[Short Story] “Once More With Soul”

I have a love-hate relationship with our new virtual world.

On the one hand, my day job has always been virtual (I’m a freelance writer), so I’m pretty comfortable conducting business via video and phone call. And now that everyone else is doing it, I’ve had so many experiences with friends and family that we should have done before.

Virtual game night with friends in Seattle after their kids went to bed? Why weren’t we always doing this?

Virtual craft play dates with my sister’s kids who live 3 hours away? Why weren’t we always doing this?

Happy hour book club discussions with girlfriends who live in different cities?

It’s fantastic!

You can attend virtual conferences, which makes them more accessible because you don’t have to take into account travel costs and travel time — or even bigger hurdles to accessibility for people who may have disabilities that make attending conferences impossible.

I can go to my friend’s book launch reading in New York City via my computer. I can having morning coffee (for me)/happy hour (for them) networking dates with friends in Israel.

We’re a little more connected.

On the other hand… I spend all day looking at the computer. I want to hang out with my friends, I want to attend your reading, I want to watch that panel — but I really really really don’t want to stare at a screen any more.

That was a really big preamble to what I wanted to say, which is this:

Back in March, I had a short story come out in an anthology called Eighteen: Stories of Mischief and Mayhem, and I didn’t tell any of you about it because — well. You remember March.

Or maybe you don’t.

March lasted 30 years, and is mostly a blur to me.

Anyway, we were going to have a reading party for the anthology on the spring solstice, but that fell apart. And because we were in the early weeks of “what is even happening,” no one was thinking about all the fantastic virtual ways we could have held that reading.

So I decided to film myself reading my short story from the anthology, “Once More with Soul.”

(I got the idea to do a video from the fantabulous Wendy N. Wagner, who read a selection from her story in the anthology, “When Only Bears Carry Arms, Only Weapons Will Be Born.” Check Wendy’s reading out here.)

It’s a story about a sharp-dressing crossroads devil out to make a good bargain by the light of the moon.

Given the subject matter and the fact that I recorded this on editor Mark Teppo’s birthday, I decided to gussy myself up and wear some dramatic makeup.

Also I hadn’t left the house in like fifteen decades, give or take, I’m losing track.

Grab your copy of XVIII here.

You will be very impressed with the quality of the stories Mark collected, believe you me.

And then there’s this gem:

Photo by Lucas Leon on Unsplash

Black Lives Matter

I originally sent this out to my newsletter subscribers. You can read the full newsletter here. Also, big shout out to the readers who emailed me back — you’re all rad. I appreciate the conversation.

Hey there.

Every once in a while someone tells me that the society I created in the Bulari Saga is unrealistic in its inclusiveness. Yeah, I know. But I wanted to explore a world that didn’t have systemic barriers in place to exclude people on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, ability, or race. 

As I’ve cheekily put it in the past, I wanted to create a world where anyone who wanted to could excel as a space criminal.

The world of the Durga System isn’t an even, merit-based playing field though — it’s very stratified when it comes to resources. In the Durga System, poverty will hold you back, but nobody cares about the color of your skin. Your gender. Who you love. 

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ll probably see where I’m going with this.

I tried to erase those systemic barriers in the Durga System world because I believe in writing the world you want to see — but that’s not the world we live in today.

I always hesitate to talk politics. I figure my books can speak for themselves, and there are more informed people out there sharing their opinions. But I’m also very aware that I’m a white woman who’s succeeded in part because of the very systems that people in Minneapolis are protesting against — which makes my silence complicity, whether I feel comfortable speaking up or not. 

And seriously.

In the space of a month we’ve seen white folks with AR-15s storm into state capitol buildings, while Black folks gather peacefully in the streets. One of these groups was allowed to peacefully protest, while the other was treated as a threat and met with tear gas, riot gear, and armored vehicles. 

Police chose to react with restraint when white people protested, and chose to react with violence when Black people did. 

Like, you can’t miss that. 

Our country’s racist infrastructure is showing.

If I put that in a sci-fi book, you’d be like, “Damn, Jessie. That’s a pretty unrealistic and heavy-handed way to demonstrate your story’s society is racist, maybe be more subtle about it?”

The short version of this post is this:

Black lives matter, and I stand with the protestors. 

The long version of this post, below, is meant for any of my white readers who want more information on how they can help dismantle the systemic barriers that are keeping us all from being the successful, plucky space criminals we deserve to be.

Peace, friends.

To my white readers

If you’re still reading, yes. I hate the destruction and the looting. I wish the police would choose to deescalate rather than incite violence. I wish police allowed peaceful protestors to remain peaceful — and I wish peaceful protests were better at accomplishing societal change.

Is this level of anger an appropriate response to a militarized police force that killed 1,099 people last year without repercussion — most of them with black and brown skin?

Yeah. It is.

[Related reading: The Police Can Still Choose Nonviolence (the Atlantic); Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide (Slate).]

The property destruction sucks. The impact that racially-motivated police violence has on black communities sucks way worse, though. 

I’m immensely privileged in that I will never truly understand how angry Black communities are at the killing of George Floyd. I’ll never understand the fear a Black man has of being pulled over, the fear a Black mom has for her kids. 

The other day I was talking with a white friend and her Mexican husband about all the gorgeous flowers that are in bloom in our neighborhood. He finally said, “You two can just stop and take photos of someone’s yard. I can’t even slow down and look or they’ll think I’m casing the house and call the police.”

I’ll never understand what it’s like to live with that reality constantly in your mind. 

But I can empathize with it.

If you’re white, here are some things you can do to help.

1. Educate yourself

You’re reading an author’s blog, so I assume you’re a reader. Rejoice! The first homework assignment is reading. Read more books by authors of color. Watch their films. Seek out their art. (And support them financially!) I’m not just talking about racial studies books like So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Reading fiction and watching entertaining films (say, reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower or watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) is a great way to educate yourself and increase your empathy.

(Here’s a great list of 5 fantastic Black sci-fi writers to get you started.)

(And here’s a fantastic post by author Catherynne M. Valente about how reading builds empathy.)

1a. Follow people of color on social media and listen to them. LISTEN to them. They’re going to say things that make you uncomfortable, and that’s fine. That discomfort is a gift — sit with it and try to understand why you’re reacting the way you are, rather than responding defensively. 

1b. If you have questions, try to do your own research before asking people of color to help. They’ve got enough on their plates without explaining racism, even if you mean well. Can’t find something? Email me and I’ll help you look. This document also has a bunch of great resources (by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein).

2. Examine your own biases

Remember my Mexican friend from a few paragraphs ago? I was recently riding my bike down the street when a Latino kid passed me on his. He was looking at people’s yards as he rode, and my first thought was “Hmm, what’s that kid up to?” My second thought was, “Oh my God I am that white lady my friend is afraid will call the cops on him.” 

Our knee-jerk reactions aren’t always great, but we can do better. We’ve been conditioned by growing up in a society that actively teaches us racist stereotypes, and it’s work to recognize and deprogram those thoughts. Do that work. 

2a. Oh, and hey. Don’t call the cops on your neighbors. If they are in trouble, find another way to help — calling the cops in this country is all too often a death sentence, especially if they’re not white. 

3. Donate

It’s not all reading and self-reflection, ha! People are out there right now trying to make a difference. Here are some ways to support them financially if you have the means.

My friend and fellow Portland author T. Thorn Coyle is curating a list of organizations that need your help

3a. Feeling uncomfortable donating to protest support without doing more research? Totally get that. Donate to a local Black-run community organization. Donate to an organization like We Need Diverse Books. Support educational opportunities for the next generation — I just started an annual scholarship for graduating seniors at my old high school (majority Latinx) to help give other kids from Wapato, WA the same chance I got at going to college. 

4. Be actively inclusive

Look for ways to make space in the majority-white places you take for granted. Your book club, a conference you’re attending, a professional association, your workplace, your friend group. There’s a difference between not excluding people and making a space actually inclusive. Work towards the latter. 

The Making a New Reality research project by Kamal Sinclair has a lot of nuanced discussion about this. This article is a good place to start. 

5. Keep the conversation going 

I started this post by saying I hate talking about this stuff. I still do — but I also know that if I want to see the sort of equal-access world I write into my books, I need to start shouldering some of the work. And that means talking about it even when I’m uncomfortable. Black lives matter. Pass it on. 

<3 Jessie

[Interview] Wade Peterson, author of the Badlands Born series

Like road trips? Giant robots? Badass heroines? Snappy dialogue? 

Sounds like you should check out the Badlands Born series by Wade Peterson. As Wade describes it, Badlands Born is a love letter to a misspent youth watching Mad Max movies, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and listening to hair metal on the radio.

The second book in the series is out today, and if you act fast you can pick up the first book for only $0.99 on Amazon

Badlands Born book covers

Badlands Born

Jasmine Shaw didn’t expect death to be more complicated than life, let alone find herself caught in a decaying afterlife created and then abandoned by her twin brother. To survive she must brave the dangers of the Badland’s blood-spattered highways and find her lost brother while also escaping the dark choices she made in life that threaten to destroy her again.

Get the first two Badlands Born books here.

Interview with Wade Peterson

Jessie Kwak: Start by telling us about Badlands Born. What made you want to write a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series?

Wade Peterson: It was originally a NaNoWriMo* novel, and I started with some characters and the mood. It was just three people in a car, and one person hated the music on the radio. I started asking questions: Why does she hate the music? Well, it’s stuck on the 80s station and she hates 80s music. Why is it stuck on the 80s station? Well, that’s the only station there is. Why is that the only station there is?

Then it was like, okay, that’s the only station because they’re actually in hell. But she’s not even in her own personal hell, she’s in somebody else’s personal hell. And so the story went from there. 

Badlands Born became a road trip through hell that has elements of science fiction and elements of fantasy. 

[*NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing month, where authors attempt to write a 50,000 word draft during the month of November.]

Is that how you normally start a project? With characters and mood and seeing what happens next? Or do you also outline?

I do a bit of both. Usually, the kernel of a story starts with a mood and maybe a couple of lines of dialogue or a scene. A lot of my story ideas come when I’m driving, running errands with music on. Eventually a song will get to me and something will pop into my head. If that same idea keeps popping up over the next couple of weeks, then that’s usually something I’ll develop into a bigger story.

Do you keep track of those somewhere ideas? Or is it just kind of whatever keeps pinging your mind?

I used to write down everything. I’ve got this note card file of all these little story ideas that popped up, which was great at the time when I was writing short stories every week. 

But now, I think if a story idea hits you and it’s enough to keep coming back, that’s your subconscious telling you this is something you can work with. Usually the ideas that have been pinging around for a few weeks or months have developed enough that you can start writing them down and seeing the connections between them.

I definitely find when something has been nagging at the back of my mind for a while, that’s when I’m really excited to write it. I write into the dark, where I just follow a character to see what they do. But it’s definitely easier if I’ve been mulling it over long enough that I have some vague idea of what’s gonna happen.

Yeah, I think it’s easier to keep a mental note and let it build. Little ideas only have a little bit of momentum and when you have a bunch of them together they push each other forward.

I wanted to ask you about the desert and why you chose that setting. Did you find inspiration from actual deserts that you have been in? 

You have this whole pop culture mystique about the desert. There’s the Wild West, Weird West, Spirit West — all those iconic scenes of the big gigantic arches and hoodoos and monoliths, from cartoons like Coyote and Roadrunner to franchises like Mad Max. There’s definitely a bit of Mad Max post-apocalyptic theme going on in Badlands Born

The desert’s also kind of spooky. You’ve got the extremes of heat and cold. You can’t trust your senses because maybe you can see water, but it’s just a mirage. You can hear things in the wind, echoes that can either be miles away or really close to you. The desert has a lot of potential for strange things happening. 

I started writing the story when I was in Wisconsin, which is definitely not desert. But as I was rewriting, I was living in Utah. The story starts out in a red rock desert, and eventually emerges into more of the sage and sandstone that you find in southern Utah right before you get to places like Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park.

Yeah, that’s one of my favorite parts of the US. I love that area of southern Utah, Northern Arizona. What was one of your favorite parts of writing the series?

My favorite part is when everything’s going in a flow. Then, you’re not so much thinking about what’s happening, you’re just typing and the next line is right there for you. You’re almost telling yourself a story as fast as you can write it down. That’s when things happen that you didn’t plan, and it changes the story. That’s the magic part of writing.

I also had lots of fun with writing the big set piece battle scenes in the climax. That was a lot of fun, just setting things up and shooting it all out. 

When do you most get into flow?

I can’t put my finger on when I’m going to be in flow and when I’m not. Usually at the beginning of a book there’s a lot of back pressure of ideas that want to flow out. But it comes and goes. I think a lot of it is just staying in the chair, then it either comes or it doesn’t. 

I will say some scenes are easier for me to write. Action scenes are easier, and I usually have really loud music going on in the background. That seems to help. 

Maybe that’s what I need, because I find action scenes challenging. The last quarter of this book I’m working on right now is all action scenes. Everyone’s just running around shooting things, and it’s been tough to draft. What’s your action scene go-to music?

For this series my action scene go-to music is hair metal from the 80s. So Mötley Crüe, Guns and Roses, AC/DC, Metallica. I have a playlist called “Battle,” and another one labeled “80s Novel” with all the other pop music I listened to growing up. 

The third book of the series is going to have a lot more of a the Wild West theme, so that changes the music. I’ve got the soundtrack from Red Dead Redemption, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and a lot of other spaghetti western themes show up in that playlist, too. And some stoner rock, like Clutch and Radio Moscow. You know, laid back, heavy, sometimes they go into 6/8 time. 

When I was starting out with the NaNoWriMo novel, I would write song lyrics at the beginning of each chapter to set the mood, but you can’t do that with copyright. So I put it into a playlist instead.

[Curious? Get Wade’s playlist when you join his newsletter.]

What has been one of the most challenging parts of writing the series?

The hardest part is that when you start a novel, you have these key scenes in your head. When you’re doing the first draft, especially during NaNoWriMo, when you get stuck you can just cut and start a new scene. Well, when you’re putting it together you gotta address those cuts. And sometimes you have to throw stuff out you want to keep in. So the hardest part has been learning how to bridge things together, and then how to cut things that you really want to keep. 

Like with writing the third book, I had two act ones and I had to choose at the end which one I was going to take, because they both followed the outline, kind of. But they went different directions at the end. 

For me, it’s about finding a milestone and trying to aim towards it. I always start in the place I wanted to and end in the place I wanted to, and usually I hit the big scene in the middle. But the path in between those three points isn’t usually what I thought it would be.

What’s next in the Badlands Born series and beyond?

There will be at least three Badlands Born books, and it’s definitely a series that can go as farther. A lot of is gonna just depend on how well it’s received. 

Next, I’m planning a science fiction series, because I have such a huge background in sci-fi. I grew up reading about fifty-fifty sci-fi and fantasy, and I think they go together like chocolate and peanut butter. So I did my peanut butter. Now it’s time to do some chocolate. 

— 

Thanks, Wade! 

Don’t forget to grab the first two Badlands Born books here.

And head to Wade’s website to sign up for his newsletter and get his 80s road trip through hell playlist

7 Tips for Getting Your Head Back on Straight During These Here Trying Times

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Hey, are you calmly being productive in your work and personal life in these apocalyptic-feeling days? Hats off to you.

I am not.

The general aura of anxiety that imbues my every day life bloomed into a full on meltdown near the end of last week, where all I could do was scroll the news and share wide-eyed looks of shock with friends.

(Now we are sharing those looks of shock over video conferencing software.)

As Oregon heads towards what seems like an inevitable lockdown, though, I’m starting to realize that the world is not going to become less *waves hands vaguely* like this. I still have deadlines with clients. I have a BOOK coming out next week that I still need to market or whatever (oh my God you guys are we still marketing our books right now???).

And, hey, if I’m going to have all this new free time I’d like to make some progress on the novel I’m currently writing.

I need to get my head on straight again.

I need to get back to the practices that used to keep me organized, sane, and on track.

Here’s what I’m doing this week — maybe it will help you?

Note: Or, seriously, don’t be productive. Read a book and binge Netflix or whatever, no judgement — take care of yourself. But if you want some tips, read on.

1. Morning Pages

Set a timer and write for 20 minutes.

(Long hand’s great if your wrists aren’t evil. Or type. Or dictate? Doesn’t matter.)

The words you’re producing don’t need to make sense. You can just hold down the “u” in “fuck” for twenty minutes if it makes you feel better. The idea is just to get all the thoughts swirling around in your head captured someplace where they seem more manageable.

Your morning pages are like the ghost trap in Ghostbusters, vacuuming up the chaos in your head first thing in the morning.

2. Freedom App

Install Freedom on your computer and phone, and say, “Get thee behind me, Twitter.”

(Note: that’s an affiliate link because I am so, so into this useful little app.)

You can set sessions to run automatically and limit your social media time to certain hours (like lunch, for me). Or you can set Freedom to block out the entire internet (or certain distractors) for a set period of time.

Like if you want to work on your book for the next hour.

3. Meditation

I used to have a timer set on my phone to go off every day at 11:50am. I would then dutifully sit down, fire up Calm, and meditate.

When I was on a meditation roll, I found that it was much easier to simply let frantic, anxious thoughts slide off me. Like a duck on a water slide.

So why did I stop this marvelous practice?

Who the hell knows. I got busy. I got stressed out. I didn’t have time? I was too anxious??

All things that meditation helped me with.

So as of today that timer’s back on my phone.

4. Brain dump

Similar to morning pages, but you can do a brain dump at any time of the day. (Morning pages can only legally be done first thing in the morning, obvs.)

The way a brain dump works, is you just sit down and write down all the discrete tasks, ideas, worries, to-do list items, etc that are cluttering up your brain.

This lays them all out so you can take action on them, rather than trying to hold all that information in your head.

Get in the habit of doing this before you sit down to do distraction-free work, then keep a pad of paper nearby so you can easily capture additional items that pop up while you’re working.

I got the idea from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and talk more about how I use it in my book, From Chaos to Creativity. (Shameless plug!)

5. Walks!

Going on an afternoon walk used to clear my mind and make me feel calmer about life. So why’d I stop?

Two big reasons:

  1. Ugh winter, enough said
  2. I got a treadmill standing desk

Because of the treadmill desk, I’m actually walking 2-3 hours every day, whereas before I would go on a ~45-minute walk outside each day.

So, yay, I’m getting exercise while I work? But the flip side is that I’ve just been at my desk all day long instead of actually taking time off from work.

I’m reinstituting the afternoon walk, stat.

6. Breaking the notifications habit

I have been sooooo distractible lately, and it doesn’t help that I’m constantly checking my notifications on phone and email.

I used to be so good about this — but now I have Slack and Teams and Gmail open throughout the day, and all three of them are dinging me with distractions.

Plus, my phone has all these little red bubbles telling me that Things Are Happening on Twitter and Instagram and all those other super important places.

I’m turning notifications off, and closing down communication programs I’m not actively working in.

7. Setting timers

I used to be all about the pomodoro method: setting a timer for 25 minutes of focused work, then letting myself get distracted (or doing chores) for 10.

Now?

Oh, man.

Time to get back on the timer bandwagon. My favorite app for that is Forest, because you plant a little digital tree, and if you look at your phone before the time is up, the tree DIES.

It’s very motivating, I feel so bad if I kill one of those virtual trees.

Especially since the dead tree stays in your monthly “forest” screen, reminding you that you COULDN’T NOT LOOK AT YOUR PHONE FOR EVEN 10 MINUTES YOU SLACKER???!!

Yeah, I definitely need to start using Forest again to time working sprints.

That’s the list.

Have you tried any of these methods in the past? What’s working for you now? How are you getting your brain back on track during these trying times?

Let me know in the comments.

And stay safe out there.

What I Learned in my 6th Year as a Freelance Writer

(Welcome to my annual post about what I learned as a freelance writer this year!)

Six years! Six years of working full time as a freelance writer, folks. I can barely believe it — it doesn’t seem like that long ago I was trying to figure out how to even find a client.

Lately when I’m feeling frustrated with life, my husband likes to remind me that I literally made my own job, and have been doing it successfully for longer than I’ve worked anywhere else.

And I’m like, right. That is pretty badass.

I’m saying that not to brag. Because the reason I write these yearly wrap-up posts (you can read about Year 5 (2018), Year 4 (2017)Year 3 (2016)Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014)) are because I hope to inspire writers who are a step or two behind me. And if that’s you, I want you to know that it’s entirely possible to build a freelance writing career from scratch — and have it be sustainable.

One thing about freelancing is that it can feel like you’re stuck on a treadmill — always running, but never actually making progress. That’s one reason I love these yearly check-ins! They’re an opportunity for me to take a deep breath and remind myself just how far I’ve actually come.

So without further ado, here are my lessons and successes from my 6th year as a freelance writer.

2019: A year of books!

The six books I released this year: From Earth and Bone, Deviant Flux, Pressure Point, Crossfire, Double Edged, and From Chaos to Creativity.

In last year’s post, I mentioned that 2018 had been a year of writing books and stocking them up for release. The result? This year I put out six books:

It was a wild ride! Along with learning the ins and outs of marketing all these books and going on a mini book tours to support From Chaos to Creativity, I also kept writing. I turned in the fourth Bulari Saga book (Heat Death) last week, and am already hard at work on the fifth and last Bulari Saga book (Kill Shot).

The more I write, the faster I get. Plus, my husband and I have been developing a system where he beta reads the books and offers me feedback as I go, which has been crucial in helping me spot big problems early on. Even as the later Bulari Saga books have gotten more complicated, working more closely with him as a beta reader has reduced my writing time.

One of the biggest things I learned is that writing the next book is the best marketing you can do. I’m looking forward to finishing the Bulari Saga so I can do more with marketing it as a complete series.

2019: A year of making my business work for me

Pineapple balanced on a log. What I learned as a freelance writer post.

I had a few really low points in the last year.

I quit my desk job to freelance 7 years ago because I wanted more freedom, but owning your own business can sometimes feel like a trap. I wasn’t traveling like I’d wanted to do. I was working weekends and evenings. I was scrambling to balance freelance work with fiction, and didn’t have time for any of the hobbies that used to bring me joy — like sewing or drawing.

I hit a wall this summer, and so for the latter part of the year I really worked on reining that in. I said no to more things, and let myself off the hook when it came to keeping up with personal projects. I kept reminding myself to take small steps and enjoy life, rather than barreling through it.

After all, what’s the point in owning your own business if it’s just going to stifle you? Wouldn’t you be better off working for someone else?

Practically, I gave myself permission to take time off. I stopped scheduling my days so rigidly, and started letting myself work on the things that sparked my interest.

The result was that I would get way more done, because I was doing what I felt like working on in the moment, rather than forcing myself to do something I wasn’t inspired to do yet.

Obviously, I still have to meet deadlines — so part of finding joy in my work again was saying no to work that doesn’t spark my interest. I dropped a couple of clients that had become sources of stress for me due either to the type of work I was doing, or the pay rate being too low, and doubled down on work I enjoy.

I also gave myself permission not to worry so much about money. After 6 years of freelancing full time, I know that work comes in cycles. For example, in two months, I billed nearly a third of my total income for last year — which meant when things slowed down afterward, I felt comfortable taking that time to work on my fiction instead of doing my usual “freak out about never having work again” dance.

That required trust, and at times it was terrifying. But the freelance cycle is the freelance cycle, and over the years I’ve built systems to help me weather the ebb and flow through savings and recurring income.

This patience and kindness towards myself is an energy I really want to take with me into the next year. Instead of burning myself out for my business, I want to shape my business into something that works for me.

Basically, I’m going to be a better boss to myself.

Because if I’m going to hate my boss, I might as well work for someone else, right?

Client analysis: How I make my living as a freelance writer

Every year, I sit down with my sales reports and figure out where my income came from, and use that to shape a path for the next year.

This year, I saw some really cool shifts.

  • Content marketing/ghostwriting: 54%
  • Business blogging: 24%
  • SEO/website copy: 16%
  • Book sales/royalties: 4.5%
  • Knitting product copy: 0.5%

Every year I end up breaking things down different ways, sorry, but this year I found that 54% of my income came from my favorite type of work: story-based content marketing and ghostwriting.

That means reported articles, ebooks, case studies, ghostwritten blog posts, etc. (All of the ghostwriting I did in 2019 was blogging.)

It’s hard to get really granular, since I have several clients where I do multiple types of projects — but since I like them all, I grouped them into the top category.

The second category, business blogging, made up about a quarter of my income. This includes white labeled posts that rely less on interviews/storytelling, and are instead more straightforward content.

Website copy went down to 16% from 25% last year, which is great because it’s really not my favorite work. All of this year’s website writing income came from one client who’s been great to me over the years, but the work isn’t super engaging. I parted ways with them about halfway through the year in order to focus on another client who was giving me much more interesting work.

But my most exciting stat? Book income.

Last year, my book writing income was 1% of my total. This year, it’s 4.5%. Having more books in the market definitely helped that, as did having a traditionally published book come out, so I could count on the publisher’s reach and distribution to help get in front of more readers.

And knitting product copy is kind of ridiculous to put as its separate thing, but I just find it such an amusing data point — people will pay you to write all sort of things if you just look for it!

What’s ahead for 2020?

Many-colored pineapples. (what I learned as a freelance writer post)

Fiction-wise, I plan to release the last two Bulari Saga books. Heat Death is already scheduled to come out March 24th (you can pre-order it here), and I’m hoping for a summer release for Kill Shot.

I’m not quite ready to talk about the next series I’m working on, but suffice it to say I’m REALLY excited about it!

As for my freelancing business, I’m going to lean more into ghostwriting, and ultimately stop saying yes to any projects that don’t bring me joy. That will free up space for the really fun work I want to do, as well as writing books in the downtime.

Five years ago, I would have loved to say no to boring projects — but I needed to pay the rent and I’d take what I could get.

This year, I’ve built a business that attracts amazing clients, and I get more inquiries than I can possibly say yes to. Being able to say no to boring work is a privilege, but it’s also the result of 6 years of hustling.

So here’s to an amazing 2020!

It’s going to be the year my business becomes a source of joy and energy rather than a hustle and a drain.

Because I definitely can’t afford to burn out — I’m way too unemployable at this point. 🙂

What are your 2019 takeaways and 2020 goals? Le’ve ’em in the comments.

For more posts about what I learned as a freelance writer, read about Year 5 (2018), Year 4 (2017)Year 3 (2016)Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

(All pineapple photos by Pineapple Supply Co. on Unsplash.)

[Podcast] A conversation with Bookpod

I love to read, but I don’t have a ton of time, which is why I’m always looking for book recommendations. If I’m going to read something, I want it to be good!

That’s why I’m so excited to tell you about this new book recommendation podcast that’s hitting earbuds near you.

(Is that a thing I can say? Earbuds near you? Guess I’m going for it.)

Logo for BookPod: the Indie Filter Podcast, a book recommendation podcast. Image is headphones on a book.

Bookpod: the Indie Filter Podcast, is specifically aimed at helping readers find indie authors they love. Ben and Sarah Nadler read indie-pubbed books to find their favorites, then interview authors to talk about their books.

They alternate between author interview episodes and book recommendation episodes.

I know Sarah through a local weekly write-in we both attend, so I was thrilled when she asked me to come on the show. Our conversation is featured on episode four of Bookpod. (You can listen to it here.)

In the episode, we talk a bit about my personal story, how I got into writing, the importance of finding a good writing community, and my inspirations for the Bulari Saga. It was a super fun conversation.

One of the cool things about Bookpod is that each author reads a bit from their book. So if you listen to the end, you’ll get a little sample of Double Edged (the first book in the Bulari Saga), as read by yours truly. Apologies for not being a professional narrator, but I guess that’s part of the charm. 🙂

I know Ben and Sarah have a good collection of author interviews recorded, so I’m really excited to see where this podcast goes as they keep releasing new episodes.

If you’re looking for a new book recommendation podcast, give Bookpub a shot!

(And if you have reader podcast recommendations of your own, leave ’em in the comments. I’m always looking for new podcasts to put in my earbuds.)

(PS. You can find other interviews with me on my press page.)

The Final Waking: a short story for #burningcat

They think I’m dead.

The heretics threw my body into the trash pit with the rest of the refuse — they should have burned me, but they didn’t know.

My legs and neck are broken, my torso slashed open. It itches as the wound knits, my bones ache as they heal, but I know from experience that this will pass. Though this is the worst death yet, by far.

Ever since I took my vows I’ve wondered how my ninth and final waking will feel. I expected panic, but despite the trash pit, despite the state of my body, my soul is strangely peaceful. True death still terrifies me, but I thank the Goddess this is the last time I’ll be revived.

I hear a chittering and open my good eye to see a spun sugar scorpion crouching over me, considering me for a meal. A drop of pure sucrose gleams opalescent on the tip of her barb, poised a hand’s breadth from my pupil. 

For a moment I imagine that I could startle it, take the poison lance through my skull and finally be done with this for good — I won’t wake a tenth time.

But it would be a disgrace to die here on this trash heap with my Goddess unavenged. 

“I’m not dead,” I whisper to the scorpion and she rears up, startled. She skitters back a safe distance then waits, watching me. 

“I wondered,” she says finally. Her carapace shimmers in the dim light. “They should have burned your body.”

“They didn’t know.”

She clicks one candied pincer derisively. “They don’t know anything.”

“Did any of my sisters survive?”

That sway to the left and then the right, it could be a shrug. 

The vertebrae in my neck seem to be healed enough that I can chance sitting up, so I do, watching in fascinated horror as my shattered right shinbone snaps back into place. A miracle, some might call it. I used to think so, too. I blink, but my bad eye stays shut. It happened three lives ago, when a fight against a monsoon leopard had taken my eye along with a life from both myself and Vallizha. I keep hoping it will heal with one of these wakings. 

If it didn’t this final time, though, it never will.

Waking up is always the worst, but soon my bones are in place and the afterglow of rebirth begins to set in — it feels like warm gold, pooled sunshine, and I want to curl up and nap until the pain is over. 

Intoxicating, yes. But beneath the glow, I’m laying in a putrid trash pit, my sisters are gone or dead, and my Goddess has been slain. 

The spun sugar scorpion is still watching me. 

I pull myself into a crouch; my recently-shattered shinbone holds my weight. “We must drive them out of the City,” I tell the scorpion. “Will you help me?”

She laughs, a cynical hiss. “Yeah, not a chance.” Her feet rattle against heaps of bone as she turns and skitters away. “Door’s to your left,” she calls.

I could tell her that the heretics’ arrival and the Goddess’ fall isn’t just a problem for the Sisterhood, it spells ruin for all the strange denizens of our City — even those living in its trash pits. But I am not spending my last life arguing with a spun sugar scorpion. I search the trash heap for any other survivors before I go, but find nothing but rot and filth. I know some of my sisters were on their last lives — I can’t think of watching Vallizha die her final time or I’ll collapse into grief. But surely not all. Surely I will find some of them in the City.

I finally crawl through the door the spun sugar scorpion pointed out, then unsheath my claws to scale the City wall and find my revenge. 

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The heretics came in with the first fall thunderstorm, sailing over the City’s walls with the lightning and splashing into the cobbled streets in gouts of rain. The storm was violent and impassible; the battle was the same. 

The Sisterhood fought tooth and claw, but the heretics took us by surprise, slashes of lightning illuminating flashing swords. The temple doors had been battered down as much by the wind as the heretics’s clubs, shards of shattered stained glass and hails of barbed arrows falling over us one and the same. The black pools on the ancient mosaic floors were rainwater or blood or both. 

The Goddess’ roar of agony as the heretics lassoed her with razorwire and pulled her to onto their forest of spears must have shaken the entire City. But if my sisters and I screamed as we died, no one could have heard us over the thunder and rain. 

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By daylight I can see that the heretics are only humans, and their numbers are less than impressive. Why have they come? Maybe they think our City is an abomination because it is a refuge for non-humans and those of us who chose to become something more than human to serve the Goddess. Maybe they serve a rival god. Maybe they are simply looking to loot the temple for treasure. 

The heretics have set up camp in the temple. Taking prayer rugs for bedrolls, breaking apart the altar for their cookfires, pissing in the holy garden. They’re drinking wine out reliquaries which used to contain the eyeteeth and claws of sainted sisters who went before us — Vallizha will have her own if I can find her body once this is all over. The holy relics have been tossed down the same trash chute they’d thrown my body down, I can only suppose. 

I sneak onto the rooftop of the market across the street to watch. They’re rounding up the locals, sorting them at the temple steps. Children herded into the courtyard, the men and women judged by some metric I don’t understand and loaded into carts. It’s not by species, it’s not by gender. It doesn’t seem to be by age. As I watch, a dulmo tries to resist, spikes flaring out along his forearms and whipcord tongue snaring one of the heretics by the throat and snapping his weak human neck. 

The rebellion doesn’t last long. A pair of heretics release a volley of bolts from their crossbows and the dulmo’s blood joins the smears that already paint the temple steps. 

As the crowd screams and wails in the aftermath of the dulmo’s death, I see the first flicker of hope. There. Lurking in the alley across the street is Izari. I’ll always know her by the way she walks, the ferocious set to her shoulders, and the geometric tattoos scrawled on the backs of her hands. 

She looks like she’s about to pounce, and when she does, she’ll die once more. She’s lost fewer lives than me, but she can’t afford to be careless, even so. 

Izari crouches, knife in hand. 

I flare.

I’m not sure it will work. In the ritual that made me part of the Sisterhood, drops of the Goddess’s fiery blood burned my tongue, mingled with the blood on my sliced-open palms and kindled fire throughout every vein. 

Now am I in you eternally, the Goddess had told me, as I am in your sisters

It’s her power that grants us the blessing and curse of our many deaths, that brings light to our eyes in the dark, that lengthens our eyeteeth, that slashes claws through our palms to be weapons and tools. 

And which links all of us in the Sisterhood together. 

There is no precedent for the murder of the Goddess, so I have no idea if I can still call on her powers. But I revived one last time, didn’t I? Maybe, just maybe, there’s hope.

Across the street, Izari stiffens. She felt my presence, and now she turns to scan the rooftops. When she spots me, she smiles, fangs bared.

Then her smile widens, and I feel it, too. Brixha’s flare, from behind the temple. Ooli answering from closer to the City’s walls. Nazhiimi’s call, distantly faint but ready to fight.

Cloak yourselves, I whisper through our bloodlink. And meet me on the temple steps.

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Seven of my sisters are still silent. I know for a fact that four passed the threshold the final time in the attack last night — I cannot think about Vallizha — but that leaves eight of us to fight. 

First, though, we must get close enough. 

I drape a scarf over my head, but my good eye still burns yellow, an unworthy shadow of the Goddess’s own crimson flames. Once the heretics look me or any of my sisters in the eye they’ll know who we are.

A weeping venaia does a double take when she glimpses under my hood. Her doe’s face goes bright with fear, then hope. Ooli grabs her arm from the other side and the venaia stifles a yelp. “Don’t give us away,” I hiss. “And when the fighting starts, tell the others to run.” The venaia nods fiercely and clacks her hooves together beneath her robes. 

They spot Brixha first, I feel her flare of fury as one of the heretics throws off her hood. She whirls with knives in hands and blood sprays from the heretic’s throat. I roar and leap at a heretic who’s shoving the gentle venaia toward a cart, burying my blade in his back. The venaia throws back her head and lets fly her ululating call. The heretics — and the few human citizens in the crowd — throw their hands over their ears. 

The Goddess protects my formerly human ears, and I charge the temple gate after Ooli.

Two heretics go down under Ooli’s blade before the first crossbow bolt takes her through the throat. A second buries itself in her thigh.

I don’t have time to mourn her final death, because a third crossbow bolt shatters against the temple steps beyond me; I felt the wind of its passing on my cheek. 

I grab one of the heretics who’s charging at me and spin; the fourth bolt buries itself in his back and I plunge into the temple to find safety from the archers. 

The sight that greets me through the temple doors makes me stumble. 

They’ve slain the Goddess, but they haven’t been able to move her from the sanctuary. She lays on her side, fur matted with blood that has stopped flowing, though rivulets of it ran molten through the tile floor, scoring deep channels. Her ember eyes are wide open and glossy black as dead coals. 

Someone screams my name, and I realize I’m gaping. I tear my gaze away from the horror of my fallen Goddess and duck the sword that whistles past where my head had just been. The swordsman swings again as I jump back, knives in my hands. 

He’s grinning at me, his blade black with the blood of my fellow City denizens, and of my sisters. “Die, abomination,” he growls as he thrusts, and I block the blade of his sword in my crossed knives and force him back. I draw blood on his shoulder but the tip of my knife blade only sparks along the metal of his breastplate as I spin. 

He swings again, and I may be faster but he has strength and a longer reach. Still, I dive in close and bury a knife in his thigh — he roars in pain and forces me back, and just as I’m about to finish him off, searing pain carves through my back. I fall, my legs useless because of the throwing axe buried deep in my spine. Ice washes through my lower back. 

The swordsman grins and advances. “We’ll wipe this City from the face of the earth,” he says. I pull myself away until my back is against the soft fur of my Goddess. My hand presses into seeping cold gash in her side.

Now am I in you eternally.

The swordsman advances. “I thought I killed you before,” he says with a bemused smile. “How many times does it take for you all to die?”

All I have left is the utility blade on my belt, and I can’t move my legs. I can’t fight. But I can die with a purpose. I snatch the blade free and he laughs, but his expression turns to confusion as I slash the length of my arm and press it to the gash in the Goddess’s side. 

“Crazy fanatics,” he growls, and he plunges his sword through my chest and into the Goddess, mingling even more of my blood with hers.

I’m growing cold. 

Behind me, I feel my Goddess begin to stir. 

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I open my eyes — both my eyes — and they burn like flames.

I’m not alone.

We roar as we get to our feet, razorwire snapping like threads, tearing spears from the healing wounds in our chest and pinning heretics to the ground with them, claws slicing through ribcages and splaying them open like butterflies on display. 

I’m not alone.

Ooli is here. Vapar and Lida and other old mentors are here. Presences I know only as venerable saints from epic historical tales are here.

Vallizha is here — her presence floods through me and we embrace in joy, though in the consciousness of the Goddess it is wholly inadequate to think in concepts like me, her, us. 

The Goddess is all. We are all — and we burn. 

And we howl in vengeance as the heretics burn, too. 

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This story was written as an offering to the Queen of Burning Cat, a convention coming to Portland in 2020. #burningcat

Header photo by William Moreland on Unsplash

99c Sci-Fi Boxed Set Sale

A bunch of great space opera and sci-fi authors are offering 99c sales on their boxed sets this month, so I’ve collected as many as I could find here.

Know something else that should be included? Drop a line in the comments.

Athelon

Athelon (9 books)

By Justin Bell

A routine shuttle trip gone wrong. A young girl submerged into a galactic conflict. A single chance to help win the war.

Get it here.

Beam 3d

The Beam (6 books)

By Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant

When all of humanity is connected, the network is the true power.

Get it here.

Blackbeard

Blackbeard (7 books)

By Michael Wallace

The bestselling STARSHIP BLACKBEARD and SENTINEL series: Space battles, alien wars, and interstellar politics.

Get it here.

Colossus-collection

The Colossus Collection (4 books)

By Nicole Grotepas

Being arrested for murder isn’t so bad. At least she knows the truth.

Get it here.

3D_box_set_white

The Durga System (3 books)

By Jessie Kwak

Jail breaks, heists, and hostile takeovers — they’re ready for it all.

Get it here.

Earth-Space-series

Earth Space Service (9 books)

By James David Victor

Genetically engineered aliens. Hostile encounters. Just another day for the Earth Space Service Marines.

Get it here.

Freedom’s fire

Freedom’s Fire (6 books)

By Bobby Adair

It was never a question of if the aliens would come, it was only ever when.

Get it here.

Galactic-Arena

Galactic Arena (5 books)

By Dan Davis

Earth’s champions must fight for humanity. Until now, our heroes have all been defeated…

Get it here.

Gateway-to-the-galaxy

Gateway to the Galaxy (9 books)

By Jonathan Yanez and JR Castle

The Arilion Knights have faded to legend. Famed warriors of this galactic order have not been required to fight the darkness in the universe for centuries, until now.

Get it here.

Joshua-James

The Lost Starship (3 books)

By Joshua James

Save the cure. Kill the crew. That was the dying order of the captain of the starship Elixr. The ship followed the order. Then it lost its mind.

Get it here.

Outcast-marines

Outcasts of Earth (3 books)

By James David Victor

Criminals. Murderers. Thieves. That’s what makes the Outcast Marines special. And expendable.

Get it here.

Void-Wraith

Void Wraith (6 books)

By Chris Fox

Mankind’s outer colonies are disappearing. Without warning. Without a trace. Fleet command chalks the attacks up to pirates, but Captain Dryker of the UFC Johnston isn’t buying it.

Get it here.

Did I miss a 99c sci-fi boxed set sale this month?

Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading,
Jessie

[Interview] Eric Warren, author of the Infinity’s End Saga

Love space opera? Looking for your next favorite binge-worthy series? You’re in luck!

Today I have an interview with Eric Warren, author of the post-apocalyptic Quantum Gate Series and the Infinity’s End Saga, a 9-book space opera series.

In the interview, I pick his brain about writing space opera, where he gets his ideas, and how much we were both influenced by Star Trek growing up. (Nerd high fives!)

If you’re a space opera fan, I highly recommend picking up the Infinity’s End series. Eric just released book 5, and the rest of the books are hot on its heels.

Infinity's End book one – Caspian's Fortune

So kick back and get ready to binge a fantastic series!

He needs a payday. He’ll settle for payback.

Betrayed and left to rot on the edges of the galaxy, Caspian Robeaux is deep in debt and stuck flying courier missions in an old rustbucket he can barely keep afloat. His only friends are a dishonest robot and a bottle of booze.

It’s a far cry from his once-promising military career, but Cas is content to be left alone.

Things start to look up, though, when a stranger arrives and offers a lucrative job that Cas can’t refuse, with a payday big enough to change his fortunes permanently.

But nothing in his life is ever that simple, and for a man trying to buy his way out of debt, the price of redemption might be too steep.

Get Caspian’s Fortune (Infinity’s End Book 1) here.

Interview with Eric Warren

Start by telling me about Infinity’s End. What made you get into Space Opera?

I’ve always been a Space Opera fan. I got into Star Trek pretty young and I was always super interested in that world. I made my parents stay up at night so I could watch it.

When it came to writing, I knew I wanted to write a space opera in that vein. I wanted to create my own world, so that’s what I did with Infinity’s End. I basically created a Star Trek-like universe where it’s not as utopian — because I always thought of the utopias in Star Trek as aspirational, but I didn’t think they were realistic. I don’t really feel like we as the human race will ever get to that point. 

But I thought, what would it look like if that universe was more grounded in reality? That’s where the idea came from.

My family are big Star Trek nerds. It’s what we watched at dinner every night when I was a kid.

Your family watched it with you? I wish I’d had that. My dad always wanted to watch football, and I didn’t care about it. I’d rather watch Star Trek please!

Where did the nut of the story come from? Did you start with the plot? The characters? 

I typically start with characters. In this instance, I felt like the plot and the characters needed to complement each other heavily. I wanted a character who found himself in a difficult position based on the universe around him.

In this story, the catalyst is that this character is basically an idealist. He’s part of this organization, the Coalition, which he feels is a positive force for change in the universe. Then he gets an order that is contrary to all that. The order is not morally right, and what he thinks of as Coalition doctrine is being refuted by these orders. He either has to obey and compromise his moral integrity, or disobey and maintain his integrity.

He disobeys the orders, then discovers that there’s this dark and seedy underbelly to the Coalition. He feels betrayed.

That’s the jumping-off point of the series, and the first book starts about seven years after that event. He’s actually on the run from the Coalition by the point where we meet him.

The series is nine books long, so I figured I needed a pretty big story to sustain itself through that many books.

What’s been one of your favorite parts of writing this series?

One of my favorite things is drawing star maps for every book. I have a giant master star map that covers an entire section of the galaxy, and each book comes with a smaller section of that map. By the time you get to the end of the series, you have the entire picture.

That’s super cool!

It’s also really stressful, because I had to plan all that out ahead of time, and make sure I knew what I was doing. I can’t change anything, so I might have shot myself in the foot there.

My other favorite thing is coming up with alien races. I’ve come up with probably six or seven that are really interesting and unique that I hadn’t seen before. 

How do you go about coming up with the new alien race?

I don’t really have a special process, but I look at different species here on Earth and try to imagine what they would look like if they were the dominant species of another planet.

One species I’ve got is like a crustacean-type creature. They’re hyper-intelligent, but in order to work with humans, they have to wear an apparatus that allows them to interact with all the controls and the buttons and everything. But they’re also highly religious, so they wear all this religious garb. They’re basically metal android things inside robes just walking around — and they all have holographic faces they project to look like they could be human. But really they’re just a crustacean inside. 

I don’t know where they came from, but I thought it would be interesting.

What’s been one of the most challenging parts of writing this series?

I try not to be one of those writers who writes every book on a cliffhanger. I want each book to stand on its own and to have its own individual story. It’s been very difficult taking the main character through a journey nine different times.

Within each book I have to have the character grow and change in some way. Instead of having all the change happen at once, I have to pull back and say, no — this change happens here, this other change happens later. And this change will happen way down the road. 

At the same time as I’m holding back on character change, I need to continue to make those characters believable. Believable enough that you keep reading, so they’re not just so tortured that you’re like, this is just the author being extra mean to his character. 

I started out with one main character, but at this point in the series I’m up to at least two, possibly three. Now I have to take each of those characters through their own personal journey. They all have to mesh, there has to be external and internal conflict in each book, and it has to contribute to the overall arching story. It’s a lot to keep up with.

How do you do that? Do you have lots of spreadsheets? I’m terrible at keeping track of stuff, so I’m always curious what other people do.

I have a master Word document which has character profiles for all the main characters and all the alien lists. Then for each book I have a story breakdown which goes through the self revelations and the needs and desires of the two main characters, their weaknesses in this particular story, the primary opponent, the opponent’s desires, etc. It also tracks the series of revelations that will happen throughout the story, and ultimately the hero’s self-revelation when they realize their mistake and make the change.

I write one of those for each book in the series and I keep them all together, so I can check back and see what happened in earlier books. 

It’s funny, because I keep track of a lot of it my mind, which is probably really dangerous. But I can’t remember anything else about my life. My wife will tell me something, and five minutes later it’s gone from my mind. But as long as I remember the story, I’m okay. She can always tell me thing again.

It’s not so funny to her, but to me….

You have a couple of pugs*. Have you written them into your books at all?

I haven’t. Because of the nature of what I’m working on right now, I can’t really use any animals from Earth, because none of it takes place on or near Earth. 

And in my first series, it was post-apocalyptic earth. I thought, well, pugs probably wouldn’t survive that. At least mine wouldn’t, because all they can do is eat and sleep all day. 

Although I will say, I think I did write some pugs into the second or third book I ever wrote — which I will never publish.

What’s next after the Infinity’s End series?

It’s a nine-book series, and I was originally hoping to be done it by the end of the year. I think I can still do that, since it’s only August now. 

What I had originally thought was afterwards I was going to write a short trilogy set in the same universe that tells a different story with different characters, but as part of the same universe and dovetailed into the main story.

Or, I may go a completely other direction. I think I want to stay within space opera, but I may go somewhere outside this universe. I really haven’t decided yet.


Thanks, Eric!

Get Caspian’s Fortune (Infinity’s End Book 1) here.

( * And follow Eric on Instagram if you want some adorable pug action.)

[Interview] Great Expectations takes to the stars with Kate Sheeran Swed

I’m thrilled to present something a little different today: an interview with fantastic new indie sci-fi author Kate Sheeran Swed. Her first book, Parting Shadows comes out today, and it’s marvelous.

Parting-Shadows-cover

Parting Shadows is the first book in the Toccata System series, a trio of novellas which are all inspired by classic literature — but with Kate’s own unique spin.

I truly loved Parting Shadows. The characters were complex and fascinating, and the setting was rich and deep. Even though we only get a glimpse of the overall universe in this book, I got the sense that we’re barely scratching the surface. I can’t wait to explore more of the Toccata System as the series goes on.

If you’re a fan of science fiction that combines fast-paced plots with beautifully-imagined characters and lovely prose, definitely pick up Parting Shadows.

And at $0.99 for the novella right now, it’s a total steal.

Read on to learn how Kate takes inspiration from classic literature for her sci-fi books, how she incorporates travel into her writing, and more.

Parting Shadows (Toccata System Book 1) 

Raised by a heartsick AI, she’s programmed to kill. And desperate to flee. 

After growing up on an isolated space station, Astra dreams of solid ground. But with an AI guardian plugged into her head–and her nervous system–it’s not like she’s flush with choices.  In fact, she’s got just one: use her training to carry out the rogue AI’s revenge. Her first mission? Assassination. 

When her target flashes a jamming device that would guarantee her escape from the AI’s grasp, Astra sets out to steal it. But the AI’s plans are more dangerous than she suspected. Corrupted by heartbreak, the wayward computer is determined to infect the star system with a new order of digital tyranny. 

Astra’s been raised to care for no one but herself. Now she’ll have to decide if she’s willing to trade the star system’s freedom for her own. 

Parting Shadows is a far-future take on Estella Havisham’s journey in Great Expectations, and the first installment in Kate Sheeran Swed’s Toccata System novella trilogy.

Universal Book Link (ebook) | Your Local Bookstore (print) | Goodreads

Interview with Kate Sheeran Swed

What draws you to writing science fiction?

I actually started writing fantasy, but about the time I wrote my superhero novel (which I’m going to be putting out next year), I started reading more about space. There’s something so mystical about it!

It’s beautiful, but it’s also so dangerous. From here, I’m always looking up at the moon and staring at the stars. I read that Andrew Chaikin book, A Man on the Moon, and I was amazed that we got to the moon when we barely had computers. And when you think about how dangerous it is — I don’t know. It just mystifies me.

And I’m terrified of it! I would never want to go up to space, so I guess that ambiguity between my feelings of being so fascinated and so scared at the same time is what interests me.

The second book in the Toccata System Series starts with Claire standing on the spaceship and just being like, “I’m in a tin can — there’s a really thin wall between me and space, and I hate space.”

You also take a lot of inspiration from the classics, which I love. The inspiration for Parting Shadows was Great Expectations. Can you talk a bit about how that came about? I’m especially curious about how you made the leap from Great Expectations to a heartsick AI, which was brilliant.

The heartsick AI was what made me decide to write the story. Great Expectations is one of my favorite books ever, so I was thinking of writing a novella from Estella’s point of view. I was writing stream of consciousness and picturing this old lady in the Satis House and the creepy wedding feast, and I thought what if Estella’s being raised by a heartsick AI instead of this broken-hearted woman?

What was one of the toughest parts of transcribing the story of Great Expectations into space?

Each of the three books of the Tocatta System Series are inspired by the classics, and for me it’s always how much do I want to stick with the original idea of the story, and how much do I want to leave it? With Parting Shadows, I leave it pretty fast. 

I also was trying to decide if Henry, who is the Pip character, was even going to have a benefactor? In Great Expectations his benefactor is not Miss Havisham, but in this book I decided that had to be SATIS.

I’m sorry if from spoiling that, but it’s a 19th-century novel.

That’s okay. Bad English major confession time, I’ve not actually read Great Expectations. But you can definitely spoil the 19th century novel for me.

[Laughs] I feel like you know pretty early on that Pip’s benefactor is not Miss Havisham. So I played with the idea of it in Parting Shadows

Generally, I decide to leave the classic story as soon as my story become its own. The story decides where it’s going to go. With Parting Shadows I kept the themes, while also trying to let it be it’s own thing — because I wanted it to ultimately be my story.

I do that more and more as the series goes on. Parting Shadows has a little more connection to Great Expectations, and Phantom Song is inspired by Phantom of the Opera. But by the time I get to Darkening Heaven, it just kind of waves at Treasure Island as it sails by. 

In your bio you talk about all the places you’ve traveled around the world. Do you bring any of that to your stories? If so, how?

I feel like Iceland comes in a lot. If I’m ever trying to describe a rugged landscape, or the most beautiful landscape, Iceland comes in. 

But a lot of the time it’s more a feeling of travel, the experience of travel. rather than knowing which specific building might affect a scene. But when I was writing Phantom Song, the second book in the series, I definitely included a bit of Paris. The original Phantom of the Opera is set in Paris, so I drew on things like the Versailles.

Do you often sneak in little references like that in things you write?

Oh, definitely. I sneak in a lot of things, like references to pop culture — you’ll see some references to Marvel movies especially. There’s a Princess Bride reference in one of the books. I try to nod to some of my favorites because it makes me happy to do that. I don’t know if anyone else would ever notice it.

With all your traveling, have you traveled someplace specifically for your writing, or as a literary pilgrimage?

I have been to Charles Dickens house in London, twice. And I have a little silver Charles Dickens from the house. He sits and watches me write — next to Princess Leia.

Those are some good patron saints.

Yes! I also have my little Marvel characters up there, but Princess Leia and Charles Dickens are my favorite.

I like to visit literary people’s homes. In Paris we went by Picasso’s house, and I studied abroad in Lancaster, England, which is up in Lakes District, where Beatrix Potter lived. I also went out to Yorkshire to James Herriot’s veterinary office. It’s a really cool museum, and I stayed in this bed-and-breakfast that actually had little hotel rooms attached to a tavern. I felt like I was in a fantasy novel!

What do you get out of the experience of visiting literary people’s homes?

For James Herriot, that was really neat because he writes about the exact place you’re standing. With Dickens, he’s one of my heroes. So the idea that he was here, that this person was there. . . . The history of it really resonates with me.

Is there anything you’d tell “last year Kate” about how your experience publishing Parting Shadows has been?

I would say, “It can happen.” 

I was looking at my Amazon Author Central page today, and I was like, I have book covers for two out of three of the books that I was just thinking about last year. I had a draft of Parting Shadows at this time last year, but the other two were just ideas.

Now Phantom Song is almost finished. And I have an outline of Darkening Heaven. And I have two short stories that go along with it.

So I guess I would say to Past Kate, “Those books will be out there. You just have to do the work.” 

I’m thrilled that I decided to do this, and it feels like the right thing for me. I’m really happy.


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