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…

Paring Back

Reminder to self…

It’s been a strange and busy few weeks since my last blog post. First, my laptop was out of commission for a solid fortnight, after an OS update went very wrong. Then, there was all the fuss in setting things back up the way I like them, which included running a search-and-rescue for lost files, photos, and emails. (Yes, I had backups of most things. But there’s still time spent finding and replacing everything.)

Personal life has also been busy. Anxiety about COVID vaccine appointments, trying to make college decisions with my son, and ramping up driving practice, as my daughter takes her test this week. Lots of distractions and minor worries, alongside the normal, usual, everyday cares and concerns.

Surprisingly, to me at least, I’ve managed to keep up my writing routine through all of this. When my laptop froze, I was luckily in a place where I needed a break from revising my sci fi novel to think a few plotlines over. I spent time letting my mind wander and writing poetry — a nice breather after many months of solid prose. And then, as soon as things were up and running again, I was back into my manuscript.

Of course, some things have to give. There are only so many of those darn pesky balls a person can juggle at once. I haven’t touched my blog in forever, and I took a semi-hiatus (for a while) from social media. I didn’t read much, either. But I did spend a lot of time simply breathing and existing; sometimes, that’s all we have mental space for, and that’s okay.

Paring back when life ramps up is fine. It’s necessary. And there’s no formula to it: sometimes the writing gets paused, sometimes it’s other activities. AND THAT’S OKAY. And that’s all I want to say, really. It’s okay.

Boskone 58 Round-up

Agent secrets panel

My first Boskone — in fact, my first ever SF/F Con — was in 2015. I’ve been back every year, faithfully checking into the Waterfront Westin in Boston each February for another weekend of panels, readings, and excellent conversation with new and old friends.

The 2020 Boskone took place just before the world locked down due to COVID-19. The 2021 edition wasn’t quite as lucky, but the New England Science Fiction Association, who organize the convention, rallied round and faced the challenge beautifully to produce a well-planned three-day virtual event.

With pared down and yet still extensive programming, there were plenty of interesting things taking place over the weekend, with the added bonus of recorded panels so attendees could catch up later. There was also a dedicated social Zoom open all day to give us a little of that feeling of chatting to people in hallways, in the con suite, and in the lobby lounge area. Was it the same as in-person? Of course not, but it was a good solution for a hard situation, and the virtual con had the advantage of broadening event access for those who might not otherwise be able to attend.

Some of my personal highlights from the weekend:

  • The Friday night reading by Paul Tremblay and Joe Hill was fabulous, and it was great getting to hear them chat about horror and writing.
  • The Agents: Revealing the secrets panel with Mur Lafferty, Michael Stearns, Joshua Bilmes, and Sara Megibow had good advice, such as: when vetting potential agents, remember there are bad agents, but there are also good agents who might be bad for you.
  • Supernatural Sleuthing with Dana Cameron, Leigh Perry, Nancy Holder, Bracken MacLeod, and David McDonald was a blast and had some of my favorite Boskone regulars on it. Advice included: a mystery needs to be solved. A mysterious novel just needs to create atmosphere. It’s all about audience expectations and author promise
  • The Guest of Honor interview, where Joe Abercrombie told Joe Hill that, “I like characters that are neither heroes not villains, but something in between”.
  • I loved the panel on The Representation of LGBTQ+ in Popular Culture, with Gillian Daniels, John Chu, Julia Rios, Jennifer Williams, and Sara Megibow — they could have done with double the time! One point made over and over was that ‘good representation’ shouldn’t mean just positive — characters should be allowed to be messy, nuanced, etc. In other words, realistic vs ‘good’.
  • GoH Joe Abercrombie joined Rebecca Roanhorse, Marie Brennan, Aleron Kong, and Bob Kuhn to talk about The Gritty Underbelly of Fantasy. A lot of the discussion centered on ‘grimdark’ being a reaction to the good/bad simplicity of classic fantasy.
  • A discussion on Post-Pandemic SFF Conventions, with Brenda Noiseux, Gerald L. Coleman, Steven Silver, Priscilla Olson, and Marcin Klack brought up a lot of interesting points, such as the current situation being the jumping-off point for future hybrid events which include virtual aspects so as to be accessible and inclusive for those who would not normally be able to attend due to financial, physical, and geographical constraints, among others.

Some thoughts:

  • Virtual con burn-out is just as much a thing as in-person event exhaustion. It’s tiring staring at a screen, and it’s tough to schedule watching time around things going on at home. Recordings helped with this, but screen fatigue definitely puts limitations on watching.
  • Despite this, I got a lot out of the panels I watched, and with the recorded events there was the bonus of being able to pause to take notes.
  • The chat feature during panels was for the most part lively and fun, and no unpleasant incidents occurred during the events I watched.
  • One nice aspect of having webinars routed through Grenadine was that it allowed us to see who was ‘in the room’ before the webinars started. It was nice being able to spot people I knew!
  • I wish I’d planned times to meet up with friends in the social rooms! I did drop in and look around, but it was the equivalent of randomly walking through the con suite to see if anyone I knew was there…
  • This was a huge undertaking and seemed overall to run very smoothly. Well done NESFA for another successful Boskone!

Left: Supernatural Sleuthing panel; Right: Joe Abercrombie and Joe Hill at GoH interview

Have Book, Will Read #25

It’s prime reading time, with snow piled up outside my window and the lure of warm blankets and an equally warm dog to cuddle. After the past year, where my book habits trended more to comfort than new material, it’s been nice getting back to digging away at my to-read list. Hopefully I’ll manage to keep up the momentum!

Recent Reads: Romance, magic, and all that jazz

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough has been sitting on my shelf for a really long time. I’m actually embarrassed by how long it took me to get around to reading it. I’m so glad I finally did! This is a gem of a book, at the same time heart-warming and heart-wrenching. I’m not usually one for crying when I read, but this one managed to make me both smile and shed a few tears.

Brockenbrough’s beautifully written tale is set in 1937, where the immortals Love and Death have gathered for one more round of their eternal game. Their chosen players? Flora, an African American teenager who sings in her family jazz club for a living but dreams of setting world records as an airplane pilot, and seventeen-year-old Henry, a white boy whose path in life has been set in stone by the foster family he lives with, regardless of his love for music. The story switches between four points of view — the unwitting players and the two immortals —plunging us right into the heart of post-Prohibition Seattle.

I can’t talk about Game without mentioning another recent read, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E. Schwab. Superficially, both books have a lot in common. They both feature immortal beings who play with the humans who fascinate them. They both have ties to the past, though while Game is anchored in the 1930s, Addie skips and jumps through recent centuries, pausing at key moments of history. They both feature love stories, and boys named Henry. But they are also very different books.

While the first one remains, for the most part, tight and focused, Schwab’s book is a sprawling, meandering beauty, dipping in and out of the past as an embroidery needle dives into a vast tapestry. It tells the tale of Addie LaRue, a young French countrywoman from the early 1700s who strikes a bargain with an unnamed power and becomes immortal, yet cursed to always be forgotten. Until she meets, in modern times, a young man who remembers her. Schwab’s prose is, as always, that perfect mixture of lush and sparse, and this was a delight to read.

Forged, the latest title in Benedict Jacka’s urban fantasy series, continues leading Alex Verus down the difficult path he’s been walking for a while now. Hunted by both light and dark mages, and with his girlfriend Anne losing herself to the dangerous entity she’s bonded to, Alex is running out of allies and options if he wants to save himself, his friends, and — most of all — Anne.

I’ve really enjoyed this series, which has only one more book yet to come. It’s been an interesting ride, starting out in Book 1 (Fated) with the near-powerless (in comparison to other mages) diviner Alex and watching him over time carve that power out for himself, while making some rather questionable choices in order to do so. Alex has become very much a grey character, which I honestly kind of love. We are all the heroes of our own stories, but Alex has come to a point in his saga where he’s being forced to take a good hard look and decide if he’s actually a hero, or if he’s becoming what he most feared: a dark mage like his former Master, Richard Drakh.

Now Reading: Teen hero shenanigans

I’ve been watching the Young Justice animated series and, after reading up on the characters, I grew curious about the original comic book run that inspired the TV reboot. I’d read that, despite using some of the same storylines, the TV show has very little else in common with the comics, and now that I’ve been dipping into the Young Justice world, I absolutely agree.

I devoured Young Justice Books 1-4 in a few breathless days and am now finishing up Book 5. While the TV show centers on the first Robin, Dick Grayson, the comics focus on Robin number 3, Tim Drake. The original core three — Robin, Impulse, and Superboy — soon find their team expanding with the addition of Wonder Girl, Arrowette, Secret and, later on, Empress (with Lil’ Lobo as an unofficial member). Their adventures lead us on one wild ride after another, and the books are full of absolute laugh-out-loud moments. I can honestly say I’ve never used the word ‘zany’ in a review before, but that description fits Young Justice perfectly. Delightful.

(And yes, unfortunately I had to read YJ on my phone, as my library’s reading app doesn’t work on my laptop or iPad. Thank goodness for smartphone zoom features!)

To Read: Darkness rising

I’ve been on a library rampage lately and that means I’ve got two more books waiting to be read before their due dates roll around. The first is Paul Cornell’s London Falling, the opening title of his Shadow Police series. I love a good supernatural investigation book, and have heard good things about Cornell’s work, so I’m looking forward to it!

The other one is Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, which I picked up after a post on Tor.com sparked my interest in this award-winning science fantasy novel about necromancy and cut-throat politics. This is the first book in the Locked Tomb trilogy, and I’ve seen it mentioned so many times I figured it was about time I checked it out.

Here’s to hoping you all have some good books set aside to get you through winter (or summer, for those below the equator!). With the current sub-freezing temps in Connecticut, and more snow than anyone except ski resorts could possibly want, I personally need ALL THE BOOKS. Happy reading to all!

Recurring Themes in Writing

Your writing may vary wildly in style and scope. You may find yourself jumping genres or target audience, veering between contemporary and sci fi, or middle grade and adult. But if you take a moment to stop and have a good look at your writing projects—all of them, published or unpublished, polished or abandoned—you’ll most likely find a common thread. A theme (or two, or three), winding through all of those different projects and connecting them back to you, heart and soul.

About a month ago, I tweeted the following:

It was a jokey post, obviously, but there was a grain of truth in there, nevertheless. Who am I? Pretty much everything I’ve ever written contains something about identity and our place in the world. It could be literal, like in my YA novel Heart Blade, where my main protagonist has no memory of her previous life and is trying to find out where she fits into her new one. It could be a more subtle approach, such as in my short story The Sugar Cane Sea (Not All Monsters anthology, Strangehouse Books), where the main character is on the run from her abusive and demonic husband, and won’t be able to make a life of her own until she’s free.

Identity and belonging have always been recurring questions in my own life, ones that bubble up every few years but are always there, waiting under the surface. In my case, this was due to being a child of two cultures, born in one country and then, at the age of eight, moving to a different one, vastly different to the first. Of course, years later I complicated matters by moving to the USA and having a whole new set of identifiers thrown at me…

And so, even without meaning to, I find those questions echoed in my writing.

When I mention recurring themes, I’m not talking about that elusive thing called ‘author voice’. That’s something separate, which has to do with writing style more than anything. But themes in writing and author voice are, at the same time, entangled to a certain extent. Just as you can usually recognize your favorite author’s way with words (even when they cross the genre streams or write for a different market), you can probably pick out certain themes you’ve learned to associate with that author, and which emerge time and time again in their books. And often there’s a sweet spot where the author’s voice and their themes meet to create a unique brand that’s all their own.

No one has to have recurring themes in writing. But I don’t think most of us plan these things. They just happen, as our words on the page draw upon the subtleties of our innermost thoughts. Chances are, you have certain themes that crop up over and over in your own work, too. So take a moment to think back on some of your writing. Dig beneath plot and message to get at the bones of the work—the underlying themes that color the story. And if you find you have a few (or many) in common, weaving their way through your different projects? It won’t change your work, or writing style. But it just may help you come a little closer to understanding who you are—not as a writer, but as a person.

X marks the sweet spot between theme and voice

Goal Setting for Writers

We’re a couple of weeks into 2021, and by now we should all be ready to take a closer look at those enthusiastic New Year’s Eve declarations and put some thought into realistic goal planning for the year.

First of all, let me outline the difference between dreams and goals, because sometimes I think the distinction gets a little blurry. Goals are things we can control and influence, like finishing a draft of a novel, or writing a picture book manuscript every month of the year (as proposed by the 12×12 Challenge). Dreams, on the other hand, are things we wish would happen but are ultimately outside of our control. This includes ‘getting a publishing deal’ or ‘making the NYT bestseller list’. You can direct your goals towards your dreams, for example, committing to learning how to write the best agent query letter you can. But actually landing that agent? That’s a dream, not a goal.

In the Writing Excuses podcast (episode 15.05), author Victoria Schwab proposes an exercise she calls the 1-5-10: what do you want to achieve in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years? Where do you want to be? I really liked this exercise, as it helped me think about immediate goals, as well as about the changes I’d like to make in the near-future and the challenges I’d like to set for myself. On the other hand, the 10-year goal is about shaping careers, and for those who plan to be a career author (as opposed to writing that one book that haunts you and calling it a day), it’s good to take a moment to imagine where you’d like to be several years down the line.

Although I found the 1-5-10 exercise useful in terms of long-term planning, I came up with another way of organizing my personal goals that speaks more to the immediate year ahead. My oldest child is a high school senior, and in the middle of his college application process. This has been a steep learning curve for us, as non-Americans trying to navigate the US college system. One helpful exercise was dividing his applications into what we’ve heard called ‘Safety, Match, and Reach’ schools. I decided to apply that notion that to my personal writing goals.

Goals can range from tiny bite-sized amuse-bouche achievements (write 100 words a week) to an entire multi-course banquet (finish the novel you’ve been working on for 10 years!). We all need goals we know we can accomplish, because setting ourselves up to fail is a recipe for disaster (to continue the food analogies). But sometimes, we need a push, too. So, to use the Safety/Match/Reach analogy, try to come up with:

  • Safety Goals: A few achievements you can complete without having to try too hard. These will help you feel a sense of accomplishment on the hard days/weeks — and yes, we all have them! This might be something like an easy minimum word count target, a daily journal entry, or writing a small flash fiction piece every month. Having a safety goal to tick off can help when nothing else seems to be going right.
  • Match Goals: Achievements that follow your ‘usual’ pattern of production. This sort of goal keeps things moving by, for example, encouraging you to write your customary weekly average of words, or to set aside your usual amount of writing hours each month.
  • Reach Goals: Push yourself! Set one or two difficult targets — not completely impossible, but things that are definitely a challenge. If you make it, awesome! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it: these goals were always going to be a stretch.

At the end of the year, take some time to reflect on how you did, and don’t forget to count those Safety Goals, too! Being able to look back and see positive achievements, no matter how seemingly small, can make all the difference between keeping going or giving it all up. 

Here’s to a wonderful 2021 — I wish you all the best with your goals, and with your dreams too!

Starting Fresh

New year, new dreams, same old Coronavirus. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere just yet, and despite the start of vaccinations here in the USA, there’s a long road to travel before we can begin to meet up in person again. But I can’t help but feel hopeful that there is light ahead, and make plans for an amazing 2021!

Before 2020 is completely over, however, here’s a quick look at what went on in my life…

Writer things

  • Feeling the need to step away from YA for a bit led to writing my first ever adult fantasy novel. I had a blast with it! It’s now at the final revision stage, and feedback has been extremely positive.
  • I had one short story — The Sugar Cane Sea — published in the Not All Monsters anthology (Strangehouse/Rooster Republic Press), a collection of stories by women of horror. The anthology came out in limited run illustrated hardback and paperback versions in April, and in October in regular paperback and e-book versions. It’s already made the Stoker reading list!
  • Another short story has been submitted, accepted, and edited for an upcoming collaborative anthology of women fantasy authors: Femmes Fae-Tales. My story, Taste of Honey, is set here in Connecticut and is about a woman who becomes addicted to nature’s magic.
  • I took part in a roundtable interview organized by Not All Monsters editor Sara Tantlinger —see link on my press page.
  • I managed one Con as panelist and with a reading (Boskone in Boston) before the world shut down.
  • I recorded a video for the Shrewsbury Library in the UK with a short reading from Taste of Honey (see link at bottom of page).
  • I attended a number of online book and writing events and writer meet ups.
  • With all in-person events cancelled, this included our New England SCBWI conference, which we will be doing an online version of in 2021. With everything being moved forward, I’m now co-director of the 2021 and 2022 regional conferences.

Fun stuffs

  • Favorite books this year include Leigh Bardugo’s dark and moody Ninth House and the first two books in Brandon Sanderson’s riveting YA sci fi trilogy, Skyward and Starsight. I thoroughly enjoyed Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, a murder mystery set in Viking times. I’ve also been working through the Rivers of London books by Ben Aaronovitch, and am now up to date with the most recent installment in this excellent urban fantasy series.
  • A couple of movies I loved were Knives Out and Birds of Prey, both of which I missed in movie theaters but caught up with at home. It was a good year for classic musicals, too — we managed to see Jesus Christ Superstar live in Hartford a few weeks before lockdown started, and then Phantom of the Opera (hello, endless earworm loop!) during the Shows Must Go On COVID fundraiser, among others.
  • TV shows! This, of course, was the year of The Mandalorian. But there were plenty of other shows to keep us busy. Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy was overall very good, and I’m slowly making my way through three DC shows: Doom Patrol, Young Justice, and Titans, now that they’re all available on HBO. Speaking of DC, Stargirl was a fun CW release, with a great family dynamic. What We Do in the Shadows was a big hit in our house, and all four of us loved it. Britannia is absolutely bonkers, but my husband and I enjoyed both seasons and are looking forward to the next one. Queer Eye and Nadiya’s Time to Eat were probably my top reality TV feel-good options.

Personal bits and pieces

  • Lockdown meant all four of us (five with the dog!) sharing space all day for most of the year — the kids did return to school for a couple of months, but have been back in full remote learning since then. It took a bit of adjusting, but on the whole things went pretty smoothly, and we are all now pros at Getting Things Done without bothering each other too much.
  • As we were all adapting our workspaces, I took advantage of the flurry of reorganization to move my writing hutch to a brighter (and quieter) spot by my indoor jungle, and have really enjoyed working there. Very inspiring!
  • My father visited in March, and had the misfortune to be here when all borders closed down. It took a lot of last-minute juggling to get him on an early flight back to Brazil, but he made it! Even though his trip got cut short, we still managed a great week together.
  • It’s been a quiet year, for obvious reasons, but we went away for a week in July, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, for a COVID-appropriate holiday that included lots of fresh air and hikes.
  • My youngest how has her learner’s permit, and my oldest is waiting to hear back from university applications. Having big kids is terrifying!

Coming in 2021

  • I have no Con participation scheduled for 2021, though as co-director, I’ll be putting in an online appearance at the NESCBWI regional spring conference. I miss in-person events! Hopefully, we’ll get back to seeing each other offline at some point…
  • The Femmes Fae-Tales anthology should be out by May, containing my short story Taste of Honey as well as work by a fabulous group of fantastic writers.
  • Writing goals for 2020! I’m hoping to be ready to submit my fantasy novel by the end of January. After that, while I wait for (fingers crossed!) replies, I’m going to do a rewrite of my SF YA novel. I do have several other projects lined up, like a couple of short stories that exist in first draft form and need reworking — one of these is a horror story set in the mangrove swamps of southeastern Brazil that I think will work better as magical realism… But ‘Void’ and ‘Beastie’ are my initial priorities. (Yes, I nickname all my writing projects!)

WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2021!

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Families of Origin in Sci Fi and Fantasy

Who’s your favorite fictional family of origin?

The term found family or family of choice, according to Wikipedia, “refers to the group of people in an individual’s life that satisfies the typical role of family as a support system.” Sci fi and fantasy is full of characters who have been forced apart from their families of origin, either through circumstances (war, tragedy, evil government regulations…) or by option (differences in ideology, birth family are terrible people, etc.). 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good found family. There are so many wonderful families of choice in speculative fiction! I’ve written a fair few of these myself, and removing the protagonists from their families of origin is a well-loved trope that works for a reason. It provides backstory and motivation, and it isolates the main character(s) so they are ready to begin the adventure.

But this isn’t the only way to tell a tale, and lately I’ve found myself (found! Ha!) thinking about all those other stories out there—the ones with biological or childhood families who support the main character, who fight side-by-side, and who provide a safe port for their adventuring children to return to. Let’s have a look at a few of my favorites…

Safe ports and anchors

Sure, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) is full of broken bloodlines, grand gestures for ancestral honor, and tragic pasts, if you look at the humans, dwarves, and elves. But the grounding element of Tolkien’s work is the hobbits, and no one can argue that hobbit society is based on Family with a capital F. Which is why one of my favorite parts of LOTT is the end, when they all return home and set the Shire to rights. For Sam, Merry, and Pippin, their families are the port they leave behind, only to return to once the ‘distant seas’ have been explored.

Another character who finds an anchor in his family is policeman Peter Grant in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch (2011–). Although they don’t participate directly in Peter’s adventures, he is always touching base with his parents, and they serve as an ever-present grounding element.

Loving, present, and accounted for

Many stories centered on child protagonists get rid of parents because Reasons (such as allowing adventuring past bedtime!). In middle grade sci fi romp Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez (2019), however, Sal’s family is there for him every day, and when his adventures get out of hand, he knows he can count on them to step in and lend assistance.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) is another one where the young protagonist, Miles Morales, has a family who is present in his daily life and makes sure he knows he is loved and cared for. It’s the opposite of the usual superhero origin story, as made clear by Miles’ interactions with versions of himself from across the multiverse, and honestly? I love it. Why NOT have a hero who can go home at the end of the day to his parents’ embrace?

Families who fight evil together, remain together

One of my favorite evil-busting families appears in Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series (2012–). The Price siblings come from a large extended clan of cryptozoologists who train together, learn from one another, and most definitely have each other’s backs when the bad stuff hits the fan. There are always great team-ups in McGuire’s books, and this is one family you definitely don’t want to cross!

In the Spy Kids movie franchise, created by Robert Rodriguez (2001–2011), after discovering they come from a long line of undercover agents, child protagonists Carmen and Juni jump right in to become spies themselves. Throughout the series, they often work with their parents in different ways. Family unity is a key theme in these movies, and honestly my favorite element in them. And if we’re talking family teamwork in kid’s movies, it doesn’t get much better than Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004). I still get shivers watching that scene in the jungle where they finally start to work together as a family!

YOU get an arc, YOU get an arc, and YOU get an arc as well

Let’s not forget stories that, while being centered on young protagonists, allow the grown-ups an arc of their own on the side. I’m an unabashed fan of MTV’s Teen Wolf (2011–2017), and one of the reasons I loved that show so much was that, as the seasons progressed, not only did the parents get to support their children and fight with them, but they also had their own arcs as well. We got to see adult characters like Noah Stilinski, Melissa McCall, and Chris Argent grow and evolve alongside their children.

In Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series (2012–2016), the same is true of Blue Sargent’s family. A complex blend of blood and found family, the adults in Blue’s life who watched her grow up seem to twine in and out of the main story, enriching it with their own arcs even as they contribute to the main plotline.

You inspire me!

A shout-out here to the absolute gem that is Blue Sky’s Robots (2005). The main character, wannabe inventor Rodney Copperbottom, is the small-town boy who sets off to make his way in the big city. He leaves behind loving and supportive parents—especially his father who has brought him up to believe in his dreams. His parents are not an active part of the story, but are more than just a safe port or an anchor: they are Rodney’s main source of inspiration, the reason for his ‘quest’, and never far from his mind. 

Here’s to all those wonderful families in fiction who keep our beloved protagonists grounded and those plots marching forward! These were a few of my personal favorites; what are yours?