Help Me Help You (The Editorial Process Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about the editorial process and why it takes so long, and I promised that the next one would be suggestions and strategies writers can use to make that process go more smoothly and, hopefully, a little bit faster. In the interim, I have finished up edits on one big book, acquired two more manuscripts to edit, and written two difficult chapters in my own WIP. So, you know, the monster lurches on. But anyway, as promised ….

Stop Sending Me Your Ratsafrackin First Draft: And trust me, I can always tell. I’m starting with the harshest, most blame-the-writer-y directive because this is the one factor in the process that you, the writer, can absolutely control. I don’t care if you’re Stephen King, N.K. Jemisin, or Charles Dickens finishing Edwin Drood from beyond the grave, your first draft is NOT the draft you want me to see. Because it is not the draft you want the reader to see. Because the reader does not live inside your skin and will never, ever, ever understand it or engage with it or love it the way you do. You know that vitally important thing you figured out about your protagonist just as you were turning the corner on the second act? And that amazingly mind-blowing twist that came to you in the shower just when you thought you were stuck? And the way you kept going back and forth on how to spell the supernatural antagonist’s surname? All of that stuff needs to be revisited and worked through the manuscript as a whole (a hint of foreshadowing here, a corrected spelling there) before you submit it to an editor. And no, Grasshopper, running it through search and replace will NOT take care of it.

At the end of your first draft, you have the story, you have an arc. But you haven’t made it plain what’s important and what isn’t; you’re still just then at that moment figuring out which details the reader needs to notice and which details need to barely register and hang around in the back of their brain until you start setting off your bottle rockets and springing your traps. You probably have a few rockets and traps you haven’t even set up yet. And if you don’t go through your story again and refine your rhythms and shore up your foundations and fix your continuity snafus before you send the thing to me, I’m going to have to do it for you. And even if your first draft is really good and you and I have worked together really well for a really long time, I’m not ever going to be able to do it as well as you could because it’s not my story. I’m gonna screw it up. And that’s gonna piss you off. And we’re going to have to not only fix the problems, we’re going to have to get past the fact that I pissed you off and that you pissed ME off by sending me a first draft you weren’t really ready to see edited. And that’s going to slow our process down.

And btw, kittens, this goes double for anybody submitting for publication in the first place. Any time a writer tells me they’ve sent out a project to a dozen editors and gotten a dozen rejections and they’re ready to give up writing and join the circus, I ask them, “how many drafts did you write before you sent it out? How many other people read it and gave you feedback on it? How much rewriting did you do based on that feedback?” If they tell me several and lots, I sympathize and offer to help however I can. If they tell me they just finished it, got their mom to proofread it, and sent it out, I wish them luck with the elephants. Also, if you’re one of those super-artistic pantser types who writes your stories in a supernatural fever of inspiration from beginning to end, letting the muse and the characters tell you where your story needs to go until you collapse over your keyboard, spent and done with a story that’s a piece of your very soul still dripping tears and hearts’ blood, too precious to be imperfect . . . yeah, don’t send me that shit. Save us both a lot of heartache.** And on a related note . . .  

Don’t Send Me an Unfinished Draft: If you’ve still got one more piece of research to do or one more plot hole to fill or one more subplot to work out or one more name to choose or one more scene to write, you aren’t ready to show me your story, and I don’t want to see it. Nothing sends me into a rage frenzy faster than spending hours and hours editing a book, sending it to an author with my notes, and having them send me back a completely different, completely rewritten book that doesn’t so much address my concerns as render them moot. Because when that happens, I have to start all over again, and everything I did before was useless. And that makes me testy. If you’re not ready to submit, it’s okay; I’ll totally understand. Keep working until you’re ready to send me what you consider to be the finished form of your book.

But please note, this doesn’t mean I won’t make any changes or suggestions or comments. It means the changes, suggestions, and comments I do make will come only from stuff you couldn’t possibly have seen from the inside. That’s the whole point of editing. I work with so many writers who seem to take every critical note I give their story as some kind of commentary on their talent or intelligence—nothing could be further from the truth. Like I said in my last post, I already know you’re an amazing writer. If I tell you I don’t understand why Sally Jane killed the fly with her flipflop in Chapter 9, make it clear she didn’t have a fly swatter. Don’t feel like you have to rewrite the universe so flies don’t exist. You don’t have to be perfect; you can’t be perfect. I’m certainly not, and neither is any other writer. This is a process, not a test. I’m not grading you; we’re making a product together. So relax and work with me, okay?

Meet Your Deadlines: Which I know sounds like a complete contradiction to everything I’ve written so far. But here’s the deal with deadlines. We set them, usually in a collaboration between the writer, me, and the publisher, not just so we have one but so we can plan ahead for all the other steps that have to happen to make the great story you made up into an actual book for publication and for the glorious moment when that book is finally released into the world. If shit happens and for whatever reason you can’t make that deadline, we are not going to be mad at you or fuss at you; we’re going to totally understand and give you whatever time you need. But we’re not going to bring the big machine that is the publishing house to a grinding stop to wait for you to finish; we’re going to move on. Your book loses its place in line; the next finished book behind you moves up into your slot. So when you do turn your book in and ask me “so when’s this going to come out?” I’m going to tell you, “I don’t know, but probably no time soon.” Not because I’m mad you missed your deadline, not because I’m not still wildly excited about your book; I’m not and I am. But just like at the doctor’s office, I gotta work you in. So if your book was due on December 1, 2020, for a release on May 1, 2021, that doesn’t mean if you turn it in on February 1, 2021, it’s going to come out July 1, 2021. Other people’s books are already taking up that space. It means it’s going to come out just as soon as we can get it through the editorial pipeline and find a spot on the roster for it. So it might just come out May 1, 2022. (I say this with authority—the dates I used in the previous example were my own when I missed my original deadline for Stella 4. It was meant to be a ConCarolinas release, but it wasn’t ready for ConCarolinas 2021. So we held it until ConCarolinas 2022.) Again, it’s not that anybody blames you or doesn’t understand why you couldn’t make your deadline. It means your missing your deadline threw off the schedule, and we’ve gotta find a way to make it work.

Be Flexible and Let Go: Like the deadline thing, this is not something you have to do or even that you always should do or even can do. But the more you can do it, the less time it’s going to take to get your book through the editorial pipeline and out into the world. I’m talking about stuff like editorial suggestions, copy edits, and cover art. Your book is your book; that is never in question. And it’s only natural that you should have a vision for it as a story and as an object and that you should care deeply about that vision. But if you don’t trust a publisher to know what they’re doing in polishing and packaging your book, don’t sign with that publisher. Don’t roll over and play dead; if you have an idea or a problem, speak up, that’s part of your job as a writer. The trick is realizing which details really matter and which you can give up.

As far as editing, my own process as a writer is simple. I get my edits, and I read them, and every nice thing slides through my brain so fast I barely see it and every criticism digs in like a rusty fishhook and makes me scream. And scream I do, and cuss, and disparage the ungodly entity that brought me to this pain (my editor) in every possible way for anywhere from ten minutes to two days. And then I read them again and realize not everything is quite so egregious as I thought it was. At that point, I’m able to start the process of making decisions as to what the editor is dead right about and what they might be right about and what they’re so wrong about I can’t stand it and what I can let go. And that’s the version of my response that my editor actually sees, and usually, we work it through very well and come up with a version that pleases us both.

Cover art might be trickier because I have a weird outlook on it. I got so battle-scarred with my first big publisher regarding cover art, anything that doesn’t make me cry seems glorious to me now. Other authors are very much not the same. Again, you gotta be you, but for your own sake, I’m going to say this. The people choosing and/or creating your cover art know a lot more about that process than you do, including what’s selling and what isn’t, and you couldn’t be objective enough to be smart about it even if they didn’t. This is your story; it’s been living in your  head and your heart for a long, long time before you ever start thinking about cover art. So nothing anybody else can think of, find, or create will ever match the vision in your head in a way that feels adequate to you. But the less you’re willing to compromise, the more tightly you clutch that Platonic ideal of a cover in your head, the longer it’s going to take for your book to come out. And sadly, the less likely it is that you’re going to get another contract with that publisher—again, cover artists are busy people, too, and usually quite expensive. So don’t let us make your book ugly. But don’t die on that hill.

Sorry this is so long, but I hope it helps. Bottom line, I want your book to be the best it can possibly be and to come out into the world as fast as it possibly can. You know, just like you do. So let’s do it together.

**PLEASE NOTE: I do not mean to suggest pantsers don’t write great books; of course they do. But the good ones take that first exploratory draft and craft it into something leaner and more focused that speaks to the reader as clearly as it spoke to them. No, I’m being hateful about the pantsers who feel that once they’ve typed “The End,” they’re done, that any change will mar the chaotic perfection of their art. And yeah, I got no time for that.

Haunts and Hellions!

Finally, something fun and happy to blog about! I have a story in an amazing new anthology from HorrorAddicts.net press!

Harkening back to the glory days of gothic romance that had us up reading all night, HorrorAddicts.net Press Presents: 

Haunts & Hellions edited by Emerian Rich

13 stories of horror, romance, and that perfect moment when the two worlds collide. Vengeful spirits attacking the living, undead lovers revealing their true nature, and supernatural monsters seeking love, await you. Pull the blinds closed, light your candle, and cuddle up in your reading nook for some chilling—and romantic—tales.

With stories by: Emily Blue, Lucy Blue, Kevin Ground, Rowan Hill, Naching T. Kassa, Emmy Z. Madrigal, R.L. Merrill, N.C. Northcott, Emerian Rich, Daniel R. Robichaud, Daphne Strasert, Tara Vanflower, and B.F. Vega.

**********

An excerpt from Haunts & Hellions

My Ain True Love

Lucy Blue

1776

Boston, Massachusetts

“Jacob McCardle, Miss Smith.” He was one of the young surgeons who’d come for the symposium. She had noticed him at meals and rather liked the look of him, particularly when he’d laughed at Lizzie’s jokes. “Lizzie and I have become fast friends, and she’s asked for my help.” He had beautiful blue eyes that held no hint of guile or evil. “My family is very active in the call for the abolition of slavery in the northern colonies. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to assist you in your escape.”

Part of Rosalie wanted desperately to deny any of it was happening. She was still so much a child herself. Her stepmother couldn’t mean to sell her. Her father couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t have just been a thing to him all this time, a piece of property, but when she looked again at the document in her hands, she had to admit it was true.

“That’s very chivalrous of you, Mr. McCardle, but this is Virginia,” she said. “If we were caught, you’d be arrested and probably hanged. If you help me, you’ll be risking your life.”

He smiled. “I’ll be risking my soul if I don’t. Now hurry, please—bring only what you absolutely must.”

“All right, but…” She looked around the room at a loss. She would need her clothes, of course, and her books. There was so much, all the lovely things her father had given her, a life full of beautiful objects. But never her freedom. “Oh Papa.” She sighed, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“Rosie, hurry!” Lizzie insisted. “She could be back any minute.”

“I fear the child is right,” Jacob said. “I overheard Mrs. Smith already offering you to one of the more affluent men present as a—” He broke off, glancing at Lizzie. “Laboratory assistant.”

“Oh dear God.” It was a nightmare. It must be.

Suddenly there came a clatter from outside. Her window overlooked the front of the house, and looking down, she saw a carriage drive up. When it stopped, four men armed with muskets leapt out.

“We’re out of time,” Jacob said. “Get a wrap and any keepsakes you can carry in a purse. We have to go now.”

“Hurry,” Lizzie said even as she threw herself into Rosalie’s arms. “I love you.”

“I love you, sweet.” Drawing back, she untied the ribbon from her sister’s hair. “To remember you by,” she said, kissing the little girl’s cheek.

“I’ll get her to safety, Lizzie, I promise,” Jacob said. “But we must go now.”

He took her hand in a firm grip as they hurried down the back stairs and out through the serving pantry that led to the covered walkway to the kitchen. They broke into a run as they crossed the backyard and headed into the trees. Under the oaks, it was black as pitch, but Jacob seemed to know where he was going, and Rosalie had always been a good runner, even in a corset. The lights of the house had just disappeared behind them when she saw a single dim lantern glowing just ahead.

Another young man was waiting, holding the bridle of a horse that was hitched to a wagon.

“You’re a madman, Jacob,” he said in the flat accent of the North. “This is robbery, plain and simple.”

“Kidnapping, actually,” Jacob said. “Now, go back to the house and as we are friends, say nothing.”

“Not a word,” the other man said. He made a sheepish bow to Rosalie. “Godspeed, miss.” He walked away fast the way they had come.

“You’ll have to ride in the back, I’m afraid,” Jacob said, leading her around the wagon. “And that’s not the worst of it.” He threw back a tarp from over the cargo, and the ungodly stench made her feel faint.

“What is it?” Three long wooden boxes were laid side by side, and she suddenly realized what they were. “Oh no.”

“Cadavers from your father’s laboratory,” Jacob said. “The third box is empty. Hopefully if we’re stopped, no one will touch it after they’ve opened the first two.”

“Corpses?” Rosalie wasn’t particularly squeamish—she had assisted her father in his laboratory for years—but she had a horror of small, enclosed places. “No.” She backed away. “I can’t. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

“Miss Smith,” Jacob said, catching her. “Rosalie.” He held her and looked into her eyes. “You can, and you must.”

In the distance, she could hear a man shouting. They’d be after them soon, those men with the muskets, hunting her down like an animal.

“You have nothing to fear from the dead,” Jacob said. He stepped back to show her the coachman’s pistol and sabre he had tucked into his belt. “And I will protect you from the living.”

“All right.” She took a deep breath of the cool night air, trying not to smell her fellow passengers.

He opened the third coffin and helped her up into the wagon.

“The boards at the bottom are loose, and there’s a hole in the wagon underneath,” he said. “If the worst should happen to me, slip out, hide, and run. I have sent my servant on ahead to Boston to an attorney, a Mr. Henderson, who keeps an office on Broad Street. Make your way there. You’ll be expected.”

To read more, read Haunts and Hellions at: Amazon.com

Three Things I Love (About Winter Knight)

winter knightWinter Knight, the book I have coming out on February 11, 2020, is the only romance I’ve ever written just for me. I love all my kissy book stories, all my heroines, all my heroes. But with Winter Knight, I asked myself, if I was on Amazon or at the bookstore looking for a romance to sweep me off my feet, what would that book be? And then I wrote it. Here are three things it has that would make me love it even if it wasn’t mine.

1 – An Enchanted Castle: When I was a sprout, my favorite book was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. If you’ve never read it, it’s the story of a plain, pissy little orphan girl who discovers happiness and friends exploring the dark corners and overgrown gardens of an English manor house. When I got a little older, I fell head over heels for the YA novel Beauty by Robin McKinley. This fairy tale retelling is as much about the castle as it is about the Beast, and if you like the Disney version of this story, you like this book–they ripped off McKinley shamelessly. I’ve toured Biltmore House more times than I can count, and in Ireland, I spent more time wandering through castles than I did drinking Guinness. Something about walking through grand, empty ballrooms and exploring twisting hallways is endlessly fascinating to me.

In Winter Knight, the heroine, Christabel finds herself in a huge, mostly-empty manor house in the mountains of North Carolina in the middle of a blizzard. She is the unexpected guest of a mysterious handsome stranger, Bernard, and his even-more-mysterious staff of servants who anticipate her every need. And she spends an awful lot of the story poking around empty nooks and crannies and discovering magical secrets.

2 – A Beastly Brainiac: Speaking of Beauty and the Beast … Anybody who knows me or my husband knows I’m a sucker for a smartass. Washboard abs and big bank accounts are lovely, but it’s the big brains and snarky quips that really light me up. (Alexandra Christian calls this being a sapiosexual.) From Sherlock in Sherlock to Doc Holliday in Tombstone to Deadpool to Tony Stark to Hamlet to Fox Mulder to Henry V to Harry Dresden to Quincy Harker, I love’em better when they’re smart and damanged and just the slightest bit mean. And if they also happen to be just a little bit crazy, that can only help. (Not for nothing do I call my husband Evil Genius.)

Bernard is a brilliant scientist who works alone in his lab in the bowels of his mansion. He’s equal parts heartthrob (he does have those abs because did I mention this is my fantasy?) and goofball (he wears sweatpants and geeky t-shirts under his lab coat and uses Rick and Morty Band-Aids on his boo-boos). He’s bossy and snarky–at one point, Christabel tells him, “Don’t be an asshole,” and he replies, “Can’t help it. It was a birth defect.” But he’s also kind and protective and fiercely romantic. And magical. And he’s read all of Christabel’s books. And y’all, I just adore him.

3 – A Heroine Like Me: I have a former fan fiction goddess’s horror of writing a Mary Sue, but with Christabel, I decided I didn’t care and went for it. She is a romance novelist. She isn’t a virgin in her early twenties; when the story begins, she’s on her way to get a facelift. She’s successful, capable, smart, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. She desperately wants true love, but she has a hard time trusting her instincts and an even harder time trusting other people. She’s a hopeful romantic, and when she meets Bernard, she’s thrilled, intrigued, and scared to death. And I just adore her, too.

I wrote this story to distract myself from all the bad stuff in the world, and for me, it worked. I really hope reading it will do the same for y’all.

Ways to Keep Writing When You Can’t

american starlet

This fat-ass novel started life as a free-write I did when I couldn’t find the groove writing vampires. 

Sometimes real life gets in the way. Sometimes there’s just no physical way to walk away from the house fire that is your mundane domestic life and get to your desk or your laptop or Starbucks or the picnic table behind the Circle K or wherever it is you do your writing. I’m not talking about that; in that case, take care of your business and get back to it when you can. You officially have my permission as a fully-vested badge-carrying member of the Writer Police.

I’m talking about the times when you’re staring at the blank page or screen with an outline or an idea already in mind and the time and will to make stuff up, but the words just don’t want to come. Writer’s block, yes, but that’s too big a word for it and way too scary. Writer’s block is something novelists in novels get that makes them hear voices and axe murder the neighbor’s cat. Say it with me: I do not have writer’s block. What you have is a momentary numbness of the crazy brain. It’s not gone for good; don’t panic. It happens to everybody. It happens to me all the time. And when it does, these are some of the ways I’ve found to deal with it.

1 – Write Shit Anyway

Just keep writing or typing down words even if you know they suck, even if they make no sense, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with your work in progress. Even if they don’t belong to you. Many is the time I’ve resorted to transcribing song lyrics I remember from high school—I can write out the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album if you ever require that service.* And sometimes just the physical act of writing words wakes up that sense memory and makes my own story float back to the top. (FYI, writing fan fiction totally works.)

Think about it this way. Writing is an art and a calling and a mystic practice, but it’s also a job. And when you have a job, you do it because you’ve promised to do it whether you feel like you’re doing it well or not. If you owned a doughnut shop, you’d go in every morning and make the doughnuts. You’d follow the recipe, go through the motions, and at the end of the process, you’d have doughnuts. They wouldn’t always be the best doughnuts, but you’d have something to sell. Writing is different; the personal stakes for the individual product are higher, and the recipe is always changing. But sometimes just going through the motions is enough to put you back on track.  Just remember, just because you write it doesn’t mean you have to keep it. And many, many times, you have to write your way through that shit draft to find the golden one behind it.

2 – Absorb Somebody Else’s Art

If I’ve been banging away at #1 for a while and still nothing’s clicking, I stop trying to be a creator and give myself permission to be the audience. I spend the time I would have spent writing reading somebody else’s book or watching a movie or a TV show or listening to music. I give it my full attention, guilt free, because I know sometimes this is as much a part of my process as the actual writing. Sometimes I try to find something that’s sort of in line with what I’m trying to do, something specifically inspiring. But honestly, what usually works best for me is to dive into something completely different that has nothing whatsoever to do with my story’s genre or action or mood. I will say, reading or watching other fiction works better than something like the Food Network if I’m trying to jumpstart my brain. But I will totally jump-start a gothic romance by watching Rick & Morty. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories almost always get me rocking and rolling again, regardless of what I’m working on. But sometimes I do better with something completely new.

One very important note: My hubs the gamer gets this kind of juice playing RPGs with complex stories, but Candy Crush won’t work. That’s not stimulating your brain, that’s sedating it. I love phone games, too, but if what you’re after is a brain that makes story, they won’t ever get you there.

3 – Give Up And Play Candy Crush

Some days, it just ain’t gonna happen. And that’s okay. No, really, it is; I swear it is. If I’ve tried and tried and still feel like every word on the page is a drudgery that I’m just going to have to throw out, I give up. I give myself permission to give the f*ck up. Because I know it’s temporary. I know that story is still perking away in my subconscious; I know it won’t ever let me go completely until I get it told. But sometimes it needs to grow and evolve without me watching it. I know that sounds crazy. (I promise my neighbor’s cat is safe.) But almost every time I throw up my hands and just let myself not be a writer for a day, by the next day whatever story problem I was having solves itself. That plot knot comes undone. That character snaps into focus. Because I’ve been writing for a really  long time and because I do try to write something pretty much every day, I know when I can’t, there’s a reason. I know it’s going to be okay.

So say it with me, kittens. It’s going to be okay.

*The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves./Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

WIP: The Adventuress and Her Monsters

blur-calligraphy-close-up-51159Heya Kittens!

Since my real life is boring as the summer winds down, I thought y’all might prefer a sneak peek at my current work-in-progress (aka the thing I’m escaping into lately). It’s a a true gothic romance set in late-Victorian England, and the heroine is an American heiress doing the husband-hunting tour. And she meets this dangerous but oh so gorgeous guy …

This bit comes about 10,000 words into the book. I’m hoping to be done by the end of the year, so come 2020, watch this space!

♥♥♥♥♥♥

When Arabella arrived home from the ball a scant hour before dawn, she found a letter waiting on her pillow. “Maisie, what is this?”

“A man brought it around midnight,” the maid said. “The hotel manager brought it up himself and said the man insisted you receive it as soon as you returned.”

“So you didn’t see the man who left it?” The heavy envelope was sealed with an old-fashioned wax seal marked with an elaborate “D.”

“No, miss. But I got the idea he must have been someone very important or else …” She broke off. “No, miss. I didn’t see him.”

“Or else what?”

“You’ve seen the hotel manager,” the girl said. “He’s a right old dragon who thinks himself mighty as Herod. But I would almost say he looked frightened. He made me swear I would give you that before you went to sleep.”

“And so you have.” She set the envelope on the tray with her cocoa. “Thank you, Maisie.”

The gray light of dawn was creeping around the heavy drapes when she settled back on her pillows and slit open the envelope.

“My dear Miss O’Bryan,” it began in a clear, bold hand. “Arabella. I realize it is hardly proper that I should write you such a letter or deliver it in such a fashion. But I will not be easy in my mind until I know I have done all in my power to warn you. Once you have read this, you must proceed as your own conscience, heart, and judgment might lead you. But I will consider myself absolved.

“My cousin is not what he seems. He is as kind and as intelligent, and his wealth and position are all that any man might hope for—or that any woman might desire in a husband. But he has other qualities and other passions beyond the scope of the usual English gentleman. There are aspects to his character and person which are not so generally to be desired nor so easy to explain.

“Reading this, you may believe I consider you a fortune hunter unworthy of my bloodline and that I mean only to frighten you away. I assure you, Arabella, nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as we met this morning, I saw in you a rare spirit and intelligence, a worthy soulmate for any man but particularly suited to Gabriel. I am convinced he has fallen in love with you and with good reason. I wish I could rejoice at this, but I cannot. Impetuous and hot-tempered as he can be, it is not his habit to grind young men of the peerage under his heel as he did this morning. Nor is he known for making himself the object of gossip. He would have done neither of these things if you had not captured his heart and were not worthy of its loss.

“But there’s so much you don’t know.

“I wish I could explain my objection more plainly, if it is even an objection at all. But some secrets are not mine to tell. So I will only caution you thus. Do not take up Gabriel as a lark. Do not mistake his humor for lightness of spirit or his charm for shallow art. He means everything he says, even—especially!—when it seems he does not. He may play the fool, but he is a man of deep purpose. And his quest is all. If he makes you a part of his world, you will not easily escape it. And your reputation is not all you will imperil if you try.

“Tread carefully, Arabella.

“Your servant—Dante Durant.”

She refolded the letter with trembling fingers. Her first animal instinct was to throw it into the fire, burn it to ashes, and pretend she had never received it.

But that was foolishness. She was jumping at shadows because she was so tired. For all his pretty protests to the contrary, Dante obviously found her unsuitable—too American, too vulgar, too much trouble. She resolved to set his letter aside and get some much-needed rest. In the morning, she might well destroy the letter. She might respond to it. She might even keep it to show Gabriel—not immediately, of course, but some sweet future time when it would make him laugh. Who knew? Perhaps the three of them might someday laugh about it together. She tucked the envelope under her book on her bedside table and turned down the lamp.

But she couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for half an hour as the sun rose behind the drapes, she got up and went to her writing desk.

“Dear Dr. Durant—Dante,” she began.

“I’m not sure what you meant to accomplish with your letter. If I were really in some kind of danger as you keep hinting, common decency would compel you to tell me precisely what that danger is. If you have the affection for your cousin you pretend and the regard for me you wrote of, what reasonable objection could you have to our forming an attachment?

“But like you, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. You write of love and marriage—good heavens, Dante, I barely know the man! Let us get to know one another, please, before you predict disaster. Or in the alternative, keep your predictions to yourself.

“In short, my very dear sir, write what you mean or kindly leave me and your cousin in peace.

“Yours in friendship—Arabella O’Bryan”

She finished her signature with a flourish. She blew on the ink to dry it, then folded the letter into one of her own monogrammed envelopes. She copied Dante’s address carefully from his own letter, then took the packet out to the parlor, still dressed in nothing but her nightgown.

“Good morning,” she said to the hotel maid who had paused in her dusting to gawp at her. Judith’s morning correspondence was stacked neatly on the sideboard, waiting to be taken down to the hotel post. Arabella slipped her letter to Dante into the middle of the stack. Then she went back to bed and slept soundly until well past noon.

The Excellence You Swear You Cannot See

nicole's bookThe Romance Writers of America has released the names of the nominees for their yearly RITA Awards, and, you guessed it, they’re about as diverse as a glass of milk beside a plate of sugar cookies with white chocolate chips. So all of us writing and publishing types have taken to the Facebooks and beyond one more time to discuss the diversity problem. Even among those of us nice white cis straight folks who have stopped twitching every time we admit it exists, there’s a lot of panic, anger, and confusion when we start trying to decide what to do about it.

Like most of the RITA nominees, I’m a middle-aged straight cis white woman who writes books. In my current romance WIP, the heroine is Persian. In the Southern gothic I finished earlier this year, the protagonist is a Black woman. In the next book I’m scheduled to write, one of the main background characters is gay, and I’ve written multiple gay characters into books in the past, from medieval romances to urban fantasy. Having even this much diversity in my work does great stuff for me as an artist, assuming I do it right. It makes me step out of my comfort zone and enriches my narrative voice in everything I write; it broadens my market for the finished product.

For the cause of diversity in publishing, it does dickory do.

michael's bookEven if I do my research, get every detail as right as it’s possible to get it, my non-white, non-straight, non-cis characters are never going to be drawn with the same authority a writer who shares that identity could give them. And at the end of the day, my success with these books, artistic and otherwise, is success for yet another white straight cis writer. And don’t get me wrong; I am all about succeeding. Nobody is asking me or expecting me or wanting me or any other white straight cis writer to be otherwise, and I wouldn’t oblige them if they were. But if I honestly give a shit about creating a level playing field for all writers, I have to work beyond that, outside it. I have to get past my own fear of failure and focus that part of my energy on people who aren’t me and work that isn’t mine. I have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a reader instead. And as a reader, I have to actively seek out diverse voices. And when I find good reads from those voices, I have to make sure other readers know about them, too.

Every time an award-nominating body or a publisher or a whatever gets accused of lack of diversity in their choices, their first excuse is always, “We would have been diverse; we wanted to, really, really, but we just couldn’t find anything to read at the level we were looking for that wasn’t written by a white straight cis person!” That’s bullshit so blatant, it’s laughable on its face, but still, my purpose here is to be helpful. So in addition to the amazing work of already-famous people like N.K. Jemison, Michael Cunningham, and Colson Whitehead, let me recommend a kind of Whitman’s sampler of fiction from various genres written by amazing writers whose work I happen to know. As a reader, I would recommend any and all of them without reservation—this, my kittens, is the good stuff. If you want your own reading and publishing in general to be more diverse, this is a great way to start. Click on the links to buy. Read them, review them, tell your friends. Be part of the solution.

Sisters of the Wild Sage, a collection of weird western short stories by Nicole Kurtz, a Black woman. Nicole also writes horror, science fiction, and urban fantasy, and it’s all well worth your attention.

A Fall In Autumn, an amazing new science fiction novel by Michael Williams, a gay man. Futuristic noir, first in an on-going series.

Black Magic Women: Terrifying Tales by Scary Sisters, an anthology of horror short stories written by Black women. I have already gnawed the ears off everybody who will listen about how great these stories are, but if you haven’t read them yet, DO IT NOW.

Girl In the Gears: A truly fun steampunk adventure by E. Chris Garrison, a transgender woman. First in an on-going series.

And finally, dear ladies of the RWA RITA-nominating committee …

Passion and Ink: The latest bestselling contemporary romance by Naima Simone, a Black woman with multiple series on-going and a voracious readership of romance lovers of every ethnicity.

And so many others I could happily mention if I had the space. If you can’t find the best work in your favorite genre being written by writers who break the white, straight, cis mold, then I’m sorry; you’re just not trying. And if anybody has other recommendations for me, by all means, add them to the comments!

Protect Your Through Line. Be Batman.

My fiction writing teacher in college told us there are only two kinds of stories: character stories and situation stories. In a character story, the protagonist evolves over the course of the action from one thing into another—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rocky, and “The Ugly Duckling” are all character stories. In situation stories, the protagonist(s) is/are dropped into a negative situation, and the action of the story is how she or he or they deals/deal with it—Moby Dick, Twelve Years a Slave, and Night of the Living Dead are all situation stories. Most stories have some crossover back and forth—the hero of a character story evolves by dealing with a series of situations; the poor saps in a situation story might well be changed forever by their harrowing experience. But the spine of the story is one or the other; the reason the story exists is to demonstrate either how this person evolves or how this person or these people get out of the mess they’re in.

My fiction writing teacher in college was wrong about a lot of stuff, but I think in this case, he was right on the money because what he’s actually talking about is a through line, and every good story has one. The greatest hook, the most interesting characters, the most mind-blowing world-building fiction has ever known won’t save a story that wanders all over the place and takes forever to figure out what it’s trying to say or, worse, never seems to figure it out at all. Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention; yes, you need to show them something they haven’t seen before or haven’t seen in quite that way before. But more important than all of that, you have to give them something to hold on to at the very beginning that they can keep clutched in their fist all the way to the end. They have to know what or whom to root for and why. Otherwise, they are just not going to care.

From my reading, I would say the biggest and most common problem talented and hardworking new and indie writers have is their through line–either not knowing what their through line is or not making it plain to the reader early enough to do them any good or not following it through to the end. This is the single most common reason why they aren’t getting paid for the stuff they’ve worked so hard to write, why they aren’t getting accepted by publishers, why the stuff they publish themselves isn’t selling. (Untalented and lazy new and indie writers don’t sell because they suck.) And it feels really complicated; it feels like a hard fix—I actually had to look up the definition of through line before I started this because it’s such a vague and floofy concept. But you can train yourself to recognize the through line in other stories pretty easily, and once you’ve done that, it becomes easier to find your own.

So how do you find it? Step one: is it a character story or a situation story? Step two for a character story: how does the character evolve? Who are they in the beginning? Who are they in the end? How do the different things that happen in the story change them from that first thing into that second thing? Step two for a situation story: what’s the problem? How do they fix it? At first glance, the situation story looks simplest, and it can be—there’s a reason why murder mysteries and Godzilla movies never go out of style. But a good situation story can be incredibly artful and complex, and a good character story can be packed front to back with action. Every origin story about every superhero ever written is a character story—mayhem does indeed ensue, but only so Superhero can deal with it and thereby become the Superhero she or he is meant to be.

Actually, the best example I can think of to demonstrate what I’m talking about is the trilogy of Batman movies written by Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Because they are action movies about a superhero, they might all three seem like situation stories. But in fact, both Batman Begins and  The Dark Knight Rises are very much character stories that exist primarily to show the evolution of the character of their protagonist. In Batman Begins, every incident that occurs leads Bruce Wayne further down the path to becoming Batman. It’s not a single situation to be managed but a series: Escape the audience of an opera about bats; survive the mugging; try and fail to make a new life as an orphan; try and fail to get revenge on his parents’ killer; go off to Asia to feeeeeeel something; take the blue flower to the top of the mountain; etc., etc., etc.—this is why haters like me think this movie takes foreeeeeeeeeever to get started, but in fact, it’s a very carefully and deliberately crafted character story that begins with Bruce Wayne as a child and ends when Batman saves the day and becomes a superhero in the imagination of Gotham City.  The Dark Knight Rises is almost the same story in reverse. Batman begins the story as a feared and hated public figure and through a series of incidents that thwart his efforts to be a superhero at every turn evolves back into private citizen Bruce Wayne. Only The Dark Knight is a situation story—it’s Godzilla, and the Joker is the monster. It’s complex, beautifully crafted, and has amazing character work throughout, but the point, the spine, the through line is, the Joker appears, and Batman has to deal with him.

But what’s all this fannish movie commentary got to do with the writing we’re doing now? Picking the spine out of a story that’s already grossed a couple of billion dollars is easy because that story already exists; how do we apply this mind trick to our own stuff? By doing it in the second draft. Every how-to book on fiction writing in the universe will tell you every story starts with a “what if?” Your first draft is for exploring that, following it down all the dark alleys and squiggly forest paths, spending half a chapter inside the head of the villain “remembering” childhood abuse, getting to know the characters, finding out shocking secrets you never dreamed they had when you started, letting them lead you along, letting the incidents lead you along, cause and effect. Your first draft is an organic, growing, evolving, mutating monster, and it’s your precious baby, and you love it, and you should, every little morsel of it. But in the second draft, after you’ve put that baby away long enough to forget just how hard it was to make, that’s when you find that spine, that through line. That’s when you look for evolution in your main character and look at the situations they survive and decide which one is more important for your story—what does your story spend more time and energy pursuing? Where do you start? Where do you end? What exactly are you trying to say? Are you all about your character, or is it all about the situation? Define that through line. (And by the way, if this story is part of a series, you have to do this for every single installment. Telling yourself it will all make sense by Volume 3 is the primrose path to disaster.)

Then comes the REALLY hard part. You have to jettison every single freakin’ thing that does not serve that through line. ALL OF IT. If you start out with an aaaaaaa-maaaaaaa-zing action hook about two kickass characters who create the MacGuffin then disappear for the rest of the story, guess what? They’re outta here! And if you finally figured out in Chapter 9 that the protagonist is really a werewolf trying to find a cure, guess what? Chapter 9 just became Chapter 1 – or at least some elements of it have got to be moved to the front. Again, if I had to pick one problem that I see over and over again, that would be it—stories that start in the wrong place or wander off across cool but pointless pastures of narrative in the middle. And it’s all because the writer skipped that second draft. Before you start worrying about typos or commas or markets, you have got to deal with that. Find your through line. Polish it up, make it so shiny your reader can’t help but grab it and hold on to the end. Be Batman.

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 1

viking and the witch serial coverSo here lately, most of what I’ve been writing and publishing has not been historical romance. But y’all know me; I can’t just give it up. So I’ve been working sporadically on an old school paranormal just for my own amusement, and it occurs to me that y’all might want to see it, too. All the cool kids I know have started serializing stuff on their blogs and elsewhere to bring in more traffic, and that seemed like a good idea, and a good fit for this story. I’m not promising anything, but I’m going to try to put up a new chapter at least every couple of weeks. It’s a work-in-progress; the finished, published product might turn out very different. So by all means, let me know what you think.

xoxo Lucy

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Chapter One

The late summer raids had gone well. Asmund and his brother, Hagen, had seized much spoil and lost only one man in a month of sailing up and down the British coasts. But now a sudden squall with high waves and deadly lightning seemed determined to kill them all. Asmund leaned all his weight against the tiller, willing the longboat to come about to face the waves head on.

“We must turn back!” Hagen shouted over the roar of the wind. “We must try to find the shore!”

“Help the others bail!” Asmund shouted back. If his little brother wouldn’t keep his peace, he’d kick him overboard, prince or not. The shoreline was the last thing he wanted to see now. The storm would break them like twigs against the rocks and suck them down to oblivion under the cliffs. All that could save them now was the open sea where the water was deep enough to absorb the force of this storm. Hagen was young; this was his first long voyage. He didn’t understand. But Asmund had no time now to educate him.

“Row, you dogs!” he shouted as another great swell rose before them. “Faster! Faster!” The rowers obeyed, leaning into their oars, some of them with eyes closed in prayer or concentration as they trusted him and the gods to steer them through the tempest. Even Hagen had fallen to his task, scooping water in a leather bucket with his back to the storm. Only Asmund saw the dragon’s head prow silhouetted by a flash of lightning against the solid black wall of the sea. “Row!” he roared, holding the tiller with all his strength, muscles screaming with pain. Only when he felt the wood begin to bend under his hands did he let the tiller go. The ship lurched forward, and the dragon’s head broke through a crown of foam, cresting the wave and gliding down the other side.

In the sky ahead, he could see light through the clouds, the soft white glow of the moon. The worst was behind them. They were almost free. The storm would have blown them off course. They would have to wait for the clouds to clear in the open sea and use the stars to guide them. But they would be safe. He put his hands back on the tiller and turned his back on his men for just a moment to look back the way they’d come.

Suddenly the ship lurched forward again as he felt something strike him hard from behind. Sharp, burning pain stabbed through him as he was struck again. Before he could turn, he was swept over the side. The sea rose up to swallow him, sucking him down into the dark. He fought his way to the surface, then dove deep again to dodge the great black shape of the ship. He heard Hagen screaming his name as he went under. Then one of the oars struck the back of his head, and he sank and knew no more.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Last night’s storm had washed all kinds of debris into the narrow inlet that ran beside Maeve’s hut. Two of her traps had been completely destroyed. But the third was still intact and held a fat, silver salmon. She slapped the fish against a rock, killing it quickly. She scooped out the smaller fish and tiny crabs that had gotten caught in the trap and set them free, then wrapped the salmon in wet ferns and tucked it into the pouch at her waist. Then she waded back into the water. She had three more traps to empty, and the tide was rising fast.  After three months alone on this beach, she had learned its rhythms well.

Half-buried in the sand near the next trap, she found an oiled leather sack. Inside were some eggs, a skin of fresh goat’s milk, and a haunch of salted meat—supplies left for her by someone from her village. Maeve had been exiled by her own mother, the queen of their tribe. But not everyone had agreed with Queen Asha’s decision. Maeve was magic born; the Lady was not likely to smile on a people who left her to starve. A tiny scrap of sheepskin inside the pouch was marked with the symbol of a half-moon—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. She closed the bundle and tucked the scrap into her pocket, making a note to say a special blessing for the kindly woman and her house.

The tide in the inlet had risen to her thighs and begun to show tiny breakers of foam by the time she emptied her last trap. She was just about to head back to her hut when she noticed the ravens. Half a dozen of the black birds were circling over the beach in the distance, and as she watched, two more joined the circle. Either some dark magic was afoot, or something on the beach was dying. Shouldering the bundle of her broken traps, she headed for the water’s edge.

When she saw the man lying facedown in the sand, she broke into a run. But when she saw him more closely, she almost wished she’d never noticed him at all. From his weapons and the thick bronze bracelet on his wrist, she knew he was a Viking. His kind came every summer to raid up and down this coast, burning villages, slaughtering men and boys, carrying off women and girls and whatever treasure they could find. Only her mother’s magic had kept their own village safe so long by hiding them behind a glamour that made it look deserted and burned out already.

This one’s ship must have gone down in the storm. His skin was deathly white, and he had a nasty wound in his back. His blood had soaked the sand underneath him and stained the ripples of the incoming tide. Surely he was almost dead already. She put down her traps and picked up a rock, whispering a prayer to the Lady for his spirit. One hard, swift blow to the back of his head, and his travels in this realm would end.

Then he moved. He let out an angry-sounding groan, and his hands clutched at the sand, digging deep as if he were trying to push himself up or crawl forward. Without thinking, Maeve dropped the rock and helped him, rolling him over on his back so he could breathe.

He moaned again in pain. He looked younger than she would have expected, smooth-skinned under his beard, and his brow was high and fine, the brow of a sorcerer or poet, not a brute. But he was huge and obviously strong. On his feet, he would have towered head and shoulders over any man she had ever known. Broken or not, he was dangerous. If he recovered, she had no doubt he would bring destruction. It was the Viking way.

But he is only one man, a voice seemed to whisper in her head. What can one man do? Viking warriors had come to her people before, the wounded or deserters or outcasts left behind when the longboats sailed away. Grateful for sanctuary, they had married into the tribe and had fathered children and taught the people enough of their customs and language to help them defend themselves. But this man was no deserter. If he survived, she didn’t think he would be content to be some village woman’s husband.

“Lady, you must decide,” she prayed aloud. She walked back to her hut at a pace neither hurried nor slow to fetch her little raft. If the Lady wished the Viking to survive, he would. If not, it was not for her to question. She floated the raft back down the inlet to the beach, half-expecting to find he had died. But he was still alive.

She rolled him onto the raft, ignoring his groans, and dragged it back to the inlet. Treading water, she floated it back toward her hut. His weight made the raft bob and list in the breakers, and she told herself that if he rolled off into the water, she would let him drown. But he didn’t.

She dragged the raft into her hut and rolled him off it beside her fire. “As you will, Lady,” she sighed, setting about the magic that could make him well.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Asmund wandered barefoot through a snowy forest. The ice burned his feet, and the wind cut through him like a thousand knives. Tall, black trees rose all around him, and the mist was thick as blood. The long winter’s night had fallen, but he saw no stars to guide him and no shimmering rainbow from the northern lights. He was abandoned and alone.

After what felt like hours, he emerged from the trees onto a broad, flat plain of pure ice—a frozen lake. But in the distance, he could see the glow of fires. Steeling himself against the pain, he started across the ice, leaving bloody footprints with every step. He walked on and on for what felt like miles, but the far shore seemed no closer. When he looked back, he saw no sign of the forest he had left, only a long trail of his own gleaming, black blood.

He fell to his knees. “All-Father!” he shouted in fury and pain. “Why have you forsaken me?”

“He cannot hear you.” A woman stood before him. She was as tall as any man with smooth, brown skin and long, straight, honey-colored hair. Her brow was crowned with silver, and she wore a long, white robe. “You did not fall in combat, warrior,” she said. “Your god of battle knows you not.”

“Who are you?” he demanded. “What is this place?”

“You were betrayed, Asmund,” she said. “One who held your trust struck you down as you saved him and the others from the storm.” A warm breeze swirled around the strange goddess, and he smelled summer flowers. “By the laws of your gods, he has stolen not only your life but your honor.”

“Who?” he said. “Who has done this?”

She smiled and touched his cheek with a hand that was soft and blissfully warm. “That is not the comfort I have brought you,” she said. “Your only hope is to survive. You must return to the living and take vengeance on the traitor. That is the way of your gods.” She stepped back from him, and the cold winds captured him again, crueler than before. “If you do not, you will wander this wasteland forever.”

“Help me, lady!” he beseeched her as she backed away from him. “Let me live!”

“I have sent you help, Asmund.” Even her voice was fading. “But there will be a price.”

Dr. John Watson and “The Adventure of the Burning Man”

sherlock-300x444Mocha Memoirs Press and editor A.C. Thompson have done another anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories with a paranormal twist, Curious Incidents: More Improbable Adventures, and I have a story in it! The theme this time was any time or place EXCEPT Victorian London, and most of the stories have a definite science fiction double feature flair—steampunk, Weird Wild West, dystopian futures, pure stark screaming horror. But mine, “The Adventure of the Burning Man,” is a classic 1940s-style noir set in Los Angeles. And I guess the biggest twist on the usual canon (other than the Nazi fire demon) is that Dr. John Watson is black.

african-americans-wwii-042In this version, both Holmes and Watson are veterans of World War II, and Watson was one of the more than 19,000 men and women of color attached to the US Army’s Medical Department. Primary source information on the specifics of their service is thin on the ground—a stronger historian than me really should write a book on the subject because it’s fascinating, and there’s a definite gap to be filled. Racist segregation was rampant in the MD the same as everywhere else, particularly early in the USA’s involvement in the war, and most black medical personnel apparently worked as ambulance drivers and medics or in “sanitary companies,” regardless of their medical training. But there were some segregated hospital units with black doctors and nurses for black wounded soldiers. The picture above is from the National Archives: “Captain Ezekia Smith, 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, receives treatment at the 317th Collecting Station, for shell fragments in face and shoulders suffered near Querceta, Italy.” February 10, 1945.  Bull. 111-SC-236685 (african_americans_wwii_042.jpg). In my story, Dr. Watson started the war driving an ambulance in North Africa and ended it as a field surgeon in France. Now he’s running his own small medical practice on the first floor of a seedy L.A. office building also occupied by a certain English consulting detective.

Curious Incidents is available now from Amazon as a Kindle e-book and in print through Mocha Memoirs Press. And here’s an excerpt, the opening of “The Adventure of the Burning Man:”

 

For Watson, it started with the girl.

He had just locked up the clinic for the night and was waiting for the elevator. It finally opened with an oily wheeze, and the four employees of the second floor accounting firm came out, each one giving him their own version of the stink eye as they passed. “Evening,” he said, tipping his hat to the prune-faced receptionist. “Y’all have a good night.” Usually he took the stairs specifically to avoid these little scenes. But tonight it was raining, and his leg was paining him, and these California crackers would just have to cope.

He was just about to step inside when the girl ran in from the street—blonde, tall, soaking wet with her little blue frock plastered to her body like a second skin. With an inward sigh, Watson stepped back to let her board the elevator without him. “I’ll wait for the next one.”

“There’s only one, and it’s slower than Christmas,” she said, laughing. “Come on, don’t be ridiculous.” Miss Prune Face had stopped at the street door and turned all the way around to gape at them, and her mouth dropped open like a dead trout’s as he stepped inside. The blonde waved to her and stuck out her tongue just as the doors heaved closed.

“What floor, miss?” Watson asked, suppressing a smile.

“Three,” she said. “I work for Mr. Holmes.”

Watson had never stopped on the third floor, but he’d seen the name on the directory in the lobby. “So what does a consulting detective do?” he asked. “Spy on cheating husbands, that kind of thing?”

“Nothing like that,” she said. “At least not so far. To tell you the truth, all I’ve seen him do since he hired me a week ago is think a lot and teach me to make what he calls an almost passable cup of tea. He’s English.”

“Oh.” Even Watson, who wasn’t particularly inquisitive by nature, wondered what kind of tea brewing she meant to do at seven-thirty on a Friday night. But then, seeing the way her wet dress clung to her hips, he reckoned he could guess. “Here we are then,” he said as the elevator lunged to a stop. “Third floor.”

“Thanks—Dr. Watson, isn’t it?” she said.

“It is.” She was a pretty girl; he hoped this English Mr. Holmes deserved her. “Have a good night.”

“You too.” She took his dangling hand and shook it. “I’m Grace.” She stepped out and started down the hall. “Good night.” When the elevator closed, he was still watching her walk away.

The rain was still pounding when he stepped out on the roof. The pigeons stirred and cooed as always, sidling along their perches, jockeying for position. “Sorry, kids,” he said, filling their troughs with seed. “It’s too wet to fly.” The old man who had left him the birds as payment of his bill had spent hours on the roof, day and night, rain or shine, talking to his pets and letting them fly for hours. But Watson didn’t have that kind of time. He tried to release them to exercise for a little while every day, but he didn’t keep the careful count when they came back that Mr. Rosenbaum had, and over the past month, he’d lost a few. He wouldn’t have grieved much if they’d all flown away for good; keeping pigeons was not his idea of a good time, and the stairs were murder on his leg. But the old man had been his first patient when he’d come to Los Angeles. He’d never mentioned or seemed to notice the color of Watson’s skin, only that he was a doctor close by who made house calls. He had trusted him, respected him, befriended him, and he had died. So Watson took care of his birds.

A crack of thunder made the building shake under his feet, and the pigeons screeched and fluttered as lightning lit the sky. But he heard something else, too—a woman’s scream. “Help!” It was Grace; he was sure of it. “Somebody help!”

He sprinted down the stairs, leaping the last flight in a single clumsy bound, ignoring the pain in his leg. Her screams rose again, sharper, wordless with pain. His brain flashed on the revolver locked in his desk drawer on the ground floor then on the heavy cane he’d dropped on the roof, but he ran on.

The door to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Agency was standing ajar. As he reached for the knob, still running, it crashed open, knocking him backwards, his forehead cracking the glass. He only caught a glimpse of a male figure dressed in black, some kind of big, floppy coat and a hat pulled low on his brow, shading his face. But he smelled him, a pungent, acrid smell like burning leaves. The mystery man had disappeared into the stairwell before Watson got his bearings. He thought of going after him, but the girl was still inside.

But she wasn’t screaming any more. He found her on the floor behind the desk. She had been stabbed in the chest; there was blood everywhere. But she was alive.

He fell to his knees beside her. “John.” Her voice was weak but urgent. Her pretty face was deathly pale and slick with sweat. “Listen.” Her dress had been ripped open, and her chest was gushing blood in spurts in rhythm with her weakening heart, too much to actually see the wound. He tore off his jacket, wadded it up, and pressed it to the blood flow. She screamed, grabbing his arm, and he felt her sternum giving way.

“Holy God.” The bastard had cracked her open like a surgeon.

“Dying.” Her red nails dug into his wrist. “Tell Mr. Holmes…the fox.” Blood bubbled from her lips, and her eyes went blank.

“No!” He could hear footsteps coming closer, voices from below. At night, the empty building was like an echo chamber, but he thought someone was coming up the hall. “Somebody help me!” he shouted. “We need help!” But Grace was gone.

“Don’t move,” a man’s voice commanded. “Stay exactly as you are.” He heard the door creak, and looked back over his shoulder. “I said don’t move!” This man was white and dressed in brown, a strange, cloak-like tweed coat and a hat Watson’s grandfather would have called a deerstalker. Watson started to stand. “Please, be still one more moment.”

Valentine Zombies, Old West Edition

updated-deadsperadoIn honor of Valentine’s Day (and as a break from our regularly-scheduled political outrage and apocalyptic panic), we chicks over at Little Red Hen Romance have put our entire catalog on Amazon for free. Here’s a link to one of my favorites: Dead-Sperado

And here’s an excerpt:

I woke up to the sound of Cade loading a shotgun. I sat up in bed to find him standing at the window with his back to me, dressed in nothing but his longhandles and boots. “Are they here already?” I said, still half-asleep.

“Who?” he said, looking back at me.

Before I could answer, the door crashed open, the lock and frame splintering. Some nasty, moaning, dead-looking thing that looked like Deputy Coy Carter with his guts spilled out ripped the remains from the hinges and flung it toward me, making me duck under the covers. It bounced off the footboard, and I slid out of the bed on the far side from the door, wrapping the sheets around me.

Cade fired the shotgun, blowing another hole in the thing from the back big enough I could see the outlaw through it, but the dead thing barely staggered. It reeled around like a drunk to face Cade, waving its pistol over its head like a club. Cade shot again, aiming for the head this time, and brains exploded in every direction, including all over me. I screamed, and the now-headless thing lurched forward. Cade never batted an eyelash, just started reloading his shottie. But the thing couldn’t live without its head, apparently. After a couple more staggering steps in Cade’s direction, it fell flat to the floor with a sickening splat.

“What the hell is that?” I demanded.

“Put some damned clothes on,” Cade ordered at the exact same time.

“Yeah, but what is it?” I crept out from behind the bed.

“How the hell should I know?” He kicked the body over and looked down at his badge. “Deputy Somebody.”

“Carter,” I said. “Coy Carter.” I grabbed clothes out of the wardrobe, my plainest dress and boots, and dove behind the bed again to retrieve my good corset. “But what the hell happened to him?”

“I couldn’t tell you, honey.” He kicked off his boots and pulled on his pants, then grabbed my hand while I was still hooking up my corset. “But it seems to have happened to most of the town.”

“Wait,” I said, half-hopping, half-falling as he dragged me toward the door. “What are you talking about?”

“Look.” He grabbed my face and turned it toward the window.

Down in the street, it looked like a cross between a drunken riot and a lynch mob. People who still looked healthy were screaming and fleeing in every direction as walking corpses like Carter lurched and crawled after them. “Holy Mary, Mother of Christ,” I said.

“Any help she can offer would be most appreciated,” Cade said, putting on his boots.

“Cade!” One of the dead things had climbed up the steps to the balcony and was staggering towards the window.

“Get back.” He raised the shotgun and blew the thing’s head off. Only as it was falling did I recognize Doc Hastings.

“Oh my God,” I said, trying not to be sick.

“Friend of yours?” Cade said, grabbing my hand again. “Come on.”

We crept half-crouching down the hall to the gallery that overlooked the saloon. “I don’t remember telling you my name,” he said like we were having a casual stroll among the buttercups.

“Like you didn’t know I knew exactly who you were.” One of the other girls, Sadie, came out of her room looking terrified, and I motioned for her to fall in behind us. “Swaggering in here like you owned the place, scaring everybody else out.” She crouched just behind me and reached for my other hand. I let her take it for barely a second and squeezed then let her go. I had the feeling I might need it.

“Fair enough.” Cade let go of my other hand and drew the six gun from his belt. “But when you woke up, you asked me if they were here.” The saloon still looked deserted, but I caught a scurry of movement behind the bar. I nudged Cade, and he turned the pistol that way. But it was just Hector, hiding. Cade nodded to him, and he crossed himself. “Who were you expecting?”

“The sheriff,” I said. “I was supposed to keep you busy until he and his posse showed up.”

Mr. Lindstrom from the general store came crashing through the saloon doors. “Help!” he screamed. “Somebody help us!” A monster in a big hat and a long coat with a silver badge I’d have known from half a mile away lurched in behind him and grabbed him. Before Cade could raise the pistol, the thing had bitten Lindstrom on the neck, tearing his head half off. Sadie screamed, and Cade fired, and the monster fell back twitching as Lindstrom fell forward. Cade went down the stairs still firing, unloading his pistol dead into the monster’s face, but it was still moving, still moaning, still reaching out for him. “Caaaaaade,” it growled, its lips barely hanging from its bloody skull. Only when Cade raised the shotgun and blew its head off did it fall.

“That sheriff?” he said, emptying the shells.

“Yes sir,” I said. “That would be the one.”

“Sorry, honey,” he said, reloading. “He ain’t coming.” He snapped the barrels back into place.

Lindstrom was moaning, trying to roll over on his back. “Mr. Lindstrom!” Sadie said, running down the stairs to him.

“Sadie, wait!” I said, running after her. “I don’t think you should touch him!”

Just as she reached him, Lindstrom lurched up and bit her, too. His skin had already gone green like he’d been dead for days, and as Sadie stood there screaming her fool head off, she started to turn green, too. Cade shot Lindstrom point blank, decapitating him with a single shell without a second thought. But he backed away from Sadie, looking shaken up for the first time since the madness started.

“I ain’t gonna hurt you, mister,” Sadie said, her voice slurred like she’d been drinking whiskey with a laudanum chaser. “I’m just so hungry.” She was moving closer, reaching out for him, and he couldn’t seem to make himself shoot.

A machete sliced through the air, and her head went flying as her body fell. Hector was standing behind her, still holding the blade. “Sorry, chiquita,” he said, making the sign of the Cross.

Two more men came running in, and Cade raised the shotgun, and Hector raised his machete. “Hang on!” Cade said. “They’re with me.”

The two men looked frightened out of their minds, but very much alive. One was black-skinned; the other was wearing a serape. Both were carrying pistols, and the black man had a shotgun slung in a holster across his back. “Holy shit, boss,” the serape wearer said to Cade. “Holy shit.”

“Zombies,” the black man said.

“Zombies?” Hector repeated. “What the heck is a zombie?”
“You want me to explain, or you want to get out of here?” the black man said.

“Both,” Cade said. “But one at a time.” I was behind the bar grabbing all the ammunition I could find. “Come on, Daisy.” I threw it all in a sack and came out, and Cade grabbed my hand again. “When all this is over, you and I are going to have to have a conversation.”

“Shotgun shells,” I said, handing the sack to the black man.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat and smiling. “Much obliged.”

“We should go to the mission,” Hector said. “Father Rodrigo will know what to do.”

“Not a chance,” Cade said, moving to the window, dragging me behind him.

“Actually, boss, it’s not a bad idea,” the black man said, following. “I’m Thomas, by the way, miss.” He offered me his hand.

“Daisy,” I said, shaking it.

“You think maybe we can stick to the subject?” Cade said.

“A priest has a better chance to turning these things away than anything else,” Thomas said. “Plus whoever raised them probably stole some kind of holy relic to do it. We’re going to run out shells eventually.”

Cade did not look happy. “Well hell.” He looked at me. “Can you shoot?”

“I can,” I said.

“If I give you a gun, are you going to shoot me?” Thomas and the serape wearer both snickered.

“I reckon not,” I said. “For now.”

He took a second pistol from his belt, checked the bullets, and handed it to me. “The bang comes out of that end,” he said. “Now come on.”

I couldn’t resist pointing it at the back of his head as he walked away, but Thomas shook his finger at me, grinning, and I lowered it again and followed him out to the street.