In the Community episode Remedial Chaos Theory, a die is thrown, over and over. Each time, the episode restarts, creating a new timeline. One of these is the Darkest Timeline. In this particular case, all versions start out with the same setting and characters, and with each throw the writers simply play a game of ‘what if?’ In our own writing, these variables are not fixed. We create new ones for each tale we tell. So, out of all the possible variables, what is it that makes a story dark?
I lead a writing group for teens at my local library. At one of our recent meetings, the discussion centered around stories that take a walk on the dark side. We tried to look at this from all angles: genre, aesthetic, mood, plot, themes… After all, ‘dark’ can have many meanings. A horror tale is, by definition, dark. But realistic fiction can be, too, especially when it deals with thematic threads such as death or trauma.
(One thing my teen group brought up is that theme does not necessarily equal dark. You can bring up trauma with a gentle touch, allowing space for joy and hope. Hope — throughout or at the end of a story — is great for tempering dark themes!)
Genre, of course, plays a big part in whether a story is dark or not. Each genre has its conventions, so while a cozy mystery will never be dark, a crime procedural will definitely tread in the shadows. Know your genre and know its conventions! Yes, they can be bent, and mixed, and played around with, but if your aim is to go dark, it helps to know your audience.
Mood and aesthetic are also key, helping set the scene for your story. Even the most mundane setting can turn dark: how many gut-curdling fictional scenes have played out in everyday places like supermarkets, high schools, and playgrounds? The teens in my group had some great suggestions to get in the right mood, including Pinterest boards, music, watching movies, and keeping a dream journal — we’ve all had those deeply disquieting dreams that haunt us for days, and even if you don’t use the dream itself, you can tap into the remembered emotions to fuel your writing.
Dark stories can start off in your face and obvious from the very first page. But I prefer those that open with the barest promise, and then build up the shadows, layer by layer, until we can no longer see the light. The most successful stories bring it all together in this transition from metaphorical day to deepest night: characters, genre, setting, themes, mood, all working towards one single goal — to immerse the reader in the darkest timeline.
Spring is quickly turning into a Connecticut summer and, once the pollen count settles, I’m looking forward to lazy weekends spent with a book in the hammock. For now, I’m hiding my allergies away inside, and what better way to escape prime sneezing season than to get lost in a story?
Recent Reads: All the magic! (Science is magic too, right?)
I managed to grab John Scalzi’s new offering, The Kaiju Preservation Society, almost as soon as it hit my library’s shelves (I was second on the hold list). I love Scalzi’s clean prose and easy worldbuilding—his work always feels so effortless, and all I need to do as a reader is let go and enjoy the ride. This standalone novel was just the book I was looking for: well-paced, quirky, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Stuck as a food service app driver after getting fired from his corporate job during the Covid-19 pandemic, a lucky delivery connects Jamie Gray to an old college acquaintance who offers him a well-paying job in an ‘animal rights’ organization. The first catch? A ton of non-disclosures to sign. The second? The ‘animals’ are massive dinosaur-like creatures known as kaiju that live in an alternate dimension. And it turns out they really do need protecting—from human poachers who could put both the kaiju and our Earth at risk. The Kaiju Preservation Society is a top read, and one I thoroughly recommend.
The graphic novel Magical Boy (Volume 1) by The Kao riffs on the magical girl genre made popular by manga and anime. Teenager Max is already dealing with coming out as a trans guy and trying to navigate the pitfalls of high school. Then, just to complicate matters, he finds out that all those childhood stories of magic his mother liked to tell are real: he really is the last in a long line of Magical Girls tasked with protecting humanity from the dark forces of evil. Now, with support from a loyal group of friends, Max must accept and learn to use his powers, come out at school, get his parents to accept his gender, and become the world’s first Magical Boy. All in your average school week!
Originally a webcomic, and published as a graphic novel in 2022, Magical Boy hits all the right notes. It’s the perfect mix of sweet, sassy, and heartfelt, with darker topics such as transphobia, homophobia, and bullying handled perfectly, keeping the story light but not trivializing these issues. The main character, Max, is lovely, and this first volume slowly collects a delightful ensemble cast that promises the best sort of chaos for the upcoming conclusion in Volume 2.
I’ve been a fan of The Tarot Sequence series by KD Edwards since I found his work last year. Set in New Atlantis, which just so happens to be located on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, this urban fantasy has everything you want from the genre: awesome magic, secrets and lies, a wide range of supernatural creatures, and a corrupt and ancient society that coexists uneasily with the human world. The characters are wonderful, and this has quickly become one of my favorites series ever. (As a bonus, the author has a series of free novelettes and short stories available on his website to add extra color to the world.)
The Hourglass Throne is the third installment, closing off the first trilogy in what is pitched as a nine-book arc. This time, Rune Saint John is up against an ancient power that threatens all of New Atlantis. But he’s not alone; this is book three, after all, and Rune’s found family has grown. It’s not just him and Brand anymore—Rune has people who care about him now, if he can only learn to let others shoulder some of the responsibility! I have so much love for every one of Rune’s peculiar little crew, and to see him, Brand, and Addam grow into true leaders (and parents!) has been wonderful.
Now Reading: In space… Space… Space…
When I first heard that Charlie Jane Anders was dipping her toes in YA with the Unstoppable space opera trilogy, I said ‘sign me up’. The first book, Victories Greater Than Death, was just the right mix of breathless and breathtaking, with plenty of sweet and quiet moments to temper the action. I’m currently reading the sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, and so far, it’s living up to the first installment. This time, we’ve moved away from Tina to embrace two alternating points of view: Rachael and Elza. It’s always a gamble switching POV in a series, but so far it’s definitely paid off. I love them both so much, and we still get plenty of Tina’s voice via the text messages and emails sent to Rachael and Elza. Two thumbs up for this endearing space saga.
To Read: *does the robot* *trips and falls on face in the middle of the dancefloor*
The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells should need no introduction. Spanning novellas, a novel, and short stories, the series has won numerous awards and accolades and a huge fanbase, too. I’ve had the first three novellas sitting in my Kindle for a while, and I feel like I’m finally ready to jump into the tale of the former Security Unit AI who gains independence, which it primarily uses to watch soap operas. Book 1, All Systems Red, here I come!
I hope you’ve all got some great books lined up, ready to enjoy in the warm weather (or to snuggle inside with, for those of you in the southern hemisphere). Happy reading!
The New England SCBWI Spring Conference ended two weeks ago, and I’m finally crawling out of a haze of post-conference exhaustion and Covid to write this post. Yes, Covid. I’m thinking of getting a t-shirt made: ‘I went to a virtual conference and STILL caught Covid!’
Our regional kidlit conference is very dear to my heart. I love the friendly vibes, and the real and present sense of community. I was thrilled when I was asked to help co-direct the event. For 2022, the theme we went with is Find Your Star: Let it Shine. When I chose the theme, I was thinking about how every writer and illustrator treads their own path. Our dreams take different shape, and so do our goals. We work at different speeds, and in different ways. One person’s star may not be another. The night sky is made up of a multitude of constellations, and all of them are wonderful. I wanted the conference weekend to be an opportunity for attendees to find THEIR star, and let it shine.
But even online conferences need a lot of planning. Before any shining could be done, speakers had to be invited, workshops submissions assessed, and volunteers brought on board as moderators and for other behind-the-scenes jobs. Then there are contracts, and budgets, and numbers to crunch, before registration even opens. And a LOT of head-scratching and problem-solving. The team — myself, my new co-director Jim Hill, and Regional Advisor Kris Asselin, with a huge amount of tech help from Assistant Regional Advisor Christy Yaros — had our work cut out to make everything work on a virtual platform: two Keynotes, one Friday Night Welcome event with multiple speakers, a publishing panel, one guided meditation, twelve Ask-a-Mentor sessions, and thirty-four workshops, including eight intensives! And socials; lots of time for online socials, including the Friday night Open Mics.
As the countdown went from weeks to days, and then hours, our team was both excited and anxious: would the tech run smoothly? Would all of our faculty and moderators manage to log in? WOULD WE HAVE A CONFERENCE AT ALL? Spoiler alert: yes, to all of that. Christy had to do a lot of last-minute tech magic, but we got everyone who was meant to be online there, and (I hope!) most attendees, too.
I don’t have space to go over everything from the weekend (and I’m still catching up with workshop recordings!), so I’ll end this with a few highlights from the main events. To everyone who came, whether faculty, volunteer, or attendee: thank you for being there, thank you for being you. Find your star, BE your star, and let your light shine.
Jane Yolen talked about the layers of time that books take — from writer, agent, and publisher — and pointed out that the only time we have control over as writers is our writing time; a lesson on patience from a Master for those seeking a career in books!
Heidi Stemple and Rajani LaRocca held a great Creative Conversation. Rajani urged us to follow the dopamine — “Find the thing that makes you light up and hold onto it”; while Heidi told us “Have grace with yourself. Do not expect the perfect novel to appear.”
Keynote speaker Tara Lazar returned to Heidi’s words, reminding us again, “Have a lot of grace with yourself.” She also told us to do what makes us smile, and to follow our internal age as a guide for writing kid lit. Cue lots of fun comments in the chat box as to what age we all secretly are! (Personally, I suspect I alternate between twelve and sixty-two…)
Our illustrator Keynote John Parra said, “Find truth in what you do.” He also gave some great practical advice: make sure you have a place to work and that it’s ready to go; procrastination is the worst thing for creatives.
And last (but certainly not least), our publishing panel brought some hard truths but also a lot of hope. Agent Liza Fleissig asked us to #nevergiveup. “There’s space for everyone. (…) Your star will shine when your stars finally align.
“A book, too, can be a star, explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” Madeleine L’Engle.
There’s been some writer chatter across social media lately about the need to separate the author from the character. And this is good and necessary, because we are not our characters. Often our creations behave in ways we would never ever find okay in real life — because this is fiction, this is storytelling, and even the worst sort of character serves a purpose in our narratives.
But. But. We don’t create in a vacuum. Writers take inspiration from the world around them, and the key word here is inspiration, not copying, not actual transmutation from real to fiction. If you ask me who I base my characters on, I’ll probably say ‘no one’, and that includes myself. This is true, but also not true.
True: none of my characters are me.
Not true: all of my characters are me, in small ways, often hard to define.
It’s not as simple as saying, this one bites their nails like I do. That one has brown hair. (Spoiler alert: they all do. There was just too much reverence for blue-eyed blondes when I was growing up in 1980s Brazil, and teen me just wanted to see brown hair like mine taking center stage.) Yes, I often borrow quirks and habits for my characters (after all, I know what it feels like to bite your nails down to the quick, until your fingers are raw and tender), but the ways in which my characters are me are a lot more subtle than that.
At first draft, they’re often two-dimensional sketches, a suggestion of who they might become. In part because I’m still getting to know them. And in part because, at this stage, I’m more focused on getting the story into a basic shape that makes sense. Plot is key. Later, I’ll fill in the blanks. I’ll breathe life into my characters, and try to make them more than walking, talking paper dolls.
The real character work starts when I begin revising that most basic of drafts. Here, it helps to dig into my own feelings to color in theirs. Anxiety, sadness, anger, hope, love, fear… The specific moments remain mine, but the emotions, or rather, the memory of those emotions, are all there for the borrowing. And so, I add a dash of this to one character, a sprinkle of that to another. They begin to come alive, and to take on an existence of their own. They’re not me, none of them. They are their own creatures. But in that spark of life, there is some of my own self to act as fuel.
I suspect that, if you were to take every character I’ve ever created, you would find an entire trail of breadcrumbs, a trail of self that leads to me. A million jigsaw pieces, a broken mosaic of mirrored slivers that reflect the million undecipherable fragments of self. Me. And not me, all at once, all together.
Another month, another book post. This time, it’s a brand-new blog segment which will occasionally (when the mood strikes me) visit books that connect by a winding thread of theme, setting, character, or vibes. Today I’m looking at green magic with a trio of stories that draw on nature: Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh, The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet E. McKenna, and The Silver Nutmeg by Palmer Brown.
Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh was published in 2019 and is the first in the Greenhollow Duology. It won the World Fantasy Award for best novella, and it’s easy to see why. Part fairytale and part romance, this is a story of old magic, forgotten gods, and new love.
Tobias Finch is a giant of a man more tree than human. He lives in the woods with his cat and guards the land from supernatural perils. But he can’t protect the locals from the darkest of all dangers, one anchored in the passing centuries. And then a new owner comes to Greenhollow Hall. Henry Silver is handsome, determined, and brimming with unwise curiosity. Before long, Tobias finds himself drawn into Silver’s orbit. But here, too, there is danger, as the younger man’s presence drags buried secrets into the open and forces Tobias to face his own past, lost to time.
Despite the dark undertones that emerge every now and again, Silver in the Wood is a sweet and tender tale. Time is often slow and syrupy, and the words beat to the tempo of tree sap and green growth. Tobias himself is a gentle soul — tall and broad, with long wild hair, but at the same time patient and kind. Borrowing from myths of the Green Man, he’s every inch the magical guardian archetype, living among the trees with only the local population of dryads for company until he allows Henry to slip in through the cracks. This is the perfect hammock read for a spring day, and long after done, the magic of its pages lingers on.
Published in 2018 and a finalist in the British Fantasy Awards, The Green Man’s Heir is the first in Juliet E. McKenna’s ongoing Green Man urban fantasy series. I say ‘urban fantasy’, but it would be more correct to say rural fantasy since the story is set for the most part in the Peak District in England. The choice of setting moves the usual supernatural concerns for this genre from the big city bustle into nature, where the designs and desires of mythical creatures are literally as deep-rooted as the ancient land itself.
Here, too, we have the guardian figure, in the shape of Daniel Mackmain, born to a human man and a dryad, a spirit of the trees. Daniel’s greenblood gives him his tall, strong stature and his ability to see the otherworldly, but here the similarities between him and Tobias end. Tobias is seen by many as intimidating simply because he is large and taciturn, but is soft and kindly. Daniel with his short-cropped hair and quick temper is a lot more thuggish, often having to hold back his anger at those around him (and just as often, failing). He also lacks an anchor — Tobias is bound to the wood he lives in, lost in time but centered in place, while Daniel is lost and clearly searching for meaning. He moves around the country restlessly from job to job, his only tenuous ballast a connection to trees and wood.
Enter the Green Man. In this version, he is a magical guardian spirit who requires an agent in our contemporary world who he can act through. Daniel is the perfect man for the job, already in synch with the mythical world and sharing the Green Man’s affinity for the wilderness. There’s a killer in the woods, and soon Daniel is up to his neck in a murder investigation with supernatural undertones, treading a thin line between doing the Green Man’s work and being arrested as a suspect himself.
Despite the parallels — the woodlands as both character and setting, the use of the Green Man myth, the physical similarities between Tobias and Dan, and the inclusion of nature spirits such as dryads as an integral part of the story — this is a very different beast. Part crime thriller, part supernatural mystery, part deep dive into local history and mythology, it’s a fast-paced, intense, and often dark read, one to save for the comforting embrace of a blanket, a mug of tea, and your favorite chair. (And maybe stay away from trees!)
The Silver Nutmeg by Palmer Brown is the outlier here. It’s a children’s book, for a start, and an old one at that. First published in 1956, my own copy was printed in the UK in 1957. It was bought second hand at a school book sale when I was maybe seven or eight, and it enchanted me for years. The binding is cracked, the book is water stained from when I decided it would be a good idea to keep it in a box in my ‘secret tree perch’ (yes, I was that sort of child), and lots of the delicate illustrations by the author were colored in by the previous owner. But I never could bear to part with it, and so it sits on the shelf next to my Narnia books (new, the originals literally fell apart) and my well-loved copy of E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.
This is the sequel to Brown’s first book, which I have never read. I always figured The Silver Nutmeg landed in my lap by an act of serendipitous book magic, this strange and quirky tale that had me so smitten as a child, and I never went searching for anything else by the author. It tells the story of Anna Lavinia, who makes her way over the field and into the woods and all the way through the dew pond to the upside-down land where Toby — another Tobias — lives. This Tobias isn’t a Green Man; in fact, among his own people he’s a rather ordinary little boy. But he does fulfill the role of guide and guardian of magic for Anna Lavinia, with magic being the strange rules, physics, and culture of the land through the pond.
There are other connections to the theme of green magic. Nature plays a big part in this story, as facilitator and conduit for the power that allows Anna Lavinia through to Toby’s world. From the start, the author’s descriptions of plants and scents weaves a unique backdrop that quickly sinks under our skin, offering an unlikely mixture of fauna and flora that marks this as a place apart, somehow here and not at the same time. And the different sources of water — the dew pond, the spring, the well — have their own parts to play. Once through the pond and into the other side, we reach Toby’s home, in a dim, cool valley lit by the indirect sun that filters through the still-water places that connect both worlds.
A book this old is not without its flaws, of course. There is a recurring use of harmful period-typical stereotypes regarding the Roma people. And the gender roles are dated, despite Anna Lavinia’s father declaring that a girl must grow up to have a point of view. But it is still charming, peppered with quirky drawings by the author as well as original songs and poems that manage to feel both strange and familiar all at once. This is definitely a book for warm summer afternoons in the park or garden, and on rereading it I understood what drove me as a child to keep it in a box up a tree, as if by treating it as a windfall treasure, nature might reward me with my very own portal to lands beyond.
Perhaps if I were to pick a single thread that unites these three very different stories, it would be oak trees. The oak, of course, is a powerful druidic symbol of pre-Christian magic in the British Isles, and it plays an important role in these books. An oak serves as Tobias Finch’s anchor to life and to the forest; oak trees and their wood symbolize safety for Daniel Mackmain, and a connection to the Green Man; and an ancient grove of oak trees both embraces and feeds the dew pond that is Anna Lavinia’s portal to adventure, with an acorn playing the part of herald between Anna Lavinia in one world, and Toby in the other. And since oaks are a keystone species found in many parts of the globe, what better symbol for a bit of literary green magic?
“At once slow deep green rolled over him. He took a breath, and another, smelling old rotting leaves and healthy growth and autumn light. He felt almost as though he could have planted his feet and become a tree himself, a strong oak reaching up to the sky, brother of the old oak who ruled the wood.”
2022 started off with lots of Reading Energy and I’m actually surprised at how much I’ve gotten through in the past month and a half. Two months, if you count the very end of 2021… It’s been a frosty, frozen winter, and I was more than happy to shut out the cold with a blanket, a cup of tea or two, and a good story. Here are some of my top books from these past couple of months.
Recent Reads: marvelously magical…
I took Jo Zebedee’s The Wildest Hunt on a short post-Christmas break all the way up in frozen Lake George, and it was the perfect location for this haunting tale of otherworldly peril. I love Jo’s writing style, which to me is the perfect mixture of breathtaking action, practical storytelling, and beautiful setting.
The Wildest Hunt takes us to the heart of Donegal in northwest Ireland, where a commission for an on-location painting promises the perfect Christmas holiday for a psychic artist and her boyfriend. Then a dangerous winter storm closes in around the picturesque but remote cottage, and the couple are forced to flee. But worse than the storm are the creatures that hunt within it. A thrilling story for fans of dark contemporary fantasy!
I read Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth last year, but I needed time to get my head around the ending. Part of me wasn’t sure I even wanted to read the next book in Muir’s genre-bending space necromancers series, but I’m really glad I finally did! Harrow the Ninth is a mind-break of a complex tale, twisting in and around and up and down; a book so thoroughly confounding (in the best sort of way) that my daughter made themselves a Reddit account just to be able to discuss theories! (Spoilers for Gideon next, but not too many…)
Harrow, the second in the Locked Tomb series, picks up just after the frantic events that mark the end of Gideon. Newly made lyctor Harrowhark Nonagesimus finds herself on board the Emperor’s warship, sworn to take her place beside him in his centuries-old war. The story time-skips back and forth across the universe, landing Harrow among new allies who may just turn out to be enemies, with a sword she cannot control, and the fear that just keeps on giving: has her mind finally shattered?
I’d seen book chatter about A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, and had it on my to-read list long before it came out last November. When I finally got hold of it, I devoured it in one long sitting. (Seriously. My family just sort of got on with life and let me be. They know me too well!) If you’re a fan of delicious Edwardian drama with healthy dollops of romance and magic, then this is the book for you. And, luckily, the sequel comes out this November.
When an administrative error appoints Robin Blyth, the young and harried baronet of an impoverished country seat, as the civil liaison to a secret magical society, things begin to go wrong from the very start. Facing new enemies, a deep-rooted plot, and a deadly curse, Robin’s only hope lies in the hands of his magical counterpart, academic bureaucrat Edwin, who may have hidden depths under his prickly exterior.
T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea was one of my top books of 2021, so I was pretty excited to read his latest, Under the Whispering Door. The story follows Wallace Price from his own funeral and through the in-between time that’s supposed to soften the transition between life and the great beyond. He’s placed under care of ‘ferryman’ Hugo, who runs a teashop. In coming to terms with his death, Wallace has the chance to find himself again — the self he’s somehow lost along the years. And if romance is brewing among the tealeaves? Well, that just might land Wallace and Hugo in a spot of hot water…
I took a while to warm up to Wallace and the book as a whole, but it grew on me gradually, and by the end I never wanted it to end. Now, I realize the genius in it: Wallace doesn’t particularly like himself, either. He has constricted himself into a box he’s built, year by year, and he no longer resembles who he used to be. As Wallace slowly lets go of his crafted persona, and reconnects with himself, we discover Wallace, too, and slowly fall in love with the character.
Additionally, the book deals beautifully with saying farewell and was an incredibly cathartic read. I cried so much at the end, but good crying. It turns out that, after two years of Covid and more than that since I’ve seen my family in Brazil, what I really needed right now was a gentle, thoughtful, kind book about death in all its forms and nuances.
Now Reading: that healing magic…
I tore through Witchmark, the first book in C.L Polk’s Kingston Cycle, in just under a day. Luckily, the next two books in the trilogy are out and ready for reading. I’m currently at the start of the second, Stormsong, and have the third, Soulstar, all ready to go once I’m done with that one.
This series is an absolute treat! Set in a fantasy world based on an Edwardian England, shadowed by a war with a neighboring country, the first book introduces us to Miles Singer, a runaway noble and mage who has followed the calling of his healing magic to work as a doctor. Miles’ world is one of hidden magic that runs the country, concentrated in the hands of a select group of powerful families, and of shameful secrets that could see the downfall of everything society takes for granted. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the plot is heading, after the breathtaking whirlwind that was the first in the trilogy.
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey sounds like the sort of unmissable romp custom made for my enjoyment. The story of Esther, who stows herself away in a Librarian’s book wagon to escape an arranged marriage, is set in a near-future American Southwest which, according to the publisher “is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.” Yes, please!
Everything goes on hold in our house when a new Incryptid novel is released, and March brings the latest installment of Seanan McGuire’s fabulous urban fantasy world. This will be the first time we get a novel from the point of view of Alice Price — aka Verity, Alex, and Annie’s underworld-exploring, de-aged, ferociously competent hellion of a grandmother. In Spelunking Through Hell, Alice makes a final desperate pan-dimensional attempt to find the husband she lost fifty years before in an incident with the entity known simply as the crossroads, and I, for one, cannot wait to get started.
I hope you all have some good books on your own to-read lists. Here’s to warmer days ahead, and to springtime reading outside in the sunshine!
I met Christy Yaros at the first ever writer’s conference I attended, just a few months after moving to the USA. We’ve been critique partners for years, and Christy’s always had a keen editorial eye for plot and pacing. So when she told me she had started certification for book coaching, I knew it was a perfect fit.
Christy has been working as a certified book coach for a while now, and as a freelance editor for longer. She’s deeply connected to the kid lit world, both through her passion for YA and middle grade fiction, and her commitment to the New England region of the SCBWI, where she is the assistant regional advisor for Connecticut and Rhode Island. When I decided to take a deeper look into book coaching — something that seems to be everywhere at the moment — I could think of no one better to guide me through it then Christy.
JSM: Hi Christy, thanks for stopping by! Let’s start with the basics: what does a book coach do? Give us the nutshell description…
Hi Juliana! Thanks for having me. Basically, a book coach (also known as a writing coach or a story coach) is an expert in story and how books work. I’ve read the craft books, taken the courses, attended the workshops, studied the well-written books, and I synthesize that information and present it to the writer the way they need it to write, finish, or improve their specific story and grow as a writer.
I ask you a lot of questions, mostly “why?” and “and so?” to dig deep into your characters and your story. I tell you all the things you are doing well, and the things you can improve. I don’t just tell you what not to do, but WHY you shouldn’t do it. And then give you ideas for ways to improve it. I want you to walk away really understanding how story works, how your story works, and why your story works. And just like your characters, undergo a transformation. And that really means something different for each writer and each book.
My mentor Jennie Nash of Author Accelerator said it well: “Guiding [writers] from confusion (what am I writing, who am I writing for, what should I say, what do I believe, am I really good enough to say it, is anyone really going to care?) to the confidence of knowing (this is the book, this is the structure, this is the message, this is the audience, and these are the exact words I am going to use to engage my reader) is exactly what a book coach does.”
JSM: There are a lot of misconceptions about coaching. What are the most common ones that you come up against?
I’ll give you three:
The big one is if you need help, you’re not a real writer. If anyone finds out you worked with a coach, then they’ll think less of your writing. But pick up any book and read the Acknowledgements. You’ll find a host of people who the writer is thanking for their help on the book. We can’t write in a vacuum. If you have an editorial-minded agent, they’ve done a form of book coaching. Your in-house editor at the publishing company is doing a form of book coaching. But the fact is in today’s publishing climate, editors don’t have the time they had in the past to work with your story from the beginning.
Another one is that the book coach will try to make your story theirs or steal it. The famous editor Max Perkins said (to editors), “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” And that’s exactly the goal of a book coach. I’m not trying to make your book mine, I’m trying to make your book more YOU. I’m digging deep with you into what you want to say about the world through your story, and helping you make sure you’ve said it. And that you’ve said it well. I want you to write the best story you can. Your story. Your book. But maybe I’ll end up in your Acknowledgements. 🙂
A third misconception is that book coaching is a scam. This one is tougher because there are people out there who will take advantage of writers. When I first started training under Jennie Nash in the fall of 2019, if you Googled “book coach” you’d mostly see an article or a podcast featuring Jennie. Now everyone is calling themselves a book coach. You have to do your due diligence to see if your coach or editor is legit. Jane Friedman has some excellent resources on her blog for that. Personally, I have a Curiosity Call with every potential client. And I turn away more than I accept. Maybe that’s not good business, but I really want to help writers. And sometimes you’re not ready for a book coach, or at least not a book coach like me. It’s a big investment.
JSM: For the best results, what sort of mindset should a writer have when contacting a coach? And what preparation should they do beforehand?
First and foremost you need a growth mindset. You have to want to learn and get better, knowing there may be setbacks.
Second, you need to think about what you want out of a coaching relationship. What level of “toughness” can you handle? Some coaches have a gentler approach, and some don’t pull punches. What level of commitment can you make, financially and with your time? Most coaches work with weekly or bi-weekly deadlines. And 1-on-1 coaching is an investment.
You’re paying someone to tell you the truth. I’m not your mom or your best friend. I’m not going to smile and tell you your book is amazing if I think you can make it better. Obviously, you yourself are amazing. You’re brave enough to put yourself out there emotionally. So you have to be receptive to the advice you’re being given. If you want someone to pat you on the back and tell you it’s perfect, you’re probably in the wrong place. The goal is to make your story the best version of itself. And to make you a stronger writer. And sometimes that means you’re going to have hard conversations or delete your favorite scenes because they don’t move the story forward. Sometimes you’re going to have to start all over. Sometimes you figure out your idea isn’t actually a story. And I think if a writer is not ready for that kind of work, they might not be ready for a coach.
Also, do your research. Just like when you query an editor or agent, make sure they actually work on the genre/category you write. For example, I only work with children’s novels. And I don’t do horror. Some coaches I know only do speculative fiction, or only memoirs. One only works with the LGBTQ community. These coaches focus their skills in those areas, so you’ll get the most out of them. I would personally be wary of someone who says they work on anything. That’s a lot to keep up with, so can they really? You should definitely have a call or video chat before you sign a contract. You want to make sure your personalities mesh or you might not be comfortable tackling the deep questions with them.
JSM: What are the first steps when you take on a new client? How do you establish a good working relationship?
First, I have a curiosity call with every potential client to make sure we’d be a good fit for each other. If we both pass that test, we decide what service they need. Do they only have an idea? Are they stuck in the middle of a draft? Are they ready to revise? Do they keep getting rejections but don’t know why?
Then we sign a contract that lays out what we both expect out of the coaching relationship. Next, we’ll have another call to talk about their writing goals, their timeframe, the level of commitment they can do right now. And then we’ll work backwards from there to make a schedule that makes sense for that writer at that moment. Then I give you a packet and send you off to work on your first deadline!
Signing a contract and setting boundaries helps us establish a good working relationship. Part of my job is to keep my writer accountable. Another part is to give them honest, objective feedback. But they also need to feel comfortable with all of that.
JSM: Is there a difference in how you work with an author who intends to self-publish versus an author who intends to pursue traditional publishing (i.e., with an established press)?
I only work on fiction, so there isn’t much difference in the way we work on a high level. (If you were doing nonfiction, you’d have to do an outline and sample chapters to get an agent/publishing contract vs just writing it if you are self-publishing.)
If the writer is looking to publish traditional, they need a marketable book. So we would work to figure out what that means. What conventions need to be followed? Where would it fit in the marketplace? What are some comparable titles?
With self-publishing there’s more leeway to do things the way you want to, but ultimately you do still need to produce a good book that will sell.
When you get to the other levels of editing, usually someone seeking representation or traditional publishing would get the story in good enough shape to sell. That means coaching and/or developmental editing. Some writers might invest in line editing, but we wouldn’t waste time on copyediting or proofreading, because the agent and/or in-house editor is going to want to make more changes. Plus they handle copyediting and proofreading. When self-publishing, the writer does need to make sure that once the high-level story elements are set, that they get developmental editing and copyediting (and proofreading once the manuscript is typeset!).
JSM: Last of all, one for fun: two truths and one lie about book coaching!
1. Book coaching and editing are the same thing.
2. Working with a book coach will make you a better writer.
3. Book coaches provide a solid sounding board for your story ideas.
Drumroll! And the lie is… Number 1! Christy says: Not all book coaches are editors, and not all editors are book coaches! (But I happen to be both.)
A huge thanks to Christy for answering all my many questions! Check out her website for more information: christyyaros.com. Christy has a brand new podcast with fellow coach Sharon Skinner which you can listen to at coachingkidlit.com. And you can find Christy on Twitter and Instagram @ChristyYaros.
<All images in this post belong to Christy Yaros and are used with permission.>
Here we are, one more year at an end. Social media is full of rewinds and retrospectives, and what sort of blogger would I be if I didn’t add my own? In all honesty, though, I rather enjoy taking a moment to appreciate all the highlights of the past 12 months before diving into the blank slate of a new calendar year.
So, what happened in 2021?
It’s been a weird year. I’ve been… unsettled, is probably the best description. I’ve been querying my urban fantasy novel to agents, and unsure of what to work on next. Rewrite an older project? Start something new? In the end, I decided to focus on short stories for a while, and now have several I’m very pleased with that are ready for submission in 2022.
The NOT ALL MONSTERS anthology (Strangehouse/Rooster Republic Press, 2020), which contains my short story The Sugar Cane Sea, was nominated for the Stoker Awards, which was super exciting! We didn’t win, but it was still awesome to make it that far.
My short story Moon Under Mangroves was published in November in SHADOW ATLAS: DARK LANDSCAPES OF THE AMERICAS. This fully illustrated anthology is beautifully designed and has an amazing list of participating authors. It’s already collected some great praise; the Midwest Book review, for instance, wrote “Think The DaVinci Code or Indiana Jones, but with more literary force.”
You can read my interview with SHADOW ATLAS editor Hillary Dodge here.
My upbeat take on the apocalypse was published in Krazon Magazine in April; to read my short story The End of All Things for free, click here.
I co-directed my first conference! The New England SCBWI Regional Spring Conference took place virtually on the first weekend in May, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. Check out my conference recap here.
Books: I read a total of 64 titles this year, of which 25 were adult fiction, 15 were YA or middle grade, and 24 were graphic novels. Of the total, 44 were from speculative fiction genres/sub-genres.
My favorite SF/F books this year: Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars and T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea were probably my top reads. Both are gorgeous, with a warmth and sweetness to them that I hadn’t realized that I badly needed. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab was another favorite, although this one has a bittersweet feel that permeates its beauty with sadness. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth was a blast, and brash, foul-mouthed Gideon may be one of my new top characters ever. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger deserved all the awards and praise it reaped (also, it’s so nice to see asexual representation in fiction, especially in a main character). And I fell in love with The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards, which I thought was a fabulous bit of urban fantasy.
Movies! Spider-Man: No Way Home was a lot of fun with all its multiverse shenanigans, but my favorite movies this year were The Old Guard (for immortality done right), Black Widow (because Yelena!!! And vests with lots of pockets…), and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (for sheer utter delightfulness and the best on-screen guy/girl friendship I’ve seen in a while).
TV shows: This was the year of Marvel, with lots of solid contenders (WandaVision, I’m looking at you), but I have to say that Hawkeye stole my heart. I was already a huge fan of the comic run by Matt Fraction and David Aja, and the fact that the show borrowed so heavily from this source was endlessly delightful. Hailee Steinfeld was an excellent Kate Bishop (I love comics Kate), plus we got more Yelena!!! (Florence Pugh is Just. So. Good.)
As for the rest: The Expanse is still the best live action sci fi around, hands down; The Bad Batch was so good, and I adored their weird family dynamic; Superman and Lois had a solid first season, and I really enjoyed the family focus; Invisible City (Cidade Invisivel) did a nice job of bringing the mythology of my home country Brazil to a wider audience; and Castlevania continues to deliver action-packed storylines and fabulous one-liners.
My top non SF/F show was It’s a Sin, which managed to be at the same time heartwarming and devastating. And for the first time ever I dipped my toes in the yeast-and-sugar-laden waters of The Great British Bake Off (and I confess to being instantly smitten).
Personal bits and pieces
This year brought big changes with my oldest leaving for college. Honestly? We’re all still adapting. We’re still working on those university applications, though, this time for our youngest child.
My indoor jungle is growing! It may swallow me whole one of these days, so if I don’t check in every now and then, maybe pay me a visit with some pruning shears? Outdoors, this was my first year growing cherry tomatoes, which were a huge success and yielded endlessly.
In June and July, when Covid infection rates were lower and the world seemed a safer place, we took two mini breaks, to Newport and Cape Cod, and later to Salem. Lovely family time! We also squeezed in a couple of nights away in Lake George after Christmas, for some much-needed breathing space, despite the cold.
We had hoped to travel to Brazil to visit family for Christmas, but Covid… We’re crossing fingers that next year things will be easier for everyone!
Coming in 2022
The NESCBWI Spring Conference is at the end of April/start of May. We’re hoping to meet up in person but planning for virtual in case, well, Covid. I’m really excited! Hopefully it’ll all go smoothly.
The FEMMES FAE-TALES anthology was delayed by LIFE (Covid *sigh*), but hopefully we’ll be able to publish in 2022. FAE-TALES contains my short story Taste of Honey as well as lots of other fantastic fictional offerings.
Writing goals for 2022! I have so many short stories I wrote this year that need revision and to be submitted… And a couple of other long-form projects that I’m going to be mysterious about for now! But I do have ALL THE PLANS for this new year.
WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2022! Here’s to good health, good times, and good words (for all you writers out there).
I’m thrilled to welcome SF/F author Stephen Palmer to the blog as he stops by on the tour for his brand new Conjuror Girl trilogy. And for a double treat: a guest post AND an interview!
The Conjuror Girl trilogy, which includes Monique Orphan, Monica Orvan, and Monica Hatherly, is published by Infinite Press. Monique, an orphan in an alternate Victorian England, has a strange talent normally only found in men. It is a talent that turns men bad and drives them to seek power, but must it do this to Monique too?
The Delicate Balance of Worldbuilding, by Stephen Palmer
The foundations of stories need to be strong and deep, for if not the structures built upon them collapse. Authors know this – they build worlds, discovering people who live in those worlds. If their worldbuilding is flimsy, the narrative falls apart and the people never have a chance to reveal themselves. No book.
I’m lucky. I’ve always had a vivid imagination, which when I was sending around what became my debut Memory Seed helped lodge the world of Kray in my soon-to-be editor’s mind. Like plant roots, the foundations of Memory Seed were strong.
There are certain rules in worldbuilding which I think help if you know them. In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy, the world is an alternate Victorian Britain – 1899/1900, in a gothic version of my home town of Shrewsbury. The world I built therefore had a curious property which I’ve rarely encountered before, that of pre-existing. My job in making the world of Conjuror Girl was to transmute something already in existence. I can tell you that this task was enormous fun. “Task” in fact is not the right word – relish is better.
One of these tricks of worldbuilding is detail. I learned this early on when, critiquing a poor early version of Memory Seed, my beta reader made comments on a tiny detail which for him brought the world alive: graffiti scrawled in green algae covering a street computer display. I saw again what he had seen; saw it through his eyes. That detail signified people doing what people always do. The city was alive.
Graffiti and algae were enough to signify to the reader what Kray was like. Everything else the reader would bring themselves. And this is an important lesson. Too much detail is as bad as too little. You have to get it just right. Too little, and there’s not enough to spark the reader’s imagination. Too much and they don’t have anything to do.
In Conjuror Girl I wanted to convey a dark, grim, forbidding town. I chose certain details of the real town, exaggerating them for gothic effect. I made sure St Alkmund’s Cemetery was as spooky as possible, including a semi-sentient tree and tomb-inhabiting anti-bees. Meanwhile, the bell fruits of the Bell Tree, which is described as if it is made of non-living material, can be eaten once rung – unless rusty, that is; then they’ve gone off. When I imagined a tavern in Fish Street, for some reason a dog sung from a high window.
Another trick is Gene Wolfe’s classic advice: appeal to the senses. What colours mark the conjurations of the Reifiers? Only purple and orange. What do you hear when you’re by the river? The twang of swans’ wings. What do Etis Gmu’s pillows smell of? Lavender.
Worldbuilding is like consciousness. Our minds notice details in the real world, but the rest of it we fill in ourselves. Readers do this. Too little and they’re starved, too much and they’re overwhelmed.
An Interview With Stephen
JSM: From the Edwardian steampunk world of your Factory Girl trilogy, to the cyberpunk future of Beautiful Intelligence, or the psychedelic surrealism of Hairy London, setting is a huge part of your work, almost a character in its own right. What are some of the real-world inspirations for your work, and in particular for your Conjuror Girl trilogy?
It’s been observed that for an author with a lot of SF in his catalogue I almost never go into space. But I like to stay on Earth because it’s this planet and its future which interest me. So, in the broadest view, the whole planet is my setting. Individual real-world settings though are particularly important for me. Sometimes they’re greatly transformed versions of real places, as in Memory Seed, the soot-black gothic Mavrosopolis (Istanbul) of The Rat & The Serpent, or the madcap re-imagining of London gone hirsute in Hairy London. Occasionally they’re entirely imaginary, for example the hallucinatory river island of Tommy Catkins. For Conjuror Girl I was inspired by my home town of Shrewsbury. I grew up nearby and went to school there. It’s usually regarded as Britain’s finest Tudor town, and for many years I’d wanted to set a novel there. Walking around the streets and alleys beneath some of the finest black-and-white buildings in Britain was more than enough inspiration, though, me being me, I made the novel’s version much more gothic. Some of the localities I left as they are, but I mutated some streets and added a few extras of my own.
JSM: Following on from the previous question, what comes first for you, plot or setting? What drives the creative process when you’re writing something new?
Generally, this works in two parallel ways. I’ll have an idea of the kind of novel I want to write – for instance, an AI novel – and usually there’ll be some character who is the inspiration. The best example of that is Kora, the titular Girl With Two Souls of the Factory Girl trilogy. Tommy Catkins himself would be another, though he appeared along with his watery setting. Sometimes though there are small but vivid mental images which are the key, for instance the two I had when walking around Windsor Great Park in the early 1990s, images which went on to inspire Memory Seed. Plot always comes second, following on from character. Even with a tech-driven novel like Beautiful Intelligence it was the two main characters, Leonora and Manfred, who drove the idea to split the plot into two sections. My creative process these days is to put down the best possible first draft of a novel. This is a risky strategy, against intuition and the usual writerly advice, but what I aim to achieve is to transfer the “magic” and “wonder” of what I myself am experiencing for the first time onto the printed page. If I can do this to my own satisfaction, I know my readers should also feel that vibe. I find that second and subsequent drafts almost always lose their special glamour. For less experienced writers this is not the way to go, but when you get to my age it becomes a possibility. Some of these intense first drafts don’t work however – those are the novels that don’t get published. I’ve accumulated a few now…
JSM: You’ve dabbled in a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy sub-genres. What are some of the challenges this versatility brings? How do you make the switch from one genre to another when starting a fresh project, and do you have any tips for writers who would like to work across different genres?
To be honest, genres and sub-genres are of minor significance to me. I’ll usually have an idea of which one a novel might appear in, but I never write to that genre. All my novels are their own things. The Factory Girl trilogy for instance is categorised as steampunk, but that example lies outside what steampunk is usually considered to be. I don’t sense any challenges, I just write what I need to write, and do it with absolute conviction and sincerity. It’s true that my fans don’t know what they’re going to get next, but they do at least know they’ll get something written with conviction, and which, in a lot of cases, will be unlike anything on the market. My tip therefore is that most difficult of pieces of advice – you have to be your own brand. For most new writers that’s an impossibility because of the state of the market and the nature of books, but for more established authors (Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example) it is possible to be successful in a variety of genres and styles. The other thing worth mentioning is that my publisher is a British indie, which means I have more opportunity to present fresh or unusual novels. No large publishing house in their right mind would accept a novel like Hairy London. My relationship with my tolerant, understanding and insightful editor is a large part of why I’ve been able to do the work I’ve done over the last seven years.
JSM: From climate change to women’s rights, you never shy away from asking tough questions in your work. Do these topics emerge organically when you write, or are they an integral part of the plotting and outlining process? And how did you decide which underlying political themes you wanted to include in your Conjuror Girl trilogy?
They’re always integral and they’re always there from the beginning. I remember my first editor saying something to me, that Memory Seed contained what he called “stuff” – by which he meant ethical or philosophical content. A writer to me is someone who has something inside them that must come out into the open via the medium of words. Writing is so often self-discovery. I have a lot to say. Many people disagree with me of course, and that’s good – part of global debate. But I love that aspect of being an author, which I’ve extended into the opinion pieces on my blog. For Conjuror Girl, the main theme is selfishness, which I’ve written extensively about (narcissism) on my blog. This theme underpins the action, which follows the tale of Monique, later Monica, an orphan in the year 1899 with a talent only men are supposed to possess. The novel is also about how men dominate and control cultural thought via patriarchy. But I expect Monica gives those backward-looking, domineering old men a good run for their money…
JSM: We’ve talked about themes, genres, settings… For anyone familiar with your work, it might seem you’ve already covered a huge amount of ground with your published books, but as any writer knows, there’s always room for more ideas. What’s on your wishlist for the future? Are there any settings or sub-genres you haven’t tackled yet and would like to try your hand at?
Not really. There are concepts and formats I haven’t successfully managed yet. I have a love of inns and taverns, and many years ago set a fantasy novel entirely inside a roadside tavern. I think it worked fairly well, though the writing wasn’t great, and it never got anywhere. One editor remarked that fantasy novels tend to be set in huge, expansive worlds, not tiny ones. But it was the challenge of writing a novel set only inside one inn that appealed to me. So I will try that again. I also have still to write a novel composed only of dialogue and incidental action. Recently I’ve become much more interested in dialogue than I used to be. My book The Autist was set in such a way that the internal thoughts of only one character were made plain to the reader, with all the others’ only revealed by dialogue, of which there was a lot. Some readers didn’t like that, but some did. I’m also fascinated by dialect. So my plan is to write a novel set entirely inside an inn composed only of dialogue. I’m sure I could do it with the right characters and themes. Apart from that, I do feel the urge to return to very far future SF. My novel Urbis Morpheos (“A failed experiment.” – SF Foundation) was an attempt to present the reader with a wholly unfamiliar planet Earth. I aim to have another attempt.
The three books of The Conjuror Girl trilogy are out now and available for purchase through all major online booksellers.
For more information on the author and his work, as well as links to the other guest posts on Stephen’s blog tour, please visit his website: stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com
Yesterday was release day for Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas, an anthology of short stories and poetry published by Hex, with a stellar list of writers.
Beautifully edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge, and Joshua Viola, and with amazing illustrations by Aaron Lovett, Shadow Atlas is a 460-page treat for fans of dark fantasy and horror:
Ancient peoples knew there were lands given over to shadow and spirit. The world is full of haunted places that exact a terrible toll on trespassers. Our forebears paid a heavy price to earn the wisdom and the warning they bequeathed to future generations.
Time transformed their precious knowledge into superstition, but there are those whose hearts beat in rhythm with the past and whose vision is not clouded by modernity. Seeking to reclaim humanity’s early secrets, the Umbra Arca Society was forged. For centuries, this private league of explorers dedicated their lives to uncovering the oldest mysteries of the Americas. Armed with boldness and guile, and equipped with only a compass, a journal, and devotion to truth, these adventurers braved cursed landscapes, dared unnatural adversaries, and exposed hidden civilizations.
Many did not survive.
None were forgotten.
Their stories are maps revealing the topography and contours of landscapes unimaginable and dark. The Shadow Atlas collects their adventures.
Shadow Atlas includes my short story, Moon Under Mangroves. Set in Santos, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, Moon is a tale of aging, a family curse, and the ghost crabs that live and burrow in the mud of the mangrove swamps. I grew up in the city of São Paulo, an hour away from Santos, and drew upon my childhood memories of catching sand and rock crabs with the fishing folk who lived on the coast in the days before tourism took over as an industry. It was a lot of fun reconnecting with those memories, and trying to bring a deep sense of place for readers to immerse themselves in.
You can read my interview on place with Shadow Atlas editor Hillary Dodge here.
The anthology already has some great reviews!
“Dead serious in its horror, yet delightful and inviting in its design and conceit, Shadow Atlas is a rare, beguiling treat, a collective fantasy with teeth, vision, and grounded in urgent, ancient truths.” – BookLife Reviews (BookLife section of Publishers Weekly)
“Think The DaVinci Code or Indiana Jones, but with more literary force, as it comments on mortals, immortals, and the intersection of worlds which holds them.” – Midwest Book Reviews
“A host of sublime writers and settings create an entertainingly macabre collection.” – Kirkus Reviews
Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is now available. For buy links and options, check out the publisher’s page: here.