Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Of Metal and Wishes is in the wild!

"This love story for the ages, set in a reimagined industrial Asia, is a little dark, a bit breathless, and completely compelling.

Sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic, housed in a slaughterhouse staffed by the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor. Wen often hears the whisper of a ghost in the slaughterhouse, a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. And after one of the Noor humiliates Wen, the ghost grants an impulsive wish of hers—brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including the outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the ghost. As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen is torn between her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. Will she determine whom to trust before the factory explodes, taking her down with it?"

This is my fourth YA novel, and it's really special to me. 

And here's where you can find it:

Monday, March 31, 2014

I'm branching out!

From Publishers Weekly:

By the end of this year, I'll have five YA novels out, with two more coming out next year. And I have every intention of continuing to write YA fiction (I'm writing one NOW, as a matter of fact). But with the encouragement of my agent, I've also decided to branch out a bit and try my hand at adult romance. 

Marked is about Cacy Ferry, a paramedic in post-eco-disaster Boston who moonlights in the family business of transporting souls to the afterlife. When her CEO father dies under mysterious circumstances, she has to solve his murder and prevent the company from falling into the hands of the mischievous, evil Kere--living personifications of violent death--before her handsome new partner, Eli, becomes one of the casualties.

Writing this book was SO. MUCH. FUN. For those of you who are fans of Sanctum, I know Marked might sound similar, what with mentions of the afterlife, but I promise you, this book will take you on a very different kind of ride. Boston is a chaotic canal city teeming with monsters seen and unseen, ruled by a family at war with itself.  There's a lot of gritty violence (okay ... I guess that's not that different from my other books) and some major sexytimes (which is quite different from my other books). I am super-excited to be working with David Pomerico and the rest of the team at 47North so we can share Marked with you!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Where I am when I'm not here, which is most of the time.

Oh, blogging has gotten away from me, and that's the simple truth. The last few months have been so incredibly busy, and there's no sign of things letting up. In fact, I'm booked through 2015.

I'm not joking. Which is both awesome and daunting.

So! I've come to a point where I need to be brutally honest and realistic about what I can do, and the truth is that blogging has fallen to the bottom of a very long priority list.

Instead of making promises I can't keep, I'll tell you where to find me. I might post here from time to time with big news, but it's not the main way to get day-to-day updates about my books and projects and random thoughts ... not that I expect you to be interested in those.

I am often lurking and sometimes babbling on Twitter. If you want to interact, find me there!

If you're interested in news about the Guards of the Shadowlands series (Sanctum, Fractured, and BOOK 3), look for it here. That tumblr account is also the place to read Malachi's journal entries--check the archives, because I believe there are well over a hundred entries at this point!

For general news--including updates and info on SCAN (May 2014) and OF METAL AND WISHES (August 2014)--interviews, giveaways and contests, etc., please check my Facebook page.

And now, before I sink into my cave once more:

FRACTURED is out and available! Because it is published by Skyscape/Amazon Children's Publishing, you're highly unlikely to find it in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, but perhaps they will order it for you if you ask nicely :)

Barnes & Noble


Amazon (it's Kindle exclusive)

I believe you can get the audiobook at any of those sites as well.

And that's it for now.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I know--I'm ridiculous, popping up to do a long blog series and then disappearing again. Still, I suspect half of you are on vacation anyway!

Nevertheless, I have to share this, because I am just so excited. OF METAL AND WISHES, formerly "Factory Ghost," was a book I never meant to write. It hit me sideways while I was on sub with SCAN, and I wrote it in a few weeks. It came tearing out of me, the voice, the world, the characters. It is so different from Sanctum, more lyrical, I guess--but in its own way, no less brutal. It's an odd duck of a book that landed me with an editor and an imprint I hugely admire. JUST A NOTE: This is not a new book deal for me! Factory Ghost sold last year. I'm just sharing the plot summary now.

Here's the jacket copy!

There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally. 
Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her… for a very long time. 
As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her … and she might go down with it.

That's the long version. The short version: this is Phantom of the Opera set in a meat factory. But I added a few twists of my own. And if you want a hint, I offer you this gif (lovingly provided by an early reader, also the intern who plucked Sanctum from the slush). This image also sums up how I feel about this book.

You can add Of Metal and Wishes to your to-be-read pile here ...

Friday, June 14, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 10 (!!!): Writing PTSD treatment that's true to life

This is getting comical. But never fear! I think this is pretty much it. Next Tuesday, I'll be posting at YA Highway, a kind of summary about things to consider when writing traumatic events and characters exhibiting PTSD symptoms.

Up to now:
Part 6: Intrusive Recollection
Part 7: Understanding Triggers
Part 8: Avoidance and Numbing
Part 9: Hyper-arousal

Okay ... so you have a traumatized character, and you want to depict him/her going to treatment. This post is for you.

It is widely accepted that treatment for trauma really can't begin until the person is safe--you can't recover from trauma if you're still IN that trauma. Of course, there's a lot of debate about what "safety" means, and whether we're just talking about physical safety (e.g., not still living in the home with an abuser) or both physical and psychological safety (e.g., is living with a temporary foster family a psychologically safe place to deal with traumatic memories?). We have to use our best judgment and keep doing research on that one.

I'm going to describe prolonged exposure therapy in VERY general terms (that often apply to other research-supported treatment approaches as well, such as EMDR). PE is one of the most well-researched and effective treatments for PTSD in existence. There are other treatments like it, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which is often used with traumatized children and their parents. These are not the only treatments--but there is SOLID evidence to show they work. And I don't like to waste time talking about stuff that I don't believe has a reasonable chance of working. If you're going to apply another model of therapy, it might be cool to see if there's any research support to show it's effective in treating PTSD.

A two-minute video on prolonged exposure therapy:

Once the person is in a reasonably safe place (i.e., not being re-traumatized), treatment can begin, and it generally includes three phases. If you're writing someone receiving treatment for PTSD, please do not have the person walk right in and start dealing in-depth with what happened to him. Because of those avoidance/numbing symptoms, it's unlikely a person with PTSD would even be willing or able to do that. Also, there's work to be done before you can get to that, because of those hyper-arousal symptoms. You can't dive into the deepest, most dangerous waters before you've given the person a nice lifeboat and a life preserver and a tether to LAND.

What you do first is establish some coping skills. Sure, initially you don't expect a person who's been traumatized to be able to use those coping skills when hyper-aroused, but think of it as planting bulbs in the fall--you don't expect them to sprout until the spring. You work with the person on safety and what's referred to as "grounding" skills. Grounding is all about staying in the present. Examples of grounding techniques include counting (like, bricks in the wall, books on the shelf, tiles on the floor) or focusing on a sensory sensation, like the feel of your butt in the chair and your feet on the floor. Some people use objects to hold them in the here and now, like a paperweight or one of those squeeze balls. There are a variety of means to cope (e.g., breathing exercises), but the goal is to develop a way to "come back" or "stay present" when hyper-aroused, so that you can bring your body and mind back into that comfortable cool zone where logic is possible.

Once those skills are well-established, the person can begin to process and grieve the traumatic memories. Usually, it's good to focus on one event, even if the person is dealing with multiple events. In this phase of treatment, the person is asked to describe, in great, painstaking detail, what happened. The therapist asks questions, but also checks in every few minutes and asks the client to identify her distress level on a kind of scale (subjective units of distress, or SUDS). The client uses grounding techniques to keep herself in the moment, but she continues to discuss the memory and think about it with the guidance of the therapist. She does this over repeated sessions and exposures until she is no longer unduly distressed or impaired by the memory. It usually happens relatively rapidly when done right--this therapy only takes 8-12 sessions in a lot of cases!

Describing the trauma repeatedly (and listening to tapes of that description) is only one part of it--if the trauma has led to avoidance of specific places or situations (e.g., driving at night after a carjacking), the therapist will help the client create a "hierarchy" of feared situations that she will gradually expose herself to, starting with the easiest situation and moving to the hardest.

Symptoms can re-emerge during the processing phase, but the therapist is ready for that and helps the client through it. The final phase is about consolidating those coping skills, increasing positive emotion and social connections, and re-engaging with the world.

Aaaand that's pretty much it. Speaking as a psychologist, I guess what I would beg each and every one of you is to do your research if you're writing treatment for PTSD. There are remarkable resources out there, free and available for use and dissemination.

On Monday, I'll do a little wrap-up and answering questions that have come up. If you do have questions that I haven't answered, today would be the day to post them in the comments section!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 9: Understanding Hyper-Arousal

Here we go--we're getting to our final few posts in this series. To catch you up to this point:
Part 6: Intrusive Recollection
Part 7: Understanding Triggers
Part 8: Avoidance and Numbing

Today we talk about the third and final symptom cluster in PTSD (according to the DSM classification system). The symptoms, according to that manual, are as follows:

Persistent symptoms of increasing arousal (not present before the trauma), indicated by at least two of the following:
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response
Remember what I said in the last post about how our reactions to trauma are about survival? Basically, when we're exposed to a traumatic event, our minds process it in a way that helps us stay alive, and sometimes, that survival mechanism gets a little glitchy. Trauma memories are processed in a different part of the brain than most other memories, and can trigger an instant ALARM. Our bodies respond to that alarm in several ways:

  • Acceleration of heart and lung action
  • Inhibition of stomach/intestinal action
  • Constriction of non-vital blood vessels
  • Freeing of nutrients for muscular action
  • Dilation of blood vessels for muscles

See how those things might help you stay alive? If you're faced with a charging hippopotamus or have to escape a burning building, you might be able to because we're evolved to respond--your body reroutes resources to the essential places while limiting blood flow to other places. And if you're *really* in trouble, your brain might release endorphins that allow you to keep going despite serious injury or intense pain. It's a truly amazing process ... until it gets applied in the wrong situation. Like that veteran I mentioned who was triggered in a public park on a sunny day, simply by a trickle of sweat on his face, and he had a panic attack. Basically, his body switched into survival mode without consulting him, all because of memories processed deep in his brain. 

People who are hyper-aroused are different than when they are not in this state. It's of crucial importance for you to remember that if you're writing this type of character and scene. Here's a diagram adapted from the work of Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, an expert in child trauma (THIS ARTICLE is a helpful must-read!):

You see how someone in a calm, resting state has a clear sense of time and can process abstract thoughts, but as the body kicks into survival mode, she starts to lose that long-term focus. Everything constricts, her sense of time, her ability to reason. Her mind is entirely focused on fighting or running--or freezing. 

Trauma experts talk about how it's not just "fight or flight"--it's "fight or flight or fright." When someone is in an extreme hyperarousal episode, he'll do one of those three things. Most people have a tendency toward one kind of response, though a person who tends toward flight will OFTEN fight if cornered. Women are more likely to engage in flight responses, while men are equally likely to engage in fight or flight. The "fright" response, which you could liken to a possum playing dead, is most often exhibited by young children, youth abused by an adult, youth in an inescapable situation (especially if it involves pain), and girls (twice as likely as boys). 

Now ... for some examples!

A "flight" response:

“One of Coin’s men lays a hand on my arm. It’s not an aggressive move, really, but after the arena, I react defensively to any unfamiliar touch. I jerk my arm free and take off running down the halls. Behind me, there’s the sound of a scuffle, but I don’t stop.” ~ Katniss, from Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
 A "fight" response (specifically "irritability or outbursts of anger" from the symptom list):
“I felt the violence rising in me with every encounter with the world outside my home. Even inside it I frequently, and with little cause, no cause, boxed Benny’s ears. If I made him squeal and cringe and look at me with eyes gone grave with love and incomprehension, I fancied I felt relief.” ~Tashi, Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker
A "fright/freeze" response:

Erm. Just read Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. But be ready when you do--it's intense.
“I hate knowing he’s waiting for me, that he will rub his hands and himself all over me and whisper things. His hands used to make me cry, but now I’m used to them. The thing is, you can get used to anything. You think you can’t, you want to die, but you don’t. You won’t. You just are.” ~ “Alice”, who is being held captive by a predator, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
And finally, description of a rage/fight response followed by endorphin release (there's some speculation that those endorphin releases can become addictive, and that traumatized kids sometimes push things in an instinctive need to reach that point):
"Like, whatever I do, there it is, this …rage or …something…that owns my blood and it burns…burns my blood ‘cause it thinks it’s funny or something. I just…" I grit my teeth, shake my head ‘cause this shit ain’t right. "And I get angrier and angrier and then …I gotta do something about it." 
"You can’t hit everything and think that’s going to make it all better." 
"I know that! But it feels good to just…stop fighting it and let it control me. Like …I don’t gotta think none or decide or hold back or nothing.”~Will, who suffered chronic developmental trauma, talking to his girlfriend, Zoe. (Nobody But Us, by Kristin Halbrook)

Ah, there we go. On Friday I'll talk about treatment!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Traumatizing Your Characters, Part 8: Avoidance and Numbing, the most misunderstood of symptoms ...

This series is getting comically long, but I promise--only a few more posts! If you need a recap, here you go:

And congratulations to Marcy, who won the copy of Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook!

Now ... back to our discussion of symptoms of PTSD. We've discussed the most well-known symptom cluster--intrusive recollection, which includes things like flashbacks, nightmares, and other sorts of re-experiencing of the trauma. That's the one you'll see portrayed in the movies and in books most often.

Today, we discuss a symptom cluster that is equally prominent in PTSD, but much less understood by lay-people, in my experience: Avoidance and general numbing of responsiveness.

Here are the symptoms from the DSM-IV-TR:

Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma), as indicated by at least three of the following:
  1. Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma
  2. Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma
  3. Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma
  4. Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
  5. Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others
  6. Restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings)
  7. Sense of foreshortened future (e.g., does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span)

Some examples from fiction (these next two aren't YA, but are so appropriate that I couldn't not offer them):
It was in the nature of their love that Kathy did not insist that he see a psychiatrist, and that John did not feel the need to seek help.  By and large he was able to avoid the sickness down below.  He moved with determination across the surface of his life, attending to a marriage and a career.  He performed the necessary tricks, dreamed the necessary dreams.  On occasion, though, he'd yell in his sleep -- loud, desperate, obscene things -- and Kathy would reach out and ask what was wrong.  Her eyes would betray visible fear.  "It wasn't even your voice," she'd say.  "It wasn't even you." ~In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien (emphasis my own)
He is here. And I can see as he looks at me that he does not know whether to laugh or cry. I feel the same. My eyes see him but they do not register his being. Nothing runs out of my eyes to greet him. It is as if my self is hiding behind an iron door.” ~ Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker (emphasis my own)
If you were experiencing intrusive memories of the worst moments of your life, you probably wouldn't embrace that experience, right? Instead, you'd want to control and suppress those memories as much as you could, just so you could go on with your life. So as you think about humans' reactions to life-threatening, heinous events, remember this: Our responses to trauma are about survival. Most symptoms of PTSD are the brain's attempts to keep the organism alive and safe and functional ... gone a bit haywire. But the impulse for health and survival is there. Avoidance and numbing is no different--the brain is trying to protect the person by keeping him buffered from incapacitating and threatening stimuli.

People who have PTSD do not say, "Hey, let me tell you about what happened to me." In fact, the most effective treatments for PTSD involve repeated (and carefully controlled) exposure to that trauma narrative and those memories, and it's extremely daunting for people with PTSD to do. It works, but it requires a lot of courage and determination. If you're writing a character with PTSD, remember that. They duck reminders of the trauma, conversations about the trauma, and emotionally withdraw, but it's a matter of emotional survival and self-protection.

Dissociation is not exactly a codified symptom of PTSD, but it is widely acknowledged as something that goes along with it. Dissociation is exactly what it sounds like--it's what happens when a person detaches from reality. And ... it's completely normal. Daydreaming and fantasy are forms of dissociation, a typical response to being trapped in an inescapable situation. Like a boring class, for example. But like so many other things, it's a continuum, and some forms of dissociation impair functioning and are actual disorders (Dissociative Identity Disorder, for example). Dissociation can essentially be considered extreme avoidance. If you're writing a traumatized character, you might want to look into it and make sure you understand it.

A brief example of dissociation from Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook:
He’s little, dark eyes and sharp smell drifting under my nose. It’s him. He’s here, he’s found me. I do what I always do. There’s this room, four walls painted pale sunshine but no windows. That’s where I hide. I’m stiff as a canoe, a vessel gliding effortlessly over still water in a sunshine room. His face is talking to me again, but there is no Zoe here to hear his words. ~Zoe, who was beaten by her father, upon getting caught shoplifting by a store owner.
In all three examples, plus the example from Speak that I used last week, the authors smoothly convey the avoidance, numbness, and dissociation not just by telling us, but by showing us through the prose. Something as subtle as saying "his face is talking" instead of "he is talking" shows a level of detachment the reader instantly and instinctively absorbs. In good examples, this kind of dual communication is nearly always present--the author shows images and moves the story along, but word choice, sentence organization and length, and cadence boost the impact tremendously.

Do you guys have any other examples of good passages or books that convey this particular symptom cluster of PTSD?

On Wednesday, we'll be talking about the third and final symptom cluster--Hyper-arousal. Then, on Friday, we'll discuss writing accurate treatment. And ... that's it! We'll have covered everything except perhaps a few of your questions--feel free to ask for additional information in comments, and I may do a final post to answer them.