Recurring Themes in Writing

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 But if you take a moment to stop and have a good look at your writing projects—all of them, published or unpublished, polished or abandoned—you’ll most likely find a common thread.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

About a month ago, I tweeted the following:

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

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

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

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

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

X marks the sweet spot between theme and voice

Goal Setting for Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Fresh

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

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

Writer things

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

Fun stuffs

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

Personal bits and pieces

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

Coming in 2021

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

WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2021!

Click here for Shrewsbury Library video on the library Facebook page!

Families of Origin in Sci Fi and Fantasy

Who’s your favorite fictional family of origin?

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

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

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

Safe ports and anchors

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

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

Loving, present, and accounted for

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

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

Families who fight evil together, remain together

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

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

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

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

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

You inspire me!

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

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

Have Book, Will Read #24

It’s been a long, long, LONG, LoNG year for everyone. A lot of my to-read list got set aside in favor of rereads or comfort reads, and you know what? I’m fine with that. We all cope however we can, whether that means devouring every new ARC you can get hold of on NetGalley, or abandoning novels entirely in favor of binge-watching The Dragon Prince on repeat. That said, I did manage to read some new books over the past few months, so here are a few.

Recent Reads: Crunching numbers, solving crimes.

I’d been wanting to read Kin by Snorri Kristjansson for ages. Unfortunately, it took a while for it to become available here in the US. A shame, because this Agatha Christie meets Vikings murder mystery deserves ALL THE READERS. It’s fun, clever, and dark all at the same time, and an absolute delight to read.

Set in the year 970, a tension-fraught family reunion at the farm owned by a former Viking warlord quickly sours as old quarrels resurface and eventually blood is spilled. The warlord’s adopted daughter, Helga, sets out to solve the murder before an innocent is punished for a crime she is sure he did not commit. Kin is the first of the Helga Finnsdottir Mysteries, and I look forward to reading book 2, Council.

Another series that had been on my list for a while is Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times sci fi trilogy. I took advantage of a Kindle promo this year to grab all three, and honestly had a blast with them. Starting with One Word Kill, Lawrence, who is known for his dark fantasy books, dives into the 1980s with a tale of time travel, numbers, and Dungeons & Dragons.

The story starts in 1986, introducing us to 15 year old math genius Nick Hayes. A visit from a future version of Nick sets him on a path full of intrigue and time paradoxes that closely parallels the D&D game that Nick and his friends play on weekends. The story continues in Limited Wish and Dispel Illusion, following Nick through the eighties and nineties. It’s a clever and fast-paced trilogy, with lots of fun pop culture throwback moments and some really great characters. Well worth a read.

A while back I’d read the first three novels in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, and this year I decided to start again from the first book and work my way through. I’ve just finished the 10th book (including two novellas), False Value, and I can honestly say that this series has been a consistent bright spot for me this year. Alternately white-knuckled-page-turning and laugh-out-loud, Aaronovitch’s work is a guaranteed hit for urban fantasy enthusiasts.

The series follows policeman Peter Grant as he learns to navigate his way through London’s supernatural world as part of the Folly, the Metropolitan Police’s department for dealing with the weird and unusual. Between river deities, vengeful ghosts, and the fae, Peter’s cases are never dull. False Value drops Peter into the world of tech startups and corporate security, and has enough twists to keep readers on their toes. If you’re already a fan of the series, this 2020 release keeps up the good work. If you’re new to it and looking for a great read, I definitely recommend the series (but do start at book 1!). 

Now Reading: Reconnecting with old friends…

As I’m sure all fans of epic fantasy are aware, the fourth book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive is here! I’ve only just started Rhythm of War, and I’ve carefully avoided spoilers, chapter previews, etc., so I can’t say much about it yet, but Sanderson is a talented writer who never lets his readers down, and I already know I’m going to enjoy it! (I did however look up a recap of the past three books as a refresher before diving in.) At 1219 pages long, I’ll have plenty to keep me busy over the next couple of weeks, and I look forward to reconnecting with favorite characters like Kaladin and Shallan.

To Read: The stuff of myths and legends.

I have two books on my Christmas present list, and I can’t wait to unwrap them! The first is The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, the tale of a woman who makes a bargain to live forever, but is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. It came out earlier this year and has had some great reviews — the owner of the indie bookstore I use was thrilled when she saw it on my shopping list. I’ve loved other books by Schwab, such as the Shades of Magic trilogy and the Monsters of Verity duology, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to like this one, too.

I saw author S.L. Huang talking about Burning Roses on Twitter, and just knew I had to get it. Another 2020 release, the story is a fairytale retelling mashing up East and West by bringing together Red Riding Hood and mythical archer Hou Yi, as both characters are forced out of middle-aged retirement in a joint quest to save the world. We definitely need more older heroes, especially women, so this one went straight on the to-read list!

I hope you found some interesting stories to delve into this year, either in books or other media, and I wish you all fantastic fictional worlds to explore in 2021!

December blogging vibes…

Revision: making your story shine

Revising, with bonus dog

For the last month I’ve been deep in revisions for my new novel. I finished the latest round today, and now my story is off with the four brave souls who offered to beta read it. It’s a weird feeling getting to this point, which is pretty much as far as I can go alone without feedback from others. I’ve been living and breathing my plot and characters pretty much constantly since mid-April, and finally it’s done. Well, not done, but done for now.

I’ve been refining my revision process over the years, tweaking it a little each time. There are SO MANY ways to approach revision, and each person has their own, but I think there’s one thing that we can all agree on: no matter how fantastic a writer you are, no matter how polished your prose, or how detailed your outlines prior to starting, if you want your work to shine YOU WILL NEED TO REVISE.

The first draft is literally that: a draft. It’s a pencil drawing, bare lines on a page. It may be beautiful in its raw simplicity, but at some point, you’re going to need to ink those lines and add color to the images. In writing, even if you’re the most hardcore outliner, that first draft is always going to be a discovery journey to some extent. Characters might reveal new traits or backstories; an unforeseen plot hole might lead to an entire new facet of your world you hadn’t imagined; or you might find your pacing is a little off and suddenly you’re forced to add an unplanned side arc.

But how do you tackle revisions? And how many revisions are enough? Here’s where the water muddies. Because there is no clear answer. Contemporary middle grade and YA author Carrie Firestone, whose latest novel Dress Coded is a fantastic dive into the world of preteen body image and school power politics, is a big fan of rewriting. Her first versions of stories are always discovery drafts, and it takes her a full rewrite to flesh out the bones. Fantasy and sci fi author Brandon Sanderson uses a complex revision system for his epic Stormlight series, with an entire team of readers using shared feedback documents. There is no right way or wrong way. And the only path to finding what works for you is to try different methods until you figure out the one that best fits your work style.

For this latest novel, and the one before, this has been my approach:

— For the first ten or so chapters, I constantly revise. If something new turns up, I go back and edit. I do this because I’m still feeling my way in this new storyworld, and writing progresses slowly enough to permit this constant stop and start.

— By the time I’m nearing the halfway point, my writing pace has picked up. Now I open a revision file to keep notes on things that will need fixing/adding/changing, but I no longer go back to make those changes so as not to lose momentum. Examples of changes are: a new character trait I added along the way; the fact that one character suddenly owns a gun that needs to be mentioned before it shows up; a worldbuilding idea that emerged and now needs to be fed in throughout the story.

— Once that initial draft is done, I immediately start a first revision. I often hear the advice ‘let the story sit for a while’, but for this first pass I like to jump straight in. My mind is bubbling with the plot changes I made and alterations that need adjusting, and it’s easier to keep moving. This first revision pass includes the big picture/big issue stuff as well as smaller scene-specific changes and chapter rewrites.

— After this first pass is over, I do another, for fine-tuning and for more delicate work. If the first revision is for adding color, this one is for shading.

— We’ve reached the point I’m at right now. Getting eyes on my work. For those of you with agents and/or publishing contracts, your agent/editor might be the person who does this for you. In my case, I’ve sent it to three writer friends — two from my critique group who have seen early chapters, and another to give me ‘fresh eyes’. I’ve also sent it to a non-writer who is an avid reader, for a different perspective. This is the ‘step away’ point for me. It’s out of my hands, so that means I get to distance myself a bit from my work.

— When I eventually receive feedback from my lovely beta readers, I plan to take a little time to let the critiques and commentary sink in and make notes.

— Finally, I’ll do another full revision pass. Hopefully this will be the last one!

Of course, my story won’t be perfect. As anyone who has sold a novel knows, if this one finds a home there will be editor’s notes and more revisions ahead. With my first published novel, Heart Blade, I ended up doing a full rewrite after reading through my editor’s feedback. 

Revising your work might seem at first like a tough, heartbreaking, uphill job, but I promise that, if you persevere, you’ll carve your story into the wonderful sculpture that lies at its core. Find your own path to revision, the one that works for you, that makes your best words shine, and hang in there. It’ll be worth it in the end!

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 2

Click link for Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Now you’ve had a while to consider your world in general, it’s time to put some thought into your main character(s). What feel do you want people to get when they meet them on the page? Do you want readers to immediately emphasize with them, or will your characters have to work for appreciation?

Sam, for instance, is usually a ‘nice guy’ name. Think Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Sam Winchester from Supernatural (discounting the whole ‘soulless Sam’ phase…). Or bar owner and shapeshifter Sam Merlotte from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. If you name a character Sam, readers are signaled that this is probably NOT a villain.

Names have nuances, shades. This doesn’t mean they belong exclusively to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, but names can be a good indication of personality. Think Maggie Stiefvater’s Ronan Lynch, from her Raven Cycle books. There’s a sharp name if I ever saw one, and it suits the shaved-headed street-racing Ronan perfectly. Another sharp name, also with an ‘R’ coincidentally, belongs to private investigator Rojan Dizon, the world-weary main character in the fantasy trilogy by Francis Knight that starts with Fade to Black.

Names can play off each other, too. In Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity YA duology, the narrative is shared by two main characters: Kate Harker of the knife’s edge smile and August Flynn, the heart-of-gold monster with the soft gray eyes. Hard vs gentle in the names, and hard vs gentle in their personalities, too. A perfect combination.

If you’re writing a story set in the real world (whether sci fi, urban/contemporary fantasy, or other subgenres), you have some serious decision-making to do with regards to classic vs trendy names. In Part 1 of this post, I already mentioned Scalzi’s option to use long-lasting names like John and Susan. In my Blade Hunt Chronicles books, I have a vampire — Alex — who’s almost 1000 years old. I wanted a name that could have plausibly been in use and yet still felt current, and I figured that Alexander was a timeless choice. The problem with trendy names is that they can date quickly, so if you want something a little different, think hard about which modern names feel as if they may have lasting power.

This brings us to the kid lit names vs adult names conundrum. If you’re writing for teens or preteens, you’re going to need names they can relate to — whether you’re dabbling in real-world sci fi/fantasy or far future/secondary worlds. Unless you’re setting a story in the 1980s, Tracy is probably not a good choice for your female lead (though it may be perfect for an older supporting character like a parent or mentor!). Rick Riordan is great at names that are fun enough to appeal to his middle grade and YA readership, while at the same time escaping the ‘trendiness trap’: think Perseus ‘Percy’ Jackson ( a nod to the Greek and Roman mythology that most of his work is based on) and others such as Annabeth, Leo, Jason (another nod to mythology), and Nico. 

Hot tip! Use your own kids or borrow one from a friend to test your names on. I bounce YA character name ideas off my teen daughter, and her feedback is priceless.

When it comes to stories that are not real-world based, there’s more leeway. But you still need to take youth appeal into consideration. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ main character Katniss is named after a plant. However, variations of names with ‘Kat’ in them are common enough (and another of those timeless classics) for the name to feel relatable. This is a great name, by the way: the hard K sound suits Katniss’ hard-as-nails personality, and the sibilance of the ending evokes an arrow let loose. So good!

How about where to source names? Baby naming sites are, of course, a fabulous tool. There are so many of these sites nowadays that you can add search words to narrow things down. For instance, ‘Celtic baby names’ might help with your sword-wielding fantasy heroine; ‘unusual baby names’ may lend a sci fi vibe to your blaster-toting wise-cracking space mercenary. There are sites that let you narrow your search down by number of syllables, and you can always look up names with a particular letter if you know the vibe you’re going for.

There are specialist sites, too; I once spent a pleasant afternoon looking up names used in Britain around 1000 CE for my coven of ancient witches. And you can also search surnames; there are several sites that will help you find the most common ones to fit your character’s background, or surnames that have been around for centuries — handy if your thing is urban fantasy and your detective just happens to be the heir of a long line of demon slayers. But don’t discount looking closer to home… My kids’ school directories and yearbooks are a great resource for first and last names. The same goes for town Facebook groups or the local newspaper. 

Hot tip! Keep an ongoing list of interesting names you come across, even if they have nothing to do with the story you’re writing; someday you’ll thank past you. I keep a list on my notes app and update as I use up names or find new ones, and I’m very thankful for past me!

And, finally, we can’t talk character naming without talking diversity. We live in a beautifully diverse world, and hopefully your work will reflect that, even if you write second world fantasy or far-flung sci fi. If you’re writing in a contemporary setting, as I tend to do, then naming is where it all starts. Your work has an entire cast of major and minor characters, so please put some thought into what identities you choose for them.

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

“Names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards.” 

Galileo Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo

So you have a cool idea for a story. You’re ready to start writing. But, wait! What’s your main character’s name? And what about the best friend/love interest/mentor/talking animal sidekick? If you’re anything like me, you need that perfect names to move forward. But deciding a character’s identity isn’t quite as simple as pulling up a bunch of baby naming sites. (Disclaimer: I love baby naming sites!) First, you need to do a bit of homework…

Before anything else, take a moment to think about your story’s world. I’m not saying you need to write up a 50-page document on your universe (unless that’s part of your process), but it’s worth doing some brainstorming, even if you’re a ‘pantser’. Is your story set in contemporary times? In the future, but still on Earth? Is it set in an alternate history past? In space, centuries from now? In a completely new fantasy world? 

Doing a little worldbuilding before you name your characters (yes, even the ones with minor ‘walk on’ roles) is crucial as names add layers and texture to your story. If you’re writing in contemporary times or in a near enough real world past/future to be relatable, it’s also a way to bring in diversity by way of first and/or last names. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, for instance, which is set in a not-too-distant future, character surnames include Martinez, Ng, and Kapoor.

What if your story is set further in the future; will completely new naming conventions and trends have set in? John Scalzi gets around this in his Old Man’s War universe by using classic names that have been around for centuries and will most likely endure — John, Harry, and Susan, for example. Not only does this make historical sense, but it also serves to give us an initial familiarity that goes on to be turned on its head once the characters arrive in space and their entire lives change. After that, the soothing weight of his ‘Harrys’ and ‘Johns’ becomes a tether to a life left behind. In contrast, the different alien peoples his characters encounter all have unique naming conventions depending on their languages and biology (in terms of vocalization). 

In Pierce Brown’s Red Rising universe, set on Earth’s colonies within our solar system, names have moved on from contemporary choices and naming conventions are according to social caste. The upper class, for instance, leans heavily on Latin names from the Roman period: Virginia, Pax, Titus, Adrius, Nero, etc. It’s a nod to his characters’ Earthly origins, but also helps underline the importance of the military and the separation between classes.

If you’re writing sci fi with no Earth connections, you have a little more freedom. But it helps to give the main characters names that at least feel familiar. In Star Wars (a galaxy far, far away), we have Luke and Leia to anchor the story. In Jo Zebedee’s Inheritance Trilogy space opera, key characters like Kare and Ealyn sound like they fit right in with Zebedee’s Northern Irish background. The same goes for secondary world fantasy. Of course, you can go as wild as you want with character names. But if they feel like names we might see in our day-to-day, it’s easier to relate. Elspeth Cooper’s Gair (The Wild Hunt) and Peter V. Brett’s Arlen and Leesha (The Demon Cycle) come to mind — they’re different, yes, but not so much that we can’t imagine them in our lives. Of course, a well-known trick in secondary world fantasy is to use variations of everyday names, lending instant familiarity. In this category we have characters like George R.R. Martin’s Jon Snow, Jaime Lannister, or Benjen Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire). 

Once you know your world, it’s time to pick it apart a little and set a few naming standards to help readers navigate your fictional universe. Do your dystopian future rebels use military-style callsigns? Do your fantasy working class characters tend to be named after the saints in your fictional religion? Do the northerners and southerners in your world have distinct histories so that names have regional variations?

Robin Hobb is a great example of this in her Farseer books. The nobility in her Six Duchies is often named after a virtue. Members of the Royal Family include Chivalry, Verity, Patience and so on. Flower names tend to appear amongst the commoners — Laurel and Nettle, for instance. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien also uses flowers as girl names among his hobbits — Sam Gamgee’s daughter is named Elanor after the golden blossoms of Lothlórien, and his wife’s name is Rose. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, many of the kings seem to follow a naming pattern, too: see Caspian, Rilian, and Tirian. And in her Seven Realms/Shattered Realms books, Cinda Williams Chima has a cool convention for the Royal Family of her Queendom of the Fells: Raisa ana’Marianna is daughter to Queen Marianna ana’Lissa and mother of Alyssa ana’Raisa. 

You don’t have to over-complicate your character naming, but having a few standards in place to help readers understand things like nationality, class, alien species, or religion is a relatively simple way to build richness and depth into your story (and it can be lots of fun, too). It means that, instead of a random mishmash of names, your readers will be able to identify a consistency that adds realism to your fictional world and brings it to life.

These aren’t the names you’re looking for…

See Part 2 for my thoughts on individual character names, as well as a brief look at differences between names in stories for children/teens and adults. Also: sources!

Summer 2020 Updates

I’m back after a long summer hiatus. I also took a much-needed Twitter break, only dipping in every few days for a peek. Sometimes, taking a step away from some of the things that make our life busy (however much we may enjoy them) is a breath of fresh air!

So, what have I been up to since my last update post?

First of all, as you may have noticed, I have a new website banner. The gorgeous artwork is by the talented Olívia Guidotti ­— she takes all sorts of commissions (portraits, original artwork, etc.) and can be contacted via her Instagram page. I figured my site was overdue for a new look, and nothing better than Olívia’s fun art style to show a little of who I am and what I write.

Art by Olívia

In writing news, I have a short story out called The Sugar Cane Sea. The fabulous full color special edition of the NOT ALL MONSTERS anthology (Strangehouse Books, edited by Sara Tantlinger) came out in April, and the general release edition on Amazon comes out in October. This collection of stories by ‘Women of Horror’ is so good! And it includes gorgeous artwork by Don Noble.

There’s more anthology news! The wonderful women from the SFFChronicles.com forum who banded together to bring you DISTAFF in 2019 are back. Our latest project is the fantasy anthology FEMMES FAE-TALES, with a tentative release date of February 2021. I can’t wait to share my own story, Taste of Honey, about a woman who seeks peace and refuge in the hills of northwestern Connecticut from the mess that is her personal life, but finds something dark and addictive instead. Keep an eye out for upcoming artwork, TOC, and author bios at DISTAFFanthology.wordpress.com.

As for longer work, I’ve stepped away from YA for a bit. I spent nearly a year working and reworking a YA novel that kept going in all the wrong directions. I decided to take a break and fell into an adult urban fantasy novel that I’m having all kinds of fun with. This is my first time writing a full-length novel NOT aimed at teens, and honestly, it’s been refreshing. I’m about halfway through the first draft, and really excited about it.

Outlining and plot wrangling, with puppy photobomb

The COVID-19 lockdown with all its social distancing rules has been an interesting time. No more in-person meet-ups… On the other hand, the sheer number of offerings of online events has been almost overwhelming. For writers, there have been craft webinars, author interviews, panels, readings, book launches, and everything else under the sun. A couple of highlights among the events I’ve attended have been a great conversation between Victoria Schwab and Neil Gaiman, brought by Tor, and the all-day reCONvene convention, offered by the lovely folks of NESFA who run Boskone every year.

On a personal note, we’ve now been in the USA for seven years! It’s gone by so fast… Of course we miss our friends and family back in Brazil, and São Paulo is and will always be home for us. But we love our life in green and leafy Connecticut, and this is the country that saw all of my writing milestones take place: first story publications, first novels, first event panels, and so on. They say that the number seven marks the end of first infancy, and the start of the next period of personal growth, and I hope to see that reflected in my work, and in our lives here in general!

I know these past months haven’t been easy, and that a lot of us have been finding that our creativity took a hit, especially in the first weeks after the pandemic went global. So here’s to a positive second semester for 2020: wishing you all the brightest of creative sparks, and the energy and time to follow your star.

A Space of My Own

My mother gave me an inspirational present, many years ago, when I was in my early twenties. The title is A Room of Her Own, by Chris Casson Madden, and it’s one of those coffee table style books full of lovely photos. It contains offices, workshops, relaxation spaces, and others, belonging to wide variety of women: designers, artists, poets, TV presenters, etc. 

For years I told myself that one day I would write. I had a daydream — the perfect office, the sort of lovely sanctuary that belonged in the pages of that coffee-table compilation. Time passed, and eventually I did dust off the writing dream. But by then I had kids, a husband, and a busy home life. The space and means (and time!) to indulge in a room of my own was not something that fitted in with my reality.

Since we bought this house in 2014, my writing office has been the kitchen table. I happen to like working at the center of things (I did try a desk in the bedroom, but it felt too isolated), so I didn’t mind the lack of my own room to work in, but I did find I missed having a space in the house that was just mine. After some research, and a lot of furniture shifting, we acquired a second-hand secretary-style desk with plenty of drawers and shelf space for my bits and pieces and my project folders, and found a corner of the kitchen for it, right next to my small indoor jungle of potted plants. I added some cork board to the inside of the doors for pinning things, and done! My space was born.

Now with twinkle lights!

I love seeing writer friends post photos of their offices. And I thoroughly enjoy those pictures of famous authors behind their desks, sunlight streaming over full bookcases, with maybe a worn but comfy armchair in the corner and a couple of cats. (Yes, you all know the sort of photo I’m talking about!) But the truth is, most of us don’t have a spare room to lay claim to and call our own.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t carve out a little bit of your home for yourself. Perhaps it’s a desk in a corner of the living room, like the one belonging to Northern Irish sci fi and fantasy author Jo Zebedee. A repurposed coat cupboard, a corner under the stairs, a desk that does double-duty as a bedside table — the possibilities are endless. If you’re really pressed for space, how about a rolling cart that can hold folders, notebooks, and a laptop, and move to wherever you’re sitting at the time? I spent months looking for ideas on Pinterest before I figured out a solution that worked for me (here are some of the ideas I found), and believe me, there are a lot of creative options out there.

Jo Zebedee and her new writing desk (photo from Jo)

My little secretary desk might not seem like much, but it’s all mine. When I sit there, I feel like I’m in one of those magazine spread offices, comfy armchair and cats and all. It might look like just a piece of furniture, but to me, it’s an entire state of mind. So pick your spot and create a space for yourself. Go on. You deserve it.