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!

NESCBWI 2021 Part II: virtual goes live

Cherished moments from the weekend!

<A continuation of Part I: pre-conference planning>

It’s Friday afternoon, April 30th, and the countdown begins. Last minute frantic text messages and emails fly: “I can’t access the Zoom account!”; “Where’s my password?”; “I never got a reply from the presenter!” We remind ourselves: take a deep breath, we’ve got this. The clock ticks closer, the minutes run out like sand in an hourglass. Seven pm EST arrives. We’re on. This is it. Showtime. A Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey is live.

After introducing ourselves and the New England SCBWI regional team, the spring conference began on a high note with A Conversation with Two Legends: Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, moderated by Heidi E.Y. Stemple. (All of our main presentations and workshops were run as webinars, keeping chat open for attendee participation.) Nikki, Jane, and Heidi were amazing, and I loved all the comments in the chat, and getting to ‘see’ everyone’s reactions.

Among the many wonderful moments, a couple of favorites: Jane Yolen reminding us that “if you don’t write it, it’s not going to get written”, and that writing is about “hard work and joy”. And Nikki Grimes celebrating her love for poetry: “it’s my first language.”

The first night ended with our Open Screen event, hosted by Matt Forrest Esenwine, who usually hosts the open mic at our in-person conferences. Everyone got a chance to share their work, and the readings were delightful.

Saturday opened with a quick welcome from my co-director Casey Robinson and a moment with two of our Equity & Inclusion Committee members, Valerie Bolling and Lisa Stringfellow, who talked about the Committee’s work in New England and about open opportunities for participation. Then it was time to start our workshops which, thanks to our fantastic volunteers and impeccable management by Christy Yaros, ran pretty smoothly from start to finish. There were twenty-one workshops in total, held over four hours, too many to mention individually. Luckily, we decided to record all workshops, so attendees (and busy conference staff!) will be able to watch them later at leisure. I’m so glad we opted to do this, as I personally have many, MANY workshops I want to watch.

Throughout most of Saturday we kept our social Zoom open, and it was lovely to see so many attendees, faculty, and team drop in for a chat. Between 2:00-3:30 pm we held scheduled socials by theme, and these were well attended.

Saturday afternoon brought the Crystal Kite awards! The SCBWI, besides its annual Golden Kite awards, organizes a regional peer-voted version. Due to the timing, which never quite lines up with our spring conference, New England presents its Kite award a year later. Of course, our 2020 conference got cancelled, so we had two awards to honor. It was an intensely emotional moment, watching acceptance speeches from the 2019 winner, Brian Lies, for The Rough Patch, and the 2020 winner, Padma Venkatraman, for The Bridge Home.

Awards presented and accepted, it was time for our first Keynote Speaker, author and illustrator Mike Curato. Mike’s speech was a nice mix of funny and serious and had us alternating between laughter and tears. At one point, when talking about remembering to find joy in your work, Mike said: “I was so busy telling other people’s stories, I wasn’t making time for my own.” He was, of course, referring to the moment he began working on what was to become his best-selling Little Elliot series.

We reopened the social Zoom after the keynote, so attendees could chat a bit to Mike and to each other and then, after a joyful but screen-heavy day, we all left to rest our eyes and brains and get ready for the last day of the conference.

Hanging out in the Social Zoom

Sunday morning brought a new programming item to the New England conference: the ask-a-mentor sessions. Ten faculty members offered their time for a moderated Q&A session, answering questions on topics ranging from writing and illustrating to the business of book publishing and the agent process. I hope this was useful to everyone; I certainly found the sessions I attended to be insightful and interesting!

Following the ask-a-mentor sessions, our last Keynote Speaker was Padma Venkatraman. Padma is, like Mike Curato, a long-time SCBWI member. She’s also an active local member, and everyone who attends New England events — both virtual and pre-COVID — knows her cheerful smile and uplifting presence. Padma’s passionate keynote talk was the perfect ending to our virtual voyage, as she urged us to pour our hearts and selves into our creative work. “We are creators because we create. Don’t get too focused on publication; focus on creating.”

Thank you to everyone who made #NESCBWI21 possible: our faculty, our volunteers, and our New England Regional Team. Thank you also to all the members and non-members who attended the virtual events and left lovely messages for us in the Zoom chat boxes and online. We do this for you, because we are all part of one big kid lit community. Because we love writing, illustrating, creating. Because you make it worthwhile. See you online, and who knows, maybe even in person in 2022!

Virtual conference kit

Paring Back

Reminder to self…

It’s been a strange and busy few weeks since my last blog post. First, my laptop was out of commission for a solid fortnight, after an OS update went very wrong. Then, there was all the fuss in setting things back up the way I like them, which included running a search-and-rescue for lost files, photos, and emails. (Yes, I had backups of most things. But there’s still time spent finding and replacing everything.)

Personal life has also been busy. Anxiety about COVID vaccine appointments, trying to make college decisions with my son, and ramping up driving practice, as my daughter takes her test this week. Lots of distractions and minor worries, alongside the normal, usual, everyday cares and concerns.

Surprisingly, to me at least, I’ve managed to keep up my writing routine through all of this. When my laptop froze, I was luckily in a place where I needed a break from revising my sci fi novel to think a few plotlines over. I spent time letting my mind wander and writing poetry — a nice breather after many months of solid prose. And then, as soon as things were up and running again, I was back into my manuscript.

Of course, some things have to give. There are only so many of those darn pesky balls a person can juggle at once. I haven’t touched my blog in forever, and I took a semi-hiatus (for a while) from social media. I didn’t read much, either. But I did spend a lot of time simply breathing and existing; sometimes, that’s all we have mental space for, and that’s okay.

Paring back when life ramps up is fine. It’s necessary. And there’s no formula to it: sometimes the writing gets paused, sometimes it’s other activities. AND THAT’S OKAY. And that’s all I want to say, really. It’s okay.

Boskone 58 Round-up

Agent secrets panel

My first Boskone — in fact, my first ever SF/F Con — was in 2015. I’ve been back every year, faithfully checking into the Waterfront Westin in Boston each February for another weekend of panels, readings, and excellent conversation with new and old friends.

The 2020 Boskone took place just before the world locked down due to COVID-19. The 2021 edition wasn’t quite as lucky, but the New England Science Fiction Association, who organize the convention, rallied round and faced the challenge beautifully to produce a well-planned three-day virtual event.

With pared down and yet still extensive programming, there were plenty of interesting things taking place over the weekend, with the added bonus of recorded panels so attendees could catch up later. There was also a dedicated social Zoom open all day to give us a little of that feeling of chatting to people in hallways, in the con suite, and in the lobby lounge area. Was it the same as in-person? Of course not, but it was a good solution for a hard situation, and the virtual con had the advantage of broadening event access for those who might not otherwise be able to attend.

Some of my personal highlights from the weekend:

  • The Friday night reading by Paul Tremblay and Joe Hill was fabulous, and it was great getting to hear them chat about horror and writing.
  • The Agents: Revealing the secrets panel with Mur Lafferty, Michael Stearns, Joshua Bilmes, and Sara Megibow had good advice, such as: when vetting potential agents, remember there are bad agents, but there are also good agents who might be bad for you.
  • Supernatural Sleuthing with Dana Cameron, Leigh Perry, Nancy Holder, Bracken MacLeod, and David McDonald was a blast and had some of my favorite Boskone regulars on it. Advice included: a mystery needs to be solved. A mysterious novel just needs to create atmosphere. It’s all about audience expectations and author promise
  • The Guest of Honor interview, where Joe Abercrombie told Joe Hill that, “I like characters that are neither heroes not villains, but something in between”.
  • I loved the panel on The Representation of LGBTQ+ in Popular Culture, with Gillian Daniels, John Chu, Julia Rios, Jennifer Williams, and Sara Megibow — they could have done with double the time! One point made over and over was that ‘good representation’ shouldn’t mean just positive — characters should be allowed to be messy, nuanced, etc. In other words, realistic vs ‘good’.
  • GoH Joe Abercrombie joined Rebecca Roanhorse, Marie Brennan, Aleron Kong, and Bob Kuhn to talk about The Gritty Underbelly of Fantasy. A lot of the discussion centered on ‘grimdark’ being a reaction to the good/bad simplicity of classic fantasy.
  • A discussion on Post-Pandemic SFF Conventions, with Brenda Noiseux, Gerald L. Coleman, Steven Silver, Priscilla Olson, and Marcin Klack brought up a lot of interesting points, such as the current situation being the jumping-off point for future hybrid events which include virtual aspects so as to be accessible and inclusive for those who would not normally be able to attend due to financial, physical, and geographical constraints, among others.

Some thoughts:

  • Virtual con burn-out is just as much a thing as in-person event exhaustion. It’s tiring staring at a screen, and it’s tough to schedule watching time around things going on at home. Recordings helped with this, but screen fatigue definitely puts limitations on watching.
  • Despite this, I got a lot out of the panels I watched, and with the recorded events there was the bonus of being able to pause to take notes.
  • The chat feature during panels was for the most part lively and fun, and no unpleasant incidents occurred during the events I watched.
  • One nice aspect of having webinars routed through Grenadine was that it allowed us to see who was ‘in the room’ before the webinars started. It was nice being able to spot people I knew!
  • I wish I’d planned times to meet up with friends in the social rooms! I did drop in and look around, but it was the equivalent of randomly walking through the con suite to see if anyone I knew was there…
  • This was a huge undertaking and seemed overall to run very smoothly. Well done NESFA for another successful Boskone!

Left: Supernatural Sleuthing panel; Right: Joe Abercrombie and Joe Hill at GoH interview

Recurring Themes in Writing

Your writing may vary wildly in style and scope. You may find yourself jumping genres or target audience, veering between contemporary and sci fi, or middle grade and adult. But if you take a moment to stop and have a good look at your writing projects—all of them, published or unpublished, polished or abandoned—you’ll most likely find a common thread. A theme (or two, or three), winding through all of those different projects and connecting them back to you, heart and soul.

About a month ago, I tweeted the following:

It was a jokey post, obviously, but there was a grain of truth in there, nevertheless. Who am I? Pretty much everything I’ve ever written contains something about identity and our place in the world. It could be literal, like in my YA novel Heart Blade, where my main protagonist has no memory of her previous life and is trying to find out where she fits into her new one. It could be a more subtle approach, such as in my short story The Sugar Cane Sea (Not All Monsters anthology, Strangehouse Books), where the main character is on the run from her abusive and demonic husband, and won’t be able to make a life of her own until she’s free.

Identity and belonging have always been recurring questions in my own life, ones that bubble up every few years but are always there, waiting under the surface. In my case, this was due to being a child of two cultures, born in one country and then, at the age of eight, moving to a different one, vastly different to the first. Of course, years later I complicated matters by moving to the USA and having a whole new set of identifiers thrown at me…

And so, even without meaning to, I find those questions echoed in my writing.

When I mention recurring themes, I’m not talking about that elusive thing called ‘author voice’. That’s something separate, which has to do with writing style more than anything. But themes in writing and author voice are, at the same time, entangled to a certain extent. Just as you can usually recognize your favorite author’s way with words (even when they cross the genre streams or write for a different market), you can probably pick out certain themes you’ve learned to associate with that author, and which emerge time and time again in their books. And often there’s a sweet spot where the author’s voice and their themes meet to create a unique brand that’s all their own.

No one has to have recurring themes in writing. But I don’t think most of us plan these things. They just happen, as our words on the page draw upon the subtleties of our innermost thoughts. Chances are, you have certain themes that crop up over and over in your own work, too. So take a moment to think back on some of your writing. Dig beneath plot and message to get at the bones of the work—the underlying themes that color the story. And if you find you have a few (or many) in common, weaving their way through your different projects? It won’t change your work, or writing style. But it just may help you come a little closer to understanding who you are—not as a writer, but as a person.

X marks the sweet spot between theme and voice

Goal Setting for Writers

We’re a couple of weeks into 2021, and by now we should all be ready to take a closer look at those enthusiastic New Year’s Eve declarations and put some thought into realistic goal planning for the year.

First of all, let me outline the difference between dreams and goals, because sometimes I think the distinction gets a little blurry. Goals are things we can control and influence, like finishing a draft of a novel, or writing a picture book manuscript every month of the year (as proposed by the 12×12 Challenge). Dreams, on the other hand, are things we wish would happen but are ultimately outside of our control. This includes ‘getting a publishing deal’ or ‘making the NYT bestseller list’. You can direct your goals towards your dreams, for example, committing to learning how to write the best agent query letter you can. But actually landing that agent? That’s a dream, not a goal.

In the Writing Excuses podcast (episode 15.05), author Victoria Schwab proposes an exercise she calls the 1-5-10: what do you want to achieve in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years? Where do you want to be? I really liked this exercise, as it helped me think about immediate goals, as well as about the changes I’d like to make in the near-future and the challenges I’d like to set for myself. On the other hand, the 10-year goal is about shaping careers, and for those who plan to be a career author (as opposed to writing that one book that haunts you and calling it a day), it’s good to take a moment to imagine where you’d like to be several years down the line.

Although I found the 1-5-10 exercise useful in terms of long-term planning, I came up with another way of organizing my personal goals that speaks more to the immediate year ahead. My oldest child is a high school senior, and in the middle of his college application process. This has been a steep learning curve for us, as non-Americans trying to navigate the US college system. One helpful exercise was dividing his applications into what we’ve heard called ‘Safety, Match, and Reach’ schools. I decided to apply that notion that to my personal writing goals.

Goals can range from tiny bite-sized amuse-bouche achievements (write 100 words a week) to an entire multi-course banquet (finish the novel you’ve been working on for 10 years!). We all need goals we know we can accomplish, because setting ourselves up to fail is a recipe for disaster (to continue the food analogies). But sometimes, we need a push, too. So, to use the Safety/Match/Reach analogy, try to come up with:

  • Safety Goals: A few achievements you can complete without having to try too hard. These will help you feel a sense of accomplishment on the hard days/weeks — and yes, we all have them! This might be something like an easy minimum word count target, a daily journal entry, or writing a small flash fiction piece every month. Having a safety goal to tick off can help when nothing else seems to be going right.
  • Match Goals: Achievements that follow your ‘usual’ pattern of production. This sort of goal keeps things moving by, for example, encouraging you to write your customary weekly average of words, or to set aside your usual amount of writing hours each month.
  • Reach Goals: Push yourself! Set one or two difficult targets — not completely impossible, but things that are definitely a challenge. If you make it, awesome! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it: these goals were always going to be a stretch.

At the end of the year, take some time to reflect on how you did, and don’t forget to count those Safety Goals, too! Being able to look back and see positive achievements, no matter how seemingly small, can make all the difference between keeping going or giving it all up. 

Here’s to a wonderful 2021 — I wish you all the best with your goals, and with your dreams too!

Starting Fresh

New year, new dreams, same old Coronavirus. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere just yet, and despite the start of vaccinations here in the USA, there’s a long road to travel before we can begin to meet up in person again. But I can’t help but feel hopeful that there is light ahead, and make plans for an amazing 2021!

Before 2020 is completely over, however, here’s a quick look at what went on in my life…

Writer things

  • Feeling the need to step away from YA for a bit led to writing my first ever adult fantasy novel. I had a blast with it! It’s now at the final revision stage, and feedback has been extremely positive.
  • I had one short story — The Sugar Cane Sea — published in the Not All Monsters anthology (Strangehouse/Rooster Republic Press), a collection of stories by women of horror. The anthology came out in limited run illustrated hardback and paperback versions in April, and in October in regular paperback and e-book versions. It’s already made the Stoker reading list!
  • Another short story has been submitted, accepted, and edited for an upcoming collaborative anthology of women fantasy authors: Femmes Fae-Tales. My story, Taste of Honey, is set here in Connecticut and is about a woman who becomes addicted to nature’s magic.
  • I took part in a roundtable interview organized by Not All Monsters editor Sara Tantlinger —see link on my press page.
  • I managed one Con as panelist and with a reading (Boskone in Boston) before the world shut down.
  • I recorded a video for the Shrewsbury Library in the UK with a short reading from Taste of Honey (see link at bottom of page).
  • I attended a number of online book and writing events and writer meet ups.
  • With all in-person events cancelled, this included our New England SCBWI conference, which we will be doing an online version of in 2021. With everything being moved forward, I’m now co-director of the 2021 and 2022 regional conferences.

Fun stuffs

  • Favorite books this year include Leigh Bardugo’s dark and moody Ninth House and the first two books in Brandon Sanderson’s riveting YA sci fi trilogy, Skyward and Starsight. I thoroughly enjoyed Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, a murder mystery set in Viking times. I’ve also been working through the Rivers of London books by Ben Aaronovitch, and am now up to date with the most recent installment in this excellent urban fantasy series.
  • A couple of movies I loved were Knives Out and Birds of Prey, both of which I missed in movie theaters but caught up with at home. It was a good year for classic musicals, too — we managed to see Jesus Christ Superstar live in Hartford a few weeks before lockdown started, and then Phantom of the Opera (hello, endless earworm loop!) during the Shows Must Go On COVID fundraiser, among others.
  • TV shows! This, of course, was the year of The Mandalorian. But there were plenty of other shows to keep us busy. Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy was overall very good, and I’m slowly making my way through three DC shows: Doom Patrol, Young Justice, and Titans, now that they’re all available on HBO. Speaking of DC, Stargirl was a fun CW release, with a great family dynamic. What We Do in the Shadows was a big hit in our house, and all four of us loved it. Britannia is absolutely bonkers, but my husband and I enjoyed both seasons and are looking forward to the next one. Queer Eye and Nadiya’s Time to Eat were probably my top reality TV feel-good options.

Personal bits and pieces

  • Lockdown meant all four of us (five with the dog!) sharing space all day for most of the year — the kids did return to school for a couple of months, but have been back in full remote learning since then. It took a bit of adjusting, but on the whole things went pretty smoothly, and we are all now pros at Getting Things Done without bothering each other too much.
  • As we were all adapting our workspaces, I took advantage of the flurry of reorganization to move my writing hutch to a brighter (and quieter) spot by my indoor jungle, and have really enjoyed working there. Very inspiring!
  • My father visited in March, and had the misfortune to be here when all borders closed down. It took a lot of last-minute juggling to get him on an early flight back to Brazil, but he made it! Even though his trip got cut short, we still managed a great week together.
  • It’s been a quiet year, for obvious reasons, but we went away for a week in July, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, for a COVID-appropriate holiday that included lots of fresh air and hikes.
  • My youngest how has her learner’s permit, and my oldest is waiting to hear back from university applications. Having big kids is terrifying!

Coming in 2021

  • I have no Con participation scheduled for 2021, though as co-director, I’ll be putting in an online appearance at the NESCBWI regional spring conference. I miss in-person events! Hopefully, we’ll get back to seeing each other offline at some point…
  • The Femmes Fae-Tales anthology should be out by May, containing my short story Taste of Honey as well as work by a fabulous group of fantastic writers.
  • Writing goals for 2020! I’m hoping to be ready to submit my fantasy novel by the end of January. After that, while I wait for (fingers crossed!) replies, I’m going to do a rewrite of my SF YA novel. I do have several other projects lined up, like a couple of short stories that exist in first draft form and need reworking — one of these is a horror story set in the mangrove swamps of southeastern Brazil that I think will work better as magical realism… But ‘Void’ and ‘Beastie’ are my initial priorities. (Yes, I nickname all my writing projects!)

WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2021!

Click here for Shrewsbury Library video on the library Facebook page!

Revision: making your story shine

Revising, with bonus dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 2

Click link for Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Now you’ve had a while to consider your world in general, it’s time to put some thought into your main character(s). What feel do you want people to get when they meet them on the page? Do you want readers to immediately emphasize with them, or will your characters have to work for appreciation?

Sam, for instance, is usually a ‘nice guy’ name. Think Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Sam Winchester from Supernatural (discounting the whole ‘soulless Sam’ phase…). Or bar owner and shapeshifter Sam Merlotte from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. If you name a character Sam, readers are signaled that this is probably NOT a villain.

Names have nuances, shades. This doesn’t mean they belong exclusively to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, but names can be a good indication of personality. Think Maggie Stiefvater’s Ronan Lynch, from her Raven Cycle books. There’s a sharp name if I ever saw one, and it suits the shaved-headed street-racing Ronan perfectly. Another sharp name, also with an ‘R’ coincidentally, belongs to private investigator Rojan Dizon, the world-weary main character in the fantasy trilogy by Francis Knight that starts with Fade to Black.

Names can play off each other, too. In Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity YA duology, the narrative is shared by two main characters: Kate Harker of the knife’s edge smile and August Flynn, the heart-of-gold monster with the soft gray eyes. Hard vs gentle in the names, and hard vs gentle in their personalities, too. A perfect combination.

If you’re writing a story set in the real world (whether sci fi, urban/contemporary fantasy, or other subgenres), you have some serious decision-making to do with regards to classic vs trendy names. In Part 1 of this post, I already mentioned Scalzi’s option to use long-lasting names like John and Susan. In my Blade Hunt Chronicles books, I have a vampire — Alex — who’s almost 1000 years old. I wanted a name that could have plausibly been in use and yet still felt current, and I figured that Alexander was a timeless choice. The problem with trendy names is that they can date quickly, so if you want something a little different, think hard about which modern names feel as if they may have lasting power.

This brings us to the kid lit names vs adult names conundrum. If you’re writing for teens or preteens, you’re going to need names they can relate to — whether you’re dabbling in real-world sci fi/fantasy or far future/secondary worlds. Unless you’re setting a story in the 1980s, Tracy is probably not a good choice for your female lead (though it may be perfect for an older supporting character like a parent or mentor!). Rick Riordan is great at names that are fun enough to appeal to his middle grade and YA readership, while at the same time escaping the ‘trendiness trap’: think Perseus ‘Percy’ Jackson ( a nod to the Greek and Roman mythology that most of his work is based on) and others such as Annabeth, Leo, Jason (another nod to mythology), and Nico. 

Hot tip! Use your own kids or borrow one from a friend to test your names on. I bounce YA character name ideas off my teen daughter, and her feedback is priceless.

When it comes to stories that are not real-world based, there’s more leeway. But you still need to take youth appeal into consideration. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ main character Katniss is named after a plant. However, variations of names with ‘Kat’ in them are common enough (and another of those timeless classics) for the name to feel relatable. This is a great name, by the way: the hard K sound suits Katniss’ hard-as-nails personality, and the sibilance of the ending evokes an arrow let loose. So good!

How about where to source names? Baby naming sites are, of course, a fabulous tool. There are so many of these sites nowadays that you can add search words to narrow things down. For instance, ‘Celtic baby names’ might help with your sword-wielding fantasy heroine; ‘unusual baby names’ may lend a sci fi vibe to your blaster-toting wise-cracking space mercenary. There are sites that let you narrow your search down by number of syllables, and you can always look up names with a particular letter if you know the vibe you’re going for.

There are specialist sites, too; I once spent a pleasant afternoon looking up names used in Britain around 1000 CE for my coven of ancient witches. And you can also search surnames; there are several sites that will help you find the most common ones to fit your character’s background, or surnames that have been around for centuries — handy if your thing is urban fantasy and your detective just happens to be the heir of a long line of demon slayers. But don’t discount looking closer to home… My kids’ school directories and yearbooks are a great resource for first and last names. The same goes for town Facebook groups or the local newspaper. 

Hot tip! Keep an ongoing list of interesting names you come across, even if they have nothing to do with the story you’re writing; someday you’ll thank past you. I keep a list on my notes app and update as I use up names or find new ones, and I’m very thankful for past me!

And, finally, we can’t talk character naming without talking diversity. We live in a beautifully diverse world, and hopefully your work will reflect that, even if you write second world fantasy or far-flung sci fi. If you’re writing in a contemporary setting, as I tend to do, then naming is where it all starts. Your work has an entire cast of major and minor characters, so please put some thought into what identities you choose for them.