A Winding Thread: Books and Journeys

A Winding Thread is an occasional blog segment which looks at tales that connect by theme, setting, character, or vibes. (For the first installment, go to Green Magic.) This time, I’ve gathered a trio of stories that touch on journeys and books — after all, it’s July, and what could be better than traveling with a good book (or ten)?

My picks are: In Other Lands by Sara Rees Brennan, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, and the graphic novel Coming Back, by Jessi Zabarsky.

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan, published in 2017, is a standalone young adult fantasy novel that plays with the magic school trope, sending the young, bookish (and delightfully obnoxious) Elliot into a fantasy realm where scholars are underappreciated, fighting abilities and war are considered the leading traits in human society, and where all the other creatures (elves, dwarves, harpies, mermaids, etc.) that share the land are deemed lesser than their human counterparts.

Elliot, being Elliot, is excited at the chance to immerse himself in books and learn all he can about everything that is not warcraft, and less delighted by the extreme physicality of much of the Borderlands camp. He has the (mis)fortune to fall into a tangled friendship with fellow students Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle (an elven warrior) and Luke Sunborn (of the legendary Sunborn clan), the biggest complication being that Elliot — unloved and ignored at home and bullied at his old school — has no idea how to do friendship in the first place. It is largely a coming-of-age tale, as we follow Elliot in the four years of training camp and watch him grow in sociopolitical awareness, compassion, and even save the world a few times.

Books in this work serve very clear purposes. Both the camp library and books themselves are a haven, a place to retreat and to hide. They’re also Elliot’s weapon of choice, in both a defensive and offensive sense, used to decipher the world and to conquer a place in it. With knowledge gained in books, Elliot goes on several missions to other lands and helps bridge the cultural differences that threaten to push the quick-to-violence humans into battle instead of peace talks. Here, books are both the familiarity that Elliot clings to when he crosses into the Borderlands, and the means to set out on journeys and problem-solve the many issues that exist in this flawed magical realm. 

Books and stories have a far more overarching role in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, published in 2019. In this delicately woven tale by the author of The Night Circus, a book is the key to a magical place where story is everything. In the labyrinthine Harbor that sits above the underground Starless Sea, stories are past, and present, and future, and occasionally out of time entirely. They are puzzles, and riddles, and answers — sometimes to questions the protagonists had never thought to ask. And intertwined with the main story, there are shorter parallel tales that weave a background tapestry that comes sharply into focus as all the threads begin to align.

The Starless Sea is at heart a tale about finding yourself, even if you have to lose yourself to do so. When grad student Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across a mysterious book in his college library, the last thing he expects is to find a scene inside depicting him as a young boy. His attempt to understand leads him below ground to the Harbor, a place that is more than just a library; it is a realm of lost cities and seas, of love stories and sacrifice. As Zachary travels the paths beneath with fierce Mirabel and handsome Dorian, he begins to unravel the tangled threads of his own story and that of his companions, and the new story that emerges feels both surprising and inevitable.

Here, we have tales that serve a wide variety of purposes: they are doorways, they are destination, and they are purpose — destiny itself, if you will. The stories (within stories, within stories) are the entire journey from start to end. Books are not the practical haven that they serve as in Brennan’s novel. Instead, they are the entire and all-consuming world. One thing the two books do have in common, however, is characters thrust into strange worlds who must rely on the information they find in books and stories to navigate those alien waters.

My last pick is a graphic novel, Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky. This one’s the outlier, not just in its narrative format, but because it is less about books themselves — though one of the two main characters is a librarian — and more about the stories that form the backbone of a society. Published in 2022, Zabarsky’s work looks at what happens when people grow rigid in their ways, adhering too strictly to the stories that make up their culture without allowing room for change.

In a community where almost everyone is magic, shapeshifter Preet is the strongest of all. Her wife Valissa, however, has no magic, but as the town librarian, it falls to powerless Valissa to face an attack upon their repository of knowledge and laws. Valissa sets out on a spiritual voyage through the magical lands accessed within the library’s depths. In the meantime, Preet is forced to leave everything she knows behind when she adopts a child and breaks one of her community’s most sacred laws.

While they are both on their own journeys — one literal and one magical — Preet and Valissa learn very different lessons. Valissa, that change and fluidity are necessary, and Preet, that there are many ways to live a life, and her community’s way is only one possibility. When they are finally reunited, things do not go smoothly, but eventually they realize these different lessons can be combined to lead their people on a new path. 

The journey here is knowledge; it’s about leaving old, outdated stories behind and creating others that make more sense. There is an intersection with The Starless Sea, in that both books deal with allowing stories to end when their time is over, and making space for new stories, for new directions in which to travel. In Valissa’s words, “We’re strongest when we can learn from each other, as our ancestors did. We’re strongest when we can bend and change to help one another.”

I’d like to make a brief note on the role of libraries; in all three works, libraries serve as gateways. This is metaphorical in In Other Lands, with the library as a house of knowledge that can cause transformation. In Coming Back, the library is a literal portal, leading to a shift in values and to making room for new knowledge. And in The Starless Sea, we have the college library, which provides the key in form of a book, and we have the Harbor, a library that is an entire storyworld in itself.

Ultimately, this trio of tales deals with how books affect us: on a personal level, in our interactions with others, and as a wider society. Stories can be a refuge, a validation, a weapon, a path, a purpose, a treatise… or simply bring joy.

“We are all stardust and stories.”

Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea

Have Book, Will Read #28

2022 started off with lots of Reading Energy and I’m actually surprised at how much I’ve gotten through in the past month and a half. Two months, if you count the very end of 2021… It’s been a frosty, frozen winter, and I was more than happy to shut out the cold with a blanket, a cup of tea or two, and a good story. Here are some of my top books from these past couple of months.

Recent Reads: marvelously magical…

I took Jo Zebedee’s The Wildest Hunt on a short post-Christmas break all the way up in frozen Lake George, and it was the perfect location for this haunting tale of otherworldly peril. I love Jo’s writing style, which to me is the perfect mixture of breathtaking action, practical storytelling, and beautiful setting.

The Wildest Hunt takes us to the heart of Donegal in northwest Ireland, where a commission for an on-location painting promises the perfect Christmas holiday for a psychic artist and her boyfriend. Then a dangerous winter storm closes in around the picturesque but remote cottage, and the couple are forced to flee. But worse than the storm are the creatures that hunt within it. A thrilling story for fans of dark contemporary fantasy!

I read Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth last year, but I needed time to get my head around the ending. Part of me wasn’t sure I even wanted to read the next book in Muir’s genre-bending space necromancers series, but I’m really glad I finally did! Harrow the Ninth is a mind-break of a complex tale, twisting in and around and up and down; a book so thoroughly confounding (in the best sort of way) that my daughter made themselves a Reddit account just to be able to discuss theories! (Spoilers for Gideon next, but not too many…)

Harrow, the second in the Locked Tomb series, picks up just after the frantic events that mark the end of Gideon. Newly made lyctor Harrowhark Nonagesimus finds herself on board the Emperor’s warship, sworn to take her place beside him in his centuries-old war. The story time-skips back and forth across the universe, landing Harrow among new allies who may just turn out to be enemies, with a sword she cannot control, and the fear that just keeps on giving: has her mind finally shattered?

I’d seen book chatter about A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, and had it on my to-read list long before it came out last November. When I finally got hold of it, I devoured it in one long sitting. (Seriously. My family just sort of got on with life and let me be. They know me too well!) If you’re a fan of delicious Edwardian drama with healthy dollops of romance and magic, then this is the book for you. And, luckily, the sequel comes out this November.

When an administrative error appoints Robin Blyth, the young and harried baronet of an impoverished country seat, as the civil liaison to a secret magical society, things begin to go wrong from the very start. Facing new enemies, a deep-rooted plot, and a deadly curse, Robin’s only hope lies in the hands of his magical counterpart, academic bureaucrat Edwin, who may have hidden depths under his prickly exterior.

T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea was one of my top books of 2021, so I was pretty excited to read his latest, Under the Whispering Door. The story follows Wallace Price from his own funeral and through the in-between time that’s supposed to soften the transition between life and the great beyond. He’s placed under care of ‘ferryman’ Hugo, who runs a teashop. In coming to terms with his death, Wallace has the chance to find himself again — the self he’s somehow lost along the years. And if romance is brewing among the tealeaves? Well, that just might land Wallace and Hugo in a spot of hot water…

I took a while to warm up to Wallace and the book as a whole, but it grew on me gradually, and by the end I never wanted it to end. Now, I realize the genius in it: Wallace doesn’t particularly like himself, either. He has constricted himself into a box he’s built, year by year, and he no longer resembles who he used to be. As Wallace slowly lets go of his crafted persona, and reconnects with himself, we discover Wallace, too, and slowly fall in love with the character. 

Additionally, the book deals beautifully with saying farewell and was an incredibly cathartic read. I cried so much at the end, but good crying. It turns out that, after two years of Covid and more than that since I’ve seen my family in Brazil, what I really needed right now was a gentle, thoughtful, kind book about death in all its forms and nuances. 

Now Reading: that healing magic…

I tore through Witchmark, the first book in C.L Polk’s Kingston Cycle, in just under a day. Luckily, the next two books in the trilogy are out and ready for reading. I’m currently at the start of the second, Stormsong, and have the third, Soulstar, all ready to go once I’m done with that one.

This series is an absolute treat! Set in a fantasy world based on an Edwardian England, shadowed by a war with a neighboring country, the first book introduces us to Miles Singer, a runaway noble and mage who has followed the calling of his healing magic to work as a doctor. Miles’ world is one of hidden magic that runs the country, concentrated in the hands of a select group of powerful families, and of shameful secrets that could see the downfall of everything society takes for granted. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the plot is heading, after the breathtaking whirlwind that was the first in the trilogy.

To Read

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey sounds like the sort of unmissable romp custom made for my enjoyment. The story of Esther, who stows herself away in a Librarian’s book wagon to escape an arranged marriage, is set in a near-future American Southwest which, according to the publisher “is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.” Yes, please!

Everything goes on hold in our house when a new Incryptid novel is released, and March brings the latest installment of Seanan McGuire’s fabulous urban fantasy world. This will be the first time we get a novel from the point of view of Alice Price — aka Verity, Alex, and Annie’s underworld-exploring, de-aged, ferociously competent hellion of a grandmother. In Spelunking Through Hell, Alice makes a final desperate pan-dimensional attempt to find the husband she lost fifty years before in an incident with the entity known simply as the crossroads, and I, for one, cannot wait to get started.

I hope you all have some good books on your own to-read lists. Here’s to warmer days ahead, and to springtime reading outside in the sunshine!

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

Revision: making your story shine

Revising, with bonus dog

For the last month I’ve been deep in revisions for my new novel. I finished the latest round today, and now my story is off with the four brave souls who offered to beta read it. It’s a weird feeling getting to this point, which is pretty much as far as I can go alone without feedback from others. I’ve been living and breathing my plot and characters pretty much constantly since mid-April, and finally it’s done. Well, not done, but done for now.

I’ve been refining my revision process over the years, tweaking it a little each time. There are SO MANY ways to approach revision, and each person has their own, but I think there’s one thing that we can all agree on: no matter how fantastic a writer you are, no matter how polished your prose, or how detailed your outlines prior to starting, if you want your work to shine YOU WILL NEED TO REVISE.

The first draft is literally that: a draft. It’s a pencil drawing, bare lines on a page. It may be beautiful in its raw simplicity, but at some point, you’re going to need to ink those lines and add color to the images. In writing, even if you’re the most hardcore outliner, that first draft is always going to be a discovery journey to some extent. Characters might reveal new traits or backstories; an unforeseen plot hole might lead to an entire new facet of your world you hadn’t imagined; or you might find your pacing is a little off and suddenly you’re forced to add an unplanned side arc.

But how do you tackle revisions? And how many revisions are enough? Here’s where the water muddies. Because there is no clear answer. Contemporary middle grade and YA author Carrie Firestone, whose latest novel Dress Coded is a fantastic dive into the world of preteen body image and school power politics, is a big fan of rewriting. Her first versions of stories are always discovery drafts, and it takes her a full rewrite to flesh out the bones. Fantasy and sci fi author Brandon Sanderson uses a complex revision system for his epic Stormlight series, with an entire team of readers using shared feedback documents. There is no right way or wrong way. And the only path to finding what works for you is to try different methods until you figure out the one that best fits your work style.

For this latest novel, and the one before, this has been my approach:

— For the first ten or so chapters, I constantly revise. If something new turns up, I go back and edit. I do this because I’m still feeling my way in this new storyworld, and writing progresses slowly enough to permit this constant stop and start.

— By the time I’m nearing the halfway point, my writing pace has picked up. Now I open a revision file to keep notes on things that will need fixing/adding/changing, but I no longer go back to make those changes so as not to lose momentum. Examples of changes are: a new character trait I added along the way; the fact that one character suddenly owns a gun that needs to be mentioned before it shows up; a worldbuilding idea that emerged and now needs to be fed in throughout the story.

— Once that initial draft is done, I immediately start a first revision. I often hear the advice ‘let the story sit for a while’, but for this first pass I like to jump straight in. My mind is bubbling with the plot changes I made and alterations that need adjusting, and it’s easier to keep moving. This first revision pass includes the big picture/big issue stuff as well as smaller scene-specific changes and chapter rewrites.

— After this first pass is over, I do another, for fine-tuning and for more delicate work. If the first revision is for adding color, this one is for shading.

— We’ve reached the point I’m at right now. Getting eyes on my work. For those of you with agents and/or publishing contracts, your agent/editor might be the person who does this for you. In my case, I’ve sent it to three writer friends — two from my critique group who have seen early chapters, and another to give me ‘fresh eyes’. I’ve also sent it to a non-writer who is an avid reader, for a different perspective. This is the ‘step away’ point for me. It’s out of my hands, so that means I get to distance myself a bit from my work.

— When I eventually receive feedback from my lovely beta readers, I plan to take a little time to let the critiques and commentary sink in and make notes.

— Finally, I’ll do another full revision pass. Hopefully this will be the last one!

Of course, my story won’t be perfect. As anyone who has sold a novel knows, if this one finds a home there will be editor’s notes and more revisions ahead. With my first published novel, Heart Blade, I ended up doing a full rewrite after reading through my editor’s feedback. 

Revising your work might seem at first like a tough, heartbreaking, uphill job, but I promise that, if you persevere, you’ll carve your story into the wonderful sculpture that lies at its core. Find your own path to revision, the one that works for you, that makes your best words shine, and hang in there. It’ll be worth it in the end!

A Whole New Year

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

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

Writer things

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

 

Fun stuffs

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

 

Personal bits and pieces

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

 

Coming in 2020

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

 

WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2020!

 

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Breathing Space

A while back, on Twitter, a question about revisions came up. I mentioned adding ‘breathing space’. See the tweet, below.

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 4.54.53 PM

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.

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Dark, Darker, Darkest

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. 

There’s a beauty to the gray tones and storm clouds…

Words, Chocolate, and NaNoWriMo

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Free with blog post: Beastie Boys earworm…

It’s almost November, and if you follow writers on social media, you’ve probably come across at least some mention of the National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it’s known, challenges writers to reach a stretch goal of a 50,000-word novel by the end of November. You can find more info on it here.

But the truth is, NaNoWriMo isn’t really about writing a book in a month; unless you’re writing middle grade, or maybe younger YA, 50k words isn’t enough for a full-length novel. But it is enough for a rough first draft, or to lay down a solid foundation for something you can develop on your own time, later, when the month is up.

What NaNo does is challenge you to make writing your absolute priority for an entire month, even if you need to wake up earlier or sleep later to do so, or DVR your favorite TV shows for a while. This complete focus on writing can be the push many people need, in several different ways.

You don’t even need to do the official NaNo challenge; make up your own if you prefer. For example, I have a Facebook group of writer friends who get together every November to cheer each other on and to exchange beta reads and critiques once the month is up. Most of our group don’t sign up on the NaNo website, relying instead on each other for companionship and support.

The NaNo concept works for me, for a very simple reason: it gives me a deadline to focus on. I’m always setting myself personal goals, like ‘finish this revision by September!’. But self-imposed deadlines are easy to push back. There’s always a good reason to delay things a little. However, if I use an ‘outside’ deadline like the one NaNo suggests, it gives me that extra incentive to get things done.

So, what should you do if you are planning on participating in NaNoWriMo, either officially or unofficially?

For a start, determine your goals. You can use NaNo as a push to:

  • Start something new and build writing momentum, so that after the month is up you can continue, or revise, or rewrite what you started.
  • Finish something old; dust off that stalled WIP and see it through to the end!
  • Revise and rewrite something you had written previously.
  • Set yourself other writing goals, such as draft three picture books, or do a writing prompt every day. It doesn’t have to be about one single book; NaNo can simply be an excuse to focus on all things writing-related for a solid month.

Once you’ve decided what you’re using the month for, the next step is to plan out your roadmap. Are you focusing on picture books? Brainstorm ideas beforehand and make a list of the most likely ones. Aiming at finishing a stalled WIP? Get it out and read through what you’ve got, familiarizing yourself once again with the rhythm and voice of the story. Starting something new? Do some prep work, so you know the basics about your characters and world before starting. Some NaNo writers outline everything before going in, but not everyone works that way. Do as much as feels right to you, to save yourself time in figuring things out when November rolls around and the blank page is waiting.

Carve out your writing time. Decide when the best time of day is for you. You might normally only be able to snatch small portions of time here and there, and that’s fine but, for this one month, perhaps try and find a routine that works. If you need to talk to partners and children, do it: you may find they’re excited to be part of the challenge in this one small way.

What happens when you get to the end of November? One thing is for sure: you’ll still have a lot of work ahead, whether in finishing the story you started, or polishing up that first draft you powered through. So now it’s time to take a moment and look back at what you’ve achieved. Maybe you didn’t hit your 50,000 words, or finish your rewrites. But hopefully you got a good solid chunk of work done, and perhaps pushed past that writer’s block or slow patch. Celebrate it!

And remember: NaNoWriMo is set in November for one reason, and one reason only: leftover Halloween loot*. So, now you have words and you have chocolate, and really, what else does a writer need?

*Disclaimer! This is probably not true. Or maybe it is, who knows? It’s a valid enough reason…

**Please consume your Halloween treats in moderation.

Not Fine At All

Today I have a guest blogger! The talented Liz Powell shares a lighthearted take on her writing process. Liz is the author of Hunted and Otherworld. When she’s not working on deliciously angsty romance and fantasy novels, you can find her on Twitter or Goodreads.

 

Liz: My writing process goes more or less like this…

1) Am in the middle of boring non-writing task, e.g. washing, squashed under someone’s armpit on the Tube, eyes glazed over staring at Excel at work, when lightning bolt hits brain. An Idea has arrived. And now I MUST WRITE THIS NOVEL IMMEDIATELY, THAT’S IMMEDIATELY, ABANDON EVERYTHING AND LET’S GO!

2) Two thousand words in. Wow. Fingers raw from typing, maniacal grin plastered to face. It’s 2am but that’s fine. This is GREAT. Imagining bookstores lined with my novel, signing copies for adoring fans. Being interviewed at premiere of film adaptation. Phone ringing off the hook. What’s that, Harry Styles? You’re begging for the lead role?

3) Ten thousand words in. Wireframe plot of nonsensical lines of dialogue and thoughts beginning to crumble. Self doubt sets in. Perhaps…this novel is not the one… No, no. Don’t be weak. Persevere. You’ve got Harry Styles’ future acting career on the line here!

4) Twenty thousand words. Am by now a mess of rewriting and anxiety. Imagining crawling to the end of this novel only for it to be submitted to agents and laughed at as the most droolingly pathetic excuse for novel-writing they have seen in their sophisticated lifetimes. Have sweaty nightmares of rejections with simply the words HA HA! scrawled in red pen, a la the Nelson Muntz Literary Agency. Spend hours rewriting one paragraph. It’s 2am, but everything is Not Fine. Not Fine at all.

5) Draw diagrams of plot movements to calm brain. Realise nothing actually makes sense. How does one write bad guys? Would anyone ever, truly, be so maniacal? Research serial killers and find that, disappointingly, many real bad guys are just pathetic, not even in a Love-to-Hate them way.

6) As writing exercise, consider re-writing the Harry Potter novels from Voldemort’s point of view. That will teach me how to make a sympathetic villain!

7) Wait. Where can I find an accurate source about Voldemort’s family tree?

8) Three hours into a wikipedia spiral about silk moths, when disaster strikes. No, it’s not a silk moth, it’s a silk worm! Three sequel’s worth of content shelved. Panic well and truly setting in. Twitching in sleep. The words HA HA! swirl around my brain. Voldemort re-write not even a worthy distraction. Everything is exceedingly Not At All Fine.

9) Lay awake at night and suddenly, BINGO, lightning hits again. We can make this work, brain! Just…get rid of those nasty, fetid thirty thousand words you’ve already done. Look. Nice fresh clean page. This time…this time it will be The One…

Originally posted on the SFFChronicles.com forum and reblogged with Liz’s kind permission.

liz

Writer Resolutions

It’s that time again, when I take a step back and look at what I’ve accomplished in the past twelve months, and think about what I want to get done in the brand new, sparkle-shiny upcoming year. Cliché as resolutions may be, I think having a certain time of year — be it the New Year, your birthday, or another personally significant date — where you force yourself to stop and take stock can be a good idea. Just as long as you focus on the positives: this isn’t about what you’ve failed to do and plan to do better, but about what you’ve succeeded at, and plan to add to.

I’ve invited a group of talented authors, who write a variety of speculative genres from science fiction to romantic SF/F, to share some of their Writer Resolutions for 2018. I hope you find your own inspiration for the upcoming months. Enjoy!

 

 

bailey

Nick Bailey has been making up stories since his school days, when he met lifelong friend and co-author of Liberator Darren Bullock. Besides series-opener Liberator, Nick’s science fiction work includes Primordial, a sci-fi-horror novelette set in the Liberator Universe and the short story The Last Command in the anthology Explorations – First Contact. He likes cats, dogs, long walks on the beach, and blowing up spaceships

Favorite 2017 Writer Moment: My favourite writer moment of the year was probably going on Keystroke Medium with Scott Moon, Josh Hayes and Ralph Kern. Those guys are a lot of fun to talk with and it was a real pleasure for Darren and I to be guests on the show.

Top 2018 Writer Resolution: To write more. A lot more. I’m planning on building a dedicated writing space in my attic so that I can shut myself away properly, I’ve also been able to re-arrange my day job working schedule which will (should!) give me a lot more time to write in the daytime, freeing up some time in the evenings for me to pretend I have an actual life.

We are also starting up a small press publishing business – Dust Publishing, so I really do need a more organised way of fitting it all in, as well as a decent space to work.

One book from your 2018 to-read list: Night School by Lee Child, I’m a big fan of the Jack Reacher series, but haven’t managed to read that one yet (I think there is now another after Night School too, so have some catching up to do.

You can find Nick online at www.nickbailey.space and on Twitter @nickbailey317. Buy Nick’s work here.

 

suejack

Books have always been a large part of Suzanne Jackson’s life. One of her fondest childhood memories is sitting on a wicker stool, reading aloud from the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, whilst her Grandmother sat beside her on a black rocking chair. Suzanne is the author of The Beguiler, a dark fantasy romance tale of love and forbidden magic.

Favorite 2017 Writer Moment: I was sure my answer to this question would have been the launch of my book The Beguiler and seeing it going out into the big wide world, but I think reading to an audience was also a very special moment. It felt like a dream come true.

Top 2018 Writer Resolution: I enjoy writing, so my resolution is to write and get my next book finished. It sounds a simple resolution, but 2017 has been a difficult year, and a lot of self-doubt has crept in. I have been asked about the next book from readers who have enjoyed the first, which is wonderful.

One book from your 2018 to-read list: If I must choose one, then it has to be Bryan Wigmore’s next book. I really enjoyed The Goddess Project and cannot wait to read the next book in the series.

Find Suzanne online at suzannejackson.co.uk and buy her book here.

 

kernFor as long as Ralph Kern can remember, he’s always enjoyed science fiction, especially the grand masters of the genre, Arthur C Clarke, Stephen Baxter, Alistair Reynolds and many more. After studying for a degree in Aerospace Technology and obtaining his pilot’s license, Ralph turned to a career in law enforcement. Eventually his love of science fiction and the desire to think about what he considers ‘the big issues’ led him to try his hand at writing. Ralph is the author of the Sleeping Gods duology, and the Locus series, which includes Unfathomed and Expedition.

Favorite 2017 Writer Moment: It’s been a busy year for me on the writing front. Gaining a three-book on-spec publishing contract from the biggest audiobook publisher on the scene was a wonderful feeling of validation. The release of Expedition to excellent reviews was another moment.

But when we boil it down, the single thing I was most proud of was the work I did with Keystroke Medium and Tom Edwards on our Covers for a Cure charity event where we raised $4200 for Parkinson’s Research UK. Not only was it for a great cause, but it was an event where we showed the world the sheer firepower the global Indie community can muster when working together.

I really do think that event will be remembered as one of the turning points in the Indie author Renaissance.

Top 2018 Writer Resolution: I have the next book in the Locus series out around March time. Already, the Beta readers are saying it is my best work yet and I can’t wait to release it into the wild.

Perhaps more excitingly is an extremely ambitious project I’m coordinating. I’m getting to work with the best authors in the SF genre and I’m a little star struck and humbled by the names who are moving to associate themselves with it. I can’t say too much about the project just yet, but if it goes even half right, it will be a seismic event in SF Indie publishing. More news soon!

One book from your 2018 to-read list: If I had to pick one? Tricky. Very Tricky. A good buddy of mine, Nathan Hystad, is finally releasing his books. I’ve had the honour of beta reading them and it makes me envious how damn good of an author he is. Robert M Campbell, another friend, is releasing the next part of his awesome Trajectory series. They are some of the best SF out there and on par with the greats of the genre. I am determined he should get the recognition he deserves. Scott Moon has a really exciting serial he has worked on with the legendary Craig Martelle. He is both a great story teller and, just as important in the industry, it will be facinating to see how a serial performs in the current market. Again, that may be a game changer. Finally, Josh Hayes is working with Richard Fox on a series. The first one is out, and I’m loving it. He’s a great author, with fantastic technical skill and a hell of a lot of subject matter knowledge. Four more are going to follow over the next year.

So one? No, I couldn’t pick one just one.

Find Ralph on Facebook or visit the website he hosts in collaboration with a number of leading SF authors. www.scifiexplorations.com Buy Ralph’s books here.

 

emFantasy, horror, and sci fi author E.J. Tett also writes speculative romance under the name Emma Jane. She has been writing stories since primary school, some of which still survive in notebooks in her dad’s attic, and wanted to be an author as soon as she realised it was a possible career choice and ‘Pony’ or ‘Ninja’ weren’t viable options. Her latest novel is the brand new Space Mac, a sci fi space heist story with a strong side of romance.

Favorite 2017 Writer Moment: My favourite writer moment of 2017 was having not one, but two, novels accepted by NineStar Press for publication. Particularly my first sci-fi, Space Mac, which I actually wrote for the 2016 NaNoWriMo. NineStar are a brilliant LGBTQA+ publisher so I was ecstatic that they’d want to publish something I’d written.

Top 2018 Writer Resolution: I failed at the NaNo this year, only managing to hit 30k, so I’d really like to try to finish the novel I started for that. I also have a couple other things I’d like to write for NineStar as they have some pretty interesting submission calls going on at the moment. Also, I’d really love to be able to get my urban fantasy ‘Locke & Co’ polished enough that I can start sending it out to agents.

One book from your 2018 to-read list: Obviously Night Blade by Juliana Spink Mills. I finished the first novel in the series, Heart Blade, very recently so I need to get to Night Blade while the first is still fresh in my memory. I know you said one, but I’d also like to check out Haunted Hearts by Amelia Faulkner – ghosts and romance sound right up my street.

Find Em online at ejtett.weebly.com and on Twitter @emizzy. Buy her books here and as Emma Jane here.

 

brianEpic fantasy author Brian G. Turner spent over 20 years researching mediaeval living history before publishing Gathering, the first book in the Chronicles of Empire series. He also visited historic sites, re-enactments, and learned many of the skills his characters use — not least horse-riding, archery, and sword-fighting — to provide for a more realistic character experience. He currently lives in the Highlands of Scotland with his family.

Favorite 2017 Writer Moment: My favorite writing moment was finishing a first draft of 160k words in less than 8 weeks. Bragging rights = failed, because it has required another 10 months of rewriting and editing!

Top 2018 Writer Resolution: I have no resolution, though, other than to keep pushing to write. I have a lot of stories to tell, but writing always takes so much longer than expected.

One book from your 2018 to-read list: Possibly the biggest book for 2018 will be a re-read of Lord of the Rings. I don’t really have any fond memories from the first time, not least because school friends told me everything about the story before I’d even picked up the book. However, I’m going to keep in mind everything I’ve learned so far about the technicalities of fiction writing, and see Tolkien can teach me something new.

You can find Brian online at the SFFChronicles.com, at his dedicated author forum, and on Twitter @Brian_G_Turner. Buy Gathering here.

 

thadThaddeus White has always loved reading and writing. He’s an avid reader of fantasy and classical history, and also enjoys watching, betting and tipping on Formula 1 (with mixed results). Thaddeus writes epic fantasy and fantasy-comedy, as well as occasionally dabbling in other genres like horror or sci fi. His latest book is Sir Edric’s Kingdom, a comedy that is more fun than a ferret in custard.

Favorite 2017 Writer Moment: Probably the Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger serial (start of it, just done the first three episodes which serve as an origin story of how the title characters get together, and will add more once I’ve finished my current WIP). It’s an entirely different style to what I’ve done before, high octane adventure inspired by Chinese classics like Outlaws of the Marsh.

Top 2018 Writer Resolution: To start (and hopefully finish) the first ‘chapter’ in a comedic webcomic I’ve begun to put together. Should be 40-50 episodes in total, so a combination of drawing and dialogue which is quite a challenge. Hoping to get the first episode out either this month or next (if so, the resolution will just be for the finishing bit).

One book from your 2018 to-read list: Oathbringer, the third entry in the Stormlight Archives. It came out last month and, although I’ve been waiting for it for a while, I’m currently reading something else so it’s probably next on the to-buy list.

Find Thaddeus online at thaddeuswhite.weebly.com, and blogging at thaddeusthesixth.blogspot.co.uk. He can also be found on Twitter @MorrisF1. Buy his books here.

 

joJo Zebedee writes science fiction and fantasy in a little corner of Northern Ireland. She has a healthy interest in lots of things like reading, and writing, and gardening. She has an unhealthy interest in sexy space pilots, aliens and all things Space Opera. She is the author of sci fi novels Inish Carraig and the Inheritance Trilogy, and the dark fantasy Waters and the Wild.

Favorite 2017 Writer Moment: Publication of a new book is always something a little special, and Waters and the Wild (July, Inspired Quill) was a very personal title, drawing on themes that meant a lot to me and written in a place I wanted to take care to capture well.

But I’ll also mention going down to Dublin with a group of women from Women Aloud NI – a group who focus on raising the women’s writing scene profile in NI. We went down on the translink train, reading all the way, and then joined women writers at the Irish Writers Centre for a day of reading and panels before heading back to Belfast. It was huge fun!

Top 2018 Writer Resolution: To finish Inish Carraig‘s sequel. Inish Carraig is my cult hit about an alien invasion of Belfast, written as only someone familiar with the NI voices could. I get asked a lot for a sequel but I’ve dragged my heels, perhaps fearful of not capturing the magic again.

But I’m now nearly 10,000 words in and the voices are coming back. I’m working in a different way – with a small team of beta readers looking at a chunk each month. That means I’m planning (a little) more and taking more care to hone things.

I’d hope to have it out in 2019.

One book from your 2018 to-read list: Just one! That’s not possible.

Let’s see…. The Invasion by Peadar Ó Guilín is high up there. The Empyreus Proof by Bryan Wigmore – I’m dying to see what happens next. Thaddeus White’s new Sir Edric book. I’ve beta read it and loved it, as always, and will enjoy seeing the finished article. And, finally, a debut – I’m looking forward to reading Dan Jones’ Man’O’War due from Snowbooks.

You can find Jo online at www.jozebedee.com and on Twitter @jozebwrites. Buy Jo’s books here.