Brand New Year

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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.

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Read For Pixels 2017 – International Women’s Day Edition

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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.

Check out the campaign page here.

Also, keep an eye out for the Gaming For Pixels Spring Slam 2017, a 48-hour gaming marathon fundraiser to take place on April 7th-9th. More information here.

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Downtime and the Back Burner

Every writer has moments when the flow of words stutters, stalls, comes to a sudden screeching halt. Call it writer’s block, call it what you want. In my case it’s usually a panicked ‘where do I go from here’ feeling which is almost always due to a misstep I’ve taken somewhere along the line. It’s that nagging sense of ‘something’s wrong’, and until I figure out what and how to fix it, I can’t move forward.

That’s where the ‘back burner’ comes in. That place at the back of your brain where you stick an idea to simmer while life goes on; never forgotten, but comfortably out of sight where part of your mind can worry away at it while you do other things.

While you have a little downtime from writing.

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Taking some time out at the White Memorial Conservation Center, CT

For me, downtime can be as simple as shutting off the laptop for the day, and going out to do errands and walk the dog. A couple of hours is sometimes enough to work out a plot tangle. Other times, if I’m really stuck, it can mean a week or two of doing nothing but reading other people’s words voraciously or binge-watching an entire season of Supernatural in the company of my daughter.

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A little break to enjoy the autumn colors

Eventually, after an hour, or a day, or a week, the pot finally stops simmering. The solution to my plot or character development problem is suddenly crystal clear. I can dive in again with new energy, and after taking a break things are stronger and better.

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Energized, renewed, ready for the next round

Everyone has their own approach to writing. Every writer has that rhythm that just works, and that is all their own. I love living in my made-up worlds, and can write happily for hours on end. But I get stuck, too. And for me, taking a break from time to time is essential to keep things moving.

All photos taken at the White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, CT.

 

Worlds Apart

I recently read a great blog piece by SF/F author Jo Zebedee on how every character is a protagonist in their own story. Her post stuck with me, and I began thinking about how – in real life – we create stories to live in which color and enrich our world. Children do this all the time: they walk around in superhero outfits or princess dresses, or use sticks as swords in the park. We say, “Oh, so-and-so has such a wonderful imagination!” But it’s not just ‘imagination’, is it? It’s an ability to rewrite the world around you, however temporarily, and make yourself the star at the center of your exclusively crafted solar system.

(And, shh! Adults do it too! Daydreaming, they call it, but when you’re lost in an alternate world where you’re treading the red carpet, or being awarded the CEO-of-the-year award, or sunning yourself on a tropical beach somewhere, you’re not just playing imaginary games. For a brief instant, you’re the key player in a story of your own making, and not only are you the main protagonist but the script writer, the costume designer, and the director all in one.)

I have a clear fairytale memory of being four, and arriving in Brazil to spend a year with my mother’s family while my parents made work contacts and began setting things up for our permanent move to Brazil a few years later. Of course, I didn’t understand about the work contacts and all that stuff. What I do remember is that we drove up to a palace, and when I was shown my vast bedroom I opened a huge wardrobe to find it spilling with beautiful silken dresses while my grandmother went ta-da! in the best fairy godmother style.

Fast forward many years later and now, when I look back at the scene, I smile at my small self. Yes, my grandparents’ house was big and sprawling compared to our tiny London semi, but far from being a palace it was actually a former farmhouse. The wardrobe still exists: it’s a teensy thing built for a child’s room. And while I’m sure there were probably a good handful of dresses inside, they were all nice, serviceable hand-me-downs from my older cousin. But who cares? Because for that brief moment, that was my narrative. The fairytale, the princess dream. It was a real thing, as was my part in it, and though the narrative twisted and changed over time, that perfect dream moment will always be a part of my personal story.

As Jo points out in her blog piece, when she compares two books written by different survivors of the same horrific event, each character in a story will focus on different aspects of the same event – the aspects that touch them most, that become a part of their own particular story. They are the main characters in that tale, but the stories are different, too, not just the protagonists’ place in them. If we, as non-fictional and real, living people, can create our own worlds around us, beautifully distinct and personal to each of us, then our written characters should, too.

One child’s wardrobe is another one’s key to a magical princess world. Which world do your characters live in? What story does each of them tell? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

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In each person’s eyes, a different world.

Write Yourself

Yesterday I went to a ‘decades’ costume party. I dressed as an eighties rock girl. I danced until my legs ached. For some reason, this got me thinking about my wedding, almost fifteen years ago.

I loved every bit of our wedding party. We didn’t have the latest trends in absolutely anything. I let my youngest flower girl decide the color scheme. Needless to say, there was a lot of pink!

We danced until 5am, and only stopped because the venue politely told us they needed to close. There was something for everyone: seventies, nineties, and plenty of eighties music. A lot of it was fabulously cheesy and fantastically fun. I danced my first dance to Bryan Adams, and threw my bouquet to Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman.

I’m an eighties girl, through and through. I spent my teenage years watching Back to the Future, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. My romantic ideal was Rutger Hauer riding into a church on a big old horse in Ladyhawke. I wore neon, and legwarmers, and shirts with mahoosive shoulder pads. Lipstick came in red or hot pink. Subtlety, thy name is not 1980’s.

This definitely affects me as a writer. It would be nice to write beautifully elegant prose, as sharp and balanced as a knife’s edge. But you can’t take the eighties out of the girl. I’ll always be a Die Hard kind of person. I like fireballs, and fight scenes, and people crawling through air ducts. I like a touch of John Hughes to my first kisses. It’s just who I am.

They tell you to write what you know. Well, what I know comes with an extra-large tub of movie popcorn on the side. It’s lighthearted and fun, and probably a little silly at times. But it’s me, and I can’t help that. I don’t do ‘dark’, though I love to read it. ‘Write what you know’, in my case, is definitely ‘write who you are’.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m more than fine with it. I didn’t begin writing ‘for real’ until I realized that the only person I had to please at that point was myself. I was allowed to have fun.

I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of this blog post. Perhaps there is none, except to make an impassioned plea to write what makes you happy. Be it epic battles, or tangled quests, or stolen kisses in the moonlight. Have fun with it; write that thing that makes your heart beat faster.

And maybe toss in a fireball, for me.

 

Spotlight on SFF Forums with Brian Turner and Damaris Browne

 

Online communities serve an important role for fans of genre fiction. It’s not always easy to find like-minded souls in our daily lives, willing to spend hours debating the best and worst of science fiction novel cover art, or the latest Game of Thrones theories. Forums and other discussion groups on platforms like Facebook bridge the gap, bringing together readers and writers from all over the world.

There are many discussion spaces all over the internet, and often people try several before finding one they feel more at home in. I got lucky on my first try: I found the UK-based SFF Chronicles while looking for book recommendations, and once I realized the forum had an active and friendly writer’s corner I was smitten.

With over 30,000 registered members, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles, known affectionately by its members as the Chrons, has been going strong for fifteen years. The brainchild of fantasy writer Brian Turner, it has everything from book to gaming discussions, with a busy TV and movie section, too. The writing boards are extremely popular, offering space for questions on plot structure, grammar doubts, and even critiques. And the monthly 75-word and quarterly 300-word writing challenges are a lot of fun, and a good learning process too!

I’ve invited Brian to share a little of what it takes to set up and run a forum the size of the Chrons. Also on the witness stand is long-time member, site moderator, and science fiction and fantasy writer Damaris Browne. Check out her website, www.damarisbrowne.com, for more on her work, book reviews, and her thoughts on writing. 

Juliana: Welcome Brian and Damaris. Now, I know Damaris is a long-time member of the forum, and Brian of course has been there since its inception. Could you tell us a bit about the journey from start to current format and size? 

Damaris:  I’d better leave this one to Brian, as the Chrons was up and running long before I joined in 2008. I’m interested in hearing what the full story is, though, since I know there are members whose dates of joining are a year or two before Brian’s – something which confused me a good deal before I became a mod and picked up bits and pieces of the site’s history. 

Brian: Originally I had a website for my writing, with a forum to support it. I was convinced I’d be published soon — only to realise I’d simply completed a first draft, and would need years to learn how to write to commercial standard. As it already covered other SFF books, TV series, and films, it made sense to detach the forums and develop them as a general SFF community. I then did everything I could to grow it — marketing strategies, technical tricks, mentions in the BBC and other media, a stall at Worldcon, etc.

Now it’s the largest dedicated SFF forum out there. Better still, it’s retained the same sense of friendship and community it began with.

FWIW, I posted a longer history here: https://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/549309/ 

Juliana: Forums, by nature, are always in flux, with established members fading away and new members joining. Have you felt the Chrons has changed in ‘personality’ over the years? 

Brian: Forums are a social media platform, so they are only ever as good as the members that make them up. Luckily, the people who are into SFF tend to be wonderful chilled people. Even better is that we have a moderating team to ensure everything remains civil, and that flame wars, trolling, and spamming are quickly dealt with. That allows for a safe environment for the community to grow.

Damaris: It’s always a shame when established members stop visiting for one reason or another, but it’s inevitable when real life intervenes, and a fresh infusion of new blood is important, bringing with it new ideas and energy. I don’t know about a change in personality, but my perception is there has been a change in emphasis since I joined. There was an Aspiring Writers section then, but it seemed to take second place to the discussion of books. Now I’d say the places have been reversed and the writing side is a greater driver of the site. There was also a chat room when I first joined, which vanished some time ago, and I think that was missed by some of the older members. 

Juliana: There are several other SFF sites where forums exist side-by-side with a homepage that showcases articles and reviews. A while back, Brian opted to focus solely on the forum aspect. Why this decision? What are the positives and negatives of this choice? 

Damaris: Again one which I’d best leave to Brian. I have to confess that I rarely visited the homepage, so I’ve not been affected by the change, save that as a winner of the 300 Word Writing Challenges it was a great ego-boost to see my name and a link to my story there. So that’s one disadvantage of its loss as far as I’m concerned! 

Brian: I had grand dreams of setting up a SFF magazine on the front end, supported by the forums. But the big problem is that no good front end software will integrate with any good forum software. The result is that you end up with two websites running in parallel, and little interaction between the two. Which kind of defeats the purpose of having both features, if most people only use one or the other.

To me, the community aspect was always the most important – so I focused on that. Anything that would have ordinarily been posted to a front is now posted to the forums. IMO that makes for a stronger community overall.

Juliana: The SFF Chronicles, like most forums, depends heavily on volunteer moderators. What does a moderator actually do? And how much work does it take to keep a forum friendly and ‘clean’? 

Brian: In their simplest form, moderators are simply long-term members who have been entrusted with an extra set of tools to help protect the community environment. But moderators are also site ambassadors, and service relations. Ultimately, their role is essential – and usually thankless – when it comes to making sure the community runs properly and safely.

Damaris: Most work is general housekeeping, such as opening and closing regular monthly threads like “What are you reading?” and moving threads which have appeared in the wrong sub-forum by mistake (new members asking for recommendations often wrongly post in Book Search, for instance).

The Challenges have their own little section in the Staff Room where we deal with matters arising. As there are strict word limits, we’re called on to decide whether entries have gone over the limit and therefore have to be removed, whether proposed combination word forms are one or two words, whether choices of theme and genre are appropriate for the 75 Worders and, most difficult of all, what images we should use for the 300 Worders. All those decisions are arrived at by consensus. But a job which is solely mine, and by far the best one, is contacting the winner of the 300 Challenge and confirming the prize (Brian generously provides a book worth £10 GBP from an online shop) then helping get his/her choice of book organised and sent out – as it was to you, Juliana!

Then we have the more onerous – not to say upsetting – duties, effectively policing the site. We don’t get as many spammers as we used to (*touch wood*), but they are a nuisance and their posts have to be removed and the spammers banned. Something that has grown over the years since I’ve been a mod is the number of people joining for the purposes of using us as a free billboard for their self-published novel or their kickstarter campaign. We’re always delighted to hear about members’ projects, but newbies aren’t allowed to self-promote. So those posts are also removed, though the members themselves are rarely banned nowadays, but rather are encouraged to join in and become true members of the community, which is guaranteed to bring more interest in their work anyway, so it’s win-win.

And very occasionally we have to intervene when members argue or become abusive. We don’t allow trolling or flame wars on the site, and we stamp down hard on anything approaching such unpleasantness. Incidentally, as you noted in your introduction, one of the things which makes Chrons so popular is that the boards are always friendly, civil and tolerant of difference. That is wholly down to Brian and the example he sets and encourages us to maintain. 

Juliana: The writing challenges are a popular pastime for many members. And Damaris is our resident statistician, keeping track of entries and votes over the years. How did the idea of the challenges emerge? How have they evolved over time? 

Brian: The Writing Challenges is an area I support, but almost never have anything to do with. It’s a great example of the community asking for, and then organising, what has become a major activity. 

Damaris: Ah-ha!  I can answer this one easily, since I was, by chance, one of the original movers of the Challenges. Back in early 2010 one of our members put up a piece in Critiques to commemorate his 1,000th  post. (The start of another Chrons tradition!)  I came along not long after and followed suit, but as I had nothing in my draft WiPs suitable, I quickly wrote a silly piece of 250 words. In the discussions which followed, I half-jokingly suggested we should have a “story in 50 words” thread, so we could practice brevity as the soul of good story-telling. Teresa Edgerton, another long-standing member (and brilliant author), confirmed she’d been part of a writing group that had an exercise to modernise a fairy tale in 75 words, and she was the only one able to complete it. She suggested we try the same exercise in our Workshop section of Aspiring Writers, changing theme or genre monthly. I was very taken with the idea, as were several others, so the Challenges started a few days later, on 5 April 2010.

We thought we might get a handful of people taking part, and like other exercises, it might last a few months before fizzling out. We’ve now just completed our sixth year of the 75 Worder, and in that time we’ve had a total of 448 entrants writing 3,571 stories!

The 75 Worder has stayed much as it started, though the original open genres or plain Science Fiction or Fantasy are rare now, and the genres (which are chosen by the previous month’s winner) can be rather esoteric, not to say wilful – Tudorpunk and In the Style of Rudyard Kipling being notorious. But in 2011 we started the 300 Worders, which have an image, often a photograph, as an inspiration for speculative fiction, and in 2014 a not-quite official 100 Worder was begun, where the entries are posted anonymously and part of the fun is to try and guess which member wrote which story. 

Juliana: Which are your favorite corners of the Chrons? 

Damaris: Aspiring Writers, by a long way, and that’s where I spend most of my time. But I have a soft spot for Book Search, which is where members can put up pleas for help in trying to find the title and author for SFF novels they read many years ago and which are now tantalising memories. I was like a dog with two tails when I was able to pinpoint a book for one person a few years back – my one and only acknowledged success. 

Brian: I love it every time someone starts a discussion, especially about a book or an author. It’s also great when a TV show or film franchise develops enough of a following to receive its own board.

Additionally, I enjoy seeing the various writing projects, and successes, our writers are involved with. 

Juliana: I happen to know that besides being talented writers you are both avid readers. What’s on your to-read pile at the moment?

Brian: I’ve got quite a reading list (https://www.sffchronicles.com/xfa-blog-entry/2700/) already for this year, but I’ve had a few books already added to that. A heady mix of fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, historical fiction, plus general non-fiction research material.

Damaris: My TBR pile overflows from two large baskets, and there isn’t enough room to list everything they contain! I’m a catholic reader (with a particular weakness for medieval murder mysteries), so I’ve books of all kinds waiting, but just looking at a few of the SFFs: Raymond E Feist, King of Foxes; Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne; Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns; Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes. And just this weekend I picked up Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Jack Campbell’s JAG in Space, and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. In the non-SFF sphere, the one I’m going to start next is Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo as I’ve recently finished The Last of the Wine which was marvelous, and after that Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue – I was very impressed with her The Lady and the Unicorn, though perhaps less so by Girl with a Pearl Earring. And lastly, as early research for a possible novel I’ve got A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson which is just begging to be opened.

Juliana: Thank you Brian and Damaris for sharing an insider’s view of the SFF Chronicles. It’s always fascinating to peek behind the curtains! Hmm, that gives me an idea for a new thread topic… 😉

 

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out March’s Spotlight on Writing Horror with Gwendolyne Kiste and Scarlett R. Algee. Next up in May: Spotlight on Writing YA.