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.

Diversify and Conquer

New things, new places, fresh inspiration. Photo by Alissa Mills.

Writing slumps — we’ve all had them. Times (days, months, years) where the words dry up and the joy sparks out. If the love for writing is still there, however, burning bright under the keyboard dust, then maybe all you need is a gentle push to get things flowing again.

Perhaps you’ve already tried all the tricks you can think of — long walks, browsing Pinterest, making playlists, writing to prompts, brainstorming with a friend… If so, why not take a chance and diversify your work to jumpstart the creative process?

Write poems, if prose is your thing. If you’re a novelist at heart, write a children’s picture book. Try an adult short story, if YA is your raison d’être. Write romantic flash fiction if you’re a hard science fiction author. Challenge yourself to come up with a haiku every morning for a week. You get the idea. 

You don’t have to show your efforts to anyone. You don’t even have to be good at it (though you may surprise yourself). But you do have to give it your best shot. Focusing on a different genre, format, or style will help break your brain out of its holding pattern (hopefully, and not just break your brain!) and set the words free. Then you can return to your preferences, creativity once again on the loose. 

A lot of writers do this; they publish picture books and YA, or YA and adult. They have novels and short stories, poems and prose. A middle grade sci fi novel simmers on the back burner while a fantasy novella is revised. A non-fiction think piece sits side-by-side with intricate fictional worlds. Authors alternate, or switch between projects, taking breaks and returning replenished to stalled work.

I’ve been stuck on the same YA story for a while now. I love it, but I haven’t found the right approach for it yet. I decided to take a good long break and set it aside until I’m ready. Instead, since April, I’ve reworked a short story as a poem, written two picture books (something I didn’t believe I could do!), and started my first adult novel. It’s been a good couple of months, overall. I won’t say that I’ve become an unquenchable well of creativity and energy — I still have slow days — but it’s helping. I’m writing again, and that’s enough for now.

I can’t promise this will work for you, but why not give it a try? At the very least, it’ll be a fun writing exercise. And who knows, you may even discover a love for something you would never have attempted otherwise.

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Writers in Lockdown

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Next week marks two months of staying at home for my family. While governments everywhere are beginning the slow process of reopening in a safe and viable manner, it’s pretty clear that the coronavirus pandemic is far from being resolved, and social distancing is here for the foreseeable future.

In some ways, time has flown by. In others, it has dragged on interminably. All of us have been forced to dig within and find balance, charting the things that make our new realities bearable. For writers and other creatives, there’s that added pressure of social media reminding us to take advantage of lockdown to, you know, create. But, as many of us are finding, it’s Not Quite That Simple.

Here’s a Top 10 of my personal do’s and don’ts as a writer in lockdown. (Emphasis on personal!)

1. DON’T read any of those posts. You know the ones. SHAKESPEARE WROTE KING LEAR DURING THE PLAGUE. Yeah, those ones. Between the general uncertainty, the incessant news updates, and the overall (very real) sense of fear, many of us are finding it hard to spark our creativity right now. Be kind to yourself. It’s perfectly fine to store ideas in your head (or a handy notebook) for now and wait until the world settles a little around you.

2. DO get a change of perspective every now and then. I’m lucky enough to live in a quiet suburban neighborhood where I can safely walk the dog AND social distance. Those moments spent outside the house help me reorder my brain. If you can’t go out, try using an unusual space instead. Sit on the stairs. Lie on the bathroom floor. Stand inside a closet in the dark for five minutes.

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3. DON’T feel pressured to ‘use your time at home in an educational manner’. Sure, there are a ton of amazing webinars and author talks aimed at writers right now, many of them graciously offered free of charge. If your mind is in that place, go for it! My mind… is not. Every now and then I feel a stab of guilt when I see some cool online event advertised. But I ruthlessly squash it down. The only new skill anyone has picked up around here lately is the dog, who learnt how to roll over. And I’m fine with that!

4. DO take some time to have fun with your imaginary worlds. Just because you’re not necessarily writing doesn’t mean you can’t let your mind soar! Create a color palette. Build an aesthetic board on Pinterest. Curate a playlist for your favorite characters or bake them a cake. Be playful.

5. DON’T judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. If you need to fall apart sometimes and scream into a pillow, go do it. If you need to lock your family out and hide in the bedroom for a while, go do it. Find your own coping mechanisms. If those include writing — a work-in-progress or a diary or a prompt or two — that’s fine and great, but if not, don’t feel like you should be writing just because other people are channeling their fear and frustration that way. Seriously. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards.

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Me as a Tarot cat screaming into the void

6. DO find analogies for creativity that anchor you in this difficult moment. For me, it’s plants. I’ve been expanding and repotting my small indoor jungle — I’m not much of a gardener, but container plants, I can handle. Watching my beauties grow reminds me that words, like plants, have periods of plenty and periods of rest. Yes, sometimes we do have to force ourselves to push through a block or a slow patch, but at other times it’s all right to let our work grow, well, organically.

7. DON’T feel obligated to connect. Yes, a lot of writers are moving online to get together as a community. We’ve all had to learn to use Zoom or Google Meets, among other tools. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Join an online meet if you want, but if it’s not for you, don’t feel pressured by social media posts or the latest Microsoft ad to jump on the meet-up bandwagon. A simple email or Facebook message to friends to let them know that you’re okay works, too. Or go old-school and send a card or a surprise treat.

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A lovely surprise from a friend!

8. DO seize the moment to break your own writing rules. The work-in-progress not doing it for you right now? Try something completely different. Pen some haikus. Dabble in fan fiction. Re-imagine your latest draft as scenes from a Regency romance. Pick the most absurd writing prompt you can find on the internet and go for it, purely for your own enjoyment!

9. DON’T forget to feed your writing brain. Put aside all your carefully crafted to-read or to-watch lists. Choose what you need right now, in this moment. Maybe it’s the comfort of reconnecting with a favorite book. Or the challenge of tackling a genre you usually ignore. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of watching the opening scenes of a dozen Netflix shows until you find one that lights you up inside. And again, don’t let anyone guilt you from enjoying what you want to be reading or watching.

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10. DO take a break from life every now and then to create moments of mindfulness. We all need some inner peace right now! Light a candle and meditate. Collect stones on your walks and write yourself reminders. Pray a rosary. Do divination with crystals. Stand barefoot on the grass and breathe. Make dandelion wishes. Anything goes!

Finding YOUR Story

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More essence than solid shape…

I’m stuck at the moment on a passion project. I have other things I could be — should be — working on. Like revising the YA novel I wrote over a year ago. Or finally getting around to finishing Star Blade, the last part of my Blade Hunt Chronicles trilogy. But over and over, I find myself drawn back to the fantasy work-in-progress I’ve been obsessing over for the past year or so.

Sometimes, stories arrive clear-cut and blazingly obvious. We can see where we have to go and how to get there, and the characters are set from the start. There will be ups and downs in the writing — there always are — but these are stories that almost lead us by the hand. They’ll need revisions, and edits, and sometimes a full rewrite or two, but their general structure is there from the very beginning.

Other times, there are stories that are nebulous. More gut feeling than sign-posted path. More essence than solid shape. We want — need — to tell them, but it’s hard when we don’t know exactly what form the telling should take. This is one of those stories. I can almost see it, but not quite. It’s been through a full draft and a partial rewrite, besides a one-chapter experiment that just didn’t work at all. Each of these ‘takes’ has been different, with only the bare bones of worldbuilding and characters in common. And now I have an idea for an entirely new version. Part of me thinks that I’m chasing moonbeams, and that this story either isn’t really mine, or that I’m not yet ready for it. But the rest of me just can’t let it go.

I think all writers have a story like this in their past, or perhaps waiting for them to stumble upon it in the future. One that grabs us by the heart and whisper-screams ‘look at me’, that teases and begs and demands to be told. One that just won’t go down easy on the page until we’ve ripped it to pieces to find exactly what part of it is actually ours to claim. This one, this frustrating, enticing, beautiful little tale? I’ll get it written, eventually. I just need to allow myself time, I think, to dig through all the images and ideas and find my story.

A Whole New Year

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2019 is almost over, but hey! I get a whole new year tomorrow, brand new and sparkling with promise. (At least, I think that shiny stuff is promise. It could just be glitter. Not gonna lie, there’s a lot of leftover Christmas glitter lying around. And pine needles. Especially pine needles!)

Before moving forward, here’s a quick look at 2019…

Writer things

  • The first draft of a fantasy novel written, which I then decided to rewrite completely; I’m now a third of the way through the rewrite.
  • Two short stories published in anthologies; another sold but only coming out in 2020.
  • Three interviews given (see my press page).
  • Two Cons as panelist and one doing a reading (Boskone in Boston, Worldcon in Dublin, and Eurocon in Belfast).
  • An international book launch! We released our collaborative women’s sci fi anthology DISTAFF during Eurocon in Belfast. There were cupcakes and robot chocolates…
  • Attended the New England SCBWI conference and the NESCBWI ENCORE event.
  • I passed on organization of our local SCBWI meet and greets but took on a new role as co-director of the 2020 and 2021 regional conferences! 

 

Fun stuffs

  • Favorite books this year include Holly Black’s fabulous Folk of the Air series, S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races, Peter McLean’s excellent Priest of Bones, and Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye graphic novels.
  • Some of the movies I loved were Captain Marvel and Charlie’s Angels. Shazam was a delightful surprise — lots of fun and one of the best found families I’ve seen in a while. The Rise of Skywalker was a good and satisfying conclusion to Star Wars. As for Endgame, no comment. I’m still in mourning!
  • TV shows! I finally caught up on the Netflix Marvel shows, and the last season of Daredevil was truly excellent. Derry Girls is fabulous and really good fun; thanks to my daughter for introducing it! We binged The Umbrella Academy as a family and thoroughly enjoyed it (great soundtrack). Other faves were Good Omens and Carnival Row, which I’m almost done with. And the CW end of year Arrowverse crossover has been a blast, with tons of fun cameos. Oh, if you like cooking shows, please go and watch Jon Favreau’s The Chef Show on Netflix! (I don’t even watch cooking shows and I love this one. I think my fave episodes so far have been Skywalker Ranch and the oyster farm…)

 

Personal bits and pieces

  • Our rescue pup Misty is now a year and a half, and tons of trouble but also absolutely adorable.
  • We went on a family trip to Washington DC in spring — my first time there. We arrived at peak cherry blossom time, beautiful!
  • Summer took me to Ireland for two weeks on my own to meet writing friends, attend a couple of conferences, and do a bit of sightseeing on the side.
  • We also had summer visits from my mum and my mother-in-law, always a good excuse to get out and do some local touristing.
  • I now have a child with a driver’s license… Scary stuff!!
  • We had a French exchange student come to stay for two weeks, a great experience for all of us.
  • I’ve joined a gym, am trying to eat more healthily, and am learning to do divination with crystals (a good meditation tool!) — investing in a bit of TLC for both body and soul.

 

Coming in 2020

  • In February, I’ll be at the NYC SCBWI Winter Conference and at Boskone, checking in with both my kid lit friends and the SF/F community. In May it’ll be time for the NESCBWI regional conference, which I’m helping to organize this year!
  • The Not All Monsters anthology from Strangehouse Books arrives sometime in autumn, containing my short story The Sugar Cane Sea.
  • Writing, writing, writing. Goals for 2020! I have a short story I’m rather pleased with that I’m polishing up to submit soon. I plan to finish the rewrite of my fantasy novel and get it submission-ready. I also plan to finish revising the SF YA I wrote in 2018, and get back to my stalled draft of Star Blade. Busy, busy!

 

WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2020!

 

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What’s Your Vision?

I’d seen them in magazine spreads and lifestyle blogs: those glorious pin-board displays in home offices and studios, with ideas and inspiration for work in progress or projects soon to unfold. Vision boards — a beautiful and tantalizing glimpse into a writer or artist’s imagination. I’d always dismissed them for myself, though. I don’t have an office with a vast expanse of pristine cork ready to be filled; in fact, I don’t even have an office at all, or a desk (I work quite happily at the kitchen table).

Then, one day, my critique group decided to gather for a vision board exercise. We all brought magazine, glue, pens, and poster board. We flipped through countless pages, snipping and sharing, and marveling at some of the strange and wonderful things we found. It was a great afternoon. And… something interesting happened. I thought I had my writing project at the time all mapped out in my head. But a random picture of a Russian nesting doll, which had nothing to do with my novel, jumped out at me. I ended up incorporating it, making my work just that little bit richer.

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My very first story vision board

I went home and shoved the vision board in a drawer. It had been fun and illuminating, but ultimately I had no place to display a big piece of poster board, so away it went. I moved onto Pinterest — far more practical for being virtual, I thought. And yes, Pinterest is great for finding images of things already in your head: what do the cliffs in my imaginary seaside town look like? What’s the perfect shade of violet for the rivers on my alien planet? What sort of wolf would my main character transform into? I carefully crafted online boards for all of my projects. I even downloaded a vison board app (PicCollage — my daughter’s recommendation) to prettily arrange my finds and set them as my desktop.

But Pinterest had a drawback. It was fun to forage for images that fit my plot and characters, but it lacked a certain serendipity. It wasn’t quite as inspiring as I’d hoped it would be. Something was lacking.

Let’s fast-forward a couple of years. Carrie Firestone, my critique partner who had led us in the first vision board exercise, offered to give a talk on the subject to a few local writers. She had piles of magazines and set us all to searching and snipping. I felt the spark: this was it! This was what was lacking in my online image searches! That moment of connection, when you find the perfect image, the one you had no idea you were looking for! My story, which had stalled because it felt as if the plot was lacking something, suddenly looked all shiny and new. I had found the missing elements, the ones I didn’t even know were missing, and now I could visualize what I had to do to make it all work.

I didn’t paste the images onto a board this time; I’d learned my lesson. I don’t personally have the space. So the images are in my story folder, along with all my worldbuilding notes and plot documents. If you have room for it, then have fun! Pin it all up and build your tale visually around you. And if not, don’t let it stop you from a little hard copy search in magazines and other places. You can use a folder, or if you prefer found objects as inspiration, you can set them up on a windowsill or store them in a project box. Whatever works for you.

If you’ve never tried this exercise, or have never ventured outside Pinterest or a Google image search, I thoroughly recommend it. The new year is almost here, and this is the perfect time to take a moment to reflect on your work and look for some new ideas. You never know what might turn up to enrich your vision!

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Images in my writing folder for my current project

Critiques, Betas, And Editors, Oh My! A Beginner’s Guide…

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The long path to publication is easier with a little help!

All writers at any stage — from beginner wordsmith to seasoned pro — can benefit from a support network to help take their work to a whole other level. If you are relatively new to the writing game, you may have heard some or all of these terms and wondered what they are. I know I did, once upon a time! So here’s a breakdown of what, exactly, a critique partner, beta, or editor does, and how you can acquire your very own…

Critique Groups/Partners

This should be the very first step you take: find other writers who are willing to critique a sample of your work (say, a chapter), usually in return for you taking a look at their own work. Learning to handle critiques is crucial, not only because it can help you spot weaknesses in your writing that you may not be aware of, but also because eventually, if you are published traditionally, you will most likely work with an editor and will need to learn to accept feedback as part of the process in creating an amazing book.

Critiquing comes in different shapes and sizes. There are forums where you can post a sample for feedback, with the understanding that whoever is willing will reply, and that you will critique other samples in turn. For writers of sci fi and fantasy, the SFFChronicles.com is a good place to start, with an active critiques board. Other forums with critique sections include Absolute Write and the SCBWI Blueboard (the last is specifically for kid lit). If you find someone you work well with, you might pair up and work out some form of private exchange, meeting either in person or emailing work back and forth. A trusted critique partner, with a rapport built up over time, is worth gold.

Many people are happy to stick with just the one or two critique partners, working on a one-to-one basis. However, I find I like having a slightly larger pool of peers giving me feedback — a critique group (or writing group). This is exactly what it sounds like; a group of writers who get together in person or virtually to give each other feedback on their work. I belong to two. My local group, the Pandas, connected back in 2014 and focuses on YA and Middle Grade fiction. My online group, the Tri-Angels, has also been ‘meeting’ for a few years; we focus on Fantasy, and email submissions and critiques to each other.

How did I meet my critique partners? My local group met at a SCBWI writing conference. My online one met on the previously mentioned SFFChronicles forum. How can you meet your own? Connect to local, regional, and international writing organizations. Join forums. Go to writing events and meet ups. Put yourself out there, and be willing to do the work, since most groups/partnerships work on a reciprocity system.

Critique partners are an important first step in improving your work, and not just for beginner writers. Plenty of multi-published authors swear by their writing groups, who often serve as the very first pair of fresh eyes upon a new project.

Beta Readers

Yeah, it’s a weird term, I know. Wikipedia defines it as ‘an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work’. Beta reading is an offshoot of critiquing: usually a beta reader will look at a full draft, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, as opposed to the smaller bite-sized submissions a critique partner/group will look at. This means that a beta reader’s feedback will be less about the details, due to sheer size of work they have to read, and more about the whole. Does it flow well? Are there plot holes, or character arc issues? And other things like that.

Beta readers might be people from your critique group, though personally I think it helps to have someone unfamiliar with your work look at it too, if possible. Most of my betas are writing friends whose work I’ve also read in turn, or with whom I have an established relationship as peers. A beta reader is someone you can trust to give you that big picture feedback.

In addition, you might have specific betas for certain things. Author Jo Zebedee, for instance, has a beta reader who revises her military jargon and battle scenes in her space opera novels. I have a beta who checked all the sword fighting in my Blade Hunt books. If there’s something in your work you’re not entirely familiar with, it’s helpful to have an expert at hand.

Editors

Unlike critique partners and beta readers, who are usually peers and work on a reciprocity basis, editors are always professionals, and unless you have a good friend who is an editor and offers to help out for free, you can and should expect to pay for this sort of service. That said, there are different types of editor. The following are the two main ones, from a writer’s perspective.

Developmental editors are people who will do the sort of thing a beta reader does, but coming from a pro point of view. They can be an absolute blessing to help guide a tricky or stuck manuscript out of the mud and back on firm ground, pointing out the weak spots and guiding you through revising your novel. This sort of advice can be pricey, but might be a worthwhile investment if you’ve exhausted peer options, and can’t figure out how to deal with your manuscript. If you sign a publishing contract with a traditional press, they will usually pay for an editor to work with you and make your manuscript as shiny as possible. If you are self-publishing, you might consider this option as part of making sure your work is as professional as it can be before you publish. You can find lists of editors online, or ask friends for recommendations.

Copyeditors should be the absolute last step in the first-draft-to-book journey, and they focus mainly on spelling, grammar, consistency, continuity, and other details of an otherwise polished and completed work. If you plan to query agents or publishers, DO NOT pay to have your work copyedited. It’s not worth it, really. You will be asked to revise, most likely, and then the publisher will pay for this part of the process themselves. Even if you’ve already had it done. So, who should hire a copyeditor? Pretty much only writers planning on self-publishing. For indie authors, I honestly think that this is a must. You can skip the developmental editor if you have good critique partners or beta readers, but if you want to publish a professional piece of work, you should invest in a good copyeditor. Again, there are plenty of online recommendations, or hit up your friends for help. (For more on copyediting vs. developmental editing, have a look at my blog interview from 2015.)

I hope this not-so-brief post helps, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. Coming next: what critique or beta feedback actually looks like, and how to critique someone’s work in a positive and productive manner.