Winter 2017 Updates

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NIGHT BLADE  has been out a month already! It’s amazing (to me) that I’m closing out 2017 with two published novels. HEART BLADE, Blade Hunt Chronicles #1, kicked off the year in February, and has garnered some great reviews.

 

 

 

It’s been a terrific year, which included some fun blog and web interviews, positive feedback from readers all over the world, and my first ever Con as a panelist (Boskone 54) — I’ll be back in Boston as a panelist in February for Boskone 55!

Upcoming for the beginning of 2018 is a short story in The Last City anthology by DUST Publishing, my first time playing in a shared world sandbox. I’m also busy outlining the third book in the Blade Hunt Chronicles series, STAR BLADE, which I’ll be diving into as soon as I finish the first draft of my current work in progress, a young adult SF crime story.

Some of the recent blog interviews and guest posts for NIGHT BLADE include:

Jamie Marchant: Juliana Spink Mills Hunts With A Blade

Kim Briggs: Interview With Juliana Spink Mills

Katie Carroll: What’s Your Real Story?

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Down The Rabbit Hole – A Brazilian-Brit In The USA

Suzanne Jackson: With All Your Heart

I’m looking forward to a busy 2018, with Blade Hunt Chronicles #3 and #4 to write, as well as a number of short story projects to find time for. And my to-read list keeps growing, so hopefully I’ll clock in some good reading hours, too! I hope all of you have lots of great reading and writing projects lined up for the upcoming year.

Last of all, I wanted to share a few Instagram edits my daughter made for some of the Blade Hunt characters (Raze, Ben, Del and Ash). Aren’t they adorable?

 

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Horse Power: a writer’s guide

It’s hard to avoid mentioning horses (or ponies, pack mules, etc.) if you write certain genres. These four-legged beauties are everywhere, leading the charge in a martial battle scene, galloping across the page in those sweeping epic fantasies, or slowing to a gentle walk to allow the romantic pair to gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

So far, I’ve managed to get away with not writing about horses by setting my novels in the present day or the future. The truth is, I know very little about them, and I’m sure I would make endless mistakes if I had to include horses in my work. But other writers have no choice. If you write – for example – certain types of fantasy, or historical fiction, then you can’t really escape using horses for transportation, at the very least.

How, then, can you make sure you get your equine characters right? I asked fantasy author Kerry Buchanan, one of the owners of Fir Tree Farm Stables in Northern Ireland, to shed some light on the subject…

 

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Photo credit: Fir Tree Farm Stables

Juliana: What horse-related mistake makes you cringe the most in fiction?

Kerry: I think the worst, and commonest, is when the writer has horses galloping all day, or even for days on end. Horses are not capable of keeping up a fast pace for a long time, and even trained endurance horses do the majority of the miles at walk/trot with only some cantering. They’re grazing animals, and need to eat frequently to keep healthy, as well as drinking too.

There are a few stories and films featuring a child and a wild or half-wild horse who inexplicably bond, with the horse allowing the child to ride it bareback, communicating (it seems) by some special telepathy. The Black Stallion film springs to mind, and maybe National Velvet. The reality is that the child would probably get nowhere near the horse in the first place, and if it was rash enough to climb aboard, would probably end up as a trampled patch of strawberry jam in the dirt.

I find it’s often the fine details that irritate me. Someone tries to be clever and Googles the parts of a horse’s tack/harness but doesn’t quite get it right. Perhaps a character hauls on the bridle (instead of the reins) to get the horse to turn or stop when they’re riding it. The same goes for descriptions of horses (green eyes? Seriously?). Sometimes I think the author’s only contact with equines has been through My Little Pony….

Juliana: Name a favorite book or movie that features horses accurately.

Kerry: It’s hard to fault Black Beauty. The story is romanticised, but the details were accurate for the era, and the characters of the horses are just beautiful. I still can’t read it without crying when the cart goes by with Ginger’s body in it. I particularly like the early section where Beauty first gets a bit in his mouth, and the way it feels, but how he is reassured by his trust in the man who trained him. Later in the book, another horse, Captain, describes how it felt to be a horse in battle in the Crimean War. The noise and confusion, plus the absolute trust in his rider, and the panic when he loses his rider, seem well-observed and, as with everything Anna Sewell wrote, beautifully done. It was a landmark book from the first day it was published, and continues to be one of the most respected fiction books featuring horses.

For a more modern example, the Green Rider books by Kristen Britain are really well written from the point of view of equine accuracy. Condor, the principal equine character, has quite a personality, and the books are well worth reading. When Karigan, the inexperienced new Green Rider of the title, tries to push her horse too hard, she has to learn that the poor animal needs recovery time, and the journey can end up being slower than it would have been had she paced him correctly from the beginning. I think a few directors of Westerns could learn something from this!

Juliana: You write a lot of mythology-inspired fiction. Are there any horse myths you particularly like?

Kerry: I love the story of Pegasus and have written a short story featuring the flying horse which will be coming out in an anthology in the near future. His birth was dramatic enough (son of Poseidon, sprung from the body of Medusa when she was killed by Perseus), but his exploits with Bellerophon kept me enthralled as a child, and still do now. Bellerophon captured Pegasus using a golden bridle (a gift from the goddess Athena), and then went on to ride the wonderful creature to victory over the dreaded monster, the Chimaera, which was terrorising the kingdom. Bellerophon and Pegasus had many adventures together, but in the end the heroic Greek over-faced himself by trying to ride Pegasus up to the top of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Zeus unseated him and he fell, but Pegasus made it all the way and became a constellation of stars in the night sky.

Another horse myth I enjoy is the story of Bucephalus, the war horse of Alexander the Great. Famously, the young Alexander won the horse in a wager with his father. Alexander realised that the horse was terrified of its own shadow, so he simply turned Bucephalus around to face into the sun and successfully climbed aboard, but not before he’d done a deal with his Dad, Philip of Macedonia, to let him keep the horse if he could manage to ride it without being thrown off.

A version of this story is beautifully told in the book, I Am the Great Horse, by Katherine Roberts.

Juliana: Please share some tips for writers planning on including horses in their work.

Kerry: It’s much the same as any other type of research for fiction-writing, really. Don’t just rely on Google or similar to get your facts, as the interweb is not always the most reliable source. Even if you find a trustworthy article, it can be all about the interpretation.

I’d say to write the story any way you like, but then ask someone who really knows about horses and riding to read it for you, to help you clean up any gaffes. If the horse(s) are a key part of the story, it’s probably worth consulting with a knowledgeable horsey person during the writing phase, too. If you want to get it completely right, spend some time around horses, and maybe learn to ride one. You’ll soon get a feel for them, and you never know: maybe you’ll get addicted!

I’m always happy to help, and will read sections for people if asked. I can also lend out a really cute small pony for equine inspiration. She’s no trouble at all and will settle down happily in your home, watching TV with you. No? Okay. Maybe another time….

Juliana: If you could ride any fictional horse, which would you choose?

Kerry: It really has to be Shadowfax, the grey stallion ridden by Gandalf in both book and film of the Lord of the Rings. Even though I’m not usually a great fan of grey horses (you should try getting grass stains out of a grey coat), I’d definitely make an exception for Shadowfax. Of course, we’d have to get rid of Gandalf somewhere along the way, as the two of them seem to be bonded pretty tightly, but I’m sure that once Shadowfax met me, he’d quickly change allegiance.

Failing that, who could resist riding a flying horse? If Athena would only gift me with a magical golden bridle, I’m sure I could do the rest!

Check out Kerry’s website and Facebook page for updates on her writing, and follow her on Twitter @Cavetraveller.

Fir Tree Farm Stables is located in Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland. You can find more information at www.firtreefarmstables.co.uk. 

Easy as Pie

As I’m sure happens with all authors, I often get asked questions about my writing process. How long did it take you to write your book? How much editing work do you do? Who helps you revise? I thought I’d put together a rough recipe of how Heart Blade and Night Blade (Out soon in November! Shameless plug!) were baked, from pantry to table. Remember, this is how things worked out for me. Every author has their own way of doing things, and their own timelines, and so does each publisher. If you’re a writer, you need to figure out what works for you.

How to bake a novel (Juliana style):

1– First draft. Slow in the beginning, as I play around with ideas during a chapter or two, and then pause for worldbuilding, character development, and plot outlining. Picks up speed after a few chapters. Usually hits a lull at around the midway point, where I pull my hair out for a bit and despair of my writing skills. This ‘wall’ often means I went wrong somewhere, so when the way forward becomes suddenly murky, I find it helps to take a couple of weeks off to do nothing but read other people’s work and binge watch Netflix, while keeping things ‘on the backburner’ until I figure out where I messed up.

The first draft phase would probably take around 2 months condensed, but in reality it’s longer then that because writing gets paused for things like school holidays, day job stuff, other commitments, etc. Much as I love my made up worlds, real life is an actual thing!

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Working on the first draft of Night Blade

2 – Revision notes. While writing the first draft, I’m sending out individual chapters to my critique group and noting feedback. I’m also keeping a list of things I’ve realized will need changing or adding after the first draft is done. I don’t revise much at the initial stage of writing, so I end up with a huge pile of notes in my nearly illegible handwriting. Up to this moment, no one has seen the entire thing yet – there would be no point as the first draft is in part a brainstorming activity in itself, and I make a ton of changes afterward.

3 – First major revision/rewrite. I may have done smaller changes to the first draft along the way, saving each version under a new file name each time. But this is when I do a full read-through and revision. First I organize both my personal notes and the comments from my critique partners. Then I rework the entire thing. Now it’s ready to be seen…

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Organizing Heart Blade edit notes

4 – Beta readers. I send my manuscript to a few writing buddies who are kind enough to beta read the whole thing for me. They send me their feedback, which I consider and work into my manuscript. I dive into another round of edits, fixing things my beta readers have pointed out. Last read through, fixing minor details.

5 – Deliver manuscript. It’s time to hand my manuscript in. The novel is pretty much as tight as I can get it without further eyes on it. Now I wait for feedback from my publisher. Bite nails.

6 – Final revision. By now, I’ve received the official editorial notes. Anytime I get major feedback, I always read through it all and then give things a few days to sink in, and to come up with solutions to problems. Criticism is hard, but very, very necessary. No one wants to rip your work apart; they want to help take out the wobbly bits and build it stronger so the building soars. (And now I seem to have strayed from baking analogies to architecture. Oops.) Heart Blade, my first Blade Hunt novel, needed a full rewrite. My editor didn’t ask me for this, just for revisions, but I felt the changes I wanted to make went deeper than simple edits could handle. There was a lot of character building I wanted to work on. So it was easier to rewrite the entire thing from scratch, using the previous version as a reference, which I did over six manic weeks of non-stop work. With Night Blade, though I did rewrite a few sections entirely and added a chapter or two (and deleted another), I was on firmer ground, having all of the work I’d done on the precious book to guide me. This stage might include a few back-and-forths; Heart Blade went through three rounds with my editor before it was declared fit for consumption.

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Checking notes during final Night Blade edits

7 – Copyedits. Now the whole thing goes to the copyeditor, that saintly person who will make sure I haven’t done ridiculous things with commas, or named my Space Council different things on different pages. (Spoiler alert: there are no actual Space Councils in the Blade Hunt Chronicles. Or actual space. I mean, space is there, I haven’t erased it or anything.) After the copyeditor has had their say, the manuscript comes back to me so I can go over all the suggested changes and approve them. I thought this was going to be boring, but it was rather fun. And eye-opening! Once copyedits are approved, the almost-baked-book goes to my proofreader, who acts as a final set of (very sharp) eyes on the whole thing. Again, the manuscript returns to me for approval of changes.

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Going through Heart Blade copyedits

8 – Dish and serve. It’s ready! There’s nothing else for me to do, in production terms. Now it’s all up to my publisher, and next time I set eyes on my story it’ll be a shiny new ARC, and then an actual-factual book, fresh from the oven and piping hot. It’s time to relax, and enjoy. Easy as pie. A really, REALLY long-baked and complicated pie…

(I don’t actually have a book-pie image. So please enjoy a cup of tea and some sweet treats instead.)

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Night Blade, book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles, will be out on November 7th. Cover reveal coming soon!

Buy book 1, Heart Blade, here.

By the Sword: a writer’s guide

After I’d written my first couple of drafts of Heart Blade, the first book in my Blade Hunt Chronicles series, I thought it would be cool to maybe watch some sword action in person. Luckily for me, I found out there’s a school not far from home that teaches Historical European Martial Arts, with emphasis on longsword. I went for a one-off lesson, and was quickly smitten.

My instructor at Laurel City Historical Fencing, Christopher Valli, has been an awesome source of inspiration and research for Blade Hunt sword scenes, as well as being kind enough to revise all of those scenes when I got to the editing stage of Heart Blade and Night Blade (out in November – shameless promo moment!).

My mistakes in that early draft of Heart Blade got me thinking about all those sword fights in fiction, many of which are probably wildly incorrect and highly cringe-worthy to experts. I tossed a few questions to Chris, and here are his answers…

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Juliana: What is the most common #swordfail in fiction?

Chris: The biggest pet peeve of mine is the idea that European swords, particularly two-handed swords like the bastard sword or longsword, are heavy and unwieldy. As you’ve seen, Juliana, the average longsword is 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds and well balanced. Many authors and movie fight choreographers think of European swords as big heavy blunt objects, not the graceful weapons they are.

Juliana: Name a favorite book or movie where the sword techniques are accurate…

Chris: Well I may be a little biased as I was consulted, but I love the fight scenes in Heart Blade. I loved reading about a character practicing longsword using Joachim Meyer’s cutting square exercise; its one of our standard warm-up exercises at Laurel City Historical Fencing, and one I practice on my own regularly.

My favorite movie fight scene has to be the dueling sequence in The Princess Bride. I credit that movie as being a big influence on me, from playing with sword-shaped sticks as a kid, to starting to study Chinese swords and weapons through my teen years, to getting into HEMA in college.

Juliana: Which real life sword master do you find inspirational?

Chris: My favorite period sword master is Paulus Kal. Master Kal was a member of the Gesellschaft Liechtenauer, a group of sword masters in the German tradition. During the 15th century, Kal served Duke Ludwig IX of Bavaria as a sword and wrestling master, and also led a contingent of cannoneers in defense on a siege of the castle. He later went on to serve Archduke Sigismund of Austria (who by the way had one of the finest examples of Gothic armor!).

Over his career as a sword master, Paulus Kal left behind several manuscripts on the Liechtenauer tradition. His manuscripts covered the use of the longsword in and out of armor, sword and buckler (a small shield), large dueling shields, fighting on horseback, a duel between a man and woman, wrestling, and dagger. Copies of his manuscripts are still around today and I regularly reference them for our HEMA class.

Juliana: Please share three hot tips for writers planning on including swords in their work.

Chris: 1 – Research. Decide what kind of time period you’re looking at writing about, and what types of weapons would be used, then reach out to martial arts schools, fencing groups, reenactment groups to learn more about how the real sword would have handled. Maybe even try it out yourself! Take a class, try cutting some water bottles or tatami!
2 – Visualize the fight, make friends or family stand in and really imagine how a scene would play out.
3 – Remember, katanas aren’t magical items that can cut through anything!

Juliana: If you could own any fictional sword, which would you choose?

Chris: Amoracchius, one of the Swords of the Cross from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. In the lore of the Dresden universe, three swords were forged from the nails from the Cross and have been used over the centuries to defend against the forces of darkness. Amoracchius is the sword wielded by Michael Carpenter and is designed liked a medieval two-hander. The fact it can slay demons and vampires just makes it cooler!

Laurel City Historical Fencing is located in Winsted, CT, USA. You can find more information about Chris and Historical European Martial Arts at www.laurelcitysword.com, and watch demonstration videos on the school’s YouTube channel.

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Why Kid Lit?

Sometimes I get asked, ‘why write kid lit?’ The short answer is probably ‘why not?’ The long answer is a little more complex…

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My 10th birthday cake – perfect for a book lover

This week I renewed my annual membership to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international non-profit organization for authors and illustrators producing work for children and teens. I joined the SCBWI in 2013, just after we moved to the USA. I began writing ‘for real’ a year before that, and knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write stories for young people.

I consider myself primarily a middle grade* and YA* author. Occasionally I write short stories that fall under ‘adult fiction’, too, like my tale In Plain Sight, in the Aliens – The Truth Is Coming anthology, or Fool’s Quest, in Journeys. Sometimes it’s fun to write about certain themes without stopping to think ‘would I let my kids read this?’ (The answer is probably yes – I’m pretty liberal when it comes to reading. I tend to be of the ‘if you’re interested and think you can handle it, go ahead’ school of parenting.) When it comes to novels, however, all my work so far has been within the realm of kid lit.

I moved from England to Brazil when I was eight, brand new set of Narnia books in my hand luggage as my going away gift. With no handy English-language bookstores or libraries in those pre-ebook and pre-Amazon times, I slowly built my own shelf collection, which I read obsessively over and over in my preteen years. My little personal library had plenty of classic children’s authors like Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as the ubiquitous Enid Blyton books all us 70s British kids devoured.

In my teens, I explored my parents’ bookshelves, reading other classics like Bradbury, Austen, Asimov, Brontë, and Tolkien, besides my mother’s large collection of Agatha Christie novels. But I always had time for my childhood favorites, and there was nothing quite like the beauty of those kid lit lovelies. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “one day I’ll do this too.”

A good children’s story has a streamlined elegance to it, very different from the longer, more intricate plot lines that adult novels by necessity demand. The sheer beauty of something like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web is a gift that endures. What makes children’s books so special? Perhaps it’s due to the limits on word count/novel size, forcing authors to pare their stories down to the absolute essence. Or maybe the target readership (especially in the case of middle grade fiction) demands not a simplification (children have proved over and over again to be able to handle far more complexity than we give them credit for), but a directness that brings writers very quickly to the core of a tale.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always loved kid lit in all its shapes and forms. Young people today have a tremendous amount of choice in reading matter, with hundreds (probably more like thousands) of new books published each year. It’s an exciting and invigorating field to work in, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

*A loose definition: Middle Grade – fiction for 8-12 year olds/ Young Adult (YA) – fiction for teens.

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From the 2017 New England SCBWI conference

Summer 2017 Updates

Summer is here, bringing all the joys and challenges of kids on school vacation. It’s a lot harder to get writing-related things done when my not-so-little ones are around, but by mixing up the carrots (“we can go to the beach tomorrow if you let me work today”) and the sticks (“HALP! Leave me alone or I swear I’ll block your YouTube access”), I’m slowly getting to the end of my Night Blade revisions.

By next week, I’ll be ready to send my fight scenes to my sword instructor, Christopher Valli from Laurel City Sword. Chris revised all my sword and fight scenes for Heart Blade, and I’m hoping he’ll be pleased with the ones I’ve written for Night Blade. My climbing scenes also need a stern revision, since my only rock climbing experience was years ago, in my teens. I’m counting on my brother Simon, an enthusiastic climber, to look those over for me. The internet is a great resource for many things, but if you have access to someone who can revise sections that require a certain level of expertise, I thoroughly recommend it.

After incorporating any new suggestions from my experts, the next step will be a final reread of all the rewrites and edits I’ve made to Night Blade, before it goes back to my publisher for a last look. Once we’re all happy, the book will be ready for the copyeditor to get her teeth into.

Very soon, I’ll be able to share the gorgeous cover art for Night Blade. I’m lucky enough to have been given the chance to work with not just one, but two extremely talented cover artists. Merilliza Chan was in charge of the beautiful cover for Heart Blade. For Night Blade, my publisher changed direction slightly, and handed the cover over to Tom Edwards, who does some truly amazing SF/F book cover work. The result is very different from Heart Blade, but just as fabulous. I can’t wait to share it, and see what you all think.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 7.39.33 PM  A teeny tiny teaser… Cover reveal coming soon!

And speaking of art, Corinna Marie, who did the adorable character art for Heart Blade, is working on a brand new set of character pictures for Night Blade. There are a couple of familiar names among them, and a couple of new names, too – I hope you’ll enjoy meeting them as much as I enjoyed writing them! And yes, I’ll definitely be doing some character art postcard giveaways closer to launch date.

Don’t forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter for exclusive mini interviews – in July, my guest is fantasy author Kerry Buchanan, talking about horses in fiction.

Happy summer to those in the Northern Hemisphere! Here’s to beachside reading, lazy days in the shade, and a chance to recharge those batteries.

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Small Press Publishing

*Based off my notes for the April 2017 Barnes & Noble panel on Publishing Your Book that I took part in, along with authors Carrie Firestone, Stephanie Robinson, and Jessica Haight*
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Publishing Your Book panel participants

 

Yesterday was #smallpressday2017. Congratulations to all those hardworking small presses out there! Keep up the good work!

What is a small press?

When you’ve been part of the writing community for a while, as I have, it’s easy to forget that many of the publishing terms that we author-type people tend to toss around can be pretty obscure to those who are unfamiliar with the industry. For instance, I get a lot of people asking me what I mean when I say I’m published by a small press. I’ve been asked several times if that’s the same as self-publishing. No, I tell them, it isn’t. Of course, self-publishing is a perfectly valid option, if approached in a professional manner. I have many writer friends who have self-published, or who are ‘hybrid’ authors (both self- and traditionally published), and who thrive within that format. But that’s not the publishing model I went with for my Blade Hunt Chronicles.

Heart Blade (and the upcoming sequel Night Blade) is published by Woodbridge Press, a small Canadian publishing house. A small press follows the same model of ‘traditional publishing’ as Penguin Random House, or Simon and Schuster, or any of the big giants. The difference is the size and scope of the company.

What can you expect from a small press? Like any large press, you can (and should) expect editorial input that contributes to a polished end product. This may be only a copyeditor, or it may include other sorts of editing. For Heart Blade, I had a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader. Other things you should expect include professional cover art, professional layout and design work, etc.

What you should NOT expect: to pay for any of this from your own pocket. Just like with a large publishing house, in the traditional model the money flows TO the author, not FROM the author. If you’re paying for any of it, you’re looking at some form of vanity press, or one of the many companies that facilitate things for self-published authors. Again, that can be a valid choice, as long as you make it with your eyes open and know exactly what you’re getting into.

Downside to small press

Your main downside is going to be reach. A small press will have a much smaller marketing budget than a larger company, and visibility will be limited. Your book deal probably won’t appear in Publisher’s Weekly, your ARCs (advanced reader copies) probably won’t reach any of the big reviewers, and your book itself may not even be in physical bookstores.

Another downside is impermanence. Of course a large press can also go under (and when they do it can be spectacularly catastrophic!), but a small press is far more likely to go bankrupt, or just quit the business. Make sure you get decent reversal of rights clauses in your contract in case this happens to you.

Upside to small press

You don’t need to have an agent (query letter phobics, take note!). Most small presses take direct submissions from writers. Some have specific submission windows, some take all-year-round subs, but they rarely deal with agents, because for an agent there’s not much point in a book deal that’s going to be worth either a tiny advance or no advance at all.

A small press is more willing to take risks on subject matter. With Heart Blade, for instance, I had two agents tell me that no publishers were interested in demons, angels, and vampires; that this sort of thing was all over and done with. But a small press such as Woodbridge can take a chance on something they like. UK press Kristell Ink is a good example: they’ve been publishing some really innovative fantasy work that might not have stood a chance in one of the bigger publishing houses. And Tickety Boo Press have invested heavily in space operas and science fiction (among other genres).

The ‘risk factor’ is especially important if you write something niche. For instance, Aqueduct Press specializes in feminist literature in all genres. Headmistress Press is even more niche: they only publish lesbian poetry. If you think your manuscript may be hard to pitch, perhaps a small press is for you. Do your research – there are many good small publishing houses out there.

Another advantage of a small press is it’s a lot more agile and fluid than a large press. If you get a publishing deal with a large press, it can take anything from 18 months to 3 years before your book comes out. A small press can go from signing to publication in a matter of months. So if you’ve written something time sensitive – maybe about a recent or upcoming world event – a small press can be a good fit for you.

Small press caution!

Study all your options. Look into the different publishing formats and models out there. If you decide that a small press may be the ideal home for your manuscript, then put all those researching skills to good use. There are plenty of less-than-savory companies out there, and that’s where resources such as the SFWA’s ‘Writer Beware’ page, or the Water Cooler at Absolute Write, can be invaluable in helping you avoid the scammers and find a good, legitimate fit for your work.

Also, dip a toe into the small press waters by reading a few authors who have chosen this publishing model. Get a feel for different companies by investing in the work they publish. At the very least, you may discover some hidden gems (check out the #smallpressbigstories hashtag on Twitter for inspiration). If you find a writer you like, help spread the word (and stretch the tiny marketing budget) by sharing your discovery. All of us small press authors thank you!

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The Heart Blade Guide To Connecticut

Most of the first book in the Blade Hunt Chronicles is set in Connecticut, which – oh, hey! – just happens to be where I live. I moved here from Brazil almost four years ago, and was surprised at how heavily wooded the state is. I live in the Farmington River Valley, which although technically ‘suburbia’, gets plenty of wild visitors, like the black bears that like to make seasonal appearances in the area, besides coyotes, bobcats, foxes, beavers, and many others.

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Bear taking a casual stroll through my neighborhood

The Farmington Valley is where a good deal of Heart Blade takes place. I don’t specifically name the area in the book, but it was definitely the inspiration. In the stretch between New Hartford and Granby, the Farmington River meanders about in a wide U shape, adding grace to the small towns that nestle in and around its bend. If you want to get up close and personal with the river, Farmington River Tubing operates out of Satan’s Kingdom. And yes, that’s the real name of an actual State Recreation Area.

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A quiet stretch of the Farmington River

Heart Blade starts in Connecticut’s state capital, Hartford. Chapter 1 finds my character Del arriving at Union Station. She sets off along Asylum Avenue, which leads past the Connecticut Historical Society Museum and Library and on toward beautiful Elizabeth Park. The park straddles Hartford and West Hartford, and in summer runs a popular series of outdoor concerts.

Another scene in Hartford finds Del and Ash outside the Connecticut Science Center. This is a great place to visit, especially if you have younger kids in your group, as the museum has a huge range of interactive displays on a wide variety of subjects. The CSS is right next to the Connecticut Convention Center, where ConnectiCon takes place every July. Lots of con attendees end up over at the CSS for lunch, so if you time your visit right, you might end up sharing a table with a bunch of cool cosplayers.

Just over the state line into Massachusetts, Old Sturbridge Village shows up in chapter 2, when I introduce Ash and the sentinels. This living history museum provides a nice opportunity to step back in time and see how life used to be in the 1830s. If you want to experience Sturbridge at night, as Ash does, they have a fantastic event that takes place on weekends in December. It’s called Christmas by Candlelight, and recreates traditional Yuletide activities such as carol singing and ornament making. There’s a big bonfire on the green, and visitors can buy mulled wine and other seasonal treats.

Go Huskies! Ash’s dad expects him to remain nearby after high school, and go to the University of Connecticut or another local college. Established in 1881, UConn’s main campus in Storrs is home to some 30,000 students from the USA and around the world. UConn has the top women’s college basketball team in the country; they recently suffered their first loss after a record-setting winning streak of 111 games stretching back to 2014, including two national championship runs.

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UConn Men’s Basketball at the XL Center in Hartford

Famous for it’s pizza, New Haven, on the Long Island Sound, also makes a brief appearance in Heart Blade. Here, you can tour Yale University, and make a stop at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. If you drive a little further up the coast, near public beaches such as Hammonasset and Rocky Neck, you’ll find Mystic Seaport. Like Sturbridge, Mystic is also a living history museum, but this time centered on New England’s maritime heritage. For boat lovers, the yearly WoodenBoat Show at Mystic is a real treat.

It was so much fun including in Heart Blade some of the places I’ve visited over these past few years. Book 2, Night Blade (out later this year!), moves a little further afield – there are still scenes set in Connecticut, but we also get to go to Toronto, Canada, and the Adirondacks, in upstate New York. I’m looking forward to sharing some new book locations with you soon!

*all photographs used in this blog post are my own*

 

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Villains We Hate To Love (Part 2)

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“I am Loki, of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose…You WILL kneel before me!”

Yeah, yeah. I know they’re the ‘bad guys’. I KNOW, all right? Sheesh, stop shouting. It’s just…why did they have to be so darn awesome? The fact is, some villains are too cool for school, and although we know we’re supposed to hate them, we end up loving them instead. I’m not talking about ‘grey’ villains, ones who have redeemable qualities, who deserve understanding even if ultimately they still do All The Wrong Things. I’m talking about characters who are clearly bad to the core, but who we can’t help adoring anyway.

An example is Scar from Disney’s The Lion King. It’s hard to find a villain as delicious as Scar, voiced by the amazing Jeremy Irons. His particular brand of suave yet petty nastiness blew everyone away when the movie first came out. Scar telling Simba that his surprise is “To die for”? *shivers*

I haven’t seen the Lion King musical. But if we were casting Scar nowadays, he would have to be played by Tom Hiddleston. And speaking of Tom: Loki, in Marvel’s The Avengers. We’re supposed to dislike him – rather intensely, I imagine – but come on, that’s hardly fair! The character’s quiet yet supreme arrogance is played so beautifully by Hiddleston that Loki quickly emerged as one of the highlights of the star-studded movie.

Another character I can’t help rather liking is Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter. In part, perhaps, because on-screen she’s played by the inimitable Helena Bonham Carter. But book Bellatrix is also fabulous. She definitely fits in the ‘hate to love’ camp. I think, with Bellatrix, the attraction is her completely unapologetic devotion to evil. She’s not just old Voldy’s right hand lady, she truly enjoys being horrible. With crazed giggling pleasure.

I think it’s easier to find ‘bad guys’ that we love on TV and in movies, than in books. In visual media, a dashing portrayal by a charismatic actor can be enough to make us fall for a villain, however heinous their crimes. (Hannibal Lecter, I’m looking at you.) In books, once an author starts adding charm and depth to an evil character, that character risks ending up in the ‘grey morality’ zone, where we know they’re bad but we understand their motivations and sympathize with them. Which is not really what I’m looking for here: I’m going for characters we KNOW are evil, but can’t help falling for anyway.

Take CW’s Supernatural, for instance. Over the show’s 12 seasons, the audience has embraced outright evil characters such as demon Crowley, played by Mark Sheppard, and Lucifer himself, played primarily by Mark Pellegrino. Both characters are fan favorites, and Sheppard and Pellegrino are for sure the reason behind this. In Arrow, also a CW show, recurring character Malcolm Merlyn is a slippery, self-centered jerk. But actor John Barrowman consistently woos the audience, over and over.

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like for an author or show creator when a villain suddenly takes off as a fan favorite. I imagine it goes something like this:

Fans on Twitter, Tumblr, etc: WE LOVE THIS CHARACTER.

Creators: No, they’re actually the villain, you’re not supposed to like them.

Fans: LOVE.

Creators: I don’t think you understand, see, they’re bad?

Fans: *Fan art everywhere. Make a million gifs. Write thousands of words of fan fiction.*

Creators: But…

Fans: Looooovvvveeeeeee………………..

 

 

 

 

NESCBWI 17: Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio

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This past weekend, April 21-23, some 700 kid lit authors, illustrators, and industry professionals got together in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the yearly Spring Conference of the New England region of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), which this year was named Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio.

This was my second time at this event, and it has definitely established itself as one of my favorite places to be. Not just because of the interesting panels, workshops, and keynote presentations, but because it tends to be a friendly, laid-back sort of thing, where everyone chats to everyone else, and new friends are made all the time. There is always lots of catching up to do with writer buddies I usually only see on social media, and time flies by all too quickly!

So, what were my highlights for 2017? To start with, this was my first time at a SCBWI event as a published author. I loved seeing Heart Blade up on the big screen with all the other attendee’s work, and it was great spotting it in the con bookstore.

This year, I attended several workshops on social media and marketing. Jess Keating encouraged us to brainstorm our platform with adjectives and images to get a feel for ourselves, and for the tone we want to set on social media. She urged us to think about who we are, rather than who we think we should be, and to remember: ‘you are the expert at being you’. Anika Denise suggested that an author platform is a stage where you connect with your audience, and reminded us that author platforms aren’t built in a day, nor should building them eclipse putting time and effort into the actual writing. For those who were unsure what to blog or tweet about, she suggested mining your book’s content for underlying themes you can dig into. Allison Moore showed us examples off her own Twitter feed, and reminded us (as did everyone lecturing about social media) that promoting your own book has to be something done in small and sporadic doses. To top it all off, Jen Malone gave us great tips on public speaking, and told us that “speakers who are real, honest and can share their passion have the greatest impact on their audience.”

One of my favorite workshops this year was Dana Meachen Rau on injecting characters with emotion, something I find my plot-focused brain often struggles with. She reminded us that plot elements are great, but without emotion, who cares? The plot provides the external story arc, but emotion provides the internal story arc, and becomes the engine that moves your character forward. When a reader reads a book, they go on the same emotional journey as the character, and it is this shared experience that makes a story unforgettable.

For a fun learning experience, Friday night brought Pitchapalooza, the now-traditional event hosted by The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Names were drawn, and contenders got to pitch their story for a minute, on the clock. Then a panel of agents and editors critiqued each attempt, explaining in a positive manner what worked, and what didn’t.

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The crowd at Pitchapalooza

There were three amazing keynote talks, by authors Barry Lyga and Jane Yolen, and author/illustrator Melissa Sweet, who had the prettiest PowerPoint presentation I’ve ever seen. Jane urged us to “listen to the work, not the fears”, a sentiment I think all writers can relate to on the dark days. On the writing the rainbow panel, Kevin Lewis reminded the audience that we should always endeavor to create environments in our work that ‘are as diverse as the world we live in.’

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Jane Yolen inspires us over breakfast

I headed home on Sunday happy and exhausted, bearing pages and pages of notes, a pile of business cards and bookmarks from people I want to keep in touch with, and a ton of fresh inspiration to give my work a much-needed boost. Thank you to all the hard-working volunteers at the NESCBWI for putting together a great event, and see you next year!

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Relaxing on Sunday evening with peppermint tea and Melissa Sweet’s biography of E.B. White