Author Interview: Lila Mina

There’s a very specific skill needed to pull off writing a book like Fated, something that takes a combination of knowledge and life lessons that are hard-won. It takes a lot of first-hand knowledge of language and culture and a lot of painstaking research.

Lila Mina may be one of the few, maybe only person that could have pulled off such a feat. Having spoken with her (and as you’ll be able to read below), I can see the breadcrumbs of her past in her novel, and I love how resourceful and unique the novel is.

I was delighted to speak with her, and reading her novel was a joy. You can read my review of Fated here.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a native French speaker from Europe, and I’ve been living in Japan for more than a decade with my family. Writing has always been my creative outlet, for as long as I can remember. I began writing short stories back in junior high school, then went on with writing tons of fanfiction for fanzines, in French and English, when that was a thing. I moved to longer original stories in my early twenties until my law school killed my creative spark. It took me fifteen years to get back to creative writing. That’s when I realized I loved writing stories with extra levels of steam. 

Today, I’m in my early forties, I run a couple of businesses and write whenever I can find the time. For years, even before moving here, I’ve had a deep emotional connection with Japan, and I find inspiration in what I see and experience in my daily life, as well as what I’ve learned over the years. Through my mother’s side, I grew up with a rich inner world based on Scandinavian fairy tales with strong ties to nature and the Unseen surrounding us. So the instant connection I had with the myths and animistic worldview prevalent in Japan that inspires most of my stories doesn’t surprise me.

You’ve had an exciting background yourself! Do you feel the adventures you’ve experienced and the worldliness you’ve attained as someone who’s lived in many different countries affects how you write your characters beyond their cultures?

Definitely! My world and life are so different from when I lived back in my country of origin. Being a foreigner in a vastly different country, with different worldviews, practices, expectations and social rules taught me so much about myself… and the reality of being foreign resident. I figured out what was the most important for me, and what seriously needed work and improvement, above all when disasters and catastrophe struck. It inspired me to write characters who experience life-changing revelations. That’s why all my books have this common point, because cultural differences create interesting tension, chance for character growth and teachable moments between protagonists. People can stay true to themselves yet grow at so many levels.

What is your favorite novel, and has it inspired how you write? How?

It’s a very difficult question. I’ve had too many favorites over the years now, and it wasn’t any particular book that pushed me into writing. 

But if I had to think back to my formative years and the books that made a lasting impact, I think it’s a mix of classics – from Les Misérables, The Three Musketeers to Dracula and Water Margin by Shi Na’ain. Then later the Anita Blake series by Laurel K. Hamilton (my first steps into polyamory and paranormal universe), but also science fiction, historical novels and thrillers. I read Stephen King and Michael Crichton when I was 12-17 for example. More recently, I’ve binged on the Nordic Noir genre (like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø) and Chinese and Japanese authors in SFF and crime, notably The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, or Out by Natsuo Kirino. Authors writing magical realism like Haruki Murakami, Jose Carlos Somoza, or Selma Lagerlöf always hit close, and their books have been a major source of inspiration when I began writing in earnest. 

Of course, I cannot forget the long-lasting impression left by James Clavell’s Shogun when I was 16 or 17. It was my first introduction to feudal Japan, led me to watch all Kurosawa movies, and when I began writing Fated, I realized that there was a strong connection with that novel I read 25 years ago.

I didn’t read a lot of pure romance books, and I think this shows in the stories I write. Although all of them have a strong romance plot (and/or extra steamy scenes), with a HEA for the love birds, I enjoy creating the kind of world-building that is more often associated with fantasy and SFF, and the darker side of crime and paranormal always thrilled me. 

It makes it harder for me to reach a specific audience, but genre-blending is a favorite pastime of mine. Reading books from so many cultures and styles also led me off the usual path when it comes to trope and story structure. Some readers find it disturbing, others enjoy the novelty. The only thing I will say is that you should read my books with an open mind and not come here for the fetishes.

Tell us about your novel, Fated, and The Temper Saga series.

Fated is an adult LGBTQ fantasy romance set between modern and ancient Japan, with a time-travel/soul transmigration twist (soul transmigration is a big thing in Asian fantasy). The four main protagonists live in Tokyo as a polyamorous family, raising their children together. One of them, Francesco, is a newcomer into the family dynamics. The plot revolves around him finding his place, along with the challenge of seeing another family member, Honda, get lost in time, replaced by the soul of the man he used to be four hundred years before, a powerful Japanese warlord named Date Masamune, who hates our heroine Lana because of a demonic conspiracy. Half of the story is set in modern times, the other half in a distant past. 

Like in the rest of the series, there are strong supernatural/fantasy elements in Fated, beside the obvious soul transmigration aspect. Japanese demons and deities interfere in the lives of my protagonists, some are foes, some are allies. Half of the protagonists are Japanese (Honda and Yuki), half are Italian (Lana and Francesco). Cultural background and communication differences play an important role in the way all of them come to be together and live as a family. 

In Book 1, Deference, the saga starts with how Lana meets first Honda, her martial arts instructor, then Yuki, his wife. The first trilogy (Deference, Dread, Deliverance) explains how they find out that their lives are directly affected by old curses that impact Honda and Lana. Processing trauma, resilience and healing through openness, love of others and self-acceptance are major themes. Francesco comes into the picture in book 4, Vindicta, set in Italy, when we get to dive into Lana’s traumatic past.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your books?

The Temper saga and my books in general are very explicit, extremely sexy – downright kinky at times. I want to show older, mature heroines and heroes exploring their desires together, as this is not enough shown in today’s romance. In fact, there is a major issue in today’s publishing world: once they hit 28, women are ‘unfuckable’. Women’s literature works on a closed-door policy and older bodies should not be shown. Finding your identity, exploring it, changing your life isn’t supposed to happen to women over 28 – the only thing women ‘can’ do is divorce, or remarry. This is of course ridiculous, because life is about constant change and growth, and it sends the wrong message. People can totally figure out their career, their path, their desires and identity (not to mention love) in their 40s and beyond! This is one of the biggest lessons that Japan taught me.

I also hope to make non-queer readers more open-minded about LGBTQ people and families around them. I would like to show that a book with a full LGBTQ cast doesn’t have to be only about them fighting for their identity, but simply living it as such. The core tensions and issues don’t have to be only about that. That’s how we can progressively move to a kind of representation that is truly inclusive.

Finally, I want to show that you can write about dark themes, BDSM and rough sex practices while making sure that explicit and enforced consent is at the core of the relationship. While non-con/dub-con is a sub-genre that has its place on the shelves, we need to see more books where it’s not supposed to be a theme actually show all partners involved having a say and power over what happens. I’m a huge fan of dark vampire stories and love books with huge power imbalance, so I will never judge. However, in more normal stories, whether there is power imbalance or not, but especially when there is, we need to see and hear about consent at all times.

What is different about Fated?

Fated was a bit of a surprise for me. When I was wrapping Vindicta, book 4 in the series, I thought the saga would end with that book. And then, there was a big reveal near the end that almost wrote itself, and I realized I needed to explore that path. It also helped me tie loose ends and offer more insight into my characters, on top of giving more room for Francesco as part of the Honda family and understand this part of Honda’s identity. 

Fated is the only book in the series that has multiple POVs (one per part), as the rest of the series focuses on my main character, Lana. Of course, with its double cast of characters and two timelines, Fated is quite different compared to the rest of the saga. That’s why I consider it to be a quasi standalone book that readers unfamiliar with my series can grab. It does contain some spoilers, but I was happy to see that for newcomers to my world, they were not an issue, rather an incentive to give the entire series a chance. 

Like the rest of the story, it is built on mutual acceptance and support of each protagonist’s identity and desire. They love each other also because each of them accepts that another partner brings something special, necessary and unique to their relationship. At the end of book 4, Honda, Lana and Yuki thought they were a triangle, but in fact, with Francesco, they are a diamond – a shield that protects their children and prepares them for the extraordinary path ahead of them.

What are your plans for future novels?

Fated ends the Temper saga but it’s not the last time that readers see my ‘Fab Four’. I have started a spinoff series, the Dragon saga, where they will be featured, and after so many years writing about them, I do plan to write short stories focusing on them. Book 1 of the Dragon series (How to tame a dragon) should be published later this year. On February 14, I released Platinum Nights, a contemporary romance that is completely unrelated to my Temper universe, but that also features a seasoned couple. It’s my personal take on the good ol’ billionaire trope.

What inspires you to write?

Usually, something I see or read will make me react – positively or negatively, and a plot bunny is born! I can spend months or even years chasing it, or sometimes it’s a done deal in a matter of weeks. It all depends on my current mood and available time.

There’s a belief that writers need to break out at a young age to attain significant momentum in publishing. Do you find that your age has been to your detriment in how others view your work, and/or do you also find that your age adds wisdom to your characters and plotlines?

Well, I cannot speak for writers in their early twenties who want to land a publishing contract. This was never my goal. Having said that, I find it restrictive, limitative and downright discriminatory to set aside a new author simply because they are considered ‘too old’. I guess this tells a lot about how a society sees ‘older’ people (knowing that ‘old’ seems to start at… 29?! lol).

Living in a country that respects the older generations and that praises skills and talents *honed* by years of practice in all kinds of fields, this makes me shake my head. Unless you are exceptionally talented, nothing beats practice, and when it comes to writing, your own life experience can breathe much depth to your characters. It’s quite exceptional (maybe even a fantasy) to have it all figured out at 25, including addressing past trauma, embracing your own identity or understanding your real aspirations.   

Also, this implies that you cannot ‘find your voice’ after you’ve hit a certain age, or that you cannot learn anything new or find your path when you’re over 26. That’s so wrong! All of us can find what motivates us, our creative spark or start from scratch regardless of our age. I started writing seriously at 35, but I also began martial arts at that same age. My teachers don’t care how old we are, it doesn’t matter. Only dedication and practice do. The same goes for writing or any kind of art. 

That’s why I took the self-publishing road. I don’t want to waste time and energy trying to pitch to people who are only motivated by big figures or by social media trends and have a very narrow set of expectations that you should meet. This isn’t real life, this isn’t what real people can and should aspire to, and it blocks so many diverse and minority voices from being heard.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

I love sharing my babies with the world, but marketing efforts are a pain. It’s a solo job and I can’t be on all fronts at all times. Maybe one day I’ll be able to hire a PA, but that’s not possible for now. 

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

Well, writing in another language than your native tongue is of course a challenge. But for me, the biggest hurdle is to find time for myself. Running two businesses next to writing means that I spend already most of my time in front of a screen, and when finally the day is over, it’s hard to motivate myself or find the energy to continue, even for a couple of hours. So I’ve learned to be kinder with myself and stop stressing over that. There are weeks where I don’t write at all, and then I will have the chance to write dozens of pages in one sitting. 

You talk about coming to writing again after a long break. What advice would you give to those who are considering picking up writing again after losing touch with the practice?

First of all, be gentle with yourself. Start with small. Write what you want, what inspires you, even if you think it’s silly. Share it on free platforms first if you are daunted by the self-publishing process. Find your community, even if it’s small, and join some of the awesome author groups on social media to find people with the same dreams confronted to the same challenges. 

How can we purchase your book?

All my books are available on Amazon stores worldwide. They are also enrolled in Kindle Unlimited!

Book Review: Not Quite Out

William is fine with being just friends for the rest of forever.
Well, not quite.

Not Quite Out by Louise Willingham is a slow-burn contemporary romance with tangible, idiosyncratic characters and messy, complex relationships that tackles real-world issues and questions the norms we have established around our culture of coming out. It’s a sophisticated and complicated novel with characters that are not always likeable and situations that have an uncomfortable resonance, but speaks to our potential to form relationships that traverse the chasms that split between us.

William isn’t straight, but a quiet nervousness and need for privacy makes the words ‘I’m bisexual’ feel like a proclamation of intent, where he’d rather simply finish his coursework.

When he meets Daniel, he’s charmed by his facade but falls for the man beneath. Dan has demons of his own, ones that make Will realize the inherent unimportance of his own internal struggle. But as their friendship blooms, it becomes more and more apparent that the closet Will has made his home is bursting at the seams.


Be very aware of the trigger warnings in this book. The author is very open about the triggers, and they are made available on the description page before purchase. As always, I also have listed the triggers I spotted at the end of this review, so please check before picking up this book that there isn’t a trigger that can cause you an issue.

If you’re looking for an easy, fluffy, feel-good read this is not the book for you. This is categorized as contemporary romance, but it goes much deeper than a book simply about the development of a romantic relationship. It doesn’t fit into a box as cleanly, which I always find refreshing. 

If you’re someone who yearns to read books that make you think deeper about our actions and how we form and keep relationships, this is well worth a look. There are real-world issues and messy relationships throughout the novel, and the characters make significant missteps that make them often unlikeable. Yet, that is what I loved about the book. It was real.

I would even go so far as to say if you’re a fan of literary fiction and are thinking of dipping your toes into genre fiction, this could be a place to start. This feels like a contemporary romance and literary fiction hybrid in some ways. It doesn’t have the lyrically heavy prose of some literary fiction, but it does focus on complex themes and messages. 

What I Liked 

The writing flows and carries the reader along with it, the prose quirky but easy to read. I enjoyed the first-person point of view, giving us up-close and personal insights into Will’s intentions and thought processes. I don’t think the book would have worked as well in third-person; it felt necessary with Will’s anxiety for us to get the reasoning and thoughts behind some of his actions and choices.

I should note, one of the most interesting perspectives that Willingham brings up in this novel is about the need for those around us to be knowledgeable to the point of intrusiveness about aspects of our lives. There’s an undercurrent of the theme of letting people come to their own understandings and share in their own time, or not at all, which is definitely a stance that I haven’t seen much in modern fiction. I think Willingham is trying to say that in our need to tell others that they can share anything with us, we often imply we need to share everything, which is a very different meaning.

The characters in Not Quite Out are flawed, which I think is what makes them believable. William, our protagonist, is young, naive, anxious, wants to help to a sometimes unhealthy degree, and is still coming to terms that he’s not entirely straight. The relationships he forms are not perfect, and often devolve into disasters that he then has to work through re-building. Sounds a lot like real life, doesn’t it?

Trigger Warnings

PTSD, Drug Abuse, Domestic Violence, Abortion, Self-Harm

(Not Quite Out is a novel with a lot to say, and I was excited to be sent an ARC in exchange for an honest review.)

Author Interview: Louise Willingham

There’s an old belief that as time goes on, pets and their owners begin to look alike. Scruffy faced old men begin to assimilate the look of their husky counterparts, frizzy-haired middle-aged secretaries take on the harried countenance of their mini-poodles. In as much as two different species can resemble each other, pet and owner form a symbiotic physical appearance.

I think authors take that a step further. There are some authors that their novels simply becomes them, as charismatic, solemn, sensitive, quiet, or thrilling as that person is in real life. Reading Not Quite Out, and knowing what I know about Louise Willingham, I can see clearly the earnest soul that penned it. Their light and spirit came to life on the page. It is such a delicate, intricate and sensitive piece of literature that has as much to say as its author.

It’s appropriate that this interview comes on Valentines’ day, as I choose to celebrate the relationships in my life that are complex, nuanced, and invaluable. The ones that go further than chocolates, flowers, and greeting cards, and tiptoe quietly into the life-saving and irreplaceable. Not Quite Out is a story of those kinds of relationships.

I was glad that Louise took the time to answer my questions. You can also read my review of Not Quite Out here.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a nervous bi who has a lot to say! I live in Staffordshire, England, and spend most of my time walking around my village or chatting about new story ideas with my friends.

Tell us about your novel, Not Quite Out.
Not Quite Out is a slow-burn following a nervous bi while he tries to work out the best way of helping his new friend while trying to be honest to himself. Will is an over-thinker, and that really drives the whole book.

It’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s have a bit of fun with the occasion! If your book had a dating profile, what would it say?
Oh my.

A rainy-day read with a hard-fought happy ending and a bed shortage searches for a reader who isn’t sure how to come out but has so much empathy it gets them into trouble. Must love coffee and/or jacket potatoes.

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from Not Quite Out?
The absolute main one is that you can love someone without knowing everything about them. With an unreliable, limited first-person narrator like Will, it’s really fascinating to see the plot lines that happen “off-page”. A lot goes on without Will knowing, and it’s hinted at for the reader to pick up on, but it really drives home this point that everyone is allowed their secrets. It’s okay to not tell everyone everything.

You mention your main theme is that you don’t have to know everything about someone to love them. I find that to be a really refreshing take! Has this theme developed from something personal to you?
Yes! I think it’s so important that we don’t expect 100% clarity from everyone we socialize with—even our very best friends. No one should feel forced to talk about things unless they want to, particularly when it comes to sexuality and trauma. Those are deeply personal things. I think this comes from me realizing I really don’t have to explain every part of myself to the world in order to publish a book, just like I don’t expect other authors to out themselves (or be outed) just so they can write a book where the girl gets the girl. 

What is different about Not Quite Out?
For a start, the topics I cover. Being an indie book means I can talk about things traditional publishing doesn’t usually take a gamble on. We have an explicitly bisexual main character, which I think we all agree we need more of, and the love interest is an absolute mess of a human—but he’s full of good intentions.

Not Quite Out features a bisexual main character. How do you feel about bi representation in books currently?
I rarely read a book specifically for the rep. I think that’s dangerous because every bi experience—or every trans experience, asexual experience, gay experience etc—is different, so if you expect to connect to a character-based only on your shared queerness you’re asking for trouble. That said, I love stories where characters grow in confidence and learn to accept and embrace parts of themselves. When this is bisexuality, I feel a kinship to the character. I’m very happy with the surge in queer literature over the last few years and hope it continues so we get a broader range of queer voices. As I always say, there are as many queer stories as there are queer people. The more books with “rep”, the greater chance a reader will find a story similar to theirs.

Were William and Daniel influenced by anyone you know in real life?
Largely, yes. Much of NQO is based on things I’ve experienced, and I know some good friends will be able to point at specific conversations in the book and go “yep that’s me”. (I talked to them about it before I included it, of course!) A lot of the things Will says are things I find myself wanting to say to people I love, so really that’s the important thing. I’m sort of speaking through Will and even though he’s an annoyance a lot of the time I think that’s because I am, too! He’s definitely not a perfect character but I like to think it’s clear he always has the best intentions.

How would you describe the relationship between Daniel and William at the beginning of the book?
In the beginning, there’s a lot of caution. Will has no idea what he’s getting himself into, and Dan attempts to shield him from it. But, underneath it all, Dan is an extrovert. He needs to have people around him. He realizes that Will is probably the best person in the area for him to start trusting, so he gives it a shot. Will proves again and again that he has time for Dan and any and all of his problems, and that’s where Dan drops his guard and admits it would be quite nice to have a friend. That’s how they go from acquaintances to proper friends.

Are there aspects of the relationship between William and Daniel that mirror a relationship you’ve seen between persons(s) in your own life?
I have a very poor imagination, so most things I write about are directly inspired by things I’ve experienced. For this reason, the whole book is incredibly personal to me. William’s absolute need to look after Dan is something I firmly relate to—sometimes, you notice someone is suffering and feel like you’re the only person in the world who cares. Sometimes that person feels like you are, too. But, as Will learns, you can’t always be the one doing the helping. Will is under constant pressure throughout the book, and Dan notices. Dan does everything in his power to reassure and protect Will and I think that bidirectional flow of trust and support is super important. Any relationship—friendship, professional, romantic—should be built on mutual trust and respect. As one of the characters in the book says, it should also make you happy. These are things I make sure I have in all my relationships and I think they’re critical to staying healthy.

What are your plans for future novels?
I’m always writing and ‘spending time with my characters’, but I don’t currently have plans to publish another book. I have a few WIPs which will maybe one day become something I want to share, but that’s a long way off.

How can we purchase your book?
The best place to buy it is through your local indie! My local indie shop, Queer Lit, have been wonderful and had an early ARC to review before they advertised the book. If you’re in the UK, I’d recommend buying through them. Bookshop is great for the UK and US, but apart from that, the book is listed on all Amazon sites and by retailers such as Waterstones and Barnes and Noble.

Book Review: Under New Suns

After generations of warfare against the ominous Swarm, the United Planetary Alliance settles on a desperate gambit—send a squad of Marines to steal one of the Swarm’s bio-organic battleships. However, it turns out the ship isn’t merely alive but fully sentient… and it has a mission of its own. 

Under New Suns (Tales From the Year Between Book 2) is an anthology written and illustrated by over twenty authors and illustrators, detailing an epic space opera told in the form of star maps, illustrations, comics, poetry, flash fiction, short stories, verse, and even a stage play. The galaxy, dimension, and reality-bending twists and turns caught me off guard in every segment of the story.

We start off with some beautifully detailed star maps by Aaron Hockett to orient us to the surroundings our heroes encounter and a summarized explanation of the mission. This swiftly changes to comic panels (also by Hockett) that detail the beginning of the story. The desperate plan: steal a Swarm ship. But right off the bat, we know not all will go according to plan as our heroes soon discover the ship is capable of more than it seems.

From there, it’s all hands on deck, as we’re introduced to the substantial crew, then we’re treated to a swirling poem to set the mood by Phebe Yawson, Spinning in Space

Then, the strangeness begins.


I’ll put this up top so there’s no question: if you like space operas, you’ll have fun with this anthology. At the end of the day, it was an entertaining read that would be best read a few stories at a time, so you never quite lose traction or the plotline. 

Keep in mind, though each story is written by a separate author, there is a coherent thread throughout. Although the chronology of the stories does jump around, they are meant to be read in sequence. I wouldn’t recommend moving around, or an already cerebral story may become impossible to parse.

Even if you’re not already a space-opera aficionado, general sci-fi and speculative fiction fans will get a kick out of this as well, and part of this is because of the diversity of content. What makes Under New Suns stand out as a space-opera is it draws on a lot of different aspects of science fiction, not just space travel. It’s science fiction with an emphasis on its root: science. 

There’s one story in particular that focuses on oceanography, exploring what the oceans of an alien planet might look like, but through the lens of the knowledge of Earth’s oceans. Another later story focuses on chemistry. We have stories that touch on meteorology, genomics, anthropology, on and on.

This may feel like it should be expected, but so many space operas get so inundated in engineering and astrophysics they forget that other sciences should become just as involved. This is a testament to what happens when you have multiple voices coming to the table with diverse ideas.

What I Liked

As always don’t forget to check the Trigger Warnings at the bottom of the page if you have concerns.

I already talked a little bit about the diversity of scientific methodologies being something I enjoyed in Under New Suns. On the same wavelength, I also loved the diversity of writing styles and formats. There’s anything from star maps to comic illustrations, from flash fiction to stage plays. More specific than that, there are stories that are very character-driven and intimate, and then those that are very action-packed and plot-driven. Each author has their own voice, and it gives something different to the over-arching story.

And speaking of the plot itself, it was at times entertaining, then intellectual, and suddenly emotional. By the end, there were so many different threads going so many different directions it became a little difficult to pick through them all, but I can’t help but think that some of the complexity was on purpose for reasons I won’t get into (sorry, spoilers!)

I will end my review with a little bit of enticement for those of you who are already salivating at the idea of reading Under New Suns. The next Tales from The Years Between Anthology? Pirates. I’m there.

Trigger Warnings

Sexual Situations, Drug Use, Violence

Writer’s Musings: Let the Light In

Seasons change, and with it, memories resurface. This time of year, I get introspective, as winter hits and the ground is blanketed in white. It’s a sign for me that life will get dark before it gets light again—and isn’t that the way of things?

I want to tell you all a story, because I don’t think I tell them enough. I let my mind meander on the page, but not often do I pull off the roof to the house and let you all see in.

It begins about a year past my wife’s sudden death. The grief felt like caustic vessels, pinpricks of iron in my blood, leaving me feeling anemic and frail. Family was visiting—to cheer me up? See how I was doing across the country? I can’t remember—but I do remember this moment so clearly.

It was night, cramped in my small one-bedroom apartment. “I’m not really a fan of stand-up comedy,” I’d said as we huddled around my tiny television. And though that’s what came out of my mouth, what I meant was, I don’t know if I can laugh right now.

She was certain, though. “You’ll love it,” she said, typed ‘n,’ ‘a,’ ‘n,’ in the Netflix search until Nanette showed up. Pressed play.

I’d watched the first fifteen minutes with apprehension and belief that I would not, in fact, like it, with all the certainty of someone ready to prove a loved one wrong out of misaligned spite (what good does that ever do?) But as the comedian continued, I became more and more immersed, and something my loved one had said earlier became clear.

This “wasn’t simply a comedy special”. This was a transformation.

Anyone who has seen Nanette, the stand-up performance by Hannah Gadsby, knows that it is as much a confessional and spoken word poem as anything else. It is a transformation of all a stand-up performance can and should be, taking everything that makes comedy and breaks it down to its elements, making it into something completely new by its end.

And just as powerful as Gadsby’s performance, was the why of it. As she explains in the special and in her TED Talk, Three ideas. Three contradictions. Or not. transformation is necessary because she no longer wished to be the punchline of her own story. Comedy needed to change in order to fit what she needed to tell.

Not a lot changed for me that night. I laughed. I needed to, there’s no doubt about that. And I look back on that night with fondness and love. But it’s not until looking back on Nanette, after listening to Gadsby’s TED Talk, that I realize the depth of what she was trying to say, and the impact it can have on more than comedy.

I look at literature and publishing as it has existed over even the past ten years, and realize that it has to change. It can no longer fit the stories it needs to carry. I think of all the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, disabled, and neurodiverse voices that are either not represented or underrepresented and I think, traditional publishing needs to grow, and how we view what’s right and wrong in literature needs to change.

No longer is it enough to have stories where minority voices only exist to inspire or become token representations of their identity. We need stories with diversity as the norm, characters that have multiple minority identities, plots that don’t just revolve around discovering identities or traversing minority issues.

We also need to be aware of our language and how it affects minorities. For example, the complexities of how to tackle non-binary characters, including ‘they/them’ usage, or even the use of alternates, such as Spivak pronouns. The industry is beginning to see a change, but there are those who are standing their ground.

And the crux of it is this: so long as we hold literature, publishing, and writing as a sacred thing that has rules and gatekeepers that are above reproach, these things won’t change fast enough or agilely enough for the stories that need to be told. 

We come back to the beginning, in a way. With news of the Big 5 becoming the Big 4, and on the back of the beast that is Covid-19, it seems like we head into a dark and dreary winter of publishing. That change would be impossible when most publishers will be making their safest bets.

My friends, maybe the best thing, the only thing we can do is the same, then, as when I started. Pull back the roof of the house and let others see in. Keep telling your stories. Don’t let yourself become the punchline of your own joke.

There’s always light in the end.

Editor Interview: C. VanDyke

Writing is hard.
Writing and publishing a book is harder.
Writing and publishing a book with over twenty other authors?
Hell, no.

And yet, this was exactly what C. VanDyke set out to do with the Tales from the Year Between, first with Achten Tan: Land of Dust and Bone, and once again with Under New Suns.

I was able to take some time to talk with him about the history of Tales from the Year Between and Skullgate Media, as well as some of the Contributors to Under New Suns here.

You can also read my review of Under New Suns here.

What exactly is The Years Between?

TALES FROM THE YEAR BETWEEN is Skulgate Media’s flagship anthology series that exists at the intersection between Dungeons & Dragons and a story around a campfire. Part family, part cult, and part world’s largest writing prompt, each volume in the series is set in a different, unique world–a world that didn’t exist before the anthology itself. Twice a year it gathers a disparate group of authors from all across the globe to collaborate in shared world-building and creative writing. Contributors participate in a week-long “game” to create a shared canon of people, places, events, and themes. From this chaotic melange of ideas, each participant then creates their own stories, poems, letters, and even recipes, all set in the world they created together.

How would you describe the world in Under New Suns.

Under New Suns is set in the far future of our galaxy — it’s a space opera, so a lot of the classic tropes are there: Space Marines, a United Planetary Alliance, aliens and humans and plasma cannons. But there’s a lot to the world that you don’t find in traditional sci-fi: space-sharks, six-dimensional funk music, and a sentient space-ship that gives birth. The Ship is really “the world” where the book as set; all the stories in Under New Suns follow an eclectic crew who finds themselves trapped inside a living spaceship on the far side of the galaxy.

How did the idea for The Years Between anthologies come about?

I came up with the idea on May 27th, 2020  while quarantined in Brooklyn during the Covid-19 pandemic. I missed playing D&D with my friends, and although I was getting a lot of writing done while being stuck at home with his kids, I wanted to do something social. I’d just been recruited to be a contributor to Renee Gendron’s Beneath The Twin Suns anthology, and I started thinking about what I’d do if I had an anthology. I’d had an idea of running a massive game of this indie-world build building game called The Quiet Year for years, and it seemed like a good time to try it out. I put out a call on Twitter hoping for 10-15 participants, and in under 24 hours had more than 30. 

I spent the next week home-brewing custom rules for The Quiet Year, as the game is designed for 4 people sitting around a table, not 32 people spread from Dubai to Australia. And four months later we had Skullgate Media’s first book–Achten Tan: Land of Dust and Bone.

Who is at the center of the anthology? Is it mostly yourself, or is it a group effort?

I suppose I am nominally “at the center” of it, but only in the way that a Dungeon Master is “at the center” of a game of D&D–as an organizing referee. It truly is a group effort. Besides myself, there are five member-owners in Skullgate Media (Chris Durston, Debbie Iancu-Haddad, Diana Gagliardi, and Colleen Storiez) and they all helped plan and execute Under New Suns at every point of the process. Then there are the 22 other contributors, all of whom brought their own ideas and sensibilities to the project. While there needs to be someone at the center to keep everything organized and moving forward, I really do try my best to make sure that everyone involved has an equal voice in how each book in Tales From the Year Between develops. Just like in our first book, Achten Tan, there was no way I could have predicted how Under New Suns turned out. And that’s what makes it so exciting.

Who decides what authors become involved with the project, and how can authors apply?

The first book I took everyone who wanted to be involved–I just put out a call on Twitter, and my ambitions were very limited. I figured we’d have fun and the final book would simply be a free PDF hosted on my website. I got extremely lucky, as despite zero vetting I ended up with 30 incredible writers.

The process has changed since then. When I started there was no Skullgate Media — it was just me. As Volume 1 wrapped up, however, I knew if I wanted this to be sustainable I’d need partners for future projects. I asked some of the contributors who I felt had really connected to the project–and whom I’d personally connected with–to join me in forming an indie-publishing company. Shortly before we published the first book Skullgate Media became a full-fledged LLC. 

Currently, all five members of Skullgate Media are part of the selecting authors. It’s a different process than other anthologies. With your typical anthology, the publisher puts out a theme or premise, then writers submit final drafts of stories. The publisher then has a relatively straightforward job of choosing the pieces they want in the final book. But with Tales From the Year Between, our contributors don’t even start drafting their stories until they’ve been selected, so we need to be confident their writing is up to our standards. We also need writers who are flexible, comfortable thinking well outside the box, and willing to both take on and give up ownership over what they create. In the old middle-school teacher comment, we need people who “play well with others.” 

So our process is less one of submissions and more of an application to join a temporary club. We ask writers to send in a sample of their writing and answer a few questions about why they want to be involved. Then all of us at Skullgate read through the applications. We make our own personal rankings, then meet on Zoom to share our thoughts. In the end, we come to the decision on who to invite together.

We’re just starting the process of planning for Volume 3. Applications will be open soon, but right now if anyone is interested, they can visit to find out more and sign up for our newsletter. All we know about the next book is that it will be pirate-themed.

What advice do you have on working with a team on a creative project, now with two anthologies complete?  

First and foremost–have fun! Collaborating can be a blast, and it’s a literary example of the whole being greater than the parts. Also, most of us aren’t making enough money on these projects to make them worth stressing over, so if you aren’t having fun you aren’t doing it right.

Second is to be open to new ideas. Even if you are the founder and creator of a group project, things are going to play out differently than you expect. Embrace and celebrate that.

When heads butt, what techniques do you use to calm the room and find common ground to achieve your creative goals?

Honestly, we’ve been extremely fortunate and that hasn’t happened a lot. The very nature of Tales From the Year Between means it’s flexible and wide-open to nearly every idea the creators can throw at it. I like to say it starts with a game where it’s impossible to break the rules. I’ve also adopted a motto for the series (in Latin, because I’m pretentious) — Factum Est Bonum. It’s all good. There have been a few times when ideas have butted heads or there have been some ideas I didn’t think fit the current project. In that case, I have pulled my “founder, president, and editor-in-chief card,” but I try to avoid that. 

Do you have any advice you’d give a group looking to publish an anthology?

See the advice about projects in general–have fun! Practically speaking, give yourself more time for everything that comes AFTER the writing than you expect. Editing, proofreading, layout, publication. Everything takes time, and with dozens of people involved, it takes even more time. If you want your book to look professional–and you should!–take the time to make it as perfect as you can.

What is the most important thing to consider first when building a new world? Alternately, what should an author who is stuck look at first?

This may be obvious, but I think all the best imaginary worlds are the ones firmly rooted in ours. Whether that’s Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Terra from Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or Mieville’s New Crobuzon, at the core of their fabulous details and imaginary peoples is a deeply human element, one that speaks to society and struggles. An engaging new world is one that lends itself to conflicts and themes we can all relate to. So if you’re stuck, just look around you. 

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

Small details and a lived-in backdrop. When reading a fantasy series, I’m less interested in a complex magic system with diagrams charts than the food people eat, the clothes they wear, the shops that line the city streets. For sci-fi, it’s less about the nature of the faster-than-light drive and more about the music they listen to, the asteroid bars where the characters meet between adventures. Alternatively, I love those vista moments, when you get a glimpse at what feels like a fully developed history and world off in the distance. My favorite moment from the Lord of the Rings is when they are at Weathertop and Strider mentions Gil-Galad, then Sam sings three verses of a song. Strider cuts him off and tells him the tale is too dire for a dark night, and the reader is left longing to know how it ends. That not knowing makes it more poignant than if you’d gotten the entire tale then and there. It leaves you believing that the world has a real, lived history.

Are you working on any individual projects?

Oh, I’ve always got way too many projects going on. I have a series of cyberpunk noir novellas that I’m self-publishing. The first two installments, Memory & Desire and Out of the Dead Lands are available on Amazon. I’m writing book three now and have outlined a total of 8. I’m writing a series of middle-grade fantasy books aimed at reluctant readers. I’ve written the first four books, and the first book will actually be published by Kindred Press this coming November. I’ve always got a few short stories going, some of which are currently available in anthologies and some of which will be published in the next few months. I’m querying a YA sci-fi romance, Love Songs for the Robot Apocolypse, and an adult supernatural thriller, Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic. My weirdest project is probably the erotic choose-your-own-adventure solo-role-playing game I’m working on.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

I never planned to get into publishing other people’s writing, and when making Achten Tan I was surprised how much I liked it. It really hit me when a few of the contributors were posting on Twitter and Facebook how excited they were to finally be published. It took me a moment to realize they were talking about the book I’d put together–that I had helped them realize a life-long dream. Up until then, I’d just thought of it as “this little thing I was doing,” but to many of the writers involved, it was their first time seeing their name in print. It was incredibly rewarding. So I love that I can do that for other people. I also love working with so many talented writers. It’s humbling to see how much unpublished talent is out there, and I’m honored every time they trust me to help bring their words to the world.

What I struggle with is promoting the books. I became a publisher about sixth months ago, and I feel I’ve good a good grasp on most of the logistics–from recruiting submissions to making a cover, laying out a manuscript, getting an ISBN, every part of publishing a professional quality book–but I haven’t figured out marketing. The one thing that makes me feel better is that as I ask around, it doesn’t seem that ANYONE in indie-publishing has figured it out. The barrier to publishing is so low that the market is saturated with self and independently published books. Standing out in the crowd is hard.

What do you love about writing, and what do you struggle with?

I love nearly everything about writing. I love outlining, drafting, revising. A lot of writers complain about the process, but every stage of it brings me joy. I love getting the stories that live in my head out into the world. Even if I never make any money at it I’ll still keep writing, as ideas come to me and demand to be written.

What I struggle with is time. I’m a full-time high school teacher and parent of two, so finding time to sit and write isn’t easy. And now Skullgate takes up some of my time as well. That’s a labor of love, but it is one more responsibility that needs my attention. The hardest part is making the time to get my finished projects out there–whether that means querying agents or self-publishing. I love the crafting, but find everything that comes after the story is finished tedious. 

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

I feel I’ve talked about myself a lot, so I want to make sure I shout out my fellow Skullgate members, Chris Durston, Diana Gagliardi, Debbie Iancu-Haddad, and Colleen Storiz. I may be listed as the founder and president on the website, but we really are a team and I couldn’t do this without them. Chris and Diana produce our podcast, Sounds from the Year Between, which is fantastic. Colleen and Chris both edited Loathsome Voyages, our recent horror anthology, and are invaluable as thought partners to bounce ideas off of. Debbie runs our nonsense writing prompt on Twitter, #AchtenWrite, which is a fun way to join us online. She also headed up an AchtenWrimo group, where half a dozen writers from Volume 1 used the world of Achten Tan as the center to NaNoWriMo projects. Debbie wrote an entire novel, Speechless, set in that world, and we’re hoping to publish that later this year. And Diana is a general logistics and enthusiasm marvel who helps the world-building game run smoothly and always has great ideas

Contributor Interviews: Under New Suns

Under New Suns (Tales From the Year Between Book 2) is an anthology written and illustrated by over twenty authors and illustrators, detailing an epic space opera told in the form of star maps, illustrations, comics, poetry, flash fiction, short stories, verse, and even a stage play. 

I was able to get some time to talk to C. Vandyke, Editor of the anthology, but I was also excited to get the chance to get some tidbits from some of the contributors as well.


Emily Ansell

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

My favorite part of working on Under New Suns was the collaborative aspect that brought an unpredictability to the world building/story crafting process that I usually don’t have as a solo writer. It was so much fun opening the game files to see where others were taking things, what new revelations came with each turn. And then when we got to the writing part, to see how each person interpreted the characters, and what they do with them. Then now, seeing how each story fits into the greater whole of the book. We had this whole universe just spring to life in real-time, with all these incredible ideas coming in from all different places, it’s really unique and wonderful.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

An imagined world comes to life for me through the characters and when little tidbits of culture and history that sneak their way into the story without being a big, expository thing. I love it when it just gets dropped in there casually and organically, no differently than we ourselves would reference something from our own history or pop culture without a second thought. It helps you see the bigger world without having to lose sight of the characters you’re following. I’m also an anthropologist by training, so I’m sure that plays a part.

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

Writing advice? I guess I’d say do your thing and not worry about what everyone else is doing or says you ‘should’ be doing. Write the story you need to write, what resonates with you. I certainly did that here. I wasn’t expecting to write what became deep-dives into two of the setting’s characters, but when it all hashed out, those were what stood out to me and I felt needed to be written. Also, if you have the opportunity to take part in a volume of The Year Between, do it!


B.K. Bass

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

For me, it was watching the universe and major storyline unfold organically as so many different voices gave input on the process. Things I never would have imagined made it into this world. Even my own story was something I wouldn’t have thought of without the context of the situation to inspire it.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

I always say the devil is in the details. Be it fantasy, sci-fi, or even contemporary fiction, it’s the tiny nuances of life that transports the reader into the world of a book. Brass-clad towers glittering at dawn, the smell of smoked fish in a market, colorful silks flowing from a caravan; it’s these kinds of things that bring a book to life.

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

Going back to those details, use those to bring your stories to life. Don’t worry so much about the big picture of the world. Reveal it in the moment as the characters experience it. Get us in their heads, and show us what they see, hear, and smell. That way, we may feel we’re there too!


Jayme Bean

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

The collaboration was by and large my favorite part. Being able to come together with twenty-odd different authors from all over the world to explore different aspects of world-building and character development was amazing. I made some great new friends out of it and was able to experience a myriad of writing methods and planning.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

For me, it’s all about the characters. Setting is fantastic, but unless you have an interesting character to explore that setting, it’s just a stagnant painting. Adding complex and interesting characters turns that painting into a movie.

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

Collaborate! Even if you’re not working on an anthology or collective piece, collaborating with other authors can only raise you up. Having multiple people to bounce ideas off of and rally behind you in support is so helpful to the creative process and will pay off tenfold in the long run. 


Darius Bearguard

Author of The Sand Runner, featured in Achten Tan, Land of Dust and Bone

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

One of the pieces I did was entirely collaborative with the team of authors. I wrote a book report from the perspective of a little girl, and everything from alien names, to dates, to the title of the contest, was done with the assistance of the other authors as people shouted out ideas and suggestions and we voted on outcomes of events. We even paid the daughter of one of our authors to contribute artwork. It was very much the highlight of this go around for me. 

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

For Under New Suns, it’s a lot of the little pieces of flavor authors threw in. Music in the new galaxies, space otters, histories of alien species… It’s that background text that makes me go “Huh… I wonder what that’s about?” And that questioning is what gives life.

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

I personally suffered a tragedy while working on this, something that had me in so much darkness. But being able to write and imagine in this world we created kept me from sliding too far in. Especially in these times of great turmoil I think it’s easy to forget how important community and imaginative minds can be. Talking with people, collaborating, and then breathing life into a new universe, to maybe leave our own if only briefly, can be so soothing to the soul. I’m so thankful for TFTYB2 crew for this opportunity.


Zackery Cuevas

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

Being on the page! I’ve been a part of the creation of a book for years, but it was always on another end, either on editorial or production, so my favorite part of this whole thing was actually writing a story that would make it into a book.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

Character. If a character works for me and is real to me, they will paint the world for me. 

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

The hardest part about writing is starting. Once you’ve started, you’ll find it hard to stop.


Chris Durston (Skullgate Member)

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns

I think the coolest part for me, as I worked on the book as an editor but wasn’t part of the world-building game, was seeing it all come together. I didn’t have the same pre-knowledge of the world and the characters as the writers did, so I got to gradually learn about each of those things in different stories. It’s what makes Tales from the Year Between unique, I think: no one story explains every part of the world, but experiencing all of the stories gives you this greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience: a view in snippets and little glimpses of this huge, bizarre, but somehow consistent and singular thing. 

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally? 

I love implications. If there’s a certain magic or tech, showing me how it’s had an impact on every aspect of the world and the characters’ lives makes me happy. 

Any other advice or words you’d like to share? 

If you get the chance to be part of something collaborative, do it. I’d never have imagined that just replying to a tweet and saying ‘sure, I’d like to join your random crew of writers on a weird adventure’ could have led to Skullgate and the opportunity for so many more huge adventures. 


Diana Gagliardi (Skullgate Media member)

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

My job on Under New Suns was to help guide the game itself- 30 people, each with 2 turns where we asked them to respond to a choice of prompts, update the projects that others had started, and put all the info in a format that we all could read and build off of.  The crew had to be designed- each person created a character on their first turn and added to the background of a DIFFERENT character, created by someone else, on their second.  It was a lot of creativity, spreadsheets, and the occasional stubborn writer who had a REALLY GREAT IDEA…but it wasn’t their turn.  Like a pre-school teacher with a bunch of hyper-creative toddlers; I answered questions, held hands, asked probing questions about their thoughts, and very rarely had to say “no”! The end result was pages of universe-building that could be harvested and expanded into an anthology of short stories.

My favorite part was interacting with each person- we are in many different places around the world and in various time-zones; for two weeks of the game I was checking up on everyone so that no one would miss out on a turn or not have answers when they needed them- my sleep scheduled already is pretty off-kilter, so 2 am conversations with someone on the other side of the world weren’t too out of the way and I hope that no one had to wait too long for help!

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

So frequently joint worlds involve consensus- everyone has to agree with how the society is being run, who is doing what, etc.  Year Between gives a consensus framework without anyone having to restrain themselves and their creativity; on their turn they can be a crazy and dynamic as they like, no one will tell them it’s stupid or not allowed.  Whether other people will like it or use it is a different issue, but so much of the bizarre might not make it in if you work towards the most comfortable denominator.  There may be grumbling that something is “silly” but it won’t be tossed away.  Some of our most centering aspects have been “silly” (specifically thinking about ribs and space sharks, fr).  So…allow some silly to give contrast to the serious.


E.R. Hoffer

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

I really loved the world-building phase. When I threw out my ideas for resources, my heart raced with nervous energy, hoping that one of my kooky artifacts would be picked up by the group. Like school, waiting on the sidelines, never picked for the volleyball team. But one of my room ideas got into the book, so I was on cloud 9. 

Then I loved taking turns in the world-building game. I camped in front of my screen, refresh, refresh, blown away to see what each writer added, introducing an amazing new character,  twisting the story in a new direction as we moved through all four of the phases of the journey home.

The fantastic never-ending chatter on Twitter. We exchanged jokes and stories and supported one another throughout the writing and editing process.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

Sensory details experienced through the emotional filter of a character. If writing can paint a picture, add smells or tastes, and illuminate the yearning inside a character, I’m immediately engaged. 

Fran Wilde gave a recent workshop on World-building for Futurescapes. She asked us to describe a meal in our story. What is consumed tells us about the flora, fauna, and other elements, what is scarce or abundant. Who prepares it and how it is served tells a lot about relationships, rituals, power structures, society. And the mechanics, like energy, needed to create the food hint at tech, evolution and other factors. 

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

In this strange global moment, many opinions and situations are radically changing the way we live. We face an enormous inflection point where we could collectively turn toward the light or head in a negative direction. That’s one of the interesting thing about the Skullgate projects, the process to create a shared product. It isn’t always easy because we have to negotiate our points of difference as we strive to put out a collective work from a diverse group.

In my writing, I focus on enviro-futurism. Fiction engages people in stories, and gives us a way to change hearts and a mind, to motivate us to do the hard work to transform society to an inclusive and sustainable model. 


Debbie Iancu-Haddad (Skullgate Media member)

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

I love the brainstorming part of creating a world together. Having a group of people from different cultures and backgrounds each contribute a few details that give me new ideas and send me in directions I might not have thought about on my own is really exciting. I love it the most when silly parts of the conversation take on a life of their own and suddenly instead of a joke they are part of the combined story. 

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

For me, it’s all about the characters. I think each of us channel a bit of ourselves into the characters we create (even if it’s a yellow and teal shape-shifting slug). Having the character interact with the imagined environment is where it really comes to life. 


Jeremy Nelson

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

Letting go! Being a useful part of the project meant letting go of preconceptions of what the project was going to be. Even ideas that seemed promising in the early stages of our collaborative process would sometimes be left by the wayside. Yet there was always another intriguing path to take, another scenario to explore. 

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

The collaborative process brought to mind the first rule of improv: always say yes. There was no way to predict where we’d end up from the first pile-on of ideas, but we not only emerged with a coherent story but also some unexpectedly heartfelt twists in the telling. It’s made me reconsider how I draft my own work, and whether I give those more creative (read: outlandish) impulses the consideration they deserve. Say yes, and you never know where you’ll end up. 


S.L. Parker

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

The ebbs & flows of ideas; how we exchanged and interplayed while crafting stories; these creative collaborative moments were the elements I most savored during this experience. And it was an experience, as we collectively built a world and then individually, or in tandem, filled it. A new spin: immersion writing. 

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

The imagined world came to life as I saw the threads which wove stories together, as well as the varying interpretations that added layers to the stories contained in this shared world. 


A.A. Rubin

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

My favorite part of working on Under New Suns was the freedom the process allowed me. Because we were accepted for the project based off a previous writing sample–and not, like most publications, based on the story for the actual anthology–I felt freer to take risks with my writing that I may not have otherwise, especially with a publisher whom with whom I had never worked before. My story, “I am I” is one of the more unconventional pieces in the anthology. It plays with language and syntax in a way that might make it a riskier piece to submit in a blind process to a publisher with whom I didn’t previously have a relationship. But, since I had already been accepted to the anthology, I felt more comfortable writing the story I wanted to write. I think the story, and, ultimately, the anthology is better for it.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

To me, successful world-building is worldbuilding I don’t notice. Characters speak and act as if they live in the world, not as if they are explaining it to someone who does not. Think of our world. Let’s say someone says, “I’m going for a ride in my car.” They don’t follow that by saying “A car is a petroleum-powered vehicle with an internal combustion engine, four wheels,” etc. I want to feel like I’m in the imagined world, full of magic and wonder, but also feel like the characters in that world are unaware of my presence. The difference can be seen in the original Star Wars trilogy compared to the prequels. When Han Solo says he made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we have no idea what the Kessel Run is or why that’s impressive, but the way he says it and the reactions of those around him that doing so was impressive. Similarly, we hear of the Clone Wars, the galactic senate, the regional governors, etc., but none of these is explained in any detail. They are taken as given by everyone in the world, common knowledge of which everyone is aware. Compare that to the prequels, where they tried to explain everything. In those movies, the worldbuilding got in the way of the storytelling in an obvious and noticeable way.  

Ursula Le Guin and William Gibson are two writers who are really good at building imaginative worlds that fit the paradigm I delineated above.


D. Storiz (Skullgate Media Member)

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

For me, it was the actual writing of the story once the characters and some of the background was already created. I like the creation part of the world/spaceship but I really enjoy the writing portion of it. It was fun to finally read through the final game and character sheets, choose a few characters that resonated with me and then make them come to life. Once I have a vague idea of what I can work with, I can usually jot down a quick outline and work from there.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

Visualizing it in my head. I often write my stories as if they were a movie taking place before my eyes. I try to imagine the scents, the feel of the room I’m in, what’s the food taste like, etc. and try to put myself in my character’s position and see how I would work through a situation. 

For the story I wrote, The Long Way Home, I was actually one of the last (not the last, thankfully) authors to finally turn something in. I was having trouble putting myself into the space ship but then I decided to step away from it and just focus on something entirely different. But I kept my character, Nereus Thanatos, in the back of my mind and when I was completing a science experiment with my students—we were doing flame tests and seeing the reactions of magnesium in hydrochloric acid, it was then that an idea sparked. As soon as my class ended, I pulled out my laptop and I started writing and nearly wrote the entire story in one sitting. 

Any other advice or words you’d like to share?

People often talk about being blocked as writers. I’d like to give my take on that. When a scene isn’t working and I feel… blocked… I take a break. I do something completely different like take the dog for a walk, go for a bike ride, or get in my car and drive on some country roads. I let the story linger a little bit and I think about it in my head but I try not to focus on it too much. When I sit back down, I reread the scene and I go back to the scene before I got blocked and I cut it out. I don’t delete it, just put it in a doc called “deleted scene’s” and I try to rewrite with a different POV or a different character because I wasn’t really blocked to begin with… I just didn’t have a good idea of where I was going in the first place. Most likely because I didn’t outline. I used to be a full-on pantser (write by the seat of my pants) and refused to use outlines but I’d often find I’d lose steam partway through; and that was because I had no idea of where I wanted my characters to go. So, now I start with my ending or at least a vague idea of how I want it to end and then I work backwards to see how I can make that happen. 


Phebe Yawson

What was your favorite part of working on Under New Suns?

Joining a new family and gaining awesome writer friends. Feeling like there’s this bottomless wealth of information I can tap into because everyone is so knowledgeable. I’ve never written Sci-Fi and everyone was so willing to help. Definitely some of the most fun of 2020.

Under New Suns challenged me and I learned so much. We created a world. Everyone came together during the world’s ugliest times and made something incredible. Covid didn’t destroy us, politics didn’t hinder us, Under New Suns a brand new world was made.

What makes an imagined world come to life for you personally?

The details given. Sounds. Colors. Expressions. Each writer has their own personality that made a very vivid world with witty, strong, beautifully flawed characters that made each story feel so possible. 

Any other advice or words you’d like to share

Don’t be afraid to dream or be more than what’s expected even from yourself. Keep reaching the stars are waiting for you.

Author Interview: Shakeil Kanish

We all want to be next. The next superstar, the next star athlete, the next social media darling, the next intellectual prodigy. There’s this belief that excellence means worth, and that to be special is to be worthwhile.

Shakeil Kanish knows something about excellence. He wrote an excellent book with his co-author, Larissa Mandeville. He also knows something about the ordinary: a self-described ordinary gay boy, horror movie lover, and LGBTQ+ author. 

But sometimes, ordinary is exactly what the world needs. Sometimes, ordinary is magic.

(You can read my review of The Sigil here.)

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m just your everyday lover of karaoke and horror movies! An LGBTQ+ member who just wants to write amazing novels for people like me so that I can see myself in books. I work for the AF and am super proud to serve my country while also serving up some amazing novels! And I just hope it can only go uphill from here! 

Tell us about your novel, The Sigil.

It’s a story about a gay boy trying to find his place in the world after his brothers mysterious death, and just kind of accepting that you can be just as big a hero being normal. You don’t need fancy powers or magic. 

What is your favorite novel, and has it inspired how you write? How?

I really always loved A Wrinkle in Time. I don’t know what it was but something about just it being a normal everyday kind of day and then bam they’re just thrown into this crazy world with a crazy antagonist… it just always got me super hyped and it def inspired me to want to write my own novels. 

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your book?

I hope they finally get to see an LGBTQ+ character and a POC being the forefront of novels growing up. We didn’t have enough of those so I really wanted to do that for myself and others who wanted that too. I want them to just see themselves in some of the characters and kinda of show that anyone can be a hero. 

What is different about your novel?

I think the characters are very unique. Nova is so brash. I think some people will think she’s over the top but she’s based on a real person I know so it’s important to know people of all shapes and sizes exist and not everyone has to be this quiet, like every other girl cliche. I think the twist at the end is pretty out of left field so I hope readers really enjoy that I LOVE twist endings. 

What are your plans for future novels?

So The Sigil is a duology so I’m actually working on the sequel as we speak so keep an eye out for that . 

What inspires you to write?

Just wanting to tell a story and hoping that even one person wants to listen is more than enough to keep me going. 

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

Getting to work and collaborate with other people and just making your novel the best it can be is super exciting and fun! As far as struggles just creatively sometimes we are not on the same wavelength so finding that balance is super important . 

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

Probably just writing in general sitting down and actually putting words to paper is SO hard as any writer knows but sometimes you just gotta power through! 

How can we purchase your book? 

It’ll be available on Amazon and the 3 Furies Press website!

Book Review: The Sigil

Lake’s brother Devlin was murdered right in front of him. Simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time…Or was he?

The Sigil by Shakeil Kanish and Larissa Mandeville is the first part of a dark urban fantasy duology with a gay protagonist, that tackles questions such as the morality of segregation of societies, the effect of the cult of excellence on our youth, and how the bonds of found family can overcome any obstacle. 

And it does it all with nether-monsters, a magical academy, and a main character who walks in slow-mo.

As far as Lake is concerned, there’s nothing special about him. Denied from every college he applied to, he’s taken his role as an average gay man in stride, despite having an adopted brother that excels at everything he tries. He’s not happy with his lot in life, but he’s not going to fight it either. Fighting isn’t the kind of thing Lake is good at, after all.

Everything changes when Dev is murdered in front of his eyes. Convinced that Dev somehow knew of his impending death, Lake investigates his brother’s murder, only to stumble on more than he could ever imagined.

Magic is real.

And he’ll do anything to be a part of that world.


As always, beware the trigger warnings. You’ll find them at the bottom of the review if you have concerns about whether this is the right book for you.

The first thing you need to be aware of about The Sigil is this book is dark. Not needlessly so—it’s certainly not akin to a slasher film. Every bit of violence and gore has a purpose, and the authors take care that there is relief to the tension so it’s not one giant emo moment. It’s not spooky, nor is it gore-fest. 

This reads more like a gothic horror than anything, where the darkness is a feeling of being unsettled, that things may not necessarily all turn out in the end. It’s interesting to have some of the same tension and emotion of a classic gothic horror in an urban fantasy story that is very modern and diverse. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition, especially when you add in that there are also more humorous moments. It leaves a taste that is at once familiar and unique, harking back to different traditions but combining them in a way that lends itself to the diverse ensemble cast.

Keeping that in mind, if you are one of those readers who need a happy ending, this may not be the book for you. It’s a great novel that I really enjoyed personally, but it is dark, and the ending reflects that.

If the possibility of a not-so-happy-ending doesn’t deter you, and the thrill of a chill down your spine piques your interest, I’d like to add there’s also magic, monsters, average heroes, friendly demon possession, gay pining, and a whole lot of snark. What’s not to love?

What I Liked

The Sigil has a decently-sized cast of characters, with two point of view characters, Nova and Lake. I much preferred the chapters where we were brought along Lake’s journey, as I found that Nova rubbed me the wrong way on a personal level. But even as I didn’t love her as a person, I could see the strength of her characterization.

That’s one of the hallmarks of this novel—unique characters with autonomy. Kanish and Mandeville created a unique group that each have their own idiosyncrasies and backgrounds that come to life on the page. I especially liked the backgrounds and characters of Stone and Knox, along with Lake of course. 

The truest indication that I’m interested in a book is when I’m tempted to skim forward to see what happens further into the book, not out of boredom, but because the tension is palpable enough that I get anxious. This isn’t something that happens to me often, as I’m usually able to compartmentalize, but I found myself having the urge many times. This book just got under my skin.

The plot had a lot of twists and turns, and though I did have an inkling as to the puppeteer behind the mayhem, I didn’t nearly have the understanding of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ that came to pass by the end of the book. I also never would have guessed some aspects of the ending, and I have to mention—this left me with one of the strongest ‘book hangovers’ I’ve ever experienced. I was actually distraught, because Kanish and Mandeville had gotten under my skin, and made me really care about these characters. I became invested in their stories, and the end result left me reeling.

Trigger Warnings

Death, Grief/Loss, Graphic Violence, Gore

Writer’s Musings: A New Year of “Raw, Strange” Fire

“That was the place from which I hoped to work, headed in the only direction worth going, the direction of myself, trying to help us all refuse the awful bargains we’ve been taught to take.”
– Casey Gerald, “Embrace your raw, strange magic” TED Talk

2020 has been a ride.

It’s been a year of transformation. At the beginning of 2020, I had this little nugget of a story, Daylight Chasers, and on a whim, decided to self-publish it and see where it went. It opened up the world of Twitter’s #WritingCommunity to me, and I’ve met so many wonderful, amazing people there that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I also wrote a novel, The Fable of Wren, which I’m currently querying—something I never would have imagined I’d have the bravery to be doing a year ago!—and I have another novel, Origami Bones, which I’m currently writing.

I also started this newsletter, which is now over 6 months on, sent bi-weekly with only a few delayed sends (but never completely missing a week!) I’ve done 16 book reviews and interviews for indie authors, and have more scheduled through June of this year (wow!)

And yet I have this undercurrent of dissatisfaction in my work. Part of it is the writing slump I’ve been in the past few months. I’ve struggled to get anything on the page. But after rewatching “Embrace your raw, strange magic” by Casey Gerald, author of There Will Be No Miracles Here, I have an inkling of why I feel unsatisfied with my progress.

In Casey’s TED Talk, he discusses the personal sacrifices he made to fit the mold in order to achieve his successes, and how in the end it wasn’t actually enough to take him where he thought he needed to go. Being gay in Texas, there were some sacrifices even he wasn’t willing to make in order to achieve the dreams that were prescribed to him, and it was after a failed Congress run that he decided enough was enough and embraced his ‘raw, strange magic.’

I can relate to Casey. I started 2020 with a whim, and went in the directions that I was told were ‘right’ for a writer. And in some ways, it aligned with my own wants and needs, but in other ways, it hasn’t. I don’t regret what I’ve achieved in 2020, but I think 2021 needs to be a time of self-discovery where I decide where my own writer’s path will take me, based on my own wants and goals rather than a prescribed path. I need to embrace my own raw, strange magic.

There will be changes coming in 2021, to align more with who I am. I hope you’ll stick around for the journey, and I thank all of you for being here through the thick and thin of this rollercoaster of a year.