Why I went to Scotland

Writing retreat + Scotland = two concepts that don’t necessarily go together. For me and about 25 other author/illustrators, this was a fantasy-turned-reality c/o Kindling Words West this past March. Weeks before the trip, I could barely speak the words “I’m going to Scotland for a writing retreat” without my breath catching. But the venue was just part of the reason . . .

Kindling Words is an exclusive community that hosts two retreats a year for authors and illustrators of children’s literature — run by a true fire-starter of a creative force, Alison James. A renowned program twenty years running, eligible participants must undergo an application process. For most retreats there is a lottery and/or waiting list. To be included this year was an absolute honor.

   

It helps to have a famous friend. One of my most cherished childhood friends, Anika Denise, also happens to be an accomplished picture book author, and may have pulled some strings along the lines of “I need a roomie!” to secure my slot.

JD Spero and Anika Denise

Me and Anika Denise

Yesterday morning my husband asked me what was the one thing that stood out as the most important part of the experience. I showed him a pano-pic my new friend (the very talented Hazel Mitchell of Toby fame) had taken and tagged me in. It shows 7 of us writers/illustrators quietly at work in the same room.

Tears came to my eyes as I explained why this retreat was so important to me. My husband knows all too well how many hours I spend *alone* in my house or a coffee shop writing away. Writing can be a very lonely occupation.

This retreat was all about community. I was surrounded by other writers — stars of the children’s literary world — whose clicking of the computer keys triggered my own creativity. To sit among these successful and talented people who share my passion was validation for me as a writer. Competition did not exist within this group; I was warmly welcomed. I was embraced into their circle without question. For that, I will always be grateful.

When I told friends from home about my upcoming trip, the same question kept coming up: Will you get any writing done . . . in a castle . . . in Scotland?

For me, it was never a question. That’s what I was there for, and since I’m in the middle of a project (the 3rd book of the Forte series for Xchyler Publishing), I had a lot of work to do.

The week’s schedule was set up to help us focus, too. After morning yoga and breakfast, there were workshops where each of us hosted a creativity exercise to help get the juices flowing. My story starter was entitled “Wolves of Scotland” and the results varied from a silver-haired female ghost wolf, to a puppy wolf cub, to a distinguished wolf in a 3-piece-suit. After workshop, we had a silent retreat from 10 to 5. Which seems like a long time but the hours flew by . . . especially when you had to squeeze in spa time. (Oh, did I forget to mention the castle had a spa?)

Let me tell you about the castle

Built in the 1300s, to say the Dalhousie Castle is rich in history might be a tiny understatement. But it was no biggie for the Scottish people. They have lots of these castles hanging around. They weren’t even phased when their resident ghost blasted the surround sound, interrupting our host during the opening ceremony dinner. Even the gloomy castle dungeon had been transformed into a swanky restaurant, where we dined one night while serenaded by a bagpiper.

Castle Dalhousie

dinner in the dungeon, Dalhousie Castle

Our very sophisticated dinner in the dungeon.

Dalhousie offered falconry

Yes, that meant we were able to fly exotic birds that were nearly bigger than me.

This is a Siberian Eagle Owl named Jude (or Juke) who has lived at the castle since he was ten days old. They told me he was used to humans. Still, his eyes were the size of clementines. Of course, I had to be shown up by a 7 y/o girl who flew him first and didn’t flinch at all. Not me. I may look cool and composed in this pic, but inside I was flinching for days.

Siberian Eagle Owl with Dalhousie Castle in the background

Me w Jude, Dalhousie in background

Where in Scotland is this, exactly?  

The castle is only 8 miles from Edinburgh. Although we could’ve spent the entire week exploring this ultra-cool city, we took one day off to check it out. Now’s a good time to mention how nice everyone is in Scotland. We were often complimented on our “exotic accent” and asked to say “burger” and other R-dominant words like “lord” and “pork” and “ruh-roh”.

Victoria Street - JK Rowling's inspiration for Diagon Alley

Victoria Street – JK Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley

Edinburgh Castle

Anika and I inside Edinburgh Castle

So, yeah. This was an amazing experience on so many levels. It was a huge gift to myself that at first felt too luxurious. It was hard to break away from my husband and three young children for an entire week overseas that was solely for me and my writing.

But I got over that.

This mirror is actually a portal. We’re on the other side. LOL

 

Apple falls up

A talented writer in his own right, my oldest son AJ has been named Student of the Quarter twice in a row for WRITING. Last year in fifth grade, he wrote a short fantasy story for school that blew me away. The title is “Eugallado” and, after begging him to allow me to share it, I’m thrilled to post a sneak peek at the opening:

Eugallado. Chapter 1. The Cave.

It was a day like any other when the secret world was discovered by two ordinary boys.
The trees and the ground were covered in prestigious, sparkling white snow, and the sun made everything shine so bright it was almost hard to look at it. We gazed at the beautiful trees, sprinkled with glistening sugar-white powder, longing to explore the woods. My mom said we could never go in, but she wouldn’t tell us why. Of course we wanted to find out.
“Let’s go,” my best friend Ryan said excitedly . . .

People like to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and all that jazz, but I think it’s the opposite. In our case, the apple falls up! And writing is just one of his many talents. I’m so proud of this kid. He inspires me. He’s an inspiration to our whole family.

QMS Student of the Quarter

Excellence Award in Writing

On my school visits, I always tell students that the best way to improve your writing is to READ. Read everything. Always be reading. AJ is proof of that. He’s participated in the Battle of the Books program at school since third grade. He’s usually got at least 2 or 3 books going at one time. He reads books he likes, and books he dislikes. And maybe it’s his youth, but he seems to remember EVERYTHING!

I’m honored AJ is such a fan of my books! He read Forte twice — and after reading the first draft of its sequel, he gave me feedback that will be cherished forever: “I loved your book so much! I loved the description, and I felt like I could really feel the characters. I loved the combonation of music, magic, and mythology. Definetly one of the best books I’ve ever read! – AJ <3”

YA magical realism Concerto

AJ almost done with Concerto

When Concerto was published several months after he read the first draft, he was eager to read it again (gotta love this kid). Now 12 and dealing with middle school antics and LOTS of sixth grade homework, he found the time to read my book. It was my gift to see him peek out with a smile from behind my book as I tucked him into bed. As soon as he finished, he wrote a review on Google docs and shared it with me.

*Warning: contains spoilers!* (But too precious not to share!)

Concerto Review By AJ Spero

Mom, I thought your book Concerto was absolutely amazing! And I’m not saying that just because you’re my mom. If I went to Barnes & Noble and bought your book and read it, I’d say, “WOW! This book is so cool!!” First thing: I thought the characters were awesome! They were so real, I felt like I could really feel and connect with the characters. I also really liked how there was some suspense that made you ask questions that really kept you turning the pages! I always wanted to see what happened next. And the drama between the characters was really good! I felt like it was emotional but not over-the-top, you know? For instance, When Sami started to date Miles, I was like, “No! What about Jason?” Then when she went to visit Jason, I could really feel the awkwardness. I was cringing myself! Then when Jason gave Sami a pat on the back, oh man. Total cringe fest. Then at the end, I loved how they finally started to get back together again. I didn’t really like how they broke up in the first draft, though, it was even painful for me! I know I have a big, long, rambling list of all the things I loved about your book, so I’ll wrap it up with one more thing. I loved the sneak peak chapter of “Cadence”! I want to read it so bad now! I love how you see the other side of that conversation Lauren and Sami had. Sami seemed so oblivious! I also like Lauren’s fun personality, and I can’t wait to find out more about Lauren. I felt like, in “Forte,” I couldn’t really connect with Lauren as a person, but I like how I’ll find out her side of things. Overall, I thought your book was SO GOOD and I can’t wait ‘till “Cadence” comes out! 

 

Rave review(s)

As an indie author, it’s important to get online reviews. Actually, it’s CRUCIAL to get online reviews. Why? Amazon uses an algorithm to determine which products to push–and books with lots of 5-star reviews (over 50) have a better chance of appearing in search results, etc. Needless to say, I’m super eager to get reviews. (hint, hint!)

The review that came in yesterday, though, wasn’t on Amazon or Goodreads. It wasn’t on Facebook or any social media. It was written (& drawn) with markers on a blank sheet of paper. And it will be cherished forever.

CONCERTO REVIEW

I love your book, the combination of magic and mythology was astounding. The battle at the end had lots o’ action and I love love love action. I’m just gonna sum it up with just a few words … , … YOUR BOOK WAS AWESOME!!!

Love, Adam Spero (age 10)

Adam loved Concerto!

Adam finishing Mom’s book yesterday, snuggling with Mom on the couch.

Looking back at my posts, I see that my oldest AJ finished Forte when he was 10 and gave me the most valuable review. 

Adam finished Forte last summer and was like “Oh no, she drank the blue stuff! This is baaaaaaad!”

Adam loved Forte

Adam finished Forte last summer. Loved it!

I sat with Adam as he finished the final pages of Concerto. It was a special moment. I loved seeing his reading habits. Unlike me, he wasn’t racing to finish. He took his time. Stopped to admire the cover, read the back copy blurb. He even took a break to read the teaser chapter for book #3, for the second time.

Oh, those little hands holding my book, *my heart*.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello February.

December 2017 was a climactic, exciting month. My third book was published early in the month — Concerto — which prompted glitz and fireworks to an already happy, busy, holiday season in our new home. The book itself is a thrill. I may like the story even more than the first in its series, Forte. Not soon after its release, I was already started on book #3. Actually, I started before the release. At the end of Concerto, readers will find a teaser chapter for the next — currently titled Cadence. This was my #JaNoWriMo project this year.

For those unfamiliar, JaNoWriMo is a version of NaNoWriMo — where writers give themselves a daily writing quota in a month-long writing challenge. I choose January instead of November for reasons I’ve outlined in a previous blog post.

So how’d it go? 

I’m happy to report, Cadence is well under way! I only had a teeny head start — just that 1200-word teaser chapter. January 31 snuck up on me, but my total word count as of today (Feb 2) is 22,390 – ! The story is cranking and the ideas are flowing. Structure is kind of falling to the wayside as I’ve tried to keep pushing the story forward rather than overthink what should happen and when. This is something I’ll have to fix. But, for me, to keep my enthusiasm up for a project, I need to keep writing. Even if it means more work in the long run. Plotting scenes on note cards just doesn’t excite me. The project would fizzle. And what a shame that would be. This story may be my best yet!

So, yay! I’m a happy writer.

What was different this year? 

I didn’t write every day. I skipped weekends. I accepted those lunch dates with friends that were a no-go last year. I kept up on bills and other domestic responsibilities, which kind of suffered last year (sorry, honey). So, this year was about balance. Besides, I may have needed a sort of break after working so hard to get Concerto out into the world. And I look forward to continuing to work on it. Can you say #FebNoWriMo? Ha!

What’s Cadence about, you ask? Ahhh… 

Not to keep you in suspense, but that’s a subject for another day, another post. Stay tuned!

Polar Bear Prints

My youngest son just finished a unit on polar bears in art class. His teacher just posted this beauty to Artsonia.

Polar Bear Prints

Polar Bear Prints by 7 y/o Chaz

I love this artwork for so many reasons.

Some of you may be surprised to learn polar bears inspired the concept of Concerto.

For those of you who are familiar with Forte, you’re probably wondering how the sequel could have anything to do with these beautiful arctic creatures. Forte is about music and magic . . . an ancient rivalry and a mysterious prophecy to fulfill. No lions or tigers or bears of any kind.

Its follow up, Concerto, is also about music and magic — but also about extreme weather personified by power-hungry gods of the sea and skies.

Sure, my latest may not involve animals, but it does involve their habitat.

Years ago I watched a documentary about polar bears that made me cry. With their habitat melting away, the problem seems insurmountable. And that’s just one example. Climate change. Global warming. Beyond these buzz words in the political arena, when I think about the kind of environmental problems we are passing on to the next generation, my mama-tiger claws come out. But then, despair hits. What can I, a writer, possibly do?

Write this book.

But this book is not a political statement. As the book evolved, the magic created an otherworldly twist that doesn’t translate to what’s happening in our environment. Sami, my main character, is charged with fighting extreme “natural” disasters and the evil force behind it. However, considering all the crazy extreme weather happening in the world lately, it seems timely. Wouldn’t it be cool if music could magically affect the weather?

I’m not hoping my book will trigger an environmental miracle. I do hope that it helps raise awareness, though. I also hope my son’s precious artwork is not someday seen as a study of a glorious animal that had become tragically extinct.

 

Best Launch Party

Concerto is now available!
Order your copy today to take advantage of special introductory pricing!

Hooray! It’s finally here! I think Xchyler Publishing and I set a world record with our aggressive editing schedule for this one. It was just August 21 when Xchyler gave me the first round of feedback on the manuscript as a whole. I managed to turn those edits around in less than three weeks. Then, there was a back and forth with the editing team: more content edits, then line edits, then grammar and proofing — for each chapter individually. I’d say we went through a minimum of 4 rounds of edits per chapter. (I think the most was 8? Maybe 9?) I’d often wake up in the middle of the night to see more edits in my queue and a whir of excitement would keep me up to work on them into the wee hours of morning. What’s that you ask? Sleep? Who needs sleep when you have a book to launch! At Thanksgiving, I had to beg out of conversation with my in-laws, “Sorry, I don’t know how to talk about anything but my imaginary characters and the made-up world they live in.”

It was such a whirlwind, I didn’t have time to set up a launch party. And being so close to the holidays, I didn’t really want to. But, look what my family did for me? My boys made me homemade cards, my husband brought home flowers and champagne. What more does a girl need? My heart is bursting.

Forte magic returns with Concerto launch

From my ten-year-old. “Straight up AWESOME!”

 

Concerto YA fantasy is now available

So much love in these “Congrats!” cards from my boys.

Sometimes the best launch parties are right at home surrounded by your loved ones.

Concerto YA fantasy now available

Best fan club ever.

 

YA fantasy new release ebook sale

Order your copy on Amazon today & take advantage of special introductory pricing!

Concerto — Cover Reveal!

It’s finally here! Concerto, the spell-binding sequel to Forte, will launch December 1, 2017 — less than two weeks away! It’s been a whirlwind of a year. Lots of hours and lots of love poured into this project. I’m so proud to work with Xchyler Publishing once again to get this out into the world. And today, I’m thrilled to share the final cover design.

Concerto, Book 2 of YA fantasy series - Forte - releases Dec 1

Concerto, Book 2 of Forte series, releases Dec 1

What’s it about? 

Samantha McGovern sacrificed her magic to save her home town. Finally, after more than two years, stirrings within her whisper of a reawakening. However, nothing can offset the misery of parting with her boyfriend. How can she keep Jason when he’s moved on to college life, but she’s still trapped in high school for another year?

In Boston, Sami’s new friends help her rediscover her power, and, reunited with an old crush, he now seems into her. Sami struggles to ignore the intoxicating charms of Miles Eichen, but with Jason’s increasing distance, it feels like a losing battle.

When her strange visions begin to come true, Sami discovers a new purpose to her magic—magic stronger than she could ever imagine. Millions of lives are in danger, and only she has the power to foil a great evil. However, it will take a different kind of magic to repair the rift between her and Jason.

Cover reveal YA fantasy series CONCERTO releases Dec 1

Full spread – Back and Front – CONCERTO Cover Reveal!

*New* Adult with Author Q & A

Today I visited with a rockin’ author and editor who also happens to be my good friend, Sandra Hume, who writes fiction under the pen name Sienna Cash. Her new book — Finding the Eddy, now available for preorder — is the sequel to the steamy page turner, Worst-Kept SecretBoth books follow the on-again, off-again relationship of onetime next-door-neighbors Charlie and Wade, who are seven years apart in age—but the twist is that he’s the younger one. Without further ado, let’s get acquainted with our *new* in new adult, Finding the Eddy.

What’s it about?

Rejecting Wade Hunter was the worst mistake Charlie Michaelsen ever made. But what good is knowing that now? Even if Charlie were brave enough to confess her true feelings, Wade’s gone—two thousand miles gone, in Colorado, while Charlie’s home in Massachusetts.

As for Wade, he’s moving on, done trying to shake the girl who wrecked him. It’s been six months. He’s finally inching towards normal.

Until Charlie shows up in Colorado—to stay.

FINDING THE EDDY, Sienna Cash’s long-awaited sequel to WORST-KEPT SECRET, picks up the sexy story of the once-doomed Charlie and Wade, childhood next-door neighbors who stumbled into love across a seven-year age gap. With fresh determination, Charlie’s ready to prove to Wade that she means it this time. Uprooting her life from the Atlantic to the Rockies is nothing compared to losing the best person she’s ever known. But is Wade ready, or even willing, to take that risk?

With piercing honesty and humor, FINDING THE EDDY follows Charlie and Wade’s uncertain journey of forgiveness and redemption towards a HOME that may have nothing to do with geography.

Coffee Talk with Sienna Cash


Who are your particular books written for?

These two books about Charlie and Wade—Worst-Kept Secret and Finding the Eddy—are for people who enjoy a realistic, often-funny love story. But the books are also about family and female friendship, and how we can both fail and succeed at both at times. I’m told both are page-turners for those who enjoy that kind of story.

What do you mean by “new adult”?

It’s nothing more than an age category for characters, really. In general “new adult” refers to books about characters from ages 18-28. New-adult books can be in any genre—fantasy, dystopian fiction, romance. The term was pioneered as a response to the books of Jamie McGuire, a hugely successful self-published author whose novels were about college students and people in their twenties. These books tend to read like YA but with more adult themes. My own personal shorthand for this is “YA + sex.”

What’s your approach to writing sex scenes?

Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to write, but I enjoy the challenge. I took a writing workshop not too long ago—it’s worth mentioning that it wasn’t a sex-writing workshop—and the instructor, a high-caliber author, happened to mention unrealistic or glossed-over sex scenes as one of her pet peeves. I agreed with her. Sex is an integral part of life and we should be able to treat it as such. Beyond that, sex is so much more than simply sexy—it’s funny and messy and poignant and can provide some of the most valuable character revelations. I didn’t want to shy away from the truth of that. Of course, if the sex scene can be both realistic and high on the heat-level scale, that’s a win-win.

How is Finding the Eddy different from its predecessor, Worst-Kept Secret?

Without being too spoilery, WKS takes place mostly in Massachusetts; more than half of FTE takes place in Colorado. Also, we get into Wade’s head in FTE, where WKS was entirely from Charlie’s point of view. The reader gets more of an idea of why he is the way he is.

What is your favorite music to listen to while writing?

This sounds like the antithesis of who I am, because second only to my roles as wife and mother, I am a music fan. But for the most part, I can’t write to music. I think about writing, and my characters, while music is playing—in my car, for example—and I have specific playlists earmarked for characters like Wade, who lives and dies by his music (as do I, or at least I used to when I was his age!). When I wrote scenes from his point of view and really wanted to get into his head, sometimes I did play that playlist. But most times I find music too distracting to really write.

Why do you self-publish?

I wrote a blog post on this when I first published Worst-Kept Secret, which is here. But the short answer is: I like control, and I’ve been wanting to do this for way too long and wasn’t willing to wait on a traditional publisher’s timeline.

Who is your favorite character of all time?

I assume you’re talking about other people’s characters, because I don’t have that many! (I will say that I rather enjoy the character of Tater in Finding the Eddy.) But overall, my favorites are probably a cross between the Walsh sisters from Marian Keyes’ books and Laura Ingalls from the Little House series.

How do you choose your character names?

It varies. Usually they just come to me. I try not to change character names mid-stream. I did that with one character in Worst-Kept Secret, and I stillmake mistakes when I write about that particular character. Mostly the characters arrive in my head already named. As I write more, though, I expect to broaden my horizons and turn to outside sources, because there are only so many names to go around, particularly for heroes. The name of the MC in my next novel, which will be young adult, showed up in a dream. Because a dream was the catalyst for Worst-Kept Secret, I believe it would be a mistake to not honor that.

Describe a scene that’s autobiographical-ish.

I did lose my father at a young age, which is about all I have directly in common with Charlie, the MC of both Worst-Kept Secret and Finding the Eddy. Several times I have had trouble, as she did, finding his grave in the cemetery, because, like her, I don’t enjoy visiting them. Her hometown of Danborn is based heavily on my own hometown in Massachusetts (with liberties taken as needed to serve the story), enough that natives of that town recognize it. So that’s certainly autobiographical. But I took a lesson from author Sarah Dessen, who had a negative experience when she first started writing about real places: readers will always call you on something they perceive as wrong. So no details of any place I write about—including Fort Collins, which is an actual city in Colorado—are entirely real.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Officially, I run an editing business, line editing and copy editing fiction. If you need a fiction editor and you’re self-publishing, I’ve got your back. The business is under my own name; Sienna Cash is a pen name. (Here’s why I write under two names.) I also write nonfiction travel books about Laura Ingalls Wilder under my own name.

Insomnia

It hits me off and on. At least once a week. This morning, I awoke at 3 AM, thought about going back to sleep for about one minute, then bounded out of bed with a surge of adrenaline. Why? Because I’m approaching the finish line to launch my upcoming release CRESCENDO, the sequel to Forte. Up and at ’em to work on content edits to send to Xchyler Publishing by 6 AM. I rock.

But not every 3 AM bout of insomnia is that happy or productive. Most times, my mind plays cruel tricks on me and I’m sick with worry about anything and everything. Sometimes, I go completely Macbeth and feel like I’m losing my mind altogether. It happened this past summer and I wrote the following passage in my journal — bleary and exhausted, messy and scribbling in all directions. It’s raw and unedited and, hopefully, strikes a chord.


Can’t sleep
Worrying about cars and dogs
Regret tugs — losing my patience
I want to be happy
It should be easy
Why am I so anxious?
Lots to do, wasted Sunday
Summer’s too short. Why was I so eager to fill it?
Hopes smack against fears
Spider crawling down the wall
Haven’t written in awhile
Does this count?
Is it enough to be a mom?
and wife
Hope for yes tempered by guilt
Worry fears losing what we have
Do I love too much?
Why can’t I be kinder? Why do I get so irritated? Why is smiling hard?
Are we missing something?
Is it slipping away?
Am I trying hard enough?
Am I succeeding?
Where did my babies go?
Are the memories safe? Are the moments captured?
Big, fat black ants
too much stuff — for what?
Time slipping too fast
Too busy, not busy enough
my loves keep them safe please
vacuum broke again.
My hair gets everywhere.
My stomach sticks out.
I get angry easily.
I don’t know why he loves me so much.
I’m alive.
Every moment is precious. Why waste it with worry?
Can’t sleep.
Stopped trying.
Tomorrow is here.
I’m not ready.