glared back at her. “In case you didn’t notice, I got hit too. If I’d set this up, I’d have made sure to be outside the blast zone.”

“No, you’d be smart enough to get splattered to throw off suspicion.”

“Maybe that’s the way your twisty little mind works, but not mine.”

“Liar,” she accused.

Shelby glared at me in solidarity with her friend.

“According to the sign in your locker, it’s all your fault,” I responded. “So, what did you do? Maybe bully Lisa to death?”

Rachel hissed and came at me, nails out like they were talons that could rip me to shreds. I reared back, throwing my hands up to defend myself, anticipating the pain.

Ashley stepped between us.

“That’s enough,” she said, shocking us both. Her voice shook, but her glare said she meant business. “Lisa’s dead. You’re both covered in blood and you want to spill more? Are you crazy?”

Rachel craned her neck to see me over Ashley. From the rage on her face, I think she seriously considered knocking Ashley out of the way and coming for me anyway, crazy or not. With those baby blue eyes flashing, she looked like a possessed Barbie come to life. I think it was only the blood that stopped her.

“This isn’t over,” she spat at me.

“It is for now,” Ashley said. She gave Rachel a significant look that I hoped didn’t mean we’ll get her later.

“Well, here we are,” Marianne cut in, trying to break the tension.

She pushed open the door to the nurse’s office and led the way. Nurse Henning met us just inside. Her eyes widened as she saw us.

“The VP said blood, but I had no idea— Behind the screens, all of you,” she said. “There are sponges, sanitizing soap and nail brushes back there. Do your best. Hit everything.”

Her concern wasn’t exactly doing wonders for my panic, but she’d gotten a lot set up in a short time. The screens she waved us toward were like the ones they used for scoliosis screening back in elementary school. There were tubs there of sudsy, antiseptic-smelling liquid. Not comforting. A minute after we’d stepped behind the screens, the nurse tapped on the metal framework. “I’ve got a bin here of emergency clothes.” She pushed it behind the screens with her sensible white shoes. “You should all pick something to replace what got bloody. I’ve put plastic bags in the bin as well for your dirty clothes.”

“I’m not wearing someone else’s hand-me-downs,” Rachel protested.

“Well then, you can stay in what you’re wearing until your parents bring you something else. I’m calling all of your parents now. If you want to talk to them, please let me know.”

“Don’t worry,” Rachel said, shooting me a look. “They’ll hear all about it.”

I was sure they would. Rachel was not the kind to suffer in silence.

I couldn’t see the gunk on my back, but I could feel it when I moved and my clothes didn’t, stuck to me like glue. It made me want to tear them all off. I did the best I could with the clean up, contorting myself to reach what I could and then sanitizing my hands to within a layer or two of skin. I kept my shirt on, leaving the bin for those who’d received the bulk of the splatter, so I was the first one to the nurse’s desk. Instead of using her phone, I took my cell into the bathroom. I felt like a little girl calling for her mommy, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I was suddenly feeling fragile. If one more thing went wrong today, I might just break. I didn’t want to do it in front of witnesses.

“Mom,” I said, when she answered. “I was wrong. I’m not ready. Please come get me.”

Then I waited on the clinic couch. I thanked Marianne as she left, but aside from that I sat in my own little world trying not to think or feel or cry. By the time Mom came to gather me up, I was sure the other girls thought I’d lost my mind, but I couldn’t seem to care. I ignored their looks and the accusations they threw my way—all except for Ashley, who stayed eerily silent after her earlier intervention. The only thing I reacted to was when Mom and I had to pass close to my locker on the way out of school—close enough to see the janitor’s sandwich boards connected to each other with orange plastic ribbon, cordoning off the area like a crime scene. And in the center, all that blood, looking eerily real, maybe awaiting evidence collection before clean up.

It made me think about Lisa’s death. Supposedly there’d been no blood. When she broke the news, Mom said Lisa had hung herself. In her garage. Over a tarp. Which I didn’t get at first, until I thought of all the cop shows where the bowels loosened in death. Then I could almost see it. Lisa wouldn’t want to leave a mess. Not a physical one, anyway.

It was that “almost” that screwed with me. I still couldn’t imagine Lisa killing herself. Not Lisa.

______________

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I’m just back from OASIS, a small convention in the Orlando area that featured the fabulous Faith Hunter as their Guest of Honor. Pre-con festivities started with the GoH’s day out at Universal. A wonderful group gathered to take in Harry Potter World, The Hulk, Kong, The Mummy and many other rides at both Universal Parks, orchestrated by the amazing Peggy Stubblefield. And, of course, Faith Hunter and I had to take a moment to surf some waves and fight Death Eaters pre-park.

OASIS was small but mighty. Panels were packed with great guests like Faith Hunter (of course), Jack McDevitt, Alethea Kontis, Christina Farley, Aria Kane, Owl Goingback, Erica Cameron, Richard Lee Byers, Elle E. Ire, José Iriarte, Elizabeth Schechter, William Hatfield, E. Rose Sabin and others. Unfortunately, I only had my cell phone camera, which doesn’t like inside shots very much, but I did manage to snap a few pics to share with the class! (1st pic, L to R – YA Chicks: Christina Farley, me and Racquel Henry; 2nd pic, L to R – Christina Farley, Alethea Kontis (top), me, Erica Cameron)

Unfortunately, N.K. Jemisin’s novel THE OBELISK GATE didn’t win the Nebula Award Saturday night, but the winners do sound like an amazing bunch and my TBR pile is now that much more overwhelming! Also, since OASIS live-streamed the event, we got to hear and see the slides from astronaut Dr. Kjell Lindgren’s amazing toastmaster speech. If you can find it online, it’s absolutely worth your time.

James Alan Gardner, whose new novel ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT is coming out in November from Tor Books, tied for best short story for “The Mutants Men Don’t See” in the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Awards!

The Locus Award finalists were announced last week, and I’m very pleased to have both N.K. Jemisin and R.S. Belcher up for awards! Two authors, three categories – not too shabby!

Fantasy Novel: THE OBELISK GATE by N.K. Jemisin

Horror: THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WHEEL by R.S. Belcher

Short Story: “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin

In other news, Book Riot did a great list of book recommendations based on favorite Harry Potter characters. Genevieve Cogman, her editors and I are all tickled pink that their recommendation for fans of Hermione Granger (and aren’t we all?) is THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY! Genevieve’s series is so much fun, I heartily recommend it to everyone!

And speaking of recommendations, The Portalist offered suggestions of 11 Books like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” including BLOOD OF THE EARTH (the Soulwood series) by Faith Hunter and GLASS HOUSES (the Morganville Vampires series) by Rachel Caine! So, for you Joss Whedon fans out there, you know what to read!

Oh, one final thing! At the risk of burdening your To Be Read piles, Lore Seekers now has print versions available of the new editions of VAMPED and REVAMPED. I’m so, so excited! And look for the new editions of FANGTASTIC and FANGTABULOUS very soon, along with the all-new conclusion to the series, FANGDEMONIUM.

I have so much good news to share! In no particular order:

cold reign A  huge congratulations to Faith Hunter for hitting #29 on the USA Today bestseller list with her latest Jane Yellowrock novel, COLD REIGN. So thrilled!

assassins-creed-novelization assassin's creed heresy More huge congratulations to Christie Golden not only for her two Scribe Award nominations for Best Adapted – General and Speculative (ASSASSIN’S CREED) and Best Speculative Original (ASSASSIN’S CREED: HERESY), but for being honored by the IAMTW with the 2017 Faust Award and adding her to their prestigious list of media tie-in Grandmasters. So proud!

paper and fire HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY this week to Rachel Caine for the mass market reissue of PAPER AND FIRE, the second novel in her amazing Great Library series comprised thus far of INK AND BONE, PAPER AND FIRE and ASH AND QUILL (coming July 11th!) (For UK links, see INK AND BONE, PAPER AND FIRE and ASH AND QUILL.)

VAMPED - hires REVAMPED new cover All new editions of the first two novels in my Vamped series, VAMPED and REVAMPED, have been released by Lore Seekers Press, both only $2.99 in digital. The next two and a brand new fifth novel will be coming soon!