Q&A with Novel Queriers

Querying a novel manuscript is thrilling, soul-sucking, fun, and miserable, all at once. It’s also pretty confusing, since there are so many small decisions to make. Some writers currently going through (enduring?) querying asked me a few questions, and I figured I’d share my experience and opinions, in case they’re helpful.

 Ready to push off into querying?

Ready to push off into querying?

How many agents did you query for your novel? How did you select agents?

A Light of Her Own is my fifth novel-length manuscript. I queried novel #3 over one hundred times — got lots of requests, but no offers of representation. I selected agents based on anyone who was interested in historical fiction, largely according to their profiles on querytracker.net which I always corroborated via the agency web pages. I also queried some agents that I met at conferences (particularly Muse & the Marketplace, an excellent Boston conference).

My fourth manuscript I queried less than twenty times, but decided I didn’t like it so gave up quickly. For A LIGHT OF HER OWN, I took my time before querying. I hired an editor to look at the beginning pages (the excellent Heather Webb), and tried to get as many beta readers as possible. I also entered Pitch Wars, and though I didn’t get in, I learned from watching the hashtag and the critique partners I met. I had earlier met Shannon Hassan at the Historical Novel Society Conference, and she had requested my manuscript but I asked if I could hold off sending until after Pitch Wars. She graciously agreed. I had also sent out a few queries (maybe 20?) but not a bunch. By that point, I was also keeping track of who represented the historical fiction books that I loved, according to the authors’ acknowledgements.

How do you choose comp titles for your query letter? Do you select a book with a writing style similar to yours and another book on a similar topic? How recent should comp titles be?

Ah, my innocent querying self. When I first started querying, I thought comp titles were supposed to be the books that inspired the writing, not ones the manuscript resembled. So one of my first comp titles was … War and Peace.


Later, I learned, with much horror, how wrong that was.

So I started picking recent books that had either setting, plot, or stylistic similarities. When I started querying A LIGHT OF HER OWN, I actually didn’t use any comp titles, for reasons I don’t remember. When Shannon and I sent the manuscript out on submission, we comped Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, based on the 17th century setting and the artist.

How did you know which genre to select from--for example, historical or women's fiction or commercial fiction or upmarket?

Querying writers should definitely choose one genre; the one that best fits your novel. It’s ok to say “historical fiction with literary styling” or “literary fiction that would appeal to readers of women’s fiction,” but the more specific you can be the better. I knew mine was primarily historical because it is set in the past — and no matter how literary the styling is, it seems that the setting sets the genre. There could be some wiggle room here for novels that take place in the 20th century; I have seen those slotted as literary fiction.

Imagine where your book would be shelved, and how other authors would categorize your book. If you really don’t know, try reading more recently-published books. Read from a few books in the genres you are considering. It’s worth the time to know the market.

How important is it to get a professional editor? How do you know if beta readers are sufficient?

I learned a lot from working with Heather Webb, and I certainly recommend hiring an editor — even for just your first 100 pages — if you can afford it. Vet your editors to make sure they have quality advice to offer. That said, if you’ve put the time into editing the manuscript and sent it out to beta readers who are not your friends and can be very honest about what’s working and what’s not working.

I wrote a post about how to think about shelving or not shelving your manuscript. I think this might also be useful for thinking about how query-ready you are. http://www.carriecallaghan.com/blog/2018/10/4/on-shelving-your-manuscript

When do you know if you need a sensitivity reader?

If you are writing about a marginalized or underrepresented group or perspective and you are not of that background, or even if it’s a different perspective than your own, it’s a very good idea to think about working with a sensitivity reader. At a minimum, see if you can find another writer to swap with who might have the background to help you with that. But since that work can be emotionally demanding, it’s pretty important to try to remunerate sensitivity readers when at all possible.

Do you recommend any resources for querying?

Definitely. I loved having as much information as I could about an agent’s responsiveness and correspondence habits. Knowing when an agent was sending rejections (or if she was in the habit of not ever sending any) helped me feel a little more in control. I used Query Tracker to help me monitor my queries and find new agents. Duotrope also has an agent function, though I only use them for literary magazine submissions, so I can’t vouch for the agent function as well.

There are also many great resources out there on how to write and refine a query letter. Query Shark is the classic, and Pitch Wars (where I’m a mentor) has a page of writing resources which includes a bunch of great query references.

Finally, I think both Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are great emotional resources for querying. They have helped me approach literature with humility and humor, and those are tremendously helpful tools to lean on when you’re putting yourself out there.

How do you know when you’re on the right track with your manuscript or if you need more editing?

It has taken me years to learn how to edit my own work, and I’m still working on it. One of the best ways to know if you need more is to see what honest, perceptive readers think. See if you can get some critique partners to look at some or all of your manuscript, and listen carefully to what they have to say. If people are confused or bored, you still have work to do. Make sure you’ve done multiple editing passes, starting with big-picture structural issues (does my novel have a structure, does the protagonist have an identifiable character arc, do my chapters each portray the protagonist’s pursuit of a desire), and then move to chapter-by-chapter structure (is each scene essential, are there multiple story elements in play at all times), and finally paragraphs and words (is the writing smooth, consistent, grammatically correct).

Is there any request percentage that can indicate if you’re doing well?

There may not be a magic number, but if you’ve sent out 10-15 queries and received no requests, that’s probably not a good sign. Having a good concept is hugely important, and a good query that conveys that concept will elicit requests. From there, the novel should be able to stand on its own.

How long to wait before following up with an agent who has requested a full ms?

Be sure to check the agent’s webpage and Twitter for individual guidelines. Generally, you should not follow up before three months at a minimum. Personally, I’m a little fatalistic about following up. Unless you have an offer or otherwise have good news (a new publication, for example), I suspect that a follow-up nudge isn’t going to make a busy agent any more excited about a manuscript that she hasn’t already made time for. But that could just be me — I try to keep my expectations as managed as possible.

How important was it to have a social media presence before you completed your novel?

I don’t think it really matters to agents, unless you’re genuinely famous. But being comfortably engaged on social media in a way that feels healthy and rewarding to you can be fun — as long as you find a balance that works for you. I’ve loved having my Twitter community to help encourage and support me now that my novel is out. But I doubt the social media presence makes much of a difference for marketing.

Good luck querying, everyone. Putting your heart’s work out there for others to commodify is gut-wrenching. Remember that you’re standing on the shore of your own artistic island, and you’re hoping someone else can build a bridge to a community of book-buyers. Whether or not that bridge gets built does not diminish your own artwork and accomplishment. I know it’s hard, but try to separate what you can control — your work — and what you can’t — someone else’s reaction and willingness to spend money on your work.

And keep us posted on any good news!

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Publishers Weekly

I got my first trade review. Ever.

It didn’t kill me! In fact, they said really nice things!

_Callaghan’s riveting debut convincingly brings to life determined painter Judith Leyster ... A dextrously woven and engrossing historical novel..png
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The Frame-Up

A comic book writer solves copy-cat comic book crimes for the LAPD with the help of her drag queen best friend.

Doesn’t that sound amazing? That’s Meghan Scott Molin’s debut novel, The Frame-Up. It gets better — check out this cover:


Meghan got the idea for the book from a dream. She explains: “I had a dream about my best friend directing a squad of Drag Queen models through San Diego Comic Con to catch a killer. I woke up (literally) laughing out loud, told my husband and we both agreed I needed to write it down. It evolved into a story in my head, and BOOM. MG Martin et al were born!”

She says the book is super (deliciously?) nerdy. It has “alllllll the nerd jokes, all the time.” And if Meghan were to spend time with her characters, they would go to something nerdy, like a Harry Potter party, or a Star Wars movie marathon. Or maybe just sit and read comics together.

This book was a Pitch Wars book, which means I automatically love it (and for those who don’t know Pitch Wars, it means that Meghan’s manuscript was picked in a mentoring contest and edited with an experienced writer before she queried it. I’m a Pitch Wars mentor this year.). Between her first draft in 2016, Pitch Wars, her agent, and her editor, Meghan says the book went through at least five major revisions.

Meghan became serious about writing when her first son was born with medical complications, and she had to quit her job to care for him. Her interests are broad: “I have my Masters in Architecture, and a minor in Opera. I have two small kids, a dog, a cat, and two horses! I also am a professional wedding photographer because I like to do all the things, and never sleep.”

Here’s a bit more about the book:

Michael-Grace is sure she landed her job as a comic book writer because she has a man’s name, but her purple hair and take-no- prisoners attitude have helped her keep it. She lives and breathes geek culture, designing costumes and attending drag shows in her spare time. Time that disappears when her beloved comics begin coming to life. Someone in LA is re-creating comic panels using real-life crime scenes. MG recognizes the calling-card of her favorite hero, and it’s not too long before the LAPD is literally knocking at her door for her expertise. Her agreement to help has everything to with the chance to chase down a real life vigilante hero, and nothing to do with Detective Matteo Kildaire, or his gorgeous hazel eyes. Nothing at all.

When the string of crimes take a sinister jump off-script and clues point to there being a dirty cop in Matteo's inner circle, MG has to decide who to trust in this cat-and- mouse game. A game that gets dicier when she becomes a suspect. Lies and intrigue build up faster than her color-safe shampoo can handle, and she's soon trapped by the secrets she's keeping from her friends, and the Detective she’s falling for.  A trail of clues leads her to San Diego Comic Con, a thirty-year- old murder, and the fact that the dirty cop she chases could also be the very drug lord Matteo is searching for - a true comic book villain. MG is left with no choice but to devise a fierce and fashionable plan to catch their villain, with a little help from her friends.

Intrigued? Pre-order here!

And learn more about Meghan here:



Twitter: @megfuzzle

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On shelving your manuscript.

I might have one book coming out this fall, but I have four sitting in the drawer behind it. You could say I’m a pro at shelving manuscripts.

 Some of my writing that won’t see the (published) light of day.

Some of my writing that won’t see the (published) light of day.

Sometimes it’s easy to decide to shelve a manuscript and move on. But sometimes it’s hard.

Really hard.

Manuscript #3? The novel I love so dearly and queried 120+ times?

That one was hard to shelve.

(Manuscript #4? Queried twenty-ish times and shelved with nary a backwards glance.)

I’ve thought a lot about how to figure out why a manuscript isn’t getting picked up by agents and/or editors. I’ve come up with five reasons. There are probably more.

  1. Quality of the writing. For strangers to pick up our meaning, writers have to deploy words, sentences, and paragraphs clearly. For beginning writers, this can be tough, partially because new writers haven’t had as much practice turning ideas into words that then convey ideas. It’s also difficult because new writers may not have developed the self-editing skills to fix their own prose. (Everyone writes bad copy. Experienced writers just know how to fix it.) If you suspect this is your issue (or even if you don’t), join a writing group. See how many line edits you get. See how often people tell you they don’t understand the meaning of a sentence. Happily, this problem is pretty easy to fix, albeit labor intensive.

  2. Not connecting with the characters. Agents and editors often reject manuscripts with the vague explanation of, “I just wasn’t connecting with your characters.” What a frustrating response for a writer who loves her characters with all her heart! How can someone not connect with them? Well. In my experience, connection falters for two reasons: the character doesn’t clearly want something, and/or the reader doesn’t know enough about the character’s personality and motivations to care about what the character wants. Balancing those two aspects, particularly at the beginning of a draft, is hard. You’ve just got to keep working on it, and sending the opening to new readers to see how they react. Examine the books you love and pick apart why it is that you love those characters. Especially in the opening chapters.

  3. There’s not enough tension. A reader can get vested in the characters, but then the plot falters. Novels so often succumb to the dreaded “saggy middle” — when the promise of the initial premise has worn off, and the characters have reverted to passivity. Chances are, events are simply happening to the characters. A good plot will use obstacles plus the character’s desire (need) to overcome those obstacles to build tension. If you think this might be your problem, read some craft books (I love Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me for this particular issue), examine some plot structures, and see what you can do to retroactively structure the plot.

  4. The concept itself isn’t catchy or unique or of-the-moment. This is a hard one, but unfortunately, I suspect it’s pretty common. I’ve mentored Pitch Wars for the past three years, and each year I’ve seen stories that are well-written and pretty interesting, but don’t make me sit up and gasp and say, “I have to read this now!” One way to judge this for yourself is to see what happens when you give a one-sentence description of your novel to friends and family. Do they politely raise their eyebrows and say, “Oh, that sounds cool,” or do they do that gasp thing? This one was hard for me! Manuscript #2 was definitely a polite nod, and so was #3, no matter how much I loved it. If this is the case, maybe you can find the cool part of your premise and sharpen it. Also, this is the category where luck factors in. Some writers are just going to hit the zeitgeist. There is nothing you can do about whether or not that’s you. Don’t chase trends.

  5. The world isn’t ready. I hesitate to include this reason because, for so many of us, this will be the explanation we’ll want to rely on. The world isn’t ready for my genius, we’ll tell ourselves. But in reality, our manuscripts are more likely suffering from one or more of the previous problems. So before you decide this is your situation, give a hard look at those suggestions above. Still, for a small number of writers, this really is what’s happening. One of my all-time favorite books, A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, was rejected countless times when Mantel first submitted it to editors in the late 1970s. She got rejection notices saying that the editors weren’t interested in historical romances — which her novel of the French Revolution most definitely is not. But that’s all editors at that time could imagine historical fiction could be. So Mantel wrote other books and she waited. She finally published that one in 1992, when the world was ready for gritty and political historical fiction. If this is your manuscript? Well, here’s hoping the world catches up.


You’ve gone through this list, you’ve examined your manuscript, you’ve fixed all the problems you think you can fix, and you’re still getting rejections. Now what?

When do you decide to put it away?

I can’t answer that for you. I can only say you have to listen to your heart. Here are the questions to ask it:

  • If I’m looking to go the traditional route, are there still agents left whom I haven’t queried who are interested in this type of story? (If you’ve queried everyone under the sun, and you really want an agent, the book has probably reached the end of the road. At least for now. If not, consider pausing and revising, then dive in again.)

  • Do I still love this story? (If not, shelve it. If you do, think what else you can try. Small press? Self-publishing?)

  • Do I still have the energy to fight for this story? (If not, shelve it. That’s ok!)

  • Am I more interested in writing something new? (If so, then go for it! Life is made in the moment. Do what makes you happy.)

  • Do I even still enjoy writing? (If you’re doing this writing thing because you’re determined to have some sort of external validation, but not because you love the process, you’re going to be miserable. If you still enjoy writing, fabulous! Keep at it, whether with this or another manuscript.)

And if you shelve your manuscript … then what?

Then, congratulate yourself. You wrote a book. (Or ten.) And if you continue to write books and attempt to get them published, you are in the process of developing a thick skin. You’re learning to handle rejection, to examine your work critically and separate it from yourself, and you’re learning there are some things you can’t control.

That thick skin? You’ll need it. When you do eventually get published.

And remember, no one defines success except you. No one. Be gentle with yourselves, beautiful creative people.

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Diana Holguin-Balogh summons Billy the Kid

Please join me in welcoming debut novelist Diana Holguin-Balogh to talk about her historical fiction Rosary Without Beads.

Rosary Without Beads is a back-hills narrative for the 1800s Lincoln County War. The novel reboots Billy the Kid’s academic legend and gives voice to the silent story haunting the recorded version. Ambrosia, a Mexican sheepherder’s daughter, encounters fast talking Billy the Kid, and her world reverses its orbit.


Where did you get the idea for your novel?

Diana:  After a cousin’s funeral held on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, my brother showed me side by side graves of Shotgun Roberts and Dick Brewer, enemy combatants in the Lincoln County War. I grew up with the story and knew that when Billy wasn’t charming Mexican señoritas, the bilingual Kid fought in that war. Intrigued, I began. My fingers typed away as the story wrote itself.

The story was based on Billy the Kid, but the novel evolved into an aggressive woman power performance. From back hills New Mexico, a mentally challenged sister, a disenfranchised Apache curandera, and Ambrosia offer a fierce rendition into their possible involvement in the war.

If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?

Diana: The unforgettable Kid is loved by the locals and hated by those in power. So many unknowns have fueled eternal debate about his true character. Was he good or bad? I’d love to ride horseback with him from San Patricio, Ambrosia’s home, to Fort Sumner. Along the way, he could tell me about his life philosophy, his upbringing, and loves and future dreams. But then, would I have to re-write the book?

Are your characters historical figures or fictional creations?

Diana: As I point out in the Epilogue, members of Ambrosia Salazar’s family are fictional except her brother. He truly lived and was Billy the Kid’s friend. All the players in the historic Lincoln County War were real people. Those living only on the page are Tehde, the Mescalero Apache Indian, Ramon Salamanca, his mother, and Father Martinez.

Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Diana: I am a product of a multicultural family. My father attended only to the fourth grade, and my mother made it to the eighth. Books, other than an old encyclopedia, were not available in my family. My parents could not offer what they knew not. However, my father was a fantastic verbal story teller, and I remember wearing out the fairy tale section of that encyclopedia. I got a Ph.D. from Colorado State University and taught psychology at a local community college. After retiring, I began writing.


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Jennifer Klepper's Unbroken Threads

Jennifer Klepper is one of the nicest, most generous souls you could hope to meet. I’m so excited to read her recently-released novel, Unbroken Threads, and thrilled to get to share more about Jennifer with you here.


Let’s start with the most important thing. What’s Unbroken Threads about?

Jessica Donnelly’s life is beginning to unravel. When the attorney turned stay-at-home mom tentatively volunteers to represent Amina Hamid, a woman seeking asylum, Jessica must learn an unfamiliar area of the law. Soon, rising opposition to Muslim immigration and unexpected prejudices put her relationships on shaky ground.

Amina fled Syria with little more than memories that now fight against the images splashed on the news. Seeking a secure future and freedom from guilt and grief, she must learn to trust others amidst the reality of fear and hate.

To find stability, Jessica and Amina will both need to harness their own strengths, which may lie in connections that transcend generations, cultures, and continents.

Where did you get the idea for Unbroken Threads?

Jennifer: I started writing a character who was at a crossroads in her life and had to reconnect with her past in order to find her place in the present. At the same time--in the real world--I was watching the news and seeing thousands of displaced people fleeing their homes and their countries. It seemed natural (and appropriate) for my character to look at how she connected to what was going on around her and to have a deepening awareness of her place not just in her family but in greater society as well.

What’s the story behind the title?

Jennifer: When I signed my publishing contract, my publisher informed me that my original title ("Reclaimed") had to go. It wasn't until I was well into edits that "Unbroken Threads" came to me, partly as a result of specific items in the book, but also because of the underlying theme of the value of relationships and the durability of connections across generations, cultures, and continents.

Who’s your favorite character?

Jennifer: Jessica's teenaged son, Conor, intrigues me. He's at that age where he's a complete pain in the ass (as teenagers are prone to be), but it's because he's trying to figure out who he is and simply can't be bothered to figure out how to be an engaging participant in the conversations going on around him. I suppose it's relevant to note that my own son is Conor's age right now (though I wrote the book a few years ago). It's a thrilling age, with so many possibilities, and I'm both envious of those possibilities and relieved I don't have to go through that phase again.

Are your characters based on real people?

Jennifer: My goal when I write is to create characters who are realistic and relatable. As such, the characters in Unbroken Threads are informed by my interactions with friends and family and strangers, but no character is based on a real person. I can say that when I needed names for some of the women in Jessica's book club, I posted on my Facebook Author Page that the first few responders would have their name in my book. So, while the book club members aren't based on real people, they do have my real friends' names.

What kind of research did you do for the book?

Jennifer: My main research focused on events in Syria and the asylum process in the U.S. I am mindful that I am not an expert in these areas, which are ever changing--particularly in the past few years, but I can say I learned a lot and gained great empathy for the victims of the Syrian war and great appreciation for the efforts of organizations and individuals who work to provide assistance.

Brag a little. (It’s ok, really.) Share some praise that’s made you happy.

"A terrific debut, and so very timely. With smart writing and compassion, Klepper offers us a look into the hearts of two women: a Syrian immigrant hoping to find a home in the USA, and the volunteer lawyer whose work brings a second chance at life not only to her client, but to herself as well." -- Julie Lawson Timmer, author of Mrs. Saint and the Defectives 

"Unbroken Threads delivers an honest and intimate portrayal of the American response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. By turns harrowing and heartwarming, it's a powerful and important novel that book clubs and discussion groups will relish." -- Amanda Skenandore, author of Between Earth and Sky

Where can we buy your book??



A Midwest native, Jennifer made stops in Dallas, Charlottesville, and Boston before settling for good in Maryland. While she has an appreciation for the expansive beauty of the plains states, she hopes never to live landlocked again.

Jennifer attended Southern Methodist University and the University of Virginia School of Law, her law degree guiding her through the worlds of corporate law, tech startups, and court advocacy for foster children. She is an ardent consumer of podcasts and books that challenge her with compelling and unfamiliar topics. When she’s not writing, she’s crossing things off a neverending to-do list and hoping to catch that next sunset. Jennifer lives near Annapolis with her husband and two kids.

Facebook: @JenniferKlepperAuthor (https://www.facebook.com/JenniferKlepperAuthor/)
Instagram: @jennifer_klepper (https://www.instagram.com/jennifer_klepper/)
Twitter: @jenklepper (https://twitter.com/jenklepper)
Website: www.jenniferklepper.com (http://www.jenniferklepper.com/)

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41009293-unbroken-threads

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Pitch Wars 2018 - Bring on the characters

In briefest brief: I'm looking for historical fiction or fantasy, in the Adult category.


Hi! Welcome to my 2018 Pitch Wars wishlist. This is my third year mentoring, and I'm so excited to see what beautiful novels you creative people have in store for me.

A little bit about me: My debut novel, A Light of Her Own, is forthcoming from Amberjack this November. It's historical fiction about Judith Leyster, a painter at the time of Rembrandt, and there's lots of female ambition, difficult friendships, and sacrifice. I'm represented by Shannon Hassan of Marsal Lyon, and she's pretty much my hero. I was a two-time Pitch Wars hopeful, and I never got picked. But I fell in love with the community, and by paying attention to the hashtag and some CPs that I met through Pitch Wars, I learned a lot and was able to seriously up my writing game. I hope you can too.

 My dad made me pose in front of Judith Leyster's self-portrait. But yeah, she's pretty awesome.

My dad made me pose in front of Judith Leyster's self-portrait. But yeah, she's pretty awesome.

My mentoring style:  I am deeply committed to the learning journey. For myself and my mentees. I view writing as a practice and a way of life, and I love talking about how words create the alchemy of story in our minds. My focus on working with my mentees is usually on making the manuscript more vivid, both at the word level and at the structural level. We'll talk character arcs, showing vs. telling, point-of-view choices, sentence structure, and more. You should know I am not particularly motivated by getting writers big publishing deals. Don't get me wrong -- that would be awesome, and I'm a cheerleader for my mentees every step of the way. It's just that signing an agent and getting a deal are the bonus round, in my view. I'm here for the relationships and the craft.  (Here's a post I wrote about the mental health for ambitious writers: http://www.carriecallaghan.com/blog/2016/6/10/ambition-versus-contentment)

What am I looking for in a mentee?

Here comes the fun part! I can't wait to open my Pitch Wars mailbox and see your beautiful stories. I want you to transport me to different times and worlds. I want you to show me characters struggling with painful but realistic choices, and I want stories with a sense of maturity and sensitivity.

 Tombstones in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We all die -- so let's read stories that reckon with those difficult issues of life.

Tombstones in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We all die -- so let's read stories that reckon with those difficult issues of life.

I'm looking for adult fantasy and/or historical fiction. Let's break that down.

  • Adult. Written for adult readers. Who "adults" are is subjective, so I'll leave it at that. This does mean, though, that the story should focus on topics that are of interest to adults, not children. (Some examples of adult topics: how to balance friendship and ambition, how to gain power in a small town, how to allocate scarce resources during a time of hardship, etc. In other words, decisions that affect more than just oneself.) 
  • Fantasy. I don't write fantasy (yet ...), but I love reading it. See some of my favorite books below. Three of my four mentees over the past years have been fantasy writers. I'm also nine years deep in a rich Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I'm mostly into epic fantasy, but would also consider low fantasy if the world-building was rich and the characters sympathetic. I'm also into steampunk and gaslamp.
  • Historical fiction. It's probably (hopefully) obvious that this is my wheelhouse. I write historical fiction, I review it, I read it for fun. (You can see some of my writing here.) I'm open to almost any time period up to the 1950s except biblical. (I am not a religious person. You don't want me for your biblical stories.) I want closely-researched, smart historicals. That doesn't mean you can't manipulate the facts -- but you have to know them first. I would particularly love to see stories not set in the United States or England. My professional background outside of writing is in Latin America, so a historical set there would be a dream. But really, I'm curious and enthusiastic about so many places. And yes, historical fantasy would also be wonderful.
 A monster from a medieval illustration.

A monster from a medieval illustration.

General things I'm looking for in a manuscript:

  • Point of view. In the past, I've said that I was wary of first person point of view. That's still true, because I think that first person provides writers the illusion of closeness while actually being more distancing. (If you're interested in learning more on that, let me know on Twitter. Maybe I'll write another blog post.) But this year, I'm open to any POV. If you're not getting close enough to the characters, we'll work on that.
  • Characters. I want to fall in love with your characters and their challenges. I have struggled with plot over the years, so we can work on that. I'm particularly interested in female characters, though that's not a requirement. What is a requirement is a manuscript that passes the Bechdel test. I'm so totally here for your so-called ugly women, your female friendships, your men failed by patriarchy, your misfits and your dreamers.
  • War and politics. I love stories that show the human element of our power struggles. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, or From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris. Again, this isn't a requirement, but stories that at least touch on that sort of conflict will catch my attention. 
  • Art. Obviously, right? I love stories about art and artists. (But this is not a requirement!)
  • Prose. I tend to prefer books that fall on the more literary side of the spectrum, so I'd love to see some nicely polished prose. If you need help, that's ok too. But I want to work with someone who has put care into the words on the page.
  • Diversity. Bring me the stories that haven't been told, particularly if you're a writer from a marginalized background. I want to be surprised and delighted by what I read. I'm very open to any LGBTQ+ stories.  If you're writing about a background that's not your own, I'd like to hear about your research and relevant sensitivity readers. In the query is fine. (Exception to the no-DM policy below: If there's something about your identity you'd like to share privately, I completely respect that.)
  • Plot. I don't need a heavily-plotted story, but I would like to see things move along. This is probably especially the case for fantasy.
  • Ending. I want to see how your characters have changed, and I want some resolution. It doesn't have to be a happy ending, but if the antagonists win and the protagonists go from bad to worse, I'm not going to be the person for your story. Also, please don't have an ending that's just an obvious jumping off for Book Two. I want a book that can stand alone, even if it has series potential.
  • Format. I'm really flexible here, and am open to anything from graphic novels to pick-your-own adventure stories to straightforward chronological narratives, as long as it meets my other criteria.
 I also love maps! Old maps, fantasy maps, map-makers ...

I also love maps! Old maps, fantasy maps, map-makers ...

Some things I don't love.

First, let me emphasize how deeply personal these preferences are. My tastes are no more than that: my tastes. I'm picking a manuscript that I'm going to devote probably fifty hours to, maybe more. I need to love it. I think it's wonderful that we all have different loves and creative inclinations, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Multiple manuscripts that I've passed on over the years have gone on to be agented or published -- and I'm here cheering for them, big time. I just couldn't have mentored them, and those writers wouldn't have wanted an unenthusiastic mentor. Seriously. That's a waste of everyone's time.

Right. Disclaimer (very earnest, serious disclaimer) over. Here are the things I don't want to see:

  • Child protagonists. Though I've read some amazing stories with children protagonists (see Room by Emma Donoghue), I've found that most stories told from a child's point of view tend to be focused on things that are of interest to a child. Which, because I'm a grumpy adult, are not of interest to me. 
  • Retellings. Part of the delight of reading, for me, is discovering something new. Yes, there's nothing new under the sun... Except there is. And if I feel, even wrongly, that I know where a story is going, I lose interest. (Possible exception: If your story is a retelling of something I won't recognize, then sure, go for it. I loved Mr. Iyer Goes to War because it wore its Don Quixote trappings very lightly, and diverged from the original text with intention.) Also, I'm not into alternative history, unless it's something pretty obscure.
  • Romance. Sorry, I'm not your gal for plotlines that are primarily romantic. If romance is a sub-plot? Sure, that'd be fantastic. (And any heat level is fine; I love some sexy scenes!) But there are better mentors than me for stories about characters whose primary struggle is pairing off with someone else.
  • Mysteries. Likewise, there are much better mentors than me for books that are primarily mysteries, even if they are set in the past. Mysteries have some conventions that I am not familiar with, as a writer, and couldn't be helpful with. Of course, a novel with an aspect of mystery is just fine (great, even). But not if the primary plot or storyline is about resolving a crime.
  • Vengeance. Angry, vengeful characters are hard for me to connect with, unless they have some obvious soft spots (like in Trail of Lightning). Not that those can't be great books! They're just not for me.
  • Extreme violence. I don't have any real trigger areas, but I don't like lots of detailed descriptions of violence. Also, if there's a sexual assault that happens to one character which simply serves as development for a second character (gives Second Character motivation or mission or lesson), that's not for me. Violence or sexual assault that are dealt with sensitively are no problem. Hey, I said I like war stories, so it comes with the turf.
  • Submissions I've seen before. Like with retellings, if I can recognize it from previous years, it's probably not going to be for me. In most cases, you're going to be better off submitting to a new mentor. The very rare exception will be if the story is so different (new title, new pitch, new first chapter) that I don't recognize it at all. (If you aren't sure how yours falls, and you really think I'd be a good fit otherwise, please reach out on Twitter. But generally, you'll be better with a fresh mentor.)

How to interact with me: I love talking to writers on Twitter, so please reach out to ask for clarifications (though I can't say specifically if your 17th century cooking fantasy about pirates and sculpture will be for me, I can answer general questions). (Please do not DM me though. If you have a question, I'd rather everyone be able to see the answer, so as to be fair.) Also, please feel free to engage on craft questions. I started this post talking about my passion for learning, and I really mean that. I want to help you and myself grow to be a better writer and person. So let's chat about show-vs-tell or how to use time or concision in dialogue or ...

When I pick my mentee, I'll write an edit letter (probably 2-3 pages) and send a manuscript filled with comments and edits. I do a lot of note-taking in manuscripts as I go. Sometimes, since I'm pressed for time, this might come off as a bit curt. But I do try to flag all the things I love too (and there will be many), and I am always willing to reassure my mentee when necessary. I care about the writer and the story. But note, you do need to be willing to accept and work with criticism -- both with me and, I'm guessing, with the other mentors. Then I'll be in touch via email during the revision period, and am always happy to answer questions. I do expect mentees to be independent workers with a strong vision for the novel.

Books I've loved: This is always the hardest part of writing a wish list since there are so many! I hope you're reading widely and deeply in your chosen genre. Writers are my favorite people! However, writers who don't read are my least favorite people, and we won't be a good match if that's you. But I'm sure it's not. :)

  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  • From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris
  • The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • How to be Both by Ali Smith
  • Song Yet Sung by James McBride
  • Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
  • Side by Side by Jenni Walsh
  • City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Grudging by Michelle Hauck
  • The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
 One of the bookshelves in my house

One of the bookshelves in my house

Thanks for visiting! Here are the rest of the lovely adult mentors, or head back to the Pitch Wars blog at the mothership.

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Divorce the Lout, Earn Your Own Millions

I love historic home tours. You get to look at how people lived and hear their stories as told by curators who (usually) love them. For a historical novelist, it's the only way to travel.


Of course, when we were in Leadville, CO, I managed to sneak off to a house tour -- of the indomitable Augusta Tabor. She was a leading figure in that 19th century mining town, and is today known mostly for her husband's scandal: he left her for his lover, the enviably nicknamed Baby Doe.

 Augusta Tabor (1833-1895)

Augusta Tabor (1833-1895)

But Augusta, as I hear it, wasn't letting her idiot ex-husband keep her down. She won a relative pittance in their divorce settlement, but it was still enough money at the time to serve as seed money for her own enterprises. She ended up a millionaire, while her husband died a pauper. Not that money is the measuring stick for revenge, but I'll bet it felt good to Augusta.

You can find Augusta's full story in a 1955 book that's now, luckily for US readers at least, available for free via the Gutenberg Project. And if you're ever in Leadville, check out her home. Lovers of Victorian furniture and lives will marvel.

 The charming Victorian parlor.

The charming Victorian parlor.

 Horace and Augusta built this home to serve as their retirement. When Augusta got it for herself, she made good use of the cozy (six-room) space.

Horace and Augusta built this home to serve as their retirement. When Augusta got it for herself, she made good use of the cozy (six-room) space.

 A Victorian guest bed! In a cabinet!

A Victorian guest bed! In a cabinet!

 Augusta's own silver-ornamented traveling trunk. She brought this with her to Colorado from Maine, where she grew up.

Augusta's own silver-ornamented traveling trunk. She brought this with her to Colorado from Maine, where she grew up.

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Shenandoah Valley, 1850-1930s

Writers of historical fiction are constantly living on two timelines, or more. We see the world we're in now, but we are alive to the ways in which this world is woven on top of so many other, older worlds.

I love finding quirky museums of local history when we travel, because those museums help illuminate those older designs, the older ways of living that undergird our present day. When our family had a weekend in the Shenandoah Valley last month, of course I dragged the kids (literally) into the Shenandoah Valley Cultural Heritage Museum in Edinburg.


There's not a narrative at the museum so much as an immersion. They have collected artifacts from the daily lives of people all around the area and put them on display, so folks today can learn how people lived over one hundred years ago. There's a heavy bias toward middle and upper-middle class white families, it seems, so don't take this as the whole story. (And certainly, you should visit it to get your own impressions!  Mine were made with one screaming child in the other arm.)

Isn't it neat to think about how women entertained themselves when there was no television to watch at night? (They made have made beaded purses, like the below.) Or...


... isn't it intriguing how independent women entrepreneurs ran their businesses? The museum had a small tribute to a Ms. Edith Miller, born in 1872, who operated her own millinery shop. She traveled twice a year to Baltimore to purchase materials for her hats and to learn new techniques. That must have been quite a journey then.

 A sewing machine that Mrs. Scheffler sold to Mrs. Merkley for $1.

A sewing machine that Mrs. Scheffler sold to Mrs. Merkley for $1.

Maybe Edith took those trips on the passenger train, which arrived in that area in 1859. Or maybe she took a buggy, like the below. And our enterprising milliner could have worn dresses and sported fashionable whips like the second photo below.

 (Realistically, no one was driving very far in this thing, I imagine. Especially not in cold weather!)

(Realistically, no one was driving very far in this thing, I imagine. Especially not in cold weather!)


She might have used these trappings to decorate her hats and clothes.


Then, there's the simple challenge of communication. How did people get their correspondence? Rural families didn't get mail delivered until 1904.


And finally, before I go, I'm just going to throw this one in here. In case anyone is writing a story where the main character has to make a nail. 

You can thank me later.

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The Summer List

Friendships are, in many ways, more complicated than romantic relationships. There are so many uncertainties, so many imbalances, so many layers. But the best friendships can go deep, through the secrets and the hurt.


Amy Mason Doan's debut novel, The Summer List, tells the story of two women who were inseparable in high school but haven't spoken in the 17 years since. Laura reluctantly accepts an invitation to reunite for the weekend in their lakeside hometown, where she joins Casey in a scavenger hunt like the ones they did as girls. The clues lead them to their favorite summer haunts, revealing why their friendship fell apart one summer night—and unearthing a stunning family secret.

Amy is stopping by to share a little bit more about her book and her writing.

What inspired your story in The Summer List?

Amy: I was camping by the Oregon coast one summer and a bunch of kids ran up asking for a graham cracker for a scavenger hunt. I’d been half-heartedly plotting a story about two former girlhood friends reuniting after a mysterious rift, and suddenly I saw them going on an adult scavenger hunt together, following a list written by someone who wanted them to reunite. It would be initially awkward and sometimes loopy, but would help them heal old wounds.

Who's your favorite character?

Amy: Casey! She lives across the lake from my other main character, Laura. They’re close enough to see each other’s houses and swim back and forth, but they’re complete opposites. Casey is impulsive, fearless, completely secure in her skin. She’s a loyal friend, intensely protective of Laura. She practically lives in the water, and she has a weakness for old paperbacks like Queenie and Princess Daisy.

Tell us about yourself and your writing process, Amy.

Amy: I live in Portland, Oregon with my husband, Mike, my 11-year-old daughter, Miranda, and our rescue tabby cat, Leah Lilikoi McConagall Mason. I went to Journalism school and I’ve worked at a variety of newspapers and magazines up and down the West Coast. I started writing fiction a few years ago, after I turned 40. I’d always wanted to do it but never pushed through my fears. Then I won this contest and got to fly to the movie premiere of TIGER EYES and meet Judy Blume, whose books I’ve adored for years. It was the strangest, loveliest turn of events. She was so down-to-earth. It felt like the universe was telling me to stop messing around and write a novel.

What's next for you?

Amy: I’m revising my second novel, the second book in my contract with Graydon House. I can’t say too much yet except that it’s set along the California coast and I’m really excited about it. I love the characters.

Brag a little. Share some praise you've received for The Summer List.

“There is not a word or a plot line out of place in The Summer List, Amy Mason Doan’s fabulous debut. These characters and their stories are going to stick with you for a long, long time.”
-Meg Mitchell Moore, author of The Admissions and The Captain’s Daughter

Thanks Amy! 

If The Summer List sounds like your sort of book, check it out at your local indie bookstore or here: https://www.amazon.com/Summer-List-Amy-Mason-Doan/dp/1525804251/

You can catch Amy on Twitter or her website or Goodreads or ... ! :)

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Between Earth and Sky

Amanda Skenandore's beautiful, heart-wrenching debut tackles the tragic white-run boarding schools for Native American children. It's my pleasure to share some more information about Amanda's story and her writing process.


What's the book about?

Amanda: The main character, Alma, is the only white child at the “savage-taming” boarding school run by her father. The school was intended to assimilate the children of neighboring Indian reservations. Instead, it robs them of everything they’d known—language, customs, even their names. As an adult Alma must reckon with the school’s destructive legacy; with love, racism, and betrayal; and the sacrifices made in the name of belonging.

"Between earth and sky" is a beautiful quote from the book. How did you decide to make that the title?

Amanda: I’m terrible with titles. The story went through two working titles before my agent and I settled upon BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY. I didn’t love the title initially and thought the publisher might change it, but my editor really liked it. Seeing it now on the cover of the book, I’m glad that’s the title we went with.

How long did it take you to write and publish the book?

Amanda: I began writing BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY in 2012. It took four months write the first draft and another four years to revise and edit. After I found an agent and publisher it was two years (almost to the day) that the book was released.

What was your favorite part of writing Between Earth and Sky?

Amanda: I love the research phase of writing because history, especially the quirky details of day-to-day life in bygone eras, fascinate me. I also really enjoy the revision process. It’s both creative and analytic. It’s where that lump of coal of a first draft becomes a diamond.

How do you find time to write?

Amanda: I work part-time as a registered nurse and unusually write on my days off. I like to have several hours of interrupted time to devote to my story. When I’m under deadline, however, I’ll go to a coffee shop or library after my shift at the hospital and write then too, even if just for a few hours.

Which books influenced you the most?

Amanda: A few come to mind: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

And finally, what are you working on now?

Amanda: I’m working on a story about an undertaker’s assistant set in New Orleans during the waning months of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Intrigued? Amanda is a talented writer, and you won't forget this moving story. Check out Between Earth and Sky here, or request it from your local library!

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Between-Earth-Sky-Amanda-Skenandore/dp/1496713664/

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/between-earth-and-sky-amanda-skenandore/1126893617?ean=9781496713667#/

Learn more about Amanda:

Website: http://www.amandaskenandore.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SkenandoreAmanda/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ARShenandoah

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/amandaskenandore/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/AmandaSkenandore

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Buzz Books!!

When my publisher told me we'd been accepted into Buzz Books for their Fall/Winter 2018 edition, I thought that sounded pretty neat. Of course, I had no idea what Buzz Books was. 


Now, I know! And I'm floored and shocked and SO excited to share the space with authors I adore, like Barbara Kingsolver, Sarah Perry (I loved The Essex Serpent!), and Frances de Ponte Peebles (Have you read her The Seamstress? It's bare-knuckled glorious).

Check it out: http://buzz.publishersmarketplace.com/edition_post/buzz-books-2018-fall-winter

The compilation of excerpts from 40 books coming out this autumn and winter is free to download. Enjoy!

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Writers for Hope

This piece first ran at the Washington Independent Review of Books. It's the third in my "Literally Kind" series about how writers, books, and words help bring some light into the world.


It would be hard pinpoint the earliest rape recorded in literature. Sexual assault in the Hebrew Bible? Yup. In Greek mythology? Of course. In Homer? Kidnapped trophy women are central to The Iliad.

But victims of sexual assault have also used the pen to fight back, at first obliquely as women began writing in the Renaissance, and then, by the 20th century, explicitly. Today, survivors of all genders share powerful narratives describing, denouncing, and reconceptualizing sexual violence.

Five years ago, Kelly Johnson decided to do more than just write about surviving sexual assault. She created a fundraiser centered on writing and writers to support the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual-violence organization in the United States. Her fundraiser, Writers For Hope, just completed its fifth iteration, and she raised an impressive $10,007 from bids on items donated by 109 other writers and craftspeople.

I asked Kelly to share her story with our readers.

Her experience began four years before that first fundraiser:

“I had tried to leave for work in the early morning only to have a stranger force his way into my apartment and proceed to beat, smother, strangle, and rape me. My best friend, and roommate, saved my life — she got the police to the apartment before he could complete his murder attempts and escape.

“I was very lucky — which is always an infuriating word to use in this context, but the best one I have. Unlike most rape survivors, I got to see the individual who did this to me go to prison. Unlike most rape survivors, I was surrounded by endless support — from my family to my friends to the police to the prosecutor.

“And through my experience with the legal system and my early reading of the RAINN website, I continued to find more reasons why people listened to me, when so many other rape survivors are left to suffer in silence.”

Kelly’s visible injuries, small physical stature, white race, and status as a heterosexual woman seemed to make her story more sympathetic than those stories of people without those privileges.

She was, she says, “the poster child for our society’s Palatable Rape Survivor.”

“It is a horrific privilege that I certainly never asked for, but it is a privilege nonetheless,” she says. “The kind of privilege that comes with responsibility — a responsibility that I was simply unequipped to deal with properly in the early days of my recovery.”

In the third year after the attack, she had recovered enough to begin planning an independent international trip. But she soon hit a major roadblock. She couldn’t stop searching news outlets for stories on rape.

“I spiraled and probably would have continued doing so until I was completely unraveled, if my mom hadn’t stepped in. She stopped my spin into darkness with one question. ‘How is what you are doing right now helping any of these people?’

“It wasn’t. I mean, it was a nice thought — make sure their stories are read — but it didn’t accomplish anything other than freezing me in my trauma.

“I went back for my third stint in therapy and started to get my head on straight. I started spending less time crying in bathrooms and more time circling back to my mother’s question — trying to figure out what I could be doing to help people.

“The following March, I was finally ready to tackle the daunting prospect of approaching total strangers to take part in the cause. Deciding to combine my interests, I came up with the idea of the Writers For Hope Online Auction and drafted a letter to send to authors, agents, and editors.”

Now, Kelly has been doing Writers for Hope for five years. She starts soliciting donations, like signed books or packages from literary agents or published writers critiquing unpublished manuscripts, as early as four months before the auction opens. It’s a ton of work that she does all on her own, uncompensated.

I asked her why she still does it.

“Over the last 25 years, sexual assault has fallen by 63 percent. That’s amazing. But we’re still nowhere near where we need to be. The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey shows that currently there is one sexual assault every 98 seconds. Seconds.

“The fact that this is 63 percent better than it was 25 years ago is a horrifying statistic to consider. ‘Better’ is still not good enough and until it is, I’m a big believer that anyone who can do anything to help should be.

“There is also a self-serving component of the auction. At a time when the majority of the news we see focuses on people being horrible to each other, this event basically serves as the annual reset of my world view.

“From that very first email I ever sent out about this event — not only were people agreeing to donate their time and resources, but they were actually thanking me for the opportunity. This continues to blow my mind every single year. People thanking me for giving them an avenue through which they could give of themselves.

“This year, the auction had 109 donors and visitors from 836 cities and towns around the U.S. and 39 countries worldwide. I have met, in person, maybe 15 of these people. The rest are still basically strangers to me, past the occasional Twitter connection. I doubt they have any idea what a monumental role they have all played in reminding me why this world is worth fighting for.

“They remind me, every year, that I am not alone in my fears and concerns. And now I think of it a lot like being in the high school choir. My music teacher used to really hammer home the idea of staggered breathing before a concert. Make sure that you were catching your breath at a different moment than the person next to you, that way the sound of music would be continuous.

“It’s been eight years now, and there are still many days when I need to catch my breath. I need to step back and turn inward. In the last year, this need has increased significantly as I’ve been torn between being elated that necessary conversations are finally becoming more mainstream and emotionally exhausted at seeing my knowledge that these issues are rampant confirmed on an almost hourly basis.

“As difficult as these moments still are, they no longer mire me despair because I know now that all the people next to me are still singing. Just as I know that on the days when I’m going strong, there are others who aren’t.

“That’s why I keep doing Writers For Hope — because the problem is still huge, but so is the group fighting it. It’s a way to amplify the song.”

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From Unseen Fire

Today it's my pleasure to introduce Cass Morris, whose historical fantasy, From Unseen Fire, is a magical take on ancient Rome.

Cass wanted to write a fantasy that took place somewhere other than the now-standard Western Europe setting, and her long grounding in Latin made the ancient world a natural fit.


From Unseen Fire takes place in Aven, an alternate version of ancient Rome where elemental magic has shaped society as much as law and war. In the wake of a brutal dictatorship, two factions compete to rebuild the Republic in the shape they desire. One side is protectionist and isolationist, seeking to preserve conventional morals and keep their nation small enough to easily control; the other side is expansionist and more permissive, looking to embrace the opportunities that allies and immigrants can provide. By law, the use of magic to influence politics is forbidden, but both sides skirt the rules where they can — and some are willing to step dangerously far over the line.

Cass, tell us some more about your book. Who's your favorite character?

CM: Vitellia Latona is the character closest to my heart. She’s a powerful mage of Spirit and Fire, but she’s never made the most of it, partly for lack of training and partly due to discouragement from various sources out of spite, jealousy, or just plain misogyny. In From Unseen Fire, she’s in the process of breaking free of all those restrictions and repressions, learning to own herself and take up the space in the world that she deserves.

As you know, I love historical fiction, and the interplay of imagination and historical record. Are your characters drawn from history?

CM: They’re mostly from my imagination, though they have some historical inspiration. Julius Caesar, Tiberius Gracchus, Germanicus and his wife Agrippina, Mark Antony, Fulvia, and many other Romans have not direct analogs, but correlations in my characters.

What kind of research did you do for From Unseen Fire?

CM: A lot of my research was reviving things I had studied in high school and college and then delving deeper. I had to get a lot more into the social history of ancient Rome than just the political overview and the “great men” narrative. Alberto Angela’s Day in the Life of Ancient Rome was supremely helpful, as were the works of Philip Matyczak. I’ve a full list of recommended resources on my website (cassmorriswrites.com/aven-cycle/the-world-of-aven/resources-and-history/). The most fun research, though, was taking a trip to Rome and spending a few days wandering around the Seven Hills!

Cass, tell us a little bit about yourself.

CM: I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life, and most of my work has been as an educator. I spent seven years at the American Shakespeare Center, where I wrote 22 guides to help teachers make plays exciting for their students. My parents and sister live in our hometown, so I revisit my old stomping grounds fairly regularly. I live in the mountains with two cats, a nineteen-year-old calico and a seven-year-old Abyssinian.

And what's next for you?

CM: Book Two of the Aven Cycle, as well as drafting a space opera with a rakish heroine loosely based on Julie d’Aubigny.

You can find From Unseen Fire at any of these fine merchants:

Amazon -- https://www.amazon.com/Unseen-Fire-Aven-Cycle/dp/0756412242

B&N -- https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/from-unseen-fire-cass-morris/1125456861

IndieBound -- http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780756412241

Kobo -- https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/from-unseen-fire

GooglePlay -- https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Cass_Morris_From_Unseen_Fire?id=hyq2DQAAQBAJ

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Literally Kind

The post first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

In 1939, Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina, founder of the St. Petersburg puppet theater and wife of a composer, traveled to a Russian village northeast of Moscow. Her young daughter had died seven years earlier, and the Soviet Union was at the time gripped by the government-sponsored purges. At home, gunshots would awaken her in the morning, and many of her friends and neighbors were arrested.


But, in the village, she found a sort of peace. The town was known for its icon painting, and she took heart in the small creative gestures the artists were able to indulge in when not churning out soulless painted boxes.

At the end of her trip, Shaporina sat in a restaurant having lunch, and watched three men at a nearby table. They downed multiple liters of vodka and bottles of beer as they chattered on in their jargon. They were “economic planners,” she noticed — some sort of “bosses.”

They drank and reveled in their authority. She couldn’t escape the reality of the state terror consuming her country.

In her diary later, she despaired.

“It’s terribly hard to build, but oh, so easy to destroy.”

Shaporina was right, I think. We demolish, smash, and tear down at a whim; we cut one another’s feelings to the bone with a word; we end decades-long relationships with a burst of anger.

But that’s not all we do.

Humans also create, build, and inspire. Literature and art are a testament to that impulse, and Shaporina’s own puppet theater was her greatest solace during years of agony.

Even during our darkest moments, people are escorting the injured from buildings, transporting homeless dogs hundreds of miles to find them new families, putting sweat and tears into restoring old churches so others can delight in them. People doing good are always building; sometimes, we need to be reminded of their efforts.

My heart is built of words and books, so my optimism naturally runs in those same channels. I’ll be writing this column to celebrate the kindness that people bring to one another using books and writing — even when the world is difficult, even when it seems like all anyone wants to do is destroy.

Because it might be easier to destroy, but humans are better than that.

Take Kelly Hopkins, for example. Hopkins is a creative-writing teacher and librarian and, in 2017, she began to wonder why so many writing contests were only for adults. She posed the question on Twitter and began chatting with Michael Mammay, a fellow writer and contest mentor.

Together, they came up with TeenPit, a contest for high school students that matches teens with experienced writers. Together, mentors and teens revise the first chapter of the students’ novel manuscripts (with 25,000 words or more). Last year’s inaugural contest matched 25 teens with mentors.

Five of the finalists, as top prizes, sailed directly into the final round of one of the online writing world’s most competitive contests, Pitch Wars. And one TeenPit contestant signed with an agent after completing the contest.

“I'm so proud of all of our students and how much they have grown through the process,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins and Mammay put a lot of time into rounding up mentors, soliciting and evaluating contestants, and working with teens. All so that young writers around the world feel more empowered to pursue their dreams.

“I think teens who write need to know there is more out there for them. This gives them an opportunity to connect with a professional writer — someone who knows the ups and downs of the professional writing life — and to engage with that life for a couple of weeks,” Hopkins said.

That effort seems to have paid off. One TeenPit alum, Bethany, told me that the contest opened her eyes.

“Meeting other teen writers and working with published authors encouraged me in my own writing. Working with a mentor on my opening chapters gave me a new perspective on editing and reading my own work that still helps me with my current writing."

I’m heartened by people like Hopkins and Mammay who devote their scarce time to helping young strangers become better writers. In that way, we build a stronger world. One bound by kindness and respect, with an awe of art.

In the coming months, I hope to share other stories about how books and writers brighten days. It won’t be maudlin because we won’t lose sight of the world’s cruelty. We won’t pretend that darkness doesn’t exist.

But we will remember how ordinary people build in order to hold the destruction at bay.

This is the first installment of a new column, Literally Kind. Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina’s diary entries can be found in Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen.

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