Juliana Spink Mills, March 2021
The older I get
the less I know
are shaken loose,
washed clean and clear
by the pitter-patter rain
of days, and months, and
years gone by.
I find new things about
myself, every day.
Blooming from within;
rising above the debris
of last autumn's leaves,
as the river birch sheds
paper-thin slivers of bark.
Time brings wisdom,
Time is knowledge.
But time is, above all, freedom
to set aside that
which others have
accidentally imposed upon me
in the way they perceive
how I exist.
As the years wash against me
like waves on a beach,
I find I do not need
other people to define me
as I once did.
Time has bought me
space and perspective,
and now I begin to see myself
for who I am.
It’s been a strange and busy few weeks since my last blog post. First, my laptop was out of commission for a solid fortnight, after an OS update went very wrong. Then, there was all the fuss in setting things back up the way I like them, which included running a search-and-rescue for lost files, photos, and emails. (Yes, I had backups of most things. But there’s still time spent finding and replacing everything.)
Personal life has also been busy. Anxiety about COVID vaccine appointments, trying to make college decisions with my son, and ramping up driving practice, as my daughter takes her test this week. Lots of distractions and minor worries, alongside the normal, usual, everyday cares and concerns.
Surprisingly, to me at least, I’ve managed to keep up my writing routine through all of this. When my laptop froze, I was luckily in a place where I needed a break from revising my sci fi novel to think a few plotlines over. I spent time letting my mind wander and writing poetry — a nice breather after many months of solid prose. And then, as soon as things were up and running again, I was back into my manuscript.
Of course, some things have to give. There are only so many of those darn pesky balls a person can juggle at once. I haven’t touched my blog in forever, and I took a semi-hiatus (for a while) from social media. I didn’t read much, either. But I did spend a lot of time simply breathing and existing; sometimes, that’s all we have mental space for, and that’s okay.
Paring back when life ramps up is fine. It’s necessary. And there’s no formula to it: sometimes the writing gets paused, sometimes it’s other activities. AND THAT’S OKAY. And that’s all I want to say, really. It’s okay.
New year, new dreams, same old Coronavirus. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere just yet, and despite the start of vaccinations here in the USA, there’s a long road to travel before we can begin to meet up in person again. But I can’t help but feel hopeful that there is light ahead, and make plans for an amazing 2021!
Before 2020 is completely over, however, here’s a quick look at what went on in my life…
Feeling the need to step away from YA for a bit led to writing my first ever adult fantasy novel. I had a blast with it! It’s now at the final revision stage, and feedback has been extremely positive.
I had one short story — The Sugar Cane Sea — published in the Not All Monsters anthology (Strangehouse/Rooster Republic Press), a collection of stories by women of horror. The anthology came out in limited run illustrated hardback and paperback versions in April, and in October in regular paperback and e-book versions. It’s already made the Stoker reading list!
Another short story has been submitted, accepted, and edited for an upcoming collaborative anthology of women fantasy authors: Femmes Fae-Tales. My story, Taste of Honey, is set here in Connecticut and is about a woman who becomes addicted to nature’s magic.
I took part in a roundtable interview organized by Not All Monsters editor Sara Tantlinger —see link on my press page.
I managed one Con as panelist and with a reading (Boskone in Boston) before the world shut down.
I recorded a video for the Shrewsbury Library in the UK with a short reading from Taste of Honey (see link at bottom of page).
I attended a number of online book and writing events and writer meet ups.
With all in-person events cancelled, this included our New England SCBWI conference, which we will be doing an online version of in 2021. With everything being moved forward, I’m now co-director of the 2021 and 2022 regional conferences.
Favorite books this year include Leigh Bardugo’s dark and moody Ninth House and the first two books in Brandon Sanderson’s riveting YA sci fi trilogy, Skyward and Starsight. I thoroughly enjoyed Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, a murder mystery set in Viking times. I’ve also been working through the Rivers of London books by Ben Aaronovitch, and am now up to date with the most recent installment in this excellent urban fantasy series.
A couple of movies I loved were Knives Out and Birds of Prey, both of which I missed in movie theaters but caught up with at home. It was a good year for classic musicals, too — we managed to see Jesus Christ Superstar live in Hartford a few weeks before lockdown started, and then Phantom of the Opera (hello, endless earworm loop!) during the Shows Must Go On COVID fundraiser, among others.
TV shows! This, of course, was the year of The Mandalorian. But there were plenty of other shows to keep us busy. Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy was overall very good, and I’m slowly making my way through three DC shows: Doom Patrol, Young Justice, and Titans, now that they’re all available on HBO. Speaking of DC, Stargirl was a fun CW release, with a great family dynamic. What We Do in the Shadows was a big hit in our house, and all four of us loved it. Britannia is absolutely bonkers, but my husband and I enjoyed both seasons and are looking forward to the next one. Queer Eye and Nadiya’s Time to Eat were probably my top reality TV feel-good options.
Personal bits and pieces
Lockdown meant all four of us (five with the dog!) sharing space all day for most of the year — the kids did return to school for a couple of months, but have been back in full remote learning since then. It took a bit of adjusting, but on the whole things went pretty smoothly, and we are all now pros at Getting Things Done without bothering each other too much.
As we were all adapting our workspaces, I took advantage of the flurry of reorganization to move my writing hutch to a brighter (and quieter) spot by my indoor jungle, and have really enjoyed working there. Very inspiring!
My father visited in March, and had the misfortune to be here when all borders closed down. It took a lot of last-minute juggling to get him on an early flight back to Brazil, but he made it! Even though his trip got cut short, we still managed a great week together.
It’s been a quiet year, for obvious reasons, but we went away for a week in July, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, for a COVID-appropriate holiday that included lots of fresh air and hikes.
My youngest how has her learner’s permit, and my oldest is waiting to hear back from university applications. Having big kids is terrifying!
Coming in 2021
I have no Con participation scheduled for 2021, though as co-director, I’ll be putting in an online appearance at the NESCBWI regional spring conference. I miss in-person events! Hopefully, we’ll get back to seeing each other offline at some point…
The Femmes Fae-Tales anthology should be out by May, containing my short story Taste of Honey as well as work by a fabulous group of fantastic writers.
Writing goals for 2020! I’m hoping to be ready to submit my fantasy novel by the end of January. After that, while I wait for (fingers crossed!) replies, I’m going to do a rewrite of my SF YA novel. I do have several other projects lined up, like a couple of short stories that exist in first draft form and need reworking — one of these is a horror story set in the mangrove swamps of southeastern Brazil that I think will work better as magical realism… But ‘Void’ and ‘Beastie’ are my initial priorities. (Yes, I nickname all my writing projects!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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!
Con badge and con nails
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!
I have kids. Two of them, teenagers now, which allows for plenty of ‘me’ time, since they’re often occupied with their private worlds of school and friends, YouTube and online gaming, and books of their own choosing. But still, I have kids. This means that, twice a year, my carefully set up writing routine gets turned upside down.
Winter break is easier. Although December is usually a blur of things to do and places to be, the school hiatus itself is unreasonably tiny in the USA. They’re out for around ten days and then it’s back to school. The routine hits a small bump in the road, but rightens itself quickly.
But summer… Summer is hard. Summer is long. Summer is frequent breaks for day trips to the lake or the beach, cousins staying over, kids asking for rides to the mall, or to friends’ houses. Summer is slowing life right down to a comfortable crawl, and enjoying a last-minute barbeque, or setting up an inflatable pool on the blacktop and having a family water fight. Summer is fun, summer is a welcome change of pace. Summer is… not great for writing. For me, at least.
After the kids (finally) go back to school at the end of August, it usually takes me a while to find my rhythm again. This year was extra especially hard as we adopted a puppy in August, with all the pet training challenges an enthusiastic three-month-old dog brings. So, come mid-September, I was screaming at myself to get a grip and focus on my work. But it just wasn’t happening, and this was dragging me into a downward spiral of self-doubt, fueled by VERY EARLY mornings (thanks to Small Pup) and not enough sleep. I wasn’t writing ANYTHING, and I wasn’t reading, either. My to-be-read pile looked like an unclimbable mountain, and I just didn’t feel like touching a single book. So I sat down and came up with some strategies to ease myself back into things. I decided that, instead of tackling the big tasks on my to-do list, I would try starting out with small steps, and tiny bites.
On the reading front, I resolutely put the TBR pile away. I went to my town library and looked for comfort and familiarity, and a change of genre. If science fiction and fantasy were stressing me out, I was going to move away, at least for a while. I picked up a few thrillers by an author I used to love, rereading a few old favorites and trying a couple of new titles. I mixed in a bit of middle grade, and a bit of YA. Before I knew it, my 2018 ‘books read’ list — horrifically untouched throughout July and August — was suddenly growing, and I was having fun again.
I approached writing with clear and easy goals, and a challenge. The challenge for what was left of September was to do something writing-related every day. It could be creating a blog post, going over a critique partner’s submission, or working on a short story. I set aside the must do’s (like work on Star Blade!) and focused on the can do’s. As my confidence grew, I began to hit my goals. I revised a short story that had been languishing for a couple of months, I wrote a promised blog interview I’d been sitting on for a while, and I got through most of a new editing pass for my brand-new sci fi thriller. I wrote down what I achieved every day in my journal, and gave myself stars and a pat on the back. I was on a roll, I was getting things done.
I’ve kept the momentum going into October, with slightly more challenging goals, keeping to my system of trying to do at least one writing-related thing each day. So far, it’s working, and I feel like I’m back up to speed and moving along nicely. The strategies worked, for me at least, and I shall reapply them whenever I lose momentum or get into one of those self-doubt spirals, and need something structured to help me along.
We all go through slow patches at times. It’s normal, and often downright necessary. And sometimes we need to help ourselves a little to get out of a slump. Will my strategies work for you? I don’t know; perhaps you might have to come up with your own solutions. But here’s a recap of mine, in case you need them. Good luck!
Daily challenges. A loose ‘do something writing-related every day’ worked for me, but find your own. It could be trying a writing prompt, or doing a different daily writing exercise. Make it something that can be as big or as small as you can handle on each specific day. Small steps, tiny bites.
Easy goals. Give yourself tasks you know you can handle. One page of new words a day. A new short story. Ten pages of revision. Victory with easy goals will encourage you to take on more demanding ones next.
Comfort food. Or comfort books, really. Though food is good, too. Especially cake. Wait, what were we talking about? Books, that’s right. Think of it as comfort food for the brain. I got myself back in the mood for reading by returning to old favorites and switching genres for a while.
When we are young, the extraordinary is everywhere. Babies reach for dust motes, sparkling like magic in a stray sunbeam. Toddlers find enchantment in sticks, and stones, and seashells. Shadows hold mysteries, a puddle is an ocean of promise, and every street corner hides a story yet to unfold.
We recently adopted a shelter puppy, which means I’ve been taking endless trips to the backyard in the name of house training. Small Pup is in awe of everything in her newly expanded universe: the crackle of last autumn’s leaves in the woods at the back of our house; the chirp and cheep of crickets and chipmunks and other wild calling things; the dappled play of sunlight through the green boughs.
Our multiple excursions have forced me to slow down, take a break from life, and actually take a good look around me. I’m rediscovering the art of enjoying the details, the little things: early acorns, tiny frogs, the first of the autumn colors in the trees. Last night a small snake — barely a hatchling — slithered past. When it saw us, it froze and raised its head in youthful defiance, until we moved away and it could escape, leaving a rippling trail in the grass.
It takes me back to childhood days I’d thought forgotten. To the tall bushes at the end of my London garden, which I was convinced held a path to a secret world if I could only find the right word, or the right moment, or the right gesture. To games played in the nearby woods, looking for fairies in the quiet places and wondering if the squirrels could be persuaded to talk.
Our young lives are alight with stories of magic doorways and other places: a rabbit hole in the countryside or a space behind a dryer in a big city basement laundry can lead us to a Wonderland of talking playing cards or an Underland of giant roaches and warrior bats. But more than that: when we are small we believe in the possibility of magic and that these imaginary worlds might just be real. We lose that as we grow, and reason and logic begin to prevail.
These stolen moments, out in the backyard with Small Pup listening to the rustle of wildlife in the trees and letting my imagination soar, have been a true gift. I’ve been a little out of sync with my writing lately, and this quiet process of getting back in touch with the enchantment of my childhood days is helping me connect to my own words again. And find the extra in the ordinary.
January is well underway, my to-do list is truly terrifying, and the little guilt demon on my shoulder is whispering ‘you haven’t written anything new in over a month’. But you know what? I don’t really care.
I just spent a wonderful three weeks with my parents visiting from Brazil, and my brother and his family visiting from England. The last time we were all together was in 2014!
Late December and early January flew by in a magical haze of good food and too much dessert, of toddler footsteps along the hallway in the mornings, warm hugs, and conversations that lingered long after dinner was cleared away. Messy art projects and even messier baking attempts. Ski slope chatter on a crisp cold morning. Hot chocolate and shared jokes. Memories, new and old, shared around the table and then tucked away to brighten the dark days.
Those of you who have family living far away will understand just how special it is to have your loved ones gathered around even for a short while.
I may be late to the January party, with all those to-do’s threatening to go full avalanche and crush me as I huddle over my laptop, but my mind is beautifully clear, and I’m all fired up and ready to dive into this brand new year. Allowing yourself the luxury of stepping away from it all for a bit can be a huge plus if you look at it as a chance to recharge.
Here’s to a wonderful 2018 for all of us! May this be the year you make your dreams come true.
The Pixel Project’s ‘Read For Pixels’ (International Women’s Day Edition) is still going strong. The non-profit has reached its initial target of U$5,000 in donations, and they are hoping to hit their stretch goal of U$10,000.
The Pixel Project gathers funds and raises awareness to help end violence against women around the world. Their twice-yearly Read For Pixels campaign has online hangouts with top authors, as well as books and other prizes that you can claim as ‘perks’ with your donation.
My novel Heart Blade is in one of the donation bundles, along with 1st Edition hardcovers from bestselling YA Fantasy authors Kimberly Derting (The Taking) and Alyson Noel (Unrivalled). Last time I checked, there was only one of these bundles left! There are many other donation perks, though, like books by Kendare Blake and Karen Rose.
I wrote a guest piece for Jo Zebedee on writing and taking risks. Besides being a talented author herself, Jo runs a great blog with lots of extremely honest advice on writing and publishing. You can find my guest post and Jo’s excellent blog here.