It’s been way too long since my last reading roundup; at the time we were just heading into winter here in the Northeast. Now, thankfully, the cold weather has given way to a glorious New England spring. Our garden is a riot of wild violets and dandelions, and the sound of birds, chipmunks, and other backyard beasties forms the perfect soundtrack for a bit of reading. Here are some of the books that made it off my to-read list lately…
Recent Reads: Magic in the air!
I’d had my eye on Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House for a while, and managed to check it out from my town library just before lockdown kicked in. (Lucky me!) This was a departure for Bardugo, stepping away from both YA and her meticulously constructed Grishaverse. The world of Ninth House is, however, just as detailed and beautifully constructed as her fantasy universe, and this richly immersive tale is a dark feast for the senses.
Set in Yale University, in New Haven, just an hour away from my house, Ninth House dips into a hidden world of secret societies, creating an entire magical network of scholars and alumni who operate among the regular students, faculty, and the ordinary citizens of New Haven. The story winds back and forth in time, bringing us morally ambiguous magical ceremonies, sacrifice, and murder, casting shadows that hint at a much bigger tale yet to unfold.
Imaginary Numbers is the latest installment in Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series, and the first told by Sarah Zellaby. McGuire’s InCryptid takes a different approach to most urban fantasy series, changing point of view every couple of books. We’ve heard from all three of the Price siblings so far — Verity, Alex, and Antimony — and now it’s time for their cousin Sarah.
Sarah is a cuckoo; a telepathic humanoid creature that evolved from a wasp-like ancestor. Cuckoos may look like humans, but are in fact inhuman predators. In addition, Sarah shares the telling of the tale with her sort-of cousin Artie, who is part incubus, making for an interesting departure from the very human Price narration. This was a gripping story, and a nice addition to the series despite (noooo!) ending on a cliffhanger. And as a bonus (or a balm for the cliffhanger-wounded), readers also get a road trip novella that takes place between the previous book and this one.
Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy graphic novel series is popular among the teens and preteens who frequent my local library, where I work. Earlier this year, I decided to see what the fuss was about. I tore through all three books in a day and have to agree with the multiple check-outs the series has received in our town. This is a really solid middle grade/lower YA collection.
The Witch Boy, and the sequels The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, tell the tale of Aster, whose family is part of a magical society where boys become shapeshifters and girls become witches. But Aster has no affinity with shapeshifting; he’d rather be a witch instead, even if it means challenging the status quo. Known for her webcomic Strong Female Protagonist, Ostertag has dealt beautifully with themes of identity and gender roles in The Witch Boy, which has a diverse cast of characters and a great plot.
Now Reading: To the stars and beyond.
I’ve just started the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward YA series. The first book, Skyward, was a fast-paced delight, with a nice balance between dark and light and a great twisty ending. Skyward tells the tale of Spensa, who lives on a besieged world that humans crash-landed upon three generations back, and dreams of becoming a pilot and redeeming her father’s ruined legacy. The sequel, Starsight, promises to be just as wonderful, as Spensa leads upward and onward her people to reclaim the stars.
To Read: Werewolves and superpowers.
I’ve had Dana Cameron’s Fangborn series on my to-read list for a while, and this feels like the perfect moment to dip into an urban fantasy book or three. The first in the series about werewolf archeologist Zoe Miller is Seven Kinds of Hell, and it’s all loaded up on my Kindle and ready to go.
Ikenga , Nnedi Okorafor’s first middle grade novel, comes out in August, but I have an ARC sitting on my bookshelf just begging for some attention. I thoroughly enjoyed her Akata series, and am looking forward to this one. Magically gifted superpowers against a backdrop of vengeance? Yes, please.
Next week marks two months of staying at home for my family. While governments everywhere are beginning the slow process of reopening in a safe and viable manner, it’s pretty clear that the coronavirus pandemic is far from being resolved, and social distancing is here for the foreseeable future.
In some ways, time has flown by. In others, it has dragged on interminably. All of us have been forced to dig within and find balance, charting the things that make our new realities bearable. For writers and other creatives, there’s that added pressure of social media reminding us to take advantage of lockdown to, you know, create. But, as many of us are finding, it’s Not Quite That Simple.
Here’s a Top 10 of my personal do’s and don’ts as a writer in lockdown. (Emphasis on personal!)
1. DON’T read any of those posts. You know the ones. SHAKESPEARE WROTE KING LEAR DURING THE PLAGUE. Yeah, those ones. Between the general uncertainty, the incessant news updates, and the overall (very real) sense of fear, many of us are finding it hard to spark our creativity right now. Be kind to yourself. It’s perfectly fine to store ideas in your head (or a handy notebook) for now and wait until the world settles a little around you.
2. DO get a change of perspective every now and then. I’m lucky enough to live in a quiet suburban neighborhood where I can safely walk the dog AND social distance. Those moments spent outside the house help me reorder my brain. If you can’t go out, try using an unusual space instead. Sit on the stairs. Lie on the bathroom floor. Stand inside a closet in the dark for five minutes.
3. DON’T feel pressured to ‘use your time at home in an educational manner’. Sure, there are a ton of amazing webinars and author talks aimed at writers right now, many of them graciously offered free of charge. If your mind is in that place, go for it! My mind… is not. Every now and then I feel a stab of guilt when I see some cool online event advertised. But I ruthlessly squash it down. The only new skill anyone has picked up around here lately is the dog, who learnt how to roll over. And I’m fine with that!
4. DO take some time to have fun with your imaginary worlds. Just because you’re not necessarily writing doesn’t mean you can’t let your mind soar! Create a color palette. Build an aesthetic board on Pinterest. Curate a playlist for your favorite characters or bake them a cake. Be playful.
5. DON’T judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. If you need to fall apart sometimes and scream into a pillow, go do it. If you need to lock your family out and hide in the bedroom for a while, go do it. Find your own coping mechanisms. If those include writing — a work-in-progress or a diary or a prompt or two — that’s fine and great, but if not, don’t feel like you should be writing just because other people are channeling their fear and frustration that way. Seriously. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards.
6. DO find analogies for creativity that anchor you in this difficult moment. For me, it’s plants. I’ve been expanding and repotting my small indoor jungle — I’m not much of a gardener, but container plants, I can handle. Watching my beauties grow reminds me that words, like plants, have periods of plenty and periods of rest. Yes, sometimes we do have to force ourselves to push through a block or a slow patch, but at other times it’s all right to let our work grow, well, organically.
7. DON’T feel obligated to connect. Yes, a lot of writers are moving online to get together as a community. We’ve all had to learn to use Zoom or Google Meets, among other tools. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Join an online meet if you want, but if it’s not for you, don’t feel pressured by social media posts or the latest Microsoft ad to jump on the meet-up bandwagon. A simple email or Facebook message to friends to let them know that you’re okay works, too. Or go old-school and send a card or a surprise treat.
8. DO seize the moment to break your own writing rules. The work-in-progress not doing it for you right now? Try something completely different. Pen some haikus. Dabble in fan fiction. Re-imagine your latest draft as scenes from a Regency romance. Pick the most absurd writing prompt you can find on the internet and go for it, purely for your own enjoyment!
9. DON’T forget to feed your writing brain. Put aside all your carefully crafted to-read or to-watch lists. Choose what you need right now, in this moment. Maybe it’s the comfort of reconnecting with a favorite book. Or the challenge of tackling a genre you usually ignore. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of watching the opening scenes of a dozen Netflix shows until you find one that lights you up inside. And again, don’t let anyone guilt you from enjoying what you want to be reading or watching.
10. DO take a break from life every now and then to create moments of mindfulness. We all need some inner peace right now! Light a candle and meditate. Collect stones on your walks and write yourself reminders. Pray a rosary. Do divination with crystals. Stand barefoot on the grass and breathe. Make dandelion wishes. Anything goes!
Life has been weird ever since COVID-19 went global. The past few weeks have been simultaneously dragonfly-quick and slow as a New England winter. One day drags by while the next is gone in a blink, and time, for me at least, has become a fickle capricious thing, heavy as stone yet as hard to hold onto as a handful of fine, dry sand.
That being so, I suddenly realized it’s been a month and a half since over a thousand sci fi, fantasy, and horror fans gathered for Boskone 57, and I’m long overdue a con round-up!
Boskone 57 was once again held at the Westin Waterfront in Boston on President’s Day weekend. For once I had no program items I was scheduled for on Friday, so I was able to drive in and settle down, catching up with friends and getting in the mood for my Saturday panels.
On Friday I only watched a couple of program items. One was the interview with Holly Black, Boskone’s YA Guest of Honor. This brought a fun insight into Holly’s work and creative process, as well as a chance for a sneak peek at some of her upcoming projects.
I also caught the Fashion in Fantasy Worlds panel, with Janice Gelb, Melissa Caruso, Zig Zag Claybourne, Nightwing Whitehead, and Sarah Morrison. My main takeaway from the panel was that fashion in novels is about the flavor, not the details; it’s about how the character feels in the clothes they wear, and not necessarily the clothes themselves.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, and I was more than ready to go by the time programming started at 10am. I always like to sign up for a kaffeeklatsch if possible, and this year I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with the wonderful Charlaine Harris, who confessed that “I write because I get bored!”
Next up was Blood-Curdling Science Fiction, with Errick Nunnally moderating, and Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kauffmann, Darrell Schweitzer, and myself as panelists. We were supposed to be discussing the line between horror and sci fi, and since I write (and read) mostly fantasy, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But the conversation ended up being great, and I had a really good time. Our takeaway? That horror is a matter of feeling, and mashes well with any genre. Oh, and that science is creepy!
I had a quick lunch and then went to Holly Black’s reading at 1pm — another thing I always like to do at Boskone is fit in a reading or two, if possible, as I really enjoy hearing stories in the author’s voice.
Afterwards, it was time for a panel on Editing from Agent, to Editor, to Publisher, with Joshua Bilmes, Beth Meacham, John Kessel, and James D. Macdonald, moderated by Melanie Meadors. Some of my notes on this panel include:
Polish your work as much as you can before sending it to beta readers (John and James) BUT don’t over-edit, as earlier drafts can have a raw intensity that can get lost in the polishing process (Beth).
“When a manuscript is accepted by the publisher, that’s when we like to say the real work begins” (Beth).
Remember that your editor is not supposed to be your uncredited co-author! Be prepared to do the work (James).
Revision letters: recognize that your feelings are going to be hurt (Beth). Give yourself time to absorb editorial critiques before reacting to them.
Later in the afternoon, I headed down to the New England Horror Writers Meet Up, hosted by Jack Haringa. I was delighted to find that I wasn’t the only ‘accidental horror’ writer around, and that lots of us tend to tread the line between horror and other genres, occasionally tipping one way or the other. For more information on this group, look up http://nehw.blogspot.com.
I had two more items on my schedule for the day, and I was in both of them! The first was a panel I was moderating, Books That Get Kids Reading, with Michael Stearns (who writes as Carter Roy), Julia Rios, and Trisha Wooldridge. Not a lot of people showed up to watch, unfortunately (the 6pm dinner slot is a tough one!), but we still had a great time exchanging book and graphic novel recommendations for kids and teens. Our panel was unanimous in several things, including our love for diverse books and our admiration for Carlos Hernandez’ Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (as well as for his publisher, Rick Riordan Presents).
To finish up the evening in style, I once again took part in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading, where members of BU each had a six-minute slot to showcase their work. I love this reading format, which is like a literary taster menu of voice, style, and genre. For my turn, I chose an excerpt from my short story The Sugar Cane Sea, which comes out later this year in the Not All Monsters anthology by Strangehouse Books.
On Sunday I caught one last panel, Law & Justice in Speculative Fiction, with Leigh Perry, Kenneth Schneyer, Bracken MacLeod, and Diana Rowland. The panelists discussed how concepts of law and justice work — or not! — in fictional worlds, and what were some of the common traps that writers fall into, as well as pointing out a dearth of restorative justice in fictional worlds.
After this, it was time to pack up and return to real life. Boskone was, as always, full of wonderful conversations and inspiring panels and presentations — I was sad to take off my con badge, but it’s always exciting to get home and apply that creative boost to my own writing. And of course, to start the countdown to Boskone 58!
On February 6th, I headed down to New York City for the 21st SCBWI Winter Conference — one of two national events organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It had been a while since I’d been to the national conference — since 2014 to be precise — and I was looking forward to seeing the changes.
I arrived early, as the New England team (including myself and my regional conference co-director Casey Robinson) had a meeting on Friday morning. Business attended to, I escaped for a couple of hours to meet a friend from Brazil for a visit to the Met. Oh, important detail: my friend is a tour guide, so I had an amazing personalized glimpse at the museum’s permanent collection. If you’ve never been to the Met before, I thoroughly recommend this ‘taster’ version, where you get to sample a little from several different rooms and wings. After a post-museum lunch, it was time to head back to the hotel and relax with friends before getting ready for the Golden Kite Awards at night.
“Yeah… I’m so done with this!”
Watching the awards ceremony on Friday evening was definitely one of my personal highlights (and not just because of the strawberries and champagne reception!). Besides opening words from Kwame Alexander, who reminded us that “in the end, we answer for the children, to the children”, and James Patterson, who urged the gatekeepers in the room not to get in the way of kids reading for pleasure, we heard moving acceptance speeches from the award recipients, challenging us all to strive for more in our own work. Find a full list of the Golden Kite awards at: https://www.scbwi.org/announcing-the-golden-kite-and-sid-fleischman-winners/
Saturday began with a great keynote by author Kate Messner, centering on wonder and curiosity, and setting the tone nicely for the conference. This was followed by two workshop intensives that took place throughout the day. My first was on writing genre fiction, with Tor editor Melissa Frain. We talked through the challenges of worldbuilding and the subsequent perils of info-dumping, and then she walked us through an interesting first pages exercise.
I was particularly inspired by my afternoon intensive with agent Chelsea Eberly, who talked us through identifying our author brand. She broke this down into a number of key aspects, among which were to root our work in authenticity (what makes you YOU?) and to identify and focus on our strengths (where do you shine?).
The day’s programming concluded with a heartwarming keynote address by Jerry Pinkney, who talked us through his journey as an artist, starting from his earliest place of inspiration: his father’s basement workshop. Later, the evening centered around the traditional networking dinner, with regional tables set up so attendees could meet and mingle with others from their area, if they so desired. I lingered a while afterwards, chatting to friends (old and new!), but soon called it a night.
Sunday brought my last intensive session, with Harper Collins editor Tiara Kittrell. Tiara talked us through the key elements of a variety of genres, and shared tips on how to successfully blur the lines between them to create fresh ways to tell stories. I had to leave straight after, and was sorry to miss what I’ve heard was a wonderful final keynote with author Derrick Barnes, but I still carried home a head and notebook full of new ideas and inspiration to fuel my writing work. All in all, it was a fantastic, exhausting, amazing weekend, and I’m glad I decided to return to the New York conference after such a long break!
It’s February tomorrow, and February brings ALL THE CONS. Or, well, two at least.
I’ll be in NYC next weekend for the SCBWI Winter Conference, which runs from February 7-9. I’m not part of any official programming, but will be wearing my ‘NESCBWI Regional Conference Co-Director’ hat (not literally. I own no fancy conference hats, alas), so come and find me if you want to talk about all things books, writing, and kid lit, or just to hang out and have a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. Hit me up on Twitter! @jspinkmills
From February 14-16 I’ll be in Boston for my yearly pilgrimage to Boskone. I’ll be on three program items, which leaves me plenty of time to catch up with people and make new friends. Planning to go to Boskone for the first time? Already a regular but we haven’t met yet? Come and find me — let’s chat!
Besides hanging around the lobby bar or attending other people’s panels, here’s where you can find me at Boskone:
Blood-Curdling Science Fiction
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Marina 2
Where does the thin (red) line between science fiction and horror lie? Why does science fiction horror fascinate us so much? What is it about horror in SF that is so absolutely terrifying? What examples do we have of science fiction that will make your blood run cold? And is it getting harder to make SF fiction that is truly scary?
Errick Nunnally (Moderator), Juliana Spink Mills, Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kaufmann, Darrell Schweitzer
Books That Get Kids Reading!
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor II
Hundreds of new children’s books are published every year. Yet recommended reading lists still include the same old children’s classics, with only a few new titles. Our panelists share some of their favorite new children’s books and authors from recent years that should be added to the lists.
Juliana Spink Mills (Moderator), Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary), Julia Rios, Adi Rule, Trisha J. Wooldridge
Broad Universe Group Reading
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 20:00 – 21:20, Griffin
Join members of Broad Universe — a nonprofit association dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and promoting female authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror — as they read tidbits of works and works in progress. Readers will include LJ Cohen, Marianna Martin, Roberta Rogow, Juliana Spink Mills, and Trisha J. Wooldridge. Moderated by Elaine Isaak.
I’m stuck at the moment on a passion project. I have other things I could be — should be — working on. Like revising the YA novel I wrote over a year ago. Or finally getting around to finishing Star Blade, the last part of my Blade Hunt Chronicles trilogy. But over and over, I find myself drawn back to the fantasy work-in-progress I’ve been obsessing over for the past year or so.
Sometimes, stories arrive clear-cut and blazingly obvious. We can see where we have to go and how to get there, and the characters are set from the start. There will be ups and downs in the writing — there always are — but these are stories that almost lead us by the hand. They’ll need revisions, and edits, and sometimes a full rewrite or two, but their general structure is there from the very beginning.
Other times, there are stories that are nebulous. More gut feeling than sign-posted path. More essence than solid shape. We want — need — to tell them, but it’s hard when we don’t know exactly what form the telling should take. This is one of those stories. I can almost see it, but not quite. It’s been through a full draft and a partial rewrite, besides a one-chapter experiment that just didn’t work at all. Each of these ‘takes’ has been different, with only the bare bones of worldbuilding and characters in common. And now I have an idea for an entirely new version. Part of me thinks that I’m chasing moonbeams, and that this story either isn’t really mine, or that I’m not yet ready for it. But the rest of me just can’t let it go.
I think all writers have a story like this in their past, or perhaps waiting for them to stumble upon it in the future. One that grabs us by the heart and whisper-screams ‘look at me’, that teases and begs and demands to be told. One that just won’t go down easy on the page until we’ve ripped it to pieces to find exactly what part of it is actually ours to claim. This one, this frustrating, enticing, beautiful little tale? I’ll get it written, eventually. I just need to allow myself time, I think, to dig through all the images and ideas and find my story.
2019 is almost over, but hey! I get a whole new year tomorrow, brand new and sparkling with promise. (At least, I think that shiny stuff is promise. It could just be glitter. Not gonna lie, there’s a lot of leftover Christmas glitter lying around. And pine needles. Especially pine needles!)
Before moving forward, here’s a quick look at 2019…
The first draft of a fantasy novel written, which I then decided to rewrite completely; I’m now a third of the way through the rewrite.
Two short stories published in anthologies; another sold but only coming out in 2020.
Two Cons as panelist and one doing a reading (Boskone in Boston, Worldcon in Dublin, and Eurocon in Belfast).
An international book launch! We released our collaborative women’s sci fi anthology DISTAFF during Eurocon in Belfast. There were cupcakes and robot chocolates…
Attended the New England SCBWI conference and the NESCBWI ENCORE event.
I passed on organization of our local SCBWI meet and greets but took on a new role as co-director of the 2020 and 2021 regional conferences!
Con badge and con nails
Favorite books this year include Holly Black’s fabulous Folk of the Air series, S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races, Peter McLean’s excellent Priest of Bones, and Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye graphic novels.
Some of the movies I loved were Captain Marvel and Charlie’s Angels. Shazam was a delightful surprise — lots of fun and one of the best found families I’ve seen in a while. The Rise of Skywalker was a good and satisfying conclusion to Star Wars. As for Endgame, no comment. I’m still in mourning!
TV shows! I finally caught up on the Netflix Marvel shows, and the last season of Daredevil was truly excellent. Derry Girls is fabulous and really good fun; thanks to my daughter for introducing it! We binged The Umbrella Academy as a family and thoroughly enjoyed it (great soundtrack). Other faves were Good Omens and Carnival Row, which I’m almost done with. And the CW end of year Arrowverse crossover has been a blast, with tons of fun cameos. Oh, if you like cooking shows, please go and watch Jon Favreau’s The Chef Show on Netflix! (I don’t even watch cooking shows and I love this one. I think my fave episodes so far have been Skywalker Ranch and the oyster farm…)
Personal bits and pieces
Our rescue pup Misty is now a year and a half, and tons of trouble but also absolutely adorable.
We went on a family trip to Washington DC in spring — my first time there. We arrived at peak cherry blossom time, beautiful!
Summer took me to Ireland for two weeks on my own to meet writing friends, attend a couple of conferences, and do a bit of sightseeing on the side.
We also had summer visits from my mum and my mother-in-law, always a good excuse to get out and do some local touristing.
I now have a child with a driver’s license… Scary stuff!!
We had a French exchange student come to stay for two weeks, a great experience for all of us.
I’ve joined a gym, am trying to eat more healthily, and am learning to do divination with crystals (a good meditation tool!) — investing in a bit of TLC for both body and soul.
Coming in 2020
In February, I’ll be at the NYC SCBWI Winter Conference and at Boskone, checking in with both my kid lit friends and the SF/F community. In May it’ll be time for the NESCBWI regional conference, which I’m helping to organize this year!
The Not All Monsters anthology from Strangehouse Books arrives sometime in autumn, containing my short story The Sugar Cane Sea.
Writing, writing, writing. Goals for 2020! I have a short story I’m rather pleased with that I’m polishing up to submit soon. I plan to finish the rewrite of my fantasy novel and get it submission-ready. I also plan to finish revising the SF YA I wrote in 2018, and get back to my stalled draft of Star Blade. Busy, busy!
I’d seen them in magazine spreads and lifestyle blogs: those glorious pin-board displays in home offices and studios, with ideas and inspiration for work in progress or projects soon to unfold. Vision boards — a beautiful and tantalizing glimpse into a writer or artist’s imagination. I’d always dismissed them for myself, though. I don’t have an office with a vast expanse of pristine cork ready to be filled; in fact, I don’t even have an office at all, or a desk (I work quite happily at the kitchen table).
Then, one day, my critique group decided to gather for a vision board exercise. We all brought magazine, glue, pens, and poster board. We flipped through countless pages, snipping and sharing, and marveling at some of the strange and wonderful things we found. It was a great afternoon. And… something interesting happened. I thought I had my writing project at the time all mapped out in my head. But a random picture of a Russian nesting doll, which had nothing to do with my novel, jumped out at me. I ended up incorporating it, making my work just that little bit richer.
I went home and shoved the vision board in a drawer. It had been fun and illuminating, but ultimately I had no place to display a big piece of poster board, so away it went. I moved onto Pinterest — far more practical for being virtual, I thought. And yes, Pinterest is great for finding images of things already in your head: what do the cliffs in my imaginary seaside town look like? What’s the perfect shade of violet for the rivers on my alien planet? What sort of wolf would my main character transform into? I carefully crafted online boards for all of my projects. I even downloaded a vison board app (PicCollage — my daughter’s recommendation) to prettily arrange my finds and set them as my desktop.
But Pinterest had a drawback. It was fun to forage for images that fit my plot and characters, but it lacked a certain serendipity. It wasn’t quite as inspiring as I’d hoped it would be. Something was lacking.
Let’s fast-forward a couple of years. Carrie Firestone, my critique partner who had led us in the first vision board exercise, offered to give a talk on the subject to a few local writers. She had piles of magazines and set us all to searching and snipping. I felt the spark: this was it! This was what was lacking in my online image searches! That moment of connection, when you find the perfect image, the one you had no idea you were looking for! My story, which had stalled because it felt as if the plot was lacking something, suddenly looked all shiny and new. I had found the missing elements, the ones I didn’t even know were missing, and now I could visualize what I had to do to make it all work.
I didn’t paste the images onto a board this time; I’d learned my lesson. I don’t personally have the space. So the images are in my story folder, along with all my worldbuilding notes and plot documents. If you have room for it, then have fun! Pin it all up and build your tale visually around you. And if not, don’t let it stop you from a little hard copy search in magazines and other places. You can use a folder, or if you prefer found objects as inspiration, you can set them up on a windowsill or store them in a project box. Whatever works for you.
If you’ve never tried this exercise, or have never ventured outside Pinterest or a Google image search, I thoroughly recommend it. The new year is almost here, and this is the perfect time to take a moment to reflect on your work and look for some new ideas. You never know what might turn up to enrich your vision!
Stephen Palmer is the author of fifteen novels, dabbling in a variety of genres from science fiction to slipstream, including steampunk, alternate history, and fantasy. He tells tales of the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-might-yet-be. His gripping and thought-provoking prose is both wildly creative and chillingly conceivable.
In the Factory Girl trilogy, Stephen Palmer brings us a meticulously constructed clockpunk alt-Edwardian world, full of bustling automata and a myriad of other tiny details. The story of Kora and Roka, different personalities of the same young woman, the ‘girl with two souls’, sweeps us along from England to Africa and back again in an intricate plot that centers on themes of identity and society.
The Girl With Two Souls, The Girl With One Friend, and The Girl With No Soul will be released today and throughout December 2019 in brand-new editions from Infinity Plus Press.
Hi Stephen, thanks for joining me on the blog. Congratulations on the release of the new editions of the Factory Girl trilogy! Could you tell me a little about the cover changes?
The trilogy got some good reviews, which I and Keith Brooke – my outstanding editor, and the man behind Infinity Plus Books – were pleased with. But afterwards I felt it could maybe do more. Last year I met Tom and Nimue Brown at the Asylum Steampunk weekend, and on the Saturday I got to see more of Tom’s artwork. Tom has a unique style of creating images, which I immediately fell for. Nimue hand colours the art for their graphic novels – they are a fantastically talented pair. With both of them being fans of the trilogy (Nimue reviewed it for her Druidlife blog), it occurred to me that the trilogy could benefit from being re-jacketed. I floated the idea to Keith, and he agreed. In due course the arrangement was made with Tom and Nimue. I saw them in Stroud a few months ago, and we had an enjoyable chat in a pub. Lovely couple.
After a while I sent Tom a few descriptions and other suggestions, and he came up with the images this year, all three of which we loved.Then it was a matter of firing up Photoshop to create the cover designs.
Identity is a key theme in the Factory Girl trilogy, as indeed with many of your other works, such as the excellent Beautiful Intelligence. What is it about this theme that fascinates you?
That’s a good question, a wise question. I’m going to have to think a bit about it. [Thinks for a few days…] Well, perhaps it’s because the main direction of my thinking life is the relationship between human beings and the real world, a relationship which, in my own life, has been conveyed by understanding. Understanding, for me, is the most fundamental aspect of individual and social life. It’s what motivates the majority of my life anyway. I think Kora’s need to understand the circumstances of her life is based in part on my own drive for meaning.
Human beings have two main ways to create meaning, including the meaning of other people, which is identity. We can create it ourselves from what we are told, or we can find it out from first principles. I would characterise the former as narcissistic and the latter as realistic. The former says: this is what I believe regardless of the real world. The latter says: I’ll test the real world, see what it tells me, then make a decision based on that. Most people form their identity from a blend of the two. They’ll be born and brought up in a particular culture, which they’ll adopt as the norm. But a lot of people will move on from that. I think this is why women in general are a better representation of humanity than men. Men take so much on faith. Women tend to communicate more, and better, which allows them to see themselves from other perspectives; and that’s a key to personal growth, I think, including for identity.
In Beautiful Intelligence this aspect of social life is more generally presented. Leonora is going for the individual, faith-based option via her AI, while Manfred decides to see what the BIs will tell him. His first scene, the cutting of the bonds between the nine BIs, is his answer to his thought process. Leonora by contrast has no idea what Zeug will do because she has imposed her own ideas onto it.
A lot of my work is about this split in human meaning and its relationship with identity. Even in my debut, Memory Seed, the priestesses of the Goddess realise at the end of the novel that their lives have been lived regardless of what the world was telling them. The story ‘First Temple’ in my recent collection Tales From The Spired Inn tells the same story in civic life. We cannot be saved. We have to save ourselves.
Your main protagonist is actually two characters in one: Kora and her ‘other soul’, Roka. What inspired her creation? Did you find you had to do a lot of research into subjects such as dissociative identity disorder to pull off this ambitious character?
About a year before I put the trilogy together I had an idea for a book title – The Girl With Two Souls. I don’t know why this title popped into my mind, unless it somehow represented ideas which interest me, and which are the philosophical theme of the trilogy: do human beings or other creatures and creations have a soul or spirit? Anyway, I wrote it down for future reference, as it seemed a particularly intriguing title for a novel. The year after, that title and the whole thematic template for the trilogy merged and came out in a single two hour splurge. I knew Kora was the girl with two souls, I knew she had one black African parent and one white British parent, and I knew she would alternate between Kora and some other character. Now, the strange thing is, this alternation of identity has been recorded in reality; there are some individuals with DID who alternate regularly, day by day. I was so astonished to read this that I remembered it much later, when it became the central aspect of Kora’s mental condition.
I did do a little research, but not much – just enough to make the grounding plausible. There are aspects of Kora which are my own invention, while other aspects are psychologically grounded. Also, I wanted to emphasise that the Edwardian society surrounding Kora would look at her from a Christian perspective, i.e. that she did have two souls within. There was very little understanding of mental conditions in those days – a theme of my WW1 novel Tommy Catkins. Freud, for instance, had in 1910 only been published for a couple of decades. So Kora is psychologically grounded, but also a person of my imagination.
I think this might be a good point to mention an aspect of the trilogy which some readers found perplexing, and that is the “second novel” which intertwines with the main one. This is Amy’s Garden by Reverend Carolus Dodgson. I can tell you that right from that opening splurge of ideas I knew Amy’s Garden had to be a central element of the trilogy. It is of course an alternate version of Alice In Wonderland – I’ve always loved that book, like millions of others. So I re-wrote it, using Dodgson’s love of logic in my own particular way, asking and answering questions about consciousness and the human condition. Amy’s Garden is a book Kora cannot live without. As she declares much later, it is her heart. I did everything I could to encapsulate in the smallest possible amount of prose, and as vividly as possible, ten central aspects of consciousness and the human condition: that is what Amy’s Garden is, over twelve brief chapters. Kora, lacking a steady identity, grasps at a deep level that the book speaks to her, which is why she carries it in her pocket and is never parted from it. And in Amy’s Garden itself I played with a kind of conceptual echo, since Amy herself carries a book in her pocket…
By the way, in Alice In Wonderland, Alice’s sister is not named, though some believe she is called Lorna. I called her Amy, and had Alice herself appear briefly part of the way through Amy’s Garden, alongside her parents. Now, in real life back in 2013, I knew two sisters called Amy and Alice, which is where Amy’s name came from. They were students at the college where I worked! I never told them, of course…
In your blog post ‘The Unemployment Problem’ you talk about your automata. Did you go through different models for employment in your world before settling on that one, or was it clear from the start which direction you wanted to go in?
The second line in my notebook from that two hour splurge says: touchstone, steampunk. I knew right away that I wanted to write a steampunk or steampunk-influenced work. So automata were the direction to go in. I think I was also influenced by a television documentary I watched presented by Professor Simon Schaffer called ‘Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.’ This was broadcast in autumn 2013, and I remember being fascinated by it, as at the time I knew nothing about how complex automata were in historical times. I’ve watched it a couple of times since, it really is an amazing documentary.
I particularly liked the idea of automata being the slaves underpinning the British Empire, as so much of the wealth and power of that real era came from exploitation: of the working class, of people in colonial nations like India, and, in previous centuries, of actual slaves, like those taken from West African countries. Linking these automata slaves with Kora’s father and his Factory seemed the perfect connection to me, and made for some great plot twists!
The Clockwork Garden is amazing! How did the idea for this come about? And additionally, what is your personal favorite Factory Girl location?
How strange that you should mention the Clockwork Garden in that way! It so happens I can remember exactly how it came about – no coincidence, maybe. I was at the day job, out for a lunchtime stroll – this would be autumn 2013 – and was walking back to the college through a place in my home town of Shrewsbury called the Quarry, which is basically an old sandstone quarry now converted into a beautiful green park adjacent to the River Severn. By this time I was putting together all the details for the novel, prior to writing the first volume December 2013 – January 2014. As I looked out at the trees and bushes I had a sudden mental image of them all made in metal. From that single thought came the whole idea of the Clockwork Garden. I remember being pretty excited about this idea – I wrote it down in my notebook as soon as I got back, then, later, made it more sophisticated to include clues about the Factory and other details. I love it when inspiration strikes in this way. As I’ve written on my blog and at SFF Chronicles, I think authors should always listen to their subconscious. It’s where a lot of the important work happens.
I think my favourite location is probably Dr Spellman’s house in Sheffield. It was very important to me because it was the first safe location for Kora after she was sprung out of Bedlam Mental Hospital. My version of Bedlam was inspired by an actual mental hospital, you see, and Dr Spellman’s house is topographically almost identical to a house I know. Because in those first two chapters you don’t know for sure that Dr Spellman is a good man, I intuitively hit upon the idea of using a house I have fond memories of. The reader of course wouldn’t be aware of any of this, but it was important to me; it affected the tone of my writing. I wanted to write from a position of knowing deep down that Kora was safe, not in peril as she was inside Bedlam. This all sounds a bit odd, I know, but when I created the template for the trilogy it all came out of my subconscious in one go, which told me that the whole thing was ready formed in there and just waiting for the right moment to emerge. So it felt right that Dr Spellman’s house should link to my own memories in some way, giving it extra depth and an aura of safety. From that house, Kora is able to explore. It gives her a solid foundation. There’s a scene at the beginning where Dr Spellman is waiting for Roka, and he is sitting half asleep at the top of a staircase; that’s directly out of my own visual memories of this house.
You also have a new novel on the way, set in the Factory Girl world. Could you tell us a bit about The Conscientious Objector?
After writing the third volume of the trilogy I had a year off, as I’d done a lot of work, felt exhausted, and needed a rest. But, as I rested, I realised Erasmus Darwin had a tale yet to tell, so in December 2015 I began The Conscientious Objector, which takes place in 1914 – 1915 and tells of Erasmus’ reaction to the outbreak of what even then was called the Great War (i.e. World War 1). Erasmus of course loathes physical combat, as evinced by his reaction to being given a pistol by his Uncle Frank when Frank’s house is under siege in The Girl With One Friend. I realised that in WW1 he would by inclination be a pacifist, and perhaps even a conscientious objector, though that would be a very dangerous position for him to take. Conchies, as they were known, could be shot by firing squad. Many were. (My subsequent WW1 novel Tommy Catkins went deeper into this soldiers’ dilemma.)
I wanted Erasmus to have a female companion, so the other main character is Claudia Cooper, a strange woman of very mysterious origin. As I thought about these two characters and their relationship I decided to use the notion of early childhood memory, focusing on that point when we have our first recallable memories – usually around the age of three or four – but for Claudia blurring them into something indistinguishable from fantasy. As a consequence, much of the novel is Claudia and Erasmus delving deep into her origin via a most extraordinary special mission given to them by the British generals on the Western Front. The novel ends with a revelation which, of course, I couldn’t possibly divulge here, but which presents both Claudia and Erasmus with a life-threatening situation the like of which neither has ever encountered.
This novel, like the trilogy, also has a second book intertwined with it, which I wrote shortly after completing Amy’s Garden. It is Amy’s Adventures In Narkissos, a much darker work, as is suggested by the scene in The Girl With Two Souls where Kora, via the Amy doll, asks a question about it, to her immediate shame. This second Reverend Carolus Dodgson book details more of Amy’s world, asking questions of its reader about the role of selfishness (or more accurately narcissism) in their lives.
Do you have plans for more work in this setting?
No. It’s done and dusted. I’m terribly restless creatively, and I have two other alternate history fantasy/steampunk works finished or in preparation. But I do feel great warmth towards the Factory Girl trilogy, and I feel very lucky that Keith published it. He’s been a tremendous support to me. Many thanks for asking these great questions Juliana, I had fun answering them!
And thank you, Stephen, for sharing your insights on your work!
Find Stephen’s work on Amazon (see links above); other buying options including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords available on the Infinity Plus website.
All writers at any stage — from beginner wordsmith to seasoned pro — can benefit from a support network to help take their work to a whole other level. If you are relatively new to the writing game, you may have heard some or all of these terms and wondered what they are. I know I did, once upon a time! So here’s a breakdown of what, exactly, a critique partner, beta, or editor does, and how you can acquire your very own…
This should be the very first step you take: find other writers who are willing to critique a sample of your work (say, a chapter), usually in return for you taking a look at their own work. Learning to handle critiques is crucial, not only because it can help you spot weaknesses in your writing that you may not be aware of, but also because eventually, if you are published traditionally, you will most likely work with an editor and will need to learn to accept feedback as part of the process in creating an amazing book.
Critiquing comes in different shapes and sizes. There are forums where you can post a sample for feedback, with the understanding that whoever is willing will reply, and that you will critique other samples in turn. For writers of sci fi and fantasy, the SFFChronicles.com is a good place to start, with an active critiques board. Other forums with critique sections include Absolute Write and the SCBWI Blueboard (the last is specifically for kid lit). If you find someone you work well with, you might pair up and work out some form of private exchange, meeting either in person or emailing work back and forth. A trusted critique partner, with a rapport built up over time, is worth gold.
Many people are happy to stick with just the one or two critique partners, working on a one-to-one basis. However, I find I like having a slightly larger pool of peers giving me feedback — a critique group (or writing group). This is exactly what it sounds like; a group of writers who get together in person or virtually to give each other feedback on their work. I belong to two. My local group, the Pandas, connected back in 2014 and focuses on YA and Middle Grade fiction. My online group, the Tri-Angels, has also been ‘meeting’ for a few years; we focus on Fantasy, and email submissions and critiques to each other.
How did I meet my critique partners? My local group met at a SCBWI writing conference. My online one met on the previously mentioned SFFChronicles forum. How can you meet your own? Connect to local, regional, and international writing organizations. Join forums. Go to writing events and meet ups. Put yourself out there, and be willing to do the work, since most groups/partnerships work on a reciprocity system.
Critique partners are an important first step in improving your work, and not just for beginner writers. Plenty of multi-published authors swear by their writing groups, who often serve as the very first pair of fresh eyes upon a new project.
Yeah, it’s a weird term, I know. Wikipedia defines it as ‘an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work’. Beta reading is an offshoot of critiquing: usually a beta reader will look at a full draft, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, as opposed to the smaller bite-sized submissions a critique partner/group will look at. This means that a beta reader’s feedback will be less about the details, due to sheer size of work they have to read, and more about the whole. Does it flow well? Are there plot holes, or character arc issues? And other things like that.
Beta readers might be people from your critique group, though personally I think it helps to have someone unfamiliar with your work look at it too, if possible. Most of my betas are writing friends whose work I’ve also read in turn, or with whom I have an established relationship as peers. A beta reader is someone you can trust to give you that big picture feedback.
In addition, you might have specific betas for certain things. Author Jo Zebedee, for instance, has a beta reader who revises her military jargon and battle scenes in her space opera novels. I have a beta who checked all the sword fighting in my Blade Hunt books. If there’s something in your work you’re not entirely familiar with, it’s helpful to have an expert at hand.
Unlike critique partners and beta readers, who are usually peers and work on a reciprocity basis, editors are always professionals, and unless you have a good friend who is an editor and offers to help out for free, you can and should expect to pay for this sort of service. That said, there are different types of editor. The following are the two main ones, from a writer’s perspective.
Developmental editors are people who will do the sort of thing a beta reader does, but coming from a pro point of view. They can be an absolute blessing to help guide a tricky or stuck manuscript out of the mud and back on firm ground, pointing out the weak spots and guiding you through revising your novel. This sort of advice can be pricey, but might be a worthwhile investment if you’ve exhausted peer options, and can’t figure out how to deal with your manuscript. If you sign a publishing contract with a traditional press, they will usually pay for an editor to work with you and make your manuscript as shiny as possible. If you are self-publishing, you might consider this option as part of making sure your work is as professional as it can be before you publish. You can find lists of editors online, or ask friends for recommendations.
Copyeditors should be the absolute last step in the first-draft-to-book journey, and they focus mainly on spelling, grammar, consistency, continuity, and other details of an otherwise polished and completed work. If you plan to query agents or publishers, DO NOT pay to have your work copyedited. It’s not worth it, really. You will be asked to revise, most likely, and then the publisher will pay for this part of the process themselves. Even if you’ve already had it done. So, who should hire a copyeditor? Pretty much only writers planning on self-publishing. For indie authors, I honestly think that this is a must. You can skip the developmental editor if you have good critique partners or beta readers, but if you want to publish a professional piece of work, you should invest in a good copyeditor. Again, there are plenty of online recommendations, or hit up your friends for help. (For more on copyediting vs. developmental editing, have a look at my blog interview from 2015.)
I hope this not-so-brief post helps, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. Coming next: what critique or beta feedback actually looks like, and how to critique someone’s work in a positive and productive manner.