The Story of Youtube

In 2012, after OWEN was written and sold, a video was posted to Youtube. It was a cover of a popular song, and what made the video interesting was that it featured five people playing the song on guitar. On one guitar.

I hadn’t even heard the original when I first saw the video (not uncommon for me), but I was hooked. This, I knew, was how Siobhan made her mark on the world. More accurately, this was how EMILY made Siobhan’s mark on the world.

I remember when American Idol first came out, and a bunch of my friends who are, uh, shall we say “choosy” in their music habits were all “UGH, this is terrible”. I was fascinated, though, because I felt like I finally got to see how music packaging works*.

(Side note: my dad’s favourite bands include ABBA and The Mama’s and The Papa’s, so from the time I was small, I was no stranger to music that was arranged rather deliberately.)

And this is Emily’s world. She is very good at the internet, and she’s the one who talks Siobhan into actually putting the music up for wider consumption. It never would have occurred to Hannah and Lottie (or Owen, for that matter), which is one of the reasons I like Emily so much, even though her scenes are a pain to write.

This was a bit of a shift for me, though, because the musician I had originally modelled Siobhan on was slightly different. Her name is Heather Dale, and she is a true bard. Heather started off writing for Renaissance Faires, and eventually recorded CDs and sold them, and travels a lot to perform. I really cannot understate how beautiful her music is. Every time I play it for someone new, they ask me who she is and comment on her words and voice and diction. She might be the best I have ever heard.

Heather has also made really great use of Youtube, as Siobhan eventually does, but the fact that they both got their start “off camera” gives them a slightly different style. It was a lot of fun to play around with. Heather’s music is intrinsically part of my concept of Siobhan herself and of Siobhan’s musical leanings (in particular THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO in The Story of Owen, and JOAN in Prairie Fire).

I think the BEST thing about music on Youtube, though, is that if you are talented, people will find you. It’s the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, only with music instead of baseball. Siobhan is very talented, and her music catches on because it is familiar…with a twist. My current Youtube infatuation is a duo that I think really captures every part of that.

(Also, check out their cover of TAKE ME TO CHURCH because: my heart.)

The Brooklyn Duo is a thing I never would have heard of, were it not for Youtube. And yet, because they recorded a video and put it on the site, and then someone brought it to Taylor Swift’s attention and she tweeted about it, and because I follow Taylor Swift on Twitter, I have heard of them, and I absolutely adore them.

This is how Siobhan’s music works. She doesn’t have to go town to town, singing for her supper (though she would if she did). Her music reaches farther than she imagined, farther than Lottie ever hoped, because it travels at the speed of WiFi, all around the world.

PRAIRIE FIRE is a bigger stage, and Siobhan’s not entirely ready for it yet, but she will be. She will be.


Prairie Fire comes out on March 1st, and is available for pre-order.


*So it’s not entirely a Youtube thing. Or even a CURRENT thing. Ed Sullivan was really good at finding niche acts to round out his show (my favourite is Gayla Peevey’s I WANT A HIPPOPOTAMUS FOR CHRISTMAS), but my father had to go to someone else’s house to watch that show. Youtube is much more accessible, and much more difficult to control.


And then, a sequel

There are usually some pretty good reasons to write a sequel. Here are some terrible reasons I had:

  • I had promised Tessa Gratton that I would burn down Kansas.
  • I had a vague desire to sic a dragon on the town of Hinton, because one time I was working a contract there in December, and I fell in a creek and had to cut myself out of my snow pants.
  • A song I really liked was exactly the wrong shape for OWEN, but I thought might be okay for PRAIRIE FIRE.
  • I had already come up with the title.

But here is the real reason I ended up writing it:

  • I always knew this part of the story.

In May of 2011, before I sat down to write THE STORY OF OWEN properly, I stood on a bluff overlooking the Athabasca River just outside of Whitecourt, Alberta, and I knew that someday, Owen and Siobhan would go there. It was sunny and windy – too windy, we would learn – and not too cold. Everything about the day was perfect, until we got back to our hotel. “Oh, thank goodness!” the hotel owner said. “You’re the last field crew to come in. I’m so glad you’re safe.” Alberta, it turned out, was on fire. The flames were jumping fire-breaks and highways.  For the next week, the woods were full of noise; there were helicopters and smoke in the air. And that was how PRAIRIE FIRE started.

I came home from Alberta and wrote THE STORY OF OWEN. Then I sold it*, and got an agent. “Is it a trilogy?” my agent asked. “No,” I said. “Can you pretend it is?” he asked. So I did. I pretended there was a second and third book, even though I had no idea what happened in Book 2 and didn’t really want to write Book 3. And everything was going swimmingly until we started editing, and Andrew kept asking questions like “How does the Oil Watch work?” and “No, really, what is up with Sadie?”, and I did my best not to think about it.

But I was. I was thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it so much that I had come up with a dragon for them to fight and a couple of new characters, and a whole “new” city**. And then I got on a plane to fly to Texas, and listened to THE FIREBIRD SUITE on my iPod, and cried a bit, and wrote, quite fatefully After the Thorskards came to Trondheim, we always had a permanent dragon slayer.

I emailed Josh (“Remember that time you asked me if there was another book and I told you there wasn’t another book? I’m writing another book.”), and Josh talked to Andrew, and I wrote Chapter 1, and then we had a deal for it, and then I buckled down to write the rest.

I was terrified that I would experience Second Book Trauma, but I really didn’t. Instead I had regular old physical trauma, and was unable to sit in a chair (at Starbucks, or anywhere), and so had to mostly write in bed, which is not a lot of fun. Unlike my previous books, which I wrote mostly in one place, I never wrote PRAIRIE FIRE in the same place twice. It was very weird. Also, I had to send the last ten chapters to Emma while she was on her honeymoon, which will be funnier after YOU have read the last ten chapters, but then you’ll understand why John, her husband, gets a spot in the acknowledgements.

The thing I like about PRAIRIE FIRE is that it’s the third book in a trilogy. Sort of. Sarah Rees Brennan has famously said that the basic breakdown of a trilogy is: Meet Up, Make Out, Take Over The World, and I am following that model, but skipping Book 2 (it’s not even because of the kissing! It’s because the whole plot is about small town/rural Canadian politics and NO ONE ALIVE cares about that enough to read it in a book, even if the book has dragons). My apologies to Sadie Fletcher.

I really liked the bigger world, higher stakes, and [redacted for spoilers] that came with writing PRAIRIE FIRE. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

PRAIRIE FIRE comes out on March 1, and is available for pre-order now.



*Slightly more complicated than that.
**Blog posts to come, obviously.

(Word) Crime and Pun-ishment

One of the things I loved the most about BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was the way that the characters used words. I mean, every TV show and book uses words, but the BUFFY crew managed to do something really cool. Without inventing words or borrowing from other languages (both of which Whedon would do later), the show managed to be linguistically interesting. I could imagine real people talking the way the characters did, because it was such a natural extension of English.

Well, mostly natural.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to do with my books. I was adding dragons to the world, and I wanted to think about any of the ways that dragons might have changed the way we talk, without changing the way we talk entirely. The key is that you have to know the rules to break them, and I do know the rules. That’s part of what makes it so much fun.

I batted around a bunch of ideas, but ended up deciding on one small change. Since dying, or at least the threat of dying, was so central to the idea of dragon slaying, the words I ended up fiddling with were two verbs: “to kill” and “to slay”.

we are going to die

I set them up as two entirely different words. If a dragons died, it was never, ever, ever “killed”. That word was reserved for humans entirely. I wanted a hard opposite for dragons, which was a problem, because “to slay” has a different form. You have slayed the dragon, but the dragon has been slain.

I didn’t want that. I wanted the word to always be the same. I decided to go with “slayed”, even though it was not entirely grammatically sound, because it was a good mirror for “killed”. Unfortunately “kiln” is not a word that I can use in this context, so it had to be “killed” and “slayed” right from the get go.

Now, I ran approximately a hundred million Ctrl F searches on “killed” and “slain” just to be sure I hadn’t made an oversight while I writing. The only thing I checked more obsessively was the number of syllables in the haiku at the end of the St. George chapter. My point here is that “slayed” is not a mistake. Ever. In the text, in the world of Owen and Siobhan, it is the only word that means you have ended the life of a dragon.

that's how we roll in the shire

I fought with at least one test reader over this from the very beginning, but I was determined to leave it as it was written. During revisions, I explained the world building to my editor, and got to keep it. A couple of reviewers have mentioned using “slayed” as a criticism, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this post. I’m very glad I got to keep my somewhat awkward word choice, though, and that it stayed as subtle as it is, because most of the world building I got to do was very subtle (well, as subtle as a dragon can be), and much of it was word based.

The other place I got to world build was, of course, with the dragons themselves. Here, it was mostly with the dragon’s names, thought obviously their historical impact also came into play.

In OWEN, the dragons are mostly referred to by their Latin (or scientific) names. The corn dragon is my exception, because it’s also my joke: there is no word in Latin for corn, because corn is a North American crop. Accordingly, the dragon is actually called the wheat dragon, which is why it is stupid, and sometimes cannot tell corn from beans.

PRAIRIE FIRE has my favourite dragon name word joke, by far, and also my favourite dragon. But you will have to wait for that.


The Bayfield Writers’ Festival

I spent most of Saturday in my old stomping grounds, Huron County, where THE STORY OF OWEN is set. I had been invited to speak at the Bayfield Writers’ Festival, put on by the Bayfield Bookshop, and saying “yes” to the invitation was very easy!

Bayfield (named for Admiral Bayfield who, amongst other things, mapped a lot of Canadian coast of Lake Huron), is a gorgeous town, and the weather was bright and sunny. The other writers were all from Toronto, and the comments that kept getting repeated were all to the tune of “This place is so NICE!”


For real. I didn’t put the actual town of Bayfield in my book because I didn’t want to light it on fire. That is how much I love it.

Anyway, the festival was lovely! The town hall was full, and the other writers all gave excellent readings. I was a bit worried, as the only YA writer in the crowd (the audience was mostly retirees), but they all laughed at the right places during my reading, and the Q&A was great.

My favourite part was during the public Q&A part. When the moderator asked if there were any audience questions, there was the traditional 20 seconds of dead silence, and then a woman in the audience said:

“My question is for Kate. What is the Oxford Comma?”

(I mention the Oxford Comma in the jacket of my book, as part of my about the author. Because I am that kind of nerd.)

So I got to nerd out about grammar, and make everyone laugh a couple of times, and we all learned a valuable life lesson about the difference between peanut butter and jam and tuna sandwiches, and peanut butter and jam, and tuna sandwiches.


After that it was off to the Lion’s Club Chicken BBQ dinner in Seaforth. It’s an elimination draw, along with your food. Once upon a time, the prize was a tractor. The only people I know who ever won it weren’t farmers, so they sold the tractor and basically built another house on top of their existing house. Now it’s money, but it’s a pretty big deal.

Anyway, while we were eating (the largest piece of chicken I have ever seen), and they were drawing (number after number after number), I got to catch up with all kind of people I haven’t seen in a long time, and then a funny thing happened.

One of the women I used to work with at the Nursing Home came over and asked to buy a book (I had brought a couple with me for just this purpose), and while we were talking, she mentioned that she had tried to buy the copy I donated to a charity auction a few weeks ago, except someone kept outbidding her.

I never donated a copy to a charity auction! But someone did! And there was a bidding war, because my co-worker wanted a copy (it was signed), and the owner of the family hardware store in town wanted it too (because his store is in the book, as Archie’s bookstore in Saltrock).

I signed the book, and we both went back to attempting to eat our chicken (thank goodness people kept interrupting and giving me a chance to digest, or I might still be there), and then there was lemon cake, and then we began the two hour process of trying to actually get out of the building.

Fun times, basically.


Now that I’ve done a couple of school visits in Huron County, I’ve had more than one student be INCREDIBLY surprised that I could write a fun book about the place. I certainly would not have believed it myself, and didn’t, back when I was their age. And yet: a woman with a walker shook my hand and told me she was “mad for dragons”, and at dinner, there was hilarity and excellent food. They might not all be great stories to tell or hear, but they all have the seeds of them, I think, and that is how I do it. I find what’s there. And then I make a dragon attack it.

(Except in Bayfield. Bayfield is too pretty to die.)

Desolation of My Feelings

I learned a very important lesson when Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out in theatre.

I was ludicrously excited. I was going with a cousin on opening night (this was, I believe, my FIRST opening night experience). The theatre was packed. The audience was amazing. The movie had everything I wanted: wonderful lines and pacing, great music, beautiful costumes, that scene where Legolas surfs down the stairs on a shield, firing arrows, before kicked the shield INTO AN URUK’S NECK. It also, I believe, has the greatest opening sequence in the history of film*. I was buzzing when I got home, even though I had to go straight to sleep because I had an exam the next day. And just as I was drifting off, it hit me:

Almost everything in “The Two Towers” is wrong.

There is no love triangle. The Ents want to fight Saruman. Théoden’s idea to go to Helm’s Deep is seen by Gandalf as a good decision. And don’t even get me STARTED on Faramir.

We took to calling it “the opposite movie”. When I took my Tolkien and Fantasy class the last year of university, you could easily spot the people who were skipping the readings, because when it came to TTT, they were ALWAYS wrong.

But you know what?

I don’t care**. I don’t care because it held to the spirit of the original text. The Two Towers has some INCREDIBLY DRY chapters, and Helm’s Deep is held to, basically, a PARAGRAPH. I wasn’t really a writer back then, just a reader and a fan, but I understood (most of) why the changes were made. You tell stories differently in print than you do on screen, and for all its “opposite”ness, The Two Towers is a fantastic film.

I’m keeping that in mind as I get all geared up for THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG tonight. We’ve been jokingly referring to it as “The Desolation of My Feelings” all year***, and because it’s the second movie, the “opposite” movie, I know that it’s the one that might try the patience of the purist inside of me.

I’m better about that than I used to be, though. I’m more understand of how the story needs to changed. Yes, I’d rather the barrels were closed, but I am sure there’ll be a decent reason why they’re open. Frankly, I’m looking forward to finding out what that is.

I’ve been avoiding all the reviews and comments and spoilers. I don’t want to know ANYTHING. I know that over the next few weeks, I am going to read things that make my blood boil, but I’m not worried about that now. It’s true, I won’t be going to the premiere as Party Thranduil (I tried, though), but I am planning to have a fun time tonight.

It won’t be the same. It’ll probably be the exact opposite. There will be things that the critics hate. There will be things that YOU hate. But I am going for the music and the effects, for Tauriel and Bard’s daughters, for the first elderly sorcerer buddy cop movie ever made.

And, good lord, I am frelling excited about it.





*It was almost beaten out by the opening of Star Trek: The Reboot, but that scene of Gandalf and the Balrog falling through the cavern really seals it.
***The first move was going to be “An Unexpected Party”, after the chapter title, but it quickly became “And Unexpected Journey Into Dwarf Feelings”, because REALLY. The third one is, of course, “There And Back Again, Electric Boogaloo”.

Some Exciting News

*blows dust off of blog*

Sorry, wordpress. Tumblr’s just so pretty.

ANYWAY, there is some GREAT NEWS for Kate fans! I got to do my cover reveal on an in-universe tumblr the week before last, and I’m still not really tired of looking at it, so HERE IT IS AGAIN:

OWEN - Front Cover

But that’s not all!

CarolrhodaLab has put up their spring book list, so you can see my book, and all the books that will be released around the same time.

If you click here and scroll down a bit, there’s a link on the right hand side where you can download THE STORY OF LOTTIE, the first chapter of my book.

You can also pre-order it at the Lerner website, or at Barnes and Noble. If you want to tweet me about it, @ek_johnston, you will pretty much make my day.

Hopefully, I will have a Chapters link for you soon.

That’s all for now! But I am starting to get super excited, so I’m sure I’ll have something to blog about soon.

Book Review: FANGIRL, by Rainbow Rowell

I was totally going to do this as a Waiting on Wednesday, because the book’s not out yet, but if I wait until next week I might forget (again), so HERE WE ARE.

You may have heard of a book that’s currently burning through the bookstore shelves called ELANOR & PARK? The CEO of my company was on Canada AM talking about it just this morning. I haven’t read it yet (OMG, SO MANY BOOKS), because I am trying to write PRAIRIE FIRE, but last week I saw the ARC of FANGIRL, Rowell’s forthcoming title, on the shelf and just could. not. resist.


You can’t see it on this version, but the one I had was subtitled The “Story” Of My Life, which is about 18 kinds of perfect for reasons that are [redacted for spoilers]

I found out about this book because I follow gingerhaze, who did the wonderful cover art, both on twitter and tumblr. I think it’s actually kind of fitting, because where better to find a book called FANGIRL than on a blog I started watching because of Broship of the Rings?

(This review, by the way, is probably going to be something of a Word Journey, because I’m not sure I can talk about it without talking about my own experiences in fandom. Which might be the point?)

Anyhoodle, FANGIRL is the story of Cath, aka magicath, who found the Simon Snow novels as a kid with her twin sister, and has never looked back.

The two of them did it all: fanfic, conventions, costumes for the movie premieres. Except now it’s time for college, and while Wren (Wrenagade) has mostly grown away from fandom, Cath is still holding on.

With the eighth (and final) Simon Snow book due out around finals, Cath has to balance her life in fandom with a surly roommate and her charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

I think I am going to have to review this on two levels, one as a writer-of-fanfic, and again as a reader-who-is-a-writer-of-fanfic. So…technically and emotionally, if you will.

I fell in love with FANGIRL pretty much as soon as I opened it and read the fake wikipedia entry for the Simon Snow books. And then it GOT EVEN BETTER, because the book was broken into chapters by excerpts from the novels themselves, as well as scholarly articles and Cath’s own fanfiction. Basically, it was nerd heaven, for me. And as if that wasn’t good enough, Cath’s fanfic shows IMPROVEMENT. Her early stuff is, well, like MY early stuff, and then she gets really good! And when she co-writes with Wren, her style is different. What I am saying, basically, is that Rowell’s attention to detail is beyond perfect.

There were also a lot of hilarious touches that I could relate to. Like struggling with kissing scenes when you write “in public”, and desperately trying to finish a story before the canon comes out and steps on all your dreams and plans, and the pitfalls and high points that come with being a BNF*.

Which leads me to my emotions. Because, lordy, did I have emotions.

So, so often in the “real world”, I am made to feel like less of a person for being a fan. Like it’s a waste of my time and talent. Like I should do “real” writing. Like I should grow up. Cath faces a lot of that, but rather than let it overwhelm her, she lets it help shape the kind of grown-up she wants to be. Her writing prof, who is basically doing that thing where she’s writing fanfiction without realizing that she is writing fanfiction, is both Cath’s biggest block and her biggest encouragement. It’s a position I could identify with all too well.

Cath also has a really, really fantastic supporting cast. I think Reagan (the surly roommate), might be my second favourite character in the whole book. Except for the surly part, she is exactly the kind of roommate I needed (and eventually got) in university. Wren is just a beautiful disaster. And Levi…

Levi should have his own paragraph, really. Except that everything I want to tell you about him is a spoiler. So just take these lines and hold them until the book comes out.

FANGIRL is exactly the kind of book I never, ever dreamed would get written. It takes a topic that’s almost trendy, but not very well understood, and it doesn’t even attempt to explain it. It’s strongest moments are some of the most difficult to describe. It made me laugh a lot, and then at the end I cried because Simon Snow was over, and I remember what that felt like. And then, just to really drive the point home, the book ended with one of the best examples of how to say “I love you” that I have ever come across in my entire life.

This isn’t the kind of book you have your mother read so that she can understand why you need to stay up until 3AM writing stories about characters who have three seconds of screentime together** having a complicated off-screen relationship. This is the kind of book you give to the other fans in your life. It’s something else to hold tight and love, and never apologize for, because it’s freaking beautiful. The writing, the story, the “story”, all of it.

Cath had the “story” of her life, and most of us have ours. FANGIRL is the story of how to make it all work together, and even more besides.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell will be released on September 10, 2013.




*Which, I hasten to say, I never was. I mean, I had followers and stuff, but nothing to Cath’s scale. Of course, I also don’t write about boys kissing (well, in popular fandoms, at least), so it’s to be expected.
**Or no screentime. Let’s be honest.