Jilly: How Big is Your TBR Pile?

Or if you mostly read e-books, how many still-to-be-read titles are sitting on your e-reader?

Elizabeth wrote earlier this week that she’s trying to make inroads into the pile of books (physical and electronic) waiting for her attention. It sounds as though she has her work cut out 🙂 .

Back in the day, when I had to buy my reading matter from bricks-and-mortar bookshops, I always had a huge TBR pile. London has fabulous bookshops, but in those days they didn’t carry many of the US romance authors I liked to read, so if I found a promising selection I just bought them all. We had a tiny one-bed apartment, with books everywhere. Kindle revolutionized my life, in a very good way.

Now I have a humungous e-bookstore at my fingertips, I don’t bother with a TBR pile any more. I pre-order titles from a few select auto-buy authors and almost always read them as soon as they’re delivered. The rest of the time I browse for whatever I’m in the mood to read, download it, and read it. Rinse and repeat.

I have friends who’ll download free books or offers that catch their interest, but then lose sight of them because their e-reader is chock full of other freebies, samples and novelties. I know people whose e-readers contain hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unread books.

I have two kindles. The current, easily searchable model has the library of every e-book I ever bought. The other, older device is like the e-reader version of a keeper shelf. It has a far smaller selection—books I love and re-read over and over again, plus whatever title I’m reading right now.

Today I’ll be curled up on the sofa with Skirting Danger, the first book in 8Lady Kay’s Chasing the CIA romantic caper trilogy. I’ve been waiting ages for the final, published version of the adventures of Phoebe (bicycle-rider, talented linguist, disaster magnet) and Chase (smart, practical, retired quarterback turned electric vehicle entrepreneur). Squee! And isn’t that a gorgeous cover?

How about you? Do you buy as you read, or do you have a monster TBR list? If so, how do you organize it? How do you decide what to read next? And what’s currently top of the pile?

Happy Sunday, one and all!

Jilly: The Urge to Hibernate

Is your productivity affected by the change in season?

We’re only a few weeks past the equinox, but to me it feels like winter is here already. The days are dark, gloomy, rainy, and cold. The covid figures are getting worse again. Social media seems to think we’re headed for another bout of heavy restrictions if not a full lockdown, and they’re probably right 😦 .

I’ll be thrilled to see the end of 2020, but the downside is I have a long list of things I want to finish before 31 December. Publish The Seeds of Exile, make The Pulse of Princes available for free download, write at least the first act of The Seeds of Destiny. Submit my taxes and deal with a boatload of other grim-but-necessary administrative chores.

I’ll get them done, because I hate, hate, hate to start the new year dealing with unfinished business, but right now I’m fighting myself every step of the way. What I really want to do is go to bed early, curl under the duvet, rise late, and spend the hours in between lolling on the sofa with a hot beverage, a box of Belgian chocolates, and a good book.

I might give in today, and gird my loins again tomorrow.

How are you doing?

Jilly: English Garden Romance

How’s your weekend so far? Are you glued to the news or ready for a respite from reality? If you’re currently self-medicating with The Great British Bake-Off or English property renovation shows, you might consider checking out The Garden Plot, a thoroughly English contemporary romance by debut author Sara Sartagne.

Full disclosure. I’ve known Sara for a very long time. I won’t embarrass either of us by saying how long, but back in the day we attended the same Derbyshire school and shared English classes. I lost touch with her later and had no idea she was writing fiction until we met again online in Mark Dawson’s self-publishing community.

Regular readers of this site will know I’m more likely to read a swords-‘n-sorcery adventure than a charming small town contemporary romance. I read The Garden Plot because it’s Sara’s debut and it’s set in a picturesque Derbyshire village. I’m reviewing it because I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Garden Plot is an engaging, low-stress, opposites attract romance between Sam, a left-leaning garden designer who’s struggling to keep her small business afloat, and widower Jonas, a wealthy, conservative, workaholic property developer who’s on forced sick leave as he recovers from a viral illness. Sam is commissioned by Magda, Jonas’s match-making teenage daughter, to revamp the garden of Jonas’s recently acquired country house and (with luck) revitalize Jonas too. High jinks ensue. Continue reading

Jilly: Do You Believe In Love At First Sight?

I finished my draft of The Pulse of Princes, the novella that’s been gobbling up my time for the last few weeks. I sent it off to gobble up my editor’s time instead 😀 .

I’m so happy I chose to write this story. It turned out well, and best of all it made me think hard about the early life of Prince Daire, who’s turning out to be the most influential character in the Elan Intrigues stories. I gleaned some insights which have me really excited.

The Pulse of Princes shows Daire before he inherits the throne of Caldermor, when both his parents are still alive. I had to put them on the page. I had to figure out how they met, and how they each found a role in their marriage.

Here’s a snippet:

Princess Irmine’s dark gaze assessed Daire: the tidy queue that was making his head ache, his tense posture, carefully chosen clothes, and comfortable gray watersnakeskin boots. Her eyes narrowed. “You are so like your father. Do you know why he married me?”

That, at least, was easy. Daire relaxed his arms, used the question to restore his equanimity. A reprieve, though no doubt a temporary one. “He tells me the story, often. He loved you from the moment he saw you. He never saw a woman so strong. So beautiful. He forgot the biting cold. Forgot the furs he’d come in search of. Forgot everything except you.”

Just for a moment, his mother melted. Her dark eyes shone. Her lips softened and curled upward in sheer pleasure. Just for a moment, Daire saw the woman his father saw every time he looked at the crown princess.

“Well, yes.” Her smile faded. “But it’s more than that. Your father takes his vows seriously. His duty. He knows the best way to protect Caldermor is to have a strong, powerful country.”

“Father traded everything he had with him to carry off an unknown princess from a wild island nation on the edge of the ice fields, and you call it duty?” Daire rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Excuse me, ma’am, but you do yourself a disservice.”

“I say he did me a great honor.” His mother stood straight as a lance, every inch a princess. “I organized everything for my father the king. Our stronghold. Our people. Our fur trades. Desmond saw I could rule Caldermor for him. And better still, I’m not Calderran.”

“How so?”

“Because I can take the decisions he can not.” She relaxed, just a hairsbreadth. “Daire. I was traded myself. I understand everyone has a price. I’m not sentimental about Calderran people the way your father is.”

Daire winced. “And I am.”

“So it seems.” She leaned toward him, and for once he got the sense she was speaking from the heart, without calculation. “I strive every day to be worth the great price Desmond paid for me. I will do what I must to keep his country safe and strong. And I shall do so as long as I have breath in my body. Whether he is here to see it or not.”

I like this. It explains Irmine’s no-holds-barred mindset. It also led me to think about my new WIP, The Seeds of Destiny, which is Daire’s love story. I had imagined he’d be influenced by the events of the two previous Elan Intrigues books, where true love happens to people he cares about. Of course those events are important, but the bond between his own parents would be an earlier and stronger influence.

That got me to musing about love at first sight, in real life and in fiction. Lust at first sight happens all the time, of course, but I think sometimes it can be more than that. My father decided to marry my mother before he ever spoke to her. They would sit at bus stops on opposite sides of the street on working days. They spent months smiling at one another before heading off in different directions. That turned into fifty-something years of powerful togetherness.

I like it as a trope in fiction too, as long as it’s more than he’s so hot/she’s so beautiful. More like the fabulous first meet in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. Of course there’s immediate physical attraction between Dain and Jessica. He is hot, and she is beautiful. But there’s also a major battle of wits and an even bigger battle of wills between two smart, headstrong characters. We already know Dain is hyper-competitive. When he loses both battles we know he’s toast. I love that 🙂 .

What do you think? Do you believe in love at first sight, on the page or IRL?

Jilly: Try Before You Buy

Do you sample a book before you buy it?

Not so much in-person bookshop browsing, because right now that’s off the menu for most of us. But reading an excerpt on an author’s website, or using the Look Inside feature on the world’s most powerful online bookstore.

How often do you think reading a sample persuades you to buy a book, or makes you decide to move on to something else? I never used to bother with it, but a few years ago, after a particularly long series of dud purchases, I gave it a go. Now I’d never buy without trying.

I was thinking about samples this morning, after I discovered a brand-new reason not to buy. I saw a strongly positive review of a new-to-me author on a site I follow. The cover was great, and I loved the premise. The story sounded smart, original, quirky, just what I was looking for. So I headed over to the Zon and checked out the sample.

Have you ever tried food or drink that was delicious on the first mouthful, tasty on the second, fairly nice on the third, but by the fourth or fifth you never wanted another bite and a sixth would have made you gag? It was like that.

The story was told in first person, through the eyes of a smart, potty-mouthed, strongly opinionated character. The inciting incident was impactful and well told. The writing was super-strong. It was just too voice-y for me. If they’d cut off the sample at the end of the first page, I probably would have bought the book. By the end of the third page, I was done. I didn’t even read to the end of the sample or check out the reviews.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided it was a great Look Inside, because I bet the right reader would have devoured that sample and probably gone on to love the book. And the story promise was strong and clear enough for me to discover that I wasn’t that reader.

Do you read samples?

Have you gone on to buy (or not buy) based on what you read? Can you remember why?

Jilly: Snippet

A couple of weeks ago I decided to write a new Elan Intrigues prequel novella as a giveaway for my newsletter subscribers. I’ve been in my writing cave ever since.

The Pulse of Princes will be 15-18,000 words, about the early life of recurring character Prince Daire of Caldermor. In this story he’s aged 19. His father is dying and Daire is likely to inherit the throne soon. It’s the first time he seriously butts heads with his domineering mother, the indefatigable Princess Irmine.

Here’s a snippet from the encounter that triggers Daire’s rebellion.

 

Request Denied

“This should prove an interesting test.” Daire’s mother folded the note and slid it back into her pocket. When she withdrew her hand, she was holding a small pouch. She bounced it in her palm, and even through the heavy padding Daire heard the familiar jingling sound. Elan. He made it every month, albeit in small quantities. He’d never kept a single pulse for himself.

The crown princess opened the pouch and drew out a single hard-shelled, bean-shaped nugget. She held it reverently between her finger and thumb, tilting it so that it shone pure gold in the morning light. He wasn’t close enough to catch the scent, but his mind supplied it: sweeter than the most delicious fruit pastry, richer and more complex than the finest tree-sap. He’d been making elan since he was ten years old, and the smell of it still made his mouth water.

A low wooden rail guarded the edge of the terrace. Inside the rail a narrow shelf offered enough space to place a pair of gloves or a cup of cordial. Princess Irmine dipped her hand into the bag and placed twelve pulses of elan on the shelf, one by one, spaced a handspan apart.

She stepped back, assessed her handiwork, and nodded in satisfaction. His mother never did anything without reason. What on the gods’ fair earth was she doing now?

She lifted a hand and waved toward the garden gate where Captain Bale waited, in her line of sight but out of earshot. He snapped a salute, opened the gate, and ushered in three servants in Edevald livery.

The first, a cleanshaven, skinny young fellow, Daire recognized vaguely as one of the clerks from the treasury. The boy looked bug-eyed and scared out of his wits. The second was a middle-aged woman he’d last seen in the kitchen, making apple pies. She’d smiled at him then. Now she looked as though she’d found weevils in the flour. The third was the couriers’ hostler, Sharp, who looked like his usual shifty self.

Prompted by Bale they lined up before the terrace and each made their obeisance.

“Ask them anything,” his mother encompassed the three with a wave of her hand. “Their work, debts, spouses, children. Whatever you need to know in order to decide.”

“Decide?” The sweet pastry Daire had devoured earlier roiled in his gut.

His mother shrugged. “Which one I should dismiss.”

She clearly expected him to ask, so he chose the line of least resistance. “Why must you dismiss any of them, ma’am? And why must I choose?”

“If I am to meet your request I need to find a saving elsewhere. The quickest and simplest way is by culling a hireling or two.” She glanced at the line of elan beans, glimmering on the shelf, and her lips tightened. “For a dozen pulses it should be all of them, and more, but as this is an unfamiliar challenge for you I decided to make it easy.”

Daire made himself look the servants in the eye. The boy was trembling so hard he could barely stand upright. The kitchen maid crossed her arms and stared back at him. She looked furious. Sharp met Daire’s gaze briefly, then fixed his eyes on Princess Irmine.

“No questions?” The crown princess held out her hand to Daire. On her palm sat the empty elan pouch. “Choose one servant, and you may take the pulses with you.”

Daire put his hands behind his back. “No.”

“No?” Princess Irmine asked softly.

“No.” He didn’t shout, but his confirmation was louder and more forceful than was proper.

“Very well.” His mother nodded to Bale. “They can go.”

Sharp bolted down the path and disappeared. The kitchen maid put her arm around the clerk. Bale followed the sorry pair as they left. He closed the gate behind them and stood at attention.

“Well?”

“You knew I wouldn’t choose.” Daire gripped his hands together behind his back, so tightly he thought his bones might crack.

“I thought you wouldn’t,” Princess Irmine corrected. “Now I know.”

“You terrified those servants to teach me a lesson.”

“It made a lasting impression, did it not?” His mother waited a beat, daring him to deny her assertion. “Simply explaining the problem would not have worked half so well.”

***

Whoo! I hope you enjoyed that.

Of course Daire knows he can’t allow Princess Irmine to get the better of him, or he’ll be under her thumb before he even inherits the throne. I’m having fun writing his counter-offensive 🙂 .

Have a lovely weekend, and I’ll see you next Sunday.

Jilly: Labor of Love

Happy Labor Day weekend to everyone in the US. Happy weekend, and happy end of summer, to everyone else.

Thinking about Labor Day led me to realize that it’s ten years since I decided to quit the day job and write fiction full time.

I left paid employment at the end of 2011.

I published my first novel, The Seeds of Power, in December 2019.

I never thought writing fiction would be so hard, that I’d have so much to learn, or that it would take me so long to get my first book published.

I’ve never worked so hard, earned so little, or had so much fun.

I love it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Best work decision I ever made.

What’s the best work decision you ever made?

Jilly: Multi-Generational Stories

An unexpected corona-bonus is that author book launches have gone digital. Which means fans who would never have the chance to attend a physical talk and book signing can join in the fun.

This week the Cary Memorial Library in Massachusetts hosted a conversation with fantasy romance authors Ilona Andrews (Ilona and Gordon, in Texas), Nalini Singh (in New Zealand), and Amanda Bouchet (in Paris). I watched from London, and now it’s on Youtube. How cool is that? Click here if you’d like to check it out.

There were lots of good questions about world building, what makes a strong character, what makes a great villain…but one that caught my attention was something like: do you have any plans to make your much-loved stories multi-generational? In other words, to give the kids of your bestselling characters their own story or series. Amanda Bouchet and Nalini Singh weren’t at that point, but Ilona Andrews are currently writing Blood Heir/Ryder, whose heroine is Julie, the adopted daughter of Kate and Curran from their bestselling Kate Daniels series. I’m super-excited about this book (click here for an early squee) and already have it on pre-order.

Ryder feels like a natural progression. After a ten-book series Kate and Curran are due a hard-earned Happy Ever After, but many fans aren’t ready to say goodbye to the world, and the series is rich in secondary characters. It’s made easier by the fact that Julie (alias Aurelia Ryder) was a street kid in her early teens when she first encountered Kate, so she’s only half a generation younger. That means the Ryder book can begin eight years after the conclusion of the Kate Daniels series—long enough for everything to be the same but different.

The question caught my attention because I’m currently writing a multi-generational epic fantasy series. Unlike the natural flow of the Ilona Andrews stories, mine crept up on me. After I finish with my Elan Intrigues books (one currently published, one book and two novellas in the works), I have a series in my head, set in the same world, starring the adult children of the main characters of the Elan Intrigues series. Alexis, the heroine, is twenty-five years old at the beginning of the main series. That’s a whole generation after the end of the Intrigues books. It didn’t occur to me to question it until now.

I started to think about how many other multi-generational stories I’ve read and enjoyed. I love Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, about Vidal, the son of the characters from These Old Shades. Loretta Chase has Last Night’s Scandal, starring characters we first met as children in Lord Perfect. That one didn’t quite work for me, though I’ve often wished she’d write a story for Dominick, Dain’s illegitimate son from Lord of Scoundrels. The most obvious example, which I haven’t read but I know Michaeline loves, is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Other than those, I’m coming up empty.

So I thought I’d turn the question over to you. Does the concept of a multi-generational series appeal to you? Have you read any good (or bad) ones?

Jilly: Plot Preferences

Almost all my favorite stories are character driven. What I want most from a book is a main character I can commit to. I love to dive deep into their head and stay there, living every word of their challenges, actions, setbacks, dark moment and ultimate triumph.

That means I prefer books written in first or close third person point of view with a powerful internal plot—a character who desperately wants something and will grow and change over the story as they battle to achieve it.

However. With the exception (maybe) of category romances, which focus intensely on the internal plot, a great character driven story needs a robust external plot to provide a framework for the hero or heroine’s adventure. And some external plots engage me more strongly than others.

I’ve been mulling this over for a week or two, ever since I finally read Martha Wells’ Murderbot books (four pricy novellas and a novel so far). The internal story is fascinating, because in this world the characters with biggest personalities and most powerful emotions are not humans but bots, especially Murderbot. The fact that I bought and read all five books is a tribute to the author’s skill in creating Murderbot’s voice, personality and emotional arc, because the external plot is computer-based space opera. Murderbot’s adventures turn on data, systems, drones, hacking, viruses and killware, with spacecraft, planets, wormholes and tractor beams. I know loads of people who enjoy those story elements. I’m so not one of them. I bought and read these books despite the external plot.

Which got me thinking about what I do enjoy in an external plot. I like main characters with career or life goals, because True Love alone is not enough—for a credible HEA the characters need something to do when they’re not kissing and cuddling. I like Jeanne’s heroine in The Demon Always Wins—a nurse who runs a free clinic on the Florida/Georgia border. I’m all in favor of the hero (retired quarterback, now CEO of a startup electronic car company) and heroine (language analyst for the CIA) in Kay’s upcoming trilogy. My heroine in The Seeds of Power is a princess who’s also an expert cultivator. The main character in my current WIP (The Seeds of Destiny) is a healer.

I love power politics. Like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, in which a forgotten half-goblin prince finds himself Emperor of the Elflands. Robert Graves’s I, Claudius: derided underdog brilliantly survives the murderous excesses of the Roman empire and reluctantly ends up on the throne. Werewolf and shifter stories, which are usually built on hierarchies. And the brilliant, hilarious warlike theocracy of space vampires in Ilona Andrews’ Sweep of the Blade.

I don’t enjoy plot moppets—so Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester (Jeanne, Justine and lots of other people I know like this) or SEP’s Dream a Little Dream (a favorite of Michille’s) are not for me. And I have zero interest in shoes, clothes, shopping and the trappings of extreme wealth.

There must be others, but those are the ones that spring immediately to mind.

How about you? What kind of external story do you like best?

Jilly: Bake, Write, Repeat

Which of your newly acquired corona-shelter-lockdown skills is proving most useful?

I know I’m not the only one working on my baking craft. I’ve been cheering Elizabeth’s sourdough progress and applauding Kay’s inspired ingredient substitutions.

Not sure I’ve heard anyone else say that the experience has also been good for their writing, though. Michille said she’s a procrasti-baker. Weirdly, my adventures in bread-making have provided me with both food for thought and a handy writing routine.

Creative inspiration
As you know, I write fantasy romance in a historical setting. My fictional world is similar to northern England or Scotland, broadly late Medieval or early Tudor period. Of course I knew bread was the main carbohydrate in my characters’ diet—they had no potatoes or rice to bulk out their meals. I hadn’t thought enough about how the quality of flour and the kind of bread would vary according to a person’s social standing (apparently in the real world at that time there were at least seven different kinds). Or to wonder whether a character would have their own bread oven, or would take proven dough to a communal bread oven and pay to have it baked, or would buy it ready to eat from a bakehouse. To think about where and how they would acquire flour. How they’d find the time to hand-bake on an almost continuous basis. What they might flavor their dough with. And so on.

It’s not that I expect to use all those details in my books. Maybe a snippet will come in useful, here and there. But it’s a very practical way to immerse myself in my story world and connect with the rhythm of my characters’ lives. And it gives me something to think about while I’m kneading away 🙂 .

A writing routine
Making bread by hand isn’t something you can rush. At my kitchen temperature, a simple loaf needs to sit quietly under a damp tea towel for around two hours—an hour after first kneading, and another hour after it’s been knocked back and shaped. That rhythm works wonderfully well as long-ish writing sprints. Bash the dough, leave it to rise, set a timer, write for an hour. Knock the dough back and shape the loaf, leave it to prove, set a timer, write for an hour. If things are going really well, write for another 35 minutes while the loaf bakes.

Or even better-make sourdough. Mix the ingredients with the starter, set a timer, write for an hour. Add salt, write for another half-hour to an hour. Then turn the dough every half an hour for four hours. Write for eight half-hour sprints between turns. Shape the loaf. Write for another half hour. Then put the loaf in a proving basket and leave it in the fridge overnight. I get at least six hours’ worth of writing time, complete with timed breaks to get up and walk around. And fresh baked sourdough for breakfast.

I feel absurdly pleased to think I’ve inadvertently acquired a small lasting corona-benefit to offset all those missed birthdays, canceled holidays, and absent friends.

How about you? Have you discovered any corona-compensations, large or small?