A Writer’s New Year’s Resolution

a pen sits on a piece of lined notebook paperAs I’m about to start the New Year with my third book coming up and another new book on the horizon, I want to vow something to myself as a writer. This is something I’ve struggled with from time to time over the past two years, and I know other authors struggle with it too. But it’s simple, and should be obvious to us all: Be true to ourselves and to our work and write the work we need to write.

Before I was published, this was not a question. What else could I possibly write? I wondered. And yet once you’re in the publishing world, it’s easy to be swayed from this. You want your next work to sell. (To start, you simply want it to sell to a publisher.) Every subsequent novel is a struggle. There is no guarantee, even if you have a book deal, that your next novel will, in fact, be your next book. It can be easy to be drawn into ideas that may seem marketable or attractive to one reader on your team, but are not alive for the author, and to spend too much with them.

That’s what happened to me before I wrote Secret of the Shadow Beasts, and, in fact, afterward as well. I had a list of attributes that my next novel needed to be, and tried to jam ideas into that format, or create ideas based on that. I come up with a lot of ideas in general, and need to evaluate them at some point. Criteria, like the kind I had created, can be useful.

But it can also be stultifying.

Many of my ideas sound good on paper. But they didn’t have that spark, that glint in the character’s eye, that make the kind of novel I want to write.

Here are my criteria going forward:

  • Something that I care about
  • Something that is kid-centered
  • Something with a distinctive MC whom I can imagine beside me
  • Something that feels real (even if it has a magic system)
  • Something that has a good story

I’m deliberately leaving it open because doing so gives me the room to try out many different stories. But these are the crucial items that I’m going for. And with this criteria, I’m certain I’ll write a novel in 2022 of which I’ll be proud, a novel that will feel like me.

Do Strong Fictional Kids Need Help? Maybe.

Tea and treats—like this little Victoria sponge—are important for the kids in Secret of the Shadow Beasts. (Photo: Diane Magras)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we children’s authors depict the children in our books: almost always capable and independent (a combination that prepares them for the adventures we throw at them). For instance, the kids in Secret of the Shadow Beasts are especially capable, and the adults put a lot on their shoulders (by necessity for this world). But the adults also provide as much help as they can.

Early on, my editor wondered why the kids in my story don’t clean their own rooms and pack their own clothes when they’re about to go to battle. Each group of kids has their own staff (adults who, when they were young, did what these kids are doing), and that staff bends over backwards to provide for the kids: laundry, encouraging notes, special foods. I felt this was important. After all, these kids are risking their lives every night to destroy the deadly Umbrae. But they’re still kids, even though they’re capable and independent. And someone needed to show them tenderness, kindness, small parental gestures—something to remind them in this world without parents that they’re loved.

Yes, it’s a world without parents. It’s a common technique in middle grade fiction to get rid of parents (orphans, anyone?) and depict our protagonists out there alone. It puts a lot of tension on our characters (which is good for the story), and shows what kids can do.

But I’ve been thinking: In this pandemic world, tragically, many kids have lost parents, and there’s also copious evidence that some adults care more about individual “liberties” than the good of children. Do real life kids needs children’s authors to remind them that of the warm and supportive people who are doing all they can to help children? Such people are out there in force, but I know how easy is it to focus on the negative and be drawn down by that.

Here’s something I tried in Secret of the Shadow Beasts (which was a pandemic-written book), and am trying in my current secret WIP: Show communities of adults supporting kids, appreciating them, doing what they can to protect them, and loving them.

Maybe I’m turning into a mush here in the quiet, dark nights of mid-December. But these are scary, stressful times. I want my books to provide not just a friend to my readers, an escape, a host of questions to think about, but a comfort too.

(This post originally appeared, mostly like this, in Adventures from an Open Book, my monthly enewsletter. If you’d like to read my thoughts as an author in this strange and frightening world of ours, as well as updates regarding my next book, sign up here!)

Adventures from an Open Book—My New Enewsletter

I’ve been thinking for a long time about having an enewsletter with content beyond this blog, and it’s finally happening. If you sign up, you’ll learn on the second Tuesday of every month what’s going on with my upcoming book, take a peek inside this writer’s life, read about one of my very favorite recent reads, and take part (if you wish) in the occasional giveaway. (All with the beautiful art seen above, by Alice Brereton.)

If you’re a subscriber to this blog, know that you won’t automatically receive this newsletter (you’ll need to sign up to let me know that I have permission to send you email). If you’re interested, here’s the signup form. I hope you’ll join me there!

Cover Reveal: Secret of the Shadow Beasts!!

I’ve already revealed Secret of the Shadow Beasts‘s cover on Twitter and the wonderful MG Book Village, but what kind of author would I be if I didn’t reveal it here as well?

Here it is, with art by the incredible Vivienne To:

For fans of Dragon Pearl and the Lockwood & Co. series comes a swift-moving contemporary fantasy about a young girl tasked with destroying deadly shadow creatures.

In Brannland, terrifying beasts called Umbrae roam freely once the sun sets, so venomous that a single bite will kill a full-grown adult—and lately, with each day that passes, their population seems to double. The only people who can destroy them are immune children like Nora, who are recruited at the age of seven to leave their families behind and begin training at a retrofitted castle called Noye’s Hill. But despite her immunity, Nora’s father refused to let her go. Now, years after his death by Umbra attack, Nora is 12, and sees her mother almost killed by the monsters too. That’s when Nora decides it’s time to join the battle. Once she arrives at Noye’s Hill, though, she and her new friends are left with more questions than answers: Where are the Umbrae coming from? Could the government be covering up the true reason their population has whirled out of control? And was Nora’s father, the peaceful, big-hearted man who refused to let Nora fight, in on the treacherous secret?

Sound good?

If you want to learn more, Secret of the Shadow Beasts is the story of:

➢ brave kids: In particular, those immune kids, who are trained carefully before they’re given fancy weapons (the swords are based on a shamsir, a classic Iranian sword).

➢ creepy monsters: That’s the Umbrae, which is pronounced “Umm-breye,” rhyming with “Umm-pie,” and come in three forms: Cochlea umbrae (the fanged slug/snake-like one on the right), Lupus umbrae (the wolf-like one on the left), and Aranea umbrae (the spider-like one in the middle).

➢ steampunk castles: Well, to be honest, just one steampunk castle in this book (I have more in this world, but right now those are just in my head). And by “steampunk,” I mean a 500-year-old castle that was totally retrofitted in the 1960s as a secure anti-monster bunker with a ton of high-tech features.

➢ scary secrets: Can’t tell you any of those, they’re being secrets!

➢ history that matters: Because history always matters! It’s crucial to examine the stories of how we’ve reached where we are today, and to question those stories and think carefully about who’s told them.

I can’t wait for readers to get a hold of this book, but it’s going to be a while (the pub date is June 14, 2022). I’ll share more, though, as we creep ever closer to that time.

But my first preorder link is up with the wonderful Print: A Bookstore. If you order it from here, I can even sign and personalize it for you!

Announcing…My Newest Book! (and its street team)

I’ve been waiting to announce my upcoming book for a while, in part not to jinx anything, but also because things can change so quickly in the publishing world. But now (knock on wood), all seems to be progressing as planned. Which means that I can finally share a little about my third book.

First, the title and publishing date: Secret of the Shadow Beasts, due out on June 14, 2022. It’s not a Drest book but an alt-reality fantasy taking place in a world much like ours with a major difference: Environmental degradation has spawned shadowy monsters that come out at the gloaming (twilight) to decimate humankind. Only kids can stop them (this is a middle grade book, after all!), and my story follows a team of such kids from the perspective of its newest member, a rural girl named Nora, who most certainly doesn’t fit in. Expect to read some vivid battle scenes, interpersonal conflict, and a tangled mystery about where these shadow beasts come from. This book is warm, tense, a little creepy, with bit of a steampunk vibe, and loads of adventure.

I don’t have final cover art yet, which would give you a very good feel of this book, but that should be finished in a month or so. And the formal publisher-provided description will be ready then too.

Right now, I’m doing final edits and preparing my marketing plan for the months leading up to the book’s pub date. And one part of that is my Secret of the Shadow Beasts Street Team.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me mention this. I’m assembling a group to help me spread the word—and to celebrate. I’m hoping my team will share my cover art on Twitter for my formal reveal, promote preorders, and other things as well (according to members’ time and inclination). Most of all, though, I’m looking forward to having this group with whom I can share all the exciting things that happen leading up to a book’s publication.

If you’d like to join my street team, please fill out the sign-up form that I’ve linked in this post. I’m putting together their first newsletter now. And let me know (in a comment here or on Twitter) if you’d like more information.

There will be more! Stay tuned…

Story Bite #24: Finding Your Beginning Through Touch

When students are having trouble with the beginning of a piece, they’re sometimes advised to think about what their character is feeling. Often, this means emotions. But the actual sense of touch can be effective too. This series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—offers tips for students on how to jump-start a scene through the senses. By writing about a sensory elements like touch, the writer can instantly put the reader directly into a scene.

Touch is powerful. It can be soothing, painful, or something in-between. It affects our minds and physical reactions. Think about temperature and what it feels like to be very cold or very hot. As a sensory element of writing, touch is often the most powerful when used in the extreme. But subtlety can be very compelling too.

If you’re walking barefoot on stone like this, you’ll feel the warmth and the hard, rough surface of the stone—and the momentary softness of that lichen. (Photo: Diane Magras)

Think of what it would be like to feel the following:

  • A 1×1 Lego brick (under your heel)
  • A hamster’s fur (against your palm)
  • A casserole dish just out from the oven (on your finger)
  • A sopping-wet fresh snowball (in your knitted mittens)

What would your reaction be to those physical sensations? Create your own list of physical feelings that cause either an instinctive or emotional reaction. If you can’t easily think of some, here are four more prompts:

  • A very soft pillow (against your head)
  • Water in a lukewarm pond (all around you)
  • A muddy lawn (against your knees)
  • The eroded stone of an ancient castle wall (against your hand)

How would these touches make you feel? And the character you’re writing about: How would they feel and what would be happening to them as they felt these things? What would happen next? Water in a lukewarm pond could be a delight (it’s been a hot, long day and someone is thrilled to be swimming at last)—or a terror (someone who can’t swim has just been pushed into the water).

Starting your piece of writing with a feeling can be an action, a reaction, or a prelude to an action. No matter what, it’s a fantastic way to help your reader truly feel the emotions you’re trying to evoke. And the beauty of this approach is that there’s always more to write.

For this Story Bite, think of something you’ve physically felt (or pick one from one of my lists above). If you can (without harm), find it and touch it (or just remember what it feels like, or try to imagine). What’s your reaction? Write down a description of that feeling. Make it quick (The water was cool and refreshing.) or link it with your character (The water filled my ears and eyes. It was all around me, heavy and cold.) and then write what comes next: how your character responds. For example:

The water was cool and refreshing. She surfaced, took a deep breath, and dove back down, away from the world above.

or

The water filled my ears and eyes. It was all around me, heavy and cold. I thrashed, desperate to reach the surface, but I was sinking instead.

What comes next? Is anyone with your character? What are they doing? Add that. What does your character do? Write that next. What happens after that? Keep writing.

Touch is a traditional way to begin a scene for a good reason: It’s an extremely effective way to put your reader directly in the action. And it’s a fantastic way to put your own mind in the scene as well.

Story Bite #23: Finding Your Beginning Through Smell

Students often struggle with the beginning of a piece of writing. (So do many published authors as well.)  This is the second series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—that offers tips for students on how to jump-start a scene through the senses. Using sensory elements can put the reader—and the writer—directly into a piece of writing. For this post, we’re focusing on smell.

Smell creates an instant reaction—emotional and otherwise! Think of walking into a room that has a bouquet of fragrant lilies on the table…or a dog that passes gas on the rug on the floor. Smell hits us, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a way that makes us want to turn around and walk out.

Photo: Diane Magras

Think of how you would respond to the following:

  • The sweet scent of lilacs
  • The brisk scent of the ocean and seaweed
  • The bitter scent of burning rubber (like a tire when a car skids)
  • The heavy scent of freshly-baked cinnamon bread

What would your reaction be to those odors? Create your own list of smells that soothe you, irritate you, make you hungry, or make you want to get away as fast as possible. If you can’t easily think of some, here are four more:

  • The husky scent of a pond
  • The heavy scent of wood smoke on a snowy day
  • The thick scent of air freshening spray
  • The sharp scent of a passing skunk

How would you react to these scents? What would be happening as your character is smelling them? Where is your character? Are they with anyone else? Are they expecting something to happen? What kind of mood are they in? The crisp scent of the ocean could inspire a sick feeling (someone who picks up the scent of dead fish or crabs)—or it could inspire a smile (someone who grew up by the ocean and finds comfort in it)

Starting your piece of writing with a scent that evokes an emotion will give you the first words of a beginning, then more to write about: the situation your character is in.

For this Story Bite, think of a scent (or pick one from one of my lists above). If you can, find it and smell it (or just remember what it smells like, or try to imagine). What’s your reaction? Write down a description of that sound. Make it quick (The scent of the sea was brisk and clean.) or link it with your character (That ocean smell made me want to throw up.) and then write what comes next: how your character responds. For example:

The scent of the sea was brisk and clean. He leaned back, his hands on the railing, and closed his eyes. This scent meant home.

or

That ocean smell made me want to throw up. The beach was empty, but I smelled all those pogies that had washed ashore and died and then rotted on that beach when I was six.

What comes next after your character’s initial reaction? Where are they? What are they doing? Write that down. Who is with them, or are they alone? Add that. What do they do in reaction to that scent? What happens after that? Write that as well.

Scent is a less traditional way to start a scene than sound or sight, but it can puts your reader directly into your character’s mind without too much trouble. And it might put your mind right into your story too.

Story Bite #22: Finding Your Beginning Through Sound

One of the most common questions I’ve heard from students about writing is how to find ideas to start a piece. They’re often told to start with action in the middle of a scene. But sometimes they can’t think of an action or a scene, and the ideas just won’t come.

A scene is a snapshot of a moment in your character’s life in which your character is feeling and thinking about something. This series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—will share tips on how to jump-start a scene through the senses: things that evoke emotions. In the first, let’s look at—or, rather, listen to—sound.

We all respond emotionally to sensations around us, and sound is one of the biggest.

Think of how you would respond to the following:

  • A clap of thunder
  • The beat of a bass drum
  • The tinkling of sleet on glass
  • A hawk’s shrill cry

Do you have an emotional reaction to any of those sounds? Create your own list of sounds that startle you, delight you, interest you, or frighten you. If you can’t think of any off the top of your head, here are a few more:

  • The crackling of fireworks
  • The crackling of fire
  • The creak of a floorboard
  • A creak of a tree in the woods

What do sounds mean in a story? Think about what might be happening around them. Is something creepy about to occur? Or something wonderful? A sound like the crackling of fire can inspire a feeling of relief (someone who manages to finally, finally start a campfire for supper) or comfort (a crackling fire in a fireplace)—or it can inspire terror and despair (a forest fire).

Starting with a sound that evokes an emotion will give you a beginning, then something to write about: the situation your character is in.

For this Story Bite, think of a sound (or pick one from one of my lists above). Go online and find an example of that sound. Notice of your reaction. Do you flinch? Do you smile? Write down a description of that sound. Make it simple (The fire crackled.) or link it with your character (A clap of thunder filled her ears.) and then write what comes next: how your character reacted. For example:

The fire crackled. I pulled my legs up and smiled. At last, I was warm.

or

A clap of thunder filled her ears. Shivering, she hugged herself. Would it ever stop?

Think of what comes next after your character’s initial reaction. Where are they? What are they doing? Write that down. Who is with them, or are they alone? Add that. What do they do in reaction to that sound? What happens after that? Write that as well.

Sound is a great way to start a scene. It puts your reader directly into your character’s mind. But it also puts your mind right into your story.

Favorite Reads of 2020—Part 2

Yesterday I posted my favorite middle grade books from the first part of 2020. Here’s the rest from the second half of that year!

Class Act by Jerry Craft
Jerry Craft’s New Kid, the first book in this graphic novel series, dealt with casual racism and micro-aggressions head-on (in a compelling and sometimes funny story of a Black student’s experiences at a new and primarily white school). This second book in the series touches on those same issues from a different Black character’s perspective. It also goes deep into privilege and differences and how hard it can be to be friends with people whose backgrounds and life experiences seem light years away from your own. Funny in places like the first, but incredibly thoughtful.

The Verdigris Pawn by Alyssa Wishingrad
This debut by Alyssa Wishingrad is coming out in July 2021, but I was fortunate to have an early read. The book is magnificent. I loved the gentle boy who leads the story and finds his strength where he doesn’t expect, and the determined girl who introduces him to the real version of the world he’s meant to one day rule with an iron fist. This story is packed with themes of authority and privilege, depicting how corruption can spread easily if you don’t watch out, and how we all need to stand up for the rights of each other.

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan
I make a point of reading everything that’s coming out by these two authors, so it was quite fun to read a book they’d collaborated on. And what a fantastic book. Two characters from two different cultural backgrounds—Muslim-American and Jewish-American—become friends in a cooking class taught by the mother of the first one. Expect a great story about friendship and food, as well as a depiction of how differences are good for our world.

The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson
This powerful story stars a pair of First Nation foster kids living with a white family in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who discover a portal to a world that reflects their heritage. There, time is different. Animals speak, wear traditional clothing, and follow traditional lifestyles. And everyone is worried about the hardships of a winter caused by a visitor to the land who took over far too much. A new version of Narnia that includes an important historical note as well: the impact outsiders have had on First Nation people and their traditions. And the main character, Morgan, is a fantastic edgy voice to add to middle grade lit.

The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
For some reason, I hadn’t read this classic children’s fantasy, a book that helped build the genre, until this year. But I’m so glad I did. This stands up well with its wildly imaginative world and characters, and feels relevant today. It’s a story of growing up, of dealing with power and temptation, and facing one’s greatest fears. It also stars a protagonist of color in a world where people of color dominate, back when readers rare saw that in books for kids (the author mentions in her note that, to her great annoyance, cover art for this book often depicted her main characters as white).

Favorite Reads of 2020—Part 1

I read many incredible middle grade books in 2020. Here’s my list of my very favorites from the first half of of last year. While I liked nearly everything I read, these rose to the top as stories I enjoyed tremendously, thought about long after, and could see many young readers picking up and having the same response.

Last Pick by Jason Walz
This first in a graphic novel series about a dystopian society where aliens have invaded earth, taking all those they considered able-bodied (and leaving all those young and with disabilities behind), stars two siblings who were left behind. They’re starting a revolt against the aliens, but also finding value in the ways in which they differ from what aliens consider the perfect human.

Keep It Together, Keiko Carter by Debbi Michiko Florence
An incredible realistic fiction with a bubbly narrator who is trying so hard to keep her friends connected, take care of others, and be a good person while everything is changing around her. Keiko is an utterly engaging character whom readers will love to follow—and tries so hard to be understanding that, at first, she makes excuses for the micro-aggressions she endures, ones the readers will surely notice.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
I read a lot of books this year that dealt with immigrant experiences in the U.S. This novel in verse stood out for its depiction of Syrian life back at home as well as in the U.S. and the challenges of entering U.S. society as a new Syrian immigrant in a time when racism against Muslim-Americans is intense. Yet this is a sweet story as well—of family, fitting in, finding one’s place, and finding one’s home. This is a  truly beautiful novel.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably heard me rave about this marvelous answer to Little House on the Prairie. A half-Chinese girl and her white father enter Dakota Territory, where racist townsfolk, gender stereotypes, and hostile attitudes toward the native tribes make life especially challenging. It’s a sensitive depiction of frontier life and Hanna is an inspiring guide. This book is also about the importance of following your dreams.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
A boy escapes from a prison community where he’s grown up, desperate for a new life, and a policeman’s daughter is after him, determined to save her father’s honor. There are clear shades of Jean Valjean and Javert in this exciting fantasy about the abuse of privilege, what a sticky beast “justice” can be, and the power of protest.