Codex Blog Tour: ELAINE ISAAK

The third installment in our discontinuous series of “blog tour” posts featuring fellow members of the Codex Writers online community.

Today our guest is Elaine Isaak, who dropped out of art school to found Curious Characters, designing original stuffed animals and small-scale sculptures, and to follow her bliss: writing. Elaine is the author of The Singer’s Crown (Eos, 2005), and sequels The Eunuch’s Heir (Eos, 2006) and The Bastard Queen (Swimming Kangaroo, 2010).

(The Bastard Queen cover art. Click to enlarge.)

Beloved bastard of an unloved king, Fiona will do anything to please her father, even studying magic though she never shows more than a spark of talent. But the plague that grips their city sends her to work with the dying, as enmity builds between the two peoples her father has brought together.

Struggling to find a cure for the plague, Fiona discovers that its emergence is no coincidence—and that her scorned suitor may be leading a conspiracy that will end in genocide. Even her father wears a false face, and every new tragedy reveals another secret set to shatter her life and her kingdom.

A mother of two, Elaine also enjoys rock climbing, taiko (Japanese drumming), weaving and exotic cooking — when she can scrape the time together.

(Elaine Isaak. Click to enlarge.)

Given all her many activities, we appreciate Elaine taking time out to answer our questions about how she turned her idea for The Bastard Queen into reality.


How long was it between first conceiving The Bastard Queen and actually working on it in earnest? What did you do in the interim?

This one had to wait. It’s the third in a generational series (that is, they build on each other, but they’re not a single story-arc). I had finished the first and second, but hadn’t sold them yet. While I had some fun ideas for a third, it seemed foolish to work more on something I wouldn’t be able to sell for a while. Instead, I had a dramatic idea for a different series which I started in the meantime, giving myself a second book to offer if my first series didn’t sell. Ultimately, it did, and I had the chance to write The Bastard Queen — it was definitely informed by some of the research I was doing for the new books.

How long did it take to complete The Bastard Queen? How did the work progress, from research to publication?

The research happened during the two year interval that it took to sell the first books, so I was able to write quickly once I hit the ground. I think it was about 9 months of writing and my revision. Publishing was another matter because of some difficulties with the original publisher, then a change of agent. I finally sold the book to a small press, but it took about another two years. They have a very professional approach to editing, and we worked on revision for another year, then production.

What major obstacle did you have to overcome while working on The Bastard Queen? How did you overcome it?

I changed publishers and agents, leaving this book sort of dangling in the breeze. After much consideration, focusing on my new series made more sense than trying to place this book with another big publisher. Naturally, that brought difficulties of its own, including a problem printing the covers that almost forced a delayed release (and would have ruined the promotional plan I had put in place).

Writing books, for me, is easy. The business of writing, not so much.

What was the biggest surprise you got out of working on The Bastard Queen, and what do you hope your readers get out of it?

This was the first time I had written a full-length novel with a female protagonist. For me, it was a process of overcoming my own perception that, well, boys have more fun. Especially after the more adventure-based The Eunuch’s Heir, it took me a little while to really inhabit Fiona and her concerns.

In general, I want to create worlds and societies that have more realistic complications than are often associated with fantasy fiction. I like to work in the ambiguous spaces where good guys might do bad things.

What’s your next project … and what did you learn from The Bastard Queen that you’re applying to it?

Interestingly, it’s sort of the other way around. The dark historical fantasy series I’ve recently sold is the one I started when I set aside The Bastard Queen. As a result, my “new” work actually informed this older one rather than the other way around. But I think exploring some of the issues of class and race that crop up in The Bastard Queen, and trying to achieve a stronger level of realism, will serve me well as I move ahead with the new books.


We’re glad we had this opportunity to showcase Elaine Isaak and her new book The Bastard Queen. And don’t forget about the two books ahead of it in the series:

(Cover art for The Singer’s Crown and The Eunuch’s Heir. Click to enlarge.)

Visit to read sample chapters of The Bastard Queen and find out why you do NOT want to be her hero.

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Codex Blog Tour: LEAH CYPESS

Continuing our discontinuous series of “blog tour” posts featuring fellow members of the Codex Writers online community ….

Today we talk (so to type) with Leah Cypess, author of Mistwood (published last year in hardcover and coming out in paperback in April).

Mistwood is the story of an ancient shapeshifter bound by a spell to protect the kings of a certain dynasty. And of a confused girl found in a forest who is told she is that ancient shapeshifter, even though she can’t remember anything about her past. Possibly they’re the same story … possibly not. She’ll have to figure it out while protecting the current prince, navigating his intrigue-filled court, and making sure nobody finds out that she has lost both her memory and her powers.

(Mistwood cover art. Click to enlarge.)

We appreciate Leah taking the time to answer our questions about how she turned her idea for Mistwoodinto reality.


When you first conceived of Mistwood, did you start working on it right away, or did you set the idea aside for a period of time?

I didn’t conceive of the book as a whole so much as I conceived of the first scene — an image of men riding into a misty forest in search of a supernatural creature. I started writing that first scene as soon as I thought of it, and continued working on the book pretty regularly after that (with “regularly” modified by the fact that I was in law school at the time).

Wow, law school and novel writing at the same time — how did that work? How long did it take to write the book and then to shop it around?

Since I was in law school when I started working on Mistwood, I had many interruptions along the way — including a revision request from an editor for a previous manuscript, and then working at a law firm, which was a rather large interruption.

I finished a basic first draft over three years, where “basic” means “scattered throughout various notebooks I used to bring with me on my morning commute.” After two years of working at a law firm, I quit and spent some time writing full-time; during the first few months of my full-time stint, I finished both Mistwood and another manuscript I had been working on.

After some thought, I decided to submit the other manuscript first, because it was about vampires and I was under the impression that vampires were hot. Turned out that by the time I started submitting, vampires were no longer hot, and I got a bunch of rejection letters saying, essentially, “Good story but we’re sick of vampires.”

One of those rejection letters, from an editor at Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), was very detailed and included a request that I send her future manuscripts. So I sent her the query and first two chapters of Mistwood, a manuscript I hadn’t looked at closely for over a year. She sent a request for the full about a month later, and then emailed me two weeks after I sent it to say she was interested in the manuscript and wanted to show it to the other editors.

What major obstacle did you have to overcome while working on Mistwood, and how did you overcome it?

My biggest obstacle was that I wrote the book over the course of three years and in a very disjointed fashion. When I finally gathered together all the various pieces, it turned out I had written some scenes that completely contradicted each other, others that were out of order, and had written at least one scene twice! Piecing it all together in a way that made sense was rather headache-inducing. I could never have managed it without the help of critique groups (I sent it through Critters a total of four times!) who could point out things like, “Your heroine made the same shocking discovery twice,” or, “but she already knew that in Chapter Four!”

What was the biggest surprise you got out of working on this project? Is there anything in particular you hope your readers get out of the finished work?

As someone who worked for 15 years to get a novel published — and who had the experience of watching a manuscript be considered by a publisher for two years before being rejected! — I was very pleasantly surprised by how fast it happened once it happened. (Though publishing is still a very slow business, overall; that patience I acquired has come in handy more than once.)

The most important thing I want my readers to get out of any of my books is a great reading experience. But I also hope that experiencing my main character’s dilemma might help someone who is faced with difficult choices.

You’ve got a new novel coming out soon … what did you learn from Mistwoodthat you applied to it?

My new novel, Nightspell, a stand-alone companion novel to Mistwood, will be published in May 2011. The first draft of Nightspell was mostly written by the time I sold Mistwood, but I learned a lot from the revision process for Mistwood — mostly about keeping scenes tight and clarifying characters’ motivations — that I applied while revising Nightspell.

(Nightspell cover art. Click to enlarge.)


Leah’s 15-year odyssey to publication is a great example of perseverance, and an inspiration to those of us who are working and writing, and writing and working.

A little about Leah: She used to be a practicing attorney in New York City, and is now a full-time writer in Boston. She much prefers her current situation.

(Leah Cypess. Click to enlarge.)

Leah published her first short story (in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine) while still in high school, and a mere 15 years later, finally sold her first novel. Mistwood was published by HarperCollins (Greenwillow) in 2010; Leah’s second novel, Nightspell, will be published in May 2011.

Mistwood‘s paperback release is April 26th, and Nightspell will be released in hardcover on May 31st.

For more information, visit Leah’s web site at

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I Finished Writing a Story Today

Between slush reading assignments and making progress on my novel, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing a short story for the Codex Writers Group Halloween Contest. Today I finished my first draft, which gives me a few days to let it sit quietly before I read through it and attempt any revisions. (The deadline is October 1st.)

The way the contest works, we’re randomly assigned to provide another person the “seed” for their story. I provided a story seed to fellow Boot Camp alumnus Oliver Dale; it wasn’t a very good seed, but Oliver’s the kind of writer who can make good things from bad.

I got the seed for my story from Meg Stout, with whom I wrote a story for the Codex Collaboration Contest and whose mom was in Dave Wolverton’s Writing Workshop with me — small, small world. Meg’s seed was elaborate but extremely good, in that it allowed for an incredible degree of flexibility. I did what I could with it, but I’m not sure I did it justice.

The story ended up being pretty short (the limit is 7500 words, so we aren’t too overwhelmed by reading and judging all the entries, but I didn’t come close to that), and I think I like it. But I always seem to like what I’ve written until people start pointing out the flaws; hopefully, letting it sit for a few days will help me see the flaws for myself.

And now, apart from the slush reading, I can turn my attention back to my novel.

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Above the Event Horizon …

If I’ve read the counter correctly, this will be my 100th blog post. And what better way to celebrate passing the century mark of this semi-sense (i.e., mostly nonsense) than to post a link to Tales of the Talisman, the current issue of which arrived in my mailbox this week and contains my flash fiction story, “Above the Event Horizon at the End of Time.”

I was pleased that one of my writing friends, Rick Novy, also has a story in this issue. His “The Great Basilisk Race” is good story that doesn’t follow the “everything works out fine” formula: the main character makes a difficult choice and then has to live with the consequences. I give him kudos for not giving in to the temptation to wrap things up too neatly — it made his story much more realistic than others I’ve seen.

As for my story, well … as flash fiction, at least it has the virtue of being short. 😉

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The State of Science Fiction

My fellow Codex Writer, Rick Novy, posted a pair of blog entries on the relative decline of science fiction compared to fantasy. He made a clear distinction between the written word and movies: both genres do well in theaters, but for some time F novels have sold better than SF. I think the revitalized LOTR franchise and the wildly successful HP franchise explain some of the current popular interest in F as a genre, but they don’t explain the decline of SF.* (Read Rick’s comments: F Vs. SF, and Who’s Right?)

I agree with Rick that the “new wave” of SF, while it freed SF to tackle things it hadn’t tackled before, also hurt the genre in a fundamental way. I discussed this with Alethea Kontis and Edmund Schubert last year at Dragon*Con, and said then I’d like to see some research into the number and circulation of genre magazines year-by-year from the pulp days to today. I contend that the numbers — which no doubt fluctuated year-by-year due to natural variation — probably fell off precipitously around the conjunction of the “new wave” with the success of the Apollo program. That is, just as the core readership of SF saw the realization of a SFnal dream, their own literature seemed to turn against them and delivered a completely new reading experience that they didn’t appreciate as much.

Maybe I’ll do the research myself, in my copious spare time. [:rolleyes:] Oh, yeah, I’ll get right on that.

With respect to the movies, I’ve pointed out to many people that a great many of the top grossing films are SF or feature SFnal tropes, and they’re usually surprised to realize it. It’s easy to say that movie audiences tolerate SF because the movies make the SFnal elements more accessible than do books — you can see the starship, rather than just imagine it — and that’s why SF readership has declined. But I think there’s more to it than that. If most of us read in order to escape our humdrum, workaday world, F now offers us a clearer escape path: we see items every day that populate many SF stories — computers and cell phones and other gadgetry from which we might be happy to escape for a little while — but not many of us see elves or wizards in the office or the house.

I hope Rick is right, and SF as a genre has matured rather than having died. After all, the novel I’m trying to write is pure SF about environmental engineers working to keep a lunar colony alive. Not exactly riding the current wave, am I?

* For non-fen, LOTR = Lord of the Rings, and HP = Harry Potter. For the really acronym-challenged, F = fantasy, SF = science fiction, and SFnal = science fictional.

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Why I Still Keep a Writing Journal …

… even though I don’t actually write in it all that much.

Recently some of my compadres in the Codex writing group discussed who among us still wrote in longhand, and the benefits and drawbacks thereof. I followed the thread with mild interest, but didn’t contribute much. Now, a week into this web log experiment, I had a small insight.

In addition to the tactile pleasure of scratching ink onto paper, of seeing squiggly black lines that somehow convey meaning (even if I am the only one who can read them), my writing journal allows me something the computer — and the blog especially — does not: the freedom to record ideas and musings only half-formed. In contrast, in this venue and in my “serious” writing I try to produce entries that are, if not fully formed, at least close to complete and coherent. Even producing a first draft takes me a long time, because I want it to be a good draft. The notebook, though, collects for me the briefest snippets of thought, the most inane ramblings, and a hodgepodge of notes on scratch paper that I fully intend to transcribe … someday.

And the journal is infinitely patient with me, even if I am not so patient with myself. Maybe an entry will help explain. A little over a year ago I wrote (on journal page 2097),

The best thing about this little notebook is that it’s always here, ready for me to write in it. It doesn’t matter (except to me) how long I go between entries — the pages are always here, and if I use them all there will always be more, waiting to be written upon. That’s comforting, but in a way it’s also daunting.

My other projects line up and demand my immediate attention; my little notebook waits without complaint. Articles, stories, speeches, and even blog entries require a certain amount of precision and care; the journal tolerates my worst spelling, my most egregious grammar, and my most outrageous ideas. And that’s why, even though I use it far less than I should, I still keep my writing journal.


While we’re on the topic of writing, founding Codexian Luc Reid has a great entry in his blog on the myth of writer’s block: Writer’s Block: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself.

If it really existed, writer’s block would be the inability to write. If we look at this idea for a moment, we begin to notice that it doesn’t make much sense. Is a person with writer’s block physically unable to put words on a page? If they are, it’s not called “writer’s block,” but rather “paralysis” or “death” or “extreme drunkenness.” So people with writer’s block can clearly write. Presumably what a person’s saying when she or he talks about having writer’s block, then, is the inability to write anything good….

Of course, there’s one more possible kind of writer’s block: having trouble writing because you don’t really like to write, and don’t feel compelled to. Some writers talk about not enjoying the process of writing, but they’re compelled to do it anyway. Either compulsion or enjoyment will work, but if you don’t like to sit down and write and you don’t feel driven to do it, then you can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing you don’t have writer’s block: that just means you’re not really a writer.

I relate to both situations: the fear that I’m not going to be able to write anything good, and that I’m not really a writer. But then I write something and prove that at least one of those notions is wrong.

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