Release Day!

It’s release day for The Vermilion Riddle!

I haven’t been furiously posting here because life is just full right now. I do make more frequent, bite-sized updates on my social media accounts, but man, it is a full-time job to be marketing a book at optimal capacity. And I still have another full-time job (that I do enjoy, but keeps me very busy) unless you all make me a bestselling writer who lands a movie deal.

That’s just to say, in spite of the relative silence in these parts, I’m no less excited that this day has come. I’ve had a number of early ARC readers finish The Vermilion Riddle already, and their reviews have truly encouraged me. I know the novel isn’t perfect, and there’s a lot of room for me to continue growing as a writer and storyteller. But to hear genuine feedback that this story kept people reading late into the night, or encouraged them to love the gospel even more, or made them cheer for and feel for the characters, or handled difficult themes in a thought-provoking way – it reminds me of why I started writing. It can be easy to forget while slogging through edits and trying desperately to fix technical inconsistencies in timeline and distances. To me, good stories have always been about making a dent in the darkness, bringing a flicker of light to another soul, or as N.D. Wilson puts it, “polluting the shadows.”

These were my exact words in a post a year ago:

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

2021 Dana

It’s been worth it.

A lot is happening in my personal life in the next month, so I don’t expect to be popping in here frequently. But as things slow down, I do plan to share more about The Vermilion Riddle, what I’ve learned, and what I’m also working on next. So stay tuned.

Until then, my publisher and I are hosting a virtual Facebook launch party March 1 at 5 PM PST. Please join us! It’ll be a fun time of activities, Q&A, and giveaways. Just join the group and hop online for the party.

You can find all my writing-related links on my Linktree. And here’s a shortcut to buying your copy of The Vermilion Riddle.

The Vermilion Riddle is Available for Pre-Order!

I’m thrilled to share that The Vermilion Riddle is now available for preorder on Amazon! It feels a bit surreal to see my novel there. I looked back through my email inbox (a real trek down memory lane) and found scattered vignettes of this story, shared with a few friends. It’s been renamed and revised over the course of years. I almost gave up on it at a few points, thinking it was too offbeat to see the light of day – not to mention, the odds are always against you in traditional publishing. I’m so grateful to see this dream become a reality!

I’m also looking for help promoting The Vermilion Riddle. Specifically, I would like to give out eARCs (Advanced Reader Copy) to readers who are willing to read and provide an honest review before March 1, release day. I’m also putting together a small street team that will help me promote the book on social media and offline, as well as participants for a blog tour. If you are interested in supporting me in any of these ways, you can fill out this form.

Do you have other ideas for how to get the word out? Are there questions or topics you’d like me to address about the novel? I’m open to inspiration for new blog posts! Drop me a line anytime.

Stay tuned for more details on The Vermilion Riddle as we approach release day! If you’re on Facebook and Instagram, you can also follow me for more regular updates there:

Finally, I’ll leave you with the official synopsis, also available on Amazon:

“To enter Faerie’s blessed demesne
four secrets must be found:
the land unbound by time and space
opens only to the one who knows
the Light, the Song, and Mortal Gate.”

In the sheltered town of Carmel, women do not have a future outside of a good marriage. That future is threatened when Leah Edwards’ father gambles away the family’s livelihood and estate. She and her sisters must hurry to find husbands. Then August Fox, a Guardian from Cariath, comes to town and purchases a supposedly haunted manor. Charged to keep the peace between mortals and Faerie, the Guardians are the stuff of legend. After he stuns her with a marriage proposal, Leah reluctantly journeys to Cariath, discovering there is more to August and the legends than she guessed.

Nimrod and his Oath-breakers betrayed the Guardians, seeking to solve an ancient riddle that would unlock the Faerie realm. Not all his followers share his desire for conquest. Benedict Fox, his second-in-command, has different motives. But as he continues fulfilling Nimrod’s plan, Benedict hurtles towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

For Leah, August, and their allies, it is a race against time to solve the ancient riddle before the Oath-breakers, and reunite the Guardians to save the mortal realm. The war is never really over, and this time, the battle lines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

Lessons from Editing a Novel

A great editor is like a two-star Goodreads reviewer who tells you everything that didn’t work in your novel and why, but also bothers to mention the glimmers of potential that bumped you up from getting one star.

Well, sort of. The point is, a great editor doesn’t hate or gush, but gives constructive, actionable feedback. The Vermilion Riddle is my first completed novel, and it’s also my first fully-edited novel. I would not have made it to publication without a fantastic editor. Michelle Levigne was much kinder than a two-star reviewer when she first told me she loved Riddle and believed in its potential, but it needed work. She showed me exactly what the shortcomings were, and gave me a chance to revise. I’ve learned that I thrive best with that kind of feedback – not a formula for how to fix something, but a pointer to the weak spots I can hone in on.

Long story short, I spent a year revising based on her feedback, and Mt. Zion Ridge Press is now publishing my book! I’ve worked with Michelle to tweak and finalize the manuscript over the months, and I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

Successful foreshadowing makes readers say both, “Oh, duh!” and “I didn’t say that coming.” I haven’t read a lot of writers who could do this well (myself included). Michelle calls these foreshadowing moments “jalapenos” – use with discretion, sprinkle them lightly, but give readers some taste of what’s to come. This framing helped me a ton, and I tweaked a lot of the foreshadowing components as I edited. Since I already had a draft complete, I knew exactly what the climax looks like, so I could go back and find places to insert little hints. I imagine this is necessary for a lot of writers. It’s hard to get all the details and finesse right the first time, especially if you’re building up to some kind of a reveal. I’m not even a “pantser” (someone writing by the seat of their pants). I plot ahead, but foreshadowing is more easily added in reverse. Good foreshadowing should land us somewhere between “Agatha All Along” (sorta obvious) and Cap’s BFF killing his other BFF’s parents back in the day (okay, am I gullible, but I didn’t see that coming). Sorry, when I can’t think of good literary examples, I default to Marvel.

Make sure characters actually do things that are in-character, not simply because it moves the plot forward. Don’t force character actions because some huge event has to happen, otherwise the story doesn’t work. I fell into this pitfall when I knew I had to manufacture a critical character encounter. I imagined the scene before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) on this story, and that blinded me from seeing my characters behaving totally irrationally. An editor can spot this pretty easily. Michelle asked me why there were no guards in this very dangerous campsite, and why the characters were sleeping on a riverbank when they had nice, warm cabins aboard their ship…? Well, shoot, because I had to force a meeting! A good question to ask as you cross-examine your story is, “Does it make sense she’s responding this way? Or making this decision?” It needs to make sense for the person, not just for the plot.

Build the world, not just parts of it! One of the main things I did in my first major revision was flesh out the world of The Vermilion Riddle. Many fantasy writers naturally go heavy on world-building, but it’s not second nature to me. I like exploring characters, and I realized that came at the expense of their world – it was too thin. Michelle told me the world felt empty, outside of the few places my characters visited. I would not have spotted this clearly on my own. While I think I could give that feedback on someone else’s story, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees for my writing. The first thing I did before starting revisions was build the world more fully for myself, even if I wouldn’t feature all of it in the novel. (I’m not Tolkien, guys). But just knowing more about the cultures, religions, and government empowered me to sprinkle in references in dialogue or bits of backstory. A savvy reader can usually tell you when a world feels rich and real or not, but I needed to learn, as a writer, what evokes that sensation. I think of Narnia – Lewis wrote with less than a tenth of the detail Tolkien used in Lord of the Rings, but he still made the world feel rich and expansive. There’s not a singular way to do it. Sometimes, it’s just a brief, tantalizing line here or there – but an invested reader loves those. It’s the stuff of great fanfiction spinoffs! 

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.

Epic & Intimate: The Inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Toni Morrison

Two of my favorite fiction authors are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. Besides both being British, their works are worlds apart, literally – one wrote epic, sprawling stories of the battle between good and evil, while the other wrote of small town families, romance, and culture in the Regency era. If Tolkien’s heroes failed, death and darkness would sweep across the land. If Austen’s heroes failed, a lady would be single at thirty. (The horror!)

As different as they are, I had a desire to blend the best of both genres. I didn’t think it’d be the most marketable book, but then, I also thought no one else would write this. That concept sparked the genesis of The Vermilion Riddle. I wanted an epic fantasy that was also character-driven and intimate. I love how Austen deftly explored familial and romantic relationships in the framework of her society, and I was curious to see how that would unfold in the context of a traditional fantasy. I shamelessly drew influence from the Regency era for parts of my story’s culture, simply because it’s got that quaint, cozy vibe, stored inside a broad, sweeping world. 

This is a snippet of what I wrote in my original query letter for The Vermilion Riddle: 

“While the novel evokes elements of classic fantasy—quests, duels, and the battle of good versus evil—it thrives on character exploration. The plot hums to the beat of a cosmic conflict and climax, though the struggles within a family—between fathers and sons, brothers by blood (and not), husband and wife—forms its core melody.”

When it came to the characters and relationships in the story, three questions framed my writing. 

What makes a strong, relatable, and feminine heroine?

What happens to brothers who are pitted against each other ideologically?

What does a love story that happens after marriage look like?

I did not know, concretely, the answer to any of these when I began, and Riddle was going to be my way of exploring them. In retrospect, I was in over my head. I’m not sure if I ever found totally satisfactory answers, but as I worked on the novel over the years, I felt the story mature quietly alongside of me. There were nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from life and other people that made their way into the story. There were also surprising insights that emerged from the characters as I was writing.

In the end, I wanted to write characters who, though born into another world, were achingly human. Though they chase ancient secrets and face the fury of the faerie-kind, they aren’t wrapped in an air of mythology that makes them feel far removed from us. They are the sort of people who could be legends – but a legend is usually formed in retrospect. They are like Merry and Pippin, hobbits who felt like useless baggage for much of their journey before they were hailed as heroes.

That’s what I strived for, at least – a story that’s epic yet intimate, that’s far-flung and yet close to home.

There was an alien wildness to it, as of a completely foreign world, but it was not without a touch of familiarity. It stirred up a strange mixture of nostalgia and mystery within her.

“Does this feel far from home?” Arthur asked softly.

“Yes,” she replied quietly, “and yet, no.”

The Vermilion Riddle

Photo by Sven Fischer on Unsplash.

The Vermilion Riddle: Cover Reveal & Synopsis!

I’m excited to share the cover of The Vermilion Riddle! My publisher did an initial reveal at a Zoom party a few weeks ago, and it was fun talking about the book and answering questions. Being a first-time author, it was a new experience. I’m used to running meetings and giving presentations for my day job, but it’s different sharing about my writing and being asked about my revision process, my favorite character to write, etc. It’s one thing to blog about it, and quite another to verbalize it to an audience. Mount Zion Ridge Press has been a great partner to work with as we’ve been going through edits, designs, and all my newbie questions.

Also, I haven’t given much detail yet about the story, so I wanted to share a first synopsis!

The war between faeries and men dimmed into mythology long ago, contained in the pages of Leah’s books. Far from danger, her sheltered town runs on parties and gossip. Then, August Fox purchases the haunted manor in Carmel and legends begin breaking into her reality. When her father gambles away their livelihood, Leah dutifully accepts August’s request for her hand. But a shadow haunts Cariath, his home of towering edifices and warriors, and she must contend with the ghosts of his family’s past.

Hungry to conquer the immortal realm, Nimrod betrayed the Guardians and stole an ancient riddle that would guide him to the keys to Faerie. To his followers’ surprise, he names Benedict Fox his second-in-command. Benedict plays a dangerous game, his agenda diverging from Nimrod’s. As they uncover more Guardian secrets, Benedict finds himself hurtling towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

The war is never really over, and this time, the battlelines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

What do you think?

I’m cuing up some more posts about the inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle and my writing process. Happy to take feedback on other topics you’d like to see me cover!

Old-Fashioned Fantasy

I was a complete bookworm growing up, and I think being an only child fed that. I was shy, I had plenty of time, and I buried myself in stories. My parents would take me to libraries and bookshops where we could buy an entire bag of books for $5, which was a dream. I’m pretty sure I got mounds of obscure books no one has heard of. And while I happily read almost anything in my early years, I’ve forgotten most of them. There are just a few books that truly gripped me, sank into my soul, and made stories more than just a pleasurable way to pass the time.

It’s special to me that my first novel is a fantasy, since that’s the genre that hooked me on reading. I don’t read fantasy novels predominantly anymore – and some of my friends are surprised to know that I haven’t read some of the most popular contemporary fantasy authors, like Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin. Maybe it’s heretical for me to say, but I attempted The Way of Kings and Game of Thrones, but dropped them both. (I might give the former another chance, though). From the bits I read, I can’t deny that the world-building in both is stunning. But that’s never been the thing I loved most about fantasy.

The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books to capture my imagination. I didn’t knock on the back of my closet, hoping to find Narnia, simply because C.S. Lewis built an amazing world. Rather, it was because he peopled it with unforgettable characters. I remember how Aslan’s sacrifice struck me in the heart, how I wished for a friend like Lucy, how I hated but then grew to love Eustace, and how I adored Reepicheep and Puddleglum for their nobility and spunk. The world of Narnia gave them a place to come to life and flourish, but it was always the characters I loved most, imbued with such heart and personality.

Not surprisingly, The Lord of the Rings was my next great love (or obsession). My mom wanted to see the first film because she heard it was a classic, while I wondered how a story about jewelry could be anything but a snoozefest. I walked out of the theater totally enthralled, and hunted down the books so I could read them before the next movies came out. Undoubtedly, Tolkien created a rich world with different cultures, languages, and landscapes. He was a genre master. Peter S. Beagle called him a “colonizer of dreams.” As much as I would love to live in Rivendell or the Shire, it’s not the places themselves that inspired me most. It was the story of little hobbits shaking the fortresses of the mighty, a man of exile rising from the ashes to be king, and an unloved son who still loved his people to the bitter end.

Some might say these stories are old-fashioned. People are not so simple, so black-and-white. We love to explore characters who are gray, toeing the moral line. There’s a trend in contemporary fantasy towards dystopia, and morally questionable heroes. Fewer stories today make people say, “I want to live there with those people!” And they don’t all need to. But those are the books that won me over, and that’s the spirit I hope I capture in The Vermilion Riddle. 

I have some of those gray characters, and I try to dig into some of those hard questions about justice and revenge. The story is told from two characters’ point-of-views, and one of them is certainly not a hero. But by and large, The Vermilion Riddle is classic fantasy in its themes and morality.

You might call it old-fashioned. But like Phil Coulson tells Captain America: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash.

A Quiet, Creative Journey: Part II

Over two years, I wrote one of my more transparent posts about my writing journey. Forgive me for momentarily quoting myself:

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

Well, I didn’t end up with an agent for my novel, but I did sign a contract with a publisher! Thanks to the wonderful team at Mount Zion Ridge Press, my novel, The Vermilion Riddle, will be releasing in February 2022.

I’m amazed and grateful. It’s every writer’s dream come true, to imagine holding a copy of my book in my hands – and having it available for anyone to order. I also feel the weight of responsibility, thinking of putting my words into print. It really is Providence that I came across Mount Zion Ridge Press, a Christian publisher with a biblical worldview. I’m thrilled I get to work with them in editing my novel and making it ready for the world.

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

So, what’s next? Probably to the horror of many introverted writers, publishing involves a lot of marketing. I’m looking into starting a newsletter, setting up a Facebook page, and yes, writing more on Pen and Fire. I’ll be working on manuscript revisions over the next few months with my editor too. She’s been a real gift to me already, and I can’t wait to learn more from working with an industry professional.

Also, if you like what you’ve seen of my writing, if you enjoy classical character-driven fantasy, if you’re my friend, or if you want to help out a stranger on the Internet – I have an opportunity for you to get involved! I’ll be looking to build a “street team” of early readers who can commit to reading and reviewing my book before release. You can also help me promote and spread the word to your social circles. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

Watch this space for more updates soon on my publishing journey and The Vermilion Riddle!

S.D.G.