Author Archives: Nicole Surrusco


Oh, 2016. You were the worst of times and the best of times and then the worst again. I don’t know many people who will be sad to see this year go, but here at the end of it I’m all kinds of excited about some things that have been set in motion… 2017 is going to be a full-throttle wild ride.


A few great things happened over the past year. Although I didn’t get into the workshop I’d hoped for, I was able to go on two fabulous and productive writing retreats with a friend… talk about making the best out of a bad situation! I finished the second draft of Dragon Novel at last. (Still in love with this book.) I revised the heck out of Project Warhorse, with the help of FicFest and some fabulous new critique partners. In related news, I’m back in the querying trenches! I had some really great moments in my professional life, involving blue ribbons and happy students and some epic choreography on horseback. I went on my first ever backpacking trip, in the Roan Highland section of the Appalachian Trail. (It’s been two months and I’m still a little incoherent about how beautiful and hard and INCREDIBLE the whole experience was.) I won NaNoWriMo for the 9th year in a row, which was a very improbable thing there for a while. I met a cute Hufflepuff whose crazy matches my crazy. (And we’re kind of crazy about each other, which is pretty crazy in itself.)

Also two new Harry Potter stories came out this year, so really, what a time to be alive.

There’s a lot of potential on the horizon, but I think these are the five things I’m most excited about in the new year:

  1. I’ll be spending all of 2017 feverishly working towards the launch of a new business venture. It combines both of my passions – writing and horsemanship – and allows me to take my current business in an exciting new direction. Of course, Time Turners may need to be involved for a little while.
  2. A collaborative project with my longtime writing group. This one is still a secret as we work out the details, but it could end up being a Very Cool Thing.
  3. Sharing some of the short fiction I spent November working on. (Spoiler: dragons!)
  4. More blogging, more yoga, more adventures in new places and climbing new mountains.
  5. Continuing to write weird books that I love and putting them out there. You never know what might happen.


Onward and upward!

all of our stories begin like this

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in order to become good at something, one must spend a long, long time being very bad at it.

My summers are spent largely on running day and overnight camps for horsey kids and kids-at-heart. This year, I wanted to try something new, so I dug out an old recurve bow (homemade with PVC pipe – a surprisingly great starter bow!) and investigated mounted archery.

Turns out, it’s really hard to hit a target from the back of a moving horse.

Or, if you haven’t seriously shot a bow in over twenty years and have dubious hand-eye coordination… hard to hit the target at all. I was woefully bad. Embarrassingly bad. Certainly not accurate enough to demonstrate in front of a dozen campers. But it was somehow still fun; addictive, even. I was pretty sure the kids would love it. I also kept thinking how excellent the Dragon would be at mounted archery, and how she’s reached that stage of elderly where every year is a gift and not everything can wait until tomorrow.

tumblr_nqfhe0XyHS1uz71uao2_500Just like Merida and Angus.

So I practiced. Just in stolen moments, a few minutes a day, usually waiting for the horses to finish their dinner. I earned blisters and bruises and managed to completely lose two arrows in a pasture. I’m not sure what the neighbors thought about the thirty-year-old walking around the fields with riding breeches rolled up to the knee and a bow made out of plumbing pipe. I was terrible and then I was terrible some more and then one day every single one of my arrows made it into the hay bales and then eventually some even hit dead center.

Fast forward two months. I’m still not that great and still hopeless at notching an arrow on horseback, but I can at least hit the target while stationary or moving. Camps have come and gone and my patient Dragon has ferried dozens of eager archers back and forth across the yard (at a sedate walk, of course). While a few come equipped with previous archery experience, most of them are shooting for the first time.

When you introduce a new skill to someone, you know they will not master it right away. They know they will not master it right away. It’s always interesting to me how different people respond to this. Often it becomes a challenge: you can see the spark of determination kindling in them as they ask if they can have another try. Sometimes they find it fun whether their arrow hits the target or a tree. But occasionally they will tell me that they will never be good at it, because they are not naturally talented or skillful now. Lately I find myself wanting to tell them to embrace being bad at it. To ENJOY being bad at it. Because it’s where everything starts.

photoDon’t throw away your shot.

This something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I began the long process of rewriting Project Warhorse. The first book in this trilogy was my first love and the first novel I ever completed. It’s a story I’ve nurtured in some form for eighteen years now. And I still love it for the same reasons I did then – but as every revision brings me closer and closer to the emotional truth I want to live in it, the actual manuscript looks less and less like the book I started out with. I was proud of those early drafts when I wrote them, but when I look at them now, I can see the ways in which I’ve grown and changed as a writer since then. My words are hitting their bullseye a little more frequently now.

It’s terribly exciting, knowing that developing craft is a journey that never ends.

This week the first page of my favorite weird warhorse story is online, in the agent round for #FicFest alternates. I was thrilled to be named to Team Italy (especially considering I only found out about the contest a few days about the deadline!) and while I’m outwardly trying to be cool about it, inwardly I’ve been turning cartwheels at this shiny little milestone. Even if nothing comes of it, it feels like new scenery on the long road to publishing – and no matter how long it takes, no matter how books I have to write or how many times I have to take a deep breath, aim and fire, I’m on this one for the long haul.

ficfest post agent round

Huge thanks to mentors Jessica and Ashley for their kind words and mad query letter skills, to organizer Tiffany Hofmann for putting everything together, and to the Twitter community for being full of awesome, as always. The world is full of some seriously nice and some seriously talented writers, and I can’t WAIT to see everyone’s stories in print someday.

Here’s to beautiful beginnings.

here there be dragons

Ahh, spring. When a writer’s fancy turns to Daylight Savings, daffodils, and… dragons? At last, I’m getting down to the exciting business of revising my adult fantasy project, affectionately referred to as Dragon Novel.’ve always felt like this image sums up the book nicely.

Dragon Novel’s humble beginnings involve some feverishly inspired drabble prompts, NaNoWriMo 2013 and two successive camp NaNos, and a lot of really excellent music with German lyrics. (I don’t speak German, but the medieval folk band Faun is the lifeblood of this novel all the same.) It’s existed in gap-toothed draft form for a year now, full of inconsistencies and missing scenes and chronology issues that make me suspect my dragon slayer was a Timelord in a previous life.

Which is to say, I love it a lot. I retract this statement occasionally, but I think it is my favorite creation.

The funny thing about Dragon Novel is that I swore, once upon a time, that I was never going to write a dragon book. (Dragons, I insisted, were cool but overdone.) It was just that I had this beautiful leatherbound journal with a dragon and a tree on the front of it, and it was resistant to other subject matter. I also have a constant source of inspiration in my half-Arabian mare, Heaven. She is often referred to as the Dragon, and no one who has met her argues the resemblance.

Heaven gets seriousDo not meddle in the affairs of chestnut mares. You are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

And of course, Dragon Novel is about much more than scales and wings. It’s about a deeply introverted dragon slayer who makes the terrible mistake of falling in love. It’s about firebreathing women and sensationalism and family and trees. (The trees make sense in context.) There a lot more kissing and innuendo than featured in my YA projects. It has a lot of good things to say about coffee. Things go up in flames, which is how you can tell I wrote it.

It is supposed to be a standalone, and I have sworn very loudly that I will not be writing a sequel once these revisions are finished. Kind of like I swore I was never going to write a dragon book. There is also a Secret Project in the works that just might involve familiar faces and places from Dragon Novel’s world.

IMG_1215You win, dragon journal. You win.

music = muse

Ever since I was a wee young writer, music has always been the primary thing that makes my stories GO. It creates an atmosphere, sets the mood, lets me get lost in the world, and brings images to life. My novel’s soundtracks are usually extensive by the time I begin writing, but there are always those few perfect songs that get listened to on repeat, approximately six billion times before the book is done. I’ve daydreamed entire plots and made myself cry while brainstorming with the volume turned up. Probably I will be deaf by the time I am forty because of this.

(No regrets.)

This winter I’ve been noodling around a revision idea for Project Warhorse. It’s a big change, and it’s already made me weep for a few of my darlings… but it feels like a good balance between the helpful feedback I received last year and the story I want to tell. I’m excited about it. I think it will make the book leaner. Stronger. More immediate. Maybe even more emotional.

So now that it’s back to reincarnated warhorses and bleak moors, I’m pulling out some of my favorite pieces of music to fuel the revision. First up: the Song of the Sea soundtrack. This film was gorgeous and the music is lovely, haunting, moody, full of saltwater and storytelling and longing. (As a bonus, Lisa Hannigan – who does the vocals – looks a lot like I imagine my main character!)

bravery and joy

Another year has come and gone, and what a challenging year it’s been. 2015’s story was full of hardship, for so many loved ones as well as for me; full of derailments and heartbreak and doubts. There were moments where I felt a bit like Bilbo and the dwarves standing in the midst of Mirkwood, just this side of despair, thinking, “There is no end to these dark woods!”

But there’s a light outside every forest, and looking back, I think this quote by Douglas Adam best sums up 2015:9f500cf76fb8c64662fe00fcbe8ebd11
Even if real life did occasionally take the heart out of my quest to make 2015 the Big Writing Year, a few awesome things did happen. I read through the entirety of my Dragon Novel draft and fell in love all over again. (I cannot WAIT to dive into revision this year.) I participated in several pitch contests, and while none of them amounted to anything serious, I got some valuable feedback and made great friends in the Twitter writing community. I finished the third draft of my YA Project Warhorse novel. And then a fourth. And there might be a fifth in the works? In related news, I’ve admitted that I really love editing. I sent my first query letter. (And got my first rejections! Woohoo!) I also learned how to take an adequate query and make it sing. I finished a final edit on a middle grade project. I’m also co-writing a children’s book. (Both involve ponies, but not the supernatural kind!) I won NaNoWriMo for the eight consecutive year, with an idea that didn’t arrive until October. As you might expect, the NaNo novel is an incoherent mess, but there’s an interesting story in there, sort of a GRACELING meets SIX OF CROWS. I’ll come back to this one. I read a lot of books, and discovered some new favorites.

Going forward, I think my goals for 2016 can be expressed in a single sentence:

Practice bravery.

It is not always easy, in the dark, at the end of a long and tiring day, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I know that I’ve hovered on the verge of some creative and professional goals simply because I was afraid. I’ve found myself asking, “What if no one loves this unmarketable book but me?”, coming up with backup plans for my backup plans. This year I want to take chances. Fail spectacularly. Get back up and keep on trying.

I want to write what I love, and keep faith that someday, the right person will love it, too.

“So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.” ~ Neil Gaiman

this means WAR(horses)!

Today’s the day! With query and pages held high, it’s time to charge valiantly onto the Pitch Wars battlefield, trumpets blaring all the way. Am I nervous? NEVER. (What? No, this shaking is perfectly normal. Too much chai, you know…)


I have loved the idea of Pitch Wars ever since I first heard about it in February. The greatest thing about it: just by pressing submit, we are already winners. As much as I would LOVE to be a finalist and work with one of these rockin’ mentors, no matter what, we’re coming out with a freshly-polished query and manuscript, and with an equally rockin’ community at our backs!


A bit about me:

  • I’ve been an equestrian for 20 years; currently I live on a farm as a caretaker for 13 horses and run an English riding school. I still love it, although I could do with a few more hours in the day and I could do without that vexing phenomenon known as “winter.”
  • I own a beautiful chestnut dragon who gives kisses and high-fives. I am teaching her to paint, which is turning out to be a dangerous business.
  • I think the smell of bookstore is the most intoxicating thing on earth.
  • I’m a huge Tolkien geek, and Harry Potter will always have my heart. Some of my other favorite books/series are The Scorpio Races, The Raven Cycle, The Lunar Chronicles, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Night Circus, A Wizard of Earthsea… oh, the list goes on and on.
  • I’m a former unschooler, plenty socialized and a survivor of college math, thanks! 😉 Actually, I’m hugely grateful for my unconventional education.
  • I’m also a hardcore introvert, so sometimes after a long week of lessons I have to crawl under a rock for a day or two with my elderly cat. (You could say she’s a co-writer on all my projects, since most of them are typed with her draped over my arms!)
  • I was an ML for NaNoWriMo for four years, which was insane and hugely rewarding.
  • I don’t know if I could live without chai lattes.

The novel I’m submitting, affectionately referred to as Project Warhorse, is the YA fantasy that’s been my baby for a long, long time. I began brainstorming the trilogy thirteen years ago, completed a first draft in 2010, and have spent the years since endlessly revising and tinkering. It has sisters and secrets and ghosts of all kinds, magic, angst, and a bleak moorland setting that required heavy doses of Scottish and Irish music. It is possibly a love letter to storytelling. I will not admit how many times I have cried while writing it.

In a nutshell:


It’s also a tricky little beast of a novel that could hugely benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. My writing group is about as fabulous as fabulous can get, but they’ve been with this one from the very beginning (and filled my plot holes, and brainstormed battle strategy, and assured me that reincarnated warhorses ARE the new vampire). So if this Pitch Wars thing doesn’t pan out the way I’m hoping, I will be searching for a new critique partner… who else loves epic tear-jerking fantasy? Secretly I love revision almost as much as I love discovering great new novels – let’s make things shiny together!

And until Sept 2, let’s flail around in great company. A huge shoutout to Chris Keelty for the Mentee blog hop that is distracting me from my query obsessing, and an even huger shoutout to Brenda Drake for making all this magic happen.


here are a few of my favorite things

My Muse has a troubled relationship with deadlines. The closer I get to some kind of closure with a project, the more it says, “Hey. HEY. Listen to this idea, you’ll really like it.” Sometimes it actually does have good ideas, like now – so with Pitch Wars and other Big Plans on the near horizon, I’ve gone back to the revising board, putting in another round of edits on Project Warhorse. (They’re good edits, I think, because lately I can’t think about anything else!)

One thing I love to revisit in the midst of revision is an exercise found in Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem. He urges aspiring novelists to write a “Magna Carta,” a list of things that personally resonate with you as a reader. The idea is that we should all be writing books we would love to read – the stories we would love to find on a bookstore shelf – and the list serves as a reminder of what makes our literary hearts sing. I find this list hugely helpful when I start getting too wrapped up in thinking about how critique partners or agents will perceive the work, as opposed to writing what I really love and believe in.

Here is my list (sung, I always imagine, in a Julie Andrews voice):

A sense of the mythic. I love stories with a sense of sweeping mythology, an epic history that taints the very air the characters breathe. Obviously not every story is going to have the weight of a Lord of the Rings-sized history, but I want to believe that it lives behind the page.

A flawed but likeable main character. I want my characters to feel like real people – but if they are whiny, negative or self-absorbed, we’re not going to be friends.

Character-driven stories. I’m the kind of girl that zones out during action scenes when I go to the movies. Twisty, thrilling plots are all fine and well, but first and foremost, it needs to be all about the people, and make me feel ALL the feels.

Good worldbuilding. Even if it’s set in the real world, I want to know how the people talk, who you’ll find on a street corner, how the wind tastes. I like fantasy that makes me feel genuinely transported. I love fantasy that makes me feel like the setting is a character, too.

Foreshadowing and symmetry. I’m all about stories with lots of layers woven into each other, full of hints and surprising connections and moments that make me gasp when I eventually realize their significance. This is what separates a reread book from a one-time read for me – I want to discover another pearl every time I dive in.

Complex antagonists. Absolute evil isn’t a concept that much interests me, especially when a book spends lots of page time graphically proving the evilness. (Yeah, we get it, he’s got a thing for blood. Moving on!) I like my villains Game of Thrones style, where everyone is a hero in their own version of events, and even the baddest of bad guys feel just a few circumstances shy of a redemption.

Lyrical language. I don’t want to just hear a story. I wanted to be enchanted by it. My favorite books are usually full of language that feels like an art and not just a tool, quotes I want to write on sticky notes, and passages that make me stop and marvel at the sheer beauty of the words. (Often, the most elegant passages are also the simplest!)

Romantic tension. While I would rather have a romance-free story than one featuring inappropriate, unhealthy, or just plain eye-roll worthy relationships, it’s a definite plus if there’s real chemistry and a possibility of kissing.

Third person POV. Perhaps I’m in the minority here, or a little burnt out after reading a ton of YA, but I’ll take a well-written book in third person over a first person POV any day. I’m fascinated by perspective, and first person gets quickly tiresome if the narrator isn’t someone you love.

Satisfying endings. I don’t want to be depressed by a book, but I’m a sucker for books that leave lingering feelings. Open-ended is good, bittersweet is better, but mostly, I want to feel like everything ends in a way true to the story. (Cliffhangers? We have a love-hate relationship.)

A few other things that make my literary heart happy:

Coming-of-age stories. A touch of magic. Clever humor. Well-chosen or significant names that roll off the tongue. Stories about stories. Ghost stories. Tragic heroes. A sense of foreboding. Badass heroines that are not your stereotypical badass heroine. Swoon-worthy guys named Sean. (Hey, why aren’t there more books with this?) Brevity. (I’m all for epic books, but only if they earn their length. Every word should feel important!)

What ingredients make up your recipe for a good book?


filling the well

Summer: a word that conjures images of long, lazy evenings, sleeping in and staying up late, cooking out and floating down a river. Riding instructors know better. We know it really means crazy hours on 100 degree sand, summer camps, endless farm maintenance, riding at dawn or by twilight to beat the heat. It means painted ponies and weird tan lines and never knowing what day it is because the lesson schedule is different every week. It is the best of times and it is the worst of times – full of treasured moments that keep me coming back, like the smile on a child’s face when she jumps for the first time, but also a season that leaves me short on time, energy, and sleep!

IMG_3478When summer smiles at you like this, you forgive everything.

On the writing front, it’s a time to let manuscripts and big writing projects simmer on the back burner. It’s a time for reviewing and revising. And it’s time for filling the well: consuming as well as creating, immersing in art, in stories, in a change of scenery – whatever sparks inspiration – as a means of renewing creative energy.

Here are some things I’ve been filling my well with lately:

Books, books, and more books. Some things are worth sacrificing a bit of sleep for. I’ve been reading a lot of YA books this year, primarily fantasy with the occasional contemporary or historical on the side. I also really, really loved Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED, which felt at once fresh and unique and yet as familiar as a childhood memory.

Beautiful cinematography. It’s entirely possible I’ve developed an obsession with the Starz adaptation of Outlander. Badass heroine, men in kilts, gorgeous music, swoon-worthy chemistry, and SCOTLAND… what else does a girl need in a show?! I’m enjoying the BBC production of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I’m determined to catch up on Downton Abbey and Doctor Who before the end of the year.

Playtime with the ponies. When you manage your own farm, it’s easy to get caught in an “all work and no play” spiral with the horses, especially in the summer. I’ve been remedying that by taking some dressage lessons; teaching my beloved dragon-pony how to paint; designing a Highland quadrille complete with bagpipe choreography, tartan and blue face paint; and occasionally just riding off into the sunset.


Getting bendy. Nothing like some nighttime yoga under the stars to de-stress and gain a new (upside-down) perspective.

And of course, ice cream. Lots and lots of ice cream.

Now that the final camp is in the books and the kids are headed back to school, I’m excited to to blow some dust off my manuscripts and move forward in the writing adventure. First stop: Pitch Wars!

into the woods


November of 2008 changed my life.

I appreciated National Novel Writing Month from afar for several years before I took the plunge. It’s a great idea, I thought, but I really don’t have time to write 50,000 words right now. Maybe next year. Those next years piled up, like the stacks of unfinished manuscripts, and then in the final days of that fateful October, I spontaneously signed up. I had never written more than 15,000 words on a project before, and I had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what I was going to write, but it felt urgently necessary to do it now.

Winning NaNoWriMo changed my life again. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was I, by the time Nov 30 rolled around, having been transformed to a sleep-deprived creature, eyes glazed, hunched over from hours at a desktop keyboard, dressed in a suspicious combination of mismatched clothing scrounged from the last of the clean laundry. My story, the second of my vague trilogy, was a disjointed, cliched mess. The plot was unrecognizable. A secondary character had hijacked the story and my main character was one-dimensional and boring. I swore I would never write trilogies/fantasy/novels again.

But I knew, as I typed the 50,000th word, that I was not the same writer that I had been when I so naively began on Nov 1. Okay, not even the same person.

I kind of loved the new writer-me.

That’s why I keep coming back to NaNo, year after year, even though I’m past the point where I need it to get a novel drafted. The pace is insane and the mental breakdowns are inevitable, but I relish the annual reminder of what I really am capable of when I get a little gritty and determined. I love the surprises that spring out of a speed-written draft; although the words inevitably get rewritten, most of the ideas born in November are worth hanging onto. Also, the community is great.

Camp NaNoWriMo, held in April and July, is a bit of a new thing for me. These are some of the busiest months in a riding instructor’s life, but the word count goal is flexible, so last year I gave it a try and wrote a combined 40k towards Dragon Novel. Apparently, I am motivated by bar graphs.

So it’s back into the drafting woods I go, armed with Plot Hole Repellant and ready to roast some excuses over the fire. I’m using Camp NaNo’s “All projects welcome” policy to make some progress on a work-related writing project… but I have a secondary goal of getting a finished draft of my MG book done, and sketching a few scenes for a strange new YA project that’s been teasing at my brain. Now if only I could figure out how to actually do all of this in a tent!

make a wish: an origin story

Once upon a time, a little girl scrunched up her eyes, blew out all six candles on her birthday cake, and fervently wished that she would grow up to be a Real Author.

Image courtesy of The Food Network

(It was a strawberry cake. The little girl had not yet developed her loyalty to all things chocolate.)

Over the next six years, the little girl continued to work towards this goal, filling blank book after blank book with stories about horses. Talking horses, wild horses, crime-solving horses, dreamy show-jumping horses with stars in their eyes – you name it, they had a five-book series. Every once in a while, the humans got their own stories, too, mostly girls equally fierce with a sword and a pen. (Who also rode horses. Naturally.)

When she was twelve, she dreamed about the sisters, and the silvery horse running on the shore. It was the sort of strange dream that haunts you in the daylight, hours and days after waking, and so the girl did what all Real Authors surely do with strange dreams, and put it into a story.

When she was sixteen, a part-time resident of Middle-Earth dissatisfied with her own fiction and craving myth and magic, a wise person told her: “The book you want to read is really the book you want to write.” She never forgot those words. They haunted her like the horse still did.

Twelve more years passed, and the girl wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Remembered the sisters and the ghostly horse, who taught her how to craft a tale and build a world. Remembered again and again how writing made her whole. Every NaNoWriMo novel and every prompt scribbled at writing group brought her closer and closer to the truth: a Real Author is someone who is haunted by stories, and real magic is believing in the stories long enough to tell them to someone else.

And now, with lot more candles on her birthday cake but query letter and synopsis in hand, the next chapter of the Real Author’s adventure begins!