Over the Hill: Older Characters in Fantasy and Sci Fi

One of my favorite reads last year was The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. Besides the delicious plot and characters, one of the things I liked best about it was that it gave us a forty-year-old protagonist, caught up in a reckoning of what he’s done with his life, where he wants to go from there, and how to deal with his expanding waistline — all that great stuff we start to think about when we hit our forties and fifties.

It’s not that often that speculative fiction has older main characters, at least, not in books with singular or few points of view. When there are bigger ensemble casts, with multiple points of view, this is far more common. Think Tyrion Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Chrisjen Avasarala from The Expanse. Or the screen adaptation of Good Omens, which chose actors in their fifties for the roles of Crowley and Aziraphale. I love all of these characters, but in a larger cast their age becomes diluted, more of a balance for younger characters and less of a leading voice.

There are certainly books out there that check this particular box of allowing older characters to take center stage. One that comes to mind is the fantastic City of Blades (Divine Cities #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett, with General Turyin Mulaghesh. She’s a foul-mouthed and one-armed badass on the verge of retirement, and she’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a fantasy protagonist. Another great entry in this category is the novella Burning Roses, by SL Huang. In this retelling of the myths of Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the Archer, the main characters, who thought their days of adventure were in the past, must come out of retirement and join forces to battle evil once again. But the truth is, sci fi and fantasy — particularly fantasy — tends to focus on younger characters, at most in their thirties (and that’s often pushing it!).

If it’s rare to see older main characters, it’s even harder to find stories where they are allowed to be the main romantic protagonists. This is where, once again, The House in the Cerulean Sea shines. Another that does older romance beautifully — and was probably my absolute favorite book of 2021 — is Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki. This gentle love story between a former violin prodigy who made a deal with the devil and an alien space captain hiding out on Earth in a donut shop warmed me all the way down to my toes. It’s wonderful to see books out there that remember that romance isn’t just for youth.

There will always be an interest in coming-of-age stories, and tales that deal with young adults seeking their place in the world. However, I like to think there’s just as much space for books about the challenges and regrets that come with age and experience. Characters that are not so much ‘over the hill’ as seeing the world from the heights of hard-earned perspective. Hopefully, the success of books like the ones I’ve mentioned here, as well as TV shows such as Our Flag Means Death (yes, I know it’s not exactly fantasy, but middle-aged pirates! In love!!), will remind us that we can put people over forty in the spotlight and let them thrive.

The Darkest Timeline

In the Community episode Remedial Chaos Theory, a die is thrown, over and over. Each time, the episode restarts, creating a new timeline. One of these is the Darkest Timeline. In this particular case, all versions start out with the same setting and characters, and with each throw the writers simply play a game of ‘what if?’ In our own writing, these variables are not fixed. We create new ones for each tale we tell. So, out of all the possible variables, what is it that makes a story dark? 

I lead a writing group for teens at my local library. At one of our recent meetings, the discussion centered around stories that take a walk on the dark side. We tried to look at this from all angles: genre, aesthetic, mood, plot, themes… After all, ‘dark’ can have many meanings. A horror tale is, by definition, dark. But realistic fiction can be, too, especially when it deals with thematic threads such as death or trauma.

(One thing my teen group brought up is that theme does not necessarily equal dark. You can bring up trauma with a gentle touch, allowing space for joy and hope. Hope — throughout or at the end of a story — is great for tempering dark themes!)

Genre, of course, plays a big part in whether a story is dark or not. Each genre has its conventions, so while a cozy mystery will never be dark, a crime procedural will definitely tread in the shadows. Know your genre and know its conventions! Yes, they can be bent, and mixed, and played around with, but if your aim is to go dark, it helps to know your audience. 

Mood and aesthetic are also key, helping set the scene for your story. Even the most mundane setting can turn dark: how many gut-curdling fictional scenes have played out in everyday places like supermarkets, high schools, and playgrounds? The teens in my group had some great suggestions to get in the right mood, including Pinterest boards, music, watching movies, and keeping a dream journal — we’ve all had those deeply disquieting dreams that haunt us for days, and even if you don’t use the dream itself, you can tap into the remembered emotions to fuel your writing.

Dark stories can start off in your face and obvious from the very first page. But I prefer those that open with the barest promise, and then build up the shadows, layer by layer, until we can no longer see the light. The most successful stories bring it all together in this transition from metaphorical day to deepest night: characters, genre, setting, themes, mood, all working towards one single goal — to immerse the reader in the darkest timeline. 

A Breadcrumb Trail of Self

There’s been some writer chatter across social media lately about the need to separate the author from the character. And this is good and necessary, because we are not our characters. Often our creations behave in ways we would never ever find okay in real life — because this is fiction, this is storytelling, and even the worst sort of character serves a purpose in our narratives.

But. But. We don’t create in a vacuum. Writers take inspiration from the world around them, and the key word here is inspiration, not copying, not actual transmutation from real to fiction. If you ask me who I base my characters on, I’ll probably say ‘no one’, and that includes myself. This is true, but also not true.

True: none of my characters are me.

Not true: all of my characters are me, in small ways, often hard to define.

It’s not as simple as saying, this one bites their nails like I do. That one has brown hair. (Spoiler alert: they all do. There was just too much reverence for blue-eyed blondes when I was growing up in 1980s Brazil, and teen me just wanted to see brown hair like mine taking center stage.) Yes, I often borrow quirks and habits for my characters (after all, I know what it feels like to bite your nails down to the quick, until your fingers are raw and tender), but the ways in which my characters are me are a lot more subtle than that.

At first draft, they’re often two-dimensional sketches, a suggestion of who they might become. In part because I’m still getting to know them. And in part because, at this stage, I’m more focused on getting the story into a basic shape that makes sense. Plot is key. Later, I’ll fill in the blanks. I’ll breathe life into my characters, and try to make them more than walking, talking paper dolls.

The real character work starts when I begin revising that most basic of drafts. Here, it helps to dig into my own feelings to color in theirs. Anxiety, sadness, anger, hope, love, fear… The specific moments remain mine, but the emotions, or rather, the memory of those emotions, are all there for the borrowing. And so, I add a dash of this to one character, a sprinkle of that to another. They begin to come alive, and to take on an existence of their own. They’re not me, none of them. They are their own creatures. But in that spark of life, there is some of my own self to act as fuel.

I suspect that, if you were to take every character I’ve ever created, you would find an entire trail of breadcrumbs, a trail of self that leads to me. A million jigsaw pieces, a broken mosaic of mirrored slivers that reflect the million undecipherable fragments of self. Me. And not me, all at once, all together.

Shadow Atlas is Out!

Yesterday was release day for Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas, an anthology of short stories and poetry published by Hex, with a stellar list of writers.

Beautifully edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge, and Joshua Viola, and with amazing illustrations by Aaron Lovett, Shadow Atlas is a 460-page treat for fans of dark fantasy and horror:

Ancient peoples knew there were lands given over to shadow and spirit. The world is full of haunted places that exact a terrible toll on trespassers. Our forebears paid a heavy price to earn the wisdom and the warning they bequeathed to future generations.

Time transformed their precious knowledge into superstition, but there are those whose hearts beat in rhythm with the past and whose vision is not clouded by modernity. Seeking to reclaim humanity’s early secrets, the Umbra Arca Society was forged. For centuries, this private league of explorers dedicated their lives to uncovering the oldest mysteries of the Americas. Armed with boldness and guile, and equipped with only a compass, a journal, and devotion to truth, these adventurers braved cursed landscapes, dared unnatural adversaries, and exposed hidden civilizations.

Many did not survive.

None were forgotten.

Their stories are maps revealing the topography and contours of landscapes unimaginable and dark. The Shadow Atlas collects their adventures.

Shadow Atlas includes my short story, Moon Under Mangroves. Set in Santos, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, Moon is a tale of aging, a family curse, and the ghost crabs that live and burrow in the mud of the mangrove swamps. I grew up in the city of São Paulo, an hour away from Santos, and drew upon my childhood memories of catching sand and rock crabs with the fishing folk who lived on the coast in the days before tourism took over as an industry. It was a lot of fun reconnecting with those memories, and trying to bring a deep sense of place for readers to immerse themselves in.

You can read my interview on place with Shadow Atlas editor Hillary Dodge here.

The anthology already has some great reviews!

“Dead serious in its horror, yet delightful and inviting in its design and conceit, Shadow Atlas is a rare, beguiling treat, a collective fantasy with teeth, vision, and grounded in urgent, ancient truths.” – BookLife Reviews (BookLife section of Publishers Weekly)

“Think The DaVinci Code or Indiana Jones, but with more literary force, as it comments on mortals, immortals, and the intersection of worlds which holds them.” – Midwest Book Reviews

“A host of sublime writers and settings create an entertainingly macabre collection.” – Kirkus Reviews

Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is now available. For buy links and options, check out the publisher’s page: here.

Inside peek at the special hardcover edition

The Shadows Inside

Leaning into shadows turns the ordinary extraordinary.

Back in the olden days of pre-COVID 2020, I was on a con panel called Blood-Curdling Science Fiction, on the blurring of lines between sci fi and horror fiction. Our discussion focused on that gray zone that lies between genres. There are many genres that play well with others, but I think that perhaps horror is the one that best suits them all.

Horror and sci fi? Good. Horror and fantasy? Great. You can make it fancy and call it literary. You can pulp it up or lean into gore or slasher fiction; send it into space or ground it on Earth. You can stick some romance in there or comedy, and you’re still golden. Like a nicely paired bottle of wine, horror goes well with everything.

Wine pairings aside, why is it that so many non-horror writers like to lean into the shadows? Take me — I’m an accidental horror writer who doesn’t actually write horror. But I’ve sold four stories to dark fantasy or horror-leaning anthologies in recent times and have another coming out, probably in 2022, that is definitely on the side of nightmares.

Personally, I find playing with darkness in my stories to be cathartic. It’s a way of acknowledging child-me who checked her bedroom wardrobe was tightly shut at night and jumped into bed so nothing could catch her ankle on the way. I’ve outgrown the jumping bit (though I do always shut my wardrobe — old habits die hard!) and have learnt to rationalize those bumps in the middle of the night, but it can be quite gleeful to tap into that younger self who believed with all her heart that magic was real and that shadows had teeth.

It’s not quite as easy to believe in magic nowadays, though I try my best! But the darkness, well. That’s just another flavor of magic, and one too easily remembered. And perhaps this is why so many works of fiction flirt with horror, even if they officially belong to other genres. This darker side of magic, the shadows from our childhood nights that still live inside us, will always make a strange sort of sense. As readers, we know it’s not real. But when daylight ebbs and the sky goes dark, that reality blurs, just a little, just enough to tip the ordinary into the extraordinary. And then, the shadows creep out to play.

Happy Halloween! 

If you’re looking for darker stories, please consider helping out The Pixel Project in their work to end violence against women by buying their first charity anthology, Giving the Devil His Due. It’s full of excellent writers dishing up justice both hot and cold, and profits go to a good cause. More information here.

Also, Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is up for preorder! It includes my short story Moon Under Mangroves (a tale of aging, creepy swamp crabs, and a cursed compass) among a long list of work by fantastic authors. I’ve seen the PDF and it’s absolutely gorgeous and just full of illustrations and little graphic design treats! Check out the publisher’s page here.

What’s Your Backstory?

Backstory adds color and shading to a fictional world and characters

Backstory is “a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character in a motion picture or television program” (Oxford Languages, via Google). Backstory is important in fiction, but not necessary. You can tell a perfectly good tale that just stays in the here and now, especially if it’s in a genre that relies heavily on action and/or tension, like horror or thrillers. However, mentioning events that happen before the book begins helps readers to flesh out those bare bones of character and world development; it brings nuance and makes the story part of something bigger, extending beyond the pages.

I “researched’ the subject (and by “research”, I mean I did a brief internet dive) and found plenty of articles and posts on how to write backstory, but very little on what sort of backstory a novel actually needs. And because not all backstory serves the same purpose, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few different types. 

1. The Aragorn Son of Arathorn Backstory: these are the epic ‘big picture’ backstories that shape everything that takes place in a book. This sort of backstory works like a prequel. Think of The Lord of the Rings, and how the War of the Last Alliance and Isildur’s death set the stage for Frodo’s quest. Aragorn is the walking, talking, sword-fighting, horse-riding embodiment of this type of backstory, and his introduction to J.R.R Tolkien’s epic brings past and present together. Tolkien even gives us a backstory within a backstory, with brief mentions of older times, like backstory nesting dolls.

I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar the Elfstone, Dunadan. The heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! 

J.R.R Tolkien, The Two Towers

2. The As You Know Bob Backstory: sometimes, especially with the sort of sweeping worldbuilding you get in epic fantasy and really big space operas, you just need a reader to understand. A skilled author can manage this without making it look like a misplaced lecture (avoiding the ‘as you know, Bob’ trap). This is slightly different from the big picture backstory, as it’s not a prequel, exactly, but more an encyclopedic footnote to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. It’s usually handled discreetly and blends in with the story, but this sort of backstory can become a feature in of itself. Douglas Adams used this masterfully in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

3. The My Name is Inigo Montoya Backstory: these are backstories that serve mainly to add depth and motivation to characters. These are usually drip-fed slowly at the right moments in order to help readers understand, emphasize, and connect with the characters. William Goldman played around with this hilariously in The Princess Bride with Inigo Montoya, a character who is basically just backstory. For less comedic examples, think superhero origin stories (Batman, anyone?), or how Disney took Maleficent and, in the movie of the same name, turned a cardboard cut-out villain into a sympathetic character with a very real reason to be angry at the world.

Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

4. The I Am Your Father Backstory: this one is a subset of the Inigo Montoya backstory, but focuses on a Big Reveal moment that serves as a plot twist. This is the catalyst for a kaleidoscope moment, when everything changes and the picture shuffles around into something quite different. Luke and Darth Vader’s scene in The Empire Strikes Back is an iconic one, not only twisting Luke’s past into something new, but changing the direction of his future — a future where he must not only learn to be a Jedi, but understand why his father lost his way and how he can avoid the same trap. Vader’s classic (and often misquoted) line was beautifully subverted in the 1987 movie Spaceballs, turning an important bit of backstory into something essentially meaningless.

Dark Helmet: I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

Lone Star: So what does that make us?

Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing!

Spaceballs

5. The Just Like Budapest Backstory: the quirky little mentions that are never really fully developed and could be removed entirely without harming the story, but that hint at a much larger picture than we get a chance to see, adding color and shading. Think of the throwaway mention of Budapest by Clint and Natasha in The Avengers, that wonderfully enticing sliver of their past. I’m actually sorry that we finally got the story behind Budapest in Black Widow. Sometimes it’s nice to just…wonder. This sort of backstory delights in acting as a sort of teaser trailer, allowing us to imagine that the characters have lived a life far vaster than this small part the author is sharing with us. 

The above are some of the main types of backstory you might want to include in your work. Do you need backstory? And how much? That’s up to you, and will depend on your writing style and the type of project you’re working on.

Food and Drink in Sci Fi and Fantasy

When I was young, I was fascinated by mentions of food in children’s books, especially in stories written long before I was born. I remember marveling at World War I-era fare in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (1930-1947) and the endless picnics in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (1942-1963), which always seemed to include fresh tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, and massive slices of fruit cake.

As a grown-up, I still find mentions of food in books fascinating, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Even commonplace meals gain a strange and otherworldly aspect when tossed into a vast fantasy saga or a thrilling space opera. For instance, take a look at this description of a centaur’s breakfast in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omlette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he tends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

The Silver Chair — C.S. Lewis

But food and drink often move past sustenance and become key plot devices. Countless drops of poison have been administered in handy flagons of ale or goblets of wine; feasts have gathered enemies for slaughter; assassins have burst out of cakes to gun down their targets. And when it comes to politics, mealtime conversation and table manners can cut as sharp and deadly as swords on the battlefield, winning or losing crucial ground for those involved.

In The Martian by Andy Weir, a good deal of the shipwrecked-on-Mars saga revolves around food: how to make it last, and how to farm enough potatoes to survive until rescue. One of my favorite examples of food and drink as a plot device, however, is Arthur Dent’s search for the perfect cup of tea in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Arthur’s desire for a decent brew escalates from amusing side joke to an epic quest that eventually takes over all of the ship computer’s processing power and lands the crew in a spot of hot water, pun intended. 

“No,” Arthur said, “look, it’s very, very simple… All I want… is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams

Sometimes food can help move a plot forward, literally. After all, without the Elven lembas, the intrepid adventurers in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would have to stop to hunt and gather food, slowing down both the quest and the story pacing itself. And the addition of these handy marching rations leads to the running gag of the hobbits’ obsession with proper meals. (You can even make your own lembas: the internet is full of recipes, but this one by Tea With Tolkien looks particularly yummy.)

For a long time, speculative fiction, and especially fantasy, centered on Western cooking. Every inn served stew and beer, every traveler carried hunks of crusty farm bread in their saddlebags. Thankfully, fantasy in recent times has spread its wings beyond the Eurocentric model and now we can feast our imaginations on a whole range of delicious options. I have a critique partner whose wonderfully rich world draws heavily from different East Asian mythologies, and I love it when her badass reaper sips from delicate cups of jasmine tea, or her unruly kitsune gorges on steamed bao and mochi cakes. As for me, I’m working on a short story right now set in northeastern Brazil, where my characters breakfast on fresh bread rolls with Minas cheese and doce de leite, where fear is bitter as pitanga fruit, and joy tastes as rich and sweet as guava jam. 

Whether writers use meals to add color and shading to their worlds, to move their stories forward, or simply as a pause for their protagonists to catch their breath, it’s almost impossible not to include food and drink in fiction. After all, be the characters human or alien, I think we can all agree on one thing: everyone has to eat!

“Boys,” Annabeth interrupted, “I’m sure you both would’ve been wonderful at killing each other. But right now, you need some rest.”

“Food first,” Percy said. “Please?” 

The Mark of Athena — Rick Riordan

Summer 2021 Updates

We’re halfway through summer here in Connecticut, which means it’s time for another round of ‘what’s been happening in my world’…

Short Stories

Kraxon Magazine published another short of mine in April, The End of all Things; it’s free to read, so if you’re in the mood for a light-hearted take on the end of the world, click here to check it out! I have a few other stories published in Kraxon that you can read for free, including Ripped Away which was voted story of the year in 2015.

I have two more short stories coming out in anthologies this year. The first, Moon Under Mangroves, is in Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas (Hex Publishers) and should be out in October. This tale of aging, swamp crabs, and a cursed compass is set in the mangrove swamps outside the city of Santos, in Brazil, an hour from where I grew up. Click here to see the blurb and list of authors!

The other story, Taste of Honey, will be out later this year in a collaborative anthology put together by the women of DISTAFF, a sci fi anthology that was released in 2019. This time we’re turning to fantasy, with a collection of loosely fairy-related fiction called Femme Fae-Tales. I can’t wait to share my own tale of one woman’s addiction to wild magic, set right here in Connecticut. More information on the anthology will be available soon on the DISTAFF main site, here.

Last year, my short story The Sugar Cane Sea was published in Not All Monsters (Strangehouse Books). This year, the anthology made it all the way to the final ballot of the Bram Stoker horror fiction awards—we didn’t win, but it was still amazing to be a finalist! We’ve had some lovely reviews, and here are a few specific mentions for my story, from Goodreads:

“The Sugar Cane Sea” by Juliana Spink Mills will stick with me for a long time. Exquisite. 

The characters were written so well that I was left a little sad that I’d never get to meet them again.

I loved this one so much! I loved the characters, their love for one another, the bravery, and so much more. 

Novels

I’ve spent the past few months sending out queries for my most recent novel. A Perfect Void is about witches in modern day Boston, but with an alternate history past that includes two Witch Wars that shook the USA and the legacy that my main character, an aura reader and university professor, has to live with. I love this story so much!!! But I’m well aware that this is a tough time to query, with both agents and publishers dealing with the backlog of work that 2020 left behind. Still, I plan to keep going, and hopefully someone will love my witchy professor’s tale as much as I do.

Currently Working On…

I’m revising a short story that marks my first real dip into magical realism. It’s set in a small coastal tourist town in northeastern Brazil and includes pottery fish and soul stealing magic. I’m excited to start submitting this one, as it feels very close to my heart.

I’m also in the planning stages for a novella set in my hometown of São Paulo, inspired by the now-defunct tram lines that once crisscrossed the city.

Blog

After trying and failing to keep to a two-week blogging schedule, and then a few months of very sporadic posting, I’ve been focusing on a roughly three-week schedule which I’ve actually been managing to maintain. Two weeks was just too much, and a month between posts felt like a lot, so let’s see if three turns out to be the sweet spot! Three’s supposed to be the magic number, after all, right?

New Author Photos

I cut my hair really short, and you know what that means? New author pics! I’m very pleased with this latest batch of photos, and hope to use them for a good while before I need updates.

Personal

We recently took our vaccinated selves on a couple of mini family breaks. First up was Rhode Island/Cape Cod in June, and then in July, Salem and Boston. It felt so nice to get away for a little bit!

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.

You Are Valid (and so is your writing)

I’m querying a fantasy novel right now, and anyone who has been through the query trenches knows how tough this is. It’s easy for our writer brains to understand in theory that rejections aren’t personal and are NOT a reflection on our writing skills, but our little writer hearts have trouble with this notion.

It’s not personal. But it feels personal. And that leads me (us) to some of the common traps that creatives fall into.

1. The My Work Is Bad trap. I mean, it might be? But it probably isn’t. If you’re serious enough about your craft to be looking up blog posts on writing, you’re most likely ahead of the game. And if you’re at the querying point, you should have revised multiple times, sought out feedback, and done your best to make your work as shiny as can be.

To get out of this trap, step away for a while. Go read other people’s work, and then come back and read a few random scenes from your own. I guarantee it’s probably way better than you remember!

2. The Imposter Syndrome trap. Guess what? You’re not alone. Pretty much everyone in the writing world suffers from Imposter Syndrome to some extent, no matter how successful they are. It’s that horrible feeling that you’re out of your depth, that you don’t belong, that you have no idea what you’re doing. So I repeat: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

There are so many ways to write and to publish, so many different people playing at this author game, so many forms of knowledge. The truth is, there is no truth. Just people who love writing getting along in life as best as they can. Your knowledge, your writing, your entire self is just as valid as Person X with twenty-five published novels. Trust in who you are, trust in your own truth, and trust in your place in this vast world of publishing.

3. The Everyone Is Doing Better trap. Seriously, brain? Seriously? This one is just pathetic. Terrible attempt at self-deprecation, zero stars, do not recommend. 

To escape this particular trap, there are two main tactics. The first is to gently remind yourself how far you’ve come as a writer. If you have published work, take a moment to bask in the glow of past achievements instead of getting stuck on the now and the future. If you haven’t published yet, look at feedback from critique partners and compare to feedback on early work. See how far you’ve come? (If you don’t have a critique partner yet, have a look at this post and this one.)

The second tactic is to remember how long it took some of your favorite authors to get published, or how hard some of your writer friends battled to get there. The publishing world would like us to believe in the myth of the overnight success, but the truth is that most writers travel a path littered with terrible drafts or trunked first novels, rejections, and horrible amounts of self-doubt. Even those who sold their very first novel may have spent years writing, revising, and pitching that novel. Take heart!

4. The I Am Not Valid Unless Someone Else Says So trap. Agents. Editors. Reviewers. Yes, we’d all like that stamp of approval that screams: ‘pro level publishing acknowledges this work’.

Yeah, this is a tough trap to get out of. Especially when you’re querying or on submission and it feels like your work is worth nothing without this approval. This, in fact, was the trap that got me started on this particular blog post. So I’m going to share what I did. Maybe it will help you—it certainly made me feel better.

Read through whatever it is you’re working on right now. Not the whole thing; maybe a favorite page or scene. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the rhythm and flow of words. Let it wash over you. Feel it in your heart. Feel it in every part of yourself. And repeat after me: I do not need anyone’s opinion to validate my work.

“But,” you say, “Juliana, what about rejections? What about critique feedback?”

Feedback is there to improve your work, not to invalidate it. Rejections do not invalidate your work, either. You validate your work. You are valid, you have worth, and so does your writing and your creative process. Take a deep breath. Believe. Now keep on writing.

Thank you, fortune cookie!