Often, in a conversation, the quiet spots and silences are just as important as the words themselves. A conversation needs to breathe, to develop organically. Otherwise it’s just two or more people babbling frantically at each other until they run out of things to say, like old-school mechanical wind-up toys.
I find the same thing happens in my work, and that the non-writing moments, where I can let my story breathe, are crucial to my progress.
I see plenty of advice out there saying stuff like ‘just get that first draft done, you can fix it later’, or ‘power through the parts you’re unsure of, leave placeholders for things you still need to figure out’. And the one that’s everywhere: ‘writers should write every day’.
I’m sure that’s sound advice for some people. We are all different, and every writer needs to find the tools and working style that speaks to them. Personally, I find that if something just doesn’t feel right, or I can’t quite see how to get from A to B, I can’t just let it go and put it down as ‘fix later’. I need to mull it over and find a solution before I can move on. And that’s where the non-writing comes in.
Whenever I hit a bump (and don’t we all?!) it helps to step away and leave my story simmering on the back burner, on the lowest possible heat. I won’t consciously worry away at the problem, but it’s there, in the background, never quite forgotten, until the solution suddenly emerges. In the meantime, I get on with life. I work on other projects, and read, and catch up on all those TV shows.
Sometimes that ‘a-ha’ moment is only a dog walk away (I get a lot of ideas when I’m out walking the dog!). Other times it might take a week or two, or more. When, after a month of obsessive non-stop writing, my current project hit a huge plot snarl, I had to put it aside for a good couple of months before I was ready to tackle it again.
Taking a break until I figure out my way past a plot issue works for me; it might not work for you. But If you’re stuck, and find yourself guilty for stepping away for a while, don’t be: the non-writing can be every bit as important as the writing itself.
Anyone who has watched Ghostbusters will remember that, although ‘crossing the streams’ was supposed to be a Terrible Thing, ultimately it vanquished the Big Bad and saved the day. Likewise, for writers, learning to cross-network between different writing communities can enrich our lives and take our work to a whole new level.
In 2012, I joined my first writing community, the SFFChronicles.com — an online science fiction and fantasy forum with an active writer’s section. At the time, I had just made the decision to get back into writing and was working on my first novel, a middle grade fantasy. While researching children’s fiction resources I found the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), but back then I lived in Brazil, and we had no regional chapters I could look into.
A year later, following my husband’s job relocation, I moved to Connecticut. As soon as I arrived, I joined the SCBWI. Six months later, I went to my first SCBWI conference in New York. I was making connections, online and in person, and my writing world was growing. At the same time, I continued to be an active participant in the sci fi and fantasy community. Both were equally important in teaching me about how publishing works, and in honing my writing skills.
From the kid lit community I learned how to craft middle grade and YA; the SF/F world taught me about genre fiction. The first was invaluable in helping me understand traditional publishing; the second showed me how to navigate anthology submission calls and other short story markets. The SCBWI brought me my wonderful local critique partners; the SF/F community gave me my first beta readers, and eventually a second online critique group. The SCBWI encouraged me to volunteer at conferences and events, and to get involved at a local level, organizing meet and greets for my area. SF/F brought participation opportunities for convention panels, my first public reading, and an opening to write interviews for a genre website. Both groups have nurtured me and cheered for my successes along the way, and expanded both my horizons and my circle of friends. I couldn’t keep moving forward without both of these communities at my side.
When I go to SCBWI events I’m always intrigued by how few members seem to even consider reaching beyond the kid lit community for connection and knowledge. The SCBWI is a wonderful place to call home, but there are many other thriving organizations out there to be explored. The Romance Writers of America is a busy and inclusive example, with many small local chapters throughout the USA. The Mystery Writers of America is another great society with active chapters in different regions. And those are only two among many. Broadening our worlds and cross-networking between communities can be a wonderful way to gain further insight in our work and widen that support web that is so crucial in the difficult world of publishing.
Whatever you chosen ‘home’ community, consider stepping outside and looking for others to connect with. Have a look around, both online and in your local area, and see what you can find. Take a chance on adding a whole new side to your network by joining additional writing organizations — either official ones, like those mentioned above, or unofficial ones such as the forum I’ve been on since 2012. Getting involved with a new community may be scary at first, but by casting that net a little wider and crossing those streams, you may find your creativity shines bigger, and brighter, and bolder than ever.
Another year, another edition of Boskone, ‘New England’s longest running science fiction convention’. I’ll always have a soft spot for Boskone, which represents a lot of firsts for me: first SF/F con I ever went to (back in 2015, two years after moving to the USA) and first time on panels (2017) are two of them. This year I added another couple of firsts: my first time moderating a panel and my first time doing a reading.
Here are some of my Boskone 56 highlights!
Trying my hand at moderating. I…actually had a great time doing this. The other participants of the Agency and Free Will in Speculative Fiction panel — Gillian Daniels, Rebecca Roanhorse, Greer Gilman, and M.C. DeMarco — did a fantastic job with a pretty tricky theme, so a huge thanks to them all for playing along with my not-so-easy questions.
The Broad Universe group reading. Broad Universe has been organizing their Rapid Fire Readings for years now, and as a new member of the group I was delighted to give this a go. We each got an allotted six minutes to give the audience (and each other) a taste of our work, and I really enjoyed the mixture of styles and genres.
Talking fights in the Now, That’s a Great Action Scene panel. Unfortunately our moderator Errick Nunnally only made it for the end of the panel, but Bracken MacLeod stepped in and kept S.L. Huang, Vincent O’Neil and myself busy with plenty of fun discussion points. And I got to take my HEMA longsword to show offprove a point (ha! point…) about the need for proper research.
Debating trilogies and series in the Middle Book Syndrome panel. Fran Wilde did an awesome job moderating this (plus, we had matching nail polish!), and Kenneth Rogers Jr., Sarah Beth Durst, Sharon Lee and myself had a great time trading tips and tricks for keeping those trilogies flowing.
Readings! Besides the Broad Universe reading, I also caught the Unlikely Imaginarium group reading, with Elaine Isaac/E.C. Ambrose, Clarence Young/Zig Zag Claybourne, Kenneth Schneyer, C.S.E Cooney, Carlos Hernandez and Cerece Rennie Murphy. And later that same day, a reading by S.L. Huang, whose Zero Sum Game sounds awesome and has already been added to my to-read list.
I always try to fit in a few panels, and Laundering Your Fairy Tales with Jane Yolen, Theodora Goss, Victoria Sandbrook, Karen Heuler and Melanie Meadors was a great pick, delving into the often-dark history of popular fairy tales. Of Gods, Devils, And Tricksters was another good one, with an in-depth look at trickster figures in mythology. This one was moderated by Max Gladstone, with Rebecca Roanhoarse, Shannon Chakraborty, Jane Yolen and Dana Cameron. And I ended up going to The Great Agent Hunt, with S.L. Huang, Joshua Bilmes, Christopher Golden, Lauren Roy and Barry Goldblatt. Lots of good advice, and plenty of cautionary tales…
People. All the people. New friends, old friends… Conversations everywhere: at the bar, in the hallways, at the tail end of panel sessions. This is what really makes Boskone such a great event — getting to hang out with other readers, writers, and fans for two days straight. You are all awesome and I loved spending time with you! I hope to see you next year!
I only stayed two days this time, instead of the full weekend, to save a little on hotel money. I was sad to leave early, but it’s for a good cause: in August I’ll be at Worldcon in Dublin and then Titancon in Belfast! I’m really excited to be trying something new, but you can bet that in 2020 I’ll be back at Boskone, my ‘home con’ and forever favorite.
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.
Adapted from a guest blog I originally wrote for fantasy romance author Suzanne Jackson.
Anyone who’s been hanging around the Twittersphere lately will have seen writers sharing their ‘rules for writing’. Now, I’m not that big on ‘rules’ (what works for one person might backfire splendidly for another!), but here are a few things I figured out early on and which keep me going. Hopefully, they’ll help you too!
Three things I’ve learned about writing:
1. Take Your Time. As the saying goes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. When I started writing ‘for real’, one of the first things I did was read a lot of bios and websites of authors I admired. To my surprise, there were very few true ‘overnight success’ stories. One author took ten years to be published, another five. Another more than that combined. Some writers didn’t become household names until their third, or fifth, or seventh book.
Beginner-writer-me found this hugely reassuring. If other people could do it, so could I. If I had to put in the time to learn the craft and get it right, then so be it. I wouldn’t be the first, or the last, to take a deep breath and tell myself, “As long as it takes.” I knew this was something I loved, and that I was prepared to be in it for the long haul. I just had to jump in, and keep going.
2. Make Mistakes. Also known as: you have nothing to prove. When I was younger, I’d always planned on becoming a writer ‘someday’. Perhaps when I ‘grew up’. But somehow, I never got around to it. Probably because I had this weird notion that writers sat down at their perfect writing desks and dashed out the Next Big Classic all in one go. Yes, I really was that naive! I knew nothing about messy first drafts, or that it takes rewrites, revisions, and a whole lot of elbow grease to produce something halfway decent. So of course, with that sort of self-inflicted pressure, inevitably I was terrified of starting and failing.
When I figured out that the writing business was a long-distance event (see number 1), this led to the realization that nothing had to be perfect right away. I could allow myself time to work things out, to back my story into corners and fall into plot holes. I could get it wrong, and dust myself off, and rewrite, and get it wrong again, as many times as necessary. The only thing I couldn’t do, was let the fear of failure hold me back from trying.
3. Have Fun! Along with realization number 2, came the awareness that I didn’t actually want to write the Next Big Classic. I wasn’t fussed about literary immortality, or having my books on required reading lists. I couldn’t care less whether my prose was gorgeously poetic. Instead, I wanted to enjoy my writing. I wanted to fill my pages with fight scenes, and daring escapes, and fireballs. Maybe a breathless first kiss or two. I was an 80’s teen, and all those hours spent watching the likes of Star Wars, Die Hard, Back to the Future, and The Goonies had to impact my writer’s soul somehow. Once I figured out the sort of things I enjoyed writing, the stories took off and the words just flowed. I was having fun, and I never ever wanted to stop.
Of course, these discoveries may have worked for me, but may not work for you. Find the small bits of wisdom that inspire you, personally, and use them to keep going on the dark days. We all have those days – beginner writer or seasoned pro – and sometimes you just need to remind yourself of why and how you got started in the first place. And then get up, dust yourself off, and jump back in with all your heart.
We’re already halfway through 2018 — where did all the months go? Seriously, someone needs to get working on that time-turner technology, and fast! So, what have I been up to this year?
Short stories! I made one of those infamous New Year’s promises to myself that I would submit a short story every month in 2018. So far, I’ve managed to (just about!) keep that promise. Of course, it doesn’t mean every submission has been accepted. But it’s been a good push to keep writing and — just as importantly — to keep sending my work out, even if it gets rejected. And taking a chance also means the occasional success!
In February, my sci-fi detective tale Blood Makes Noise came out in The Last City anthology (DUST, 2018). This was a really fun initiative, with a shared-world premise that led to plenty of pre-publication discussion in our collaborator Facebook group. Check out our joint author interview in SFF World.
My angel love story Dawn Chorus was published in Kraxon Magazine in March, another happy moment. Kraxon always has great stories (free, go take a peek!) and I have a soft spot for the magazine, as it gave me my first ever paid writing sale, back in 2015. I also just handed in my contribution for an upcoming all-female-writers’ science fiction anthology: a teen time travel romance set in 1985. And I had a short story accepted for another anthology — I will have to wait for the official announcement to say more on this one, but I’m thrilled to be in it as competition was apparently pretty fierce, and the list of participating authors is amazing.
Novels! I spent most of the first part of the year finishing and revising a YA science fiction thriller. It’s completely different from my Blade Hunt Chronicles series, although my critique group says it’s still ‘very me’, which is hopefully a good thing? I’m really excited about this one! After a long querying hiatus, while I fulfilled my contracts for Heart Blade and Night Blade, I now have something brand new and have begun once again looking for an agent. Wish me luck…
And no, I haven’t forgotten my Blade Hunt readers. I’m taking a writing break in July, to visit my family in Brazil, but when I get back it’s all about books 3 and 4. Yes, the plan is to write the last two books in the series together, and hopefully have them done by the end of the year. I love my characters and story, and have promised myself (and a few of you as well) to finish the Blade Hunt Chronicles and give Del, Ash, Raze and co. the ending they deserve.
Appearances! I was once again a panelist at Boskone this February, and it definitely made a difference knowing what to expect this time around. I found that I managed to relax and enjoy my panels, and I ended up having a blast! A lot of this, of course, is due to the great moderators I had. I also took part in my local library’s Author Festival, speaking on the Teen Author panel. Out theme was Inspiration, and it was a great evening and a really good conversation.
All in all, it’s been a productive year for me so far. With plans to finish the last two Blade Hunt novels in the second semester, and to keep on writing and submitting short stories, it looks like it will get even busier once August arrives.
I’ll leave you with a link to a terrific interview I gave in January on Peat Long’s blog, with bonus Deadpool-riding-on-a-Lego-dinosaur pic. Because why not? Happy summer!
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.
*contains mild spoilers for Heart Blade and Night Blade*
There are a LOT of articles and blog posts floating around out there at the moment about how to write great female characters. This is clearly an important discussion: YA fiction has a lot of amazing ladies, but otherwise female representation in science fiction and fantasy is…not always great.
The first two books in my urban fantasy Blade Hunt Chronicles series, Heart Blade and Night Blade, have a lot of strong female characters. I have warriors, and leaders, and healers, and yes, even villains. I have women who rule with their heart, women who use their brains, and women who depend on sheer grit and determination. They have different sexualities, different backgrounds, and a variety of motivations. I was pretty happy with my ladies as I wrote them, and I like the way they turned out at the end of the process.
That left the male characters. I was determined to do a good job on my boys, and try and give them the same nuances I gave my ladies. This meant taking them to dark places sometimes, or throwing them into the emotional deep end.
One of my main characters, Ash, suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. No wonder, poor lad: his mother was killed in front of him when he was a young teen, and that led him to question the path his father set out for him. By Book 2, he’s having recurring nightmares, and carrying a lot of anger to go with that self-doubt. With Ash, I wanted to show readers that our book heroes are also allowed to be insecure about their place in the world, to crumble and break down at times, and just be a little fragile despite broad shoulders and a sword in their hands.
His father, Deacon, is dealing with the distance he allowed to grow between him and his son, and the feeling that he’s let his child down by not being there for him. He’s doing his best to bridge the gap, but this means that Deacon has been forced to rethink his own path in life and make friends in unlikely places. Deacon (and Ash) are descendants of angels, brought up as warriors and protectors. So Deacon’s unlikely friendship with half-demon Camille is emblematic of the sort of changes Deacon goes through.
Alex is probably one of my least complex male characters so far, even though he’s an almost-1000-year-old vampire. Alex is a leader with a cause, a former knight of the Crusades who took a vow never to drink human blood and is currently a Catholic monk, although he certainly wasn’t always celibate. I have plans for Alex for Book 3, though, and hope to dive into some of his backstory and his own internal struggles. No one lives 1000 years without a heck of a lot of baggage!
Ben is my new guy, who only joined my cast of characters in Book 2. Ben is one of my favorites; he’s a witch and an outcast, with a forbidden romance to top that off. He’s been banned from seeing his love — a witch from a powerful coven — in part because his boyfriend Gabriel is expected, as heir to his line, to carry on his family’s blood legacy by marrying a woman and having children. But also because Ben was punished for his parents’ crimes and is persona non grata in witch society, even though he was innocent and barely thirteen at the time. Ben is a mess of insecurity and low self-esteem, despite his amazing magical powers, but his heart is in the right place: he’ll always do the right thing no matter how hard it is.
I have a favorite bad guy, too. Half-demon Jude Raven is a bit of a bastard, really, but I love writing him. His bottom line is ‘how will this benefit me’, and he’s a sneaky, devious, cold-hearted genius. But what I like about him is exactly his utter selfishness. He can do good things, but only if they’re more useful than the bad things. He’ll analyze a situation and find the best way out of it — for himself. He’s got big choices to make in Book 3 and Book 4, and I can’t wait to see how I’m going to make him handle them while still remaining Jude.
There are plenty of good male characters around in fiction; my favorites are the well-layered ones who give us something to think about. If you’d like to read my thoughts on some of my favorite YA boys, check out my original Writing Boys post. And here’s the counterpart, Writing Girls.
I’m really excited to have been invited to Boskone 55 as a program participant. This will be my fourth year at “New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention”, and my second taking part in panels. Boskone runs from February 16th to 18th in Boston, MA, so if you’re in the area, stop by. Not only is this a really friendly con, but it has great guests, panel themes, author readings and kaffeeklatsch opportunities. This year, there’s even a Regency Dance! Check out the Boskone 55 website for the full event schedule.
Here’s my own schedule:
Stories Before the Apocalypse
16 Feb 2018, Friday 14:00 – 15:00, Marina 4
We’re familiar with post-apocalyptic futures, from Max’s desert hellscape to Katniss’s dystopic districts. But what about right before the cataclysm — as doom and destruction loom large? How do people live? How do relationships change as we shift into survival mode? Let’s share our few existing “must-read” favorites, and discuss stories we’d like to see.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Juliana Spink Mills, Julie C. Day, Alan Gordon, John Chu
Curse Your Inevitable Romantic Subplot!
16 Feb 2018, Friday 16:00 – 17:00, Burroughs
Just when things are getting good, somebody has to go and fall in love. Are romantic subplots required? And what makes them work or fail in the larger storyline?
Heather Albano (M), Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, J. Kathleen Cheney, Kevin McLaughlin, Juliana Spink Mills
It’s Not Always About Sex
17 Feb 2018, Saturday 12:00 – 13:00, Harbor III
Speculative fiction is filled with friendships that turn into romantic entanglements. Is that all there is? Can’t our characters just have friends, of whatever gender, without hookups and/or heartbreaks? How about we rescue the world from the odd apocalypse or alien invasion, and forget about the sex for a change?