Shadow Atlas is Out!

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

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

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

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

Many did not survive.

None were forgotten.

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

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

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

The anthology already has some great reviews!

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

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

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

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

Inside peek at the special hardcover edition

Beneath the Surface

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadows Inside

Leaning into shadows turns the ordinary extraordinary.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Halloween! 

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

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

What’s Your Backstory?

Backstory adds color and shading to a fictional world and characters

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

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

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

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

J.R.R Tolkien, The Two Towers

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

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

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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

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

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

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

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

Lone Star: So what does that make us?

Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing!

Spaceballs

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

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

Food and Drink in Sci Fi and Fantasy

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

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

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

The Silver Chair — C.S. Lewis

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

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

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams

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

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

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

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

“Food first,” Percy said. “Please?” 

The Mark of Athena — Rick Riordan

Summer 2021 Updates

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

Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novels

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

Currently Working On…

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

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

Blog

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

New Author Photos

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

Personal

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

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

You Are Valid (and so is your writing)

I’m querying a fantasy novel right now, and anyone who has been through the query trenches knows how tough this is. It’s easy for our writer brains to understand in theory that rejections aren’t personal and are NOT a reflection on our writing skills, but our little writer hearts have trouble with this notion.

It’s not personal. But it feels personal. And that leads me (us) to some of the common traps that creatives fall into.

1. The My Work Is Bad trap. I mean, it might be? But it probably isn’t. If you’re serious enough about your craft to be looking up blog posts on writing, you’re most likely ahead of the game. And if you’re at the querying point, you should have revised multiple times, sought out feedback, and done your best to make your work as shiny as can be.

To get out of this trap, step away for a while. Go read other people’s work, and then come back and read a few random scenes from your own. I guarantee it’s probably way better than you remember!

2. The Imposter Syndrome trap. Guess what? You’re not alone. Pretty much everyone in the writing world suffers from Imposter Syndrome to some extent, no matter how successful they are. It’s that horrible feeling that you’re out of your depth, that you don’t belong, that you have no idea what you’re doing. So I repeat: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

There are so many ways to write and to publish, so many different people playing at this author game, so many forms of knowledge. The truth is, there is no truth. Just people who love writing getting along in life as best as they can. Your knowledge, your writing, your entire self is just as valid as Person X with twenty-five published novels. Trust in who you are, trust in your own truth, and trust in your place in this vast world of publishing.

3. The Everyone Is Doing Better trap. Seriously, brain? Seriously? This one is just pathetic. Terrible attempt at self-deprecation, zero stars, do not recommend. 

To escape this particular trap, there are two main tactics. The first is to gently remind yourself how far you’ve come as a writer. If you have published work, take a moment to bask in the glow of past achievements instead of getting stuck on the now and the future. If you haven’t published yet, look at feedback from critique partners and compare to feedback on early work. See how far you’ve come? (If you don’t have a critique partner yet, have a look at this post and this one.)

The second tactic is to remember how long it took some of your favorite authors to get published, or how hard some of your writer friends battled to get there. The publishing world would like us to believe in the myth of the overnight success, but the truth is that most writers travel a path littered with terrible drafts or trunked first novels, rejections, and horrible amounts of self-doubt. Even those who sold their very first novel may have spent years writing, revising, and pitching that novel. Take heart!

4. The I Am Not Valid Unless Someone Else Says So trap. Agents. Editors. Reviewers. Yes, we’d all like that stamp of approval that screams: ‘pro level publishing acknowledges this work’.

Yeah, this is a tough trap to get out of. Especially when you’re querying or on submission and it feels like your work is worth nothing without this approval. This, in fact, was the trap that got me started on this particular blog post. So I’m going to share what I did. Maybe it will help you—it certainly made me feel better.

Read through whatever it is you’re working on right now. Not the whole thing; maybe a favorite page or scene. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the rhythm and flow of words. Let it wash over you. Feel it in your heart. Feel it in every part of yourself. And repeat after me: I do not need anyone’s opinion to validate my work.

“But,” you say, “Juliana, what about rejections? What about critique feedback?”

Feedback is there to improve your work, not to invalidate it. Rejections do not invalidate your work, either. You validate your work. You are valid, you have worth, and so does your writing and your creative process. Take a deep breath. Believe. Now keep on writing.

Thank you, fortune cookie!

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!