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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
A while back, on Twitter, a question about revisions came up. I mentioned adding ‘breathing space’. See the tweet, below.
Why breathing space? When I started writing seriously, back in 2012 (seriously as in: outlining, sticking with my projects, and ACTUALLY FINISHING MY DRAFTS!), my manuscripts were a headlong rush of action scenes, with barely a pause between them. There was no time to deepen my characters, or their arcs. It was frantic, it was frenetic, it was… Yeah, it was just too much.
The first time I worked with a professional editor was when Heart Blade got picked up for publication. The wonderful Teresa Edgerton, who had the challenging task of coaching me through a full rewrite, taught me a lot about allowing my stories space to breathe. I picked that manuscript apart completely, and figured out (with Teresa’s help) how to put it back together with enough spare room for full emotional arcs, proper character development, and those all-important moments of stillness.
I’ve progressed in my writing skills (I hope!) since then and have learnt to find pleasure in slowing things down a little, and in those quiet spaces between all the action. But I still need to remind myself of the need for this at times, and that’s definitely something I look for when revising.
There’s a scene from Heart Blade that I love because it’s muted, hushed, and yet it adds weight to my story, grounding it. You can click here to read the full excerpt, but here’s part of it:
He was still by the doorway when she passed, and her arm brushed his lightly in the cramped space. He felt that tingle again like an electric jolt that ran all the way down to his toes. She flinched, and he was sure she’d felt it too. He put a hand out and caught hers. She stopped where she was, waiting. He was waiting, too, but he didn’t know what for. The doorway they stood in was a frame for a captured moment, a stolen image frozen in time.
Giving your words space to breathe can give your work that extra bit of depth, and allowing the reader time to process all that awesome action helps the words hit home harder. Music can’t be all chorus and bridges; you need the regular verses too, or else the rhythm is all off. Writing is the same. Take a step back, find the spots that need some quiet, and let your story take a long exhale.
Summer! (At least for all of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere.) Life for me lately has been a busy but happy balance between visiting family, hanging out with the kids, and writing. This is what I’ve been up to, and what’s ahead for August…
June brought a visit from my mother, who flew up from Brazil to spend almost three weeks with us. We had a wonderful time exploring some of Connecticut’s parks and gardens, finishing things up with a glorious weekend in NYC.
In July, I dove into revisions. I’m working on something new and rather scary, at least for me. It’s my first non-YA novel, my first try at working completely in a fantasy world (and not urban fantasy or portal fantasy), and also my first attempt at first person POV in novel-length work. The first half of Shiver’s story is now off with my wonderful (and hugely patient) beta readers, and to say I’m anxious is probably the understatement of the year!
August began with a visit from my mother-in-law, also from Brazil. We’ve been busy, and have lots more fun stuff planned; one of the nice things about having friends or family to stay is the excuse to get out and about.
Now, this is where things get truly adventurous. On August 13th I’m off to Ireland! Worldcon 2019 is in Dublin, and I’m looking forward both to exploring the city and to my first ever Worldcon. I’ll be doing a reading as part of the Broad Universe event, so if you’re there, I’ll be in the Liffey Room 3 at the CCD on Friday August 16th, from 5-5.50pm.
From the Con program: “Broad Universe is an international organization for women and female-identifying authors of science fiction, fantasy and horror, working together to promote women’s works in the genres! Our signature event, the Rapid Fire Reading, gives each author a few minutes to read from their work. It’s like a living anthology of women writers.”
On August 15th, more excitement! That’s release day for our all-female collaborative sci fi anthology, DISTAFF. I’ll have bookmarks on me in Dublin, come hunt me down. But our actual launch party will have to wait until the following weekend…
After Worldcon is over, I’m off to Belfast for Titancon (Eurocon). Here, we’ll be officially launching our anthology. Yes, there will be a proper event, all fancy-like with cupcakes and chocolates, so if you’re at Titancon, stop by on Friday 23rd, from 7-9pm in the Lisburn room.
At Titancon, I’ll also be part of the Literature Night readings on Thursday 22nd, and I’m moderating a panel: Found In Translation, discussing the business, practicalities and pitfalls of translating SF&F, with Francesco Verso (Future Fiction), Radoslaw Kot, and Jean Bürlesk (Science Fiction & Fantasy Society Luxembourg). That’s on Thursday 22nd, from 5-6pm at the Waterfront room.
I fly home on the 28th, hopefully full of the good sort of exhaustion that comes with meeting friends and making new ones, watching panels, traipsing around new cities to take in the sights, and generally getting enough inspiration to last a good few months!
In just seventeen days, on August 15th, our collaborative anthology DISTAFF will be out there in the wide world for everyone to read. It’s been an amazing journey, from the very early ideas hatched on the SFFChronicles.com forum, to this point, less than a month from release day.
To celebrate, I asked the DISTAFF authors to think of a song that could work as a soundtrack for their stories. Here it is, the DISTAFF Anthology Playlist!
Jane O’Reilly opens the anthology with The Broken Man, a post-apocalyptic tale of caution and of cautious hope. Her suggestion is Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell.
Kerry Buchanan brings us Space Rocks, an irreverent mystery that blends mythology and space travel. Kerry picked Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone as a backdrop to her story.
Rosie Oliver is the cool mind behind The Ice Man, a frost-cold murder mystery set in a near-future Sweden. Her choice of soundtrack is KeiiNO’s Spirit in the Sky.
Juliana Spink Mills, well, that’s me! The song I picked for my story A Cold Night in H3-II, a chilling tale of a struggling space colony, is Demons by Imagine Dragons.
Damaris Browne is the author of The Colour of Silence, a poignant tale of sorrow and hope, where the people of Earth seek salvation among the stars. Her song of choice is Silence is Golden by the Tremeloes.
EJ Tett’s contribution is Holo-Sweet. They say that love will always find a way — though space romance isn’t always easy! EJ’s song suggestion for this fun tale is Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye.
Shellie Horst is the author of My Little Mecha, in which a growing security threat and a systems malfunction meet family miscommunication to form the perfect storm. Shellie’s musical pick is Dare to be Stupid by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Susan Boulton brings us Ab Initio, a harrowing tale of survival — but at what cost? Susan’s soundtrack suggestion is Human by Rag’n’Bone Man.
Jo Zebedee finalizes our anthology line up with The Shadows Are Us And They Are The Shadows: when all hope seems lost, life surprises us. Jo’s song choice for her story is Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine.
If you want to listen to the full soundtrack, click here to find it on iTunes. (Disclaimer: not all songs may be available in your region. Spotify list to come; please check back.)
Often, in a conversation, the quiet spots and silences are just as important as the words themselves. A conversation needs to breathe, to develop organically. Otherwise it’s just two or more people babbling frantically at each other until they run out of things to say, like old-school mechanical wind-up toys.
I find the same thing happens in my work, and that the non-writing moments, where I can let my story breathe, are crucial to my progress.
I see plenty of advice out there saying stuff like ‘just get that first draft done, you can fix it later’, or ‘power through the parts you’re unsure of, leave placeholders for things you still need to figure out’. And the one that’s everywhere: ‘writers should write every day’.
I’m sure that’s sound advice for some people. We are all different, and every writer needs to find the tools and working style that speaks to them. Personally, I find that if something just doesn’t feel right, or I can’t quite see how to get from A to B, I can’t just let it go and put it down as ‘fix later’. I need to mull it over and find a solution before I can move on. And that’s where the non-writing comes in.
Whenever I hit a bump (and don’t we all?!) it helps to step away and leave my story simmering on the back burner, on the lowest possible heat. I won’t consciously worry away at the problem, but it’s there, in the background, never quite forgotten, until the solution suddenly emerges. In the meantime, I get on with life. I work on other projects, and read, and catch up on all those TV shows.
Sometimes that ‘a-ha’ moment is only a dog walk away (I get a lot of ideas when I’m out walking the dog!). Other times it might take a week or two, or more. When, after a month of obsessive non-stop writing, my current project hit a huge plot snarl, I had to put it aside for a good couple of months before I was ready to tackle it again.
Taking a break until I figure out my way past a plot issue works for me; it might not work for you. But If you’re stuck, and find yourself guilty for stepping away for a while, don’t be: the non-writing can be every bit as important as the writing itself.
I missed last year’s conference, exchanging it for the Eastern PA SCBWI region’s Poconos Retreat instead (see posts here and here). I had a wonderful time in Pennsylvania, but I must admit it was nice to be back in Springfield this year! I only attended two of the three days, but going to the NESCBWI conference always feels like coming home. There are so many friendly faces — both old friends and new ones — that time zips by, and I was sad to see Saturday come to a close and end another year’s get together with my New England kid lit family.
A few of my personal highlights:
Patricia MacLachlan’s ‘Fireside Chat’ with Heidi Stemple was a delight. I’m actually new to reading Patricia’s work — I picked up my first of her books earlier this year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Seeing Patricia speak helped understand a little of the writer behind the pages.
The branding workshop with my writing pal Jessica Southwick. Jess talked about treating our author and/or illustrator selves as brands when it comes to visual presence — website, business cards, social media etc. Her workshop included a practical feedback session where she looked at our material and gave us a handy list of pros and cons. I have so much website ‘homework’ to do now!
Lisa Yee’s revision intensive. Lisa is so much fun to be around, and her hands-on workshop was a really good glimpse of how revision techniques can be put into practice. She guided us through a series of short writing exercises that really helped understand how we can tighten and improve our work. Thanks Lisa!
Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s keynote talk was both inspiring and emotional, and had many of us in the audience wiping away a discreet tear or two. Lynda is amazing, and I’m looking forward to reading her brand new book, Shouting at the Rain.
The volunteer dinner! Volunteering at NESCBWI is a great tradition; volunteers help out with set up, registration, at workshops, in the book signing line, and in many other capacities. If you’re new to the conference, it’s a fun way to feel like you belong while you’re finding your feet. In exchange, the NESCBWI graciously invites all volunteers to a dinner on Saturday night — delicious tacos this time. It’s always a nice moment, held in a smaller and more intimate setting than the huge ballroom meals of Saturday and Sunday lunchtime.
People, people, people. Too many to list: some were friends from other events, some were local to me, some were online buddies I was finally meeting in person. And some were absolutely 100% new, and that’s just the way I like it: meeting amazing kid lit folks and expanding my circle of awesome. To all of you I connected with this year — thanks for making the conference one of my absolute favorite places to be!
Yesterday evening, a group of us who are local to the Hartford CT area met up to talk about all of our own highlights from Springfield and compare notes. I’m always happy to see that I’m not the only one who leaves the conference with a big smile and a fresh batch of inspiration. I hope the NESCBWI keeps up the good work for many more years to come. And for those who live in New England and write or illustrate for children and teens: see you next spring!
Anyone who has watched Ghostbusters will remember that, although ‘crossing the streams’ was supposed to be a Terrible Thing, ultimately it vanquished the Big Bad and saved the day. Likewise, for writers, learning to cross-network between different writing communities can enrich our lives and take our work to a whole new level.
In 2012, I joined my first writing community, the SFFChronicles.com — an online science fiction and fantasy forum with an active writer’s section. At the time, I had just made the decision to get back into writing and was working on my first novel, a middle grade fantasy. While researching children’s fiction resources I found the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), but back then I lived in Brazil, and we had no regional chapters I could look into.
A year later, following my husband’s job relocation, I moved to Connecticut. As soon as I arrived, I joined the SCBWI. Six months later, I went to my first SCBWI conference in New York. I was making connections, online and in person, and my writing world was growing. At the same time, I continued to be an active participant in the sci fi and fantasy community. Both were equally important in teaching me about how publishing works, and in honing my writing skills.
From the kid lit community I learned how to craft middle grade and YA; the SF/F world taught me about genre fiction. The first was invaluable in helping me understand traditional publishing; the second showed me how to navigate anthology submission calls and other short story markets. The SCBWI brought me my wonderful local critique partners; the SF/F community gave me my first beta readers, and eventually a second online critique group. The SCBWI encouraged me to volunteer at conferences and events, and to get involved at a local level, organizing meet and greets for my area. SF/F brought participation opportunities for convention panels, my first public reading, and an opening to write interviews for a genre website. Both groups have nurtured me and cheered for my successes along the way, and expanded both my horizons and my circle of friends. I couldn’t keep moving forward without both of these communities at my side.
When I go to SCBWI events I’m always intrigued by how few members seem to even consider reaching beyond the kid lit community for connection and knowledge. The SCBWI is a wonderful place to call home, but there are many other thriving organizations out there to be explored. The Romance Writers of America is a busy and inclusive example, with many small local chapters throughout the USA. The Mystery Writers of America is another great society with active chapters in different regions. And those are only two among many. Broadening our worlds and cross-networking between communities can be a wonderful way to gain further insight in our work and widen that support web that is so crucial in the difficult world of publishing.
Whatever you chosen ‘home’ community, consider stepping outside and looking for others to connect with. Have a look around, both online and in your local area, and see what you can find. Take a chance on adding a whole new side to your network by joining additional writing organizations — either official ones, like those mentioned above, or unofficial ones such as the forum I’ve been on since 2012. Getting involved with a new community may be scary at first, but by casting that net a little wider and crossing those streams, you may find your creativity shines bigger, and brighter, and bolder than ever.
I don’t do dark. I don’t do scary, or heart-wrenching. My writing is fun and happy, and full of sunshine. Until it really, really isn’t.
The first thing I ever wrote was a light-hearted middle grade novel about a group of friends in small-town Brazil trying to stop a rampaging gang of ghosts. There was a bike chase, and meetings at the local ice cream parlor. Not a sliver of a shadow in sight, right? But now, looking back, I see there was an underlying theme of the price of magic, and of good magic gone very wrong.
Another middle grade novel had themes of PTSD and abandonment. My first foray into YA was about genetic experimentation on teenagers and forced seclusion from society. Are we beginning to sense a thread of darkness in all of this? But I still had this illusion that I was writing upbeat happy stories, probably because the dark bits were interspersed with enough action to mask them, at least to my own eyes.
(Although the torture scene in my first published book—which got a special mention from Fantasy-Faction—should have clued me in…)
I got into short stories. These tended to be a lot darker right off the bat. Probably because I felt these were somewhat separated from my usual stuff, and gave me more room to play. Published stories include an alien willing to kill to remain on Earth, a trio of cut-throat teen mercenaries on a desperate mission, and murder by flesh-eating fungus. Nice and cheerful!
But there’s a beauty to the shadows, to the gray tones and the storm clouds. We can only appreciate the light when the story has contrast. And for that, it often needs to go down dark paths.
At the moment, I’m working on something brand new. It’s my darkest novel yet, with some pretty tough subthemes. At first, I wondered who the heck the person commandeering my brain was, to be coming up with this stuff. Then I took a good hard look at my earlier writing, and realized the shadows have been there all along, from the very beginning.
In a way, this came as a relief. It’s good to know my work has actually had some consistency from the start. Until I began this latest project, I was worried that there was a huge disconnect between my short pieces and my longer stories. This new thing of mine not only seems to pull all the different sides of me together, but it also made me take a good hard look at my past work, too. And maybe embrace the dark.