Off To NESCBWI 15!

Tomorrow I’m off to Springfield, MA for the New England SCBWI conference. An entire weekend of workshops, panels, and critique sessions!

This will be my first time at the Springfield conference, but I’ve heard such great things I can’t help but be excited. I’ll report back next week, but in case you’ve never been to a writing conference or convention before, here’s a little piece I wrote a while back on Jo Zebedee’s blog.

In the meantime, since yesterday was Earth Day, please enjoy a photo of the Nepaug Reservoir, not far from home.

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Why Is A Birthday Like A Writing Desk?

(Apologies to Lewis Carroll for mangling his famous riddle, but I couldn’t make the Raven fit!)

I turned 43 a week ago, which is fine by me. I have to admit, I’m loving my forties. My thirties went by in a wonderful, manic rush of house moves and babies and toddlers and general child-rearing delicious craziness. Not that I’m done with child-rearing (who is, ever?), but now, at 10 and 12, they’re young people with their own firm opinions and busy schedules. I have time of my own again and it’s quite frankly wonderful.

I started writing novels the year I turned 40. For over 20 years I had written nothing but poetry (some of it not bad; one was even published) and cringingly awful ‘literary’ diaries (the diaries were really, really bad; I eventually came to my senses and threw them all out).

Writing was a passion, a compulsion, but one I didn’t dare give in to, too busy with jobs and dating and marriage and babies. So I scribbled little bits here, and little bits there, always telling myself that one day, someday, when I was ready, I would write.

I was never ready.

I kept putting it off. There was always a reason. I was too tired, too busy. Then suddenly I turned 40 and I realized I wasn’t really too tired any more. The nights of wakeful babies and toddlers were long gone. There was no reason to rush through my to-do list while the children were in preschool so I could give them my full attention when they got home; they were elementary school kids now, and free time was more about Minecraft than finger painting. It was a light bulb moment. There was no reason I couldn’t do the laundry in the afternoon instead.

There were no more reasons.

I worked out that I could get in a good two hours of work each day before I had to pick up the kids from school at lunchtime (we lived in Brazil, so shorter school hours). In August that year I began writing a middle grade story, and two months later I was typing those magic words ‘The End.’

Now, it was only a short 20,000-word novel, but it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was a ‘real’ story. And I was hooked. By December I’d written the second and third in what I had planned out as a 4 book series. It felt amazing!

Since that 40th birthday a lot has happened. I joined a very supportive online SFF forum with a busy writers community. I moved to the USA and joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I went to my first writer’s conference, found a critique group and honed my skills. My word count crept up and up as I moved from those first 20k-word novels to 80k YA novels.

I’ve met other writers since then who had the same sort of light bulb moment. For many it was growing children, for others retirement, or a change in job circumstance. There’s no universal ‘right’ moment, just the moment when it all suddenly makes sense to you, personally.

But eventually, that moment arrives. And it shines.

Light bulb.

Have Book, Will Read #2

It’s been a while since the last reading log, and it’s an icky, sticky, wet and wild sort of day outside, so naturally my mind turns to tea and books. While I can’t really justify curling up to read (I have a translation to work on, deadline looming!), I can certainly spare a moment to at least think about reading. Which is very nearly almost the next best thing. Soooo…

Recent Reads: Odd places and alternate settings. And no magic, for once, or does prophecy count?

First up was Susan Boulton’s debut Oracle, a gaslight fantasy novel. Now, I hadn’t read any gaslight before, so this was an interesting ride. I was immediately smitten by Susan’s prose and her character Claire/Oracle. As Oracle, the character blurts out seemingly random snippets of prophecy at deliciously inappropriate moments, and as Claire she struggles to reclaim her past and come to grips with her two sides.

Oracle centers around prophecy, but not the well-ordered prophecy we often see in fantasy. Instead, the messages are disjointed, confusing, often appearing absolutely useless and bizarre. I found myself thinking, over and over, this is what prophecy should look like. Something strange and alien that makes no immediate sense, not even to the one who spouts it.

The plot had lots of twists and turns and a really neat setting. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for future novels by the author.

Another great book I read recently was Elizabeth Fama’s Plus One. I was already acquainted with Elizabeth’s work through her nicely spooky mermaid story Monstrous Beauty, so I was looking forward to reading this one. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get around to it!

Plus One is set within an alternate history where, after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the USA was divided between night dwellers (called Smudges) and day dwellers (Rays). The setting is fabulous, and this fast-paced thriller is also a beautiful love story.

Main character Soleil Le Coeur is feisty and driven, and the flashbacks woven into the plot do a great job of coloring in her character. It was a quick read (mostly because I couldn’t put it down!) and it’s a pretty accessible YA novel; my preteen is currently devouring it, entranced.

If you want a taste of the worldbuilding, you can read the prequel short story Noma Girl on Tor.com.

Now Reading: I finally got around to Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire, which I mentioned in my last book log. Life and all that jazz means that lately my reading has been patchy at best, and all mixed up and back to front. However, I’m really glad that I’m finally reading the sequel to The Emperor’s Blades.

So far, so good; Brian does a great job of easing readers back into his world and reintroducing characters and settings without spelling things out too much. I really like the direction that Adare’s arc is taking her, and I’d missed reading about Valyn’s Kettral wing (there is nothing more awesome than giant battle birds!), although I think Kaden is still my favorite character. Still waters.

I think the beauty of Brian’s work lies in his characters. Yes, his worldbuilding is lovely and highly detailed. But it’s through the three very different siblings – different in personality as well as made different by the hands life has dealt them – that he leads us along the crisscrossing paths of his plot. And this threefold story strand works very nicely indeed.

To Read: Too many words, not enough hours of the day…

My current book pile is getting a little ridiculous. I’m not even talking about the to-read list I keep on my phone. I’m talking about actual physical books sitting on my coffee table. Or in my kindle.

First on the list is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which I’ve heard so much about. Ann gets first dibs on the reading front because this one’s a library book so reasons.

(An aside: much as I’d love to support every single author out there by buying their books, I just can’t afford to. I do buy a lot, more than I should, really. But I’m lucky to have a great library system I can dip into at the same time.)

Anyway, once I’m done with that, next on my list is Peter V. Brett’s The Skull Throne. I read all of his Demon Cycle books pretty much as soon as they came out, so I almost can’t believe I haven’t so much as peeked in this one yet! But that’s okay; I shall continue to savor the anticipation as I stare at the great cover with Renna on it. I like Renna, and I’m so glad she gets a little more of the spotlight this time.

Third on my list (told you it was a pile!) is Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, which I picked up at Boskone in February and haven’t had a chance to even open yet. His world sounds really interesting and this looks like one I’m going to enjoy.

Last up (and cheating, really, because it’s a three-fer) is Veronica Roth‘s Divergent trilogy. My daughter (the same ten-year-old who’s reading Plus One) read the novels and loved them so much she wants to share them with me. Which is pretty darn cool. So I promised her I’d read them so we can talk about the books. Kind of like a mother-daughter book club.

My kid rocks.

Happy Sunday

It’s Sunday. The sun is shining, and up here in the wilds of suburban Connecticut it finally looks like spring. Things are stirring in the earth – stirring, I tell you! And, after several weeks where I could think of nothing but the characters from my most recently completed novel, I have new things stirring in my brain.

I had a long blog post on perseverance planned for today, but you know what? It’s Sunday and the sun is shining. Go enjoy the day, take a long walk or maybe write some new words. Perseverance will still be here tomorrow.

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Abendau’s Heir

Anyone who knows me, knows that lately I’ve been enthusing all over Twitter, Facebook and the Chrons (and yes, this blog too) about Jo Zebedee’s debut space opera Abendau’s Heir, Book 1 of the Inheritance Trilogy.

I’m always happy to support my fellow writers, especially those who are just starting out, but this one is special. Not just because it’s a very good book (which it is) but because I was lucky enough to have been one of Jo’s beta readers, way in the back and beyond when I was still learning what beta readers were supposed to do (and making quite a hash of it, most likely).

So when I picked up my digital copy of Abendau (physical copy should be landing in Northern Ireland today for Jo to sign!) I was understandably awestruck. This is the second published book I’ve had the chance to beta read (the first was Emma Jane’s beautifully spooky romance Shuttered), and since I already knew the basics of the story, what an experience to be able to sit back and enjoy the storytelling itself, marveling at the polished product.

From Amazon: Kare’s seen planets destroyed by the relentless expansion of his mother’s empire. Children killed. His own family murdered. With her power to manipulate minds she may be invincible. 

Only he has the power to stop her. Kare must either face the horrifying future his father foretold for him, or allow the sacrifice of millions of people to his mother’s ambition. But in opposing her, he risks everything: his friends, his loved ones… even his sanity.

Sounds dark? Well, yes it is rather. But needfully dark, not dark for the sake of shock-value bleakness. Because sometimes stories need to tread down the shadowed paths and lead us into horrible places and terrible consequences.

In Abendau’s Heir, Jo addresses something a lot of us have probably often wondered about: the chosen one trope and what it actually means to be that chosen one. I mean, really? How many of us would actually want that burden thrust upon us, and if we did, how would we deal with it?

She talks about that in this rather nice interview on Nathan Hystad‘s blog, and again on SFF World.

Abendau’s Heir is a story that covers a lot of time; it starts with the tale of Ealyn Varnon and then switches to his son Kare, spanning some twenty-odd years in the process. We have glimpses of a young Kare, on the run from the Empress with his father and twin sister, then later a teenage Kare who we then get to watch grow up. Yet all this jumping around in time doesn’t feel awkward, it flows smoothly from one scene to the next and helps us understand how Kare becomes the man he is, and why he makes the choices that he does.

I don’t read a lot of SF, being more of a fantasy girl myself. But although Abendau’s Heir is set in a vast, beautifully developed space scenario, this isn’t really about space, or space battles, or planetary landings. It’s about people: shy, frightened, happy, sad, troubled, awkward and just plain nasty people. And Jo does this very well indeed.

I’m looking forward to Book 2, which I haven’t read so it will be a pleasant surprise (and if anyone tries to spoiler it I shall stick my fingers in my ears and sing la-la-la-la-la). But more than that; with Abendau’s Heir, Jo has shown herself to be a star on the rise. I know she has a myriad of different projects underway, and I’ll be watching excitedly to see what she comes up with next.

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Of Snow and Sheep

Here in Connecticut, April came rampaging in like a belligerent old ram. The mean-looking type with the big bad horns that Aries horoscopes always feature. The sort of creature that stands its ground, shakes those big bad horns and declares that “Winter ain’t over till I say so.”

I will now illustrate with a photo of my garden:

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You see my point? That old ram is just a big, obstinate, obstreperous meenie. It’s also supposed to represent all those born under the blessed sign of Aries. My own star sign, coincidentally. It’s said to epitomize all the pig-headed stubbornness of the Aries, the side of us that just won’t give up, no matter how many times we’re pushed over. That whole stick-your-chin-in-the-air-and-keep-going thing.

Guess what? If you’re a writer, that’s probably you as well. It’s hard work, this here writing gig. If you’re unpublished, you’re struggling to get your foot on the first rung. If you’re published, you’re trying hard not to grab a snake instead of a ladder and slide back a few spaces, or even all the way back to the beginning of the game board. Because even with all your hard work, you might still roll the wrong number on the dice.

So that’s us. Writer-folk. Hard-headed, stubborn, determined to meet whatever may come with horns down and at the ready.

And fabulously obstreperous.

Into The Woods: embrace the dark

Yesterday we rented ‘Into the Woods’, which I’d already seen with my daughter at the movies, and loved. Now it was time for a rewatch, and to share with my husband and son. After the movie finished, there was some debate on whether spoilery things that happen towards the end should happen at all. Because it takes a turn for the dark, right after all the happily-ever-afters take place. And I like that.

I like that the story doesn’t finish on a sunny everyone-loves-everyone note. Because no one’s story ends with the words ‘I do’, or the cuddly baby, or the fortune achieved. That’s just the start of everything else that comes next. And sometimes what comes next is good, but at other times it’s the breaking storm, the dark cloud, the sweeping wind. Because life is wild and unpredictable, and sometimes Things Just Happen.

That got me started thinking about books with that wild and unpredictable flair, that feeling of ‘hey, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Stories that take what you’re expecting and turn it around. The ride down the rabbit-hole which, instead of following a logical order and reaching a pleasing end, simply gets odder and odder. The journey to dispose of a ring that gets more and more painful, without respite, and then ultimately would face failure if not for serendipity.

In the best sort of stories, my favorites, people die, they get hurt, they falter and fail. I don’t like this sort of story because I enjoy reading about suffering, but because life can be harsh and a good tale needs to reflect the darkness that lurks beyond our sunny spot.

If you haven’t watched ‘Into the Woods’ yet, please do. For the wonderful songs, the fabulous twisting and tangling of traditional fairytales, and the great characters. But, most of all, for the darkness that lingers on throughout, at the corner of the screen, just waiting to pounce.

Into The Woods

Critique Groups

Critique and writing groups rock. Seriously, if you aren’t yet part of some sort of real life or virtual writing community that can give you support and help you cut through all the inevitable BS that gets tangled up in the good bits of your writing, then get thee to one right now.

My writing group is worth gold. Solid, 24k gold. We laugh together, hold each other’s hands when querying or on submission and brainstorm together. We aren’t afraid to hold a sharp scalpel to each other’s work. We often meet up just to hang out and write – in fact, in about an hour I’m off to our local bookstore to do just that, sit down with my friends and write.

I also belong to a fabulous online community, the SFF Chronicles (take heed, spec fic writers). The Chrons has a great aspiring authors forum, where you can ask any odd question that pops up along the way. Like ‘how do you get a horse into a tunnel?’ or ‘Should I go for a meteor or a dinosaur as my climax?’ Or one of my recent faves: ‘Help me figure out how to kill my rock monster!’ We also have a critiques forum for small excerpts; you haven’t lived until you’ve survived having something pulled apart and put back together stronger by the very knowledgeable Chronners. I’ve met great beta readers there – we take turns reading work for each other and giving feedback.

So if you don’t have this sort of support yet, I’d consider looking into it. You can find local groups pretty easily nowadays (I know my town library hosts one), and there are a wealth of great online communities like the one I belong to.

No one is an island, yadda yadda, bla bla bla. You know where this is going. Yeah, I like to sit at home alone in a tea-fuelled fog and write as much as the rest of you; antisocial little beasties, us writers. But try stepping outside your word cave (even if only virtually) and connecting with other writers. I can promise you there will be no regrets. Only solid, 24k gold rewards.