Factory Girl: Interview with Stephen Palmer

Stephen Palmer is the author of fifteen novels, dabbling in a variety of genres from science fiction to slipstream, including steampunk, alternate history, and fantasy. He tells tales of the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-might-yet-be. His gripping and thought-provoking prose is both wildly creative and chillingly conceivable.

In the Factory Girl trilogy, Stephen Palmer brings us a meticulously constructed clockpunk alt-Edwardian world, full of bustling automata and a myriad of other tiny details. The story of Kora and Roka, different personalities of the same young woman, the ‘girl with two souls’, sweeps us along from England to Africa and back again in an intricate plot that centers on themes of identity and society.

The Girl With Two Souls, The Girl With One Friend, and The Girl With No Soul will be released today and throughout December 2019 in brand-new editions from Infinity Plus Press.

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Find out more on Stephen’s website.

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The new cover for the re-released edition of The Girl With Two Souls

Hi Stephen, thanks for joining me on the blog. Congratulations on the release of the new editions of the Factory Girl trilogy! Could you tell me a little about the cover changes?

The trilogy got some good reviews, which I and Keith Brooke – my outstanding editor, and the man behind Infinity Plus Books – were pleased with. But afterwards I felt it could maybe do more. Last year I met Tom and Nimue Brown at the Asylum Steampunk weekend, and on the Saturday I got to see more of Tom’s artwork. Tom has a unique style of creating images, which I immediately fell for. Nimue hand colours the art for their graphic novels – they are a fantastically talented pair. With both of them being fans of the trilogy (Nimue reviewed it for her Druidlife blog), it occurred to me that the trilogy could benefit from being re-jacketed. I floated the idea to Keith, and he agreed. In due course the arrangement was made with Tom and Nimue. I saw them in Stroud a few months ago, and we had an enjoyable chat in a pub. Lovely couple.

After a while I sent Tom a few descriptions and other suggestions, and he came up with the images this year, all three of which we loved.  Then it was a matter of firing up Photoshop to create the cover designs.

Identity is a key theme in the Factory Girl trilogy, as indeed with many of your other works, such as the excellent Beautiful Intelligence. What is it about this theme that fascinates you?

That’s a good question, a wise question. I’m going to have to think a bit about it. [Thinks for a few days…] Well, perhaps it’s because the main direction of my thinking life is the relationship between human beings and the real world, a relationship which, in my own life, has been conveyed by understanding. Understanding, for me, is the most fundamental aspect of individual and social life. It’s what motivates the majority of my life anyway. I think Kora’s need to understand the circumstances of her life is based in part on my own drive for meaning.

Human beings have two main ways to create meaning, including the meaning of other people, which is identity. We can create it ourselves from what we are told, or we can find it out from first principles. I would characterise the former as narcissistic and the latter as realistic. The former says: this is what I believe regardless of the real world. The latter says: I’ll test the real world, see what it tells me, then make a decision based on that. Most people form their identity from a blend of the two. They’ll be born and brought up in a particular culture, which they’ll adopt as the norm. But a lot of people will move on from that. I think this is why women in general are a better representation of humanity than men. Men take so much on faith. Women tend to communicate more, and better, which allows them to see themselves from other perspectives; and that’s a key to personal growth, I think, including for identity.

In Beautiful Intelligence this aspect of social life is more generally presented. Leonora is going for the individual, faith-based option via her AI, while Manfred decides to see what the BIs will tell him. His first scene, the cutting of the bonds between the nine BIs, is his answer to his thought process. Leonora by contrast has no idea what Zeug will do because she has imposed her own ideas onto it.

A lot of my work is about this split in human meaning and its relationship with identity. Even in my debut, Memory Seed, the priestesses of the Goddess realise at the end of the novel that their lives have been lived regardless of what the world was telling them. The story ‘First Temple’ in my recent collection Tales From The Spired Inn tells the same story in civic life. We cannot be saved. We have to save ourselves.

Your main protagonist is actually two characters in one: Kora and her ‘other soul’, Roka. What inspired her creation? Did you find you had to do a lot of research into subjects such as dissociative identity disorder to pull off this ambitious character?

About a year before I put the trilogy together I had an idea for a book title – The Girl With Two Souls. I don’t know why this title popped into my mind, unless it somehow represented ideas which interest me, and which are the philosophical theme of the trilogy: do human beings or other creatures and creations have a soul or spirit? Anyway, I wrote it down for future reference, as it seemed a particularly intriguing title for a novel. The year after, that title and the whole thematic template for the trilogy merged and came out in a single two hour splurge. I knew Kora was the girl with two souls, I knew she had one black African parent and one white British parent, and I knew she would alternate between Kora and some other character. Now, the strange thing is, this alternation of identity has been recorded in reality; there are some individuals with DID who alternate regularly, day by day. I was so astonished to read this that I remembered it much later, when it became the central aspect of Kora’s mental condition.

I did do a little research, but not much – just enough to make the grounding plausible. There are aspects of Kora which are my own invention, while other aspects are psychologically grounded. Also, I wanted to emphasise that the Edwardian society surrounding Kora would look at her from a Christian perspective, i.e. that she did have two souls within. There was very little understanding of mental conditions in those days – a theme of my WW1 novel Tommy Catkins. Freud, for instance, had in 1910 only been published for a couple of decades. So Kora is psychologically grounded, but also a person of my imagination.

I think this might be a good point to mention an aspect of the trilogy which some readers found perplexing, and that is the “second novel” which intertwines with the main one. This is Amy’s Garden by Reverend Carolus Dodgson. I can tell you that right from that opening splurge of ideas I knew Amy’s Garden had to be a central element of the trilogy. It is of course an alternate version of Alice In Wonderland – I’ve always loved that book, like millions of others. So I re-wrote it, using Dodgson’s love of logic in my own particular way, asking and answering questions about consciousness and the human condition. Amy’s Garden is a book Kora cannot live without. As she declares much later, it is her heart. I did everything I could to encapsulate in the smallest possible amount of prose, and as vividly as possible, ten central aspects of consciousness and the human condition: that is what Amy’s Garden is, over twelve brief chapters. Kora, lacking a steady identity, grasps at a deep level that the book speaks to her, which is why she carries it in her pocket and is never parted from it. And in Amy’s Garden itself I played with a kind of conceptual echo, since Amy herself carries a book in her pocket…

By the way, in Alice In Wonderland, Alice’s sister is not named, though some believe she is called Lorna. I called her Amy, and had Alice herself appear briefly part of the way through Amy’s Garden, alongside her parents. Now, in real life back in 2013, I knew two sisters called Amy and Alice, which is where Amy’s name came from. They were students at the college where I worked! I never told them, of course…

In your blog post ‘The Unemployment Problem’ you talk about your automata. Did you go through different models for employment in your world before settling on that one, or was it clear from the start which direction you wanted to go in?

The second line in my notebook from that two hour splurge says: touchstone, steampunk. I knew right away that I wanted to write a steampunk or steampunk-influenced work. So automata were the direction to go in. I think I was also influenced by a television documentary I watched presented by Professor Simon Schaffer called ‘Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.’ This was broadcast in autumn 2013, and I remember being fascinated by it, as at the time I knew nothing about how complex automata were in historical times. I’ve watched it a couple of times since, it really is an amazing documentary.

I particularly liked the idea of automata being the slaves underpinning the British Empire, as so much of the wealth and power of that real era came from exploitation: of the working class, of people in colonial nations like India, and, in previous centuries, of actual slaves, like those taken from West African countries. Linking these automata slaves with Kora’s father and his Factory seemed the perfect connection to me, and made for some great plot twists!

The Clockwork Garden is amazing! How did the idea for this come about? And additionally, what is your personal favorite Factory Girl location?

How strange that you should mention the Clockwork Garden in that way! It so happens I can remember exactly how it came about – no coincidence, maybe. I was at the day job, out for a lunchtime stroll – this would be autumn 2013 – and was walking back to the college through a place in my home town of Shrewsbury called the Quarry, which is basically an old sandstone quarry now converted into a beautiful green park adjacent to the River Severn. By this time I was putting together all the details for the novel, prior to writing the first volume December 2013 – January 2014. As I looked out at the trees and bushes I had a sudden mental image of them all made in metal. From that single thought came the whole idea of the Clockwork Garden. I remember being pretty excited about this idea – I wrote it down in my notebook as soon as I got back, then, later, made it more sophisticated to include clues about the Factory and other details. I love it when inspiration strikes in this way. As I’ve written on my blog and at SFF Chronicles, I think authors should always listen to their subconscious. It’s where a lot of the important work happens.

I think my favourite location is probably Dr Spellman’s house in Sheffield. It was very important to me because it was the first safe location for Kora after she was sprung out of Bedlam Mental Hospital. My version of Bedlam was inspired by an actual mental hospital, you see, and Dr Spellman’s house is topographically almost identical to a house I know. Because in those first two chapters you don’t know for sure that Dr Spellman is a good man, I intuitively hit upon the idea of using a house I have fond memories of. The reader of course wouldn’t be aware of any of this, but it was important to me; it affected the tone of my writing. I wanted to write from a position of knowing deep down that Kora was safe, not in peril as she was inside Bedlam. This all sounds a bit odd, I know, but when I created the template for the trilogy it all came out of my subconscious in one go, which told me that the whole thing was ready formed in there and just waiting for the right moment to emerge. So it felt right that Dr Spellman’s house should link to my own memories in some way, giving it extra depth and an aura of safety. From that house, Kora is able to explore. It gives her a solid foundation. There’s a scene at the beginning where Dr Spellman is waiting for Roka, and he is sitting half asleep at the top of a staircase; that’s directly out of my own visual memories of this house.

You also have a new novel on the way, set in the Factory Girl world. Could you tell us a bit about The Conscientious Objector?

After writing the third volume of the trilogy I had a year off, as I’d done a lot of work, felt exhausted, and needed a rest. But, as I rested, I realised Erasmus Darwin had a tale yet to tell, so in December 2015 I began The Conscientious Objector, which takes place in 1914 – 1915 and tells of Erasmus’ reaction to the outbreak of what even then was called the Great War (i.e. World War 1). Erasmus of course loathes physical combat, as evinced by his reaction to being given a pistol by his Uncle Frank when Frank’s house is under siege in The Girl With One Friend. I realised that in WW1 he would by inclination be a pacifist, and perhaps even a conscientious objector, though that would be a very dangerous position for him to take. Conchies, as they were known, could be shot by firing squad. Many were. (My subsequent WW1 novel Tommy Catkins went deeper into this soldiers’ dilemma.)

I wanted Erasmus to have a female companion, so the other main character is Claudia Cooper, a strange woman of very mysterious origin. As I thought about these two characters and their relationship I decided to use the notion of early childhood memory, focusing on that point when we have our first recallable memories – usually around the age of three or four – but for Claudia blurring them into something indistinguishable from fantasy. As a consequence, much of the novel is Claudia and Erasmus delving deep into her origin via a most extraordinary special mission given to them by the British generals on the Western Front. The novel ends with a revelation which, of course, I couldn’t possibly divulge here, but which presents both Claudia and Erasmus with a life-threatening situation the like of which neither has ever encountered.

This novel, like the trilogy, also has a second book intertwined with it, which I wrote shortly after completing Amy’s Garden. It is Amy’s Adventures In Narkissos, a much darker work, as is suggested by the scene in The Girl With Two Souls where Kora, via the Amy doll, asks a question about it, to her immediate shame. This second Reverend Carolus Dodgson book details more of Amy’s world, asking questions of its reader about the role of selfishness (or more accurately narcissism) in their lives.

Do you have plans for more work in this setting?

No. It’s done and dusted. I’m terribly restless creatively, and I have two other alternate history fantasy/steampunk works finished or in preparation. But I do feel great warmth towards the Factory Girl trilogy, and I feel very lucky that Keith published it. He’s been a tremendous support to me. Many thanks for asking these great questions Juliana, I had fun answering them!

And thank you, Stephen, for sharing your insights on your work!

Find Stephen’s work on Amazon (see links above); other buying options including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords available on the Infinity Plus website.

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The Quarry in Shrewsbury, inspiration for Palmer’s Clockwork Garden

Critiques, Betas, And Editors, Oh My! A Beginner’s Guide…

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The long path to publication is easier with a little help!

All writers at any stage — from beginner wordsmith to seasoned pro — can benefit from a support network to help take their work to a whole other level. If you are relatively new to the writing game, you may have heard some or all of these terms and wondered what they are. I know I did, once upon a time! So here’s a breakdown of what, exactly, a critique partner, beta, or editor does, and how you can acquire your very own…

Critique Groups/Partners

This should be the very first step you take: find other writers who are willing to critique a sample of your work (say, a chapter), usually in return for you taking a look at their own work. Learning to handle critiques is crucial, not only because it can help you spot weaknesses in your writing that you may not be aware of, but also because eventually, if you are published traditionally, you will most likely work with an editor and will need to learn to accept feedback as part of the process in creating an amazing book.

Critiquing comes in different shapes and sizes. There are forums where you can post a sample for feedback, with the understanding that whoever is willing will reply, and that you will critique other samples in turn. For writers of sci fi and fantasy, the SFFChronicles.com is a good place to start, with an active critiques board. Other forums with critique sections include Absolute Write and the SCBWI Blueboard (the last is specifically for kid lit). If you find someone you work well with, you might pair up and work out some form of private exchange, meeting either in person or emailing work back and forth. A trusted critique partner, with a rapport built up over time, is worth gold.

Many people are happy to stick with just the one or two critique partners, working on a one-to-one basis. However, I find I like having a slightly larger pool of peers giving me feedback — a critique group (or writing group). This is exactly what it sounds like; a group of writers who get together in person or virtually to give each other feedback on their work. I belong to two. My local group, the Pandas, connected back in 2014 and focuses on YA and Middle Grade fiction. My online group, the Tri-Angels, has also been ‘meeting’ for a few years; we focus on Fantasy, and email submissions and critiques to each other.

How did I meet my critique partners? My local group met at a SCBWI writing conference. My online one met on the previously mentioned SFFChronicles forum. How can you meet your own? Connect to local, regional, and international writing organizations. Join forums. Go to writing events and meet ups. Put yourself out there, and be willing to do the work, since most groups/partnerships work on a reciprocity system.

Critique partners are an important first step in improving your work, and not just for beginner writers. Plenty of multi-published authors swear by their writing groups, who often serve as the very first pair of fresh eyes upon a new project.

Beta Readers

Yeah, it’s a weird term, I know. Wikipedia defines it as ‘an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work’. Beta reading is an offshoot of critiquing: usually a beta reader will look at a full draft, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, as opposed to the smaller bite-sized submissions a critique partner/group will look at. This means that a beta reader’s feedback will be less about the details, due to sheer size of work they have to read, and more about the whole. Does it flow well? Are there plot holes, or character arc issues? And other things like that.

Beta readers might be people from your critique group, though personally I think it helps to have someone unfamiliar with your work look at it too, if possible. Most of my betas are writing friends whose work I’ve also read in turn, or with whom I have an established relationship as peers. A beta reader is someone you can trust to give you that big picture feedback.

In addition, you might have specific betas for certain things. Author Jo Zebedee, for instance, has a beta reader who revises her military jargon and battle scenes in her space opera novels. I have a beta who checked all the sword fighting in my Blade Hunt books. If there’s something in your work you’re not entirely familiar with, it’s helpful to have an expert at hand.

Editors

Unlike critique partners and beta readers, who are usually peers and work on a reciprocity basis, editors are always professionals, and unless you have a good friend who is an editor and offers to help out for free, you can and should expect to pay for this sort of service. That said, there are different types of editor. The following are the two main ones, from a writer’s perspective.

Developmental editors are people who will do the sort of thing a beta reader does, but coming from a pro point of view. They can be an absolute blessing to help guide a tricky or stuck manuscript out of the mud and back on firm ground, pointing out the weak spots and guiding you through revising your novel. This sort of advice can be pricey, but might be a worthwhile investment if you’ve exhausted peer options, and can’t figure out how to deal with your manuscript. If you sign a publishing contract with a traditional press, they will usually pay for an editor to work with you and make your manuscript as shiny as possible. If you are self-publishing, you might consider this option as part of making sure your work is as professional as it can be before you publish. You can find lists of editors online, or ask friends for recommendations.

Copyeditors should be the absolute last step in the first-draft-to-book journey, and they focus mainly on spelling, grammar, consistency, continuity, and other details of an otherwise polished and completed work. If you plan to query agents or publishers, DO NOT pay to have your work copyedited. It’s not worth it, really. You will be asked to revise, most likely, and then the publisher will pay for this part of the process themselves. Even if you’ve already had it done. So, who should hire a copyeditor? Pretty much only writers planning on self-publishing. For indie authors, I honestly think that this is a must. You can skip the developmental editor if you have good critique partners or beta readers, but if you want to publish a professional piece of work, you should invest in a good copyeditor. Again, there are plenty of online recommendations, or hit up your friends for help. (For more on copyediting vs. developmental editing, have a look at my blog interview from 2015.)

I hope this not-so-brief post helps, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. Coming next: what critique or beta feedback actually looks like, and how to critique someone’s work in a positive and productive manner.

Breathing Space

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

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Why breathing space? When I started writing seriously, back in 2012 (seriously as in: outlining, sticking with my projects, and ACTUALLY FINISHING MY DRAFTS!), my manuscripts were a headlong rush of action scenes, with barely a pause between them. There was no time to deepen my characters, or their arcs. It was frantic, it was frenetic, it was… Yeah, it was just too much.

The first time I worked with a professional editor was when Heart Blade got picked up for publication. The wonderful Teresa Edgerton, who had the challenging task of coaching me through a full rewrite, taught me a lot about allowing my stories space to breathe. I picked that manuscript apart completely, and figured out (with Teresa’s help) how to put it back together with enough spare room for full emotional arcs, proper character development, and those all-important moments of stillness.

I’ve progressed in my writing skills (I hope!) since then and have learnt to find pleasure in slowing things down a little, and in those quiet spaces between all the action. But I still need to remind myself of the need for this at times, and that’s definitely something I look for when revising.

There’s a scene from Heart Blade that I love because it’s muted, hushed, and yet it adds weight to my story, grounding it. You can click here to read the full excerpt, but here’s part of it:

He was still by the doorway when she passed, and her arm brushed his lightly in the cramped space. He felt that tingle again like an electric jolt that ran all the way down to his toes. She flinched, and he was sure she’d felt it too. He put a hand out and caught hers. She stopped where she was, waiting. He was waiting, too, but he didn’t know what for. The doorway they stood in was a frame for a captured moment, a stolen image frozen in time.

Giving your words space to breathe can give your work that extra bit of depth, and allowing the reader time to process all that awesome action helps the words hit home harder. Music can’t be all chorus and bridges; you need the regular verses too, or else the rhythm is all off. Writing is the same. Take a step back, find the spots that need some quiet, and let your story take a long exhale.

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Summer 2019 Updates

Summer! (At least for all of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere.) Life for me lately has been a busy but happy balance between visiting family, hanging out with the kids, and writing. This is what I’ve been up to, and what’s ahead for August…

June brought a visit from my mother, who flew up from Brazil to spend almost three weeks with us. We had a wonderful time exploring some of Connecticut’s parks and gardens, finishing things up with a glorious weekend in NYC.

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In July, I dove into revisions. I’m working on something new and rather scary, at least for me. It’s my first non-YA novel, my first try at working completely in a fantasy world (and not urban fantasy or portal fantasy), and also my first attempt at first person POV in novel-length work. The first half of Shiver’s story is now off with my wonderful (and hugely patient) beta readers, and to say I’m anxious is probably the understatement of the year!

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August began with a visit from my mother-in-law, also from Brazil. We’ve been busy, and have lots more fun stuff planned; one of the nice things about having friends or family to stay is the excuse to get out and about.

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Now, this is where things get truly adventurous. On August 13th I’m off to Ireland! Worldcon 2019 is in Dublin, and I’m looking forward both to exploring the city and to my first ever Worldcon. I’ll be doing a reading as part of the Broad Universe event, so if you’re there, I’ll be in the Liffey Room 3 at the CCD on Friday August 16th, from 5-5.50pm.

From the Con program: “Broad Universe is an international organization for women and female-identifying authors of science fiction, fantasy and horror, working together to promote women’s works in the genres! Our signature event, the Rapid Fire Reading, gives each author a few minutes to read from their work. It’s like a living anthology of women writers.”

On August 15th, more excitement! That’s release day for our all-female collaborative sci fi anthology, DISTAFF. I’ll have bookmarks on me in Dublin, come hunt me down. But our actual launch party will have to wait until the following weekend…

After Worldcon is over, I’m off to Belfast for Titancon (Eurocon). Here, we’ll be officially launching our anthology. Yes, there will be a proper event, all fancy-like with cupcakes and chocolates, so if you’re at Titancon, stop by on Friday 23rd, from 7-9pm in the Lisburn room.

At Titancon, I’ll also be part of the Literature Night readings on Thursday 22nd, and I’m moderating a panel: Found In Translation, discussing the business, practicalities and pitfalls of translating SF&F, with Francesco Verso (Future Fiction), Radoslaw Kot, and Jean Bürlesk (Science Fiction & Fantasy Society Luxembourg). That’s on Thursday 22nd, from 5-6pm at the Waterfront room.

I fly home on the 28th, hopefully full of the good sort of exhaustion that comes with meeting friends and making new ones, watching panels, traipsing around new cities to take in the sights, and generally getting enough inspiration to last a good few months!

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The DISTAFF Anthology Playlist

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In just seventeen days, on August 15th, our collaborative anthology DISTAFF will be out there in the wide world for everyone to read. It’s been an amazing journey, from the very early ideas hatched on the SFFChronicles.com forum, to this point, less than a month from release day.

To celebrate, I asked the DISTAFF authors to think of a song that could work as a soundtrack for their stories. Here it is, the DISTAFF Anthology Playlist!

Jane O’Reilly opens the anthology with The Broken Man, a post-apocalyptic tale of caution and of cautious hope. Her suggestion is Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell.

Kerry Buchanan brings us Space Rocks, an irreverent mystery that blends mythology and space travel. Kerry picked Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone as a backdrop to her story.

Rosie Oliver is the cool mind behind The Ice Man, a frost-cold murder mystery set in a near-future Sweden. Her choice of soundtrack is KeiiNO’s Spirit in the Sky.

Juliana Spink Mills, well, that’s me! The song I picked for my story A Cold Night in H3-II, a chilling tale of a struggling space colony, is Demons by Imagine Dragons.

Damaris Browne is the author of The Colour of Silence, a poignant tale of sorrow and hope, where the people of Earth seek salvation among the stars. Her song of choice is Silence is Golden by the Tremeloes.

EJ Tett’s contribution is Holo-Sweet. They say that love will always find a way — though space romance isn’t always easy! EJ’s song suggestion for this fun tale is Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye.

Shellie Horst is the author of My Little Mecha, in which a growing security threat and a systems malfunction meet family miscommunication to form the perfect storm. Shellie’s musical pick is Dare to be Stupid by “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Susan Boulton brings us Ab Initio, a harrowing tale of survival — but at what cost? Susan’s soundtrack suggestion is Human by Rag’n’Bone Man.

Jo Zebedee finalizes our anthology line up with The Shadows Are Us And They Are The Shadows: when all hope seems lost, life surprises us. Jo’s song choice for her story is Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine.

If you want to listen to the full soundtrack, click here to find it on iTunes. (Disclaimer: not all songs may be available in your region. Spotify list to come; please check back.)

DISTAFF is up for preorder, don’t miss out! Find out more about DISTAFF and the authors at DISTAFFanthology.wordpress.com.

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The Importance Of Non-Writing

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.

NESCBWI 19 Conference Roundup

From my conference bag…

Two weeks ago, close to seven hundred writers and illustrators — attendees, faculty, and staff — gathered in Springfield MA for the yearly regional Spring Conference of the New England SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).

I missed last year’s conference, exchanging it for the Eastern PA SCBWI region’s Poconos Retreat instead (see posts here and here). I had a wonderful time in Pennsylvania, but I must admit it was nice to be back in Springfield this year! I only attended two of the three days, but going to the NESCBWI conference always feels like coming home. There are so many friendly faces — both old friends and new ones — that time zips by, and I was sad to see Saturday come to a close and end another year’s get together with my New England kid lit family.

Friday night’s ‘Fireside Chat’ with Patricia MacLachlan and Heidi Stemple

A few of my personal highlights:

  • Patricia MacLachlan’s ‘Fireside Chat’ with Heidi Stemple was a delight. I’m actually new to reading Patricia’s work — I picked up my first of her books earlier this year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Seeing Patricia speak helped understand a little of the writer behind the pages.
  • The branding workshop with my writing pal Jessica Southwick. Jess talked about treating our author and/or illustrator selves as brands when it comes to visual presence — website, business cards, social media etc. Her workshop included a practical feedback session where she looked at our material and gave us a handy list of pros and cons. I have so much website ‘homework’ to do now!
  • Lisa Yee’s revision intensive. Lisa is so much fun to be around, and her hands-on workshop was a really good glimpse of how revision techniques can be put into practice. She guided us through a series of short writing exercises that really helped understand how we can tighten and improve our work. Thanks Lisa!
  • Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s keynote talk was both inspiring and emotional, and had many of us in the audience wiping away a discreet tear or two. Lynda is amazing, and I’m looking forward to reading her brand new book, Shouting at the Rain.
  • The volunteer dinner! Volunteering at NESCBWI is a great tradition; volunteers help out with set up, registration, at workshops, in the book signing line, and in many other capacities. If you’re new to the conference, it’s a fun way to feel like you belong while you’re finding your feet. In exchange, the NESCBWI graciously invites all volunteers to a dinner on Saturday night — delicious tacos this time. It’s always a nice moment, held in a smaller and more intimate setting than the huge ballroom meals of Saturday and Sunday lunchtime.
  • People, people, people. Too many to list: some were friends from other events, some were local to me, some were online buddies I was finally meeting in person. And some were absolutely 100% new, and that’s just the way I like it: meeting amazing kid lit folks and expanding my circle of awesome. To all of you I connected with this year — thanks for making the conference one of my absolute favorite places to be!

Yesterday evening, a group of us who are local to the Hartford CT area met up to talk about all of our own highlights from Springfield and compare notes. I’m always happy to see that I’m not the only one who leaves the conference with a big smile and a fresh batch of inspiration. I hope the NESCBWI keeps up the good work for many more years to come. And for those who live in New England and write or illustrate for children and teens: see you next spring!

Post-conference catch-up at That Book Store in Wethersfield, CT

Resources For Writers

Our meeting place for April: the Beekley Community Library in New Hartford, CT

Last week, our local group of SCBWI members (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) got together for our monthly meet up with a very particular theme in mind: to share our favorite craft tools. Books about writing, websites, podcasts… There are so many resources available nowadays — both free and paid — that sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Hopefully, the list we compiled will help!

Disclaimer: I’m only familiar with a few of these resources. These are not personal recommendations, but a group effort that I’m sharing because it may be of interest to other writers.

Books:

Writing Children’s Books for Dummies – Lisa Rojani Buccieri

The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

Take off your Pants – Libbie Hawker (a short CliffsNotes-style book on outlining)

Second Sight – Cheryl B. Klein

Story Engineering – Larry Brooks

Story Genius – Lisa Cron

Rules for the Dance/ A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver (on writing poetry)

The Ode Less Travelled – Stephen Fry (on writing poetry)

The Practice of Poetry – Robin Behn and Chase Twichell

The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron (on creativity)

Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg (on creativity)

Also, one member recommends learning lessons directly from published books – if you want advice on characters, for instance, or chapter openings, pick up a pile of books and flip through them to see how the authors did it.

Podcasts: (many of these websites also have blog posts on writing)

Nina LaCour https://www.ninalacour.com/podcast

88 Cups of Tea https://88cupsoftea.com

Literaticast (by agent Jennifer Laughran) https://www.jenniferlaughran.com/literaticast

Writing Excuses https://writingexcuses.com

Helping Writers Become Authors https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/podcasts/

First Draft https://www.firstdraftpod.com/sarahenni

Secret Library https://www.secretlibrarypodcast.com

The Narrative Breakdown (site was down when I was writing this post but you can find direct links to episodes online)

Websites:

Debbie Ohi http://debbieohi.com (picture book resources)   

Josh Funk https://www.joshfunkbooks.com (picture book resources)   

Tara Lazar https://taralazar.com (picture book resources)   

Writer’s Digest https://www.writersdigest.com (articles on all sorts of subjects)

Jim Butcher https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com (posts on writing – start with the oldest post at the bottom)

One Stop For Writers https://onestopforwriters.com (paid and free resources)

Janet Reid’s Queryshark https://queryshark.blogspot.com (query letters)

Mary Robinette Kowal http://maryrobinettekowal.com (debut author info and reading out loud lessons)

Publisher’s Marketplace https://www.publishersmarketplace.com (a bit pricey but good up-to-date market info on publishing deals and agents)

Reedsyhttps://reedsy.com (self-publishing tools)

Book Baby https://www.bookbaby.com (self-publishing packaging)

The Book Designer https://www.thebookdesigner.com (self-publishing)

CAPA https://www.aboutcapa.com (CT Author’s and Publishers)

Additionally, one member recommends YouTube for tutorials on self-publishing.

Events:

Most of the group recommends attending writing events for networking and inspiration. There are events of all sizes and for all prices — find one that fits your personality and bank account. Large conventions and conferences are wonderful, but can be overwhelming. But there are smaller events, like retreats, or places such as the Highlight’s Foundation which offer space to just hide out from the world and write. Alternately, many organizations such as the SCBWI often hold webinars. Webinars can be a low-cost and low-key manner to get involved.



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…

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…