A Publishing Retrospective

At the time of me writing this post, it has been a full two months and one week since my debut novel Paladin was officially published. For the past three years, publishing Paladin has been my dream, so to have my dream finally become a reality is…well, surreal.

I really didn’t know what to expect when I made the official transition from writer-for-fun to published author. Would anyone actually buy my book? (Besides my mother…I was pretty confident she’d grab a few copies.) Would the people who already read Paladin on Wattpad be interested in re-reading the published version? How would people outside Wattpad like Paladin? Did my writing stack up compared to other authors who pursued a more traditional path to publication?

You know, it’s funny – a million years before I ever gave becoming a writer a thought, I wanted to be an actress. That – not writing – was my dream for more than a decade. I even chose my university specifically for its theater program, and was deadset on becoming a star of the stage. And then I realized I just couldn’t hack it in the cutthroat world of acting. I didn’t want to face rejection a hundred thousand times. I didn’t want to remain forever undiscovered in the endless pool of acting talent.

And so I went corporate, working a job where I knew if I put X hours in and contributed Y amount of effort, I was guaranteed success. I was successful in my corporate career, and for a while, that was enough. But that same creative part of me that had loved acting and making music languished, underused, and I knew something was missing from my life. That’s when I discovered Wattpad, and writing fiction.

But in entering the world of published writing, I found myself in a not-so-unfamiliar position. The gatekeepers to traditional publishing are agents – much like in acting, where you need an agent to score an audition. And writers face rejection everyday – from literary agents, from publishers, from reviewers. There are hundreds of millions of stories out there waiting to be read – and no guarantee yours will ever make it past friends and family. Isn’t wanting to be a novelist every bit as farfetched as dreams of acting?

And yet I don’t feel the way about writing that I did about acting. Maybe it’s because my publishing experience has been so positive, but I think my attitude has changed and priorities have shifted. I believe in my writing far more than I ever did in my acting and singing skills. And even if no one had bought a single copy of Paladin, I would be proud of it. I wrote a whole friggin’ novel and I’m twenty-six. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, I have a lot left to learn. But I poured my heart and soul into that book and worked on it for four years to make it the best I could. A million rejection letters and bad reviews could never take that away from me.

I don’t want to say I got lucky (although I’m sure luck played some part) because I busted my butt for every single copy that has been sold. And that has been far more copies than either my publisher or I anticipated. Paladin sold 5,000 copies in its first month, which is practically unheard of for an indie book. It’s been sitting pretty as an Amazon #1 bestseller in a few different categories. Needless to say, when I saw Paladin climbing in the Amazon rankings, I was dumbfounded.

I think a lot of writers (myself included, prior to publication) labor under the misimpression that publishing is the big send-off at the end of a few years on the job. But in reality, the hard work just begins with publication – at least in the indie and small publishing world. I’ve spent just as many hours a day on promoting Paladin – writing social media posts, interacting with readers, begging reviewers to give the story a shot, liaising with other authors, contributing articles to other websites, participating in events to raise awareness – as I did on writing the damn thing. And that’s with the marketing support of my publisher.

I’m really very fortunate, because my day job is in marketing and public relations. I’ve been able to leverage a lot of what I’ve learned from promoting clients to promote myself. I’m not afraid to reach out to total strangers and say, “Hi there, I think you might enjoy my book because of XYZ reason.” For every ten emails I send, I get one response, but hey, I’ll take it.

And then, of course, I have my secret weapon behind me: Wattpad. Did I expect every reader on Wattpad to buy a copy? Absolutely not – not everyone has the means or the ability, or even the desire to purchase a story they’ve read already, albeit a heavily edited version. A lot of Wattpad readers did buy copies – but most importantly, they talked about Paladin, reviewed it and recommended it to their friends. Wattpad HQ also showed their support, giving me opportunities to talk about Paladin in public forums and helping to promote the book. Despite being a debut indie author, I got to make my foray into the publishing world with a whole lot of buzz behind me.

That isn’t to say my publishing experience has been nothing but puppies and rainbows. I’ve received some bad reviews, and there’s no denying they sting. Sometimes reviewers make criticisms that I think are unfair or off base – but because I’m dealing with reviewers outside the Wattpad environment, where dialogue is encouraged, I have to keep my big mouth shut. That’s not always easy. But at the end of the day, I’ve received far more positive reviews than bad, and even the critical reviews have provided me with worthwhile notes to bear in mind for the sequels.

Ah yes – the sequels! In the last two months, I haven’t made nearly as much headway as I wanted on book two. As much as I’ve enjoyed all the craziness that comes with publishing, I’m ready to get back to focusing on the Paladin sequel. I know my publishing journey is far from over, but I can’t ever forget the most important part of publishing a story is writing a good one.

In Defense of Bad Writing and Teen Fiction

Brace yourself, folks—this post is going to be a rant-y and ramble-y one. I might even piss a few of you off. But I’m okay with that.

So, let’s dive right into it. There is a growing divide on Wattpad between the adults and the teens, and a divide between the pop fiction writers and…everyone else.

I don’t like it.

Many folks on Wattpad are outraged by the amount of attention “bad” teen writing gets. They’re disgusted by the millions (literally) of fan fiction stories about One Direction, and the hundreds of thousands of melodramatic romances about werewolves and their mates. Worse, they say, the writing is atrocious. None of these kids know how to tag dialogue properly, and haven’t they heard of spell check?

But the most heinous crime of these teen so-called writers is that their stories are popular. Somehow, these illegible, clichéd stories are topping the What’s Hot lists and have generated millions of reads.

The folks who are complaining don’t always say this out loud, but what they’re thinking is, it’s not fair and my story is more deserving.

Now, I object to this on a whole lot of different levels. To be fair, I’m biased, as Paladin has gotten a lot of visibility on Wattpad, and perhaps if it remained among one of the millions of undiscovered stories, I too would be annoyed.

But here’s the thing. Paladin will never see as many reads as the #1 Romance or #1 Fan Fiction story on Wattpad. And I don’t care. It’s not a competition. It’s not like readers only choose one story. Readers who love to read are excited when they come across lots of good books. The fact that “Project Popularity” has 6.5 million reads and over 100K votes doesn’t mean that readers will choose that book over mine. Maybe they’ll choose Paladin, because they prefer fantasy to contemporary romance, or maybe they’ll decide to read both. Depending on the speed of your reading, a book only lasts a few days or perhaps a week. Once you’re done, you move on to the next one. A reader’s appetite is limitless.

What I’m trying to say is that another book’s popularity doesn’t have any impact on your own. So stop blaming those egregiously popular teen writers if your book isn’t getting the kind of visibility you want.

The other piece of this unfounded anger that bothers me is the accusation that these “bad writers” are undeserving. Let me ask you this—do you think these authors purposely try to write badly? Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I believe 90% of writers on Wattpad take pride in their work and are trying their damned hardest. Besides, how do you ever get better at writing without, well, writing? We all have to start somewhere.

I’m not saying that means we need to coddle younger or inexperienced writers. We don’t need to tell them they’re brilliant or hand them a participation trophy—that doesn’t do them any good in the long run. There’s a very easy solution to dealing with the writing that offends you on Wattpad—don’t read it. I may defend the bad writers (or at least defend their right to write), but that doesn’t mean my empathy extends to reading writing I don’t like. I guess I just don’t get why people find the existence of bad writing so offensive, so long as the author is not a) charging me for it or b) forcing me to read it.

Probably, though, what people find truly objectionable is the fact that some of these “poorly written” stories are popular. I want to qualify this a little—I have never seen a popular story on Wattpad with incomprehensible writing. Ridden with basic mistakes that make my inner Grammar Nazi cringe, yes, but not incomprehensible. The point is, all of the popular books still manage to tell a story.

I think we all could benefit from taking a look at these popular stories with less than stellar prose and analyze what it is that makes people flock to them. Obviously it’s not the writing, so that tells us that readers care more about other aspects of a book.

Your snarky response to me (I’m having an imaginary conversation with you in my head) is that well, duh, they play into clichés. There’s the love triangle, the bitchy cheerleader, the bad-boy vampwolf, etcetera, etcetera. You would never stoop so low as to write something so trite.

Okay, fair point. But obviously there’s a market for cliché stories, or people wouldn’t read them. If people enjoy reading clichés, why is it wrong to write them, especially if you enjoy them yourself? The same goes for fan fiction—people write fan fiction and people read them. Demand for One Direction stories exceeds the supply. Isn’t the fact that there are readers out there clamoring for 1D fan fic enough reason to write them? (Btw, you should all go out and read Fangirl by Rainbow Powell. It’ll change your perspective on fan fiction. Plus, it’s brilliant. I cried.)

But there are a lot of clichéd stories on Wattpad that don’t have reads in the millions. Which to me means that these popular authors are doing something else to get to the top. Something that could be applicable to the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, these terrible, horrible, no good, very bad authors have something they could teach us (kudos if you catch the reference). Maybe they’re doing something right that you’re doing wrong.

Now, I am an old, and no longer so hip to what the cool kids are doing these days. But in some of the rants I’ve seen on Wattpad coming from adults and teens alike, I’ve identified a few problems.

Stop alienating potential readers.
Do you know what’s not helping you get reads? Complaining about how much all the teen writers on Wattpad suck. Part of the appeal of Wattpad—beyond the fact that books are free—is the ability for writers and readers to connect. You are not just your story—you are you, a person, and readers can interact with you. They see your comments in forums and on walls. You’re not helping your cause by insulting the vast majority of the Wattpad population.

And let’s be realistic about the Wattpad audience. I don’t have any data points to prove this, but intuition tells me that the ratio of adults (ages 18+) to teens is something like 25:75. That probably isn’t going to change significantly because teens are more social media savvy, and adults have access to credit cards and aren’t as reliant on free e-books. You may say you’re only writing for adults, but that severely limits your potential readership. I’m not saying you have to pander to a younger audience—you should write the book you want to write—but dismissing the entire teen population as beneath you seems pretty foolish.

I don’t know about you, but I started reading “adult” novels when I was 9 years old. I still recall my first adult book—it was Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. There was a scene in which the Big Bad Guy killed a little boy, cut off his testicles and ate them. There were also BDSM scenes. So yes, it was truly adult. I still loved it (although I totally did not get that Denna was a dominatrix until YEARS later).

I bring this up because, just like adults often read Young Adult books (who hasn’t read The Hunger Games?), teens often read adult books. You may not be writing a story for them specifically, but you shouldn’t pooh-pooh them as readers.

You don’t know how to promote your story.
The popular teen writers on this site might not write better than you, but they sure as hell promote better. They promote better than me, too, if it’s any consolation.

Why do I say that? Well, I’m not a teen. I’m not completely out of touch, but I can’t relate to a teen on the same level as another 16 year old. And the way social media works, things go viral based on peer-to-peer recommendations and peer-to-peer influencers. That includes stories on Wattpad. By virtue of being an old, I’m out of that peer-to-peer circle.

Well, eff, you might be thinking, how is that commentary remotely useful? To me the takeaway is that I need to try to get on their level. I mean, I’m not about to start gabbing about One Direction in the forums, but I do talk to potential teen readers all the time about interests we have in common. It helps me understand how they think, what kinds of promotional tactics appeal to them, what they want to read, etc. Besides, some of them are pretty cool.

The popular authors on Wattpad also put the time in to promote. And yes, one valuable method of promotion is just being active in the forums and getting to know people on a personal level. The writers who you see everywhere (all over the forums, posting on walls, on stories, etc.) tend to have massive followings.

Your story isn’t as good as you think it is.
Okay, this one obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, and maybe it’s not that helpful to bring up since it’s so hard to self-evaluate. Your story may very well have not been discovered yet because you haven’t put in enough time promoting it, you’re new to Wattpad, etc.

But no matter how much time you spend marketing yourself and your book, if you didn’t write a story people will like, you won’t get readers.

I think a LOT of writers mistakenly believe that because their stories are technically well-written (the grammar is flawless; the prose is beautiful; the descriptions of setting are sweeping) they’ve written a great book. Unfortunately, good writing isn’t that simple. The characterization, the plot development, the voice are what determines whether your story is good or not. Those aren’t measurable things, and while they’re learn-able, they’re not necessarily teachable. How do you create a loveable character? I don’t really know how to explain it (nor have I perfected the art myself)…all I know is they should feel alive on the page. You should be able to feel their personality in the narration. They should be able to move your readers to tears or laughter.

I like to point to the story I wrote my sophomore year of college. The writing is close to technically perfect.  The story is awful. Why? It’s boring.

So that brings me back to a much earlier point I made, about why a poorly written story is popular and yours might not be. Frankly, readers will choose a book with terrible writing and a fast-paced plot and great characters over a well-written story with no heart every time.

Alright, folks. I think that’s enough incoherent ranting from me for now. Feel free to tell me I’m a heartless beyotch who is so beyond biased my rambles are irrelevant. I don’t mind!

Obsessive Writing Compulsion (Paladin Rewrite Update)

So I’ve been on a bit of a writing binge lately (we’re talking over 12K words in a week, which for me, is like, crazy, yo), and I finally feel like I can give you a leedle update on how my rewrite is going.
Side effect of obsessive writing compulsion: sleep deprivation. Side effect of sleep deprivation: mild insanity. You have been warned.
So yeah. The rewrite. I was stuck in a rut for a few months for a few reasons (one being my love life…met a wonderful guy, and he was distracting. But! He moved away. Sad for me, good for my writing). Besides that, I’ve been generally lacking in motivation.
Finally I think I’ve gotten into the groove with this new version of the story. The story is coming much more easily now (before it was a struggle just to come up with a couple hundred words, and now my fingers are struggling to keep up with my brain).
I’m about 25K words into my rewrite, and I have to say, I’m pretty happy with how it’s turning out. I can tell my writing has improved and I’m confident the dialogue is snappy.
BUT…because everything with writing must have a but…I’m nervous. Nervous how all of y’all who love the version of Paladin I have up on Wattpad will receive it.
I didn’t realize, I think, how dramatically different the rewrite would be. You all know that I was asked to add in new layers and characters and subplots, and that has had a very significant impact on the pace of the story. To put it into perspective, I’ve written 25,000 words, and Sam just ran away from Haywood in the most recent chapter. She hasn’t decided she wants to become a Paladin yet (that’s coming) and the road between Haywood and The Center (renamed, btw, because “The Center” is a lame name for a capitol city) is not a straight one.  We’ve already met Tristan, but Braeden is still a good 5-10,000 words out of the picture.
When I’ve talked to folks about the rewrite in the past, I’ve told them to think of it as a prequel. If I had to guess, I think something like 60-70% of the book will take place before Sam and crew head west for the Diamond Coast.
But a prequel is not an entirely accurate description. The sequence of events, out of necessity, has had to change. So have some of the character motivations. And the introduction of new characters and plot threads has had more consequences than I anticipated.
For example: Sam’s mother isn’t dead at the start of the story. That majorly affects Sam’s relationship with her father (the duke) and perhaps more significantly, her view of love and romantic relationships.
Sam also isn’t completely friendless. In the Wattpad version, I described her as having few friends—which I think is still true—but I didn’t think it was realistic that she’d spend 18 years in Haywood without making any friends. She’s weird, but she’s a good person. Even outcasts have a friend or two (I’m speaking as a former outcast). So I’ve introduced a friend for her, Will, who has a minor but important role. I have to say, I’m getting a kick out of his character. I really like the dynamic between them.  Here’s a quick snippet:
She slung an arm around Will’s shoulders. “Cheer up.”
He shrugged her off. “Don’t you ever get tired of winning?”
She grinned. “No.”
“Well, I’m tired of losing. It gets depressing, you know.” He looked at her sideways. “I suppose you don’t know.”
“You defeated Owen just yesterday,” Sam pointed out gently. “Handily, too.”
“I did, didn’t I?” He threw her a lopsided smile.
D’oh! I went off on a tangent. The point is, the first 25,000 – and possibly the first 50,000 – words are entirely new content. Not reworded content, new. You will meet the people who enable Sam’s escape from Haywood…
Emont’s coach waited for her a mile down the road from the castle. The peddler himself leaned against the carriage, watching her approach. He had lit a lantern, but his clothes were so bright she could have seen him without it. He was taller than she remembered, thin all over but for a slight paunch. A fading bruise across his cheek served as the only remaining evidence of the bandits’ attack. “Lady Samantha,” he said. His voice was no longer hoarse, but sonorous and full. “I half-hoped you wouldn’t come.” (FYI, my agent hasn’t edited this paragraph yet. So it could change.)
…And you’ll witness her journey with them. You’ll also get a lot more detail on how Sam learns to fake being a boy. The Paladin Trials won’t be a quick chapter anymore; they’ll take up a relatively significant portion of the book.
So why am I nervous? Well, I’m afraid that a lot of you are going to freak the !@#$ out. I’m afraid the story will be so different you’ll hate it. I’m afraid you’ll be upset when some of the most memorable events from Paladin are delayed until the second book. I’m afraid that this story won’t stand up to the original.
I personally think that the story I’m writing now is stronger (and Mommy Slater agrees! That’s one!). But I’ve also come to realize that I’m essentially writing a new book. A book that has the same characters, the same feel to it, the same major themes, the same general direction…but a different story to tell. There will be overlap, but for better or for worse, most of the story will be new to you.
I’ve still got a lot left of my rewrite to go (oh, a good 80,000 words…), so who knows where the story will take me. I hope people see the book as an opportunity to read a new story about characters they already love. After all, the original version of Paladin remains up on Wattpad for anyone who wants to read it. So it’s kind of like a bonus, right? Right?

Style and Grammar – Rethinking Black and White

Rather than starting this blog post as I always do—with a groveling apology for my long absence (I’m sorry! Really and truly, I’m sorry!)I’m just going to dive right into it.

This blog post is inspired, at least in part, by a friend I’ve been “helping” with editing her manuscript. “Helping” is in quotation marks because frankly, I’m not quite sure how helpful I’ve been.
You see, I’m a grammar Nazi. Everyone tosses that phrase around, and I think it’s lost some of its impact. Let me be clear. I am a grammar fascist.  A grammar dictator. A grammar tyrant!

Taken from the Oatmeal. This comic is genius: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon
Here’s my necessary disclaimer: my grammar isn’t always perfect. I still am learning new rules by the day. Certainly when I’m typing casually (like in this blog post), I slip up, either because I’m not paying attention or because I don’t care. This is a blog, people. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.
I also have to switch back-and-forth between two schools of grammar. At work, I use AP style, which is the style guidelines used by the newspaper industry here in the U.S. In the book publishing industry, most people use The Chicago Manual of Style. The differences are subtle, but they exist just the same. I know significantly more about the rules of AP style than I do Chicago Manual, and sometimes I screw them up. 
Disclaimer aside, I think my grammar in general is better than your Average Joe’s. I used to tutor kids for the writing portion of the SATs (for my non-American readers, that’s one of the two main standardized tests American kids have to take to get into university), so there was a point in my life when I could give you encyclopedic definitions of dangling modifiers and parallelism issues. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten dumber in my old age.
I like to say that for me, correcting grammar is like a nervous tic. It takes every ounce of my willpower not to say something about a missing hyphen or inconsistent use of the Oxford comma. I’ve been known to rant about the death of the double-spaced sentence. I got in trouble at my last internship for editing a senior-level executive’s email without being asked (what? The grammar was wrong!).
The truth is, incorrect grammar really takes me out of a story. My reader brain shuts down at the first sight of a comma splice, and my snobby writer brain takes over. Do I think everyone reacts the same way? No – just take a look at Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. It has a 4.5 rating and 17,695 votes on Goodreads, and enough run-on sentences to make my eyes bleed.
So I’ve started to wonder … When I rip into someone’s grammar, am I helping them or am I killing their voice? How much leeway should we give writers to break grammar conventions? After all, writing is about creative expression, not what some might consider arbitrary rules. I mean, I know I sometimes purposely break the rules for effect, particularly with sentence fragments. Here’s an example from my rewrite:
The only person she had left was Denya. Denya, who couldn’t be bothered to show up at the funeral of the woman she’d watched over since birth. <–Second sentence is a fragment.
I’m having the same inner debate about style. Writing style obviously has much more flexibility than grammar (with grammar there is clear right and wrong. Not so with style), and is also much more transient. If you compare the style of a book published during the early 20th century to a book published today, they will be vastly different.
I am perhaps shockingly conventional when it comes to writing style. I try to follow modern style, which means I hate on adverbs and adjectives and flowery prose. Use similes and metaphors sparingly, the style gurus of today tell us. Don’t use rarefied words.
My literary agent definitely subscribes to modern style rules. In his latest edits, he told me to kill the word “apoplexy” because it was too unusual and pulled the reader out of the story. Same deal for “maw” (that one made me sad. I love that word). I was also told to avoid using the word like, and to stop using so many damn metaphors (the damn was from me. Harry’s much too polite to curse). For example…
What I originally wrote:
Her face, paleas milk, glistened with tears, still wet. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—too cool, like all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
Bad Sally, bad. Here’s how I was asked to change it:
Her pale faced glistened with tears. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
You tell me which one is better. Personally, I think Harry’s right. He usually is.
When I review other writers’ work, I critique with the same lens that my literary agent uses on mine. I’d like to think I can still appreciate that every (good) writer has his or her own voice, and that naturally results in differences of style. But I think that writers can go too far in terms of bucking convention. I’m all for experimentation, and when it works, it works. When it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.
I also don’t think today’s style rules are totally arbitrary – it’s not like fashion where pink is in on Tuesday, and Wednesday it’s all about plaid. Adverbs are lazy. I’m not an adverb fascist – I still think they have a place in writing, and I probably use too many of them – but I do think that excessive use can distract from the story, or come across as more telling than showing. I feel the same way about similes (though I am also guilty of simile abuse). I think everyone’s writing can be made better by simplifying.
But…maybe I’m narrow-minded. Maybe by trying to enforce the style rules I’ve been taught I’m suppressing expression and creativity. I have never been a fan of flowery prose (although I think mine is somewhat flowery? Am I crazy?), and maybe I’m incapable of objectively editing a style or genre that’s so drastically different from my own.
Long story short, I’ve started to second-guess my objectivity. I think I might be a writing bully.

Planning, Planning

So I had my first official “meeting” with my literary agent Harry today (it was a phone call and not an in-person meeting, as he is based in Canada), and wow, do I have a lot of work to do. 
Remember that plot outline I was working on a few weeks ago? Yeah, probably going to be tossed. My assignment for the next two weeks is to flesh out the landscape of my world (which means I have to draw a map! Eep), put together sketches (of the written variety) of all the major characters and write the plot outline for THE ENTIRE SERIES.
Yes, that’s right. I’m planning out every single aspect of Sam, Tristan and Braeden’s world. In two weeks, I’ll know who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast…
Oh wait, I just quoted the Old Testament. It’s a surprisingly appropriate quote.
Writing, especially writing fantasy, is a little bit like playing God. You have to create an entire world from scratch, its creatures and its people. It’s kind of fun to rule your own little universe but man, is it hard. 
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not really a planner. I wrote the first 15 chapters of Paladin without planning ANYTHING — not the characters, not the plot, not even the romance. It’s probably why the first part of my book is less focused than the rest.
I got stuck at chapter 15, and so at the advice of Eileen Gormley, co-author of The Pleasures of Winter (it’s like the 50 Shades of Ireland, but much better written) and otherwise known as Ctyolene on Wattpad, I wrote the synopsis for the rest of the story. 
I didn’t stick to the synopsis exactly–plot elements changed or happened in a different order, or new plot elements cropped up (the rupture in Braeden’s tattoo and that first kiss were completely unplanned, for example). But having it there as a guide was tremendously helpful in keeping me on track and avoiding plot holes…and probably most importantly, in avoiding writer’s block.
Speaking of plot holes, they’re a big part of why Harry says I need to plan out the entire series now. If you don’t know how the whole story is going to unfold, you might find yourself with plot issues in later books that are insurmountable. It’s also hard to use important literary devices like foreshadowing when you yourself don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s one thing when your first book is just published on Wattpad — it’s easy enough to go back and make edits. But once your first book is published in the traditional sense, making changes later is impossible.
The approach he suggested is interesting: rather than write three plot outlines for three separate books, I’m writing one long plot outline, treating it like one contiguous story. I can figure out where it makes sense to break the story into separate books afterward. 
So, depending on how much story there is to tell (I don’t know yet; I haven’t started planning), Paladin could be a 3-book series or it could be 10 (although I sincerely doubt it!). 
To that end, Harry also said not to worry about word count. As an amateur writer, pretty much everything I’ve read says that for your first novel, keep it under 100,000 words. To put it into perspective, Paladin, as it currently stands on Wattpad, is 110,000 words. 
One of my concerns has been how to add to the story the missing elements (more on that later) without also adding a significant amount of text. Well, since my agent has thrown that out the window, for the time being, I’m free to write as long and as much as I’d like. As he pointed out, some of the Harry Potter books are over 700 pages (175,000+ words). I would argue that I’m no J.K. Rowling, but I’m eager to be able to write Paladin without constraints.
And I do expect Paladin to be much, much longer. Harry told me he likes the core plot of the story (the Sam/Braeden/Tristan story arc), but it’s too narrowly focused on them. What about the politics of my world? I mention a king in passing — he’s a king in a feudal system, which means he must have some degree of real power. Why does he not have any role in the story or how events unfold? What is the dynamic between him and the High Commander? Here, Harry pointed out I’m missing out on a great opportunity to create more tension and add richness to my plot. There needs to be more going on in the world than just the conflict between the Uriel and the Paladins.
So yeah. I have to design a political system now.  Good thing I’ve got a degree in political science (unfortunate that I don’t remember a thing I learned in college beyond how to do a cartwheel…I got an A in Circus).
Harry’s other major criticism is that while Sam, Braeden and Tristan are well-developed characters, the rest of my characters are not. The story needs to stay their story, but that doesn’t mean other characters can’t have larger roles. Once again, we’ll use Harry Potter as our example — the books are focused on Harry, Hermione and Ron, but there are many, many other fully developed and memorable characters, like Dumbledore, Snape, Sirius Black, etc.
One suggestion Harry made that I latched onto immediately was regarding my little thief boy, Charlie, from Chapter 19.  He said he really connected with Charlie, but then Charlie was gone a chapter later. What if Charlie were to join Sam, Tristan and Braeden’s entourage for the rest of their journey? I love that idea.
There are a few other potential characters we discussed having a more significant role that will have a pretty significant impact on how the story unfolds, but I’m not sure how much of that conversation I want to divulge. I want you to be surprised when you read the new version of Paladin.
I will promise you this (and my agent agrees): whatever changes I make, the parts you like about Paladin will still be there. I’m adding to the plot, not taking away. Some minor things might have to change from a logic standpoint (let’s be real–how practical is it that Braeden uses knives to chop off demons’ heads? A knife is six inches long–it would take forever!), but I want to keep the heart of my story the same.
On a semi-off topic note, thank you to everyone who has been recommending Paladin to friends. After months of falling out of the top 10, Paladin has returned to the #1 spot in Fantasy and Adventure, and that’s entirely because of you. I feel like I don’t say this to you guys enough: I love you!

Traditional Publishing, Take Two


It’s just over three weeks since I made the grand declaration that I was going to self publish. And then I spoke to an editor who showed me the light that Paladin was nowhere near ready. And now I must share this update:


I’m sorry. That was immature of me. I’ve calmed down now. (NoIhaven’tI’mreallyexcitedI’msorryI’llshutup.)

Here’s how it happened, for those of you who want the juicy details–It was shortly after I had posted my last blog about aaallll the work I need to do in order to make Paladin publishing-worthy. I checked my email, and lo and behold, a literary agent appeared to have sent me an email.

I read it three times, and then a fourth for good measure. The gist of it was this: the agent had read Paladin on Wattpad and enjoyed the characters…He’d also read my blog post. Not only had he read it, he agreed: Sam is not central enough to the plot. And yet, despite what is obviously a very significant flaw, he saw the potential in my writing, and expressed interest in working with me.

As every writer should do, I did my research on the agency to make sure that they were a legitimate agency (there are a lot of sketchy agencies out there, folks. Predators & Editors has a handy list of those you can trust and those you cannot. You also want to make sure the agency has worked with successful authors and has made recent sales to established publishing companies). When everything checked out, I spoke at length with the agent on the phone to get a sense of what I could expect, and what he would expect from me.

What sold me was this: he is what is called an “editorial agent.” The primary reason to get a literary agent is because they are the gatekeepers to the world of traditional publishing. The Big Six (now big five) publishers and most successful indie publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. So the only way to get your book’s foot in the door (er, page on the desk?) is through a literary agent. Once a publisher shows interest, the literary agent then helps you negotiate the most favorable deal possible–the biggest advance, the best royalty rate, etc.

But some agents–not all–also serve as editors. Before they begin shopping your manuscript to publishers, they help you get it in the best shape possible. It’s in their interest, too–they want to shop a book that they think will sell, because that’s how they get their commission.

Before I educated myself on the publishing world (and trust me, I still need a lot more education), I thought once you got a literary agent, that was it. Wham bam, thank you ma’am, here’s your publishing deal.

…That’s not quite how it works. Judging from my initial conversation with the agent, I have a lot of work ahead of me. The big changes I brought up last blog post–those are still happening. We’ve already discussed other major edits he would like me to make, and some of those need to be preempted by research. I don’t even know the half of it. I’ve likely got months of work to do before he even begins talking to publishers.

In other words, I’m a big step closer, but I’m not there yet.

There’s also the matter of the sequel. We discussed, and both he and I think that a trilogy makes the most sense. But what that means is that I have to plan out (e.g. outline) the whole series before I finish the first book! I’m not much of a planner in my writing, but now I’m going to become one.

As the agent (now my agent–I signed the contract this morning) said to me, there are no guarantees in publishing. But despite this caveat, I cannot help but be super excited to work with him and get my writing to the next level. Excited is the wrong word…I’m positively giddy. I told the agent that I wanted to work with someone who would not only foster my writing career, but foster my writing itself. He’s got a wealth of writing and editorial experience, and I’m confident he’ll make me a better writer…and Paladin a better book.

To celebrate with you guys (because in all honesty, I would be nowhere without your support), I’m going to post an extended epilogue of Paladin on Wattpad. It will likely never see the light of day in the actually published book *crossing my fingers*, but hopefully you will enjoy it regardless. And in case you haven’t checked it out, I’ve started posting another “story” (I use the word story loosely – it’s autobiographical) called “First Kisses“. As a forewarning, it’s highly inappropriate (I’m rating it PG13 so mobile readers can find it, but it really should be rated R), and because it’s based on my life, there are no swords or sorcery, as unfortunately, my invitation to Hogwarts got lost in the mail…The cover by Prisim is below. No obligation to read it, as I don’t expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea. Cheers!

Slamming on the Brakes

Last week, I was ready to jump on the self-publishing bandwagon. My story was good enough, I thought. I’m ready to be done with this Paladin business and move onto Uriel.

A lot can change in a week.

On Tuesday, I spoke at length with an editor whose publishing company was considering my manuscript. He had read my first five chapters and a two-page synopsis.

“Here’s what I’m not following,” he said. “What is the main conflict in your story?”

“Well, there are lots of conflicts,” I replied. “But the big one is the tension between the Paladins and the Uriel, and the eventual realization that the High Commander is evil.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said. “And what role does Sam play in this conflict?”

I had to think about it for several minutes. “Um, well, the High Commander wants her dead because Braeden loves her, and that affects his ability to control him.”

“Okay. But that’s Braeden’s story, not Sam’s. How is Sam central to the conflict?”

I racked my brain for an answer, and found none. “I guess she isn’t.”

“Yyyeeahhh…that’s a problem. You’ve got a serious flaw with your plot.”

Goddamnit, he was right. “That’s not an easy fix, is it?” I asked.

“No. No, it’s not.”

It wasn’t the only thing the editor said needed fixing. My world building? Hazy at best. My exposition? Far too much of it. And my similes? He didn’t pull any punches–my similes, at least in the first five chapters, are atrocious.

“I actually like your writing,” he said. So there was that.

The sad thing is that as he explained to me the why behind his criticism, I saw that he was right in every regard. The similes, the world building, the overabundance of exposition — those are, if not easy, at least doable fixes. The plot, on the otherhand, needs a serious overhaul, and there’s just no getting around that. I feel like someone just took off my blindfold.

So what does that mean for Paladin? It means a massive, massive rewrite, and for starters, it means I have to completely reconfigure my plot. I now see that Paladin is fundamnetally flawed–and before I even think about publication, I need to fix it. It will be a tremendous, time consuming, and likely frustrating endeavor.

Some of you who like Paladin might be balking at this decision. Don’t change it, you might be thinking. It’s good the way it is.

When I say I’m going to rewrite Paladin, I’m not going to change everything. While I recognize now that it has serious issues, I still don’t think it’s terrible. I’m proud of my character development and I love the romance between Braeden and Sam, and the dynamic of the trio. I want to preserve as much of that as I can. That plot line — the romance thread — is the most fleshed out in the novel, and while the details may change, those relationships will not. I won’t allow it.

I don’t want to abandon the original plot completely — nor do I want to make Braeden the main protagonist of the story — but unless I can come up with a way to make Sam central to the Paladin/Uriel conflict, I’m going to have to make very significant changes. Basically, I need to come up with a better reason for the High Commander to want to kill Sam. His motives in general need to be clearer, but his main motivation should be to destroy Sam. I have yet to figure out the why of it — but it essentially means there needs to be something special about her, beyond the fact she’s a female wielding a sword. She needs to be the Harry Potter to the High Commander’s Voldemort.

It’s almost like I’ll be writing a story about Sam, Braeden and Tristan in a parallel world. I can’t decide if I’m excited or sad about it. On the one hand, I feel like I just realized my diamond earings are cubic zirconia. I’m reminded that I’m an amateur writer and that my dream of being published is much further away than I imagined. In that sense, it’s disheartening.

On the other hand, this is my opportunity to do Paladin right. I’ve learned a lot about writing fiction over the past 15 months, and if I can just figure out the right plot, I think whatever I come up with will blow the original out of the way. If Paladin had strong world building, a strong plot and strong characters? I believe it would be a force to be reckoned with.

For those of you who are appalled by the thought of such dramatic changes — and they will be dramatic — you can rest easy that for now, Paladin will remain as it is up on Wattpad. You can read it anytime. However, I would ask you this — what is it that makes you like Paladin? If I had to guess, it would be the characters and the romance. The other stuff, you could take or leave.

You see, now that I’m a year-and-a-half into writing, it’s no longer enough for me to be good by Wattpad standards. I have good syntax and I can write snappy dialogue…but that isn’t all it takes to be a truly great author. I want to write a book that Publishers Weekly could review and find nothing but positive things to say (okay, I might be pushing my luck there, but a girl can dream).

I owe the editor a new plot outline this Sunday…and hopefully brilliance will strike before then. Pending his approval, for the next few months, I’ll be slaving away on the new and improved Paladin. That might disappoint some of you…it means Blue Sun will be on hold, and Uriel won’t begin being written for a long, long time. I’ll try to keep updating my blog, or perhaps write silly little fun stories, since I won’t be providing you guys with any new content otherwise. I hope you don’t forget about me! I will continue to be on Wattpad with disgusting frequency, so it’s not like I’m disappearing from the earth. But I wanted to let you guys know what an enormous undertaking is ahead of me. I will end this blog post with an unsatisfactory onomatopoeia:

Le sigh.

Getting the word out there.

Happy Saturday, y’all! In the, er, 8 days since we last met (and by “met” I mean my last blog post), not all that much has happened on the writing front, unfortunately, and I confess I’m growing impatient — I’d take a definitive “No” over an I-don’t-know. I did hit 2.4 million reads on Wattpad (which is awesome, i.e. you guys are awesome). I’ve been getting about 100K new reads every day since Paladin was featured a little over 2 weeks ago.
I’m beginning to seriously consider the self-published route, for a few different reasons. For one thing, Paladin is my debut novel…and hopefully not the best book I’ll ever write. Am I wasting my time trying to get my first attempt at writing a novel published? I’ve read in a hundred different blogs that your first book is crap; it’s the second book that sells.
But I’ve put so much time and energy into Paladin, and I really do believe in it. Heck, I’m somebody’s favorite author! The primary benefit of self publishing, as far as I see it, is then this whole publishing business is done and over with. I can stop editing (I think I’ve seriously spent like, 200 hours editing this thing); I can start thinking about the sequel to Paladin or a new series entirely. I’m itching to write something new (although a new world has yet to pop into my head, which scares me a little).
The thing is, self publishing would be taking a huge risk. I’d have to invest some of my own money–and let me tell you, I’m not rolling in dough–and a lot of time. I would need to find a cover artist (and likely pay them), and if I were to produce hard copies (vs. ebooks) of Paladin, the money would come out of my own pocket. I would need to either hire a copy editor ($$$) or go through the whole novel again with a fine tooth comb…which will take me another 20 or 30 hours. Any way you slice it, the journey to getting published will take a loooong time.
But what I think will be the biggest time suck is getting the word out there. I’ve got an amazing 2,400 followers on Wattpad — and presumably significantly more readers than that — but not all of my followers and readers are going to want to purchase my book. The biggest mistake I think authors on Wattpad make is that they only focus on the Wattpad community. Us Wattpadders are accustomed to reading books for free, and actually paying for a book is a cultural shift that authors are trying to force down Wattpadders’ throats. (Don’t get me wrong — when Paladin is published, I’ll ask you to buy my book. But I won’t condemn you if you don’t. You’ve already paid me in encouragement, and that counts for a lot).
The real opportunity lies with the readers who haven’t already read Paladin–and I think limiting myself to the Wattpad community would be silly. There are 5 million registered users on Wattpad…but there are over 7 billion people in the world! Okay, that’s a bad comparison, because the whole world isn’t literate, or fluent in English, or flush with money in order to purchase a book, but you get my point. The world is changing, too — ecommerce (in other words, online sales) is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2016 and Juniper Research forecasts that purchases via mobile devices (tablets, smartphones) will outpace shopping on desktops. Research also shows that YouTube is the second most popular search engine in the world, after Google.
Why am I citing all these random stats? It impacts how us authors (and publishing houses) have to target potential readers. Advertising your book in a newspaper or on the side of a bus? So 1990. Authors need to find a way to tell the new reader about their book. The new reader is digitally-savvy, likely on their mobile more often than their laptop, and consuming information via lots of different channels — Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Goodreads. Maybe Wattpad.
So what the heck does all this have to do with self publishing vs. traditional publishing? Well, if I self publish, I have to do all my advertising myself! And what used to be pretty straightforward–send your book out to a few review blogs, maybe fork out some $$$ for an advertisement in the newspaper or an online news site–is now super complicated. To really get the word out there, you need to have a presence and strategy on all those different channels (mobile, Internet, traditional, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Wattpad, YouTube, etc.). Multimedia is the wave of the future. Unfortunately for me, I’m a technological dunce.
At the Digital Hollywood panel I spoke at last week, Brittany Geragotelis talked about the makeover videos she posts on YouTube, to tie into the magical makeover her main character gets in her book (seriously, check them out). Another great example of creative marketing for books is what the folks at Rigler Creative  are doing — they’re launching a new book review web series on YouTube aimed at 11-16 year olds (the lower spectrum of a YA audience) called “Best Friends Book Club“. Each week, they air a 3-5 minute segment featuring four teenage hosts who review a YA book in an informal talk show setting. The series is syndicated on Tumblr and Wattpad.
I checked out the first episode, which premiered today. The four teenage hosts–who are way cooler than I was at their age–reviewed The Journeys of John and Julia, which you can actually read here on Wattpad (it’s also available in print and as an ebook on Amazon). I have yet to read the book, but did notice that each chapter has a little video embedded in the page. I didn’t even know you could do that on Wattpad!
Anyway, here is the first video — it is adorable.
Long story short, if I self publish, I won’t be able to do this stuff…at least not without paying someone to do it for me. I lack the technological know-how, and frankly, the time, to put something this elaborate together. The other big issue for me is that I really want an editor from one of the Big Six publishing houses to rip into my book. I feel like traditional publishing would get Paladin to the next level.
I have no immediate plans to take action either way. I feel like I should at least get rejected before I make the decision to go the self publishing route. For now, I’ll just sit back and wait…and wait…and wait.

Hipsters and Obsession


Last Saturday, I went to Williamsburg for a friend’s birthday. For those of you who aren’t from New York, Williamsburg, in the Brooklyn borough of NYC, is the hipster capitol of the world. (See the Urban Dictionary definition of hipster if you don’t know what that is). I am not a hipster. I am a nerd. We are an entirely different breed of human.

I never feel like I fit in when I go to Williamsburg. I don’t own skinny jeans or ironic T-shirts or thick-framed eyeglasses without lenses. I can’t name obscure bands from the 80’s and no one has ever described me as effortlessly cool. 

Behold. The Hipster.
On Saturday, I made one concession to hipsterhood–I wore a vampy shade of red lipstick that is basically the uniform for Williamsburg female residents. But despite my efforts to blend in with the crowd, this weekend I felt even more like an anomaly. You see, something’s happened over the past few months. 

All of my friends are in relationships. In varying degrees of relationships, it’s true–some have been dating their boyfriends for years, others are just at the onset of a new relationship, and a few are somewhere in the middle. Regardless, on Saturday night I found myself at a table surrounded by couples. How the hell did this happen?

And in fact, my friend asked me, “So what’s been going on with you, Sally? Any updates in your love life?”

To which I had to respond, “Well, no.”

“Why?” she asked me, as though my answer were offensive. 

I said, rather defensively, “I’ve been too busy. I’ve been working on my book.”

I realized something in that moment, as soon as the words left my mouth. I do have a boyfriend. I have two. You may have met them–their names are Braeden and Tristan. They’re smokin’ hot.

Over the past few months, I have spent far more time with Braeden and Tristan–Sam, too–than I have my real, flesh-and-blood friends. I spent more time trying to describe the way Braeden looks with his shirt off than fantasizing about my hot Irish neighbor upstairs (don’t worry; he doesn’t read this) or my secret Wattpad lover (he does). I swear, I’ve dreamed about the characters in Paladin. They’re with me every second of the day.

I’m not trying to say that this is a good thing. It’s probably unhealthy, and it’s not something I think I can successfully explain to someone who doesn’t write. I don’t know if I can successfully explain it at all. Hell, maybe I am crazy.  

When I first started writing Paladin back in October 2011, writing was a hobby. I wrote on the weekends, an hour or two here and there during the week, because it felt good to write for pleasure again. I had never attempted to write a novel before and I didn’t know what the heck I was doing (still don’t). It was a time of experimentation and learning.

But then the story took on a life of its own, especially the last few months I was writing it. It was like I was possessed. Whenever I wasn’t at the office, I had to write. I didn’t care if it was 5:00 am in the morning and I had to be up for work at 8:00. The story of Paladin was trying to burst out of my skull and I couldn’t put it to paper fast enough. I wanted desperately to get to that happy ending that was playing like a movie on repeat inside my head.

I wonder if writing will always be like this for me–all consuming and compulsive. I wonder if I will always feel so attached to my stories–Paladin is like the result of a 15 month pregnancy. It is my beautiful baby (you should see the fathers). And I wonder if other writers, or artists, feel this obsession with their work. Does your story control you, or do you control the story? 

Paladin Exclusive: Revised Chapter 1

Many of my readers know that I really disliked the first chapter of Paladin. After all, I started writing Paladin 15 months ago, and my writing style has since changed and–hopefully–improved. I’m not a big fan of the prologue and first chapter that are up on Wattpad right now. To me, there’s one especially glaring issue–Millie and Sir Daniel are the stars of Chapter 1, but they don’t have a part in the rest of the story. Why should they be the characters who open the book?

Since I needed to provide Chapter 1 for the book contest I entered (more on that in a post later this week), I tried to rewrite it. I rewrote Chapter 1–just Chapter 1–six times. And each one was worse than the last.

The version below is the chapter I ended up submitting (attempt #7). Now, I expect some of you aren’t going to like it–it’s definitely very different from the first chapter I have on Wattpad now. But it does successfully get rid of Millie and Sir Daniel, who really are not at all integral to the story.

This is not the full first chapter–I kept some stuff from the original that I’m not showing here, since you all have already read it. Basically the only things that are going away are the prologue and the bit with Sir Daniel and Millie. Everything else is unchanged.

So, enjoy this Paladin exclusive! Also, if you haven’t already, visit/like my Facebook author page.

Chapter 1

She fidgeted, waiting for her name to be announced. The name she gave them, not the name she was given.

“Sam of Haywood!”

When she didn’t move, someone shoved her to the front. She’d have to remember she was Sam now, not Samantha. It would take some getting used to.

“William of Gwent!”

Sam craned her neck, trying to catch a proper glimpse of her opponent. He was a big lad, with a girth that bordered on fat. His eyes were small and mean, and betrayed no sign of intelligence.

Sam stepped out into the arena, and a few of the boys guffawed. They elbowed William in the ribs and she heard one say, “This one’ll be easy.”

She scowled. Let them laugh. William of Gwent might be twice her size, but she would still defeat him. He lumbered across the grassy field with all the grace of a drunken elephant.

Five swords–not practice swords, but real metal blades of varying lengths and styles–had been laid out in the middle of the field for Sam and William to choose from. Sam tested the balance of each sword until she settled on one she liked, a wide blade with a cat’s head pommel. William chose the greatsword, a hefty, two-handed weapon that weighed nigh on two stone. She smirked. It was a powerful sword–if you knew how to use it.

The officiating Paladin called out from behind the low wooden barrier, “Swords at the ready!” Sam and William raised their blades to the on-guard position. “You know the rules by now. First to draw blood will be declared the winner. If you lose, you’re out. Go home. Better luck next year. Are we clear?”

Sam nodded. The rules were harsh but fair; outside of the training yard, there were no second chances. Demons didn’t care if you were having an off day or if you allowed yourself to be distracted; they would kill you regardless. Sam had encountered a demon once in her eighteen years, and she had nearly died for it. The Trials, in comparison, were lenient.

“Alright, lads,” said the Paladin. Sam would have to get used to that, too; no one would ever again call her Lady. “You may begin!”

Sam studied her opponent. He had a brutish strength–she could tell by the ease with which he carried the greatsword–but his form was poor. She would wait him out, let him attack her first, and then find the holes in his armor.

“Oi, pretty boy!” William heckled. Sam raised an eyebrow at the insult. That was a new one for her. He hawked a wad of spit onto the ground. “Let’s get this over with, pretty boy.”

“You flatter me, with all your talk of prettiness,” she said. She wasn’t pretty, never had been, but she made for a convincing boy. “I’m starting to think you like me.” His face went purple with rage, and Sam choked back a laugh. Sparring with words was almost as much fun as sparring with swords, and she’d had little opportunity to practice.

Incensed, William charged her, swinging his greatsword wildly. Sam sidestepped, and he sailed past her, plunging headfirst into the wooden barricade. He fell backwards onto his backside, and the arena burst into laughter.

Good gods, this was going to be easier than she had thought. “Paladin, does it count as my win if he’s bleeding of his own accord?”

 “I’m tempted to say yes,” the Paladin said through clenched teeth. “But no, finish it properly.”

William rose unsteadily to his feet, using his greatsword as an anchor. His face, red and round as it was, looked remarkably like a tomato. She felt a little sorry for him.

Not sorry enough to let him win. Sam wanted more than anything to be a Paladin. Their name was synonymous with bravery, and there were no better fighters. “My turn,” she said, feinting to the left, then circling under his sword.

Barely, William managed to parry her. He slashed at her torso, connecting with air as Sam danced out of the way. She rapped him on the knuckles with the flat of her blade, and the greatsword fell out of his grasp. Fighting a smile, she pressed her sword point into the underside of his chin.

“Win for Sam of Haywood!”

Sam trudged back to where the rest of the trainee candidates stood waiting, while a shamefaced William exited himself from the premises. It was too early to celebrate–there must have been fifty boys remaining, and they were just the Eastern swordsmen. The Trials were also being held throughout the West, North and South of Thule; each regional Trial was separated by class of weapon.  Only a hundred new trainees would be accepted in total–less if the level of talent was found lacking.

Her new name was called half a dozen times more. Sam sliced and slashed–and on occasion–blocked her way to victory after victory. The guffaws that had greeted her first few bouts disappeared like a hazy memory.

They would never guess now that the loose tunic and ill-fitting breeches hid a girlish figure. The nose she hated, her father’s nose, saved her face from overt femininity. Lady Samantha was buried beneath three yards of binding fabric and the unflattering trainee topknot. But her best disguise was this: no man would admit, even to himself, that a woman had defeated him.­­­

Sam had visions of what would happen if, gods forbid, she was found out. “Off with her head!” seemed a bit farfetched; her head was worth far more attached. The Duke of Haywood would pay whatever sum to keep her alive–grooming another heir would take too much effort. No, more likely she would be returned to her father, the duke, and they would let him deal with her. He would consign her to a lifetime of needlepoint and embroidery and a marriage she didn’t want. Sam preferred the guillotine.

She was getting ahead of herself. She wasn’t a Paladin, not even a trainee, not yet. She could lose her next fight and go home to Haywood on the morrow.

“Sam of Haywood!”

Her name called again. Sam pushed to her feet, pacing to stave off the stiffness of aching muscles. She wasn’t accustomed to fighting for so many hours on end, and would suffer for it by nightfall. It would be a pleasant suffering, a physical reminder of her accomplishments.

Her new opponent, a tall, lanky boy, had a long reach and chose a longsword to lengthen it. He was a solid swordsman; his grip and stance seemed natural. She’d watched some of his fights, too. He wasn’t flashy, but he was more than passable. Sam was better.

The Paladin repeated the rules of the duel for the thousandth time, and then: “You may begin!”

Sam lashed out first, swiping at his shoulder. He blocked and parried, and then swung again. The reach of his sword was too long, and she had to duck underneath it. She regained her footing and slid her sword along the inside of his blade, narrowing the distance between them. Up close, like this, Sam’s shorter sword held the advantage.

A glint of gold caught the corner of her eye, and her head, involuntarily, turned toward it.

There he stood, just beyond the wooden barrier, like a ghost from the past. Paladin Tristan Lyons. He could ruin everything.

Sam faltered, and her opponent’s sword caught the sleeve of her shirt.

“Halt!” yelled the officiating Paladin.

Shite. Sam pushed back her sleeve. “The skin’s unbroken, Paladin. No blood.” Her heart beat like a humming bird’s. She’d almost lost. How could she have let herself get distracted? Gods, and in front of him, no less. Whether he recognized her or not, he’d think her a bumbling idiot.

“Swords at the ready!” Sam raised her sword. “Begin!”

She shifted on the balls of her feet, ready. Her opponent’s blade moved by the tiniest fraction, and Sam attacked, hitting the outer edge. She swung again, and again, battering his sword. She faked to the right then thrust to the left, scouring his side. More than the fabric ripped; red dribbled from a shallow gash.

“Win for Sam of Haywood!”

She’d won, thank the gods. Had Tristan Lyons seen it? She shaded her eyes with her hand, scanning the small crowd behind the barrier for a crop of golden hair.

He was gone, as if never there.