Con Round-Up Part I: SCBWI NYC

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On February 6th, I headed down to New York City for the 21st SCBWI Winter Conference — one of two national events organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It had been a while since I’d been to the national conference — since 2014 to be precise — and I was looking forward to seeing the changes.

I arrived early, as the New England team (including myself and my regional conference co-director Casey Robinson) had a meeting on Friday morning. Business attended to, I escaped for a couple of hours to meet a friend from Brazil for a visit to the Met. Oh, important detail: my friend is a tour guide, so I had an amazing personalized glimpse at the museum’s permanent collection. If you’ve never been to the Met before, I thoroughly recommend this ‘taster’ version, where you get to sample a little from several different rooms and wings. After a post-museum lunch, it was time to head back to the hotel and relax with friends before getting ready for the Golden Kite Awards at night.

Watching the awards ceremony on Friday evening was definitely one of my personal highlights (and not just because of the strawberries and champagne reception!). Besides opening words from Kwame Alexander, who reminded us that “in the end, we answer for the children, to the children”, and James Patterson, who urged the gatekeepers in the room not to get in the way of kids reading for pleasure, we heard moving acceptance speeches from the award recipients, challenging us all to strive for more in our own work. Find a full list of the Golden Kite awards at: https://www.scbwi.org/announcing-the-golden-kite-and-sid-fleischman-winners/

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NESCBWI team members with the wonderful Debbie Ridpath Ohi (photo credit goes to Debbie)

Saturday began with a great keynote by author Kate Messner, centering on wonder and curiosity, and setting the tone nicely for the conference. This was followed by two workshop intensives that took place throughout the day. My first was on writing genre fiction, with Tor editor Melissa Frain. We talked through the challenges of worldbuilding and the subsequent perils of info-dumping, and then she walked us through an interesting first pages exercise.

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Kate Messner’s ‘Curiosity License’

I was particularly inspired by my afternoon intensive with agent Chelsea Eberly, who talked us through identifying our author brand. She broke this down into a number of key aspects, among which were to root our work in authenticity (what makes you YOU?) and to identify and focus on our strengths (where do you shine?).

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Workshop notes…

The day’s programming concluded with a heartwarming keynote address by Jerry Pinkney, who talked us through his journey as an artist, starting from his earliest place of inspiration: his father’s basement workshop. Later, the evening centered around the traditional networking dinner, with regional tables set up so attendees could meet and mingle with others from their area, if they so desired. I lingered a while afterwards, chatting to friends (old and new!), but soon called it a night.

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Part of our fantastic NESCBWI regional team! (photo credit Kristine Asselin)

Sunday brought my last intensive session, with Harper Collins editor Tiara Kittrell. Tiara talked us through the key elements of a variety of genres, and shared tips on how to successfully blur the lines between them to create fresh ways to tell stories. I had to leave straight after, and was sorry to miss what I’ve heard was a wonderful final keynote with author Derrick Barnes, but I still carried home a head and notebook full of new ideas and inspiration to fuel my writing work. All in all, it was a fantastic, exhausting, amazing weekend, and I’m glad I decided to return to the New York conference after such a long break!

Crossing the Streams: reaching across writing communities

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.

There’s a whole wide world outside that window…

Swords and Swans

Book news! Well, anthology news, actually. Tomorrow my short story King Swan comes out in a brand new collection — Gorgon: Stories of Emergence (Pantheon Magazine).

From the official blurb: “Be changed. GORGON: STORIES OF EMERGENCE contains 42 transformative stories spanning all genres from both emerging and new voices alike, with all new stories by Gwendolyn Kiste, Richard Thomas, Annie Neugebauer, Eden Royce, Beth Cato, D.A. Xiaolin Spires and more, and featuring 10 illustrations by Carrion House.”

I’ve had a peek at some of the stories and they’re awesome! You can buy Gorgon on Amazon in ebook and paperback, starting tomorrow…

Also…

It’s been two years today since HEART BLADE was published! Happy bookversary to the Blade Hunt Chronicles!

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…

Happy New Year!

Misty says, “Have a great year!” She also says, “Keep reading! Bring treats!!”

You should…probably do what she says.

With All Your Heart

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.

Summer 2018 Updates

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!

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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.

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Photo credit Avon Free Public Library

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!

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The View From The Road

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Last week, I posted this brief thread on Twitter:

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Sounds easy, right? Except that us writer types are a notoriously insecure and self-doubting bunch of people, and this isn’t always easy advice to follow.

Once you’ve been bitten by the word bug and you’ve made it past the first hurdles and learnt a little about publishing, chances are that you’re either going to run away screaming and never look back, or dig yourself in and prepare for the zombie apocalypse long run. Those who decide to stay in the bunker and face the crazy, fascinating, heart-breaking, wonderful world of writing will find themselves periodically adjusting their dreams and goals.

SF/F writer Jo Zebedee, after asking writers on Twitter, Facebook, and internet forums, brought out this great blog post on writer aspirations, where the many different responses led her to conclude that not only did the goals and dreams reflect where a writer was in their journey but also that, for every step reached, there’s a new one ahead. Perspective is not only necessary, but crucial, and so is taking time to celebrate the steps you’ve already climbed, rather than just dwelling on the ones to come.

Not long after Jo’s blog post, a comment on the SFF Chronicles forum, by author Stephen Palmer, touched briefly on envy. I think that a certain dose of healthy envy goes hand-in-hand with a writer’s goals and aspirations. Being able to look at someone else’s success, wish them well, but also say to yourself I want to get there someday can be a powerful motivator. Emphasis on healthy envy: as long as you use that as a push to grow in your work, looking up to other authors and using them as inspiration is never a bad thing.

The problem with comparing your writing career to other people’s, is that there will always be someone who is already there, at your next goal, or who has managed your dream achievement. It’s easy to get discouraged, and to think your work will never be that good, that perfect. But I think that sometimes we forget to look back and see how far we’ve come. I’m incredibly proud of my published novels, but sometimes I find myself dismissing the hard work I’ve put in and the stages I’ve reached when I get too stuck on looking ahead at the next big goal.

That stone in the Twitter thread? I bought it for exactly that reason: to remind myself just how much I’ve accomplished already. Do I have objectives, dreams, and lofty aspirations? Absolutely. Do I sometimes feel a quiver of envy, a touch of ‘I’d love that to be me’? Hell, yes. All this keeps me going and fuels my passion for what I do. However, commemorating how I got here, one step at a time, is just as important.

Celebrate your path. Take joy in what lies behind, especially when the way ahead looks daunting. And keep writing. You’ll probably never reach the top of the mountain, because there will always be a higher peak to climb. But the view from the road can be pretty darn satisfying if you take the time to look around.

Write Like Yoda

A few weekends ago, I attended the Eastern PA SCBWI Poconos Retreat, which had as its theme ‘May The Force Be With You’. All attendees were set homework: to prepare a short piece about the Force to share with everyone on the first night. It was a lot of fun hearing all the different takes on the subject, and made for a great ice breaker!

Since this is opening weekend for Solo in the USA, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my own scribblings on the subject…

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As a Seventies baby, I grew up on Star Wars. Luke Skywalker was my first screen crush. I have an X-wing fighter on my writing desk, and tend to repeat Yoda’s famous words when I need a kick to get things started: Do, or do not… There is no try.

Back in 2012 when I first started writing ‘for real’, I lived by Master Yoda’s words. “I will finish this first novel,” I told myself, and I did. I quickly found that if I allowed myself any room to think about it, the doubts crept in. “I’m going to try and finish this by…” was a sure recipe for procrastination and disaster. But if I gave myself concrete goals, and deadlines, then things got done.

I love the concept of the Force in the Star Wars universe. But just believing in yourself (or in a mystical Jedi power) isn’t enough. Luke, Han, and Leia didn’t beat the evil Emperor on belief alone; they worked hard to get there. There is no try. There is believing you can do something — like complete your novel — and then sitting down and making it happen.

I think that people who aren’t in creative fields often have this idea that writers and artists sit down at their workspaces and produce beautiful things without breaking a sweat. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. It takes a lot of effort to produce something, whether an illustration, a novel, a picture book, or any other creative piece. It’s far from easy. But without those two things — belief and perseverance — it would be impossible.

So may the Force be with all of you, but remember, no one gets things done on the Force alone. I believe in you. Now go do it.

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Poconos Retreat, Part I

(In two parts, because it was just THAT great!)

 

Ever since I met the ray of sunshine that is YA author Kim Briggs, five years ago at my first ever SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), I’ve wanted to go to the annual retreat organized by her region, Eastern PA SCBWI. This year I finally made it down to Pennsylvania, and I’m so glad I did!

Around thirty or so writers and illustrators gathered with faculty and staff at the lovely Highlights Foundation center in the Poconos, for a weekend of workshops, critique sessions, good food (so much good food!), and lots and lots of creative chit chat. The theme? May The Force Be With You, of course. What else for a start date of May 4th?

The magic began on Friday evening. After appetizers, the illustrator showcase, and dinner, we were all invited to go to the podium and present our homework. Yes, homework: to prepare a short presentation of what the Force means for you and your work. A great opening for the weekend. (I’m saving mine to share in another blogpost; wait and see!)

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Wookiee Cookie from Saturday’s lunch

Saturday, after a generous breakfast in the Barn (seriously. So. Much. Food.), we were treated to an opening keynote by YA author K.M. Walton, who encouraged us to trust our goals and dreams; to know our dreams and do the work to make them happen.

Next, I headed up to the Lodge for a workshop on Plot Meets Character with Kate Prosswimmer, editor for the Sourcebooks Fire and Jabberwocky imprints. Kate went over some of the key approaches for breaking down plot and character in stories, and then suggested we chart our own novels with the tools she introduced us to.

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Plot Meets Character workshop

After lunch (more REALLY GOOD food; I was feeling thoroughly pampered by that point!), it was time for the keynote by author/illustrator Angela Dominguez. Angela talked about the difficulties of growing up bilingual — something that most people in my family can relate to! She also gave us an important reminder: that there’s a lot of waiting in publishing, and it’s okay to get frustrated.

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Keynote by Angela Dominguez

It was time for a break and a group photo, and then onto the keynote by editor and author Harold Underdown. Harold walked us through a selection of children’s books for all ages and talked about the importance of beginnings and endings: of making a promise to your reader at the start of a story, and following through on that promise at the end.

The afternoon was set aside for peer critiques (and one-on-one critiques with faculty for those who had signed up for one), but as I had been deep in revision mode when the deadline came around, I hadn’t sent anything in. Instead, I snuck off to my cabin for a bit of tea and quiet time. With so much information bouncing around in my head, it was a perfect way to unwind.

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Some much-needed downtime

Saturday evening brought nachos on the patio while the faculty signed books inside, followed by dinner and the silent auction. There were lots of amazing items to bid on, and I’m pleased that one of my bids made it to the end: a 15-page manuscript critique offered by agent Kira Watson, along with a signed ARC from her client Naomi Hughes’ upcoming release, Afterimage.

We closed the night on a high note: with s’mores on the patio by the open-air fireplace under twinkling lights. And then it was off to our cozy cabins for our last night in Writer’s Paradise.