Today I’m pleased to welcome another guest for Author Journeys! This series of posts has been quite a success so far and I’m grateful to the writers who have taken the time to share about their unique journeys. If you haven’t read about them yet, I recommend you do so: don’t miss Christina Anne Hawthorne, Therese Walsh, and Vaughn Roycroft.
Without delay, I welcome today’s guest: Ani Bolton.
Ani Bolton’s love of storytelling started when she was a kid, ignited by Laura Ingalls and Nellie Olsen’s epic smackdown, which stole her sleep on a school night. She’s been scribbling stories ever since.
Her novels blend her love of history and adventure with romance, magic and the occasional foray into the weird.
Ani is a transplanted So Cal girl who now lives in upstate New York with an incredibly patient family and a tolerant cat overlord.
Her alter ego is Kathleen Bolton, co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a writing community. She’s written a number of novels under a variety of pen names.
Q: What was your earliest writing memory?
I was a huge Tolkien nerd when I was a kid and wrote a little story about hobbits in my school composition notebook. Let’s just say my 4th grade teacher was surprised to be reading about hobbits instead of my homework about the lifecycle of amphibians.
Q: What was your greatest writing insight and at what point in your journey as a writer did it happen?
Realizing that a book doesn’t have to be a candidate for the Booker Prize to connect with readers. I learned this writing YA novels for book packagers. They would create high-concept, commercially viable stories that appealed to specific market segments. It sounds crass and calculated, but it ensured that a project would find its audience quickly. That doesn’t mean the book itself was schlocky. Quite the opposite. Quality stories and writing is still key.
Readers want to be entertained, period. They also want to be respected.
Q: How has your writing method evolved over time?
I used to be a pantser. “La la la, I’m writing, isn’t this awesome?” I’d either write myself into a corner, or have to deal with horrific revisions. After working for book packagers who would provide detailed storylines, I now understand the value of plotting extensively. But since I find that I still need to have the freedom to follow the story where it wants to go, as long as I end up in the correct place, I’ve developed a combo method:
- Outline the story using Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure.
- Once outline is done, create a storyline which is basically a detailed synopsis.
- HOWEVER, once I buckle down to the actual writing, I give myself permission to let the story evolve away from the storyline, as long as I can see that I’ll still end up with roughly the same resolution. As most writers know, the magic happens when the characters start interacting. But I find that outlining and creating a storyline helps keep things moving in the right direction.
Q: What is the most useful writing strategy you use?
Writers cannot get away from the fact that in order to produce books, they have to write. I find that blocking out uninterrupted time is the number one key to reaching goals. Then sitting down and doing it!
If the words aren’t flowing from fingers to keyboard, sometimes I’ll scribble a loose outline of the scene in question in a notebook. A shift in method often helps me to unlock ideas. Then I’m able to return to the manuscript and move forward.
Q: What are your future writing goals?
Ambitious ones! My immediate goal is to finish writing and release Steel and Song’s follow up for Fall 2014 – Book 2 in the Aileron Chronicles. I am also re-releasing a gothic historical written and published under a different pen name, as well as a few novellas. I’ve got ideas for another series, but right now I’m devoting energies into the Aileron Chronicles.
Q: In your opinion, what is it that makes a great book?
To me, a great book has a plot that is engrossing, memorable characters and evolved wordsmithing. And if I were truthful, for me if the characters were fantastic, the other two elements can be so-so and I’d still enjoy the novel. But a great book has to have all three.
Q: How do you push through hard times like writer’s block, rejection, or negative pressure from your publisher or readers?
This is really hard. For me, I had to get to a point where I didn’t care what others thought about my writing, as long as I felt good about it. Getting to that place was incredibly freeing. I do have a trusted cadre who will tell me if something sucks, but in general, I’m past the point of needing to seek approval for my work. Everyone has an opinion, and the cloak of anonymity that the internet provides makes expressing that opinion easier than ever. But as long as the book is resonating with readers, I’m good.
Q: What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
- Before you begin writing a story, know where you want to go with it. The concept might be really cool, but if you can’t resolve it satisfactorily, you’ll stall out. One way to avoid hitting a road block is to embed plenty of internal and external conflict to draw from when you feel the story slowing down.
- If publishing independently, work with a good editor. I can’t stress this enough. Readers might forgive a crummy cover, but if your book has egregious errors or massive plot holes, you’ll never get them back again. If you can’t afford to hire an editor, save money until you can.
- Write regularly. Even a couple pages a day gets you to THE END.
Q: Looking back at your author journey, if you could do one thing different what would it be?
Lord have mercy, I’ve been rejected from here to Shanghai, and for many years. Writer Unboxed was exploding, but blogging and caring for the website also drained me. I worked as a novelist for a book packager but I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write, which sucked. I also have a demanding day job and a family. I was burnt out. I stopped writing for a few years, and, if you can believe it, reading fiction. I needed to unplug from both the industry and the written word for a little while.
That break was what I needed. When I checked back in, the digital transition had changed everything. Writers I knew who had gone through the wringer with traditional publishing were now getting their rights back and doing really well on their own. New voices and books were becoming available. It was getting harder and harder to tell which books were independently published, and which were published by the Big 5.
The paradigm shift feels really exciting to me, and ignited my fire again. It’s an electrifying time to be a writer, as long as you’re willing to work hard and write quality stories. If there’s one thing I could do differently, it’s to not have waited another year, waffling.
Check out Ani’s new release, Steel and Song, a steampunk romance novel now available through Amazon.
Airwitch Tova Vanaskaya’s choices are few: use her magic to fly an elite aircraft in the Grand Duchy’s army or be shipped to the trenches. But invoking too much magic can kill the wielder, and her Cossack captain has a hell-bent-for-leather streak that pushes her to the brink. It’s a good thing she’s not afraid to push back.
Airship captain Piers Dashkov lost his friends, family ties and self-respect in a rash act years ago, so it’s fine by him if the odds of surviving a dogfight are slim to none. His goal is simple: find redemption through valor and regain his lost honor in death if not life. He needs the smart-mouthed airwitch to achieve that impossible goal, but he never thought she would prove to be his salvation.
While the enemy is on the move, and whispers of revolution echo from the salons of the noble Cossack Houses to the tenement slums of Muscovy, one reckless night of passion creates a connection that will reverberate fatally for nations as well as for Tova and Piers.
Excerpt from Steel & Song: The Aileron Chronicles Book 1
Who knew my whole life would change because of a song?
Not me. But if I hadn’t been stupid and tried to sing the joik when I should have been paying attention to my magic, I would have never found out.
The day my song changed everything, I was doing what I had always done since I’d come into my airwitchery skill, ferrying coal down the River Do to the coal yard. While I sang, I absently sipped at my magic to make the chaiki glide smoothly around chunks of ice. Snow melted reluctantly again that year, taking its own time. The air was crisp and cold, the sky steel blue. The wind on my face was like a blessing. As the only airwitch left in my village of Blüg, I was granted a small measure of freedom because airwitches were in short supply due to the Grand Duchy’s trench war against the Franks and, with my exception, had all been conscripted.
“Tova, you shouldn’t sing that out loud,” my sister Yana said. She’d joined me on the run because my mother had forgotten her dinner pail and Yana was taking it to her. We both knew a miner couldn’t miss a meal. The work was too hard.
“Mami does,” I replied, refusing to let my mood be dimmed.
“Only in our hut, at night, when collaborators can’t hear. You’ll get us into trouble.”
“No I won’t. I never get caught, do I?”
“There’s always a first time,” Yana muttered, yet she relaxed. I never did get caught. But I came close, many times. I sucked air through my nose and let the joik ululate in my throat. The truth was I sang because it was forbidden. The Novgorod overlords, with their chapbooks stuffed with rules and regulations, liked to forbid lots of things, so I continually tested the limits of rule breaking. Maybe it was because I was of Sámi stock, more suited to the old ways than the new. Maybe because I was stubborn.
“What’s that?” Yana asked. She shielded her eyes and gazed forward. I followed her glance. Weak sunlight bounced off a steel hull disappearing into a cloud.
“I don’t know. It could be a zeppelin—wait! I think it’s an aileron!”
The flying object broke through the clouds, and I gasped. It was an aileron, a war aircraft. I thought I could see the twin gunners poised on the platform runners below the cigar-shaped body. Light glinted off the window of the ’Pit, where everyone knows the Cossack ataman, the captain, sat to guide the aircraft. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the aileron’s airwitch crewmember. She’d be inside hefting the winds to shoot the aileron forward like a loosened arrow. That airwitch, like me, was born a gytrash, able to draw upon nature to wield magic. But riding the line between life and death meant that, inevitably, a gytrash would get too close to the death side. How long would an aileron airwitch last with her magic skill taxed to the limit? Not long, I supposed.
“An aileron?” Yana replied, confused. “No. I mean that.”
Reluctantly I tore my gaze from the sky down to where she pointed. Beyond the graveyard where a few fresh graves had been dug for the miners who died last night of the Cough, a train chugged toward our village.
“It’s a conscript train,” I said slowly.
“A conscript train? But why? There’s no one left here to conscript.”
Yana, as young as she was, was right. It wasn’t long after hostilities commenced that Grand Duke Pyotr Alexandráyevich Valery issued a proclamation. Every able-bodied citizen, from the wealthiest Novgorod to the lowliest gytrash, would be called upon to meet the Frankish threat. But it always seemed that gytrash, especially gytrash of Sámi blood like us, were the first to go. During the early conscription roundup, Blüg had been emptied of most all gytrash not essential for the food production and the mines: field sorcerers, animaliums, healing wizards, and airwitches. Rumor had it that the Sámi gytrash were sent straight to the trenches, a contested No Man’s Land that neither Novgorod nor Frank would give ground on. No one lasted long there.
I watched the conscript train wend inexorably toward the village. The official line was that the war was going really well. Just last week, the newssheets were full of images of a big, smoking crater where once lay the Frankish seaside city of Maricole, a glittering resort remarkable for its shell-pink towers, the redecoration courtesy of the Motherland’s squadron of ailerons and our intrepid Cossack pilots.
Still, it didn’t take a genius to realize why the conscript train was again traveling through the miserable villages in the Outer Rung. The War Office in Muscovy needed more soldiers.
That’s when I found words within the joik and hoped the song would turn luck our way. Perhaps I sang to give myself courage. Perhaps I sang so my five brothers and sisters lying in their graves could hear me.
Sámi brother, voia, voia, nana, nana
Sámi sister, voia, voia, nana, nana
“Tova! Look out!”
The chaiki lurched to a sudden stop. Yana and I were thrown forward into the cargo hold.
Slowly I sat up from where I’d landed between two strapped boxes of coal. The prow of the chaiki had plowed straight into the riverbank. In a daze, I watched one of the boxes of coal drop over the side and sink out of sight.
Yana put her mittened hand over her mouth.
“Shit,” I breathed.
That box of coal was worth more than the lives of the three of us— and as a miner, my mother’s value was as high as any Sámi gytrash dared hope.
“Mütti will have you shot,” Yana said.
“If I’m lucky.”
Mütti was the village boyar, the headman. In the old days he would have had the biggest reindeer herd and a retinue of warriors to steal more. But these are different days. Instead of reindeer and warriors, boyars prize accounting sheets and clerks who make the official Muscovy reckoning untraceable from the real reckoning. Sure, no one begrudged the boyar siphoning a little on the side, but Mütti’s head swelled along with his hoard, and he bossed everyone as if he were a blue-blooded Cossack and not a Sámi turd like the rest of us.
Yana’s face crumpled up in distress.
“Maybe they won’t notice,” I said hurriedly. “The conscript train will give them something else to worry about.”
We shoved the heavy boxes around so that the track marks from the lost box were unnoticeable. When we finished, coal dust muddied the brightness of Yana’s red hood, a gift from my mother and I when she reached her majority.
It took me many attempts to pry the chaiki out of the embankment with my magic. The accident rattled me so much I couldn’t concentrate on gauging how much force was needed to dislodge it, and though I put on a brave show for Yana, I was scared.
Eventually the chaiki was freed, and Yana and I finished our journey in anxious silence.
Luck held once we docked in Blüg. Mütti’s clerks wore expressions of harassed anxiety, and when I handed over the manifest, carefully re-penciled to reflect one less box of coal, the clerk only gave an absent nod.
Yana and I lit out from the depot as fast as we could.
“Did you see the conscription boss in Mütti’s office?” Yana asked when we were a safe distance away.
“Are you joking? I didn’t take my eyes off the ground while the clerk checked off the cargo.”
“I peeked into the window. They were drinking tea, but I could tell Mütti was angry about something.”
“Good. Let him get worked up about the conscription tally. Maybe, for once, he’ll forget about the coal.”
She gave a hiccup of fear. “You don’t think the war is going to take more of us from the village, do you?”
“Don’t worry. The war also needs coal. You’re almost of age to start work in the mines, so you’ll stay here.”
“But what about you?”
“There’d be no one to ferry the chaiki from the mine to the depot if they take me. I’m the only airwitch left in the village. Mütti’s too greedy to let me go.”
I clung to those words all through that long evening.
My mother arrived home with the dark, face blacked from the coal she’d teased out of the mountain with her field sorcery. She was too tired to banter, so Yana and I kept up a patter of nonsense while we heated a tin of meat with the lump of coal she brought, and let her recover her strength. “Old Niils lost his last front tooth today,” I said while I stirred the red-hot coal.
“Oh?” Yana inquired.
“It was very sad. He lost it yelling at his dog. It flew out of his mouth and hit one of Mütti’s clerks between the eyes. The clerk thought a wasp had stung him. He danced and yelled so much he trod the tooth into the mud. Niils and the dog had to dig for hours to find it. Didn’t stop him from cursing the whole time, though.”
Mami started to laugh.
“Why did Niils bother to dig for an old tooth?” Yana said between giggles.
“I wondered that too. Old Niils told me to mind my own business when I asked him, but later I saw that he’d stuck that grimy tooth back into his head.”
“Oh no!” my mother gasped, tears of laughter tracking down the coal dust on her face.
“And what do you think Old Niils did after that tooth was back in its hole?”
“What?” they both asked in unison.
“Swallowed it drinking a cup of tea. I asked him why he was so glum, and he said that now he’d have to shit in a bucket instead of down the privy hole if he wanted his tooth back.”
Yana and my mother convulsed in helpless laughter.
“Tova, how you can tell a story,” my mother said when her chuckles died down. “In the old days, you surely would have been a noaide.”
I scuffed my toe modestly, but I was bursting with pride. To have one of my stories compared to one told by a revered noaide was high praise. I’d never seen one of the Sámi storytellers who, it was said, bridged the human and spirit worlds through their songs. They’d been killed off during the Novgorod Integration.
After we ate, we three huddled around our lump of dying coal, reluctant to go to bed. It was rare that our mother had the energy to sit up after dinner, but my story and the laughter had revived her.
“Mami, would you sing a joik?” Yana asked.
My mother was silent.
I held my breath. Mami liked to keep her nose clean, but sometimes she’d defy the regulations and sing anyway. Everyone in Blüg knew the Vana clan sang the best out of all Sámi gytrash, and sometimes Mami liked to remind herself why.
The coal fire was ebbing. In the night gathering around us, a soft sweet sound blossomed.
“Silken coated, silken coated, lala rush, lala rush
“Running like sunbeams, lala rush, lala rush
“Flying, flying, lala rush, lala rush
“Reindeer rushing, lala rush, lala rush
The coal’s last spark winked out.
Before I crawled between my mother and sister to sleep, I touched the salmaa, the totem made of a reindeer’s head. Every Sámi peasant, gytrash or not, hangs one in their hut. I whispered a prayer that we might always be together.
The Sámi have a saying that change, when it comes, is swift and unwelcome. I had my own saying. You can smell the shit before you step in it. Today, though, there wasn’t a warning stink.
It took me a moment to realize my name—the Novgorod version of my name, that is—was being called. All airwitches were to be identified by the suffix “skya” jammed onto their real names without care for custom or even pronunciation.
One of Mütti’s clerks—his bed boy, I recognized—stood at the end of the chaiki.
“Come with me,” he said.
Slowly I wiped my hands on a bit of cloth, thoughts racing. I’d been smearing axle grease over canvas to waterproof it so I might have a bit of shelter from the spring rains. Deep inside, I knew I’d never need it now.
By the time I reached Mütti’s office, the shakes had me. I took a deep breath to still them. I wouldn’t let him see my fear.
The boyar sat behind a big desk piled with so many ledgers they almost hid the metal file cabinets, row upon row. Tea burbled in a portable samovar, fancy with silver plating and ornamental knobs. Maybe Mütti imagined himself a Cossack when he dribbled his steeped tea out of the spout while the rest of us boiled tea in a tin cup or paid a kopeck for a mug at the commissary.
I stared at the safety notices that had been tacked up in the place where a salmaa should hang, pretending to be highly interested in the location of the fire buckets. Mütti didn’t look up from whatever he was doing behind that stack of papers. He frowned importantly at them.
After a long moment, he grunted and put the book down. His hair and mustache shone with macassar oil. When he leaned forward, his hair left behind a black patch on the leather of his chair.
“Tova Vanaskya, is it?”
“You steer,” he glanced at his ledger, “Chaiki Number Fourteen?”
I nodded and mangled my cap in my hands.
“How long has it been since you’ve come into your skill?”
I opened my mouth, swallowed, opened it once more. “Two years.”
“Magic bloomed early in you, eh? What do you suppose that means?”
“Dunno, Boyar Mütti.”
“It means that you are closer to being an animal than most gytrash. It means that you’re marked for an early grave.”
I held my tongue. He was probably right.
“How long has your mother worked in the mine?”
“All her life, Boyar Mütti.”
“No Cough yet?”
He snorted. “Your stock is tough, like an ox. Like animals.”
Despite my nervousness, I was beginning to grow angry.
“And what of your sister? She’s exhibited field sorcery magic, no? Isn’t it about time for her to go into the mine?”
“She’s not yet old enough. Right now she helps with the crops.”
“Is she coming into her skill?”
“I don’t know.” I was on dangerous ground. “She likes to be useful when my mother and I are away at our work.”
“Hm. The Vana clan have always bred strong field sorcerers. Except for you, airwitch. The odd one out.”
Mütti picked up a pen and scratched something into the ledger.
“What do you think I should do about you?” he asked without raising his eyes from the papers before him.
“Do about me?”
“Yes. You’re a thief, aren’t you? Stealing coal to sell on the black market?”
- Cripes. “I didn’t steal it, it fell into the river. It was an accident—”
“If it was an accident, why didn’t you alert my clerk?”
“I was afraid.” It cost me something to admit that.
He wasn’t impressed with my belated honesty. “Not only did you not report the missing box of coal, but you also changed the manifest. See, I have it here. But what you’re too stupid to know is that I check all the incoming manifests against the outgoing ones from the mine. So I would have found out eventually.”
My heart slammed my chest. “Boyar Mütti, it was a mistake, a stupid mistake—”
“You’re a lying gytrash who is also a thief. Tell me why I shouldn’t have you shot.”
I sank to my knees and hoped my bowels wouldn’t open up. “Please, Boyar, please,” I whispered.
His black eyes flicked me over. The shine in them reminded me of the fresh-dug coal I’d lost.
“Today is your lucky day, Tova Vanaskya. The conscription boss from the War Office has agreed to take you off my hands.”
I gaped at him.
“It seems the war effort is running short of airwitches. I’d put off the conscription boss because I needed an airwitch to steer the chaiki. But we can use the dog sledges instead. It will be slower, but I won’t keep a lying, thieving gytrash if I can help it. Now get up off the floor. If you aren’t on the train in five minutes, I won’t bother to have you shot. I’ll strip you naked, set you on the road to Sibir and let the wolves have you.”
I could barely process what I was hearing. I’d been conscripted to the war? My mother…Yana…
“Get out of my sight!”
Mütti’s spittle hit me in the face. I stumbled to my feet and somehow found the door.
On the other side stood a man with a scraggle of hair for a beard. His blank eyes swept me. The insignia of the Grand Duchy with its twin dragons devouring each other head to tail had been crookedly sewn onto his shoulder.
“Gytrash,” he said. “Come with me.”
Wildly I looked around for escape. Life in the village ground on: gytrash struggling under the weight of their magic burden, miners off their shift sipping ouzo from canteens, clerks slogging in ankle-deep mud with their folders and ledgers held high to keep them clean, a few stray dogs foraging in the gutters. Nobody cared about my troubles.
Except Yana and Mami.
The conscript boss unclipped his pistol from his holster.
I wouldn’t get far if I ran. I wasn’t that stupid.
I bowed my head.
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