Five First Kisses: the Understated Edition

A few years back, I published a blog post on First Kiss scenes (go here to see the original post). I thought it was time for a follow up…

A story doesn’t need romance to be a good story, and honestly, in those cases where the author has clearly shoehorned a romance in simply because they feel there needs to be one? Just drop it! A nicely written platonic arc is just as satisfying. That said, a well-crafted romantic arc can be a pleasure to read, whatever the genre or subgenre. And a key convention in romance, even when it’s not the main focus of the story, is of course THAT moment. I’m talking about the kiss. 

Usually THE KISS is the peak of a character’s emotional arc, the crescendo, the singing chorus of angels. The first kiss scene is often written in a way that’s supposed to sweep a reader away, helping them dive into that storm of feelings. But there’s merit in the quiet moments, too, in kisses that are perfectly understated and perfect for it. Most of my examples are from YA (or YA-adjacent) novels, simply because teenagers and first kisses tend to go hand-in-hand (or, uh, mouth-to-mouth?). But hey, adult characters get to play, too!

(SPOILERS for the following books: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe; Mister Impossible; In Other Lands; The Ship of the Dead; Nettle & Bone)

Ari and Dante (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz)

This is technically the characters’ second kiss, but the first one that actually matters! This is a book full of short, understated moments that hold a world of feelings in very few words. It’s a masterpiece of how to say a lot with a little, and so it stands to reason that Ari and Dante’s kiss scene would be equally as quiet. I have so much love for this scene, it feels so real and manages to hold so much tension. And that last sentence? Perfection.

“Try it again,” I said. “Kiss me.”

“No,” he said.

“Kiss me.”

“No.” And then he smiled. “You kiss me.”

I placed my hand on the back of his neck. I pulled him toward me. And kissed him. I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And he kept kissing me back.

Declan and Jordan (Mister Impossible, Maggie Stiefvater)

Another Stiefvater book (see Five First Kisses), because I love her Raven Cycle world so much! This is from the second book in the sequel Dreamer trilogy, and the oldest Lynch brother Declan is with Jordan in her studio. She’s painting a portrait of him. Their relationship has been building to a point of inevitability, and the kiss scene is only really surprising in that they haven’t kissed before. I love the way Stiefvater builds the romance in as just another layer of Declan-and-Jordan, one aspect of the complexity that is a human relationship of any sort. Also, art.

She kissed him. He kissed her. And this kiss, too, got all wrapped up in the art-making of the portrait sitting on the easel beside them, getting all mixed in with all the other sights and sounds and feelings that had become part of the process.            

It was very good.

Elliot and Luke (In Other Lands, Sarah Rees Brennan)

I absolutely adore Elliot Schafer, he’s an amazing character with a brain (and a mouth) that just never stops. So when golden-boy Luke Sunborn corners him right before a battle, it feels only right that Elliot would not allow his thoughts to take a backseat to his emotions. This one brings humor into the moment, too, which is right on point for Elliot. And who says kiss scenes can’t be a bit funny?

“I’m so what? Are you actually about to insult me right before you go off to war? Oh, I don’t believe this, you loser—”

He did not get out another word past “loser”, because Luke crossed the floor, took Elliot’s face in his hands, and kissed him.

Wow, Elliot thought. Wow, Sunborns are very grabby.

Magnus and Alex (The Ship of the Dead, Rick Riordan)

We meet genderfluid shapeshifter Alex Fierro in the second book of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Trilogy, and Magnus is immediately smitten. So when they finally kiss in book three, you’d expect some fireworks, no? Instead, Riordan gives us this little gem of a scene while Magnus and Alex are trying not to freeze to death on the ice. Honestly, it’s very much how I would probably react if I was focusing on not dying instead of paying attention to my crush…

Then, before I even knew what was happening, she kissed me. She could have bitten off my mouth and I would have been less surprised. Her lips were cracked and rough from the cold. Her nose fit perfectly next to mine. Out faces aligned, our breath mixed. Then she pulled away.“I wasn’t going to die without doing that,” she said.

Magnus’ reaction post-kiss is priceless:

Well?” She frowned. “Stop gaping and let’s move.”

Marra and Fenris (Nettle & Bone, T. Kingfisher)

Sometimes, a non-kiss can be just as powerful as a kiss. And in the case of Nettle & Bone, an amazing fairytale with the most understated of slow-burn romances, this definitely holds true. This scene is the story-closer, taking place after the villain is soundly defeated and everyone is heading off on their version of happily ever after. So you’d expect a bit of fanfare when Marra asks Fenris to stay with her instead of parting ways. Instead, we get the following. (Also, in case you’re wondering, yes, Bonedog is in fact a dog made of bones. And he is a Very Good Boy!)

“I think I’d like that,” said Fenris.

Marra sagged with relief.

She had been so focused on what he might say that she hadn’t quite expected what he might do. So it came as a surprise when he wrapped both arms around her and put his lips against her hair. “I think I would like that very much,” he murmured.

“Oh good,” said Marra against his neck. And then she would have kissed him or he would have kissed her, but Bonedog decided that they were wrestling and jumped up and barked soundlessly at them both.

Bonedog!

Have Book, Will Read #30

It’s been perfect autumn weather here in Connecticut: crisp temperatures, bright leaves, blue skies. (And the occasional soft rainy day, too!) Autumn marks the return of cozy blankets and warm cups of tea, of snuggling up to the dog to read a good tale. Here are some of my favorites from the past months…

Recent Reads: Gods, godlings, immortals.

Kelly Robson’s latest novella High Times in the Low Parliament is an absolute delight, and so beautifully written that every page is a gift. And 10/10 for amazing world-building! Robson’s England is a female-centric (as in, men do not exist at all) psychedelic wonderland, where magic and the mundane coexist side-by-side and fairy folk are considered minor deities, almost god-like in their reach.

Pitched by the author as ‘A lesbian stoner buddy comedy with fairies — about Brexit!’, this is a light-hearted romp through a version of 18th-century England. Flirtatious scribe Lana Baker is sent to work at the low Parliament, where delegates are trying to avoid a hung vote. Failure will bring a devastating flood and a return to endless war, unless Lana and her new friends, the grumpy fairy Bugbite and the enchanting delegate Eloquentia, can work together to save humanity. The perfect book for when you need something bright, happy, and just a little ridiculous — in the best sort of way!

While we’re on the subject of divinity and floodwater, I’ve just finished No Gods for Drowning by Hailey Piper, a recent release. There’s nothing lighthearted about the grim world Piper presents to us, awash in blood, violence, and the promise of death. The old gods have fled the land of Aeg, and the monsters they had kept at bay for centuries now threaten to drown the city-states and hunt down mankind. The different threads become hopelessly entangled: a ritual serial killer seeking to bring back a god to save the land; a detective duo racing to catch the killer while the city of Valentine falls apart around them; and an evacuation officer blessed by the divine. But can they solve an ancient mystery that holds the key to the gods themselves before the sea takes them all?

Part dark fantasy, part detective noir, Piper serves up a wonderful cast of characters who fit together like jagged, broken jigsaw pieces and yet somehow manage to complete each other perfectly. The worldbuilding is really interesting, too, with religion as the frame for a rich tapestry that incorporates culture, legislation, and the judiciary in a way that make a terrible sort of sense in this world the author has woven. Piper’s gods are vicious and primal beings, blood-drenched and alien, and the humans that revere them are almost as savage in their beliefs as the deities themselves. A dark but gripping read.

Nona the Ninth is the third installment in the fabulous Locked Tomb space-fantasy series by Tamsyn Muir. Overflowing with in-jokes for readers and flashes of contemporary memes and pop culture, Nona may be the funniest book in the series — quite the accomplishment as it’s set in a world that manages to be both pre- and post-apocalyptic at the same time and is the literal epitome of a dumpster fire. However, this is Muir’s talent: to deliver immensely joyful scenes and dialogue against what is, quite frankly, an absolutely horrifying backdrop.

Nona brings us familiar names and faces — Camilla, Palamedes, Pyrrha — and the enigma that is Nona herself. Nona woke up six months ago with a fractured mind and a stranger’s body, navigating a city that is falling apart with child-like wonder. Blood of Eden want Nona to be their ultimate weapon. Nona would rather go to school, hang out with her friends, pet dogs, and spend time with her completely dysfunctional family who she loves beyond all reason. Nona is a brilliant character; a main point-of-view who has no idea what’s going on, when everyone else (including the reader!) knows more than she does. It’s a great addition to the series, and I think my favorite so far.

My last pick for this month is The Old Guard graphic novel series. I watched the movie adaptation and really enjoyed it, so I figured it was time to check out the source material. There are three volumes currently out. The first, Opening Fire, covers pretty much the entire movie (I was pleased to see how closely the script keeps to the graphic novel!), and introduces the characters and world. The second, Force Multiplied, continues the story, and the third, Tales Through Time, is what it says on the tin: a compilation of one-shots from each of the characters’ pasts.

The premise of The Old Guard is that every few hundred years or so, a new warrior is cursed with immortality upon death. There’s no scientific or spiritual explanation. It’s not transferrable, it’s not predictable. Drawn to each other, these immortal soldiers form a family of sorts, plying their trade sometimes for money, sometimes for a cause. But in the 21stcentury, staying off the radar is increasingly difficult, and some fates are indeed worse than death. The worldbuilding is very good throughout this series, but the cast of characters is the winner here, with some absolutely stunning creations. These are not superheroes. They’re very much morally grey. We’re constantly reminded that, despite being virtually unkillable, they are still human, and fallible. (I love them all.) And the series allows for some interesting discussion on the effects of immortality. I thoroughly enjoyed the books, and I’m looking forward to the second movie adaptation!

Now Reading: An end to a dream?

I’ve loved Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle since I first found The Raven Boys, many years ago. Greywaren is the final book in the sequel trilogy, following the Lynch boys in the months after Ronan graduates from high school and delving deeper into Dreamer lore. 

I think my favorite thing in the Dreamer Trilogy has been the chance to get to know Declan, the oldest Lynch brother. In the original series, we only meet Declan through the eyes of his brother and his friends, but in this trilogy, he’s allowed to blossom. Ronan was always my favorite character in The Raven Cycle, but now, in the sequels, Declan definitely brings stiff competition. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but already stuck in ‘last book dilemma’: I need to read! But also, I’m already mourning the end of the dream…

To Read: Quests and mysteries.

I have two books sitting in my to-read pile. The first is Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher, aka Ursula Vernon. This sounds like the best sort of fairytale: a younger daughter sets off on a quest to save her sister and rid the kingdom of an abusive ruler, facing impossible tasks with a motley crew of adventurers (including a demon chicken!). Or, according to the publisher’s website: “This isn’t the kind of fairytale where the princess marries a prince. It’s the one where she kills him.”

The other one I have waiting for me is Mur Lafferty’s Station Eternity, the first of a brand-new series called The Midsolar Murders. Take the classic murder mystery format. Set it loose on a space station. Voilà! Mallory Viridian just can’t seem to stop getting involved in murder cases, even in space. Now she’s stuck in the middle of an extraterrestrial whodunit, and she has to solve the crime before the list of victims grows… I do love a good murder mystery, and I can’t wait to get started on this one!

Here’s to lots of good books ahead to get us through the last months of 2022! Happy reading!

Let Me Like You: Writing Great Characters

Where’s the spark?

As any epic fantasy fan knows, there are currently two big fantasy franchise prequel shows on screen. The first is, of course, The Rings of Power, set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. The second, for fans of a darker brand of fantasy, is House of the Dragon, set some two hundred years or so before Game of Thrones.

With the shows airing side-by-side, this is a perfect opportunity to look at how the two productions have handled character creation within the scope of epic fantasy.

There is an ever-present debate in writing about what is more important: plot or character. You’ll hear terms like ‘character-driven’ or ‘plot-heavy’, but ultimately the divide comes down to whether a writer (and reader) prefers a focus on character or plot. I’d argue that well-written characters can easily carry a weaker plot but that, however fabulous your plot is, you still have to create characters that interest readers. You still need that spark of connection that drives the need to read, to discover, to embrace.

And here is where the two shows, for me, part ways. Whatever the plot weaknesses, or the Tolkien-lore-related discrepancies, The Rings of Power has something crucial going for it: characters I’m invested in and want to follow to the end. Fierce, socially inept Galadriel; stoic and honorable Arondir; a young Isildur, desperate to find his path. Yes, I want more of the awkward bromance between besties Elrond and Durin. I want more of Halbrand teetering between duty and denial. I want all the Bronwyn content, please!

House of the Dragon, on the other hand, is failing miserably on the character front. Now, I love myself a morally gray character, a scoundrel, a snarky yet lovable baddie. I don’t need characters to be likeable, in a hero, light-side-of-the-Force sense of the word. But I do need to like them. I need to be able to root for them, or at least want to follow their arc, even while screaming, “NO! You absolute dumpster fire of a human, don’t DO that!” But HotD has exactly zero characters that I like, and this, for me, is a huge problem.

The original TV show (and books) had great characters that I really, truly loved. Arya Stark. Jon Snow. Tyrion Lannister. Brienne of Tarth. Grey Worm. The list goes on. Not every character I enjoyed was a good person, or was good all the time. But I liked them, and I wanted to see where their stories would end. The prequel show, however, is sorely lacking in interesting characters. I dislike them all so thoroughly, and find them all so boring in their awfulness, that I’ve pretty much given up on the show at this point. (Of course, the production isn’t helped by the decision to time skip every few episodes, bringing in new actors to play aged-up versions of characters and adding to the disconnect.)

Last year I took an online writing course with YA author Maggie Stiefvater, known for her rich characters. There was a lot of emphasis on spending time with your cast before even writing one single word, and after watching the trainwreck that is House of the Dragon, I can see where she’s coming from. I’ve always considered my own work more plot than character driven, but even so it’s always been clear to me that if you care about your cast, if you write characters people can care about (yes, even if they’re evil), then at least half the job is done: to light that spark and give readers a story they can connect to.

Over the Hill: Older Characters in Fantasy and Sci Fi

One of my favorite reads last year was The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. Besides the delicious plot and characters, one of the things I liked best about it was that it gave us a forty-year-old protagonist, caught up in a reckoning of what he’s done with his life, where he wants to go from there, and how to deal with his expanding waistline — all that great stuff we start to think about when we hit our forties and fifties.

It’s not that often that speculative fiction has older main characters, at least, not in books with singular or few points of view. When there are bigger ensemble casts, with multiple points of view, this is far more common. Think Tyrion Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Chrisjen Avasarala from The Expanse. Or the screen adaptation of Good Omens, which chose actors in their fifties for the roles of Crowley and Aziraphale. I love all of these characters, but in a larger cast their age becomes diluted, more of a balance for younger characters and less of a leading voice.

There are certainly books out there that check this particular box of allowing older characters to take center stage. One that comes to mind is the fantastic City of Blades (Divine Cities #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett, with General Turyin Mulaghesh. She’s a foul-mouthed and one-armed badass on the verge of retirement, and she’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a fantasy protagonist. Another great entry in this category is the novella Burning Roses, by SL Huang. In this retelling of the myths of Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the Archer, the main characters, who thought their days of adventure were in the past, must come out of retirement and join forces to battle evil once again. But the truth is, sci fi and fantasy — particularly fantasy — tends to focus on younger characters, at most in their thirties (and that’s often pushing it!).

If it’s rare to see older main characters, it’s even harder to find stories where they are allowed to be the main romantic protagonists. This is where, once again, The House in the Cerulean Sea shines. Another that does older romance beautifully — and was probably my absolute favorite book of 2021 — is Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki. This gentle love story between a former violin prodigy who made a deal with the devil and an alien space captain hiding out on Earth in a donut shop warmed me all the way down to my toes. It’s wonderful to see books out there that remember that romance isn’t just for youth.

There will always be an interest in coming-of-age stories, and tales that deal with young adults seeking their place in the world. However, I like to think there’s just as much space for books about the challenges and regrets that come with age and experience. Characters that are not so much ‘over the hill’ as seeing the world from the heights of hard-earned perspective. Hopefully, the success of books like the ones I’ve mentioned here, as well as TV shows such as Our Flag Means Death (yes, I know it’s not exactly fantasy, but middle-aged pirates! In love!!), will remind us that we can put people over forty in the spotlight and let them thrive.

Summer 2022 Updates

It’s summer! Which means it’s time for a rousing game of ‘what’s been happening in J’s world?’

Writing

First off, I sold a story to a really exciting anthology. Fit For The Gods is a collection of diverse and inclusive retellings of Greek myths, edited by Jenn Northington and S. Zainab Williams, to be published by Vintage/Knopf. I know there were a LOT of submissions for the open call, so I was utterly thrilled that my modern-day Brazilian version of Circe and Odysseus was selected! Go here to read more about this project and to see the full list of authors.

The new fantasy anthology by the authors of DISTAFF is still in the works. It’s been rough getting moving, as COVID brought one disaster after another to our team. But I have hopes that this will be our year, and I can’t wait to share my story of fae seduction and addiction to wild magic with everyone!

Moving away from short stories, I’ve been working on something new for a while. It gave me some trouble as I searched for the right voice and angle, but it’s finally clicked, and I think this is THE version that will move forward. It doesn’t have a title yet, but I’m really excited about my sci-fantasy tale of ghost hunters, set in Brazil several decades into the future.

Community

In other news, my team and I wrapped up the 2022 virtual New England SCBWI conference, and feedback has been mostly positive. There were some truly great workshops and presentations, and you can click here to read my post-conference post. This marks the end of my tenure as conference director — what was supposed to last two years lasted three, due to COVID, and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed it, though I’m also happy to pass on the role to next year’s directors. I’m not stepping fully away from our fabulous regional team, however, as I’ve taken on the job of gathering and organizing Member News for our quarterly NESCBWI newsletter.

As for other organization updates, I decided to join the British Fantasy Society, after taking part and thoroughly enjoying one of their online events earlier this year. I also took the plunge and applied to the SFWA, recently renamed the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Association, and am now a full member.

I’m still avoiding large gatherings and am not planning to go to any in-person conferences or conventions in 2022. For next year, I plan to attend at least BOSKONE in February and NESCBWI in late April/early May, both of which will hopefully be in-person. I would really like to attend a horror convention, too, to connect with some of my horror community friends in person, so let’s see if I can make that happen…

Personal

On a personal level, we travelled to Austin, Texas in June to visit family, and had a wonderful few days. What a great city! We spent a day in neighboring Wimberley, too, and came home in love with the local landscape.

July brought our Big Family Trip: after four years (due to the pandemic), we finally returned home to visit our families and friends in Brazil. We managed to fit in a visit to the Iguaçu Falls, and to the beach, too! Leaving was, as always, bitter-sweet — we love our life in the USA but part of our hearts will always remain in São Paulo.

Now we’re home, with September all too close. This year we see our youngest off to college, so that makes both of them gone. Fingers crossed that it will all go smoothly!

Also, I turned fifty in April, and have been slowly working on completing my ‘50 for 50’ project — a list of fifty things I want to accomplish before my next birthday. Some are small and free, like the letter I wrote to my younger self or the walk I plan to take on that trail that I haven’t explored yet. Others require time and/or money, like the brand-new tattoo I got yesterday! And some of the things on my list are shared experiences, like the back painting my youngest did for me or the family visit to a local Renaissance Faire… It’s been a fun project, and I may just repeat this next year too, though perhaps on a smaller scale!

Anyway, that’s it for updates, and I hope you have lots of lovely creative and personal plans of your own to carry you through to the end of the year, no matter how big or small!

A Winding Thread: Books and Journeys

A Winding Thread is an occasional blog segment which looks at tales that connect by theme, setting, character, or vibes. (For the first installment, go to Green Magic.) This time, I’ve gathered a trio of stories that touch on journeys and books — after all, it’s July, and what could be better than traveling with a good book (or ten)?

My picks are: In Other Lands by Sara Rees Brennan, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, and the graphic novel Coming Back, by Jessi Zabarsky.

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan, published in 2017, is a standalone young adult fantasy novel that plays with the magic school trope, sending the young, bookish (and delightfully obnoxious) Elliot into a fantasy realm where scholars are underappreciated, fighting abilities and war are considered the leading traits in human society, and where all the other creatures (elves, dwarves, harpies, mermaids, etc.) that share the land are deemed lesser than their human counterparts.

Elliot, being Elliot, is excited at the chance to immerse himself in books and learn all he can about everything that is not warcraft, and less delighted by the extreme physicality of much of the Borderlands camp. He has the (mis)fortune to fall into a tangled friendship with fellow students Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle (an elven warrior) and Luke Sunborn (of the legendary Sunborn clan), the biggest complication being that Elliot — unloved and ignored at home and bullied at his old school — has no idea how to do friendship in the first place. It is largely a coming-of-age tale, as we follow Elliot in the four years of training camp and watch him grow in sociopolitical awareness, compassion, and even save the world a few times.

Books in this work serve very clear purposes. Both the camp library and books themselves are a haven, a place to retreat and to hide. They’re also Elliot’s weapon of choice, in both a defensive and offensive sense, used to decipher the world and to conquer a place in it. With knowledge gained in books, Elliot goes on several missions to other lands and helps bridge the cultural differences that threaten to push the quick-to-violence humans into battle instead of peace talks. Here, books are both the familiarity that Elliot clings to when he crosses into the Borderlands, and the means to set out on journeys and problem-solve the many issues that exist in this flawed magical realm. 

Books and stories have a far more overarching role in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, published in 2019. In this delicately woven tale by the author of The Night Circus, a book is the key to a magical place where story is everything. In the labyrinthine Harbor that sits above the underground Starless Sea, stories are past, and present, and future, and occasionally out of time entirely. They are puzzles, and riddles, and answers — sometimes to questions the protagonists had never thought to ask. And intertwined with the main story, there are shorter parallel tales that weave a background tapestry that comes sharply into focus as all the threads begin to align.

The Starless Sea is at heart a tale about finding yourself, even if you have to lose yourself to do so. When grad student Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across a mysterious book in his college library, the last thing he expects is to find a scene inside depicting him as a young boy. His attempt to understand leads him below ground to the Harbor, a place that is more than just a library; it is a realm of lost cities and seas, of love stories and sacrifice. As Zachary travels the paths beneath with fierce Mirabel and handsome Dorian, he begins to unravel the tangled threads of his own story and that of his companions, and the new story that emerges feels both surprising and inevitable.

Here, we have tales that serve a wide variety of purposes: they are doorways, they are destination, and they are purpose — destiny itself, if you will. The stories (within stories, within stories) are the entire journey from start to end. Books are not the practical haven that they serve as in Brennan’s novel. Instead, they are the entire and all-consuming world. One thing the two books do have in common, however, is characters thrust into strange worlds who must rely on the information they find in books and stories to navigate those alien waters.

My last pick is a graphic novel, Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky. This one’s the outlier, not just in its narrative format, but because it is less about books themselves — though one of the two main characters is a librarian — and more about the stories that form the backbone of a society. Published in 2022, Zabarsky’s work looks at what happens when people grow rigid in their ways, adhering too strictly to the stories that make up their culture without allowing room for change.

In a community where almost everyone is magic, shapeshifter Preet is the strongest of all. Her wife Valissa, however, has no magic, but as the town librarian, it falls to powerless Valissa to face an attack upon their repository of knowledge and laws. Valissa sets out on a spiritual voyage through the magical lands accessed within the library’s depths. In the meantime, Preet is forced to leave everything she knows behind when she adopts a child and breaks one of her community’s most sacred laws.

While they are both on their own journeys — one literal and one magical — Preet and Valissa learn very different lessons. Valissa, that change and fluidity are necessary, and Preet, that there are many ways to live a life, and her community’s way is only one possibility. When they are finally reunited, things do not go smoothly, but eventually they realize these different lessons can be combined to lead their people on a new path. 

The journey here is knowledge; it’s about leaving old, outdated stories behind and creating others that make more sense. There is an intersection with The Starless Sea, in that both books deal with allowing stories to end when their time is over, and making space for new stories, for new directions in which to travel. In Valissa’s words, “We’re strongest when we can learn from each other, as our ancestors did. We’re strongest when we can bend and change to help one another.”

I’d like to make a brief note on the role of libraries; in all three works, libraries serve as gateways. This is metaphorical in In Other Lands, with the library as a house of knowledge that can cause transformation. In Coming Back, the library is a literal portal, leading to a shift in values and to making room for new knowledge. And in The Starless Sea, we have the college library, which provides the key in form of a book, and we have the Harbor, a library that is an entire storyworld in itself.

Ultimately, this trio of tales deals with how books affect us: on a personal level, in our interactions with others, and as a wider society. Stories can be a refuge, a validation, a weapon, a path, a purpose, a treatise… or simply bring joy.

“We are all stardust and stories.”

Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea

The Darkest Timeline

In the Community episode Remedial Chaos Theory, a die is thrown, over and over. Each time, the episode restarts, creating a new timeline. One of these is the Darkest Timeline. In this particular case, all versions start out with the same setting and characters, and with each throw the writers simply play a game of ‘what if?’ In our own writing, these variables are not fixed. We create new ones for each tale we tell. So, out of all the possible variables, what is it that makes a story dark? 

I lead a writing group for teens at my local library. At one of our recent meetings, the discussion centered around stories that take a walk on the dark side. We tried to look at this from all angles: genre, aesthetic, mood, plot, themes… After all, ‘dark’ can have many meanings. A horror tale is, by definition, dark. But realistic fiction can be, too, especially when it deals with thematic threads such as death or trauma.

(One thing my teen group brought up is that theme does not necessarily equal dark. You can bring up trauma with a gentle touch, allowing space for joy and hope. Hope — throughout or at the end of a story — is great for tempering dark themes!)

Genre, of course, plays a big part in whether a story is dark or not. Each genre has its conventions, so while a cozy mystery will never be dark, a crime procedural will definitely tread in the shadows. Know your genre and know its conventions! Yes, they can be bent, and mixed, and played around with, but if your aim is to go dark, it helps to know your audience. 

Mood and aesthetic are also key, helping set the scene for your story. Even the most mundane setting can turn dark: how many gut-curdling fictional scenes have played out in everyday places like supermarkets, high schools, and playgrounds? The teens in my group had some great suggestions to get in the right mood, including Pinterest boards, music, watching movies, and keeping a dream journal — we’ve all had those deeply disquieting dreams that haunt us for days, and even if you don’t use the dream itself, you can tap into the remembered emotions to fuel your writing.

Dark stories can start off in your face and obvious from the very first page. But I prefer those that open with the barest promise, and then build up the shadows, layer by layer, until we can no longer see the light. The most successful stories bring it all together in this transition from metaphorical day to deepest night: characters, genre, setting, themes, mood, all working towards one single goal — to immerse the reader in the darkest timeline. 

Have Book, Will Read #29

Spring is quickly turning into a Connecticut summer and, once the pollen count settles, I’m looking forward to lazy weekends spent with a book in the hammock. For now, I’m hiding my allergies away inside, and what better way to escape prime sneezing season than to get lost in a story?

Recent Reads: All the magic! (Science is magic too, right?)

I managed to grab John Scalzi’s new offering, The Kaiju Preservation Society, almost as soon as it hit my library’s shelves (I was second on the hold list). I love Scalzi’s clean prose and easy worldbuilding—his work always feels so effortless, and all I need to do as a reader is let go and enjoy the ride. This standalone novel was just the book I was looking for: well-paced, quirky, and a heck of a lot of fun.

Stuck as a food service app driver after getting fired from his corporate job during the Covid-19 pandemic, a lucky delivery connects Jamie Gray to an old college acquaintance who offers him a well-paying job in an ‘animal rights’ organization. The first catch? A ton of non-disclosures to sign. The second? The ‘animals’ are massive dinosaur-like creatures known as kaiju that live in an alternate dimension. And it turns out they really do need protecting—from human poachers who could put both the kaiju and our Earth at risk. The Kaiju Preservation Society is a top read, and one I thoroughly recommend.

The graphic novel Magical Boy (Volume 1) by The Kao riffs on the magical girl genre made popular by manga and anime. Teenager Max is already dealing with coming out as a trans guy and trying to navigate the pitfalls of high school. Then, just to complicate matters, he finds out that all those childhood stories of magic his mother liked to tell are real: he really is the last in a long line of Magical Girls tasked with protecting humanity from the dark forces of evil. Now, with support from a loyal group of friends, Max must accept and learn to use his powers, come out at school, get his parents to accept his gender, and become the world’s first Magical Boy. All in your average school week!

Originally a webcomic, and published as a graphic novel in 2022, Magical Boy hits all the right notes. It’s the perfect mix of sweet, sassy, and heartfelt, with darker topics such as transphobia, homophobia, and bullying handled perfectly, keeping the story light but not trivializing these issues. The main character, Max, is lovely, and this first volume slowly collects a delightful ensemble cast that promises the best sort of chaos for the upcoming conclusion in Volume 2.

I’ve been a fan of The Tarot Sequence series by KD Edwards since I found his work last year. Set in New Atlantis, which just so happens to be located on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, this urban fantasy has everything you want from the genre: awesome magic, secrets and lies, a wide range of supernatural creatures, and a corrupt and ancient society that coexists uneasily with the human world. The characters are wonderful, and this has quickly become one of my favorites series ever. (As a bonus, the author has a series of free novelettes and short stories available on his website to add extra color to the world.)

The Hourglass Throne is the third installment, closing off the first trilogy in what is pitched as a nine-book arc. This time, Rune Saint John is up against an ancient power that threatens all of New Atlantis. But he’s not alone; this is book three, after all, and Rune’s found family has grown. It’s not just him and Brand anymore—Rune has people who care about him now, if he can only learn to let others shoulder some of the responsibility! I have so much love for every one of Rune’s peculiar little crew, and to see him, Brand, and Addam grow into true leaders (and parents!) has been wonderful.

Now Reading: In space… Space… Space…

When I first heard that Charlie Jane Anders was dipping her toes in YA with the Unstoppable space opera trilogy, I said ‘sign me up’. The first book, Victories Greater Than Death, was just the right mix of breathless and breathtaking, with plenty of sweet and quiet moments to temper the action. I’m currently reading the sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, and so far, it’s living up to the first installment. This time, we’ve moved away from Tina to embrace two alternating points of view: Rachael and Elza. It’s always a gamble switching POV in a series, but so far it’s definitely paid off. I love them both so much, and we still get plenty of Tina’s voice via the text messages and emails sent to Rachael and Elza. Two thumbs up for this endearing space saga.

To Read: *does the robot* *trips and falls on face in the middle of the dancefloor*

The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells should need no introduction. Spanning novellas, a novel, and short stories, the series has won numerous awards and accolades and a huge fanbase, too. I’ve had the first three novellas sitting in my Kindle for a while, and I feel like I’m finally ready to jump into the tale of the former Security Unit AI who gains independence, which it primarily uses to watch soap operas. Book 1, All Systems Red, here I come!

I hope you’ve all got some great books lined up, ready to enjoy in the warm weather (or to snuggle inside with, for those of you in the southern hemisphere). Happy reading!

Conference Round-Up: NESCBWI 22

Art by Gina Perry

The New England SCBWI Spring Conference ended two weeks ago, and I’m finally crawling out of a haze of post-conference exhaustion and Covid to write this post. Yes, Covid. I’m thinking of getting a t-shirt made: ‘I went to a virtual conference and STILL caught Covid!’

Our regional kidlit conference is very dear to my heart. I love the friendly vibes, and the real and present sense of community. I was thrilled when I was asked to help co-direct the event. For 2022, the theme we went with is Find Your Star: Let it Shine. When I chose the theme, I was thinking about how every writer and illustrator treads their own path. Our dreams take different shape, and so do our goals. We work at different speeds, and in different ways. One person’s star may not be another. The night sky is made up of a multitude of constellations, and all of them are wonderful. I wanted the conference weekend to be an opportunity for attendees to find THEIR star, and let it shine.

But even online conferences need a lot of planning. Before any shining could be done, speakers had to be invited, workshops submissions assessed, and volunteers brought on board as moderators and for other behind-the-scenes jobs. Then there are contracts, and budgets, and numbers to crunch, before registration even opens. And a LOT of head-scratching and problem-solving. The team — myself, my new co-director Jim Hill, and Regional Advisor Kris Asselin, with a huge amount of tech help from Assistant Regional Advisor Christy Yaros — had our work cut out to make everything work on a virtual platform: two Keynotes, one Friday Night Welcome event with multiple speakers, a publishing panel, one guided meditation, twelve Ask-a-Mentor sessions, and thirty-four workshops, including eight intensives! And socials; lots of time for online socials, including the Friday night Open Mics.

As the countdown went from weeks to days, and then hours, our team was both excited and anxious: would the tech run smoothly? Would all of our faculty and moderators manage to log in? WOULD WE HAVE A CONFERENCE AT ALL? Spoiler alert: yes, to all of that. Christy had to do a lot of last-minute tech magic, but we got everyone who was meant to be online there, and (I hope!) most attendees, too. 

Thanks Stacy!

I don’t have space to go over everything from the weekend (and I’m still catching up with workshop recordings!), so I’ll end this with a few highlights from the main events. To everyone who came, whether faculty, volunteer, or attendee: thank you for being there, thank you for being you. Find your star, BE your star, and let your light shine.

  • Jane Yolen talked about the layers of time that books take — from writer, agent, and publisher — and pointed out that the only time we have control over as writers is our writing time; a lesson on patience from a Master for those seeking a career in books!
  • Heidi Stemple and Rajani LaRocca held a great Creative Conversation. Rajani urged us to follow the dopamine — “Find the thing that makes you light up and hold onto it”; while Heidi told us “Have grace with yourself. Do not expect the perfect novel to appear.”
  • Keynote speaker Tara Lazar returned to Heidi’s words, reminding us again, “Have a lot of grace with yourself.” She also told us to do what makes us smile, and to follow our internal age as a guide for writing kid lit. Cue lots of fun comments in the chat box as to what age we all secretly are! (Personally, I suspect I alternate between twelve and sixty-two…)
  • Our illustrator Keynote John Parra said, “Find truth in what you do.” He also gave some great practical advice: make sure you have a place to work and that it’s ready to go; procrastination is the worst thing for creatives.
  • And last (but certainly not least), our publishing panel brought some hard truths but also a lot of hope. Agent Liza Fleissig asked us to #nevergiveup. “There’s space for everyone. (…) Your star will shine when your stars finally align.

“A book, too, can be a star, explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” Madeleine L’Engle.

Some of our fabulous New England SCBWI Regional Team

A Breadcrumb Trail of Self

There’s been some writer chatter across social media lately about the need to separate the author from the character. And this is good and necessary, because we are not our characters. Often our creations behave in ways we would never ever find okay in real life — because this is fiction, this is storytelling, and even the worst sort of character serves a purpose in our narratives.

But. But. We don’t create in a vacuum. Writers take inspiration from the world around them, and the key word here is inspiration, not copying, not actual transmutation from real to fiction. If you ask me who I base my characters on, I’ll probably say ‘no one’, and that includes myself. This is true, but also not true.

True: none of my characters are me.

Not true: all of my characters are me, in small ways, often hard to define.

It’s not as simple as saying, this one bites their nails like I do. That one has brown hair. (Spoiler alert: they all do. There was just too much reverence for blue-eyed blondes when I was growing up in 1980s Brazil, and teen me just wanted to see brown hair like mine taking center stage.) Yes, I often borrow quirks and habits for my characters (after all, I know what it feels like to bite your nails down to the quick, until your fingers are raw and tender), but the ways in which my characters are me are a lot more subtle than that.

At first draft, they’re often two-dimensional sketches, a suggestion of who they might become. In part because I’m still getting to know them. And in part because, at this stage, I’m more focused on getting the story into a basic shape that makes sense. Plot is key. Later, I’ll fill in the blanks. I’ll breathe life into my characters, and try to make them more than walking, talking paper dolls.

The real character work starts when I begin revising that most basic of drafts. Here, it helps to dig into my own feelings to color in theirs. Anxiety, sadness, anger, hope, love, fear… The specific moments remain mine, but the emotions, or rather, the memory of those emotions, are all there for the borrowing. And so, I add a dash of this to one character, a sprinkle of that to another. They begin to come alive, and to take on an existence of their own. They’re not me, none of them. They are their own creatures. But in that spark of life, there is some of my own self to act as fuel.

I suspect that, if you were to take every character I’ve ever created, you would find an entire trail of breadcrumbs, a trail of self that leads to me. A million jigsaw pieces, a broken mosaic of mirrored slivers that reflect the million undecipherable fragments of self. Me. And not me, all at once, all together.