Tag Archive | Shenandoah Valley Writers

Spotlight: Sydney Scrogham

** CONGRATULATIONS TO EMILY!!!! (The Emily who commented Tues at 10:21pm.) Please contact me here and we’ll get that copy of Chase into your horse-loving hands! **

One of my favorite features here at Flash! Friday is #Spotlight, in which we get to chat with draggins across the writing community about writing stuff. (Do you have a book coming out? Let me know! This mic is for you!) 

Today it’s a pleasure to sit down for a minute with Sydney Scrogham. You will doubtless remember her from her recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-themed win here at Flash! Friday. I’m also delighted to say she is a member of my dear Shenandoah Valley Writers, and we couldn’t be happier to help celebrate the publication of her novel Chase by inviting her to the dragonstage to tell us all about it.

Be sure to leave a comment today; Sydney is generously giving away a FREE COPY of Chase to a randomly selected commenter. Thank you, Sydney!

Sydney Scrogham

Tell us about your writing journey. You’ve been writing a while! What sorts of writing have driven you? Has your heart chosen a genre (which, and why)? Have you had any formal writing training?

Ha, I haven’t had any formal training in writing.  But that’s okay.  That means there’s hope for us all!

I am suckered into fantasy and romance… and I’ll sometimes swing for a little sci-fi (having studied neuroscience).  I prefer fantasy because you don’t have to really know anything  – you can make it up, and it’s super easy to dig yourself out of a hole.  (It can also be super cool, too.)  And romance… just because.  Everyone wants romance nowadays, but even if they didn’t, I’d still write it.  I love it. (Pun intended.)

Please introduce us to Chase! Tell us about this world and the key players in it.

Chase started back when I was 14ish and I had a suicidal long-distance friend.  I wanted to write a story that would speak into that pain and let my friend know that no matter what, she would still be loved by God.  Here’s where my love for romance comes in – I can’t stand it when people think of God and faith as just a religious ritual.  It’s so much more than that.  Romance was God’s idea, and He’s reading poetry and giving flowers and singing to us… all the time.  Sometimes it’s hard to see and listen to that.  So, why not write a book?  Originally, Chase was designed to be a Jesus-figure character.  And Lauren represented humanity.  All of the Alicorns represented Israel, and the Snix represented Satan.  Some of the lines there got blurred with the rewrite, but that was how the story was conceived.

But aside from that, my favorite part about Chase is, well, Chase.  I love that he acts and thinks like a horse, everything is simple, and he will consider rolling on the beach to scratch his back.  But at the same time, he’s also very human.  For example, the first time he talks to Lauren, he gets tongue-tied like a school-boy crush.  I also love the world Chase lives in – Agalrae – my version of Narnia.  The idea for Agalrae came from Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway (you can see what I’m seeing on Pinterest @sszoewriter), and every time I go hiking up there, the magic of Agalrae tingles in the air for me.

Next: I’m dying to know about Chase’s journey. Tell us everything!

The first draft of this story was done in 18 days.  I was homeschooled, so I’d write for 8-9 hours straight sometimes.  Since I was modeling this story from a Bible story, I knew where it was headed so I didn’t ever get “stuck.”  And no, I didn’t outline – I hate outlines, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that.  (The story NEVER goes where I think it’s going to go.)  First chance I tried to get it published, it was accepted (unheard of, right?), and then three and a half years later, the publisher backed out of the contract.  That was a long, disappointing road.  Because I was afraid the publisher had gone behind my back and was selling books behind my back (they claimed it wasn’t printed, but it was available in their online store), I decided to rewrite Chase.  I felt like a lot of the original story had been lost through all of the years of editing, and I didn’t want to try and sell my story to another publisher when it might already be out there somewhere (grumble grumble).  So I rewrote Chase in 20-some days during NaNoWriMo 2014 using Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races as a rough template to follow.  Three months-ish later, I had a hybrid deal from Koehler Books!  And my entire experience with Koehler has been wonderful.

Did writing Chase require any research? You’re already a horsewoman; how much of the book is based on personal experience?

Oodles of Chase is based on personal experience with my horse Blue.  And that’s why the book is dedicated to him.  I lost him this March to a tragic accident, and when Koehler offered me a dedication, I asked if I could print a picture with it.  They agreed, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Other than that, nope, no research was done.

Editing!!! as terrifying as it’s rumored to be, or is that a big fat lie? how did you find beta readers? an editor?

*gasp* I never actually had beta readers…  Koehler Books took care of my editing AND copyediting.  My skin is very thin, and I want it to stay that way.  I need to have sensitive emotions in order to write!  But what I had to teach myself is that I AM NOT MY WRITING.  Just because the editor is saying there’s all this crap to be fixed, it doesn’t mean I suck as a person.  Actually, just the opposite.  What I’m saying has so much value that editors are working with me to make my writing the best it can be.  So yes, editing isn’t fun, but it’s a necessary evil.  I keep coming out stronger.

Let’s talk about publishing. What made you decide against the traditional approach (or did you try that first, i.e. querying agents)? What drew you to self-publishing and, specifically, this hybrid approach? 

I wanted the traditional approach – my original contract with the first publisher was traditional – but Koehler Books said “no” to that because I’m virtually a nobody without any proven sales success.  Hard truth.  However, I was told to speak up if I was interested in the Emerging Author’s Program.  I said I was.  That means Koehler Books is going to take a year and mentor me into a professional, branded author.  I feel like if I ever needed something, I could ask, and Koehler would give me a great answer.  I’ve had phone calls and emails from them.  Communication has always been great.  The chance at getting good, professional experience was worth its weight in gold to me, and that’s one of the big reasons I went hybrid.  Plus, if Chase sells a certain amount of copies within the first year, then Koehler will offer me a traditional deal for my next book.  So I’m also getting a stab at a long-term business relationship.  I’m definitely open to doing hybrid again in the future, but I also really want to be published with a big house at least once.  But at this point, the only benefit I’ll really get with that is an exponential amount of marketing.  Being with Koehler Books really allowed me to get Chase exactly the way I wanted it, and that’s something that isn’t likely to happen with a big house.  (And yes, I am still interested in getting an agent so I can get into that big house.) 

Marketing is crucial, clearly, and we’re excited to be at the front of that effort with you, celebrating your launch right here at FF. What have you got in the works?

This is crazy, but I absolutely love marketing.  An entrepreneur brain runs in my family.  There’s literally no limit on the things you can do, and the creativity I can pull into marketing gets me almost as excited as writing a first chapter.  Yes, I am a little scared, but only because I’ve never done this before!  I actually may have my first in-person and radio interview coming up soon (Chase is currently being reviewed by some marketing teams).  In-person stuff is the only thing that really got me anxious, but I love the virtual stuff.  And giveaways.  And making things for giveaways – like custom totes or T-shirts – the sky is the limit!  Koehler Books is helping me some, but not as much as my writer communities.  That’s where the real magic is happening.  The Shenandoah Valley Writers critique group has had my back like mud on a rock (too much?), and the people I met at ReWrite: The Ragged Edge 2015 have given me invaluable advice and marketing support.  Moving forward, I don’t know what to expect, but I am excited because I know this is only the beginning.

What’s next?

I actually just finished my next novel.  While in Agalrae, Lauren reads a lot of journals to learn about the history, and she reads a journal from a character named Ariel.  Ariel’s story is the one I just finished, titled “Back To You And Me,” and I didn’t think this was possible, but I may be more excited about that than I was for Chase.  Ariel is a character I have loved for years – she’s been in my head for almost ten years now!  There are lots of novels in the world of Chase – one of them is up for freebies right now on WattPad, Nephtali’s Gift – but I’m kind of writing my series backwards like Star Wars.  There’s Chase, and that actually lands toward the end of the series.  Back To You And Me is two generations before Chase, and Nephtali’s Gift is even farther before that when there weren’t people in Agalrae yet… My plan is to have a few more prequels to Chase, and then finally write a sequel or two… or three… to Chase that ties in all the characters that went around in the prequels.  It’s going to be a great time!

Who are your biggest supporters? Who inspires you?

Sniffle sniffle… The biggest supporter goes back four years ago to Chase’s first draft.  Melanie Champ – she based some of her horse training business on what she read in my first draft!  That’s an incredible honor.  Another person I’ve had fiercely behind me is Lindsey Barnes.  Sometimes I think she was more excited than me.  Then there’s Margaret Locke, Tamara Shoemaker, Foy Iver, Nora Firestone from Koehler Books (who makes phone calls without warning to tell me she’s proud of me), John Koehler (for being so patient through all my endless questions), all of the Ragged Blue Monkeys from ReWrite – gosh, there’s so many of you – and all of my friends and family… I can’t forget my critters, either.  Snowdy (the horse) and Zoe (the dachshund), for keeping me sane through the emotional twists of writing.  I feel bad I can’t name all of you wonderful people – but that would take a novel in itself.  But know that I’m so grateful for you!

Any final words for the FF community?

I love this place.  It’s awesome.  To me, it feels like a virtual coffee shop hangout.  I hope that none of you will ever be afraid to release your words, especially not because you’re afraid of your family seeing something you’ve written!  As far as supporting me, I’m always game for cross-promotion.  I do interviews, and you don’t have to be published to get one, and my few guests posts have gone well.  So, if anyone wants to trade some blog posts… *hint nudge*


Thanks so much for chatting with us, Sydney!!!! Now it’s YOUR TURN, FF community!!!! got any comments? questions? Leave them here; we’ll do a drawing Wednesday, and one of you will win a free copy of Chase!

Spotlight: Maggie Duncan 2

MagMaggie Duncangie Duncan?” you say. “That name sounds awfully familiar.”

Well, of course it does! Maggie’s a four-time Flash! Friday champ AND the winner of Flashversary II. She’s a member of my very own beloved Shenandoah Valley Writers, as it happens, and TODAY is the launch of her latest work, The Better Spy. We’ve already interviewed her here in two parts (here and here) for her Flashversary win, which means today we can skip past the basics and dig right into the SPY STUFF.

I trust you’re already following her on Twitter and at her blog. Next up: read today’s fun interview and leave a comment: Maggie is generously GIVING AWAY a copy of BOTH The Better Spy and My Noble Enemy to a randomly selected (by me) commenter.

Let’s jump in!

If I’ve done my math right, this is your FIFTH published book, starting with Fences in 2012 and continuing through today’s release of The Better Spy. Tell us a bit about your journey.

It’s actually my sixth. I won a small publishing contract in a contest back in 1999 and had a collection of short stories published, Rarely Well-Behaved. However, in 2012 when it went out of print and I regained the publishing rights, I polished up the stories and re-issued them in two collections, Fences and Other Stories and Blood Vengeance. Spy Flash came out in 2012. Blood Vengeance and Spy Flash are “linked short story” collections, meaning the stories stand alone but are part of an over-reaching arc in the book.

I’ve always known editing, beta-readers, editing, proof-reading, and editing are key to a successful book, but I reached the point with both My Noble Enemy and The Better Spy, where I was changing words just to be changing them (aka “happy to glad” changes). At some point you have to tell yourself, let it go. (Cue theme song from “Frozen” here.) The effort pays dividends in the end, though, and that’s what I’ve taken away from my personal publishing history, as well as when I was a magazine editor.

The Better Spy is a collection of stories; My Noble Enemy, which just released in May, is a novella. Just how insane have these past three months been for you? How have you kept (haha) your sanity? What made you choose the story-collection and novella formats to tell these particular stories?

The Better Spy is a novel in stories, which is similar to linked stories, except the linkages are closer, tighter. The Better Spy focuses on the aftermath of a specific spy mission in a main character’s life, and most of the twenty-three stories would be considered flash fiction. Only a couple exceed 3,000 words.

Yeah, the last couple of months I’ve often asked myself, “What were you thinking?” But it just worked out that way. For My Noble Enemy, I wanted to do something longer than a short story, and I wanted to bring a secondary character to a conclusion. It wasn’t quite enough for a novel, but it fit a novella perfectly. Besides, I’d never done a novella before, so… And if I’d written a novel about the subject matter of The Better Spy, it would be about 300,000 words long. Hitting the highlights of the time period using short stories was the way to go. 

Several of your books feature your beloved superstar spy couple, Alexei and Mai. Will you please introduce us?

Alexei N. Bukharin is a Soviet defector who came to work for a super secretive U.N. espionage organization. He also works for an internal Soviet cabal called the Red Circle, whose goal was to bring down the Soviet Union from within, so at times real people on both sides of the Cold War appear in my writing about him. When his partner of many years moved up to management, Alexei became the training agent for nineteen year old Maitland “Mai” Fisher. Her mother was a Bletchley Girl in World War II, the famous British code-breakers, and her father was an operative for British Intelligence, but they joined the same U.N. spy group as Alexei when it was formed. They were killed when she was five, and she was raised by her guardian, a spy master, who recruited her when she was sixteen years old. She often says, “Spying is in my DNA.”

Oh, and they’re married, so I can spice my stories up with a little marital discord and make-up sex. 😉

You’re known for thoroughly researching whatever you’re writing about. Without setting the authorities on us, can you tell us how you went about researching for this latest book?

What I write I call historical thrillers, and my degree is in history, so I love to research. In fact, it’s another time when I have to force myself to stop. So, most of what appears in The Better Spy is based on historical background on the IRA activities in the 1980s. Because I made up my own espionage organization, the United Nations Intelligence Directorate, I don’t have to rely on CIA or other organizations’ protocols — I got to make up my own. So, we shouldn’t be in trouble.

That said, I do a lot of reading on some very odd subjects. Just the other day, I needed to know what a noise suppressor for an AK-47 looked like, so that should leave a footprint of some sort for the FBI. Just kidding. Not really. Yes, kidding.

From James Bond to Jason Bourne to Maxwell Smart, in spy fiction it can seem that the juiciest roles are men’s. First: based on your research, is that an accurate impression? If so, do you see it changing? If not, please illuminate us! And (a related) second: Can you point us to other women spies in fiction that readers might enjoy meeting? and third: who are your favorite spy writers to read?

Yes, I’d agree with that, which is why I rarely read current espionage fiction. I usually end up grinding my teeth in frustration. It’s already changed in mystery writing, courtesy of Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, among others. It’s changing in the thriller genre, more slowly, though. I think it will eventually change in espionage literature, too, because the reading demographic in that genre is skewing more to women, and women want to see strong women characters.

As I said, I don’t read much espionage fiction, actually, because I don’t want to be derivative. I mainly read LeCarre and Alan Furst, and because they write Cold War and between-the-world-wars historical thrillers, respectively, their women characters are generally in the support role and reflect the time period or the country they’re based in. I’ve read all of Ian Fleming, years ago, and recently re-read Casino Royale. I was frustrated by the sexism, even though it was indicative of the time Fleming wrote it. However, Fleming has the day-to-day routine of espionage down pat, and I think he would have been dismayed at the way his character of James Bond has become so flamboyant. A flamboyant spy doesn’t last long.

What drew you to espionage as a literary genre?

I’ve always been fascinated by espionage, likely from my pre-teen obsession with “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” television show. (There’s a reason Alexei is a Russian!) I like exploring the moral dilemmas covert operatives face, the blatant manipulation, the ability to fool people, all for what they think is a greater good. During the Cold War, we were told the KGB had only an evil intent, but in the post-Soviet era when many KGB operatives wrote books or moved to the U.S. and cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies did we discover they spied for the same reasons we did: national security. They thought, just like us, they were keeping their homeland secure. Fascinating stuff. Fascinating people, and quite often more mundane than you’d expect. They have mortgages, car payments, day care expenses, like the rest of us.

You’ve also won some recent accolades, such as your based-on-real-life “Blood and Guts,” which semifinaled in the NYC Midnight contest and just last week WON the Blue Ridge Writers’ Fiction contest. Tell us more about that! 

It’s interesting because when I committed to writing fiction, I told myself that I wasn’t going be the woman writer who exploits my family’s stories, but just about every story I’ve had published has had a hint of my family history. “Blood and Guts” got me through round two of the 2014 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, and the judges’ feedback was very positive. I liked the story a lot because it is based on how my father got his Bronze Star in World War II, so I polished it (I’m always polishing stories) and submitted it to the annual Blue Ridge Writers Contest. I wasn’t sure how it would be received, but the judge was a Gulf War vet who liked the fact I got the military “stuff” right. Blue Ridge Writers is a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club, so the story will go forward to the state-wide Golden Nib Contest. Fingers crossed.

What’s next for you????? What are you working on now–can we expect to see a lot more of Mai and Alexei?

I’m working on another novella! It’s called “The Yellow Scarf” and is about the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s, specifically the sniper war on the city of Sarajevo. Mai and Alexei, and a personal tragedy they suffer, are the principal characters. I’m also getting a literary novel ready to pitch to agents. It’s called Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season, and it starts with a couple who are renovating a room in an old house and find the bones of a baby inside a wall. In the ensuing search for who put it there, many secrets come to light.

And yes, I have at least ten novels in various stages of development involving the spy missions of Mai and Alexei, including one set in the present day where Alexei is a house-husband and Mai is the head of the United Nations Intelligence Directorate.

THANK YOU, Maggie, and mega congrats on today’s release — we’re all wishing you tremendous success! To you readers: thanks for joining us. Please leave a comment or question below, and on Wednesday we’ll randomly draw a name to win a copy of BOTH of Maggie’s latest works, The Better Spy and My Noble Enemy.