Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Writing romantic tension

Every once in a while I'll read something where a particular element of the story really sticks out as well done. This holiday, I've been rereading Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur series. (The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing Places, King of the Middle March, and Crossing to Paradise) Among other things, there is lovely romantic tension. It's not overstated, it's not the major focus of the book (there are other things Crossley-Holland does well, too), but he just really, really nails it.

Sometimes I read a book where the characters just like each other because the author wants them to, but there's no chemistry. Sometimes the reason is because the MC is actually attracted to the danger the love interest represents. I'm not sure how much sticking power that has. Surely it makes for a tense plot, but will it last the lifetime of the characters? Maybe, if they face danger together, or work out the issues. But maybe not. Sometimes the reason for liking each other is brute physical attraction. I suppose that's realistic for some people, but it was never enough for me. So when I read a book where the connection--which is more than just attraction--goes deeper, it catches something in my insides. It doesn't take dates to the prom or tons of snogging or whatever. If you can convince me that the characters belong to each other, I'm sold.

So, here are five reasons why Arthur and Gatty have, IMO, such great chemistry:

1. Crossley-Holland pits Arthur and Gatty doing something right when the rest of the world isn't. They're united on the same side, against the world.

2. He uses really ordinary details and settings to do this, which makes it feel all the more grounded. (There is some magical realism in the series, but the relationships and the choices are all grounded in reality.)

3. Arthur takes some flack for stepping out to help Gatty--it’s not just that he’s doing the right thing, or that he and Gatty are on the same side. It’s that, without a fuss, he defends her, both to himself, and to others. That alone wins him some pretty undying loyalty--if I were Gatty, there is no way I could keep from feeling something for him!

4. Everyone else around them is doing wrong. But they have the two qualities I admire most—loyalty and integrity. Yes, this is a personal preference for this reader! But I think it sets them apart--you cheer for them because despite their weaknesses they are basically good people, and deserve each other in a world of injustice.

5. They understand each other’s most important feelings, despite the worlds between them.

Any other elements of romantic tension you'd add to this?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Full novel evaluation (useful for revisions)

In light of how the combination of plot + character needs to be strong to make your book viable, here are some things to consider when you are evaluating your own ms or someone else's.

Overall structure:

1. What is the main problem that the MC must overcome (ie, the central plot issue)? Where does the reader learn of that problem? It should be early on, like in the first chapter!

2. What are the major turning points within the novel? In some books there are three acts. Action should lead up to these turning points, which change the character and the situation, complicating the story until the climax, where there is no turning back. The results of the climax are irrevocable (to some degree, on a much smaller level, the turning points are a little like that, too.)

3. The turning points should occur because of the MC’s choices. Ie, the characters and their choices MAKE the plot. So track very carefully what your MC (or villain) does, what that sets off in terms of natural consequences, and how your MC (or villain) reacts to and deals with the new situation.


1. Characterization cannot really be separated from plot. Who the characters are determines how they choose to act—which in turn determines the plot.

2. Make sure, especially when writing for children, that their ages match their action and dialogue. Excessive exclamation points and yelling/exclaiming in text indicates very young children, for example. A story about fun adventure with your siblings and parents is normal for a MG. Not so much for a YA (which is usually one character against the world, and usually has some romantic element, or at least the acknowledgement that romance is one of the things on the MC’s mind, even if it does not come strongly into the story).

3. Again—character IS plot. What gives a character joy, what the character most wants and fears, and what obstacles they face ARE the story. (This point via Cheryl Klein.)

4. Is your MC driving the plot? Or are they just reacting or moving along amid things that just happen? Sometimes it’s easy to mistake action scenes for plot development. They are not always the same thing!


1. Look for long, expository asides that do not move the plot along. Delete them. Description should always be in motion. Starting a novel with “It all started when…” or some other device that rambles endlessly before the actual story begins is a kiss of death.

2. It can be helpful to list the events in each chapter and look at that outline (without the actual text of the book). What is the purpose(s) of each scene? Are there duplications in the book? If a scene isn’t contributing—or isn’t contributing enough—it needs to either be cut or expanded. Holly Lisle says that a novel is all of the passion and none of the toothbrushing.

3. Stuff that builds the tension should always be present. Occasionally your readers may need a rest, so it’s okay to have small conclusions (finding a clue after a lot of effort, for example, or a romantic scene, or whatever)—but don’t pause too long! Don’t let anyone get too comfortable, or the reader will quit reading.


1. Conflict is personal. It’s not enough to save the world. The character needs to save something important to him or herself.(This point courtesy of Kristin Nelson.)

2.You need a careful balance of action and character info at the beginning. A huge disaster at the beginning is still a “so what?” situation unless we care about the character. But you don’t want to put a bunch of boring expository stuff at the beginning, either. Instead, show us the scene through the biased filter of the MC’s eyes.

3.Stakes are something that have to be carefully laid in before a medium or major conflict arises, so that the reader can feel the meaning of what is happening. Read Marcelo in the Real World or Flipped for an example of the careful and purposeful laying in of stakes and see how they become charged with meaning when the MCs make their big moves.


1. Is this different enough from other books (or movies), or is it leaning on tired tropes?

2.Even if it is on a similar topic as something else, a book also gets its originality from voice, from details that are very character-specific, and details that are grounded in the author’s personal experience.

3.Markus Zusak (author of The Book Thief) suggests thinking of what a reader will expect in a given situation—and come up with the opposite. He tries to make a little surprise for the reader on every page. He recommends The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay as an example of a book that does this. His, of course, do, too.


1. Show, don’t tell!

2.Use sensory details (and not just sight)

3. Act out the scenes, and add kinetic details you have experienced from being there and inhabiting the character.

4. Don’t forget common details. Beginning writers often splurge on glorious or horrific details, but forget the non-emotionally-charged ones that ground a story in reality and make it real (even if it’s fantasy).

5.Nouns and verbs. Use them! It's better to have a single strong noun or verb than a weak one with a weak modifier.


1. Repeating from above, nouns and verbs are worth a lot more than adverbs and adjectives. Also avoid vague words like almost, nearly, sort of, someone (as opposed to being specific when possible), etc.

2. Sensory and other details that are character-specific build voice, immediacy, and even stakes, quite aside from making a pleasant reading experience for the reader.

3. Use active language!! Both grammatically active (vs. passive) and interesting verbs instead of was –ing.

4. Watch for impossibilities, such as using two –ing phrases in a sentence (which grammatically indicate the actions are happening at the same time) when the two events are in reality sequential, not simultaneous.

5. Vary your sentence structure. Don't start all your sentences with -ing phrases.

6. Length of sentence can indicate passage of time. Use short sentences and punchy words for action scenes.


1. Dialogue is an approximation of real speech—not a copy.

2. Individuals speak differently—make sure your characters do, too.

3. Make sure that you are not dating your book by using outdated speech, especially in children’s books.

4. Characters should say things that people would actually say. Avoid the “So you know, Bob” situation where characters tell each other things that they would already logically know. There are other ways of getting this info across to the reader (such as straight-out, succinct narration).

5. The dialogue should stand on its own as much as possible, instead of depending on adverbial tags to describe the way in which it is said. (Sometimes you need them because it cannot be obvious from the dialogue alone. But go spare!)

Friday, October 16, 2009

A character-based plot

Wow, it's been a while since I posted. I've been revising and writing and doing other creative ventures, but now I'm back.

I spent a long time on a writing plateau where apparently I could string sentences together, yet I could sense there was an important line I hadn't yet crossed. I'm pretty sure I know what that was now, so I'm writing it down in case anyone else out there is feeling the same frustration.

Plot = character.

It's something I see in other people's intermediate writing a LOT as I critique from a variety of pools, and I'm pretty sure this is one of those things that divides intermediate writers from more advanced ones.

A story isn't a collection of stuff that happens to a character, with the character fending off obstacles and trying to get through the stuff the author has set in front of him/her. Instead, it's a series of consequences that arise out of a character's choices, choices that person makes based on their hopes and fears and desires and weaknesses. That's the way the solutions to the book come about, too.

What does the MC want, what is s/he afraid of, what pressure drives him/her to act anyhow, and what does s/he do? And what is the result? Preferably, this result will escalate the story to more complications.

I know, every writing book tells you this. It's not like I'd never heard it before, and not that I didn't believe it. But climbing around inside and learning to set off little fires under my characters' feet and make them live the consequences, watching them for how they would try to deal with them, is something I had to learn to do. I'm not saying I am very good at it. But finally I'm feeling my mind open up and really get it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Improving the intermediate writer

I was pondering some of the things that can help the intermediate writer get off plateaus this weekend (because there is so much out there to help beginners, but very little once you know the basics, are out of the 90% of all clueless submissions group, but still aren't hitting the mark). And voila, Cheryl Klein has a great post on "getting to the emotional heart of the story" today (and considering she edited Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, you better believe she knows what she's talking about). So hie over to Cheryl's blog and check it out!

Monday, May 11, 2009

How to find an agent: a starting point

Note: Do NOT query an agent until you have a FINISHED, REVISED manuscript. That means you have finished it completely and have had someone else (usually not your mother) read it and give you critical feedback. Once you have done that, though, you will need the following information:

1. Go to www.agentquery.com and open the advanced search options. Click on the appropriate genres/age groups that describe your work. Now you have a list of possible agents to research. Agentquery is pretty well updated and a great place to start.

2. Take the list of agents you are interested in and check them against Preditors and Editors (http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/). As Hagrid would say, “Not all agents are good.” Most are, sure, but there are a few scam artists out there, too. Basically, money flows to the author (ALWAYS remember that!) and if they want to charge any upfront fees, or seem to have any kind of kickback deals with people who will edit your ms for a fee, or if they are involved in both editing and agenting themselves (a conflict of interest), steer clear. Agents earn a commission on works they have sold, not on fees charged over unsold books.

3. See what people like yourself have to report on the agents on your list. Check them out at the forums at www.absolutewrite.com or www.verlakay.com (the latter if you write children’s books).

4. Get a one-month subscription to Publishers Marketplace (www.publishersmarketplace.com). It costs about $20 and you will have to unsubscribe if you don’t want to be charged for another month. But it is worth it. PM lists the widest number of agent sales. Not every sale is listed, but it will give you a much greater view of what the agents you are interested in are actually selling. Why is this important? Let me explain.

Let’s say you have a young adult (YA) fantasy. So you find someone in agentquery who reps plenty of adult authors, but they say they are also interested in YA. You go to see the sales they have actually made, and interestingly enough, ALL of their sales are in adult, and NONE are in YA. You might think about this. Likely the agent wants to expand. That is not necessarily bad. If they’re selling plenty of urban fantasy for adults, it’s not a stretch to pick up some YA along with it, since they’re already familiar with it. It might be a great fit for you.

However, let’s say you do more research and find that they haven’t read any of the popular YA titles in that genre. Never read Twilight, never read Scott Westerfield, never read Libba Bray. Um...now you should be concerned. If they aren’t familiar with these titles, they don’t know enough to sell your book. They will have no idea how your title fits into the current market.

On the other hand, you may find an agent who is expanding into the YA market who has been reading it all along, even if they haven’t been selling it. I ran across an agent like this who, in interviews and in his agentquery page, showed his familiarity with MG novels in a way that showed he’d likely have success (and he has gone on to do that). If I’d had a humorous MG boy book, I would definitely have queried him. So you see, it’s not always bad—you just need to get the full picture.

One more scenario, and then we’ll go on. Let’s say that the agent is great with paranormal/urban fantasy, sells your YA of that genre, and everything is great. Until you write your next book, which is a midgrade (MG) historical novel about orphan trains. Um. Now you may have a problem. The adult paranormal agent dipping into YA might not have any contacts for MG markets. And suddenly you find yourself parting ways with your agent because they can’t sell your new book. Are they a bad agent? No. But you now have a bad fit. So look at the full range of what they are comfortable with, what they know, and be honest with yourself about the full range of what you see yourself writing. Getting a Bigname Agent who doesn’t cover your writing field of interest will not do you much good in the end if they don’t have the contacts.

Okay, so you have your list of agents you’re interested in. Look at what they want you to send them, and FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. They get hundreds—thousands—of queries. Do you really want to give them an easy reason to toss yours?

You will have to write a query. Maybe send more. Agentquery has some nice samples of these, and you can always (and probably should) go to the late, great Miss Snark’s blog (http://misssnark.blogspot.com/) and check out her crapometers. Look at 100 or so with her snarky comments and you will start to see what works (and doesn’t) and why. Basically, you need to let the agent know the title, genre, age group, and word count for starters. You need a brief bit about yourself (which is pretty brief if you haven’t been published before—and this is not bad, everyone has to start somewhere). And most importantly, you will need a hook. A hook is a brief paragraph (like what’s on a book jacket) that tells what the book is about. I love Miss Snark’s formula for this (although not every book will fall into this formula—but this is one way to do it):

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

In other words, you need to say who the principal players are, and what the conflict is. With specifics. There are a zillion books out there about saving the world. The specific, personal conflicts are what make your book different.

Don’t be needy, do spell correctly, and remember that your query is your professional introduction. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview with peanut butter on your t-shirt (and you probably wouldn’t wear a t-shirt in the first place), and you wouldn’t give a long sob story about how no one else will hire you, so you might as well try here. No, you’re going to want to look confident, friendly, and professional. Make your query equally professional.

6. A last word about responses. Most people query multiple agents at once. I think everyone in the field expects that. If there is interest, an agent will probably ask for the first three chapters (a partial), and from there, either reject it or ask for the full manuscript. (See, this is why you need to have it finished and ready.) A few agents will want to look at your manuscript exclusively. Put a time limit on this (3 weeks? 6 weeks?), after which they are welcome to keep looking, but it will no longer be exclusive. If you get offers from more than one agent, tell everyone in the running that you’ve had an offer (no need to say from whom), and give them all a week or so to read/express interest/whatever. And hopefully you will have a great agent and go on to sell many excellent books together.

Monday, April 20, 2009

On choice and sacrifice and writing in Eden

(Warning: if haven't read Harry Potter, you may find some spoilers. But then again, if you haven't read it by now, you probably don't care about reading spoilers.)

If you asked me what one element is in all of my favorite books, in all of the texts that I reread and carry around with me in my heart, it would be personal sacrifice.

I come to this from a variety of sources: religion (Jesus laying down his life for his friends), fairy tales (the Little Mermaid giving up, as she believed, her chance at a soul), life (is this not what motherhood is all about?), and a bounding hope for miracles, even when things are darkest. It’s the sun that rises directly from that darkness that I read for. And I am sure I am not the only one. Many others love Harry and Aslan and others who sacrifice what they have for something greater. It doesn’t have to be giving up one’s life. I can be giving up one’s fears or chances. But always, the character gives up something they want out of love for someone else or a sense of justice, and the payoff is greater than that which they forfeited.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It is not as easy to do as it looks. I can think of books where I know the writer was trying to do this, and yet, failed to get it across. Instead, the characters come across as too willing to give up their personalities and all their own desires and directions and let other characters’ wills trample their own. Since I’ve got a character who’s got to sacrifice his fear of the consequences in order to confront the truth, I’ve been pondering what makes it work, and how to avoid messing up.

I think it’s in the plotting. Specifically, in the choices the character makes before that last great choice.

Let’s think of a character who sacrifices everything in the end. Harry Potter Harry Potter gives up everything in the end. Our hearts are in our mouths and tears on our cheeks as we read him going into the forest. He isn’t giving up his personality. But he’s willing to give away his life. What is the difference between Harry and the character whose sacrifice doesn’t quite work?

Both authors obviously want to say that the characters are making a noble choice , that it is their own free will to give up something they want. So far, so good.

But to make a true choice, the choices must be equally compelling.

The weak character gives themselves up because it’s “in their nature” to be self-sacrificing. They’re noble, it’s “what they’re like.” Because “they can’t do anything different.” Now, this character may still succeed—maybe they’re the underdog, and we feel the injustices they experience. Maybe there’s another reader connection. But to keep the noble choice noble, it’s got to be something they choose when they can full well choose differently. That’s how real life is set up, all the way back to the Garden of Eden. There is opposition in all things because without the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, choosing the fruit of the Tree of Life isn’t really a choice. A person “choosing” good without a real option remains in a state of innocence and ignorance because they don’t really comprehend the depth of the good choice. There is no sacrifice and no learning. No incredible sunrise after the night. Just a medium sort of gray. No victory.

Let’s think about Harry again. We know Harry’s choice is a real, full choice because he’s failed to sacrifice himself in the past. Failure. That’s key. Because he hasn’t always done this. He’s been nasty to Hermione. He’s cursed Malfoy with sectumsempra. He’s hated Snape. And yet this time, when it counts the most, he decides NOT to be self-centered, but to give all. It’s a real choice.

This sort of thing repeats itself in the lives of other characters. Luke in Tim Bowler’s Firmament has done what Skin’s gang wants him to do before. He knows what will happen if he doesn’t comply. So when he does refuse to show up at the house they’re supposed to be breaking into, we know this is a real choice, because we already know what it will cost him—and he does, too. Marcelo in Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, knows what one action will set in motion because he’s seen the ruthlessness of the lawyers he’s working for already. And because he’s already folded and done what his father wanted.

J.K. Rowling gave an excellent talk about the value of failure in a Harvard commencement address recently. If she hadn’t utterly failed, would she have been able to write Harry? I think not—or at least, not to the depth that kept the entire world enthralled with his story. We as writers should not be afraid to let our characters fail. We should have the courage to use the memory of our own failures to color our characters.

So let those characters sacrifice, and give them their rewards for doing it. But let them do it with the bittersweet flavor of an apple from Eden, so that when they finally do get the fruit of the Tree of Life, it means something to them—and to the reader.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How YA is different from adult

(cross-posted at Verla Kay's board)

Every once in a while writers will cross, not genres, but age brackets in writing. While I definitely have favorites and can back them up with reasons, I think it's probably fair to say that one age bracket is not inherently better, harder, or more valuable than another. Adults read kids books, kids read adult books, but I think it's a given that you are going to get different perspectives depending on what age group you're reading. That said, I've read a number of books by successful authors for adults who have tried their hand at books for the kids. Some of them are pretty successful (Rick Riordan comes to mind as a great YA writer; haven't read his adult books yet). Some of them...well, not so much. So if you are a world-famous adult writer and think it's easy to write for the younger crowd, please keep a few things in mind:

1. Don't talk down to the readers. YA isn't dumbed-down adult.

2. Stay in the head of the teen MC and let them solve the problems. Sometimes I've read books by adult-turned-YA writers where the POV is just too much from the eyes of the surrounding adults.

3. Don't throw a bunch of stuff in just because it's educational. Even if it's fun (let's cover every interesting historical period on the planet! Let's include all known mythological creatures, just because!), if it doesn't have a reason integral to the character and the plot that emerges from that character, it doesn't need to be there.

4. Heart. In YA, I think this stems from the core developmental change that occurs during the teenage years, ie, becoming an independent person. Whether you rebel against what you've been taught or decide to embrace it, all of your own free choice and no one else's, you're on your own. You might have friends, you might have family, but there is only one person making those choices, and that is you. That's a bit of a difference from MG, where your "MC" might actually be a group of friends, or from adult, where those choices have already been made, where you already have power that teens don't have. So I think some of the heart in YA is letting your MC actually make those choices they need to, with all the fears and consequences and triumphs that come along with it. Doing that pulls the readers into your character's head and emotions and lets them identify with and fall in love with your MC. Which, I think, is ultimately what captures teen readers.

Structure/plot: chapters

In the interest of plot structure I'm sharing my current way of looking at chapters. I think it works best as a revision technique, but I suppose if you're first an outliner you could use it from the start. I've adapted it from a variety of sources and by no means claim it for my own--but I'm throwing it out in case it helps someone else.

1. What is the point of the chapter? (Why are you including it in here at all?)

2. What is the MC's (main character) goal (whether or not they know it)?

3. What does the MC do to meet and/or fail this goal?

4. What is the outcome? How are the stakes higher? To what new plane/complication has the MC come?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Running away, even in the mortal world, was harder than I’d expected.

Human voices flickered around me as I entered the Detroit International airport from the jetway. On first encounter, the voices sounded more like grunts and coughs than intelligent thought. I could have focused, could have deciphered the streams of Arabic and English and French, but that would only remind me of what I was leaving behind. It was easier to turn off conscious thought and follow the crowd.

I gripped my carry-on—considerably lightened, since they’d confiscated the shampoo and toothpaste in Cairo—and waited as the other passengers claimed their luggage. I knew where mine was, of course. I could just catch its faint odor of leather and dust as it circled the far side of the belt. I edged closer as an airport worker shot me a suspicious look and pulled out a radio. Sweat prickled my forehead. I frowned, focused on the inner circuits of the radio, and a moment later, the guard tapped the device in frustration and hurried away for a replacement. My suitcases popped through the flaps from the other side. I snatched them off the belt and headed for the customs line marked “non-U.S. residents.”

Like the security guard, the eyes of the customs agents lingered on me, the smell of mistrust reeking from their skin. I didn’t need English to understand that. I’d gotten enough of it in the weeks since the accident. The weeks I’d spent in the mortal world, shivering in abandoned shacks, dirtier than I’d ever been in my life.The weeks I’d scrounged for food and been chased away like a common thief. I’d been afraid to use any of my true powers for fear of being caught.

I shifted in the suit I’d swiped off a dead boy in an alley. I was a young man from a world hotspot, traveling alone, and I stuck out like a chili pepper in a bowl of millet. One of the guards gave me several long stares; then, perhaps attempting to override his prejudice, forced his attention to a blond mother struggling alone with three young children. The official laid a hand on the smallest suitcase and the toddler’s temper exploded.

The child’s screams pierced my memory like flaming javelins, and my mouth tasted charred. Not again, not now… I fought with my lungs to calm my panic.

It wasn’t my fault.

The luggage cart behind me knocked my heels, and I jumped.

It’s just an airport. The inspections are routine procedure.

But the screams still clawed at my ears. I ripped open my carry-on and pretended to fumble with something inside, hoping the agent would prefer to inspect me and let the mother pass through the gate and quiet her child. It worked. The agent’s eyes flew to me and he waved the mother through without a second glance. “Inspections,” he barked as the shrieks trailed down the hall. “Show me everything inside.”

I popped open my suitcases and let my hearing reach across the airport as the agent pawed through the linen shirts, the sandals, the stiff new jeans. I had plenty of time. My host family hadn’t arrived yet. “Careful with the papyrus,” I said.

The agent pounced on the pages and held up each sheet, one by one, to the light. He even sniffed them. He took out the sandals, my linen shirts, and an old print of the pyramids, and examined them all minutely, even though the security dogs had already been over them. Eventually he replaced everything with a frown and snapped the case shut. “All right, then. Everything is in order.” He sounded disappointed.

By the time I reached the passport control counter, everyone else had gone on. I presented the crisp new passport and visa to the agent, who compared the photos with my living face. “Sekem Em Pet,” he read, spitting out a hard K. Urgh. Human saliva. And bad-smelling, at that. At least he was an unbeliever. I wouldn’t have to endure him mangling my name in prayer.

“Se-khhem,” I corrected with a roll of the back of my tongue.

“Se-kem,” he repeated, spraying more spit. “What is the purpose of your visit?”

“High school exchange student,” I said.

He tilted the passport to inspect the binding, but a summons in my head swept over me, blotting out my attention to my passport.


I felt rather than heard it from half a world away. I held my breath, stilled the sense of power flickering inside me that would only betray me if let out. They couldn’t find me, not now, not after I’d given up everything.

The agent checked my visa and tapped it and my passport on the counter impatiently. “Mr. Em Pet? Enjoy your stay in America.”

I snapped to attention and took the passport. “Thank you.” I stuffed the booklet in my wallet, tucked the wallet into my bag alongside a Michigan tourist brochure, and passed through the gate. The sensation of watchfulness snapped off. A shudder swept over me, but Egypt—and my family—were behind me. I was free.

Across the room waited my new life. I hefted my bags and went to meet it.
The cavernous waiting room was filled with chaos. People pushed at me, blocking my attempts to locate my host family, and my head swam at the onslaught of noise.

“There he is!”

A large crowd rushed forward, but it wasn’t me they were meeting. Another young man, another family. The parents’ smiles bloomed with pride, and I stumbled into the luggage cart in my attempt to get away from the happy homecoming I would never have. Not after my uncle’s accusations.

Gradually the room cleared, and the click click click of the spinning luggage claim mechanism in the room behind me died away, leaving only the airport janitor knocking his mop into a bucket of water. He swished wide circles across the floor around me, but I didn’t move. There was nowhere to go.

I hunched over my luggage. The clock overhead ticked out the crazed beat of mortality. I’d spent most of my life in the Underworld, where a thousand human years were like a day. Human lives were like flames, quick to ignite, and just as easily snuffed. I’d never wanted to be here.

I sighed and tried to block out the impatient sound of the clock. I was far enough away that any divine footprints I might leave would have plenty of time to fade before any searching god thought to look here. And as long as I didn’t do anything stupid, the mortals would never notice. Yet throwing myself to the mercy of humans…It had seemed the solution to everything when I’d riffled the pockets of the stolen suit and found a blank application for an exchange program in America. An invented school record and a forged passport—I was always good with art—and I was on my way. Now it seemed insane. The gods couldn’t protect me. How could I expect mortals to?

The door across the room hummed open in the silence, and hurried voices darted inside. “Let me see the picture again, Mom!” said a boy.

“Take the sign for me so I can get to my purse,” said the woman.

“There he is,” said a quiet male voice, and a moment later, footsteps stopped in front of me. I looked up slowly, my eyes resting first on scuffed sneakers and faded jeans. A slightly-crinkled paperboard sign dangled from the hands of the boy: Welcome to Michigan, Sekhem! The boy shuffled closer to his father so that his elbow leaned against the man. The man had a long, narrow face, dark hair that was beginning to thin, and wire-rimmed glasses. I expected him to be taller, stronger, but all he did was hold out his hand and say in the same quiet voice, “You must be Sek-Seh—”

“Sekhem Em Pet,” I said. “But my American name is Andy.”

“Andy, then.” He dropped his hand, and only then did I remember I was supposed to shake it. “I’m Scott Whitcomb, and this is my wife Lisa.”

The top of Lisa’s frizzy brown head didn’t quite come to my shoulder. “Hi, Andy,” she said.

The boy let the sign slide to the ground, grinning through the hair spraying into his eyes. “I’m Jake.” Judging from the gaps in his front teeth, he had to be around six.

“Hello, Jake,” I said.

Jake stared up at me as Scott hefted my suitcases. “Sorry we’re late,” Scott said. “We er, had a last-minute business matter to take care of along the way that couldn’t wait.”

“How was your flight?” Lisa asked. She smiled, but worry oozed around the edges. I pretended not to notice.

“Too long,” I said.

Scott pulled the suitcases—my whole life, or what was left of it, anyway—and headed toward an escalator. I picked up my carry on and followed the family downstairs.

“What’s Egypt like?” Jake asked.

, I thought. “Hot,” I said aloud.

“Have you ever seen a pyramid?”

I described Khufu’s masterpiece as we pushed our way through the airport and out to the waiting transport. Humidity slapped us as we stepped out the door, but no one else seemed to notice. Scott parked the suitcases behind a long blue van and unlocked the back doors. A cot covered with lumpy blankets filled the back of the van. I set my carry-on over the blankets and reached for the suitcases.

“Oh—no,” Lisa said. “Scott can get them. Have a seat up front. You’ll be tired from your trip.” She opened the front passenger side and gestured for me to climb in. I shrugged and obeyed. The handbook I’d received from the exchange office, the one I’d memorized to help me start my new life, said to pay attention to local customs to avoid offense. As if I didn’t have experience already with offenses.

“I imagine this all looks different than Al Qays,” Lisa said once we were on the freeway.

“Yes.” I blinked at the expanse of green on either side of the road. It was greener than the fields of Aalu. To the ancient Egyptians, the West was the land of the dead. Somehow I had not expected the geographic West to be so foreign and alive. “What is this place?”

“Just Brighton,” Jake said, uninterested.

We traveled at dizzying speed. In the airplane I hadn’t sensed the velocity, but this… As trees blipped by, I realized I had missed a lot by hiding out in the Underworld so long. I hadn’t leave the Underworld often. Until now.

Eventually we turned off the freeway and entered the city at a much less exciting pace.

Welcome to Riverdale,” Lisa said.

“I thought you lived in Lansing.”

“A suburb,” Lisa clarified as we wove into a residential area.

Stone walls labeled Golden River Estates rose on either side of a wide street. Scott slowed the van and we slipped under a wide signboard with pictures of slender, smiling people gathering under a canopy of trees. The car wound past ostentatious houses with thick lawns until we reached an old white building with solemn pillars at the top of the hill. The house was generations older than anything else in the neighborhood. I smiled in relief, not realizing until then how foreign the new houses felt to me.

Scott turned off the engine. “Well, we’re here.”

Jake jumped out, followed by Lisa. Scott went around to the back and opened the rear door. Before I could do anything, he’d lifted the suitcases down and started for the house. I reached for my carry-on, and in doing so, knocked aside the blanket draped over the cot.

A human face gaped back at me.

A dead one.
Deep Waters
by Rose Green

Chapter 1

Dad said Charleston was dangerous.

His words from so long ago came back to me as I darted for the brochure the wind had tugged from my fingers. The brochure fluttered, showing a map of Charleston on the back, and I made another snatch for it as our tour boat pulled away from the shoreline. The wind teased the paper just past my reach and tossed it carelessly into the murky water below.

Maps had covered Dad’s office; maps of places he’d been to, dreamed of. Maps of places that didn’t even exist anymore. My earliest memory was of him trying to read an atlas to me as a bedtime story. He knew everything about everywhere, and he loved to share it.

The water swallowed the last of my map with a taunting slap of waves as I leaned over the railing, and I realized there was one place he’d purposely left out.
It was too late to ask him about it now.

I rubbed a mosquito bite and wrinkled my nose at the sour smell of marsh mud oozing off the coast. The boat dipped, catapulting my stomach into somersaults. Along the water, reflections of pastel antebellum houses and Civil War cannons rippled in the harbor, just like in the postcards Aunt Jennifer had sent me. The postcards, of course, hadn’t included the hot, moist air and ravenous hordes of insects.

“...and that’s the story of Fort Sumter,” the tour guide said, wrapping up his description of the harbor. “Any questions?”

The buzz of conversation that had gone on during the guide’s spiel broke off into silence.

“Try me,” the tour guide said. “Here’s your chance to ask anything you’ve ever wanted to know about Charleston’s harbor.”

Anything I wanted to know. Dad had never once taken my brother and me to visit his home town. Never once brought up the subject himself, despite the aunt and uncle we knew—and the grandparents we didn’t—who’d lived here. The few times we’d thought to ask, he’d changed the subject, or, apart from that one remark about danger, refused to answer. Why?

The tour guide’s eyes darted eagerly from one tourist to the next, each of whom looked down as if he’d asked for the answer to an algebra problem from last night’s homework.


I set aside my own questions and jutted my head towards an island he’d failed to mention. Massive trees lined the shore and an avenue of oaks led to a mansion in the center. The clouds above parted then, and the wall visible through the trees gleamed white. “What’s that island called?”

Next to me, Aunt Jennifer squinted. “Where, Lily?”

I shaded my eyes and pulled my long hair off my sweaty neck. On the island, moss trailed in the breeze and a black pier reached into the ocean. It was as if a castle had sprung up on Treasure Island.

“You mean Folly?” the guide asked.

I shook my head. He’d already told us about Folly Island. “The one with the plantation house.”

Aunt Jennifer shot me a worried glance, and the tour guide raised his eyebrows. “Y’all ought to get something cool to drink when you get back,” he said. “The heat can do things to a person.”

I frowned. “But it’s right there. It’s got a dock and flower gardens and…”
The tour guide shook his head and took a step backwards, as if I had something catching.

“I’m sorry, Lily, but I don’t see it, either,” Aunt Jennifer said. “Maybe it’s just a reflection.” Her voice was gentle, a voice she might have used with someone very ill. Or crazy.

I tried to ignore the hairs lifting off the back of my neck as I stared at the land mass no one else seemed to see. The island was unmistakable, a solid sentry between the harbor and the Atlantic. Why couldn’t they see it? I raised the binoculars Aunt Jennifer had lent me and zoomed closer. Through the thick, lacy moss I could make out a tall gate. Black decorative bars curved in and out of each other, forming a flower around the lock. I wondered what lay beyond the gate, what secrets the iron guarded.

We circled closer to the open ocean. The water smelled fresher here, away from generations of rotting sawgrass. Waves lapped against the boat like a hum. I leaned over the rail and let the rhythm wash through my brain. The hum became a song, reverberating in my ears, almost like a familiar voice calling my name. It tugged at my breath as if daring me to leap down to the water and join the map lost beneath the surface.

“Dad?” I whispered.

The wake of the boat’s trail kicked higher, spraying me in the face.

The tour guide paused his description of where the C.S.S. Hunley had been found, and suddenly I felt the eyes of the group on me. “Are you okay over there?”

I flushed. Had he heard me talking to the water? “I’m fine.”

Aunt Jennifer pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. Concern radiated from her freckled face, so much like Dad’s. “Are you sure, Lily?”

I squirmed and inspected the mosquito bites on my wrists. They looked like smallpox. “I’m totally fine,” I repeated.

The boat lurched underfoot, and I grabbed the railing, reminded again that the only thing holding us up was twisting, changing water. Aunt Jennifer touched my arm. “The guide is right,” she said. “As soon as we’re done here, we’ll head home.”


After lunch Aunt Jennifer was still giving me her mother hen look as she stood in the doorway of my bedroom. “I have a house to show, but I don’t like leaving you if you’re not well. Maybe your mother was right, Lily. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to come here so soon after…”

So soon after Dad’s accident. Dad had come in February for Grandpa Pagett’s funeral, and met with a fatal car accident himself.

“I’ll be fine,” I said quickly. Aunt Jennifer was the one person who hadn’t treated me like glass, something I was intensely grateful for. I didn’t need her to start. I’d seen enough looks of pity to last a lifetime.

The visit had been Aunt Jennifer’s idea. Mom’s much-needed research grant came through just as Grandma Wosniewski, who was to stay with me, broke her hip. My brother Joel would be spending extra time with a friend’s family once he finished fencing camp. But Mom wasn’t about to leave me alone while she spent the summer in a remote area of the Rockies, especially not after discovering I hadn’t turned in a single school assignment in two months. That’s when Aunt Jennifer stepped in and suggested I spend the summer in Charleston. Uncle Rick would be in Slovenia, setting up company offices, and she’d love to have someone else here while he was gone.

“But that’s where the accident happened,” Mom objected. I’d overheard her the night Aunt Jennifer called. “She’s not engaged in school, she’s withdrawn from her friends—sending her to Charleston would only make things worse.”

“Maybe it would help her confront it,” Aunt Jennifer’s voice crackled over the phone.

But there was no other option. With Dad gone, Mom needed the grant for her job, so in the end she packed me off to Charleston. Mom might have not have been convinced, but Aunt Jennifer gave me a warm smile. “I’m so glad you’ve come. It’s about time you met Charleston for yourself.”

Her eyes reflected the same calm Dad has always given off, a calm that seemed to hold the universe together. “It’ll be okay,” she assured me. “Charleston is a part of you, even if you don’t know it yet.”

Now, in the doorway, Aunt Jennifer shifted in indecision, as if Mom’s worries were starting to sink in.

“I’m sixteen,” I said. “I’ll call if I need anything.”

She nodded doubtfully, and I listened to her footsteps retreat downstairs. Eyes stared out at me from a dozen sepia photographs of past Pagetts and Menguins. I ducked my head, suddenly shy before an array of relatives I should have known, had Dad not left Charleston off the map.

I pulled at the desk drawer to find a place for the stack of schoolbooks Mom made me bring. It was stuck, swollen in the humidity. I tugged again, and as it flew open something went plink.

I reached inside cautiously. Smooth metal met my fingers, and with a jolt I recognized the figure in my palm: an old key with a bird-shaped handle. Dad’s good luck charm, the one he’d brought with him everywhere. I stroked it against my cheek. It was warm, even though it had been sitting alone in the drawer. Dad must have forgotten it the day of the accident. Of all days to forget a good luck charm.

I toppled the pile of schoolbooks into the empty drawer and pocketed the key, the psychologist’s words to Mom echoing in my mind. “…she’ll never make progress until she accepts the fact that he’s gone. Right now she’s too afraid to face that.”

I stood up, though my knees trembled. He was wrong. I wasn’t afraid, and I could prove it. I went outside, my feet loud on the wooden boards of the porch. Heat glowed from the brick of the house. Aunt Jennifer’s car was gone. I slipped through the black iron gate.

Wide, sweeping oaks held their arms over the streets, Spanish moss stirring in the breeze. I followed the narrow street until at last I came to East Bay. The waterfront. The water smelled fresher now; the tide must be up, covering the marsh. I leaned over the seawall railing and watched the water splash up the wall. A low buzz seemed to come off the water, and I shivered. Maybe it was because it was my first experience with an ocean, but even as I stood on firm ground, something about the water made my head spin.

I stepped back from the edge, but the buzz didn’t go away.

The street cut inland, carving out a solid row of buildings between me and the waterfront. Ahead of me, flags waved from a stone building: the navy and white palmetto flag of South Carolina, the Union Jack, the American flag with a circle of stars, and the Jolly Roger. It looked like a building I would have known, had I done my history homework.

No textbook would have prepared me for the heat, however. I ducked around the corner and under the shade of an oak to wipe sweat from my face and shake the growing roar from my ears. But instead of clearing, my mind spun with the sudden unsettled feeling of the tide pulling sand from under my feet. I shut my eyes against the dizziness and reached for a tree, a bench, anything. I couldn’t faint, not after Dr. Mackler’s accusations about my delicate mental condition.

My ears filled with the sound of waves, far louder than the gentle swish of harbor tide should have produced. I fell to my knees and fought to clear my head. My vision wavered and went dark. At least the area was empty; there was nobody to ask awkward questions…

Gradually the roar faded, and I rubbed my eyes.

A crowd of people in period clothing congregated on the steps of the building. Those at the top of the steps were filthy, and as I looked closer, I could see the chains linking them together. Wary eyes glinted out of skeletal black faces. Behind them waited people with more flesh and better clothing, but apprehension glinted in their eyes as well. A movie, then. A sickeningly realistic movie about slavery. I searched for the cameras and roadblocks.

There were none.

Scents rolled in then, of dirt and sweat and animals. My heart pounded as I took in the scene. What was going on?

“I am not crazy,” I whispered. “There is a logical explanation for this.”

People brushed past me. It wasn’t just the slaves who stank. The men with brass-buttoned jackets and moneybags were whiffy, too. A stocky man in a tricorn hat and his pimply-faced companion gave me odd looks and quickened their pace away from me. Maybe they thought it was me who smelled funny.

A deep voice echoed across the steps, and I turned my attention upwards as the auctioneer opened bids on a gaggle of small children. The littlest one was crying. I stared, horrified, as two white men fought to restrain the child’s mother. With a scream she broke through their grip and lurched free, but one of the men struck her legs, and she fell, still scrabbling for her child’s outstretched arms. The other man clapped a metal band on her wrists, and together they dragged her away.

I shoved through the crowd after them, ignoring the shocked looks people gave me, but the woman’s cries melted into the general hubbub. What was this? No acting could be that real…

A pair of kindly-looking older men stood near me in conversation. “Excuse me,” I said, “but what—”

They turned to stare at me. “Go home and get dressed,” one of them said, pulling his companion away from me with a scandalized look at my shorts and t-shirt.

I bit my lip and slunk to the edge of the crowd. People around me gawked and whispered. One of them slipped off a jacket and tossed it at me. “Cover yourself up, girl! We’ll have no immorality on this street.”

I pulled on the coat, gagging at the sweaty odor. “Thank you. Can you tell me—”

But the man pushed away as if hoping no one had seen our exchange.

The auctioneer’s voice spun over the assembly. The eyes of the slave mother—if that was what she was—still haunted me, and I forced my gaze away from the block and onto the crowd. Strangely enough, not all the free people walking around were white. I even saw one black man buy a slave. I shook my head. That couldn’t be right.

Against my will, my attention flicked back to the slaves awaiting sale. There were no more children. A middle-aged man stood on the steps now. The slaves next in line were quiet, watchful. Prospective owners inspected their teeth, checked their backs for scars. Near the front, a white boy of about twelve was talking to a slave in his twenties. The slave was lighter than some of the others, with straighter hair. The boy turned, bringing into view a turned-up nose, quirky eyebrows. It was a face I had seen before. Not here—wherever this was—but back home, in Illinois. My jaw dropped. What was my brother doing here?

The boy shuffled closer to the slave, and I closed my mouth. It wasn’t Joel, just someone who looked remarkably like him. The same wavy hair, the same way he stood, only this boy was younger. Almost like a younger version of…I rubbed my eyes.

He looked like my dad.

My stomach dived. What were the chances of finding a movie actor who looked exactly like Dad as a boy—and right here? The other option, that it was somehow… No. That was impossible. Which left only one possibility: Dr. Mackler was right, and I was losing it.

I stared at the boy, whoever he was, and the man. The boy nodded at something the slave said. The way they looked each other in the eye was odd, as if they were equals, not slave and prospective master. I wrapped the filthy coat around me and moved closer, but I couldn’t hear their words over the auctioneer’s calls.
An auction worker tugged the slave’s chain. He was next. The slave glanced at the block, then back to the boy. He took the boy’s hands and pressed some small piece of metal into them. Light glinted off it for a second before the boy hid it in his grasp.

The auctioneer dragged the slave up to the block and the strange boy disappeared into the crowd. I dodged after him. Surely he would explain what the others refused to.

I took a step forward, and without warning, found myself spinning again, falling. My knee hit a cobblestone and I gasped at the sudden pain. I tried to hold onto the terrible scene before me, but my vision darkened, my mind muddled. I couldn’t fight it any longer.

I slumped to the ground.

When I could see again, the auction was gone. The clanking chains, the cries of the buyers…everything was gone. Trembling, I sat up and pulled off the stifling coat. Taxis and SUVs zipped past on an asphalt street shimmering with heat.

All signs of the slave market had disappeared.