The Ascendance Trilogy

About two years ago, I went to the Provo library to see the author of a book I had first heard of only days before. The book, titled The False Prince, sounded intriguing, so I bought it about fifteen minutes before the event began. By the time Jennifer Nielsen was introduced, I was five chapters in, and the only thing that stopped me from reading more was the fact that the author was every bit as witty and charming as her writing style. Only one person beat me to the line to have her sign the book afterward. That night, instead of working on my capstone paper and studying for finals, I read and read and read until I hit that brick wall of disappointment that comes when you realize there’s no more to be read. I haven’t been so impatient for a sequel since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. But let me tell you, both The Runaway King and The Shadow Throne were certainly worth the wait.

In The False Prince, four orphan boys are gathered by nobleman Bevin Conner and given a choice: treason or death. One of the boys, Sage, risks everything to unravel Conner’s devious plans.

Why is it awesome?

1. Sage. If I could hang out with any fictional character ever for a day, it would probably be Sage. Except maybe not, because I’m sure that he would get me into at least half a dozen scrapes by the time the day was over. He’s one of those characters you love to pieces, but he still makes you crazy. Although he develops beautifully throughout the trilogy, he never loses those oh-so-endearing quirks.

2. The pacing. There is simply no good place in that entire trilogy to stop reading, no matter how many times I’ve read it. The entire first book takes place in one week, the trilogy in less than a year, and you never get a chance to pause for breath.

3. The opening. If my shameless praise doesn’t convince you that this book is worth reading, go read the first two sentences. And if you think they’re good now, read them again after you’ve read the entire book.

4. The humor. Sage is irrepressible. No matter what’s gone wrong, Sage has a quip to prove that he’s not as beaten as the world thinks he should be.

5. Everything is important. The best stories never mention something without a purpose. Even the barest passing remark comes back in the end. Jennifer Nielsen is a master of this, and by the time The Shadow Throne wraps up, you’re left with the most satisfying sensation of everything tied together in a brilliantly complex bow. Even loose threads you didn’t know were loose threads are no longer loose threads.

You can check out Jennifer Nielsen’s website here, and see the Goodreads page for The False Prince here. Go buy it from your local indie bookstore!

Campfire Inspiration

When I was a teenager, I would go to camping once a year with a couple hundred other girls. Well, they called it camping—we had two very nice buildings on either end of camp filled with showers, sinks, mirrors, and toilets that flushed. My husband has since informed me that that is not camping. But I digress.

There were a lot of things to love about that experience. I still have in-jokes (that’s one of them) with some of the girls I camped with all those years ago, and that was the first place I learned that you could crochet with your fingers. But my very favorite part was when the air grew cold, the forest grew dark, and the dancing shadows from the fire sparked visions of monsters slipping between the trees, just out of sight. That was when we broke out the marshmallows, huddled close together, and hung on every word of the night’s storyteller.

The best campfire stories, it was commonly agreed, came from one of the Camp Dads. He would lapse into a rolling Irish accent as he told us of white coffins, ruined castles, and his boyhood escapades in Ireland. His most chilling tale was told only after swearing each person to secrecy to avoid the risk of gruesome death.

The thing about campfire stories is that they only happen once. Even if someone tells the same story twice, it’s never quite the same. The words chosen, the rise and fall of the voice, the length of silences, the wind that rustles the leaves—all of it will create a new story every time.

But in spite of having heard these stories only once, they’ve stayed with me through the years. Not just the content, but the chills, the sound of his voice, the images of a country I had never seen. I knew then that I wanted to do that—to create something that would stick, that people would remember and treasure, that would inspire someone to leave behind a comfort zone for a dream.

I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will be. But I won’t be satisfied until I’ve tried.

Are your characters motivated?

In my first college creative writing class, nearly every piece I turned in came back with the word unbelievable scribbled somewhere in the margins. It got to be so that that was the first thing I would look for when I got my papers back. It was incredibly frustrating. After all, I’m a fantasy writer. Doesn’t fantasy require some suspension of belief?

Well, yes. To a point. But here’s the thing that I didn’t entirely grasp at that point: unbelievable does not equal unrealistic. Fantasy is unrealistic by very nature. However, when you’re reading along in Harry Potter, does it ever occur to you to think it unbelievable that Hermione would conjure a swarm of golden birds to sic on Ron? No! Why? Because believability is based in world rules and character motivations, not similarity to reality.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but I was still pretty put out at my professor’s constant harping on the unbelievability of my characters. After all, I knew they had motivation to act the way they did. I knew exactly what was going on in their minds.

But he didn’t.

And there’s the problem I missed for a very long time. There are certain gaps that readers have to fill: the face of your dashing hero, the sleazy squeak of your villain’s voice, etc. But motivation should never be one of those gaps. No, you don’t have to be entirely truthful about it right away—misleading readers is part of the fun. But what your character does should always be accompanied by a why that is crystal clear to the reader.

This is definitely a point where critique groups come in handy. When your characters have been living inside your head for so long, it may seem painfully obvious to you why your characters are acting in a certain way, but your readers may be reading something completely different. You don’t want your readers to think your character is a murderous maniac when he’s really supposed to be failing miserably at being mean. (Yes, this was a recent point of confusion with one of my characters.)

Happy writing!

Today’s Top Books

One of the bloggers I follow posted a list of “Books You MUST Read” today, and it got me all excited thinking about my favorite books. So I decided to steal his idea. (Thanks, John!) Granted, my list of favorite books changes daily depending on what books come to mind, but that just means I can do this post more than once! Isn’t that great? So here’s my list of top five . . . or seven . . . or maybe ten. We’ll see. No particular order of greatness, just lots of love for every book.

1. The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt. This is my most recent great read, and I think I’ve already mentioned it on here once or twice. I’m reading it aloud with my husband right now, and it has gotten us to laugh so hard we have to pause the reading more than once. It also got me to cry—actual tears rolling down, not just tearing up—which is quite an accomplishment. I think only one other book has accomplished that. Which is . . .

2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I love this book. I love the sisterhood, I love the goofy awkwardness, I love Professor Bhaer (possibly even more so since I married a German professor). The Pickwick Papers crack me up every time.

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, since we’re getting into the classics. My sister bought me this when I was about thirteen, and it is one of my favorite books ever. Also, did you know there’s a musical of it? I’m kind of obsessed with musicals, guys. Good ones. And that one is good.

4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is one that I think every writer ever should read, just because the method of storytelling is fascinating. Colors and picture books and Death—it’s good stuff. It is a Holocaust novel, though, so you’ve got to be in the right mood to read it.

5. The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen. I—love—Sage. In fact, that’s all I’m going to say, because I think I need to devote an entire post to praising The Ascendance Trilogy.

6. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve read by Jerry Spinelli, but I think Stargirl tops the list.

7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I know, I’m kind of breaking custom here by including a play in my list of novels, but plays are people too! I had a group of friends in college who would get together and read plays together once a week, and this is one we read. It is hilarious. The word play, the goofy characters, the mockery of drama—if you’re going to read a play, read this one.

Okay, I’ll stop at seven because that’s a nice, not-round number. What are your favorites? I’m always on the lookout for a great book.

It’s a book, with a title and everything!

Here’s the scoop on my YA fiction novel, Demon’s Heart:

Young ruffian Rustav is determined to escape his abusive uncle and hated homeland, even if it means braving the demon-infested forest. His escape is halted, however, when a race of legendary beings reveal him to be the country’s fabled heir. As the people rally around him, Rustav teeters precariously between raising his people from the dust—or destroying them from the inside.

Coming to a bookstore near you on December 9, 2014!