Have Book, Will Read #27

We’re moving into my favorite season, and I am here for embracing those autumn clichés like long walks on blue sky days to see the changing leaf colors or cozying up with a blanket and a giant mug of tea. And you know what goes well with blankets and tea? Books. Well, warm puppy cuddles, too, but mostly I was going for books. I’ve read some great stuff over the past few months, and it was actually hard to pick which ones I wanted to share. But there’s only so much space in a blog post, so here are my latest book recommendations.

Recent Reads: The supernatural and all the super feels…

First on my list is Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. This YA book had been on my to-read list since before it was published; I’m embarrassed it took this long to get around to it! Little Badger’s debut novel has won a long list of awards and accolades, and it deserves them. A tale of family love, teenage friendship, and the pain of cultural and historical erasure, Elatsoe is sweet-natured and deals with some pretty difficult themes in a gentle and thoughtful manner. Plus, ghost dog!

Ellie can summon the ghosts of animals, a skill passed down through her Lipan Apache bloodline. Her family are caretakers of the stories shared from generation to generation, and when Ellie’s cousin is murdered, she draws upon this heritage to solve the case, uncovering a tangled web of greed and dark magic. Ellie —named for her six-great grandmother Elatsoe — is a wonderful protagonist, as is her best friend Jay, and I am always happy to see great boy/girl friendships that don’t need to be pushed over the line into romance.

Stepping away from speculative fiction for a bit, another YA book that had been on my to-read list for a while is Aristotle and Dante Solve the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Sáenz has won recognition both as a novelist and as a poet, and his poetic touch shines through in this book about a Mexican American teen navigating high school, family relationships, identity, and sexuality. Set in 1987, the story starts the summer that fifteen-year-old Aristotle Mendoza meets Dante Quintana at the local pool, sparking a friendship that changes the world for both boys.

This was one I savored rather than devoured, reading a few pages at a time and enjoying the beautiful prose and quiet storytelling. This isn’t a Big Action story; instead, it’s about the small ripples of emotion that feel so huge when we’re young. It’s dialogue and internal thought, it’s rainy days and introspection. It’s about the shared moments that color our lives. This book made me cry in the best sort of way! 

On the non-YA front, I finally read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s every bit as delightful as I expected. I loved the TV show and had already heard great things about the novel before the show was made, so I figured it was time to invest in a copy of my own. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get to it — I would have liked to have read it before the show came out, because even though it was a wonderful adaptation, it definitely colored my perception of the story.

For those who haven’t seen the show OR read the book, well, first of all, you should probably fix that. If you’re a fan of cheeky fiction with a side order of the absurd, this story about an angel and a demon who team up to try and prevent the apocalypse from happening because they enjoy life among humanity too much is an absolute treat. Add in a witch who partners with a witch-hunter, a centuries-old book of prophecies, and the young Antichrist and his gang of human friends, and the scene is set for a romp of Biblical proportions. Two thumbs most definitely up.

I’ve read some really great graphic novels lately, and I wanted to give a shout out to Power Up, a deliciously fun work by Kate Leth and Matt Cummings. Diverse in every sort of way imaginable, Power Up brings together three recently-superpowered humans (and one fish) as humanity’s newest and most clueless protectors.

The universe was expecting four champions to emerge, fulfilling an ancient prophecy. Instead, there’s a pet shop employee, a busy mother, a construction worker… and a goldfish. Power Up is lighthearted and honestly adorable, and has some really good supporting characters, too. The edition I read had all six issues of this series in one book.

Now Reading: Fight the good fight!

I saw Fonda Lee talk about her book Zeroboxer at a Worldcon panel, and it’s been on my list ever since. I’m a few chapters into it and really enjoying the punchy (ha!), well-written action and great characters. If you need a great example of how to write about a fictional sport, this is it! The novel follows Carr Luka, a rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, as he grows in fame but uncovers a terrible secret that could risk everything that he’s worked so hard to win.

I’m alternating fiction with Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders, a book which is part writing craft talk, part inspiration, and part memoir. The tagline on the cover is how to get through hard times by making up stories, and it’s just what I was needing to read right now. I’m just over halfway through, and would definitely recommend it to writers who prefer broader insights over more formal step-by-step advice.

To Read: Who’s the villain here?

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki was released this week, and I have a copy I preordered that I need to go and pick up from my local indie. I’m really looking forward to this one! It’s pitched by the publisher as “a defiantly joyful adventure set in California’s San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts,” and honestly? It sounds fantastic.

Talking about new books, there’s an upcoming November 2021 release that I’m excited to read. All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman is a sort of villainous Hunger Games, blurbed as “a blood-soaked modern fairytale” where seven families compete for control over a wellspring of magic.

A reminder to readers! I shouldn’t have to say this, but please don’t pirate books. The many, MANY moral considerations aside, it’s simple math: when sales numbers drop, publishers don’t renew contracts, so you end up without being able to read the next great thing by your favorite author. Libraries are a great free resource, or keep an eye out for e-book sales — there’s always a promo, eventually. And if you do have the money to invest in books, please consider ordering from your nearest indie store!

Wishing you all a lovely autumn (or spring, depending on where you are!), and lots of good stories to keep you going in the last stretch of 2021.

Puppy cuddles for everyone!

What’s Your Backstory?

Backstory adds color and shading to a fictional world and characters

Backstory is “a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character in a motion picture or television program” (Oxford Languages, via Google). Backstory is important in fiction, but not necessary. You can tell a perfectly good tale that just stays in the here and now, especially if it’s in a genre that relies heavily on action and/or tension, like horror or thrillers. However, mentioning events that happen before the book begins helps readers to flesh out those bare bones of character and world development; it brings nuance and makes the story part of something bigger, extending beyond the pages.

I “researched’ the subject (and by “research”, I mean I did a brief internet dive) and found plenty of articles and posts on how to write backstory, but very little on what sort of backstory a novel actually needs. And because not all backstory serves the same purpose, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few different types. 

1. The Aragorn Son of Arathorn Backstory: these are the epic ‘big picture’ backstories that shape everything that takes place in a book. This sort of backstory works like a prequel. Think of The Lord of the Rings, and how the War of the Last Alliance and Isildur’s death set the stage for Frodo’s quest. Aragorn is the walking, talking, sword-fighting, horse-riding embodiment of this type of backstory, and his introduction to J.R.R Tolkien’s epic brings past and present together. Tolkien even gives us a backstory within a backstory, with brief mentions of older times, like backstory nesting dolls.

I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar the Elfstone, Dunadan. The heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! 

J.R.R Tolkien, The Two Towers

2. The As You Know Bob Backstory: sometimes, especially with the sort of sweeping worldbuilding you get in epic fantasy and really big space operas, you just need a reader to understand. A skilled author can manage this without making it look like a misplaced lecture (avoiding the ‘as you know, Bob’ trap). This is slightly different from the big picture backstory, as it’s not a prequel, exactly, but more an encyclopedic footnote to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. It’s usually handled discreetly and blends in with the story, but this sort of backstory can become a feature in of itself. Douglas Adams used this masterfully in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

3. The My Name is Inigo Montoya Backstory: these are backstories that serve mainly to add depth and motivation to characters. These are usually drip-fed slowly at the right moments in order to help readers understand, emphasize, and connect with the characters. William Goldman played around with this hilariously in The Princess Bride with Inigo Montoya, a character who is basically just backstory. For less comedic examples, think superhero origin stories (Batman, anyone?), or how Disney took Maleficent and, in the movie of the same name, turned a cardboard cut-out villain into a sympathetic character with a very real reason to be angry at the world.

Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

4. The I Am Your Father Backstory: this one is a subset of the Inigo Montoya backstory, but focuses on a Big Reveal moment that serves as a plot twist. This is the catalyst for a kaleidoscope moment, when everything changes and the picture shuffles around into something quite different. Luke and Darth Vader’s scene in The Empire Strikes Back is an iconic one, not only twisting Luke’s past into something new, but changing the direction of his future — a future where he must not only learn to be a Jedi, but understand why his father lost his way and how he can avoid the same trap. Vader’s classic (and often misquoted) line was beautifully subverted in the 1987 movie Spaceballs, turning an important bit of backstory into something essentially meaningless.

Dark Helmet: I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

Lone Star: So what does that make us?

Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing!

Spaceballs

5. The Just Like Budapest Backstory: the quirky little mentions that are never really fully developed and could be removed entirely without harming the story, but that hint at a much larger picture than we get a chance to see, adding color and shading. Think of the throwaway mention of Budapest by Clint and Natasha in The Avengers, that wonderfully enticing sliver of their past. I’m actually sorry that we finally got the story behind Budapest in Black Widow. Sometimes it’s nice to just…wonder. This sort of backstory delights in acting as a sort of teaser trailer, allowing us to imagine that the characters have lived a life far vaster than this small part the author is sharing with us. 

The above are some of the main types of backstory you might want to include in your work. Do you need backstory? And how much? That’s up to you, and will depend on your writing style and the type of project you’re working on.

Food and Drink in Sci Fi and Fantasy

When I was young, I was fascinated by mentions of food in children’s books, especially in stories written long before I was born. I remember marveling at World War I-era fare in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (1930-1947) and the endless picnics in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (1942-1963), which always seemed to include fresh tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, and massive slices of fruit cake.

As a grown-up, I still find mentions of food in books fascinating, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Even commonplace meals gain a strange and otherworldly aspect when tossed into a vast fantasy saga or a thrilling space opera. For instance, take a look at this description of a centaur’s breakfast in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omlette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he tends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

The Silver Chair — C.S. Lewis

But food and drink often move past sustenance and become key plot devices. Countless drops of poison have been administered in handy flagons of ale or goblets of wine; feasts have gathered enemies for slaughter; assassins have burst out of cakes to gun down their targets. And when it comes to politics, mealtime conversation and table manners can cut as sharp and deadly as swords on the battlefield, winning or losing crucial ground for those involved.

In The Martian by Andy Weir, a good deal of the shipwrecked-on-Mars saga revolves around food: how to make it last, and how to farm enough potatoes to survive until rescue. One of my favorite examples of food and drink as a plot device, however, is Arthur Dent’s search for the perfect cup of tea in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Arthur’s desire for a decent brew escalates from amusing side joke to an epic quest that eventually takes over all of the ship computer’s processing power and lands the crew in a spot of hot water, pun intended. 

“No,” Arthur said, “look, it’s very, very simple… All I want… is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams

Sometimes food can help move a plot forward, literally. After all, without the Elven lembas, the intrepid adventurers in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would have to stop to hunt and gather food, slowing down both the quest and the story pacing itself. And the addition of these handy marching rations leads to the running gag of the hobbits’ obsession with proper meals. (You can even make your own lembas: the internet is full of recipes, but this one by Tea With Tolkien looks particularly yummy.)

For a long time, speculative fiction, and especially fantasy, centered on Western cooking. Every inn served stew and beer, every traveler carried hunks of crusty farm bread in their saddlebags. Thankfully, fantasy in recent times has spread its wings beyond the Eurocentric model and now we can feast our imaginations on a whole range of delicious options. I have a critique partner whose wonderfully rich world draws heavily from different East Asian mythologies, and I love it when her badass reaper sips from delicate cups of jasmine tea, or her unruly kitsune gorges on steamed bao and mochi cakes. As for me, I’m working on a short story right now set in northeastern Brazil, where my characters breakfast on fresh bread rolls with Minas cheese and doce de leite, where fear is bitter as pitanga fruit, and joy tastes as rich and sweet as guava jam. 

Whether writers use meals to add color and shading to their worlds, to move their stories forward, or simply as a pause for their protagonists to catch their breath, it’s almost impossible not to include food and drink in fiction. After all, be the characters human or alien, I think we can all agree on one thing: everyone has to eat!

“Boys,” Annabeth interrupted, “I’m sure you both would’ve been wonderful at killing each other. But right now, you need some rest.”

“Food first,” Percy said. “Please?” 

The Mark of Athena — Rick Riordan

Summer 2021 Updates

We’re halfway through summer here in Connecticut, which means it’s time for another round of ‘what’s been happening in my world’…

Short Stories

Kraxon Magazine published another short of mine in April, The End of all Things; it’s free to read, so if you’re in the mood for a light-hearted take on the end of the world, click here to check it out! I have a few other stories published in Kraxon that you can read for free, including Ripped Away which was voted story of the year in 2015.

I have two more short stories coming out in anthologies this year. The first, Moon Under Mangroves, is in Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas (Hex Publishers) and should be out in October. This tale of aging, swamp crabs, and a cursed compass is set in the mangrove swamps outside the city of Santos, in Brazil, an hour from where I grew up. Click here to see the blurb and list of authors!

The other story, Taste of Honey, will be out later this year in a collaborative anthology put together by the women of DISTAFF, a sci fi anthology that was released in 2019. This time we’re turning to fantasy, with a collection of loosely fairy-related fiction called Femme Fae-Tales. I can’t wait to share my own tale of one woman’s addiction to wild magic, set right here in Connecticut. More information on the anthology will be available soon on the DISTAFF main site, here.

Last year, my short story The Sugar Cane Sea was published in Not All Monsters (Strangehouse Books). This year, the anthology made it all the way to the final ballot of the Bram Stoker horror fiction awards—we didn’t win, but it was still amazing to be a finalist! We’ve had some lovely reviews, and here are a few specific mentions for my story, from Goodreads:

“The Sugar Cane Sea” by Juliana Spink Mills will stick with me for a long time. Exquisite. 

The characters were written so well that I was left a little sad that I’d never get to meet them again.

I loved this one so much! I loved the characters, their love for one another, the bravery, and so much more. 

Novels

I’ve spent the past few months sending out queries for my most recent novel. A Perfect Void is about witches in modern day Boston, but with an alternate history past that includes two Witch Wars that shook the USA and the legacy that my main character, an aura reader and university professor, has to live with. I love this story so much!!! But I’m well aware that this is a tough time to query, with both agents and publishers dealing with the backlog of work that 2020 left behind. Still, I plan to keep going, and hopefully someone will love my witchy professor’s tale as much as I do.

Currently Working On…

I’m revising a short story that marks my first real dip into magical realism. It’s set in a small coastal tourist town in northeastern Brazil and includes pottery fish and soul stealing magic. I’m excited to start submitting this one, as it feels very close to my heart.

I’m also in the planning stages for a novella set in my hometown of São Paulo, inspired by the now-defunct tram lines that once crisscrossed the city.

Blog

After trying and failing to keep to a two-week blogging schedule, and then a few months of very sporadic posting, I’ve been focusing on a roughly three-week schedule which I’ve actually been managing to maintain. Two weeks was just too much, and a month between posts felt like a lot, so let’s see if three turns out to be the sweet spot! Three’s supposed to be the magic number, after all, right?

New Author Photos

I cut my hair really short, and you know what that means? New author pics! I’m very pleased with this latest batch of photos, and hope to use them for a good while before I need updates.

Personal

We recently took our vaccinated selves on a couple of mini family breaks. First up was Rhode Island/Cape Cod in June, and then in July, Salem and Boston. It felt so nice to get away for a little bit!

Have Book, Will Read #26

It’s summer! Which conjures up images of beach reads, books by poolside, or lazy afternoons lost in words under a leafy tree with blue sky above. Right now, it’s — checks out of window — yup! Pouring down. AGAIN. But hey, cozying up to a sleeping dog on the sofa works just as well. So, what have I been reading since my last Have Book, Will Read? Here are some of my favorites…

Recent Reads: Found family, forced team ups…

I absolutely adored The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. This book deserves every inch of the praise it received. Klune immerses us in the tale of forty-year-old Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who is whisked from his grey, bureaucratic, city existence to the sweeping ocean vistas of the Marsyas Island Orphanage, where life is anything but dull. The inhabitants are extraordinary, even for Linus’ line of work, and the most amazing of them all is perhaps the island’s master and protector, Arthur Parnassus.

This is a book about falling in love: with found family, with each other, with oneself. It’s a book about discovering that there is more to life than simply settling for safety, and that some things are worth fighting for. Beautifully written and captivating, it was also lovely to have an older protagonist and to be reminded that aging should not mean giving up on the right to happiness and joy.

I can never resist a bit of urban fantasy, and I tore through Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series which starts with London Falling. When an investigation that brings together officers Quill, Ross, Costain, and Sefton encounters the supernatural, the four find themselves the unwilling recipients of magic that confers the Sight — the ability to see that which is hidden beneath London’s surface. A new team emerges: the only ones who can police the shadow world around them.

This series is a gritty, brutal take on the genre, and Cornell’s style takes some getting used to, as he has a tendency to hop from one character’s point of view to another’s, sometimes within the same scene. But I found it a fast and riveting read, and it’s also a little different from most urban fantasy. Usually, main characters are either already ‘in the know’, such as with Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus or Seanan McGuire’s Price family, or else they have someone who guides them through this new world of the supernatural they have discovered, as with Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. In Cornell’s series, the four main characters stumble accidentally upon magic, and proceed to fumble their way along almost entirely on their own — a different take on the usual set up that I enjoyed immensely.

I first came across Charlie Jane Anders at WorldCon in Dublin, where I heard her read from her award-winning novel The City in the Middle of the Night and loved her writing style. So when I found out she had a YA novel in the works, I put in a preorder for Victories Greater Than Death, the first in her trilogy. Victories brings us Tina Mains, who has grown up an average teenager. Except, she’s anything but average. The clone of a famed alien war hero, she’s known all her life that at some point the beacon hidden inside her will activate and she will be swept away from Earth to join the battle in space. But when that finally happens, Tina finds out that fulfilling her destiny may be more complicated than she ever imagined.

Anders has a down-to-earth and chatty style of writing, where dialogue and character are at the forefront of everything. Much as I love an action-led tale, it’s nice sometimes to switch gears and dive into something like this, and to get lost inside a character’s thoughts and emotions. Found family is everything in this book, as are themes of acceptance, diversity, and respect for one another. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to the upcoming sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak.

Where to start with The Last Sun by KD Edwards? There’s just so much I loved about this book! Rune Saint John is the last of the fallen Sun Court, one of the great Atlantean Houses that now live on New Atlantis, formerly known as the island of Nantucket in the USA. Rune and his companion and bodyguard Brand are hired to search for the missing son of Lady Justice, ruler of the Crusader Throne. But while investigating, Brand and Rune uncover more than the missing man — they find a legendary creature that may be connected to the massacre of Rune’s family.

Why did I like The Last Sun so much? First and foremost, the characters. Rune and Brand are fantastic, and their relationship is just perfect. Other characters that join them — Rune’s ward, Max, and Addam, the man they’re hired to find — are just as wonderful, and the overall dynamic is great. The magic and world felt fresh and interesting, and I really liked the concept of the Arcana with its Courts based on Tarot cards. Edwards’ voice is just right for this, and the story moves along quickly and is surprisingly light, considering Rune’s completely horrible backstory. But Rune never feels like a victim; he takes charge of his life and refuses to let the past define him. Also, you have to respect an author that unabashedly takes one of fanfic’s great topes (there was only one bed!) and 100% makes it work, with a great big wink at the reader to let them know they’re in on the joke.

I usually try to keep my reading round-up to speculative fiction, but I need to make an exception for the excellent debut crime novel Knife Edge by Kerry Buchanan, and its sequel, Small Bones. I’m familiar with some of Buchanan’s fantasy work, which is very good indeed, so when I found out she was moving into the crime genre I knew I had to check it out.

Knife Edge introduces us to Northern Irish police detectives Asha Harvey and Aaron Birch in this chilling tale of a serial killer and the victim he allows to escape so he can play with her in a terrifying cat and mouse game. In Small Bones, we dive deeper into Asha as a character as she investigates a cold case that no one knew was a murder. Both books are a nail-biting read; I made the mistake of picking up the second in the evening and just had to finish it in one go! One thing I enjoyed is the pattern that Buchanan establishes, where the main point of view is shared by Asha and whichever character is connected to the case in that particular book (escaped victim Nic in the first, and Sue in the second, who accidentally digs up a child’s skeleton while gardening). If you’re a crime fiction fan, these are definitely worth reading.

Now Reading: Too late to say sorry?

It’s been a while since I’ve dipped into middle grade, and I’m thoroughly enjoying The Ship of Stolen Words by Fran Wilde. Sam Culver has one solution for tight situations: the word sorry, his go-to for anything and everything. But on the last day of fifth grade, his favorite word disappears. He soon connects the loss of his ability to apologize to a mysterious portal at the back of the local Little Free Library, and before long he’s caught up in an adventure to help save Tolver, the young goblin who stole his words.

This has been a great read so far (I’m in the middle of it right now), with a nice balance of fun, action, and deeper motifs. And although the theme of the book brings a message — don’t cheapen your words; only say sorry if you really mean it! — at no time does it feel preachy or moralistic.

To Read: Sequels and seconds.

Next up is Mister Impossible, the sequel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Dreamer Trilogy. I liked the first book, Call Down the Hawk, a lot; it’s a good ‘growing up’ of the Raven Cycle series that felt like a natural and necessary progression for Ronan, Adam, and co. Book 2 landed in our mailbox a while back, but I had other novels on my reading pile to get through first. However, my daughter, who shares my passion for Stiefvater’s work, is not-so-patiently waiting for me to get to this so we can discuss, so it’s time to catch up on Ronan Lynch’s journey into the depths of his magic.

Another Book 2, although this one is not a sequel, is the sophomore release by Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop. McQuiston established her name as a rising rom-com star with the delicious Red, White & Royal Blue back in 2019, and now she brings her talents to this time-travel romance set in the New York subway. I’m looking forward to it!

Note: You can find all editions of Have Book, Will Read on my review page, here.

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

You Are Valid (and so is your writing)

I’m querying a fantasy novel right now, and anyone who has been through the query trenches knows how tough this is. It’s easy for our writer brains to understand in theory that rejections aren’t personal and are NOT a reflection on our writing skills, but our little writer hearts have trouble with this notion.

It’s not personal. But it feels personal. And that leads me (us) to some of the common traps that creatives fall into.

1. The My Work Is Bad trap. I mean, it might be? But it probably isn’t. If you’re serious enough about your craft to be looking up blog posts on writing, you’re most likely ahead of the game. And if you’re at the querying point, you should have revised multiple times, sought out feedback, and done your best to make your work as shiny as can be.

To get out of this trap, step away for a while. Go read other people’s work, and then come back and read a few random scenes from your own. I guarantee it’s probably way better than you remember!

2. The Imposter Syndrome trap. Guess what? You’re not alone. Pretty much everyone in the writing world suffers from Imposter Syndrome to some extent, no matter how successful they are. It’s that horrible feeling that you’re out of your depth, that you don’t belong, that you have no idea what you’re doing. So I repeat: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

There are so many ways to write and to publish, so many different people playing at this author game, so many forms of knowledge. The truth is, there is no truth. Just people who love writing getting along in life as best as they can. Your knowledge, your writing, your entire self is just as valid as Person X with twenty-five published novels. Trust in who you are, trust in your own truth, and trust in your place in this vast world of publishing.

3. The Everyone Is Doing Better trap. Seriously, brain? Seriously? This one is just pathetic. Terrible attempt at self-deprecation, zero stars, do not recommend. 

To escape this particular trap, there are two main tactics. The first is to gently remind yourself how far you’ve come as a writer. If you have published work, take a moment to bask in the glow of past achievements instead of getting stuck on the now and the future. If you haven’t published yet, look at feedback from critique partners and compare to feedback on early work. See how far you’ve come? (If you don’t have a critique partner yet, have a look at this post and this one.)

The second tactic is to remember how long it took some of your favorite authors to get published, or how hard some of your writer friends battled to get there. The publishing world would like us to believe in the myth of the overnight success, but the truth is that most writers travel a path littered with terrible drafts or trunked first novels, rejections, and horrible amounts of self-doubt. Even those who sold their very first novel may have spent years writing, revising, and pitching that novel. Take heart!

4. The I Am Not Valid Unless Someone Else Says So trap. Agents. Editors. Reviewers. Yes, we’d all like that stamp of approval that screams: ‘pro level publishing acknowledges this work’.

Yeah, this is a tough trap to get out of. Especially when you’re querying or on submission and it feels like your work is worth nothing without this approval. This, in fact, was the trap that got me started on this particular blog post. So I’m going to share what I did. Maybe it will help you—it certainly made me feel better.

Read through whatever it is you’re working on right now. Not the whole thing; maybe a favorite page or scene. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the rhythm and flow of words. Let it wash over you. Feel it in your heart. Feel it in every part of yourself. And repeat after me: I do not need anyone’s opinion to validate my work.

“But,” you say, “Juliana, what about rejections? What about critique feedback?”

Feedback is there to improve your work, not to invalidate it. Rejections do not invalidate your work, either. You validate your work. You are valid, you have worth, and so does your writing and your creative process. Take a deep breath. Believe. Now keep on writing.

Thank you, fortune cookie!

NESCBWI 2021 Part II: virtual goes live

Cherished moments from the weekend!

<A continuation of Part I: pre-conference planning>

It’s Friday afternoon, April 30th, and the countdown begins. Last minute frantic text messages and emails fly: “I can’t access the Zoom account!”; “Where’s my password?”; “I never got a reply from the presenter!” We remind ourselves: take a deep breath, we’ve got this. The clock ticks closer, the minutes run out like sand in an hourglass. Seven pm EST arrives. We’re on. This is it. Showtime. A Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey is live.

After introducing ourselves and the New England SCBWI regional team, the spring conference began on a high note with A Conversation with Two Legends: Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, moderated by Heidi E.Y. Stemple. (All of our main presentations and workshops were run as webinars, keeping chat open for attendee participation.) Nikki, Jane, and Heidi were amazing, and I loved all the comments in the chat, and getting to ‘see’ everyone’s reactions.

Among the many wonderful moments, a couple of favorites: Jane Yolen reminding us that “if you don’t write it, it’s not going to get written”, and that writing is about “hard work and joy”. And Nikki Grimes celebrating her love for poetry: “it’s my first language.”

The first night ended with our Open Screen event, hosted by Matt Forrest Esenwine, who usually hosts the open mic at our in-person conferences. Everyone got a chance to share their work, and the readings were delightful.

Saturday opened with a quick welcome from my co-director Casey Robinson and a moment with two of our Equity & Inclusion Committee members, Valerie Bolling and Lisa Stringfellow, who talked about the Committee’s work in New England and about open opportunities for participation. Then it was time to start our workshops which, thanks to our fantastic volunteers and impeccable management by Christy Yaros, ran pretty smoothly from start to finish. There were twenty-one workshops in total, held over four hours, too many to mention individually. Luckily, we decided to record all workshops, so attendees (and busy conference staff!) will be able to watch them later at leisure. I’m so glad we opted to do this, as I personally have many, MANY workshops I want to watch.

Throughout most of Saturday we kept our social Zoom open, and it was lovely to see so many attendees, faculty, and team drop in for a chat. Between 2:00-3:30 pm we held scheduled socials by theme, and these were well attended.

Saturday afternoon brought the Crystal Kite awards! The SCBWI, besides its annual Golden Kite awards, organizes a regional peer-voted version. Due to the timing, which never quite lines up with our spring conference, New England presents its Kite award a year later. Of course, our 2020 conference got cancelled, so we had two awards to honor. It was an intensely emotional moment, watching acceptance speeches from the 2019 winner, Brian Lies, for The Rough Patch, and the 2020 winner, Padma Venkatraman, for The Bridge Home.

Awards presented and accepted, it was time for our first Keynote Speaker, author and illustrator Mike Curato. Mike’s speech was a nice mix of funny and serious and had us alternating between laughter and tears. At one point, when talking about remembering to find joy in your work, Mike said: “I was so busy telling other people’s stories, I wasn’t making time for my own.” He was, of course, referring to the moment he began working on what was to become his best-selling Little Elliot series.

We reopened the social Zoom after the keynote, so attendees could chat a bit to Mike and to each other and then, after a joyful but screen-heavy day, we all left to rest our eyes and brains and get ready for the last day of the conference.

Hanging out in the Social Zoom

Sunday morning brought a new programming item to the New England conference: the ask-a-mentor sessions. Ten faculty members offered their time for a moderated Q&A session, answering questions on topics ranging from writing and illustrating to the business of book publishing and the agent process. I hope this was useful to everyone; I certainly found the sessions I attended to be insightful and interesting!

Following the ask-a-mentor sessions, our last Keynote Speaker was Padma Venkatraman. Padma is, like Mike Curato, a long-time SCBWI member. She’s also an active local member, and everyone who attends New England events — both virtual and pre-COVID — knows her cheerful smile and uplifting presence. Padma’s passionate keynote talk was the perfect ending to our virtual voyage, as she urged us to pour our hearts and selves into our creative work. “We are creators because we create. Don’t get too focused on publication; focus on creating.”

Thank you to everyone who made #NESCBWI21 possible: our faculty, our volunteers, and our New England Regional Team. Thank you also to all the members and non-members who attended the virtual events and left lovely messages for us in the Zoom chat boxes and online. We do this for you, because we are all part of one big kid lit community. Because we love writing, illustrating, creating. Because you make it worthwhile. See you online, and who knows, maybe even in person in 2022!

Virtual conference kit

NESCBWI 2021 Part I: pre-conference planning

Working on last minute details!

Back in 2019, fresh from the excitement of the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I said YES to a very important commitment: to step in as co-director and help plan and run the spring conference for 2020 and 2021.

Little did we know back then that the world was about to be hit by the COVID pandemic, with all its devastating ramifications.

It takes time to plan an in-person conference with as many moving parts as ours — from workshops to critique sessions to sit-down meals for almost 700 attendees. By the time 2020 arrived, we had most of it done. Registration opened amid growing concerns about global health, but we shrugged off the whispers — we’d be fine, right? This wasn’t going to impact New England.

And then, in March, everything began to shut down. We all watched in horror as the death toll worldwide began to rise. This was big; so much bigger than our concerns over a weekend event. By April, it was clear that COVID was everywhere, and that the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Even if state mandates hadn’t done the job for us, there was no way we would have put our members at risk. There was nothing we could do except cancel the conference. A few people mentioned moving online, but it was far too late by then to shift a huge event to a virtual platform. We honored the agent/editor critiques that had been booked by holding an online critique day but postponed the rest of the planned activities.

After a hasty phone meeting, my co-director Casey and I agreed to stay on an extra year. To run the 2020 conference in 2021. Because back then, we still thought COVID would be solved by the end of the year, maybe even by summer.

We all know what happened to the rest of 2020. Infection rates dipped, then rose. New strains emerged; studies and data brought terrible insight on the aftereffects of coronavirus. Death numbers worldwide kept climbing. The race for a vaccine was on, and masking up became a permanent and no longer temporary measure. By October, it was clear that there was no way we could plan an in-person event for 2021, due to the amount of time it takes and the uncertainties ahead. We made the call and emailed our membership and our faculty: 2021 was going virtual.

So, how to plan an online conference? How to turn our Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey into a spark of light at a dark and difficult time?

First of all, we polled the faculty of our canceled 2020 event to find out who was interested in doing a virtual version of their workshop. We had already decided we would do a streamlined event — there was no way we could attempt the almost 70 workshops we usually do at the in-person conference. There would be no critique sessions; the New England SCBWI already holds 4 virtual agent/editor critique days throughout the year, so there was no reason to add to this. And we would have to cut a lot of the side events that have become tradition, like illustrator challenges and the pitch practice party. We knew what we DID want: to provide a weekend of craft and inspiration, something that would help boost creativity during a time when a lot of writers and illustrators are finding it hard to produce work.

We were delighted to hear back from 21 of our faculty, who came up with alternate versions of their workshops for us. We decided to add ask-a-mentor sessions in place of the agent/editor critiques, and we tossed in an Open Screen to substitute our traditional Open Mic night. We kept the two planned keynote sessions with Padma Venkatraman and Mike Curato, but changed the Friday night opening event to a Conversations with Two Legends, with Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, to be moderated by Heidi Stemple. And we came up with the idea of keeping a dedicated Zoom meeting open throughout to double as reception desk for issues and a social space, with themed breakout rooms for drop-in mingling.

By the time mid-April 2021 rolled around, we were set. We had our platforms prepared, thanks to Assistant Regional Advisor and tech goddess Christy Yaros. We had our programming in order, thanks to my co-director Casey Robinson. We had our Zoom hosting and moderating volunteers lined up and waiting (that one was my job!). And we had our Regional Advisor Kristine Asselin to do all the number crunching and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic wizardry. We were ready to make Finding Joy in the Journey a virtual reality.

<See also Part II: virtual goes live>

Perspective

A birthday poem. For me. By me.

Perspective
Juliana Spink Mills, March 2021

The older I get
the less I know
about myself.
My certainties
are shaken loose,
washed clean and clear
by the pitter-patter rain
of days, and months, and
years gone by.

I find new things about
myself, every day.
Blooming from within;
spring bulbs
rising above the debris
of last autumn's leaves,
shedding layers
as the river birch sheds
paper-thin slivers of bark.

Time brings wisdom,
they say.
Time is knowledge.
But time is, above all, freedom
to set aside that
which others have
accidentally imposed upon me
in the way they perceive
how I exist.

As the years wash against me
like waves on a beach,
I find I do not need
other people to define me
as I once did.
Time has bought me
space and perspective,
and now I begin to see myself
for who I am.
Multiples of me…