A Winding Thread: Books and Journeys

A Winding Thread is an occasional blog segment which looks at tales that connect by theme, setting, character, or vibes. (For the first installment, go to Green Magic.) This time, I’ve gathered a trio of stories that touch on journeys and books — after all, it’s July, and what could be better than traveling with a good book (or ten)?

My picks are: In Other Lands by Sara Rees Brennan, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, and the graphic novel Coming Back, by Jessi Zabarsky.

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan, published in 2017, is a standalone young adult fantasy novel that plays with the magic school trope, sending the young, bookish (and delightfully obnoxious) Elliot into a fantasy realm where scholars are underappreciated, fighting abilities and war are considered the leading traits in human society, and where all the other creatures (elves, dwarves, harpies, mermaids, etc.) that share the land are deemed lesser than their human counterparts.

Elliot, being Elliot, is excited at the chance to immerse himself in books and learn all he can about everything that is not warcraft, and less delighted by the extreme physicality of much of the Borderlands camp. He has the (mis)fortune to fall into a tangled friendship with fellow students Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle (an elven warrior) and Luke Sunborn (of the legendary Sunborn clan), the biggest complication being that Elliot — unloved and ignored at home and bullied at his old school — has no idea how to do friendship in the first place. It is largely a coming-of-age tale, as we follow Elliot in the four years of training camp and watch him grow in sociopolitical awareness, compassion, and even save the world a few times.

Books in this work serve very clear purposes. Both the camp library and books themselves are a haven, a place to retreat and to hide. They’re also Elliot’s weapon of choice, in both a defensive and offensive sense, used to decipher the world and to conquer a place in it. With knowledge gained in books, Elliot goes on several missions to other lands and helps bridge the cultural differences that threaten to push the quick-to-violence humans into battle instead of peace talks. Here, books are both the familiarity that Elliot clings to when he crosses into the Borderlands, and the means to set out on journeys and problem-solve the many issues that exist in this flawed magical realm. 

Books and stories have a far more overarching role in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, published in 2019. In this delicately woven tale by the author of The Night Circus, a book is the key to a magical place where story is everything. In the labyrinthine Harbor that sits above the underground Starless Sea, stories are past, and present, and future, and occasionally out of time entirely. They are puzzles, and riddles, and answers — sometimes to questions the protagonists had never thought to ask. And intertwined with the main story, there are shorter parallel tales that weave a background tapestry that comes sharply into focus as all the threads begin to align.

The Starless Sea is at heart a tale about finding yourself, even if you have to lose yourself to do so. When grad student Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across a mysterious book in his college library, the last thing he expects is to find a scene inside depicting him as a young boy. His attempt to understand leads him below ground to the Harbor, a place that is more than just a library; it is a realm of lost cities and seas, of love stories and sacrifice. As Zachary travels the paths beneath with fierce Mirabel and handsome Dorian, he begins to unravel the tangled threads of his own story and that of his companions, and the new story that emerges feels both surprising and inevitable.

Here, we have tales that serve a wide variety of purposes: they are doorways, they are destination, and they are purpose — destiny itself, if you will. The stories (within stories, within stories) are the entire journey from start to end. Books are not the practical haven that they serve as in Brennan’s novel. Instead, they are the entire and all-consuming world. One thing the two books do have in common, however, is characters thrust into strange worlds who must rely on the information they find in books and stories to navigate those alien waters.

My last pick is a graphic novel, Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky. This one’s the outlier, not just in its narrative format, but because it is less about books themselves — though one of the two main characters is a librarian — and more about the stories that form the backbone of a society. Published in 2022, Zabarsky’s work looks at what happens when people grow rigid in their ways, adhering too strictly to the stories that make up their culture without allowing room for change.

In a community where almost everyone is magic, shapeshifter Preet is the strongest of all. Her wife Valissa, however, has no magic, but as the town librarian, it falls to powerless Valissa to face an attack upon their repository of knowledge and laws. Valissa sets out on a spiritual voyage through the magical lands accessed within the library’s depths. In the meantime, Preet is forced to leave everything she knows behind when she adopts a child and breaks one of her community’s most sacred laws.

While they are both on their own journeys — one literal and one magical — Preet and Valissa learn very different lessons. Valissa, that change and fluidity are necessary, and Preet, that there are many ways to live a life, and her community’s way is only one possibility. When they are finally reunited, things do not go smoothly, but eventually they realize these different lessons can be combined to lead their people on a new path. 

The journey here is knowledge; it’s about leaving old, outdated stories behind and creating others that make more sense. There is an intersection with The Starless Sea, in that both books deal with allowing stories to end when their time is over, and making space for new stories, for new directions in which to travel. In Valissa’s words, “We’re strongest when we can learn from each other, as our ancestors did. We’re strongest when we can bend and change to help one another.”

I’d like to make a brief note on the role of libraries; in all three works, libraries serve as gateways. This is metaphorical in In Other Lands, with the library as a house of knowledge that can cause transformation. In Coming Back, the library is a literal portal, leading to a shift in values and to making room for new knowledge. And in The Starless Sea, we have the college library, which provides the key in form of a book, and we have the Harbor, a library that is an entire storyworld in itself.

Ultimately, this trio of tales deals with how books affect us: on a personal level, in our interactions with others, and as a wider society. Stories can be a refuge, a validation, a weapon, a path, a purpose, a treatise… or simply bring joy.

“We are all stardust and stories.”

Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea

Have Book, Will Read #29

Spring is quickly turning into a Connecticut summer and, once the pollen count settles, I’m looking forward to lazy weekends spent with a book in the hammock. For now, I’m hiding my allergies away inside, and what better way to escape prime sneezing season than to get lost in a story?

Recent Reads: All the magic! (Science is magic too, right?)

I managed to grab John Scalzi’s new offering, The Kaiju Preservation Society, almost as soon as it hit my library’s shelves (I was second on the hold list). I love Scalzi’s clean prose and easy worldbuilding—his work always feels so effortless, and all I need to do as a reader is let go and enjoy the ride. This standalone novel was just the book I was looking for: well-paced, quirky, and a heck of a lot of fun.

Stuck as a food service app driver after getting fired from his corporate job during the Covid-19 pandemic, a lucky delivery connects Jamie Gray to an old college acquaintance who offers him a well-paying job in an ‘animal rights’ organization. The first catch? A ton of non-disclosures to sign. The second? The ‘animals’ are massive dinosaur-like creatures known as kaiju that live in an alternate dimension. And it turns out they really do need protecting—from human poachers who could put both the kaiju and our Earth at risk. The Kaiju Preservation Society is a top read, and one I thoroughly recommend.

The graphic novel Magical Boy (Volume 1) by The Kao riffs on the magical girl genre made popular by manga and anime. Teenager Max is already dealing with coming out as a trans guy and trying to navigate the pitfalls of high school. Then, just to complicate matters, he finds out that all those childhood stories of magic his mother liked to tell are real: he really is the last in a long line of Magical Girls tasked with protecting humanity from the dark forces of evil. Now, with support from a loyal group of friends, Max must accept and learn to use his powers, come out at school, get his parents to accept his gender, and become the world’s first Magical Boy. All in your average school week!

Originally a webcomic, and published as a graphic novel in 2022, Magical Boy hits all the right notes. It’s the perfect mix of sweet, sassy, and heartfelt, with darker topics such as transphobia, homophobia, and bullying handled perfectly, keeping the story light but not trivializing these issues. The main character, Max, is lovely, and this first volume slowly collects a delightful ensemble cast that promises the best sort of chaos for the upcoming conclusion in Volume 2.

I’ve been a fan of The Tarot Sequence series by KD Edwards since I found his work last year. Set in New Atlantis, which just so happens to be located on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, this urban fantasy has everything you want from the genre: awesome magic, secrets and lies, a wide range of supernatural creatures, and a corrupt and ancient society that coexists uneasily with the human world. The characters are wonderful, and this has quickly become one of my favorites series ever. (As a bonus, the author has a series of free novelettes and short stories available on his website to add extra color to the world.)

The Hourglass Throne is the third installment, closing off the first trilogy in what is pitched as a nine-book arc. This time, Rune Saint John is up against an ancient power that threatens all of New Atlantis. But he’s not alone; this is book three, after all, and Rune’s found family has grown. It’s not just him and Brand anymore—Rune has people who care about him now, if he can only learn to let others shoulder some of the responsibility! I have so much love for every one of Rune’s peculiar little crew, and to see him, Brand, and Addam grow into true leaders (and parents!) has been wonderful.

Now Reading: In space… Space… Space…

When I first heard that Charlie Jane Anders was dipping her toes in YA with the Unstoppable space opera trilogy, I said ‘sign me up’. The first book, Victories Greater Than Death, was just the right mix of breathless and breathtaking, with plenty of sweet and quiet moments to temper the action. I’m currently reading the sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, and so far, it’s living up to the first installment. This time, we’ve moved away from Tina to embrace two alternating points of view: Rachael and Elza. It’s always a gamble switching POV in a series, but so far it’s definitely paid off. I love them both so much, and we still get plenty of Tina’s voice via the text messages and emails sent to Rachael and Elza. Two thumbs up for this endearing space saga.

To Read: *does the robot* *trips and falls on face in the middle of the dancefloor*

The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells should need no introduction. Spanning novellas, a novel, and short stories, the series has won numerous awards and accolades and a huge fanbase, too. I’ve had the first three novellas sitting in my Kindle for a while, and I feel like I’m finally ready to jump into the tale of the former Security Unit AI who gains independence, which it primarily uses to watch soap operas. Book 1, All Systems Red, here I come!

I hope you’ve all got some great books lined up, ready to enjoy in the warm weather (or to snuggle inside with, for those of you in the southern hemisphere). Happy reading!

The Book Coach Way: an interview with Christy Yaros

I met Christy Yaros at the first ever writer’s conference I attended, just a few months after moving to the USA. We’ve been critique partners for years, and Christy’s always had a keen editorial eye for plot and pacing. So when she told me she had started certification for book coaching, I knew it was a perfect fit.

Christy has been working as a certified book coach for a while now, and as a freelance editor for longer. She’s deeply connected to the kid lit world, both through her passion for YA and middle grade fiction, and her commitment to the New England region of the SCBWI, where she is the assistant regional advisor for Connecticut and Rhode Island. When I decided to take a deeper look into book coaching — something that seems to be everywhere at the moment — I could think of no one better to guide me through it then Christy.

JSM: Hi Christy, thanks for stopping by! Let’s start with the basics: what does a book coach do? Give us the nutshell description…

Hi Juliana! Thanks for having me. Basically, a book coach (also known as a writing coach or a story coach) is an expert in story and how books work. I’ve read the craft books, taken the courses, attended the workshops, studied the well-written books, and I synthesize that information and present it to the writer the way they need it to write, finish, or improve their specific story and grow as a writer.

I ask you a lot of questions, mostly “why?” and “and so?” to dig deep into your characters and your story. I tell you all the things you are doing well, and the things you can improve. I don’t just tell you what not to do, but WHY you shouldn’t do it. And then give you ideas for ways to improve it. I want you to walk away really understanding how story works, how your story works, and why your story works. And just like your characters, undergo a transformation. And that really means something different for each writer and each book.

My mentor Jennie Nash of Author Accelerator said it well: “Guiding [writers] from confusion (what am I writing, who am I writing for, what should I say, what do I believe, am I really good enough to say it, is anyone really going to care?) to the confidence of knowing (this is the book, this is the structure, this is the message, this is the audience, and these are the exact words I am going to use to engage my reader) is exactly what a book coach does.”

 JSM: There are a lot of misconceptions about coaching. What are the most common ones that you come up against?

I’ll give you three:

  1. The big one is if you need help, you’re not a real writer. If anyone finds out you worked with a coach, then they’ll think less of your writing. But pick up any book and read the Acknowledgements. You’ll find a host of people who the writer is thanking for their help on the book. We can’t write in a vacuum. If you have an editorial-minded agent, they’ve done a form of book coaching. Your in-house editor at the publishing company is doing a form of book coaching. But the fact is in today’s publishing climate, editors don’t have the time they had in the past to work with your story from the beginning.
  1. Another one is that the book coach will try to make your story theirs or steal it. The famous editor Max Perkins said (to editors), “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” And that’s exactly the goal of a book coach. I’m not trying to make your book mine, I’m trying to make your book more YOU. I’m digging deep with you into what you want to say about the world through your story, and helping you make sure you’ve said it. And that you’ve said it well. I want you to write the best story you can. Your story. Your book. But maybe I’ll end up in your Acknowledgements. 🙂
  1. A third misconception is that book coaching is a scam. This one is tougher because there are people out there who will take advantage of writers. When I first started training under Jennie Nash in the fall of 2019, if you Googled “book coach” you’d mostly see an article or a podcast featuring Jennie. Now everyone is calling themselves a book coach. You have to do your due diligence to see if your coach or editor is legit. Jane Friedman has some excellent resources on her blog for that. Personally, I have a Curiosity Call with every potential client. And I turn away more than I accept. Maybe that’s not good business, but I really want to help writers. And sometimes you’re not ready for a book coach, or at least not a book coach like me. It’s a big investment.

JSM: For the best results, what sort of mindset should a writer have when contacting a coach? And what preparation should they do beforehand?

First and foremost you need a growth mindset. You have to want to learn and get better, knowing there may be setbacks.

Second, you need to think about what you want out of a coaching relationship. What level of “toughness” can you handle? Some coaches have a gentler approach, and some don’t pull punches. What level of commitment can you make, financially and with your time? Most coaches work with weekly or bi-weekly deadlines. And 1-on-1 coaching is an investment.

You’re paying someone to tell you the truth. I’m not your mom or your best friend. I’m not going to smile and tell you your book is amazing if I think you can make it better. Obviously, you yourself are amazing. You’re brave enough to put yourself out there emotionally. So you have to be receptive to the advice you’re being given. If you want someone to pat you on the back and tell you it’s perfect, you’re probably in the wrong place. The goal is to make your story the best version of itself. And to make you a stronger writer. And sometimes that means you’re going to have hard conversations or delete your favorite scenes because they don’t move the story forward. Sometimes you’re going to have to start all over. Sometimes you figure out your idea isn’t actually a story. And I think if a writer is not ready for that kind of work, they might not be ready for a coach.

Also, do your research. Just like when you query an editor or agent, make sure they actually work on the genre/category you write. For example, I only work with children’s novels. And I don’t do horror. Some coaches I know only do speculative fiction, or only memoirs. One only works with the LGBTQ community. These coaches focus their skills in those areas, so you’ll get the most out of them. I would personally be wary of someone who says they work on anything. That’s a lot to keep up with, so can they really? You should definitely have a call or video chat before you sign a contract. You want to make sure your personalities mesh or you might not be comfortable tackling the deep questions with them.

JSM: What are the first steps when you take on a new client? How do you establish a good working relationship?

First, I have a curiosity call with every potential client to make sure we’d be a good fit for each other. If we both pass that test, we decide what service they need. Do they only have an idea? Are they stuck in the middle of a draft? Are they ready to revise? Do they keep getting rejections but don’t know why?

Then we sign a contract that lays out what we both expect out of the coaching relationship.
Next, we’ll have another call to talk about their writing goals, their timeframe, the level of commitment they can do right now. And then we’ll work backwards from there to make a schedule that makes sense for that writer at that moment. Then I give you a packet and send you off to work on your first deadline!

Signing a contract and setting boundaries helps us establish a good working relationship. Part of my job is to keep my writer accountable. Another part is to give them honest, objective feedback. But they also need to feel comfortable with all of that.

JSM: Is there a difference in how you work with an author who intends to self-publish versus an author who intends to pursue traditional publishing (i.e., with an established press)?

I only work on fiction, so there isn’t much difference in the way we work on a high level. (If you were doing nonfiction, you’d have to do an outline and sample chapters to get an agent/publishing contract vs just writing it if you are self-publishing.)

If the writer is looking to publish traditional, they need a marketable book. So we would work to figure out what that means. What conventions need to be followed? Where would it fit in the marketplace? What are some comparable titles? 

With self-publishing there’s more leeway to do things the way you want to, but ultimately you do still need to produce a good book that will sell.

When you get to the other levels of editing, usually someone seeking representation or traditional publishing would get the story in good enough shape to sell. That means coaching and/or developmental editing. Some writers might invest in line editing, but we wouldn’t waste time on copyediting or proofreading, because the agent and/or in-house editor is going to want to make more changes. Plus they handle copyediting and proofreading. When self-publishing, the writer does need to make sure that once the high-level story elements are set, that they get developmental editing and copyediting (and proofreading once the manuscript is typeset!).

JSM: Last of all, one for fun: two truths and one lie about book coaching!

1. Book coaching and editing are the same thing.

2. Working with a book coach will make you a better writer.

3. Book coaches provide a solid sounding board for your story ideas.

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.

.

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Drumroll! And the lie is… Number 1! Christy says: Not all book coaches are editors, and not all editors are book coaches! (But I happen to be both.)

A huge thanks to Christy for answering all my many questions! Check out her website for more information: christyyaros.com. Christy has a brand new podcast with fellow coach Sharon Skinner which you can listen to at coachingkidlit.com. And you can find Christy on Twitter and Instagram @ChristyYaros.

<All images in this post belong to Christy Yaros and are used with permission.>

Have Book, Will Read #26

It’s summer! Which conjures up images of beach reads, books by poolside, or lazy afternoons lost in words under a leafy tree with blue sky above. Right now, it’s — checks out of window — yup! Pouring down. AGAIN. But hey, cozying up to a sleeping dog on the sofa works just as well. So, what have I been reading since my last Have Book, Will Read? Here are some of my favorites…

Recent Reads: Found family, forced team ups…

I absolutely adored The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. This book deserves every inch of the praise it received. Klune immerses us in the tale of forty-year-old Linus Baker, a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who is whisked from his grey, bureaucratic, city existence to the sweeping ocean vistas of the Marsyas Island Orphanage, where life is anything but dull. The inhabitants are extraordinary, even for Linus’ line of work, and the most amazing of them all is perhaps the island’s master and protector, Arthur Parnassus.

This is a book about falling in love: with found family, with each other, with oneself. It’s a book about discovering that there is more to life than simply settling for safety, and that some things are worth fighting for. Beautifully written and captivating, it was also lovely to have an older protagonist and to be reminded that aging should not mean giving up on the right to happiness and joy.

I can never resist a bit of urban fantasy, and I tore through Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series which starts with London Falling. When an investigation that brings together officers Quill, Ross, Costain, and Sefton encounters the supernatural, the four find themselves the unwilling recipients of magic that confers the Sight — the ability to see that which is hidden beneath London’s surface. A new team emerges: the only ones who can police the shadow world around them.

This series is a gritty, brutal take on the genre, and Cornell’s style takes some getting used to, as he has a tendency to hop from one character’s point of view to another’s, sometimes within the same scene. But I found it a fast and riveting read, and it’s also a little different from most urban fantasy. Usually, main characters are either already ‘in the know’, such as with Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus or Seanan McGuire’s Price family, or else they have someone who guides them through this new world of the supernatural they have discovered, as with Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. In Cornell’s series, the four main characters stumble accidentally upon magic, and proceed to fumble their way along almost entirely on their own — a different take on the usual set up that I enjoyed immensely.

I first came across Charlie Jane Anders at WorldCon in Dublin, where I heard her read from her award-winning novel The City in the Middle of the Night and loved her writing style. So when I found out she had a YA novel in the works, I put in a preorder for Victories Greater Than Death, the first in her trilogy. Victories brings us Tina Mains, who has grown up an average teenager. Except, she’s anything but average. The clone of a famed alien war hero, she’s known all her life that at some point the beacon hidden inside her will activate and she will be swept away from Earth to join the battle in space. But when that finally happens, Tina finds out that fulfilling her destiny may be more complicated than she ever imagined.

Anders has a down-to-earth and chatty style of writing, where dialogue and character are at the forefront of everything. Much as I love an action-led tale, it’s nice sometimes to switch gears and dive into something like this, and to get lost inside a character’s thoughts and emotions. Found family is everything in this book, as are themes of acceptance, diversity, and respect for one another. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to the upcoming sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak.

Where to start with The Last Sun by KD Edwards? There’s just so much I loved about this book! Rune Saint John is the last of the fallen Sun Court, one of the great Atlantean Houses that now live on New Atlantis, formerly known as the island of Nantucket in the USA. Rune and his companion and bodyguard Brand are hired to search for the missing son of Lady Justice, ruler of the Crusader Throne. But while investigating, Brand and Rune uncover more than the missing man — they find a legendary creature that may be connected to the massacre of Rune’s family.

Why did I like The Last Sun so much? First and foremost, the characters. Rune and Brand are fantastic, and their relationship is just perfect. Other characters that join them — Rune’s ward, Max, and Addam, the man they’re hired to find — are just as wonderful, and the overall dynamic is great. The magic and world felt fresh and interesting, and I really liked the concept of the Arcana with its Courts based on Tarot cards. Edwards’ voice is just right for this, and the story moves along quickly and is surprisingly light, considering Rune’s completely horrible backstory. But Rune never feels like a victim; he takes charge of his life and refuses to let the past define him. Also, you have to respect an author that unabashedly takes one of fanfic’s great topes (there was only one bed!) and 100% makes it work, with a great big wink at the reader to let them know they’re in on the joke.

I usually try to keep my reading round-up to speculative fiction, but I need to make an exception for the excellent debut crime novel Knife Edge by Kerry Buchanan, and its sequel, Small Bones. I’m familiar with some of Buchanan’s fantasy work, which is very good indeed, so when I found out she was moving into the crime genre I knew I had to check it out.

Knife Edge introduces us to Northern Irish police detectives Asha Harvey and Aaron Birch in this chilling tale of a serial killer and the victim he allows to escape so he can play with her in a terrifying cat and mouse game. In Small Bones, we dive deeper into Asha as a character as she investigates a cold case that no one knew was a murder. Both books are a nail-biting read; I made the mistake of picking up the second in the evening and just had to finish it in one go! One thing I enjoyed is the pattern that Buchanan establishes, where the main point of view is shared by Asha and whichever character is connected to the case in that particular book (escaped victim Nic in the first, and Sue in the second, who accidentally digs up a child’s skeleton while gardening). If you’re a crime fiction fan, these are definitely worth reading.

Now Reading: Too late to say sorry?

It’s been a while since I’ve dipped into middle grade, and I’m thoroughly enjoying The Ship of Stolen Words by Fran Wilde. Sam Culver has one solution for tight situations: the word sorry, his go-to for anything and everything. But on the last day of fifth grade, his favorite word disappears. He soon connects the loss of his ability to apologize to a mysterious portal at the back of the local Little Free Library, and before long he’s caught up in an adventure to help save Tolver, the young goblin who stole his words.

This has been a great read so far (I’m in the middle of it right now), with a nice balance of fun, action, and deeper motifs. And although the theme of the book brings a message — don’t cheapen your words; only say sorry if you really mean it! — at no time does it feel preachy or moralistic.

To Read: Sequels and seconds.

Next up is Mister Impossible, the sequel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Dreamer Trilogy. I liked the first book, Call Down the Hawk, a lot; it’s a good ‘growing up’ of the Raven Cycle series that felt like a natural and necessary progression for Ronan, Adam, and co. Book 2 landed in our mailbox a while back, but I had other novels on my reading pile to get through first. However, my daughter, who shares my passion for Stiefvater’s work, is not-so-patiently waiting for me to get to this so we can discuss, so it’s time to catch up on Ronan Lynch’s journey into the depths of his magic.

Another Book 2, although this one is not a sequel, is the sophomore release by Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop. McQuiston established her name as a rising rom-com star with the delicious Red, White & Royal Blue back in 2019, and now she brings her talents to this time-travel romance set in the New York subway. I’m looking forward to it!

Note: You can find all editions of Have Book, Will Read on my review page, here.

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.

LGBTQ Books by Black Authors

HAPPY PRIDE MONTH!

I am absolutely in awe of all the wonderful people out there right now, who are protesting, fundraising, debating, blogging, sharing on social media, and generally doing their part to help the world move forward as a better, more equal place to live. In support, and because this is, after all, Pride Month, I’ve gathered a few links to LGBTQ books by Black authors.

Note: I wanted to highlight some of the websites, people, and organizations already doing this work, instead of writing up my own list. This means I have not yet read many of these books — though my to-read list is suddenly a LOT longer than it was.

Please support an indie bookstore if you can. Also, many libraries are reopening, even if just for curbside pickup — consider requesting a title if they don’t already have it. And remember, there are many ways to help an author if you are not in a position to buy books, such as sharing book titles and lists with friends or on social media. Happy reading!

Black Children’s Books and Authors

12 YA Books by Black Authors

Although these are all fiction titles, this recent article includes a link to an interview by activist and author George M. Johnson about his non-fiction YA debut.

YA Pride

16 LGBTQIAP+ Books by Black Authors

An older post, written for Black History Month 2019, with a good mix of contemporary and speculative fiction.

LGBTQ Reads

Black History Month 2020

A comprehensive list of websites, fiction, graphic novels, poetry, and memoirs. Fiction is divided by age category, with middle grade, YA, and NA/adult suggestions, including a speculative fiction selection.

We Need Diverse Books

Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion

A resource list that includes book recommendations and Black-owned bookstores. And while you’re there, check out their blog posts and other website sections.

Also, don’t miss this Facebook event TONIGHT! JUNE 4TH 2020

The Brown Bookshelf 

Kidlit Rally for Black Lives

This one isn’t LGBTQ in theme, but if you have time, drop by @thebrownbookshelf on Facebook Live TONIGHT as Black authors and publishers come together in an online event.

Image from The Brown Bookshelf

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!

NYC SCBWI and Boskone 57 Schedule

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Con bags at the ready…

It’s February tomorrow, and February brings ALL THE CONS. Or, well, two at least.

I’ll be in NYC next weekend for the SCBWI Winter Conference, which runs from February 7-9. I’m not part of any official programming, but will be wearing my ‘NESCBWI Regional Conference Co-Director’ hat (not literally. I own no fancy conference hats, alas), so come and find me if you want to talk about all things books, writing, and kid lit, or just to hang out and have a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. Hit me up on Twitter! @jspinkmills

From February 14-16 I’ll be in Boston for my yearly pilgrimage to Boskone. I’ll be on three program items, which leaves me plenty of time to catch up with people and make new friends. Planning to go to Boskone for the first time? Already a regular but we haven’t met yet? Come and find me — let’s chat!

Besides hanging around the lobby bar or attending other people’s panels, here’s where you can find me at Boskone:

Blood-Curdling Science Fiction

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Marina 2

Where does the thin (red) line between science fiction and horror lie? Why does science fiction horror fascinate us so much? What is it about horror in SF that is so absolutely terrifying? What examples do we have of science fiction that will make your blood run cold? And is it getting harder to make SF fiction that is truly scary?

Errick Nunnally (Moderator), Juliana Spink Mills, Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kaufmann, Darrell Schweitzer

Books That Get Kids Reading!

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor II

Hundreds of new children’s books are published every year. Yet recommended reading lists still include the same old children’s classics, with only a few new titles. Our panelists share some of their favorite new children’s books and authors from recent years that should be added to the lists.

Juliana Spink Mills (Moderator), Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary), Julia Rios, Adi Rule, Trisha J. Wooldridge

Broad Universe Group Reading

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 20:00 – 21:20, Griffin

Join members of Broad Universe — a nonprofit association dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and promoting female authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror — as they read tidbits of works and works in progress. Readers will include LJ Cohen, Marianna Martin, Roberta Rogow, Juliana Spink Mills, and Trisha J. Wooldridge. Moderated by Elaine Isaak.

Finding YOUR Story

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More essence than solid shape…

I’m stuck at the moment on a passion project. I have other things I could be — should be — working on. Like revising the YA novel I wrote over a year ago. Or finally getting around to finishing Star Blade, the last part of my Blade Hunt Chronicles trilogy. But over and over, I find myself drawn back to the fantasy work-in-progress I’ve been obsessing over for the past year or so.

Sometimes, stories arrive clear-cut and blazingly obvious. We can see where we have to go and how to get there, and the characters are set from the start. There will be ups and downs in the writing — there always are — but these are stories that almost lead us by the hand. They’ll need revisions, and edits, and sometimes a full rewrite or two, but their general structure is there from the very beginning.

Other times, there are stories that are nebulous. More gut feeling than sign-posted path. More essence than solid shape. We want — need — to tell them, but it’s hard when we don’t know exactly what form the telling should take. This is one of those stories. I can almost see it, but not quite. It’s been through a full draft and a partial rewrite, besides a one-chapter experiment that just didn’t work at all. Each of these ‘takes’ has been different, with only the bare bones of worldbuilding and characters in common. And now I have an idea for an entirely new version. Part of me thinks that I’m chasing moonbeams, and that this story either isn’t really mine, or that I’m not yet ready for it. But the rest of me just can’t let it go.

I think all writers have a story like this in their past, or perhaps waiting for them to stumble upon it in the future. One that grabs us by the heart and whisper-screams ‘look at me’, that teases and begs and demands to be told. One that just won’t go down easy on the page until we’ve ripped it to pieces to find exactly what part of it is actually ours to claim. This one, this frustrating, enticing, beautiful little tale? I’ll get it written, eventually. I just need to allow myself time, I think, to dig through all the images and ideas and find my story.

Have Book, Will Read #22

It’s freezing in Connecticut, and perfect book-and-blanket weather! Although I must confess that I’ve slowed down on the reading in November — I’m using NaNoWriMo to give my novel rewrite a boost, so have eased off on other people’s words to focus on my own. I have, however, managed to make a nice dent in my to-read list over the past few months, so here are a few favorites from that particular pile…

Recent Reads: A bit of this, a bit of that…

I’ve had Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones languishing on my Kindle for a while, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it. This is a really good read in the grand old ‘Grimdark Fantasy’ tradition, with a fun cast of characters and some very nice worldbuilding. It follows soldier and field priest Tomas Piety as he heads home from war to reclaim the crime empire he left behind, and soon turns into a game of strategy and intrigue when national politics stick grubby paws into Piety’s business. I absolutely recommend it for fans of this style of fantasy.

My daughter’s been telling me for months that I should have a look at Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns, and guess what? She was right. You don’t need to have read Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology or her Shadow and Bone trilogy for this, though a working knowledge of her Grishaverse is helpful. However, I’d recommend at least Six of Crows, which is a fabulous heist story in the style of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books. Thorns itself is a collection of folktales, some original and others clear retellings of known stories, written in a variety of styles that match the different nations in Bardugo’s expanded world. Lyrical and also surprisingly funny at times, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

When I heard that Disney’s upcoming Hawkeye TV show was going to be loosely based on the Matt Fraction Hawkeye comics, I decided to take a look. I’m not much of a graphic novel person, but the little I saw online intrigued me, and I was lucky enough that my local library had the first volumes in one neat omnibus edition. Honestly, this is so good! I’ve always liked Barton’s character in the Avengers movies, but this took things to a new level. Great characterization, and I can’t wait to see how they handle Clint and Kate’s interactions on-screen. Also, I need to read the rest of the series now, especially the one in ASL, which I hear is fabulous.

Both my daughter and I are fans of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid novels, and the latest in the series, That Ain’t Witchcraft, certainly lives up to the very high bar set by the previous books. We’re once again in Antimony Price’s point of view, as she investigates a little ghost trouble in New England and ends up taking on the Crossroads itself. Annie and Sam are adorable as usual, and the whole ensemble cast is perfect. My only complaint? Now I need a family reunion novella with the entire dysfunctional Price crew united and under one roof, significant others and all… If you like urban fantasy and haven’t yet tried InCryptid, please do! I love these books — they take every one of my boxes, tick them neatly, and hand them back gift-wrapped and beribboned.

Now Reading: “We use it to light things from far away,” I said. “You know,” Tom said, “things you have to light from far away probably shouldn’t be lit at all.” – The Blackthorn Key.

I picked up The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands a while back, and am now on the third book, The Assassin’s Curse. This middle grade historical adventure series is absolutely fantastic! The books center around an apothecary’s apprentice, Christopher Rowe, and his friends, and are set against the backdrop of 1660s England complete with threats of the plague and of political conspiracies galore. The series is fun, well-written, and full of code-breaking, apothecary secrets, and twisty plots. It’s written for kids, but honestly, there’s plenty in them that will appeal to adults, too. Good stuff.

To Read: Old friends, new beginnings.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert was one of my favorite books of 2018! Now I have the ARC for the sequel in hand, and can’t wait to get started. The Night Country releases on January 7th 2020, and returns us to the magic and darkness of Albert’s Hinterland. If you haven’t read the first book yet, give this wonderful blend of fantasy and magical realism a try.

Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater just landed in our mailbox in all its big hardcover glory, signed bookplate and all. Can you tell that we’re fans in this house? This is the long-awaited sequel to the Raven Cycle series, and focuses on Ronan Lynch, my absolute favorite of all Stiefvater’s Raven Boys. To get in gear for this brand new release, both my daughter and I reread the four original Raven Cycle books; now we’re all fired up and ready for more Ronan and Adam, and to meet all the new characters that Stiefvater has promised us for this series.

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