The Book Coach Way: an interview with Christy Yaros

I met Christy Yaros at the first ever writer’s conference I attended, just a few months after moving to the USA. We’ve been critique partners for years, and Christy’s always had a keen editorial eye for plot and pacing. So when she told me she had started certification for book coaching, I knew it was a perfect fit.

Christy has been working as a certified book coach for a while now, and as a freelance editor for longer. She’s deeply connected to the kid lit world, both through her passion for YA and middle grade fiction, and her commitment to the New England region of the SCBWI, where she is the assistant regional advisor for Connecticut and Rhode Island. When I decided to take a deeper look into book coaching — something that seems to be everywhere at the moment — I could think of no one better to guide me through it then Christy.

JSM: Hi Christy, thanks for stopping by! Let’s start with the basics: what does a book coach do? Give us the nutshell description…

Hi Juliana! Thanks for having me. Basically, a book coach (also known as a writing coach or a story coach) is an expert in story and how books work. I’ve read the craft books, taken the courses, attended the workshops, studied the well-written books, and I synthesize that information and present it to the writer the way they need it to write, finish, or improve their specific story and grow as a writer.

I ask you a lot of questions, mostly “why?” and “and so?” to dig deep into your characters and your story. I tell you all the things you are doing well, and the things you can improve. I don’t just tell you what not to do, but WHY you shouldn’t do it. And then give you ideas for ways to improve it. I want you to walk away really understanding how story works, how your story works, and why your story works. And just like your characters, undergo a transformation. And that really means something different for each writer and each book.

My mentor Jennie Nash of Author Accelerator said it well: “Guiding [writers] from confusion (what am I writing, who am I writing for, what should I say, what do I believe, am I really good enough to say it, is anyone really going to care?) to the confidence of knowing (this is the book, this is the structure, this is the message, this is the audience, and these are the exact words I am going to use to engage my reader) is exactly what a book coach does.”

 JSM: There are a lot of misconceptions about coaching. What are the most common ones that you come up against?

I’ll give you three:

  1. The big one is if you need help, you’re not a real writer. If anyone finds out you worked with a coach, then they’ll think less of your writing. But pick up any book and read the Acknowledgements. You’ll find a host of people who the writer is thanking for their help on the book. We can’t write in a vacuum. If you have an editorial-minded agent, they’ve done a form of book coaching. Your in-house editor at the publishing company is doing a form of book coaching. But the fact is in today’s publishing climate, editors don’t have the time they had in the past to work with your story from the beginning.
  1. Another one is that the book coach will try to make your story theirs or steal it. The famous editor Max Perkins said (to editors), “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” And that’s exactly the goal of a book coach. I’m not trying to make your book mine, I’m trying to make your book more YOU. I’m digging deep with you into what you want to say about the world through your story, and helping you make sure you’ve said it. And that you’ve said it well. I want you to write the best story you can. Your story. Your book. But maybe I’ll end up in your Acknowledgements. 🙂
  1. A third misconception is that book coaching is a scam. This one is tougher because there are people out there who will take advantage of writers. When I first started training under Jennie Nash in the fall of 2019, if you Googled “book coach” you’d mostly see an article or a podcast featuring Jennie. Now everyone is calling themselves a book coach. You have to do your due diligence to see if your coach or editor is legit. Jane Friedman has some excellent resources on her blog for that. Personally, I have a Curiosity Call with every potential client. And I turn away more than I accept. Maybe that’s not good business, but I really want to help writers. And sometimes you’re not ready for a book coach, or at least not a book coach like me. It’s a big investment.

JSM: For the best results, what sort of mindset should a writer have when contacting a coach? And what preparation should they do beforehand?

First and foremost you need a growth mindset. You have to want to learn and get better, knowing there may be setbacks.

Second, you need to think about what you want out of a coaching relationship. What level of “toughness” can you handle? Some coaches have a gentler approach, and some don’t pull punches. What level of commitment can you make, financially and with your time? Most coaches work with weekly or bi-weekly deadlines. And 1-on-1 coaching is an investment.

You’re paying someone to tell you the truth. I’m not your mom or your best friend. I’m not going to smile and tell you your book is amazing if I think you can make it better. Obviously, you yourself are amazing. You’re brave enough to put yourself out there emotionally. So you have to be receptive to the advice you’re being given. If you want someone to pat you on the back and tell you it’s perfect, you’re probably in the wrong place. The goal is to make your story the best version of itself. And to make you a stronger writer. And sometimes that means you’re going to have hard conversations or delete your favorite scenes because they don’t move the story forward. Sometimes you’re going to have to start all over. Sometimes you figure out your idea isn’t actually a story. And I think if a writer is not ready for that kind of work, they might not be ready for a coach.

Also, do your research. Just like when you query an editor or agent, make sure they actually work on the genre/category you write. For example, I only work with children’s novels. And I don’t do horror. Some coaches I know only do speculative fiction, or only memoirs. One only works with the LGBTQ community. These coaches focus their skills in those areas, so you’ll get the most out of them. I would personally be wary of someone who says they work on anything. That’s a lot to keep up with, so can they really? You should definitely have a call or video chat before you sign a contract. You want to make sure your personalities mesh or you might not be comfortable tackling the deep questions with them.

JSM: What are the first steps when you take on a new client? How do you establish a good working relationship?

First, I have a curiosity call with every potential client to make sure we’d be a good fit for each other. If we both pass that test, we decide what service they need. Do they only have an idea? Are they stuck in the middle of a draft? Are they ready to revise? Do they keep getting rejections but don’t know why?

Then we sign a contract that lays out what we both expect out of the coaching relationship.
Next, we’ll have another call to talk about their writing goals, their timeframe, the level of commitment they can do right now. And then we’ll work backwards from there to make a schedule that makes sense for that writer at that moment. Then I give you a packet and send you off to work on your first deadline!

Signing a contract and setting boundaries helps us establish a good working relationship. Part of my job is to keep my writer accountable. Another part is to give them honest, objective feedback. But they also need to feel comfortable with all of that.

JSM: Is there a difference in how you work with an author who intends to self-publish versus an author who intends to pursue traditional publishing (i.e., with an established press)?

I only work on fiction, so there isn’t much difference in the way we work on a high level. (If you were doing nonfiction, you’d have to do an outline and sample chapters to get an agent/publishing contract vs just writing it if you are self-publishing.)

If the writer is looking to publish traditional, they need a marketable book. So we would work to figure out what that means. What conventions need to be followed? Where would it fit in the marketplace? What are some comparable titles? 

With self-publishing there’s more leeway to do things the way you want to, but ultimately you do still need to produce a good book that will sell.

When you get to the other levels of editing, usually someone seeking representation or traditional publishing would get the story in good enough shape to sell. That means coaching and/or developmental editing. Some writers might invest in line editing, but we wouldn’t waste time on copyediting or proofreading, because the agent and/or in-house editor is going to want to make more changes. Plus they handle copyediting and proofreading. When self-publishing, the writer does need to make sure that once the high-level story elements are set, that they get developmental editing and copyediting (and proofreading once the manuscript is typeset!).

JSM: Last of all, one for fun: two truths and one lie about book coaching!

1. Book coaching and editing are the same thing.

2. Working with a book coach will make you a better writer.

3. Book coaches provide a solid sounding board for your story ideas.

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Drumroll! And the lie is… Number 1! Christy says: Not all book coaches are editors, and not all editors are book coaches! (But I happen to be both.)

A huge thanks to Christy for answering all my many questions! Check out her website for more information: christyyaros.com. Christy has a brand new podcast with fellow coach Sharon Skinner which you can listen to at coachingkidlit.com. And you can find Christy on Twitter and Instagram @ChristyYaros.

<All images in this post belong to Christy Yaros and are used with permission.>

Blank Slate

Here we are, one more year at an end. Social media is full of rewinds and retrospectives, and what sort of blogger would I be if I didn’t add my own? In all honesty, though, I rather enjoy taking a moment to appreciate all the highlights of the past 12 months before diving into the blank slate of a new calendar year.

So, what happened in 2021?

Writer things

  • It’s been a weird year. I’ve been… unsettled, is probably the best description. I’ve been querying my urban fantasy novel to agents, and unsure of what to work on next. Rewrite an older project? Start something new? In the end, I decided to focus on short stories for a while, and now have several I’m very pleased with that are ready for submission in 2022.
  • The NOT ALL MONSTERS anthology (Strangehouse/Rooster Republic Press, 2020), which contains my short story The Sugar Cane Sea, was nominated for the Stoker Awards, which was super exciting! We didn’t win, but it was still awesome to make it that far. 
  • My short story Moon Under Mangroves was published in November in SHADOW ATLAS: DARK LANDSCAPES OF THE AMERICAS. This fully illustrated anthology is beautifully designed and has an amazing list of participating authors. It’s already collected some great praise; the Midwest Book review, for instance, wrote “Think The DaVinci Code or Indiana Jones, but with more literary force.”
  • You can read my interview with SHADOW ATLAS editor Hillary Dodge here.
  • My upbeat take on the apocalypse was published in Krazon Magazine in April; to read my short story The End of All Things for free, click here.
  • I co-directed my first conference! The New England SCBWI Regional Spring Conference took place virtually on the first weekend in May, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. Check out my conference recap here.

Fun stuffs

  • Books: I read a total of 64 titles this year, of which 25 were adult fiction, 15 were YA or middle grade, and 24 were graphic novels. Of the total, 44 were from speculative fiction genres/sub-genres.
  • My favorite SF/F books this year: Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars and T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea were probably my top reads. Both are gorgeous, with a warmth and sweetness to them that I hadn’t realized that I badly needed. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab was another favorite, although this one has a bittersweet feel that permeates its beauty with sadness. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth was a blast, and brash, foul-mouthed Gideon may be one of my new top characters ever. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger deserved all the awards and praise it reaped (also, it’s so nice to see asexual representation in fiction, especially in a main character). And I fell in love with The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards, which I thought was a fabulous bit of urban fantasy. 
  • Movies! Spider-Man: No Way Home was a lot of fun with all its multiverse shenanigans, but my favorite movies this year were The Old Guard (for immortality done right), Black Widow (because Yelena!!! And vests with lots of pockets…), and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (for sheer utter delightfulness and the best on-screen guy/girl friendship I’ve seen in a while).
  • TV shows: This was the year of Marvel, with lots of solid contenders (WandaVision, I’m looking at you), but I have to say that Hawkeye stole my heart. I was already a huge fan of the comic run by Matt Fraction and David Aja, and the fact that the show borrowed so heavily from this source was endlessly delightful. Hailee Steinfeld was an excellent Kate Bishop (I love comics Kate), plus we got more Yelena!!! (Florence Pugh is Just. So. Good.) 
  • As for the rest: The Expanse is still the best live action sci fi around, hands down; The Bad Batch was so good, and I adored their weird family dynamic; Superman and Lois had a solid first season, and I really enjoyed the family focus; Invisible City (Cidade Invisivel) did a nice job of bringing the mythology of my home country Brazil to a wider audience; and Castlevania continues to deliver action-packed storylines and fabulous one-liners. 
  • My top non SF/F show was It’s a Sin, which managed to be at the same time heartwarming and devastating. And for the first time ever I dipped my toes in the yeast-and-sugar-laden waters of The Great British Bake Off (and I confess to being instantly smitten).

Personal bits and pieces

  • This year brought big changes with my oldest leaving for college. Honestly? We’re all still adapting. We’re still working on those university applications, though, this time for our youngest child.
  • My indoor jungle is growing! It may swallow me whole one of these days, so if I don’t check in every now and then, maybe pay me a visit with some pruning shears? Outdoors, this was my first year growing cherry tomatoes, which were a huge success and yielded endlessly.
  • In June and July, when Covid infection rates were lower and the world seemed a safer place, we took two mini breaks, to Newport and Cape Cod, and later to Salem. Lovely family time! We also squeezed in a couple of nights away in Lake George after Christmas, for some much-needed breathing space, despite the cold.
  • We had hoped to travel to Brazil to visit family for Christmas, but Covid… We’re crossing fingers that next year things will be easier for everyone!

Coming in 2022

  • The NESCBWI Spring Conference is at the end of April/start of May. We’re hoping to meet up in person but planning for virtual in case, well, Covid. I’m really excited! Hopefully it’ll all go smoothly.
  • The FEMMES FAE-TALES anthology was delayed by LIFE (Covid *sigh*), but hopefully we’ll be able to publish in 2022. FAE-TALES contains my short story Taste of Honey as well as lots of other fantastic fictional offerings.
  • Writing goals for 2022! I have so many short stories I wrote this year that need revision and to be submitted… And a couple of other long-form projects that I’m going to be mysterious about for now! But I do have ALL THE PLANS for this new year.

WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2022! Here’s to good health, good times, and good words (for all you writers out there).

Building the World of Conjuror Girl: a guest post

I’m thrilled to welcome SF/F author Stephen Palmer to the blog as he stops by on the tour for his brand new Conjuror Girl trilogy. And for a double treat: a guest post AND an interview!

The Conjuror Girl trilogy, which includes Monique Orphan, Monica Orvan, and Monica Hatherly, is published by Infinite Press. Monique, an orphan in an alternate Victorian England, has a strange talent normally only found in men. It is a talent that turns men bad and drives them to seek power, but must it do this to Monique too?

The Delicate Balance of Worldbuilding, by Stephen Palmer

The foundations of stories need to be strong and deep, for if not the structures built upon them collapse. Authors know this – they build worlds, discovering people who live in those worlds. If their worldbuilding is flimsy, the narrative falls apart and the people never have a chance to reveal themselves. No book.

I’m lucky. I’ve always had a vivid imagination, which when I was sending around what became my debut Memory Seed helped lodge the world of Kray in my soon-to-be editor’s mind. Like plant roots, the foundations of Memory Seed were strong.

There are certain rules in worldbuilding which I think help if you know them. In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy, the world is an alternate Victorian Britain – 1899/1900, in a gothic version of my home town of Shrewsbury. The world I built therefore had a curious property which I’ve rarely encountered before, that of pre-existing. My job in making the world of Conjuror Girl was to transmute something already in existence. I can tell you that this task was enormous fun. “Task” in fact is not the right word – relish is better.

One of these tricks of worldbuilding is detail. I learned this early on when, critiquing a poor early version of Memory Seed, my beta reader made comments on a tiny detail which for him brought the world alive: graffiti scrawled in green algae covering a street computer display. I saw again what he had seen; saw it through his eyes. That detail signified people doing what people always do. The city was alive.

Graffiti and algae were enough to signify to the reader what Kray was like. Everything else the reader would bring themselves. And this is an important lesson. Too much detail is as bad as too little. You have to get it just right. Too little, and there’s not enough to spark the reader’s imagination. Too much and they don’t have anything to do.

In Conjuror Girl I wanted to convey a dark, grim, forbidding town. I chose certain details of the real town, exaggerating them for gothic effect. I made sure St Alkmund’s Cemetery was as spooky as possible, including a semi-sentient tree and tomb-inhabiting anti-bees. Meanwhile, the bell fruits of the Bell Tree, which is described as if it is made of non-living material, can be eaten once rung – unless rusty, that is; then they’ve gone off. When I imagined a tavern in Fish Street, for some reason a dog sung from a high window.

Another trick is Gene Wolfe’s classic advice: appeal to the senses. What colours mark the conjurations of the Reifiers? Only purple and orange. What do you hear when you’re by the river? The twang of swans’ wings. What do Etis Gmu’s pillows smell of? Lavender.

Worldbuilding is like consciousness. Our minds notice details in the real world, but the rest of it we fill in ourselves. Readers do this. Too little and they’re starved, too much and they’re overwhelmed.

An Interview With Stephen

JSM: From the Edwardian steampunk world of your Factory Girl trilogy, to the cyberpunk future of Beautiful Intelligence, or the psychedelic surrealism of Hairy London, setting is a huge part of your work, almost a character in its own right. What are some of the real-world inspirations for your work, and in particular for your Conjuror Girl trilogy?

It’s been observed that for an author with a lot of SF in his catalogue I almost never go into space. But I like to stay on Earth because it’s this planet and its future which interest me. So, in the broadest view, the whole planet is my setting. Individual real-world settings though are particularly important for me. Sometimes they’re greatly transformed versions of real places, as in Memory Seed, the soot-black gothic Mavrosopolis (Istanbul) of The Rat & The Serpent, or the madcap re-imagining of London gone hirsute in Hairy London. Occasionally they’re entirely imaginary, for example the hallucinatory river island of Tommy Catkins. For Conjuror Girl I was inspired by my home town of Shrewsbury. I grew up nearby and went to school there. It’s usually regarded as Britain’s finest Tudor town, and for many years I’d wanted to set a novel there. Walking around the streets and alleys beneath some of the finest black-and-white buildings in Britain was more than enough inspiration, though, me being me, I made the novel’s version much more gothic. Some of the localities I left as they are, but I mutated some streets and added a few extras of my own.

JSM: Following on from the previous question, what comes first for you, plot or setting? What drives the creative process when you’re writing something new?

Generally, this works in two parallel ways. I’ll have an idea of the kind of novel I want to write – for instance, an AI novel – and usually there’ll be some character who is the inspiration. The best example of that is Kora, the titular Girl With Two Souls of the Factory Girl trilogy. Tommy Catkins himself would be another, though he appeared along with his watery setting. Sometimes though there are small but vivid mental images which are the key, for instance the two I had when walking around Windsor Great Park in the early 1990s, images which went on to inspire Memory Seed. Plot always comes second, following on from character. Even with a tech-driven novel like Beautiful Intelligence it was the two main characters, Leonora and Manfred, who drove the idea to split the plot into two sections. My creative process these days is to put down the best possible first draft of a novel. This is a risky strategy, against intuition and the usual writerly advice, but what I aim to achieve is to transfer the “magic” and “wonder” of what I myself am experiencing for the first time onto the printed page. If I can do this to my own satisfaction, I know my readers should also feel that vibe. I find that second and subsequent drafts almost always lose their special glamour. For less experienced writers this is not the way to go, but when you get to my age it becomes a possibility. Some of these intense first drafts don’t work however – those are the novels that don’t get published. I’ve accumulated a few now…

JSM: You’ve dabbled in a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy sub-genres. What are some of the challenges this versatility brings? How do you make the switch from one genre to another when starting a fresh project, and do you have any tips for writers who would like to work across different genres?

To be honest, genres and sub-genres are of minor significance to me. I’ll usually have an idea of which one a novel might appear in, but I never write to that genre. All my novels are their own things. The Factory Girl trilogy for instance is categorised as steampunk, but that example lies outside what steampunk is usually considered to be. I don’t sense any challenges, I just write what I need to write, and do it with absolute conviction and sincerity. It’s true that my fans don’t know what they’re going to get next, but they do at least know they’ll get something written with conviction, and which, in a lot of cases, will be unlike anything on the market. My tip therefore is that most difficult of pieces of advice – you have to be your own brand. For most new writers that’s an impossibility because of the state of the market and the nature of books, but for more established authors (Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example) it is possible to be successful in a variety of genres and styles. The other thing worth mentioning is that my publisher is a British indie, which means I have more opportunity to present fresh or unusual novels. No large publishing house in their right mind would accept a novel like Hairy London. My relationship with my tolerant, understanding and insightful editor is a large part of why I’ve been able to do the work I’ve done over the last seven years.

JSM: From climate change to women’s rights, you never shy away from asking tough questions in your work. Do these topics emerge organically when you write, or are they an integral part of the plotting and outlining process? And how did you decide which underlying political themes you wanted to include in your Conjuror Girl trilogy?

They’re always integral and they’re always there from the beginning. I remember my first editor saying something to me, that Memory Seed contained what he called “stuff” – by which he meant ethical or philosophical content. A writer to me is someone who has something inside them that must come out into the open via the medium of words. Writing is so often self-discovery. I have a lot to say. Many people disagree with me of course, and that’s good – part of global debate. But I love that aspect of being an author, which I’ve extended into the opinion pieces on my blog. For Conjuror Girl, the main theme is selfishness, which I’ve written extensively about (narcissism) on my blog. This theme underpins the action, which follows the tale of Monique, later Monica, an orphan in the year 1899 with a talent only men are supposed to possess. The novel is also about how men dominate and control cultural thought via patriarchy. But I expect Monica gives those backward-looking, domineering old men a good run for their money…

JSM: We’ve talked about themes, genres, settings… For anyone familiar with your work, it might seem you’ve already covered a huge amount of ground with your published books, but as any writer knows, there’s always room for more ideas. What’s on your wishlist for the future? Are there any settings or sub-genres you haven’t tackled yet and would like to try your hand at?

Not really. There are concepts and formats I haven’t successfully managed yet. I have a love of inns and taverns, and many years ago set a fantasy novel entirely inside a roadside tavern. I think it worked fairly well, though the writing wasn’t great, and it never got anywhere. One editor remarked that fantasy novels tend to be set in huge, expansive worlds, not tiny ones. But it was the challenge of writing a novel set only inside one inn that appealed to me. So I will try that again. I also have still to write a novel composed only of dialogue and incidental action. Recently I’ve become much more interested in dialogue than I used to be. My book The Autist was set in such a way that the internal thoughts of only one character were made plain to the reader, with all the others’ only revealed by dialogue, of which there was a lot. Some readers didn’t like that, but some did. I’m also fascinated by dialect. So my plan is to write a novel set entirely inside an inn composed only of dialogue. I’m sure I could do it with the right characters and themes. Apart from that, I do feel the urge to return to very far future SF. My novel Urbis Morpheos (“A failed experiment.” – SF Foundation) was an attempt to present the reader with a wholly unfamiliar planet Earth. I aim to have another attempt.

The three books of The Conjuror Girl trilogy are out now and available for purchase through all major online booksellers.

For more information on the author and his work, as well as links to the other guest posts on Stephen’s blog tour, please visit his website: stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com

All image rights: Stephen Palmer

Shadow Atlas is Out!

Yesterday was release day for Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas, an anthology of short stories and poetry published by Hex, with a stellar list of writers.

Beautifully edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge, and Joshua Viola, and with amazing illustrations by Aaron Lovett, Shadow Atlas is a 460-page treat for fans of dark fantasy and horror:

Ancient peoples knew there were lands given over to shadow and spirit. The world is full of haunted places that exact a terrible toll on trespassers. Our forebears paid a heavy price to earn the wisdom and the warning they bequeathed to future generations.

Time transformed their precious knowledge into superstition, but there are those whose hearts beat in rhythm with the past and whose vision is not clouded by modernity. Seeking to reclaim humanity’s early secrets, the Umbra Arca Society was forged. For centuries, this private league of explorers dedicated their lives to uncovering the oldest mysteries of the Americas. Armed with boldness and guile, and equipped with only a compass, a journal, and devotion to truth, these adventurers braved cursed landscapes, dared unnatural adversaries, and exposed hidden civilizations.

Many did not survive.

None were forgotten.

Their stories are maps revealing the topography and contours of landscapes unimaginable and dark. The Shadow Atlas collects their adventures.

Shadow Atlas includes my short story, Moon Under Mangroves. Set in Santos, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, Moon is a tale of aging, a family curse, and the ghost crabs that live and burrow in the mud of the mangrove swamps. I grew up in the city of São Paulo, an hour away from Santos, and drew upon my childhood memories of catching sand and rock crabs with the fishing folk who lived on the coast in the days before tourism took over as an industry. It was a lot of fun reconnecting with those memories, and trying to bring a deep sense of place for readers to immerse themselves in.

You can read my interview on place with Shadow Atlas editor Hillary Dodge here.

The anthology already has some great reviews!

“Dead serious in its horror, yet delightful and inviting in its design and conceit, Shadow Atlas is a rare, beguiling treat, a collective fantasy with teeth, vision, and grounded in urgent, ancient truths.” – BookLife Reviews (BookLife section of Publishers Weekly)

“Think The DaVinci Code or Indiana Jones, but with more literary force, as it comments on mortals, immortals, and the intersection of worlds which holds them.” – Midwest Book Reviews

“A host of sublime writers and settings create an entertainingly macabre collection.” – Kirkus Reviews

Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is now available. For buy links and options, check out the publisher’s page: here.

Inside peek at the special hardcover edition

Beneath the Surface

I’ve been slow and sporadic with writing lately. There’s a lot going on in my head, and not much going down on paper. It’s not a new thing, this need for a period of quiet. I think most of us have productivity cycles that wax and wane, and I know from past experience that I’ll emerge from this cocoon of introspection with renewed energy and fresh perspectives for my work.

I’ve seen writers refer to times of low productivity as periods of drought, but I dislike the implication that this is a barren moment. On the contrary, there may not be much to show on the outside, in terms of words written or projects completed, but inside I am bubbling with thoughts and ideas. 

I prefer to think of this as a low tide. The sea recedes, leaving behind all manner of treasures to enthrall. Small shells and water-worn pebbles. Seaweed and driftwood and teeny tiny scuttling crabs. And then the tide returns, covering everything with the ocean’s swell. But the secret has already been revealed, and now we know that beneath the waves there are all those wonderful treasures: the crabs, and shells, and seaweed, and bare toes that sink into the wet sand.

The best thing to do, I find, is embrace the low tides for the gift they truly are. Make time to read or watch TV, to meditate, listen to music, to dance and go for long walks. Or just to curl up in a chair where you can close your eyes and be a tiny, sun-drenched, moss-covered stone. And throughout all of this, let your mind wander where it will, untangling knotted thoughts and uncovering those hidden treasures.

Life is busy, and it can be hard to find moments for our inner selves. If you’re a writer or other creative person, that hard-won quiet can feel like a guilty pleasure. I should be working on my novel, or my sketches, or my pottery, or music, we tell ourselves. And yes, I think there’s a time to push, but there’s also a time to back away and allow ourselves the gift of guiltless meandering. Then, when the high tide returns, it does so all the richer and more precious for the secrets we now know lie hidden beneath the surface.

The Shadows Inside

Leaning into shadows turns the ordinary extraordinary.

Back in the olden days of pre-COVID 2020, I was on a con panel called Blood-Curdling Science Fiction, on the blurring of lines between sci fi and horror fiction. Our discussion focused on that gray zone that lies between genres. There are many genres that play well with others, but I think that perhaps horror is the one that best suits them all.

Horror and sci fi? Good. Horror and fantasy? Great. You can make it fancy and call it literary. You can pulp it up or lean into gore or slasher fiction; send it into space or ground it on Earth. You can stick some romance in there or comedy, and you’re still golden. Like a nicely paired bottle of wine, horror goes well with everything.

Wine pairings aside, why is it that so many non-horror writers like to lean into the shadows? Take me — I’m an accidental horror writer who doesn’t actually write horror. But I’ve sold four stories to dark fantasy or horror-leaning anthologies in recent times and have another coming out, probably in 2022, that is definitely on the side of nightmares.

Personally, I find playing with darkness in my stories to be cathartic. It’s a way of acknowledging child-me who checked her bedroom wardrobe was tightly shut at night and jumped into bed so nothing could catch her ankle on the way. I’ve outgrown the jumping bit (though I do always shut my wardrobe — old habits die hard!) and have learnt to rationalize those bumps in the middle of the night, but it can be quite gleeful to tap into that younger self who believed with all her heart that magic was real and that shadows had teeth.

It’s not quite as easy to believe in magic nowadays, though I try my best! But the darkness, well. That’s just another flavor of magic, and one too easily remembered. And perhaps this is why so many works of fiction flirt with horror, even if they officially belong to other genres. This darker side of magic, the shadows from our childhood nights that still live inside us, will always make a strange sort of sense. As readers, we know it’s not real. But when daylight ebbs and the sky goes dark, that reality blurs, just a little, just enough to tip the ordinary into the extraordinary. And then, the shadows creep out to play.

Happy Halloween! 

If you’re looking for darker stories, please consider helping out The Pixel Project in their work to end violence against women by buying their first charity anthology, Giving the Devil His Due. It’s full of excellent writers dishing up justice both hot and cold, and profits go to a good cause. More information here.

Also, Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is up for preorder! It includes my short story Moon Under Mangroves (a tale of aging, creepy swamp crabs, and a cursed compass) among a long list of work by fantastic authors. I’ve seen the PDF and it’s absolutely gorgeous and just full of illustrations and little graphic design treats! Check out the publisher’s page here.

Have Book, Will Read #27

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

Recent Reads: The supernatural and all the super feels…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Reading: Fight the good fight!

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

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

To Read: Who’s the villain here?

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

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

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

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

Puppy cuddles for everyone!

What’s Your Backstory?

Backstory adds color and shading to a fictional world and characters

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

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

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

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

J.R.R Tolkien, The Two Towers

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

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

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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

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

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

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

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

Lone Star: So what does that make us?

Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing!

Spaceballs

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

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

Food and Drink in Sci Fi and Fantasy

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

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

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

The Silver Chair — C.S. Lewis

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

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

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams

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

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

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

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

“Food first,” Percy said. “Please?” 

The Mark of Athena — Rick Riordan

Summer 2021 Updates

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

Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novels

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

Currently Working On…

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

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

Blog

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

New Author Photos

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

Personal

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