My Favorite Bit: SL Huang talks about ZERO SUM GAME

My Favorite BitSL Huang is joining us today with her novel Zero Sum Game. Here’s the publisher’s description.

Deadly. Mercenary. Superhuman. Not your ordinary math geek.

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good.

The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.

As far as she knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower . . . but then Cas discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.

Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem . . .

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

What’s SL’s favorite bit?Zero-Sum-Game_COVER


“Don’t look now, but we’re being followed.”
Arthur flicked his eyes to the side mirror. “I don’t see anything. How can you tell?”
“Game theory,” I said. “The white sedan isn’t driving selfishly.”

When choosing something for this piece, I kept coming back to the above bit. Why? Because it never fails to make me giggle.

Game theory. GAME THEORY! My main character is using game theory in a car chase!

*falls down laughing*

*wipes eyes*

This clip — not just the content of the dialogue, but my love for it — encapsulates everything about this book. I didn’t write about a character whose superpower is math to be clever (okay, maybe to be a LITTLE clever!), I wrote about a superpowered mathematician because I love math. And I love PLAYING with math. Sometimes I think these books are really all about me going on an extended self-indulgent tear of writing an action movie filled with math jokes.

Because, oh yeah, I’m also reveling in my love of action through the whole book. I’ve been reliably informed ZERO SUM GAME is a thriller — I didn’t try to write a thriller, but I guess when you pack something with gun fights and car chases and explosions, it ends up being one, and I REALLY LIKE gun fights and car chases and explosions. So when people ask the dreaded “what’s your book about?” question, I usually say, quite cheerfully, “Math and guns!”

People who know me usually sigh at that point and say, “Of course that would be the book you would write.” (My friends know me a touch too well.)

There’s a more serious reason I like this bit, however, and that’s what comes right after:

“It’s okay. I can lose them.” I juked the steering wheel to the side and slammed on the gas, shooting through the next intersection just as the light changed. Arthur yelled. In the rearview mirror, an SUV crashed spectacularly into the passenger side of the white sedan, and brakes screeched as three other cars skidded on the wet streets, spinning to a stop and completely blocking the intersection behind us.

“What the hell!” cried Arthur.

“We’d better switch cars,” I said.

“You could’ve gotten us killed!”

“Please. That was child’s play.”

“You might’ve gotten other people killed!”

“At those velocities it would have been their faults for buying death traps.” It was true, though I hadn’t thought it through in so many words beforehand. I decided against telling Arthur that.

In the background of the math-guns-explosions-thriller part of ZERO SUM GAME, there were other ideas I wanted to explore. Questions of morality. The characterization of good guys and bad guys, of what’s heroic and what’s not.

I like the bit above because it’s a snapshot of Cas’s skills — but also of her arrogance and her moral bankruptcy. She’s something of an antihero…if she’s even a hero at all. You can say a lot of things about Cas: she’s intelligent, stubborn, street smart, loyal, occasionally funny — but one thing you can’t call her is nice, and I LOVE that about her. I love jerkass protagonists in general, but I note that I’m particularly proud of her unapologetic rough edges because I chose to make her a woman, and how often do we get antihero asshole protagonists who aren’t male? Not very often.

And Cas’s amorality is something she struggles with, as a background theme to the action. Once she teams up with Arthur, the other person in the above excerpts, she’s working with someone who has a conscience, and his morals force her to question her immediate answer of violence as always being the most expedient solution. Arthur’s the one the reader probably sympathizes with more, in fact, as he tries to reconcile his own moral code with having someone as violent as Cas as an ally.

So if I had to choose one tiny section to represent the entire book, it would be the above lines. We’ve got math and we’ve got action, but we’ve also got a perfect example of Cas’s tendency to jump first and reflect later, to cause a five-car pileup with no questions asked, and to consider other human lives rather less than she should. And we see Arthur, who ALWAYS thinks about these things beforehand — and who’s starting to make Cas do it, too, maybe just a little bit.


(The quotes in this post have been trimmed slightly so as not to be confusing out of context.)




SL Huang majored in mathematics at MIT. The program did not include training to become a superpowered assassin-type.Sadly.

KIRKUS gives VALOUR AND VANITY a starred review!

I should note that I’m really excited because this is my first starred review. Happy, happy dances!

Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

Renowned glamourists Lord and Lady Vincent become the victims of an elaborate scam that leaves them in dire straits until they conceive of a daring strategy to strike back.

After an extended voyage with her family, Jane and Vincent are anxious to find some time to themselves, traveling to Murano. They have a letter of introduction from the prince regent and hope to work with an artisan to experiment on infusing glamour—magical illusions of sight, sound and light—into glass. On the way, they’re waylaid by pirates, then rescued by a fellow passenger who takes them under his wing in the city. Without papers or money and with Vincent suffering a concussion from the attack, they’re grateful for the gentleman’s help. Once they make progress on their revolutionary glamour process, however, they’re detained by the local police and accused of fraud. Realizing their “friend” is a con man who has disappeared with all their notes and finished work, Jane and Vincent are left broke, in debt and under suspicion: “They had no funds and no friends at all. The only resources they had were the clothes upon their backs, and even those they owed money for.” Unable to find employment, Vincent becomes dispirited, especially when he must depend on the meager salary Jane manages to secure from a nearby convent. Things look up when a chance sighting of one of the crooks enables Vincent and Jane to turn the tables on them: “[S]he could see his mind working and putting together pieces of a plan, as surely as if he was plotting a glamural.” Kowal continues her creative Regency-set Glamourist Histories series with a clever, captivating plot that culminates in a magical heist storyline. Before we get there, though, we are treated to a touching examination of a loving marriage under duress and the connections and collaborations these extraordinary partners must create and reaffirm with each other and those around them in order to thrive.

Combining history, magic and adventure, the book balances emotional depth with buoyant storytelling.

Conversation with my 11-year old niece

Niece: I like to wear sneakers with dresses.

Me: That seems very practical.

Niece: Yeah, because then you can run at formal occasions.

Me: Oh… I don’t usually run at formal occasions.

Niece: I call it taking advantage of my youth.

Beta-readers wanted for SF short story

This is a 150 word short story. Yes. 150 words. That was the commission and it was harder than a 3000 word story. I need to turn it in today, so if you have a few minutes to read…

Just drop your name in the comments on my site (and make sure your email address is correct). The first ten or so people with free time, I’ll send the password to.


EDITED TO ADD: I’ll all set. I’ve got a good spread of readers on this. Many, many thanks for helping with the tight turnaround.

My Favorite Bit: Elizabeth Bear talks about STELES OF THE SKY

My Favorite BitElizabeth Bear is joining us today with her novel Steles of the Sky. Here’s the publisher’s description.

Elizabeth Bear concludes her award-winning epic fantasy Eternal Sky trilogy in Steles of the Sky.

Re Temur, legitimate heir to his grandfather’s Khaganate, has finally raised his banner and declared himself at war with his usurping uncle. With his companions—the Wizard Samarkar, the Cho-tse Hrahima, and the silent monk Brother Hsiung—he must make his way to Dragon Lake to gather in his army of followers. But Temur’s enemies are not idle; the leader of the Nameless Assassins, who has shattered the peace of the Steppe, has struck at Temur’s uncle already. To the south, in the Rasan empire, plague rages. To the east, the great city of Asmaracanda has burned, and the Uthman Caliph is deposed. All the world seems to be on fire, and who knows if even the beloved son of the Eternal Sky can save it?

What’s Elizabeth’s favorite bit?



My favorite bits of Steles of the Sky, it turns out, are all about books.

The funny thing is, I didn’t even realize it until I sat down to think about this essay. But this is a book that’s full of other books.

There is the slave-poetess Ümmühan, for whom books are a religion. Quite literally, as it happens. The scene where, as a reward for great service–for great treachery–she is permitted to hold and read an ancient, precious story is very dear to me. It reminds me of a time that an archivist friend let me hold a book older than Shakespeare, and the sense of awe and connection I felt.

There are the poison grimoires of Erem, ancient and treacherous and full of monstrous knowledge, necromancy, and horror. These are books that blind the eye that reads them, rot the finger that turns their pages, deafen the ear that hears their language spoken aloud. These are books that grant unimaginable power to those that dare their terrors. This conceit–this metaphor–speaks to me as one of the thematic hearts of the novel.

There are the books that a Dowager Empress loves, full of stories of heroes and tricksters that inspire her–and inspire her to ask awkward questions, as well.

There is Brother Hsiung’s fan-book, made of slats bound with cord, upon which he scribes his confession and his plea.

There are bound books and board books and scrolls. Each contradictory. Each full of something somebody cared enough about to write down.

There are the books the Wizard Samarkar misses–the books of a life left behind. And there are the other books she seeks again, though she much brave the dark passages of the earth and their antediluvian and inhuman librarian to find them.

There are books of stone and books of paper. Books of reed and books of glass. There’s a whole lot of books in this world.

And I love each one. Including the one that contains them all–along with wizardry, sorcery, engineering, loyalty, treachery, science, love, hate, enlightenment, sacrifice, selfishness, vengeance, compassion, and a healthy dose of megafauna.

I think it must be bigger on the inside.

Well, books are a kind of magic, after all. You might even say, a spell.





Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year.When coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, this led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, and the writing of speculative fiction. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of 25 novels and over a hundred short stories. Her dog lives in Massachusetts; her partner, writer Scott Lynch, lives in Wisconsin. She spends a lot of time on planes.

SOLD! “Doctor Faustus” to Ellen Datlow’s THE DOLL COLLECTION

Ellen Datlow was one of the few editors whose name I knew before I started writing. I bought everything in the Fairy Tale series that she and Terri Windling edited and devoured The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. So, I’ve been wanting to sell Ellen a story for approximately twenty years. And finally, finally have.

I’m very pleased that my short horror story, “Doctor Faustus” will be appearing in her new anthology The Doll Collection out from Tor in spring of 2015. 

Here’s the first paragraph as a teaser.

Julia stretched her back until it popped. God. It felt like she’d been on the marionette bridge for days. But a chance to do a remount of Orson Fucking Welles’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus? Off-Broadway? Not a chance a girl turned down, even if the theater was just a blackbox crammed in the basement of an old Masonic lodge. It was still off-Broadway and still Orson Welles. And puppets for adults. Give her blood and guts over fake fur and feathers any day, thank you very much. 

And take a look at the table of contents.

  • Introduction by Ellen Datlow
  • Heroes and Villains by Stephen Gallagher
  • The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Gaze by Gemma Files
  • In Case of Zebras by Pat Cadigan
  • Miss Sibyl-Cassandra by Lucy Sussex
  • Skin and Bone by Tim Lebbon
  • There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold by Seanan McGuire
  • Goodness and Kindness by Carrie Vaughn
  • Daniel’s Theory of Dolls by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After and Back Before by Miranda Siemienowicz
  • Doctor Faustus by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Doll Court by Richard Bowes
  • Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line by Genevieve Valentine
  • Ambitious Boys Like You by Richard Kadrey
  • The Permanent Collection by Veronica Schanoes
  • Homemade Monsters by John Langan
  • Word Doll by Jeffrey Ford

via The Doll Collection.

WITHOUT A SUMMER wins RT Reviews Best Fantasy Novel!

Without a Summer finalI am pleased and startled to announce that Without a Summer has been awarded RT Reviews Best Fantasy Novel.  The other novels on the list are stunning and you should definitely check them out.

I was a particular fan of Paul Cornell’s London Falling so the award is a serious, serious honor.  Part of what delights me about this is that I’m writing novels about a happily married couple so I’m really happy about the fact that the love story element is still strong enough to appeal to the RT staff. The Jane and Vincent relationship is what I enjoy most about writing these. I say that Without a Summer is a political thriller disguised as a Regency Romance, but really… I’m there for the love story.

And the clothes. Okay, and the magic.

Plus! It means I get to wear a pretty dress to the awards ceremony, which is in New Orleans which should be fabulous.

I’ll be attending the RT Booklovers Convention for the first time, so if you want to visit, here’s my schedule:

FANTASY: Breathing New Life Into It

Date: Thursday, May 15, 2014 – 10:00am to 11:00am

Location: 2nd Floor, Studio 4 – (Preservation Hall)

Description: You can’t blame a homogenous cast on using history or old rules as a model. The real world has always been wonderfully diverse. Fantasy worlds should be as well! Don’t stifle your creativity by sticking to old rules! Today you can have diversity of themes, characters, and stories that you might not find in old-style fantasy. Come listen to how these authors have done just that.

Speakers: PJ Schnyder, Kristen Callihan, Mary Robinette Kowal, Mur Lafferty, Sarah J. Maas, Tamora Pierce

SCI-FI: It’s Not Your Mama’s Science Fiction!

Date: Friday, May 16, 2014 – 11:15am to 12:15pm

Location: 2nd Floor, Studio 1 – (Preservation Hall)

Description: Bug-eyed monsters, ray-guns, and fainting damsels-in-distress are out the airlock. Today’s SF and its subgenres contain stories and characters that push physical, scientific, emotional, political and sexual boundaries. But what does the future hold for SF writers? Have we gone too far and are lost in space? Or are we boldly going where the genre should have gone decades before? Beam in and sound off!

Speakers: Linnea Sinclair, Catherine Asaro, Jenna Bennett, Ilsa J. Bick, Mary Robinette Kowal, Beth Revis, Sarah Zettel

FAN-Tastic Day Party

Date: Saturday, May 17, 2014 – 6:15pm to 8:00pm

Location: 2nd Floor, Preservation Hall

Description: Meet a revolving door of hundreds of authors as they make appearances every 30 minutes in this high-energy event. Be one of the first 500 attendees and you’ll receive a goody bag filled with free books and promotional items. Among the authors you’ll meet are: Lara Adrian, Ilona Andrews (aka Ilona and Gordon Andrews), Jennifer L. Armentrout (aka J. Lynn), Jaci Burton, Lee Child, Sylvia Day, Jeaniene Frost, Abbi Glines, E.L. James, Eloisa James, Laura Kaye, Lisa Kleypas, Mary Robinette Kowal, Christina Lauren, Jamie McGuire, Jennifer Probst, Tiffany Reisz, Jill Shalvis, Nalini Singh, and Julie Ann Walker!

Choose “FAN-tastic Day Pass” when you register for a pass that includes the party, the goody bag (first 500 entrants), the workshops and the Giant Book Fair.

The FAN-tastic Day Party is hosted by Dreamspinner Press, who will be providing cool refreshments and sweet treats for all to enjoy along with lots of free books and giveaways. Meet several of their authors and the staff.


Pictures of me at the Sesame Puppeteer Workshop!

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Sesame Street Workshop


Yeah, I should have something deeply insightful to say here, but mostly it’s just that I’m excited because the Sesame Puppetry Workshop sent us photos of us today.

photos by Zach Hyman

My April and May events. Am I coming to your town?

Valour and Vanity web bannerSince Valour and Vanity is coming out on April 29th, I have a ton of travel scheduled for the next two months.


Chicago, IL
Friday, April 25 – Sunday, April 27
Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo
Mary’s schedule


I’m particularly excited because I’ll be touring with Marie Brennan whose A Natural History of Dragons I’ve been raving about. Her new book, The Tropic of Serpents, is to die for. We’ll be travelling with period costumes, a tiny puppet show, and dragon fossils. You’ll come see us, right?

brennen-kowalChicago, IL
Thursday, May 1, 6:00 p.m.
DePaul University

Seattle, WA
Friday, May 2, 7:00 p.m.
University Bookstore

Portland, OR
Saturday, May 3, 2:00 p.m.
Powell’s Books at Cedar Hill Crossing

Salem, OR
Sunday, May 4, 3:00 p.m.
Book Bin

Houston, TX
Tuesday, May 6, 6:30 p.m.
Murder by the Book

Salt Lake City, UT
Thursday, May 8, 6:00 p.m.
Weller Book Works

San Diego, CA
Saturday, May 10, 2:00 p.m.
Mysterious Galaxy (Part of the Mysterious Galaxy 21st Birthday Bash!)

San Francisco, CA
Sunday, May 11, 3:00 p.m.
Borderlands Books

And then you can find me solo a couple of times as well.

Raleigh, NC
Monday, May 12, 7:30 p.m.
Quail Ridge Books

New Orleans, LA
Thursday, May 15 – Sunday, May 18
RT Booklovers Convention

Madison, WI
Friday, May 23 – Monday, May 26


My Favorite Bit: Michael R. Underwood talks about ATTACK THE GEEK

My Favorite Bit iconMichael R. Underwood is joining us today with his novella Attack the Geek.  For full disclosure, I narrated the audiobook and loved the heck out of it. Ree is smart, snarky and 100% geek. This is a fast-paced adventure, that’s witty and fun.

Here’s the publisher’s description.

A side quest novella in the bestselling Geekomancy urban fantasy series–when D&D style adventures go from the tabletop to real life, look out!

Ree Reyes, urban fantasy heroine of Geekomancy, is working her regular barista/drink-slinger shift at Grognard’s when it all goes wrong. Everything.

As with Geekomancy (pop culture magic!) and its sequel Celebromancy (celebrity magic!), Attack of the Geek is perfect for anyone who wants to visit a world “where all the books and shows and movies and games [that you] love are a source of power, not only in psychological terms, but in practical, villain-pounding ones” (Marie Brennan, award-winning author of A Natural History of Dragons).

What’s Michael’s favorite bit?

Attack the Geek Full


After finishing Celebromancy, I wanted to change things up. I pitched a stand-alone novella in the Ree Reyes-verse, going off of the idea that we could do a ‘side-quest’ kind of story that would tide readers over until the next full book while I tried on a different world (The Younger Gods, coming at the end of 2014).

Since Attack the Geek was intended to be only 30-40K words (just under half the size of the other books in the series), and since I didn’t have to design as big a story, I wanted to push myself in other areas. I wanted to deliver an action-packed story that would be emotionally engaging through character relationships and to make some statements about fandom and community.

But the thing that ended up being my favorite was the fun of getting the band back together. Attack the Geek is still told from Ree’s POV, but it’s very much an ensemble piece. In addition to Ree and her constant companion-slash-occasional-love-interest , Drake Winters, Attack the Geek features Grognard (Ree’s boss), and Eastwood, her one-time mentor, as well as several regulars at Grognard’s bar (some we’ve met, like “Lieutenant” Wickham or Uncle Joe, as well as some new faces).

I went with an ensemble story because I wanted to focus on the role that Grognard and his bar played in the magical community of Pearson. And if you’re going to talk about community, you should probably actually have a community to talk about. Therefore, Attack the Geek isn’t just two or three heroes going off and having adventures, it’s really about a community of people coming together (imperfectly, and with plenty of disagreements) to fight off an external threat.

Once I decided to go with a larger cast, I thought about my favorite ensemble-driven shows and books – TV shows like Babylon 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Leverage, films like Marvel’s Avengers, and books like The Lies of Locke Lamora and The Dragonlance Chronicles, and tried to pull out the lessons learned from those works – characters should have their own abilities and personalities, and those should inform their priorities. I worked to make sure that each of the characters had at least slightly (and sometimes severely) different priorities and allegiances, so that even when they agreed on the big picture (let’s not get dead), that they’d constantly be in conflict about the best way to respond. A well-oiled unit or gaming party where everyone gets along perfectly is awesome to be a part of as a player, but probably isn’t as hilarious to see from the outside as a reader.

Once I’d set up the members of the ensemble to contrast and conflict with one another, the story started moving like it was on rocket fuel. The action structure I’d chosen was enhanced and driven by the character relationships. Each scene that relaxed the tension of the physical fights could ramp up the tension of the interpersonal conflicts, so that each thread of the story built on the other while varying the story so it wasn’t just all fighting or all people yelling at one another.

It’s hard to manage an ensemble cast (you have to keep talking about all of the characters in order to really make it sing, and that’s hard to justify when writing in a tight third-person POV like I do with the Ree Reyes series, but the rewards are really impressive. Writing the ensemble was My Favorite Bit of Attack the Geek, and I hope you’ll enjoy the results.






Audio (narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal):


Michael R. Underwood is the author of Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek, as well as the forthcoming Shield and Crocus and The Younger Gods. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. Always books.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiance, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines & stuffed animals. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes pizzas from scratch.

Writing Excuses 9.14: How to have an Opinion as a Public Figure

Let’s poke the Internet!

Of course, we may want to just sit on our hands for a few minutes and think before we poke…

Enough thinking. Let’s talk about talking about things. As 21st-century writers, we often spend time writing the things we think on assorted topics. We might blog these things, tweet them, or post comments to other people’s blogs. And before we do those things, we should consider the consequences, and not just the possible fallout from what we’re saying — all the consequences.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t express our opinions, of course. This is just a reminder that choosing to express is also choosing a bunch of other stuff.

And on the outside chance you find yourself needing to apologize for something you’ve said, well, here’s a link to Scalzi’s Whatever regarding Apologies.

via Writing Excuses 9.14: How to have an Opinion as a Public Figure » Writing Excuses.

Sign up for my mailing list/newsletter/digest/occasional short story/thingie

I’m going to try a newsletter thingie because people keep being surprised when I’m on book tour. They miss the posts, or the tweets, or the social media what have you and are then sad that they didn’t get to come visit and I’m sad too.


So– I thought I’d try a mailing list/newsletter/digest/occasional short story/thing. Basically, it comes in two flavors — Event notifications and Newsletter.

The Event notifications is totally sporadic and will be confined to things like, “Hey! Me! Near you!”

The Newsletter will be a digest that drops in your inbox on Thursdays, so you don’t have to remember to swing by. It will also contain event notifications as part of the digest but not individual “I’m coming to town!” notices.

Both will get occasional, and totally random, short stories. Some of these will be rough drafts, some will be already published, and occasionally, very, very occasionally, I’ll slip in a Jane and Vincent story just for you. The two lists will get different content and you can sign up for both or just one. In theory. The theories around how this works are glorious.

Glorious is so much better than sad. Yes?

Select list(s):

You’ll get a confirmation email and just have to click on the link. It’s supposed to go automatically, so if you don’t see it, check spam. This is so people can’t sign up other people and force them to read my fiction against their will.

My Favorite Bit: Emily Jiang talks about SUMMONING THE PHOENIX

My Favorite Bit iconEmily Jiang is joining us today with her picture book Summoning the Phoenix. Here’s the publisher’s description.

Every musician knows that learning to play an instrument has its challenges and its rewards. There’s the embarrassing first day of rehearsal, but also the joy of making friends in the orchestra. There’s dealing with slippery concert dress, or simply getting swept up in the music. The twelve children in this book are just like any other musicians practicing their instruments and preparing for a concert. But what sets these music lovers apart is that they all play traditional Chinese musical instruments in a Chinese orchestra. Including both flights of fancy and practical considerations, lively poems capture each child’s musical experience with a different Chinese instrument, while sidebars provide more information about each one. Vivid illustrations depicting each fascinating instrument bring you along on this musical journey. And then you are invited to the grand finale!

What’s Emily’s favorite bit?

Summoning the Phoenix COVER large


One of the great joys of being a picture book author is seeing the artwork inspired by my words.  I’m so grateful that the amazing April Chu agreed to illustrate my first picture book Summoning the Phoenix: Poems & Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments.  April is an artist and professional architect, and I admire her whimsical aesthetic, her attention to detail, and her ability to realistically illustrate pretty much anything, including the mythical phoenix.

With April’s permission, I’d like to share her gorgeous artwork that inspired the title of my book Summoning the Phoenix.  But first, let me share the companion poem “Magical Melody” in its original format.

This poem is a simple list poem, which is great for children. I specifically chose to format the poem with careful indentations and line breaks to evoke the shape of a bird’s wing on the page.  When I wrote “Magical Melody,” I kept in mind the Chinese myth about a man who could play a xiao, a long bamboo flute, so beautifully that he could control clouds and summon phoenixes.  Yet at the same time, I was aware I was writing a poem spoken by a contemporary American child.

While writing this poem, this is what I envisioned.  A little girl, maybe about five of six years old, is sitting on her bed, alone in her room.  She’s playing the xiao, and one by one, a different bird flies through her open window to land right in front of her bed.  The phoenix is the last to arrive, and it’s perched on the open window sill, its fiery wings tucked under as it listens to the magical melody.

As a picture book author, I knew not to explain this image in my head to the illustrator because I wanted the illustrator to bring her own personality and imagination to the book.  Explanations to the illustrator might work for comic book scripts, but not for  picture book manuscripts.  When I saw April’s artwork, I was absolutely blown away.


What April drew was a thousand times more amazing than my original vision because:

Instead of a little girl, it’s an older boy

up in the sky (instead of a bedroom)

standing in a basket under a hot air balloon (instead of a sitting on bed)

surrounded by all the birds in flight (instead of sitting on the floor).

I remember staring at amazement at this boldly serene boy playing the xiao in a hot air balloon decorated with a Chinese dragon.  The Wizard of Oz has nothing on this kid.  Soon after I received the artwork for my book, I showed this illustration to a professional ornithologist and he accurately identified each and every bird, even the phoenix.

One of my favorite bits of this favorite image is how April brought in the dragon on the right to balance the phoenix on the left.  In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon is a symbol of good luck, not a dastardly monster who kidnaps maidens and kills knights.  In China, the dragon and the phoenix are often depicted together, a fact I learned when I was thirteen and touring the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.  I remember wondering at so the dragons and phoenixes carved next to the stone steps. The tour guide explained that the dragon is a symbol for the Chinese emperor and the phoenix is a symbol for the Chinese empress.  So by pairing these two mystical creatures the the illustration above, April evokes that ancient Chinese tradition.

But her clever incorporation of Asian culture doesn’t stop there.  If you look at the clouds in the artwork, you might notice that most of them are a pale blue that blends into the sky background.  The exception are the clouds underneath the phoenix.  Those clouds are drawn in an Asian style and colored a brighter yellow-orange, as if they are the smoke that results from the fire of the phoenix.  Note that these Asian-inspired clouds also appear in the balloon right next to the dragon’s head.

I could go in more detail about April’s artistic brilliance, how she reserved the large splashes of color for the mystical Chinese animals and designed the artwork to draw the eye from the phoenix to the kid to the dragon, how she cleverly overlapped the birds so that their focus is the empty space in the middle, how the empty space represents the true artist’s soul via negative capability ala Keats, but how really that concept has existed in Chinese culture thousands of years before.  Ultimately, I’m thrilled that the artwork is stunningly gorgeous and true to the poem.

As an author, my only concern was how was my poem going to fit in that amazing artwork?  My editor and book designer discovered a way to fit my words in that small central circle, underneath the owl.  While my poem no longer looks like a bird’s wing, it still preserves the spirit of my poem.  But don’t let me be the only judge.  What do you think?





Emily Jiang is the author of Summoning the Phoenix: Poems & Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments, illustrated by April Chu and published by Shen’s Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books.  Emily holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and a BA in English from Rice University.  She is also a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, the Chautauqua Writers’ Conference, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the VONA/Voices of Our Nation Workshop.  Her fiction has won several awards, including Top Prose Prize in The Binnacle’s Ultra Short Competition the Sue Alexander Award for Most Promising New Manuscript from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  Her writing has been published in Apex Magazine, Stone Telling, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Interfictions, and The Moment of Change anthology of feminist speculative poetry.  She wrestles with words everyday.  Sometimes she wins.  Other times, it’s a draw.

Writing Excuses 9.15: Becoming a Writer—Full Disclosure

“What are the parts of the job that nobody told you about?”

Or, you know, WARNED you about…

It’s a question somebody sent to us, and we all had different answers, so Brandon put together a list, and we made a whole episode out of it! We talk about reviews, physical pain, dietary excitement, deadline-driven interruptions, and not having leisure reading time.

But this isn’t just us whining. We also talk about our solutions to these problems. You know, in between the whining.

via Writing Excuses 9.15: Becoming a Writer—Full Disclosure » Writing Excuses.