Our guest blogger today is Angie Smibert, author of the upcoming debut novel MEMENTO NORA scheduled for an April release from Marshall Cavendish. Angie has been kind enough to share her experience on getting support from other writers. You can find her on her blog, or at www.mementonora.com. She is represented by Tina Wexler at ICM.
In the Company of Debuts
By Angie Smibert
Writing—unless you’re one of those rare creatures who works with a partner—is a solitary profession. A lonely business. Sure, you may have a supportive family, tons of friends, frisky kittens, and an old dog along for the ride. But, when it comes down to it, it’s just you and the page.
Usually I like it like that. (Me introvert.)
However, what has undoubtedly helped me the most as a writer, especially since signing my first contract, is this: the company of other writers. Other debut young adult and middle grade authors to be precise.
In 2007, I flipped open a copy of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market and discovered an article about an intrepid group of debut YA/MG authors who’d banded together to market their own books. Founded by Greg Fishbone (Penguins of Doom), the group called itself the Class of 2K7. They planned to pay the idea forward, continuing the Class of 2K concept into successive years. Alumni of the original 2K class include Cassandra Clare (City of Bones), Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely), and Rebecca Stead (First Light). (Not too shabby, huh?)
I remember thinking this class thing was a genius idea, and if I ever sold a book, I’d join the 2K’ers.
When I sold Memento Nora, I looked for (and found) the Class of 2k11. In the process, though, I stumbled upon the Elevensies, another community of debut YA/MG authors. Much like the Class of 2K11, the Elevensies are part of an ongoing tradition called the Debutantes. Jackson Pearce (As You Wish) founded the Debs in 2009 as a casual forum to connect with other debuts. Although the missions of the Deb and 2K groups differ, the membership overlaps quite a lot.
So I joined both.
I’m not usually such a joiner, but I figured that there was so much I didn’t know about this business. Unlike some of my peers, I wasn’t already plugged into the YA/MG community of writers and bloggers before I sold Memento Nora. I’d published a number of short stories and knew a variety of science fictions writers and editors, but I really didn’t know any of my peers in the YA/MG world—that is, other debut authors, writers at the exact same stage as I was.
Joining the Class of 2K11 and the Elevensies has turned out to be an even more brilliant idea than I could have ever imagined. There are a lot of reasons why.
Commiserating / celebrating.
Don’t underestimate how important this is. Your friends and family will gladly celebrate your major victories and console you over big setbacks. However, the seemingly minor stuff (to them) that you’re going to want to vent about is probably going to be met with this phrase (or some variation thereof):
At least you have book deal.
That is a true and well intentioned statement that should put everything in perspective. It doesn’t always. Often, it only makes you feel guilty for complaining. (Or bragging.) That’s where other authors come in.
Only another debut understands the frustration of a book cover that doesn’t quite capture your vision for your story. Or the soul-sucking anguish of getting your book bumped a year. Or the joy of getting a jacket blurb from a Big Name Author. And, your peers will gently talk you away from the proverbial edge if you get a snarky review from Kirkus or are being dogged by a troll on Goodreads.
There’s a lot more to know in this business than how to write a good book. When you work with others in a group such as the Class of 2k11, each of you brings some other talent, experience, or knowledge to the table. Which is such a relief. That means you don’t need to know everything. One of you may be a great public speaker. Another may be whiz with websites and social media. Others may be great organizers. Still others may have great contacts with librarians or bloggers.
In the Class of 2k11 (and all the 2K’s), for instance, we each contribute money (and time) toward group efforts. That money pays for the website, swag, etc. We set up group events, research speaking opportunities, propose panel sessions, run contests, and send out newsletters, to name just a few of our activities.
At the very heart of both the 2K’s and the Debs is the idea of supporting and promoting your fellow debut’s work along with your own. And they do the same for you.We help each other with individual promotions as well as echo great news through the social media-verse.
Working on new projects.
Just being part of a community of creative people can bring you new opportunities and spark new ventures. For instance, soon after I joined both the Elevensies and the Class of 2k11, a fellow debut contacted me about joining a group blog of dystopian YA writers, The League of Extraordinary Writers (leaguewriters.blogspot.com). Another group of Elevensies formed an online writing workshop for teen writers.
Need I say more? I have a feeling many of us will stay friends throughout our hopefully long and illustrious careers.
All that sounds great for promoting your book, but how, you may ask, does this help in the actual writing process? That depends on you. Maybe you pick up a new critique partner or beta reader. Maybe you bounce ideas off your new-found friends. For me, just being part of the community helps alleviate the stress of the business part of the business. I know I don’t need to know everything. I know I can safely vent or share a triumph—and know they get it. And they help keep things in perspective and even make me laugh (especially this)—so I can get back to the thing I love doing. Writing.
"Love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate."
~Joyce Carol Oates~
So yesterday I was driving home from work and I saw a random shoe on the side of the road. It wasn't the first time either. Maybe it's where I live or maybe I'm just weird for noticing this kind of thing, but I swear I see an orphaned shoe like every other week. Construction boots, a child's sandal, heels, sneakers, flip flops – one time I even saw a walking cast. A WALKING CAST.
Every time I come across this phenomenon, I think – what happened to the other shoe? Who drives and tosses their footwear out the window? I mean, who does that??? Is there a strange shoe cult congregating in Maryland or something?
Anyway, I swear I have a point.
And it's this – aside from a cluttered closet or a store display, there's something odd about seeing a single shoe. I mean, they're supposed to come in pairs. A right. A left. Opposites of each other.
A shoe without its partner is…unbalanced. Lacking of the other. Missing its yin (or yang). This concept of duality isn't anything new. It goes back forever: Life and Death. Black and white. Sun and moon. Good and Evil. I'm definitely not a philosopher, but when a relationship is weighted heavily to one side or you're missing a part of the pair, everything else becomes weak and insignificant to the monopoly of the one that is left over. Or something like that, right?
(Just nod your head yes and follow me a sec…)
Duality, opposites, balance, shared responsibility – conceptually, it should be present in your story one way or another. But to better illustrate what I really mean, I'm going to single out the one thematic pair that's probably the most prevalent in children's literature:
Love and Hate.
Simply stated, they cannot exist without each other. I wish this weren't so. One day, it'd be nice for Miss America to get what she's always longed for. But truth is, if we didn't have the dirty black streak of hate to spar opposite our purist of purity pure love, then we wouldn't understand love, and vice versa. It's an ever-present, ever-dipping scale.
In our stories, we need this contrast – this conflict – to build tension and provide a three-dimensional environment for our characters to play in. If you write a love story that's all LOVE! LOVE! LOVE!, it would read so sappy, Cheetos would be crying for their cheese back.
In my humble opinion, love and hate are pretty much essential flavors in a good book. And the pairing requires attention to balance and equality, my friends.
Example #1: Romeo and Juliet had this amazing, crazy kind of love, right? But in old Bill Shakes' story, there was an equally intense hatred between the Capulets and Montagues. TENSION.
Example #2: Katniss wanted to protect her family above all else—even above her own life. But her desire to protect was rivaled by her hatred for the Capitol and all the oppression it represented. CONFLICT.
Example #3: Indiana Jones loved him some adventures, didn't he? The crazier the locale, the more bad guys he had to fight—the better! So long as there weren't snakes. But if there were snakes…well, who could forget that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the pyramid full of every slithering reptile known to man? STAKES.
I don't care how old your protagonist is – five, ten, fifteen, twenty – there must be someone or something he/she loves:
Mom, Dad, brother, sister, friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, teacher, coach, movie star, pet, team, sport, hobby, car, money, school subject, book, video game, food, social status, etc…
And there must be someone or something he or she hates JUST AS MUCH.
So my tip is this: No matter how much your character favors something or someone, try giving her something equal to dislike. The more matched in significance they are in your character's mind, the more organic tension we'll see on the page as your turning points occur and your character struggles to maintain the scale of keeping everything in her life balanced.
So let's go back to that shoe I saw on the side of the road.
I don't know where the other pair is. I don't know why they were separated in the first place. But I know every time I drive that road from now on, I'm gonna be on the lookout for its match.
Tell me, what does your protagonist love? What does he or she hate? Is the degree to which your character views these things matched? How do you pit the two against each other to create tension, conflict, or stakes for your character? Should I leave all this deep thinking to philosophical scholars?
These YA releases pack quite a punch. But first, we have good news for our international friends. Thanks to the kindness of St. Martin's Press, C.C. Hunter's newest release BORN AT MIDNIGHT will be open as an international giveaway! Want to know what else is up for grabs? Read on for amazing interviews, books, and more hot giveaways...
From Angie's blog: Nora, the popular girl and happy consumer, witnesses a horrific bombing on a shopping trip with her mother. In Nora’s near-future world, terrorism is so commonplace that she can pop one little white pill to forget and go on like nothing ever happened. However, when Nora makes her first trip to a Therapeutic Forgetting Clinic, she learns what her mother, a frequent forgetter, has been frequently forgetting. Nora secretly spits out the pill and holds on to her memories. The memory of the bombing as well as her mother’s secret and her budding awareness of the world outside her little clique make it increasingly difficult for Nora to cope. She turns to two new friends, each with their own reasons to remember, and together they share their experiences with their classmates through an underground comic. They soon learn, though, they can’t get away with remembering.
How long did you work on this book? The idea started as a short story, which was published in the May/June 2008 issue of Odyssey magazine. Then I started thinking about growing the story into a novel. I worked on it for about a year or so. During that time I workshopped pieces / stages of the book in various online workshops.
How was your journey to publication? Long, short, how many rejections?I've been incredibly lucky in my journey. I attended a regional SCBWI conference (Mid-Atlantic), which was the best money I ever spent. After I got home, I submitted the manuscript to several of the editors (and an agent) who had done panels at the conference. (That is one of the perks of these conferences. Editors let participants sub manuscripts directly.) My current editor at Marshall Cavendish was one of those panelists.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers? See above. If you're an aspiring children's book author, join SCBWI and go to at least one regional conference.
What has surprised you most about becoming a published author? All the waiting. You expect it in the submission process. You send out a manuscript or short story and wait. In the editorial process, though, there's even more waiting. You work furiously on revisions and then wait. Ditto for about every stage of the process. The waiting is totally understandable, though. Your book isn't the only one your editor is working on, and he/she is working with copyeditors, illustrators, book designers, marketing, and other editors.
From Goodreads: One night Kylie Galen finds herself at the wrong party, with the wrong people, and it changes her life forever. Her mother ships her off to Shadow Falls—a camp for troubled teens, and within hours of arriving, it becomes painfully clear that her fellow campers aren’t just “troubled.” Here at Shadow Falls, vampires, werewolves, shapshifters, witches and fairies train side by side—learning to harness their powers, control their magic and live in the normal world. Kylie’s never felt normal, but surely she doesn’t belong here with a bunch of paranormal freaks either. Or does she? They insist Kylie is one of them, and that she was brought here for a reason. As if life wasn’t complicated enough, enter Derek and Lucas. Derek’s a half-fae who’s determined to be her boyfriend, and Lucas is a smokin’ hot werewolf with whom Kylie shares a secret past. Both Derek and Lucas couldn’t be more different, but they both have a powerful hold on her heart. Even though Kylie feels deeply uncertain about everything, one thing is becoming painfully clear—Shadow Falls is exactly where she belongs…
How long did you work on this book? Hmm… Well, it depends on what you mean by “work” on the book. It generally takes me about three months to write a book. That’s on top of about another month spent trying to get to know my characters while writing the first three chapters. I’m a character-driven writer and most of my plot stems from my characters. So until I really get to know them, know what drives them, what scares them, what defines them, I don’t really get a lot of pages done.
How was your journey to publication? Long, short, how many rejections? Long? Oh…let’s see. I could have made it to China on crutches faster. And I could have left trails of rejections the whole darn way. I started writing in 1984. I wrote novels and toyed around with some nonfiction for magazines. A short ten years, and about 1000 rejections later, I sold my first book to Silhouette Romance. When I had a hard time selling my second book, I had already sold quite a few articles to magazines. So, I pulled out an old 35mm camera and started taking pictures to submit with my nonfiction. Within four or five years, I had another couple thousand rejections, and a full-time job as a photo journalists. I wrote three to four articles a week—some of the very short fillers, some of them meaty pieces, then I would search for the perfect magazine to submit them to. Most every piece I wrote was rejected once and some of them twenty times. So the rejection number got to be in the nine or ten thousand number range. But I ultimately sold over eighty percent of what I wrote. After five years of not writing fiction, I was hit with an epiphany. I was going to sell another book even if I had to kill someone to do it.
Funny thing was, that’s exactly what it took. Killing someone. On paper, of course. I started writing humorous romantic suspense. For the next five years, I wrote eight completed novels and even more proposals. My rejections kept on growing. But then it happened. I got the call from my agent. She said for me to sit down. I told her I’d worked my tush off and could take the news standing up. “I sold a book, didn’t I?”
“No.” Her reply hit me right in the gut, but then she said, “You sold four.”
I immediately sat down. I went on to publish six humorous romances, and three nonfiction books. Then I got another call from my agent. An editor from St. Martin’s Press wanted to know if would be interested in attempting to write a YA series. And that’s how Shadow Falls was born. This journey I’ve been on, has never felt so fulfilling.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers? Never, never, never give up. Never, never, never stop improving. With every article, every book I wrote, every writing class I took, every book I read, be it a how-to book or another novel, I was improving my craft. I wasn’t one of those writers who was just super talented. I’m dyslexic, just like Miranda is in Born at Midnight. She has a hard time getting her spells to work right. I had a hard time getting the words I put down on paper right. Believe me, writing was hard, but I wanted it so badly that I just working toward my goal. I made it. And if I can do it, I know most everyone can.
What has surprised you most about becoming a published author? I think I really thought that after I’d published four or five books, I’d feel confident, that I’d feel as if I knew what I was doing. But after eight novels and four more in the publishing pipeline, three nonfiction books and over 3000 magazine articles, I still worry. About every other day, I wake up and pray that people don’t discover my secret. And my secret is that I’m faking it. That I really don’t know what I’m doing. While this isn’t my first rodeo, Born at Midnight is my first young adult, it’s my first book for St. Martin’s Griffin, and it’s my first book under my new pen name C.C. Hunter. I’m so excited and I’m so nervous. I love writing about Kylie and all her supernatural friends. I’m having so much fun brainstorming about her struggle to discover who and what she is. I’m hoping my career in YA extends far into the future.
Anything else you’d like to add? Yes. First, I’d like to thank you so much for having me today. I’ve had a blast. Next, for your readers, make sure you snag my free short story, Turned at Dark. It’s Della’s story and it introduces the Shadow Falls series. You can read the first three chapters of Born at Midnight, too. All you have to do is visit my Born at Midnight page at Macmillan on March 15th – Born at Midnight Page. Or you can download a free eBook copy of Turned at Dark at all major online retailers. The download also has the first three chapters of Born at Midnight on there as well.
Also, to celebrate the release of Born at Midnight, I’m running a “Tweet my Book and Win a Kindle Contest” from March 22th through March 29th. The grand prize will be the Kindle but I’m also giving away copies of Born at Midnight, some Shadow Falls swag and ARCs of Awake at Dawn, which is scheduled to release in October. All the details will be at my blog beginning March 22nd – Blog. So, please drop by and help me tweet my book and you could win a Kindle!
And, finally, for writers you might want to check out my writing website www.writewithus.net. I have a lot of articles on writing and perseverance.
From Goodreads: The Gods have abandoned Ai Ling. Her mysterious power haunts her day and night, and she leaves home—with just the moon as her guide—overwhelmed by her memories and visions and an unbearable sense of dread. For Ai Ling knows that Chen Yong is vulnerable to corrupt enchantments from the under-world. How can she do nothing when she has the skill and power to fight at his side? A dream has told her where he is, the name of the ship he is traveling on, his destination. So she steals off and stows away on board. The ocean voyage brings with it brutal danger, haunting revelations, and new friendships, but also the premonition of a very real and terrifying threat. Zhong Ye—the powerful sorcerer whom Ai Ling believed she had vanquished in the Palace of Fragrant Dreams—is trapped in Hell, neither alive nor dead. Can he reach from beyond the grave to reunite with Silver Phoenix and destroy Chen Yong? And destroy whatever chance Ai Ling has at happiness, at love?
How long did you work on this book? I probably wrote a rough draft and revised Fury of the Phoenix once in a four month time frame. Then went on to do three major revisions with my editor within another three or four months time frame.
How was your journey to publication? Long, short, how many rejections? I queried from end of January 2008 through April 2008. I hit 121 agents and was still sending out queries on the weekend that agent Bill Contard emailed regarding his interest.
We went on sub within two days and Silver Phoenix went to auction and sold five weeks later along with the sequel.
It was an absolute whirlwind and utterly surreal and thrilling. Also terrifying! i always say it takes a lot of courage to pursue your dreams, but it takes even more courage to live it.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers? Other than the fact that writers write, to read widely and beyond what you usually enjoy reading. Also to constantly challenge yourself with each new writing project. Stay professional and positive in your interactions with others in real life as well as online.
What has surprised you most about becoming a published author? How much work it is to promote yourself and your book. There are many great books being published out there, it's a challenge to make your own stand out!
From Goodreads: A haunted castle, a handsome young man dead for four hundred years, one heck of a scary portrait of a witch, and a treasure hunt -- not to mention a princess for a roommate! -- all await 15 year old American girl Caitlyn Monahan when she earns a scholarship to a French boarding school. There are secrets behind the stone walls of Chateau de la Fortune, buried for centuries along with the mystery of who killed Raphael, the charming ghost who visits Caitlyn at night. But as Caitlyn unearths the history of the castle, nothing scares her as badly as the secret she learns about herself, and the reason she was chosen to come to the Fortune School. And nothing breaks her heart as badly as falling in love with a dead guy.
How long did you work on this book? Longer than I was supposed to! About a year and a half, when it should have been less than a year. I decided I needed to go to France to research the setting, which delayed things, and then I kept adding layers to the plot that required a lot of time and thought. And, too, the book turned out longer than expected.
How was your journey to publication? Long, short, how many rejections? It was loooong and winding, with rejections from every publisher I sent material to except, eventually, one. Long story short, I wrote a romance novel and couldn’t get it published, then spent several years following other career paths until I realized my heart was still set on writing. I wrote another romance (let’s call it Book 2) and submitted it to publishers, then Book 3, and was writing Book 4 before an editor called to say, “Hey, we’re interested in Book 2! And while you’re at it, send us Book 3 as well!” It was ten years from writing my very first novel to getting a book published.
Book 1 was eventually thrown in the recycling bin, in case you’re curious. It’s like when you cook pancakes: the first one off the griddle is never right.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers? Above all, persevere. I went through phases of giving up, and I know how those rejection letters eat away at your self confidence. The only guarantee of failure, though, is to quit completely.
What has surprised you most about becoming a published author? Two things: One is that even after 20+ novels and novellas, I still don’t earn enough to support myself without a second source of income; the other is that in my ‘real’ life — the life spent chatting with neighbors or having dinner with friends — I don’t like to talk about what I do. It’s an impossible topic of conversation: I work alone, in an imaginary world inside my head, and the problems I encounter in writing a story can only be known by me. Trying to talk about it is like boring someone with a long discussion of your dreams last night.
So, it turns out that being an author makes for a great answer to the question, “What do you do?” but it makes for lousy dinner conversation!
From Goodreads: Gripping and suspenseful, this powerful, no-holds-barred novel by an exciting new talent goes deep inside a young boy's mind. Thirteen-year-old Robbie is locked in a room with nothing but a desk, a chair, a piece of paper, and a pencil. He's starving, but all they'll give him is water. He is sure he's in a nuthouse or a prison. Actually, he's at Great Oaks School, aka the End of the Line. Kept in solitary confinement, Robbie must earn points for food, a bed, even bathroom privileges. He must learn to listen carefully, to follow the rules, and to accept and admit the truth: he is a murderer. Robbie's first-person account of his struggles at the school—at times horrifying, at times hilarious—alternates with flashbacks to the events that led to his incarceration. Ultimately he must confront the question: which is worse—that he wanted to kill his friend Ryan or that he killed him by accident?
How long did you work on this book? On and off through a many revisions over about three years.
How was your journey to publication? Long, short, how many rejections? In 2006, I entered a few pages of the unfinished manuscript in the SmartWriters.com WIN competition. The book is being published in 2011. The journey felt very long (if not impossible) at times, but looking back it seems “just right.” I don’t have a total number of rejections because I never counted them though I’m sure it was at least 2 dozen.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers? Join SCBWI.
What has surprised you most about becoming a published author? I’m surprised and happy whenever I get a response from readers on my website!
From Goodreads: Azalea is trapped. Just when she should feel that everything is before her . . . beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing . . . it's taken away. All of it. The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. And so he extends an invitation. Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest. But there is a cost. The Keeper likes to keep things. Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late.
We're beyond ecstatic that our giveaway of C.C. Hunter's BORN AT MIDNIGHT is open internationally. As for our U.S. friends, we have 2 signed copies of Cindy Pon's FURY OF THE PHOENIX, as well as 2 copies of Angela Cerrito's THE END OF THE LINE. Please fill out the form below and leave a comment on this post to enter. Winners will be announced Thursday morning.
Our first First Five Pages Workshop is over. We've received the final posts from the workshop participants, and WOW have they all worked hard! Please check out the final versions below, give them your thoughts, support, and congratulations for all their hard work.
And please vote for your favorite entry in the poll in the right-hand sidebar!
Have a WIP you'd like to shape up? Join us next Saturday for our April round. We'll take the first five entries received by email after our post goes up.
Want some tips for whipping getting in shape ahead of time? Check this post.
Happy writing and revising.
Martina and Lisa
P.S. -- For participating and working so hard, we have a copy of Ty Roth's beautiful SO SHELLY for the poll winner.
Until now, high school junior, John Keats, has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate and literary prodigy, Gordon Byron. That is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident.
After stealing Shelly's ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly's body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last "so Shelly" romantic quest. At least that's what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly's and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end.
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published February 8th 2011 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers (first published January 28th 2011)
My feet thud onto the pavement and my ankles fail me. I cry out in pain and surprise. Will I still be able to dance?
I squint at the lights shining from streetlamps and rushing cars. Too bright.
Sounds bombard me from every direction: car horns blare, music blasts, people talk, laugh, sing. My head pounds. I touch my temple and groan.
"Est-ce que tout va bien, mademoiselle? Avez-vous besoin d'aide?" a man asks, kneeling at my side.
I wonder why he is speaking French. Is everything okay, as he asked? My whole body hurts. I can’t seem to remember anything except French.
Where am I?
My head whips back and forth, checking out my surroundings. I recognize the Place de l'Opéra in Paris.
Okay, deep breaths. I’m in Paris. My mother’s birth place.
In a fog, I look down at myself and frown at the long, dark skirt, pointed black ankle boots, and a long-sleeved cream blouse scratching my neck. What the hell happened to my shorts and flip flops?
I push myself to standing, vaguely wondering what happened to my good samaritan, when a pendant bounces against my chest. I grab the gold medallion hanging around my neck and stare at the pattern that causes memories to wash over me.
Each wave threatens my balance. I shiver in fear, despite the heat.
What year is this?
Another look around confirms I’m at least close to my own time period. Cars and motorcycles. People wearing shorts and tee shirts. That sparks another memory, of putting these old fashioned clothes on over my lightweight, modern gear. I smile and pull a flip flop from each sleeve. I tear off the skirt, kick off the boots, and unbutton the horrid blouse to reveal a pink tank top. I ball it all up to carry under my arm, and run toward the rue de Mogador.
My ankle throbs and I remember spraining it last week.
I turn and see my good samaritan with a gendarme in a blue uniform.
“Oh no,” I whisper. My stomach clenches. It can’t be the same policeman. He wasn’t at the Opera when I left, he couldn’t be here with me.
I try to breathe normally, calm down, and think things through. If it is him, then he doesn’t belong here and can’t hurt me. If it isn’t him then I have nothing to worry about.
Should I run or talk my way out of it?
Old Sophie would clam up and run away.
But I'm not afraid to stick up for myself anymore.
* * *
17 DAYS EARLIER
Wind rushed down the metro platform, stealing our breath and trying to steal our dance bags. I wished it would steal away the smell.
Humming the adagio from the second act of Giselle, my favorite ballet, I could almost hear the mournful cello echoing off the arched tile walls, while my best friend bounced on her toes.
Our train arrived with a great rumbling and whooshing, and we squeezed on. There was nowhere to sit, barely anywhere to stand. Silently cursing the Friday-before-Bastille-Day crowds, I struggled to stay upright. I ignored the elbow pushing at my neck and the briefcase banging against my knee.
“Sophie, you are so lucky to have a hot boy in your host family,” Abby said from the other side of the pole in front of the doors. Her green eyes glinted under her thick bangs. “I’d consider giving up dance for the chance at a French cutie under the same roof.”
I snorted. “You would not. You live to pirouette.”
“Nah, pirouettes are fun, but I live for grand jetés. It’s like flying.” She closed her eyes and nearly fell against the tall, skinny, suited man between us. “So where is he taking you?” she asked.
“I think to a party at a friend’s house.” I stared at her chunky silver rings and gripped the pole like a dance partner's hands during a recital. I imagined letting go, losing my balance, ending up on the floor under all these feet and getting trampled to death. And then Mom would say, "I told you not to go to Paris for the summer."
Working hard not to inhale through my nose, I didn’t notice the pressure on my shorts at first. It could have been a shopping bag or an accident. Until fingers tickled around my zipper.
All the people and their various accessories blocked my view. I swatted a hand off my shorts and tried to step away, but my back pushed against a wall of bodies and I stepped on someone's foot. In response, I got jabbed in the ribs. I dropped my arm down to protect my zipper. The hand pushed back.
What the hell was going on? Was this really happening?
I twisted around, but there was no space for me, so I gritted my teeth in the battle against a hand I couldn't even see. Looking around at the bored, glistening faces, I saw nothing suspicious. No one seemed the least bit interested in me.
I felt so powerless.
“What’s wrong?” Abby asked.
I shook my head, fast, and bit my lip. I didn’t want the person responsible to hear me. No words formed in my brain anyway.
A woman standing at the next set of doors caught my attention. She had spiky black hair almost lost in the crowd. Her intense blue eyes veered downward and I wanted to touch my necklace, the gold medallion my mother gave me before I left New York, but I didn’t dare move either of my arms.
I again checked the faces around and above me. Nothing. Not a flicker. Not a glance.
The spiky-haired woman stared at me as if she could read my mind. The cello from Giselle sang in my mind again and I pictured the choreography that went along to the music, letting it distract me from the tension in my arms, the hand that had finally left me alone, and the freaky woman at the other end of the train.
We reached my stop and I forced my way through the throng of people blocking the exit.
Abby got out, too, even though this wasn’t her stop. “Sophie?”
I ignored her until we were on the street. I kept moving, not caring if she was behind me, yet grateful at the same time. I had to get away from all that ick.
“These holiday weekend crowds are crazy, huh?” she asked.
I stood on the street and rubbed my lower lip with frantic fingers.
“What happened? Are you okay?”
I finally found my words. “Someone tried to undo my zipper on the train. He--he was touching me.” I shuddered again at the memory, and at my inability to move away or even to react.
She gasped. “Whoa, that’s friggin’ weird.”
I shrugged and wrapped my arms around myself. “I couldn’t tell. The only person looking at me was some woman standing too far away.” I felt her blue eyes on me again and shivered. The two memories twisted together in my mind. If I ever saw her again, would I remember the feel of a stranger's hand on me?
“Shit, Soph, I’m sorry,” Abby said. “That’s happened to me a few times. It sucks.”
My mouth dropped open. “You’ve never said anything.”
She bit her pinkie nail. “What’s to tell? Men are pigs.”
I couldn't believe my best friend had never told me something so important. Something I found completely degrading. No one had ever touched me there before. I hadn’t had much experience yet with boys.
And I had done nothing about it. I stood there and took it. What was wrong with me?
We walked against the pedestrians heading in the opposite direction. Any time a man accidentally brushed against me, I flinched. Abby rolled her eyes.
I had taken enough for one day. “What’s your problem, Abs? I’m upset.”
She sighed. “Okay, I guess I was pretty mad the first time, too. But you get used to it.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t just going to get used to it. I felt violated. Dirty.
“Well,” Abby said, looking up at the iron gates in front of the Picard apartment. “Have a good time with Vincent tonight. Don’t forget to call me. I want all the juicy details.”
I stopped with one hand on the vertical bars of the gate. “I’m not going out with Vincent tonight.”
She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows.
“If he tries to kiss me, I’ll probably slap him,” I explained. “Then where will I live?”
When Annie and Jason first started the cemetery, Annie always hoped for rain. She thought it was more dramatic. But common sense won out. Rain turned the holes into mud baths.
Fortunately, today was perfect, clear-sky burial weather. If she had to wait any longer, it would be too late.
Annie eavesdropped from the top of the stairs. Her brother Matt and a friend droned on about healing plants for Boy Scouts. That'd keep him out of her hair.
She tip-toed down the hall and peeked in her mom's room. Busy with bills. And Kate was out of the house. Perfect.
Still, to be safe, she sneaked the phone into the hall closet where her sister's faux fur parka would muffle the sound. She speed-dialed 7 and let it ring once, then hung up and called again. Their secret code. It rang twice before Jason answered.
"It's me." Annie was all business. "I've got a body count."
Jason hedged. "I don't know. My parents are talking to this lady, and . . ."
"Jason, you're ten. Find a way. This is important." Without waiting for a response, she hung up.
Jason wouldn't find a way. Annie knew. She'd just have to go to his house and get him, like usual.
After listening at the door for several seconds, she slipped out of the closet and replaced the phone. Silently, she extracted the pre-packed bag from under her bed then ran down the stairs.
"I'm going outside, Mom!" She bounded out of the house before her mom could protest and ran smack into Kate.
"Watch it, squirt!"
For a split second, Annie thought she might escape her sister's usual torment, until Kate's mouth twisted into a grin. "Where are you going, anyway? To your boyfriend's?"
Annie puffed out her chest, clutching her bag tight. "He's not my boyfriend!"
Kate laughed as she pushed past. "Right."
The door banged shut, and Annie forced herself to unclench her fists. She wasn't in the clear yet and needed to be alert. Spies could be anywhere.
Bag over her shoulder, Annie slowed to a casual stroll and whistled as she scanned the area. Across the cul-de-sac, Mrs. Schuster---aka Mrs. Meany---pulled weeds from her perfect flower garden. The old woman paused to eye Annie.
Next door, Billy pedaled on his trike while his mom watched from the garage. A picture of innocence. But was it? Annie kept up her guard.
Still, as a seasoned pro, Annie knew how to handle it. She breathed in the warm September air, hitched up her pack, and sprinted around the corner house to Jason's.
As always, Mr. Parker's beat-up truck sat in the driveway. Lumber jutted from the back as though Jason's dad was headed to his next framing job. It had looked that way for a while now. In addition to the truck, a shiny off-white Lexus was parked at the curb.
That must belong to the lady, Annie thought.
She rang the doorbell and put on her best especially-for-adults smile. It ebbed at the sound of squawking turkeys coming from Jason's backyard, but she'd completely recovered by the time Mrs. Parker answered.
"Hello, Annie dear. Let me go get Jason." A brief frown crossed her face before she brushed back a stray strand of her curly dark hair and glided toward Jason's room.
Mrs. Parker looked and dressed more like a model than a mom. Today she wore sleek black slacks and a sparkly sweater that swooned at the neck. Annie tried to imagine herself in such an outfit but failed. It just wouldn't be the same with Annie's frizzy hair and freckles.
From the doorway, Annie saw Mr. Parker and a skinny, blond-bobbed woman at the table in the rear. They both stared at some papers.
When Mrs. Parker scooted Jason around the corner, Jason threw Annie an annoyed look and jerked away to stand by his dad. "I don't have to go, dad. I could . . ."
"Can't you see we're busy?" Mr. Parker barked. "Now, go play and let us finish."
Annie stepped back at Mr. Parker's anger. He was usually pretty cool. The one playing catch with them in the yard---the turkey-free front yard---while Annie's dad worked late. She hardly dared look at Jason as his mom hustled him to the door.
"You two go have fun." Mrs. Parker spoke a little too brightly. "Be back in time for dinner, Jason."
Jason kicked the porch rail before clomping down the steps. Annie knew better than to say anything. She was almost glad when something glinted in the Pierce's window across the street.
She picked up the pace. "Hurry! Before Lila sees us."
Jason folded his arms, but walked a little faster. "There are worse things than being seen, you know."
Annie stared at her friend. "Are you kidding? We're going to the cemetery. That would be a catastrophe!"
Jason shrugged. "Let's just go," he mumbled.
They ran to the garden at the side of Annie's house and found their secluded patch between the corn and the cherry tree.
Every spring, with the forced labor of her three children, Annie's mom planted a giant of a garden---one of the biggest in the neighborhood. It spread from the house all the way to the ditch and had a little of everything. But the best part was the five full rows of corn next to the big fat cherry tree. The combination made the perfect hiding spot in summer and fall which Annie and Jason turned into their unmarked cemetery.
This side of Annie's house had no windows, so no one could spy on them from above. And not wanting to hurt the roots, Annie's mom never planted anything too close to the tree. The graves wouldn't be disturbed.
Annie dropped to her knees, her bag in front. Reverently she pulled out the dead peanut butter and jelly sandwich and handed it to Jason. Though two of the edges looked like normal bread crust, the center was smushed flat. Purple jelly spots seeped through the now gray bread.
"The two-liter of soda fell on it," Annie explained.
Since they had started the cemetery five years ago---after a tragic incident involving a fanny pack, an orange, rock jumping and several falls---they had scrupulously followed the SPB&J (Smushed Peanut Butter and Jelly) Burial Rules. And rule #1 was clear: Thou shalt bury all smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are unfit to eat, in the secret cemetery.
"How old is it?" Jason asked
"Three days. I had to save it from the trash when my mom wasn't looking."
Jason eyed Annie then the sandwich. He opened his mouth then closed it, finally performing the inspection. He turned the sandwich frontwards and backwards then rotated it to check the sides. "I hereby pronounce this sandwich mold free and worthy of burial."
Thanks to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich Jason found squished at the back of his school desk last year, they'd added rule #7: Thou shalt not bury any sandwich with any non-peanut butter and jelly growths in the cemetery.
Some things were just too gross.
With her mom's gardening spade, Annie dug a sandwich-sized hole then winked solemnly at Jason. Rule #3: Thou shalt not speak during the ceremony, except the official sermon.
Jason extracted the sandwich from the baggie and held it up with outstretched arms. Before Annie could do her part, he squinched up his face and looked away.
"Time out," Annie said. Rule #6: If an emergency shall arise, thou shalt call a time out to allow speaking. "Don't be such a drama king. I haven't missed in ages."
Jason eyed Annie. "You missed last time it was your turn. And the time before that."
Maximillian Drayson didn't quite like girls, but he figured Annika Britanika was different. She could climb a tree faster than he was able, and she could invent gadgets that actually worked. Heck, if he had to have a best friend, he couldn't think of a boy better than Annika. Even still, she was a girl, and given that fact, subjected to all the strangeness about girls he didn't understand.
For instance, on the day before last, he merely asked her whether Mr. Britanika might have forgotten to send her birthday gift when one still hadn't arrived. It was unlike Mr. Britanika not to send a spectacular present from some part of the unknown world a week prior to the actual event. Max realized he'd gotten himself in a dicey situation when Annika was in no mood to continue their chess game. Her full lips were trembling and her enormous brown eyes filled with tears when she huffed off and wouldn't talk to him. Max decided to put up with the quirky girl bits about Annika because the two of them were more similar than different.
Today was Annika's birthday and he hoped her mood had improved. For it was the day Annika was to make good on the promise she had made to him when they were eight years of age, sitting in the tree house that teetered on the limbs of a large oak tree in her backyard. She had said she'd kiss Max on her thirteenth birthday, and he was determined to collect on it.
Max stretched his body upright and concentrated on not slouching so the knickers on his brother's hand-me-down, gray rugby suit wouldn't fall too far below his knees. He knocked hard on the fancy front door of the Britanika's grand house. Just as the door opened, Max regretted grabbing a bunch of Mrs. O'Hare's flowers that looked like puffy snowballs for Annika when he passed by on his way to her house. He was certain his friends would tease him when he showed up with them.
"G'day Master Drayson," Molly, one of the four servants, said when she opened the door. "Aren't you a splendid young lad to bring hydrangeas for Mrs. Smith, eh?"
Max simply nodded and let her take the flowers, relieved to rid himself of the declaration of love.
"Miss Britanika is in the sitting room with her guests." Molly stepped aside to let Max in. "You may go in and join them."
"Thank you, ma'am," Max muttered as he passed her.
He dragged his feet the entire length of the hall and into the sitting room. The moment he saw Annika his breath hitched against his throat. She looked just like an angel topper on a Christmas tree in her white flouncy dress and a big white satin bow flopped on top of her head. Only, she looked better than any angel could. For she was the earth covered in fresh fallen snow.
The moment Annika's eyes landed on Max, she rushed over and grabbed his elbow. "Pardon us, please, we'll be right back," she said, dragging him out of the room. She pulled him down the long hallway and into the library, easing the door shut behind them.
"Wh--what's going on?" Max's thoughts immediately went to the promised kiss. He straightened and readied himself for it.
"Hush your voice or someone might hear us." Annika rushed over to the bookcases.
Max quickly swiped his sleeve across his mouth, his thoughts going over the rules his brother had given him. Such as, he shouldn't touch any part of her during the kiss, don't slobber all over her, and don't kiss and jabber to pals about it. He decided the whole thing seemed complicated. Heck, he just wanted to kiss her without all the shoulds and should nots.
Annika hurried back to him with a small, tattered brown package balancing in her hands. Scribbled all over the bruised package were the words OPEN ALONE in the darkest ink Max had ever seen. He slouched, letting the knickers fall further below his knees. This wasn't about the promised kiss.
"It came this morning. It's from Ayah." That was the name Annika called her father. She had learned it in Bali, when her family had lived there for a time. She told Max all the children there called their fathers that.
"Well, open it," Max said, disappointed.
Annika removed the twine, tore away the brown paper, and pulled aside the wadded up newspaper.
"Well, what is it?" Max asked.
Annika held up a shiny golden globe--its stand balancing on her palm--for Max to see. "It's a globe of the world."
"Is it real gold?" Max reached a hand out for the globe, and Annika yanked it away from his reach. Ever since he'd broken one of the many contraptions she's always fiddling with, she wouldn't let him touch important things. And the globe sure did look valuable. That is, if it were real gold, Max determined.
Annika tucked a strand of her long brown hair behind one of her slightly big ears and narrowed her eyes as she studied it. "It looks old and used."
"It looks like an antique," Max said. "Well, maybe a little spit shine would pretty it up."
"Yeah, he must've picked it up at an outdoor market." Annika spun the globe with her pointer finger and it hummed as it twirled. She tried to spin it the other way, but it would catch and stop.
"Hey, what's this?" Max asked, bending over and retrieving an envelope from the floor. "It must've fallen out from the package." He handed the crumpled envelope to her.
She opened it and pulled out the letter inside. After reading it, she looked up at Max.
"Gee whiz." Her shoulders crumpled. "He says it's a magical globe that can transport me to anywhere in the world that I ask it to. Doesn't he know I'm too old to believe in his hocus gifts? He could have sent me silks like he had for Fallon's birthday." Her bottom lip protruded. If Max had to pick a favorite thing about her, he'd say it was how her full lips expressed her feelings. At the moment, they were telling him she was clearly upset, but he wasn't sure for what reason. He thought the globe was magnificent.
"Let's try it out," Max said, hoping to change her mood.
Annika crinkled her eyebrows. "It won't work . . . never has."
Mr. McMichaels hated me ever since he confiscated a story I wrote during class last week. A story about an evil goblin warlord. Named McMichaels.
I guess I can't blame him, but wouldn't most English teachers love students who wanted to be authors? But no. I was lucky he only threatened me with detention.
I took my time walking to English class, seeing no need to rush. The crowded hallway slowly thinned out as kids ducked into their classrooms. The scent of mold and putrid gym clothes wafted toward me when a freshman slammed his puke-green locker shut, and I gagged.
"Riona?" someone called.
I turned and spotted Artex, the new guy. He smiled and waved a piece of paper in his hand. Wow, were his teeth white! "Hi." I smiled back, unsure why he was talking to me. After all, I was decidedly unpopular. I refrained from shuffling my feet. Good-looking boys always made me nervous.
He jogged down the hall to me, and a lock of dark hair fell across his forehead, giving him a messy but dreamy look. Oh, yeah, Artex was definitely attractive. "I think this is yours." He handed me the story I had started in Spanish class.
"Thanks." I shoved it into a notebook. "I guess I accidentally left it behind."
"You really wrote poor Roderick into a tight spot. Those bloody pirates are more than he can handle." He fell into step beside me.
My cheeks grew hot. "You read it?" Even though I dreamed of seeing my name, Riona Streaming, on the spine of a book, I didn't have the courage to allow someone else to read my writing.
He laughed and brushed back his hair. "How else did I know it was yours? Why don't you want people to read your stories?"
I frowned, and the floor suddenly grew very interesting. It was ugly, too, but mostly from all the sneaker scruff marks.
Artex shifted and cleared his throat. "You should finish it. It's really good. Maybe you should try to get it published.”
I wanted him to drop the issue. It was almost as if he was reading my thoughts. Or maybe he was just reading my face. I can't hide my emotions. "Maybe." Someday. Don't be rude, Riona. I didn't know Artex that well, but he liked my writing so how bad could he be? He might just want to encourage me.
We'd reached the door to my English classroom, and I stopped with my hand on the knob. "Class," I said.
Gah, why couldn't I ever talk to cute guys without sounding like a complete idiot?
Artex grinned. "I know. I have English with you." He waved his arm. "After you."
I blushed. I had known that. Boy was I making myself out to be an idiot. I stifled a sigh. The dangerously good-looking Artex was getting to me.
I walked into the small classroom and slid into my customary seat in the middle of the classroom. In the front, the teacher can see if you’re taking notes or not. In the back, the teacher assumes you’re a troublemaker. But in the middle, you can do anything.
Artex sat in the front.
Mr. McMichaels stood in front of the class. Short with a pot-belly, he really did resemble a goblin, at least to me he did. “Class, today I want to talk to you about the writing evil. You’ve all read the book A Wrinkle in Time. Did you know Madeleine L'Engle had a hard time publishing it because of the nature of evil in it?”
I furrowed my brow. Evil was a matter of fact within the world. Look at the evening news. Murders, shootings, war. Evil and mankind were inseparable throughout history.
“For the rest of class today, I want you to start a short story that shows evil in some way. You story must be completed by the end of the week. If you want, you may share your story with the class. You can begin.”
Permission to write during class? Fantastic! Evil… hm. What could be more evil than a necromancer? But that would be too contrite. Not all necromancers had to be evil. Slowly the idea formed, and I wrote about Zumar and his revenge against the people of Harrock. My pen raced across the paper.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Someone was staring at me. Artex? I glanced up. Sure enough, Artex was turned around in his seat, looking at me. He tapped his forehead twice, faced forward, and returned to his own writing.
Toward the middle of the story, I stalled. What had been Zumar’s motivation for becoming a necromancer?
A few minutes later, Artex stood up and approached Mr. McMichaels. They exchanged whispers before Mr. McMichaels called out, “Class, you can finish your stories as homework. Artex already has a story he wishes to share.” He smiled at Artex as if he were a literary genius.
I, on the other hand, glared at Artex before blanching. If Artex had stolen my Roderick story…. I mean, what other story could he have finished in so short a time?
Artex walked to the front of the class. He cleared his throat and began, “Hatred coursed through Zumar as he stared at the city below him. The people of Harrock had done him a great injustice.”
I gasped. Those exact words graced the top of my page. Every word was the same. But how could Artex have know? He sat in front of me, not behind me. He couldn’t have copied it.
Artex had continued reading. Instead of looking at him, I held up my pages, my hand trembling. Word for word, every sentence was identical. “Despite his closed eyes, he saw a bright, raging fire, consuming a small building, his home, with his wife and only child trapped inside. Zumar watched in horror as the flames covered their clothes, and their loud shrieks filled his ears.”
Yes. I had determined Zumar’s his wife and daughter dying as his motivation — but I hadn’t written that far. I leaned forward, my elbow on the desk, my chin resting in my hand, daring Artex to finish reading his story, my story, but the bell rang.
Mr. McMichaels' chair squeaked as he pushed it back and stood. “You can finish sharing tomorrow, Artex. Thank you.”
I glowered at Mr. McMichaels. He never thanked me after all the times I offered to share a poem with the class. A poem I would share willingly, a story not so much.
“Of course.” Artex caught my eye, smiled a secret little smile, and practically ran out the door.
I grabbed my papers and hurried after him. The rest of my classmates reached the door at the same time, and I had to push my way through them. By the time I reached the hallway, Artex was nowhere in sight.
What the heck? How did that just happen? There was no way it was a coincidence. Deciding to write about a necromancer, maybe. But every single word? Impossible!
But people can’t read minds.
I paused in the middle of the hallway. People bumped into me, but I stood still. Artex pressing about people needing to read my stories immediately after I had thought about not being courageous enough….