Have Book, Will Read #27

We’re moving into my favorite season, and I am here for embracing those autumn clichés like long walks on blue sky days to see the changing leaf colors or cozying up with a blanket and a giant mug of tea. And you know what goes well with blankets and tea? Books. Well, warm puppy cuddles, too, but mostly I was going for books. I’ve read some great stuff over the past few months, and it was actually hard to pick which ones I wanted to share. But there’s only so much space in a blog post, so here are my latest book recommendations.

Recent Reads: The supernatural and all the super feels…

First on my list is Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. This YA book had been on my to-read list since before it was published; I’m embarrassed it took this long to get around to it! Little Badger’s debut novel has won a long list of awards and accolades, and it deserves them. A tale of family love, teenage friendship, and the pain of cultural and historical erasure, Elatsoe is sweet-natured and deals with some pretty difficult themes in a gentle and thoughtful manner. Plus, ghost dog!

Ellie can summon the ghosts of animals, a skill passed down through her Lipan Apache bloodline. Her family are caretakers of the stories shared from generation to generation, and when Ellie’s cousin is murdered, she draws upon this heritage to solve the case, uncovering a tangled web of greed and dark magic. Ellie —named for her six-great grandmother Elatsoe — is a wonderful protagonist, as is her best friend Jay, and I am always happy to see great boy/girl friendships that don’t need to be pushed over the line into romance.

Stepping away from speculative fiction for a bit, another YA book that had been on my to-read list for a while is Aristotle and Dante Solve the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Sáenz has won recognition both as a novelist and as a poet, and his poetic touch shines through in this book about a Mexican American teen navigating high school, family relationships, identity, and sexuality. Set in 1987, the story starts the summer that fifteen-year-old Aristotle Mendoza meets Dante Quintana at the local pool, sparking a friendship that changes the world for both boys.

This was one I savored rather than devoured, reading a few pages at a time and enjoying the beautiful prose and quiet storytelling. This isn’t a Big Action story; instead, it’s about the small ripples of emotion that feel so huge when we’re young. It’s dialogue and internal thought, it’s rainy days and introspection. It’s about the shared moments that color our lives. This book made me cry in the best sort of way! 

On the non-YA front, I finally read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s every bit as delightful as I expected. I loved the TV show and had already heard great things about the novel before the show was made, so I figured it was time to invest in a copy of my own. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get to it — I would have liked to have read it before the show came out, because even though it was a wonderful adaptation, it definitely colored my perception of the story.

For those who haven’t seen the show OR read the book, well, first of all, you should probably fix that. If you’re a fan of cheeky fiction with a side order of the absurd, this story about an angel and a demon who team up to try and prevent the apocalypse from happening because they enjoy life among humanity too much is an absolute treat. Add in a witch who partners with a witch-hunter, a centuries-old book of prophecies, and the young Antichrist and his gang of human friends, and the scene is set for a romp of Biblical proportions. Two thumbs most definitely up.

I’ve read some really great graphic novels lately, and I wanted to give a shout out to Power Up, a deliciously fun work by Kate Leth and Matt Cummings. Diverse in every sort of way imaginable, Power Up brings together three recently-superpowered humans (and one fish) as humanity’s newest and most clueless protectors.

The universe was expecting four champions to emerge, fulfilling an ancient prophecy. Instead, there’s a pet shop employee, a busy mother, a construction worker… and a goldfish. Power Up is lighthearted and honestly adorable, and has some really good supporting characters, too. The edition I read had all six issues of this series in one book.

Now Reading: Fight the good fight!

I saw Fonda Lee talk about her book Zeroboxer at a Worldcon panel, and it’s been on my list ever since. I’m a few chapters into it and really enjoying the punchy (ha!), well-written action and great characters. If you need a great example of how to write about a fictional sport, this is it! The novel follows Carr Luka, a rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, as he grows in fame but uncovers a terrible secret that could risk everything that he’s worked so hard to win.

I’m alternating fiction with Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders, a book which is part writing craft talk, part inspiration, and part memoir. The tagline on the cover is how to get through hard times by making up stories, and it’s just what I was needing to read right now. I’m just over halfway through, and would definitely recommend it to writers who prefer broader insights over more formal step-by-step advice.

To Read: Who’s the villain here?

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki was released this week, and I have a copy I preordered that I need to go and pick up from my local indie. I’m really looking forward to this one! It’s pitched by the publisher as “a defiantly joyful adventure set in California’s San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts,” and honestly? It sounds fantastic.

Talking about new books, there’s an upcoming November 2021 release that I’m excited to read. All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman is a sort of villainous Hunger Games, blurbed as “a blood-soaked modern fairytale” where seven families compete for control over a wellspring of magic.

A reminder to readers! I shouldn’t have to say this, but please don’t pirate books. The many, MANY moral considerations aside, it’s simple math: when sales numbers drop, publishers don’t renew contracts, so you end up without being able to read the next great thing by your favorite author. Libraries are a great free resource, or keep an eye out for e-book sales — there’s always a promo, eventually. And if you do have the money to invest in books, please consider ordering from your nearest indie store!

Wishing you all a lovely autumn (or spring, depending on where you are!), and lots of good stories to keep you going in the last stretch of 2021.

Puppy cuddles for everyone!

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.

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

NESCBWI 2021 Part I: pre-conference planning

Working on last minute details!

Back in 2019, fresh from the excitement of the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I said YES to a very important commitment: to step in as co-director and help plan and run the spring conference for 2020 and 2021.

Little did we know back then that the world was about to be hit by the COVID pandemic, with all its devastating ramifications.

It takes time to plan an in-person conference with as many moving parts as ours — from workshops to critique sessions to sit-down meals for almost 700 attendees. By the time 2020 arrived, we had most of it done. Registration opened amid growing concerns about global health, but we shrugged off the whispers — we’d be fine, right? This wasn’t going to impact New England.

And then, in March, everything began to shut down. We all watched in horror as the death toll worldwide began to rise. This was big; so much bigger than our concerns over a weekend event. By April, it was clear that COVID was everywhere, and that the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Even if state mandates hadn’t done the job for us, there was no way we would have put our members at risk. There was nothing we could do except cancel the conference. A few people mentioned moving online, but it was far too late by then to shift a huge event to a virtual platform. We honored the agent/editor critiques that had been booked by holding an online critique day but postponed the rest of the planned activities.

After a hasty phone meeting, my co-director Casey and I agreed to stay on an extra year. To run the 2020 conference in 2021. Because back then, we still thought COVID would be solved by the end of the year, maybe even by summer.

We all know what happened to the rest of 2020. Infection rates dipped, then rose. New strains emerged; studies and data brought terrible insight on the aftereffects of coronavirus. Death numbers worldwide kept climbing. The race for a vaccine was on, and masking up became a permanent and no longer temporary measure. By October, it was clear that there was no way we could plan an in-person event for 2021, due to the amount of time it takes and the uncertainties ahead. We made the call and emailed our membership and our faculty: 2021 was going virtual.

So, how to plan an online conference? How to turn our Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey into a spark of light at a dark and difficult time?

First of all, we polled the faculty of our canceled 2020 event to find out who was interested in doing a virtual version of their workshop. We had already decided we would do a streamlined event — there was no way we could attempt the almost 70 workshops we usually do at the in-person conference. There would be no critique sessions; the New England SCBWI already holds 4 virtual agent/editor critique days throughout the year, so there was no reason to add to this. And we would have to cut a lot of the side events that have become tradition, like illustrator challenges and the pitch practice party. We knew what we DID want: to provide a weekend of craft and inspiration, something that would help boost creativity during a time when a lot of writers and illustrators are finding it hard to produce work.

We were delighted to hear back from 21 of our faculty, who came up with alternate versions of their workshops for us. We decided to add ask-a-mentor sessions in place of the agent/editor critiques, and we tossed in an Open Screen to substitute our traditional Open Mic night. We kept the two planned keynote sessions with Padma Venkatraman and Mike Curato, but changed the Friday night opening event to a Conversations with Two Legends, with Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, to be moderated by Heidi Stemple. And we came up with the idea of keeping a dedicated Zoom meeting open throughout to double as reception desk for issues and a social space, with themed breakout rooms for drop-in mingling.

By the time mid-April 2021 rolled around, we were set. We had our platforms prepared, thanks to Assistant Regional Advisor and tech goddess Christy Yaros. We had our programming in order, thanks to my co-director Casey Robinson. We had our Zoom hosting and moderating volunteers lined up and waiting (that one was my job!). And we had our Regional Advisor Kristine Asselin to do all the number crunching and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic wizardry. We were ready to make Finding Joy in the Journey a virtual reality.

<See also Part II: virtual goes live>

Have Book, Will Read #25

It’s prime reading time, with snow piled up outside my window and the lure of warm blankets and an equally warm dog to cuddle. After the past year, where my book habits trended more to comfort than new material, it’s been nice getting back to digging away at my to-read list. Hopefully I’ll manage to keep up the momentum!

Recent Reads: Romance, magic, and all that jazz

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough has been sitting on my shelf for a really long time. I’m actually embarrassed by how long it took me to get around to reading it. I’m so glad I finally did! This is a gem of a book, at the same time heart-warming and heart-wrenching. I’m not usually one for crying when I read, but this one managed to make me both smile and shed a few tears.

Brockenbrough’s beautifully written tale is set in 1937, where the immortals Love and Death have gathered for one more round of their eternal game. Their chosen players? Flora, an African American teenager who sings in her family jazz club for a living but dreams of setting world records as an airplane pilot, and seventeen-year-old Henry, a white boy whose path in life has been set in stone by the foster family he lives with, regardless of his love for music. The story switches between four points of view — the unwitting players and the two immortals —plunging us right into the heart of post-Prohibition Seattle.

I can’t talk about Game without mentioning another recent read, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E. Schwab. Superficially, both books have a lot in common. They both feature immortal beings who play with the humans who fascinate them. They both have ties to the past, though while Game is anchored in the 1930s, Addie skips and jumps through recent centuries, pausing at key moments of history. They both feature love stories, and boys named Henry. But they are also very different books.

While the first one remains, for the most part, tight and focused, Schwab’s book is a sprawling, meandering beauty, dipping in and out of the past as an embroidery needle dives into a vast tapestry. It tells the tale of Addie LaRue, a young French countrywoman from the early 1700s who strikes a bargain with an unnamed power and becomes immortal, yet cursed to always be forgotten. Until she meets, in modern times, a young man who remembers her. Schwab’s prose is, as always, that perfect mixture of lush and sparse, and this was a delight to read.

Forged, the latest title in Benedict Jacka’s urban fantasy series, continues leading Alex Verus down the difficult path he’s been walking for a while now. Hunted by both light and dark mages, and with his girlfriend Anne losing herself to the dangerous entity she’s bonded to, Alex is running out of allies and options if he wants to save himself, his friends, and — most of all — Anne.

I’ve really enjoyed this series, which has only one more book yet to come. It’s been an interesting ride, starting out in Book 1 (Fated) with the near-powerless (in comparison to other mages) diviner Alex and watching him over time carve that power out for himself, while making some rather questionable choices in order to do so. Alex has become very much a grey character, which I honestly kind of love. We are all the heroes of our own stories, but Alex has come to a point in his saga where he’s being forced to take a good hard look and decide if he’s actually a hero, or if he’s becoming what he most feared: a dark mage like his former Master, Richard Drakh.

Now Reading: Teen hero shenanigans

I’ve been watching the Young Justice animated series and, after reading up on the characters, I grew curious about the original comic book run that inspired the TV reboot. I’d read that, despite using some of the same storylines, the TV show has very little else in common with the comics, and now that I’ve been dipping into the Young Justice world, I absolutely agree.

I devoured Young Justice Books 1-4 in a few breathless days and am now finishing up Book 5. While the TV show centers on the first Robin, Dick Grayson, the comics focus on Robin number 3, Tim Drake. The original core three — Robin, Impulse, and Superboy — soon find their team expanding with the addition of Wonder Girl, Arrowette, Secret and, later on, Empress (with Lil’ Lobo as an unofficial member). Their adventures lead us on one wild ride after another, and the books are full of absolute laugh-out-loud moments. I can honestly say I’ve never used the word ‘zany’ in a review before, but that description fits Young Justice perfectly. Delightful.

(And yes, unfortunately I had to read YJ on my phone, as my library’s reading app doesn’t work on my laptop or iPad. Thank goodness for smartphone zoom features!)

To Read: Darkness rising

I’ve been on a library rampage lately and that means I’ve got two more books waiting to be read before their due dates roll around. The first is Paul Cornell’s London Falling, the opening title of his Shadow Police series. I love a good supernatural investigation book, and have heard good things about Cornell’s work, so I’m looking forward to it!

The other one is Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, which I picked up after a post on Tor.com sparked my interest in this award-winning science fantasy novel about necromancy and cut-throat politics. This is the first book in the Locked Tomb trilogy, and I’ve seen it mentioned so many times I figured it was about time I checked it out.

Here’s to hoping you all have some good books set aside to get you through winter (or summer, for those below the equator!). With the current sub-freezing temps in Connecticut, and more snow than anyone except ski resorts could possibly want, I personally need ALL THE BOOKS. Happy reading to all!

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.

Summer 2018 Updates

We’re already halfway through 2018 — where did all the months go? Seriously, someone needs to get working on that time-turner technology, and fast! So, what have I been up to this year?

Short stories! I made one of those infamous New Year’s promises to myself that I would submit a short story every month in 2018. So far, I’ve managed to (just about!) keep that promise. Of course, it doesn’t mean every submission has been accepted. But it’s been a good push to keep writing and — just as importantly — to keep sending my work out, even if it gets rejected. And taking a chance also means the occasional success!

last city

In February, my sci-fi detective tale Blood Makes Noise came out in The Last City anthology (DUST, 2018). This was a really fun initiative, with a shared-world premise that led to plenty of pre-publication discussion in our collaborator Facebook group. Check out our joint author interview in SFF World.

My angel love story Dawn Chorus was published in Kraxon Magazine in March, another happy moment. Kraxon always has great stories (free, go take a peek!) and I have a soft spot for the magazine, as it gave me my first ever paid writing sale, back in 2015. I also just handed in my contribution for an upcoming all-female-writers’ science fiction anthology: a teen time travel romance set in 1985. And I had a short story accepted for another anthology — I will have to wait for the official announcement to say more on this one, but I’m thrilled to be in it as competition was apparently pretty fierce, and the list of participating authors is amazing.

Novels! I spent most of the first part of the year finishing and revising a YA science fiction thriller. It’s completely different from my Blade Hunt Chronicles series, although my critique group says it’s still ‘very me’, which is hopefully a good thing? I’m really excited about this one! After a long querying hiatus, while I fulfilled my contracts for Heart Blade and Night Blade, I now have something brand new and have begun once again looking for an agent. Wish me luck…

And no, I haven’t forgotten my Blade Hunt readers. I’m taking a writing break in July, to visit my family in Brazil, but when I get back it’s all about books 3 and 4. Yes, the plan is to write the last two books in the series together, and hopefully have them done by the end of the year. I love my characters and story, and have promised myself (and a few of you as well) to finish the Blade Hunt Chronicles and give Del, Ash, Raze and co. the ending they deserve.

Appearances! I was once again a panelist at Boskone this February, and it definitely made a difference knowing what to expect this time around. I found that I managed to relax and enjoy my panels, and I ended up having a blast! A lot of this, of course, is due to the great moderators I had. I also took part in my local library’s Author Festival, speaking on the Teen Author panel. Out theme was Inspiration, and it was a great evening and a really good conversation.

IMG_8151
Photo credit Avon Free Public Library

All in all, it’s been a productive year for me so far. With plans to finish the last two Blade Hunt novels in the second semester, and to keep on writing and submitting short stories, it looks like it will get even busier once August arrives.

I’ll leave you with a link to a terrific interview I gave in January on Peat Long’s blog, with bonus Deadpool-riding-on-a-Lego-dinosaur pic. Because why not? Happy summer!

IMG_2992

 

Have Book, Will Read #19

2018-03-18 09.17.09

May was a mad rush of manuscript revisions, other work, and life being, well, life. The laundry doesn’t do itself just because you’re busy rewriting Chapter 11, though what a neat trick that would be… But in the middle of all that busy, I still managed time to read. Here are a few of my favorites from the past few weeks.

Recent Reads: Tricks and Trips.

I FINALLY READ CROOKED KINGDOM! I’ve been promising myself for a while now that I’d read the sequel to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, and I actually got around to it this time. Worth the wait!

As Kaz and company strive to right the wrongs committed against them they get sucked down into a deepening spiral of subterfuge, trickery, and intrigue. Beautifully written, the story is well-paced and has enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes the entire time. And the romances are lovely!

I’ve been wanting to read Holly Black’s work for a while now, and I started out easy with the Magisterium series she’s co-writing with Cassandra Clare. Although I found the books in my library’s teen room, they’re really middle grade, and I think I read the first four in under a week.

The Iron Trial, The Copper Gauntlet, The Bronze Key, and The Silver Mask bring a neat little twist to the ‘teen discovers they have magic and goes to magic school’ formula. I’m not going to say much because #spoilers, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the direction the tale took from the end of Book 1, and this was a refreshing departure from the theme. This is a great series, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion in The Golden Tower, out September 2018.

There’s nothing better than a new InCryptid book, so when I realized that the most recent title in Seanan McGuire’s series, Tricks for Free, was out, I rushed to buy it. We get more of Antimony’s point of view in this one, and plenty more Sam, which made me a very happy person as Sam is adorable.

I absolutely love this series. It’s fun, fast-paced, and light-hearted while tackling some pretty big issues, and McGuire’s world is full of amazing cryptids and characters that keep you invested from page one. If you like urban fantasy and haven’t yet discovered these books, give the first one a try. You won’t regret it, I promise you!

Kelly Robson’s The Human Stain recently won the Nebula award for best novelette, and as I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, this was the perfect moment. The story takes us to a remote castle in Germany, following a British expat who is hired to care for her friend’s nephew.

This gothic horror tale is perfect for a shivery afternoon read (or a nighttime one, if you dare!). Robson’s elegant prose contrasts nicely with the growing darkness of the story, which has an ending that will definitely leave you off-kilter for a good while.

Now Reading: A ghostly conspiracy…

I just started an ARC for Afterimage by Naomi Hughes, out in September 2018. I’m not very far in, but I love the concept and am excited to read on. The story begins with an explosion that leaves the only survivor racing to find out who is behind it all. And the only person she can turn to is a transparent boy who she’s not sure is a ghost or a hallucination.

To Read: Stormy waters, suspense, and insurgence.

Thanks to the Penguin Children’s Fall preview I attended last month, I have a lovely big pile of middle grade and YA ARCs to read. I’m thinking of starting with Seafire, by Natalie C. Parker, the story of an all-female pirate crew. The book has been described as Wonder Woman meets Mad Max: Fury Road, so yes, please!

Another one from the ARC pile that I’m looking forward to getting into The Sacrifice Box, a horror novel by Martin Stewart set in the 1980s, and that sounds like a cross between Stephen King and Stranger Things.

On my to-read list is Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint, which came out in February but I haven’t had a chance to read yet. This is Cole’s first fantasy series, a little bit of a departure from his Shadow Ops world. I love Myke’s writing style, so this is definitely one I can’t miss out on.

I have a LOT of other things on my to-read list, but luckily summer is just ahead. The downside to school vacation is that I’m not sure how much writing I’ll get done. The upside, of course, is books, books, books. What’s on your summer reading list?

Poconos Retreat, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

IMG-2520

Our last day dawned soft and gray, drizzle misting in from the hills around us. Luckily the weather had no impact on everyone’s enthusiasm, and after another amazing breakfast (seriously, Highlights, do you not want us to ever leave?), we gathered once again in the main room in the Barn to watch the faculty talk us through some of the (anonymous) first pages and illustrations that attendees had sent in. I’m always fascinated at these events to find out just what an experienced editor will pick out of a fragment of text.

2018-05-04 19.11.35-2
Mealtimes at the Barn

We broke up into workshops after this, and I chose to hear agent Kira Watson talk us through scene development. We looked at the difference between ‘core’ scenes and ‘bridge’ scenes, and how to avoid the so-called ‘fluff’ scenes. Kira told us that each scene should make a difference, even if it’s a bridge scene, and not just be there to fill space. I’m looking forward to trying her flashcard exercise!

IMG-2524
Kira Watson talks us through scene essentials

The final keynote was given by picture book author Tara Lazar. Tara’s speech was joyous and uplifting, even when talking about personal obstacles, and was just right for sending us home all fired up to get back to creating. She both began and ended her talk by reminding us that “there is no divide”, and that authors are just people like anyone else.

We sat down for a last lunch (with a huge round of applause for chef Amanda and her staff), and then said our goodbyes to all our new (and old) friends, and then it was time to take off my name tag, grab my bags, and drive the three hours back to Connecticut.

 

Our printed schedule ended with Master Yoda’s words: “That which you seek inside you will find.” That may be true, but all of us at the 2018 Poconos Retreat found plenty in each other, too, and in the inspiring words of our weekend mentors.

 

 

High points for the weekend:

  • Location, location, location. And did I mention location?
  • Star Wars references everywhere!
  • Great faculty choices: everyone was kind, generous, and friendly, full of wisdom to share.
  • Good attendee vibes. Everywhere I turned I was met with a smile and a friendly face. I returned home with lots of nice memories, and plenty of new Twitter and Instagram contacts, too.
  • My awesome roommate, Tina Holt. I was a little worried about sharing a cabin with a stranger, but Tina was a star. #TeamCabin20
  • Okay, I won’t mention the food again, but I loved the ‘help yourself’ hot/cold drinks stations set up all over the place. And the baskets of snacks, too. (Oops, did I just mention food?)
  • The Eastern PA SCBWI crew: Kim Briggs, Alison Green Myers, Lindsay Bandy, and Virginia Manning. You all rock, thanks for organizing this tremendous weekend.

 

Juliana on Keystroke Medium LIVE

 

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-7-13-42-pm

Yesterday I was a guest on Keystroke Medium‘s LIVE! interview show, with hosts Josh Hayes and Scott Moon. I had so much fun chatting with Josh and Scott about writing, Young Adult fiction, and longswords! Keystroke has lots of terrific author interviews, and it’s well worth checking out their YouTube channel.

If you’d like to have a look at my interview, here’s the link:

LIVE! with Juliana Spink Mills

Keystroke Medium has partnered up with cover artist Tom Edwards to raise money for Parkinsons.org.uk. If you’d like more information on this fundraiser, have a look at the Facebook page: Covers for a Cure.

Also, for all you military science fiction fans, Scott has a brand new book out today!

core-6-ebook-small_orig